Sept. 26, 2011

Flat Screen Televisions

My friend Chris is moving into a new apartment in a couple weeks and he asked me the other day whether I had any suggestions on a new television for the place. As a home theater aficionado, I was only too happy to look into that pass along a few ideas.

Thinking ahead—as he does—Chris also shared the floor plan of his apartment to help narrow down an appropriate size set for the room. As it would happen, there are formulas for calculating an appropriate television size based off the dimensions of a room (or vice versa).

The short version is that one can roughly take the diagonal size of the screen and multiply it by 1.5 to get an approximate maximum distance that one would want to sit from the screen in order to be able to fully appreciate 1080p. (At distances past that, one loses starts to lose the ability to discern the finer details within a 1920×1080 image.)

So, I decided to run the numbers on Chris’ living room. The room is 15'9" × 17', although embarrassingly I couldn’t quite remember next to which wall he had wanted to place his television. No matter—once one divides those numbers in two (assuming that a couch may be placed halfway back within the room), that means that Chris’ couch would be approximately 8–9' back from whichever wall would be nearest the television.

I converted those distances to inches (96–110) just so that our final measurements, once we got there, would be appropriate for a television screen. From there, I divided each of those by 1.5 to get an optimum screen size of approximately 64–73 inches.

And here is where the compromises begin. Chris didn’t give me a specific budget, but I’m guessing he has some type of upper limit. And 65" televisions aren't cheap. As well, they can be rather heavy devices and I wasn’t sure whether that may be a factor.

Having said all that, I figured I’d go over a couple ideas, starting first with the cream of the crop and then offering a couple options that may be a bit more budget-friendly.

(But first, a quick caveat: Television manufacturers have ridiculous model-naming schemes. Rather than take an approach of assigning a single name to a series of models and appending a size, they tend to assign unique model numbers to each and every sub-model in their inventory. So, for the televisions below, I list both the specific model number of the television along with a wildcard mask (##) to convey the other sets in that series).

Top Pick: Panasonic’s TC-P65VT30 65" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This set isn’t cheap, but it’s a scorcher. C|Net praised the plasma as having the “deepest plasma black levels of the year” and crowned this “the best-performing TV we’ve tested in 2011.” As well, ConsumerSearch—a site that aggregates reviews— placed the 55" version of this set in their “Best 55-inch plasma TV” bucket.

Runner Up: Panasonic’s TC-P55VT30 55" set. (TC-P##VT30 series)

This one is basically the slightly-smaller sibling of 65" TC-P65VT30. With the same components going into this set (albeit with a skosh smaller screen), it’s sure to have fantastic picture quality like its bigger sibling.

Runner Up: Samsung’s PN51D8000 51" set. (PN##D8000 series)

Though this set may not have quite the black levels of Panasonic's finest, C|Net lauded this set for offering “the most accurate color of any TV we’ve ever reviewed.” ConsumerSearch chimed in as well, saying “[in] terms of color performance, there is no quibbling—it’s outstanding.

Closing Remarks

I think the sets here offer some good options, but even if you don’t go with one of these, I’d probably go with a plasma over an LCD-based set as they tend to offer better black levels.

As well, I happened to offer some links to B&H since I've received excellent service there, but I suppose you could order your television from anywhere. From whomever you buy it, though, I’d recommend opting for not just home delivery but also in-home setup or the like. Even if they don’t hook it up for you, just the act of unpacking it and placing it where you want it within the room could be handy (unless you really want to lift those 100-some pounds on your own).

May 29, 2011

Photos from Christine and Steve’s Maui Wedding

Happy Christine is Happy

I’ve known and been friends with Christine for almost as long as I’ve lived here in Dallas. She moved to San Diego a few years ago and that’s where she met Steve. And they decided to get married in Maui.

I hadn’t been to Maui before, but it was a trip I had been looking forward to for months. And even though I was only able to go for a Saturday-through-Tuesday trip, I had an awesome time. Hawaii is basically picturesque everywhere, all the time. You can glance in nearly any direction and you’ll see a beautiful lush landscape.

The wedding was on the back lawn of the Wailea Golf Club on the Sunday around 5 p.m. It wasn’t an overpopulated wedding—I believe I counted twenty chairs—but that seemed just right for the setting. Christine and Steve were both beaming with happiness and they said their vows just as the sun was falling into the horizon. It was pretty special.

March 6, 2011

Options for Thin Home Theater Receivers

My friend Dan lives in New York and he mentioned the other day that he wouldn’t mind a more minimal home theater receiver since his apartment doesn't have all that much room to begin with:

I currently have an insanely complicated home theater setup that takes up half my closet, connected by a rat’s nest of cables that I dare not touch lest I inexplicably lose the left audio channel on my Blu-ray player. It’s ridiculous, it’s completely overkill for my needs, and did I mention it takes up half my closet? My tiny, Manhattan-sized closet?

[…]

My home theater receiver is huge. Massive. It’s 10” tall, 20” deep, weighs 800 lbs, and probably draws more power than our air conditioner. Despite its long list of capabilities, it has but two jobs that are of any use to me: 1) switch between my various components, and 2) make things loud.

[…]

And so, I find myself looking for a replacement. Something small. Something elegant. Something that does what I need, and nothing more. […]

As I rather enjoy home theater stuff, I thought I’d try to come up with a few options for him.

What I soon discovered is that there aren’t many products in this category. Granted, you’d have several options if all you had needed was 2-channel (stereo) amplification. (I suppose they’re catering to systems that one might place on a bookshelf or the like.) On the other hand, when catering to a home theater, a receiver needs a separate amplifier for each of (at least) five channels; those extra amplifiers alone take up more space. In addition, it seems that there isn’t much demand for “bookshelf” home theaters and so multi-channel receivers typically use amplifiers that are beefy enough to fill medium-to-large rooms. (And beefier amplifiers take up yet more room.)

Nonetheless, I did find a handful of options that I thought might work for Dan. I didn’t come across a single perfect product—for instance, some were small, but had a lot of buttons, while others were relatively larger but had few buttons— but I think there’re some promising options here.

I decided to use the Outlaw Audio 1050 in my bedroom (a 70 Wpc receiver) as a baseline for comparison. It’s served me well for many years, but more importantly for this discussion, its size and weight seemed to be fairly representative of an average receiver:

  • Width: 17 3/16"
  • Height: 6 1/8"
  • Depth: 14 5/16"
  • Weight: 36.3 lbs

Sherwood R-904N NetBoxx

  • Width: 17" (1% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 2 7/8" (53% shorter)
  • Depth: 12" (16% shallower)
  • Weight: 10.3 lbs (72% lighter)
  • Power: 100 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $440

This receiver is clearly the leader in size (or lack thereof). While not the narrowest or the lightest of the bunch—those honors would fall to the Yamaha—this one is the shortest (height) and shallowest (depth). Unfortunately, though, this receiver has some design drawbacks that might be deal breakers for some:

The first complaint that I must mention is a styling issue related to the front display of the NetBoxx. The front of the unit is covered with very bright blue LEDs. During the day these LEDs are fairly innocuous; however placed in a dark room, they become extremely distracting. I don’t understand why Sherwood would put a dimmer option on the unit that only dims some of the LEDs. Because of this I would recommend placing the NetBoxx in a location out of sight, which is a shame as it’s otherwise an attractive unit. […]

Yamaha neoHD YMC-500

  • Width: 11 3/4" (32% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 3 5/8" (41% shorter)
  • Depth: 12 3/8" (13% shallower)
  • Weight: 7.9 lbs (78% lighter)
  • Power: 35~50? Wpc × 5 channels (I had a hard time confirming the power output.)
  • Price: About $180

This is a pretty darn small receiver. It’s the narrowest (width) and lightest (weight) of the bunch, and even though the Sherwood beats it on height and depth, the Yamaha is only 3/4" taller and 3/8" deeper. This receiver also has the fewest front-panel buttons: 2 (volume knob & power button).

Oddly enough, I had some trouble confirming this receiver’s power output; the specifications I was able to find weren’t all that explicit in this regard, but the unit appears to either have 35 or 50 Wpc as best as I can figure.

If this type of minimalism were of interest, the YMC-500’s bigger brother, the YMC-700, might also be worth considering. Both models allow you to play music from your home network, but the YMC-700 (which goes for about $500) has built-in WiFi (rather than just an Ethernet port). Plus, Yamaha also offers an iPhone app that can control one’s YMC-700. (The app communicates over WiFi and so it works with the YMC-700 but not the YMC-500.)

Marantz NR1501

  • Width: 17 3/8" (1% wider than baseline)
  • Height: 4 3/16" (31% shorter)
  • Depth: 14 1/2" (1% deeper)
  • Weight: 19 lbs (48% lighter)
  • Power: 50 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $400

The Marantz may be the most traditional of the receivers here. While its dimensions might not be as low as the other receivers here, its height is only 9/16" taller than the next-shorest model (the Yamaha) and 1 5/6" taller than the shortest (the Sherwood). Even then, it’s still about 1/3 shorter than a standard receiver and about half the weight.

Even if the Marantz might not seem as impressive as the others when it comes to size, it does have a few things going for it. For one thing, its back panel includes 2 optical inputs (and 2 coax digital inputs). Granted, Dan mentioned only needing a single optical input (which the Sherwood and Yamaha have), although I can’t help but wonder if that second input might potentially come in handy if Dan were to ever get another device such as an X-Box or a TiVo.

Another potential advantage of the Marantz is its pedigree. Marantz is owned by D&M Holdings, a company that also owns Denon, McIntosh, and a few other brands. I’m not saying that Yamaha is a slouch—although I have my suspicions about Sherwood—but Marantz is a brand that’s known for its attention to detail and build quality. I would expect any of their equipment to last for many years.

Additional Thoughts

There may not be a clear winner here, but there may be a receiver that’s best for you depending on the features that you value most.

I would only consider the Sherwood if sheer size is your utmost concern. It’s not the lightest of the bunch, but it’s definitely the shortest. On the other hand, I’m a bit skeeved out by its build quality—if they’re already screwed up the blue LEDs across the front, how much else might be sub-par?

For most people, I think it comes down to the Yamaha and the Marantz. On one hand, the Yamaha is the cheaper of the two ($180 vs. $400), but on the other hand, the YMC-700 (which goes for $500) seems like a justifiable step-up considering that model’s WiFi streaming (née Ethernet) and iPhone app support. So, depending on which Yamaha model you’d be putting up against the Marantz, it could be a toss-up between those two brands on price.

What I think it comes down to is size & minimalism vs. capability & pedigree. The Yamaha is certainly the smaller overall and its front facia—with just two buttons—is also sparser. Still, the Marantz has a few more inputs (which may come in handy if you get more devices) and it also has a clear 50 Wpc × 7 channels. (The Yamaha’s specifications were somewhat unclear, but it appears to have either 35 or 50 Wpc. Even so, that’s across 5 channels rather than the Marantz’ 7.)

If I were in Dan’s shoes, I might lean toward the Marantz. All the same, the Yamaha would not be a bad choice either.

Feb. 27, 2011

Oscar Party Foods 2011

I love movies, but I’ve never been all that excited about the Oscars. I suppose that I don’t have that much interest in the pomp and circumstance of the awards and I generally prefer just to read the results the next day.

On the other hand, I do enjoy language and puns, and if you’re holding an Oscar party this evening, you’re welcome to use any of these. (I’ve grouped them by nomination category, although not every category is represented.)

I’ve listed only the names of each dish (with links to recipes), but if you hover your mouse over an item, you’ll see a tooltip revealing the nominee from which the dish was inspired.

(Some of them are more obvious than others, but if you need a hint, here’s the official list of this year’s nominees.)

Best Picture

Art Direction

Foreign Language Film

Makeup

Music (Original Song)

Short Film (Animated)

Sound Mixing

Visual Effects

Jan. 29, 2011

Snopes: Colorblindness Accessibility Userstyle

Andy Baio recently wrote a post about a line chart that had accompanied some research from Netflix about the streaming video performance across various ISPs. The chart was ostensibly informative, but due to the colors that they chose for each line, it ended up being nearly useless for people with red-green colorblindness.

Andy went on to create a more colorblind-safe version of the chart, but what I found even more interesting is that he closed his post with an anecdote relating his interactions with the Snopes folks. (Snopes, if you’re not familiar with it, is a popular site that fact-checks various urban legends.) As it would happen, Snopes’ category pages—in which they summarize the “True” / “Not True” status of each item in that category—was making use of shades of red (“false”) and green (“true”) spheres that weren't all that accessible. In fact, for someone with red-green colorblindness (which affects around 5–8% of all men), the colors were virtually indistinguishable.

(Even if you may not be colorblind, this kind of thing can be easily tested with freely available software such as Color Oracle. If you install that, you can see this for yourself by loading any of Snopes’ index pages and selecting “Deuteranopia” from Color Oracle’s menu.)

Andy went so far as to create some accessible versions of those color spheres (keeping them red and green, but mostly changing them to a different shade) and he offered them to the Snopes people with the hope that they might put those to use. The change would have made their site much more usable to persons with colorblindness while maintaining the site’s overall aesthetic. Oddly enough, they refused and decided, instead, to write a FAQ entry on the subject:

We chose our red-yellow-green coding system because its “traffic light” pattern can be understood by most of our readers with little or no explanation. While we understand that about 8% of our readership experiences some form of color blindness and therefore cannot distinguish the different colors of bullets, other alternatives we have tried have proved confusing to many of our non-color blind readers. Therefore, we have chosen to stick with a system that works very well for 92% of our readers.

If we take a closer look at the numbers relating to colorblindness, that 5–8% means that between 1 in 20 and 1 in 12 men will have difficulty using Snopes.com. By way of analogy, around 1.6 million Americans use wheelchairs. While that may be ½% of the US population, the public has every expectation that businesses will help accommodate persons with wheelchairs through the use of wheelchair ramps and the like. And rightly so. (It’s also the law.) Whether one’s eyes, limbs, or other parts of one’s body, disabilities can affect all of us. That’s why I was so astounded when I learned that the people behind Snopes had no interest in the assistance that was offered to them.

Snopes.com — Before and After Colorblindness Accessibility Userstyle applied

After giving it some thought, I decided to see if I could help fix this. So, after first checking with Andy to ask whether I could make use of the revised images that he had created, I wrote up a Userstyle for Stylish to automagically replace Snopes’ inaccessible images with Andy’s improved versions.

If you’re not familiar with the Stylish, you can think of it along the lines of Greasemonkey but for CSS. Put another way, Stylish can automagically insert CSS into a page whenever you visit a particular site. It’s available for both Firefox and Chrome.

Installing the Userstyle for Firefox or Chrome

First, you’ll need to install Stylish (and then restart your browser):

  • Stylish for Firefox. (If you’re using the Firefox 4 betas, you’ll need to scroll down the page to the “Beta Channel” heading to load the beta version of Stylish.)
  • Stylish for Chrome.

Once you have Stylish installed, the only remaining step is to visit the page for the Snopes Colorblindness Accessibility userstyle and click the “Install with Stylish” button.

Installing the Userstyle for Safari

If you’re using Safari, you’re not entirely out of luck. Though there isn’t an official port of Stylish for Safari, there is another extension that can be used in its place:

  1. First, you’ll need to install the User CSS extension (which is basically a clone of Stylish).

  2. Then, once you’ve restarted your browser, you should see a toolbar button with an “A” near your forward/back buttons—click that; that’ll load the editing screen for User CSS.

  3. At this point, you should see a “New User CSS” screen:

    • Enabled — Check this.
    • Name — “Snopes.com - Fix Colorblindness Accessibility”
    • Domains — http://www.snopes.com/*
    • Styles — Load this special version of the userstyle in a new tab and copy-n-paste all of that into the “Styles” field.
  4. Lastly, click “Save” and that should be it.

One Last Thing

Though I was disappointed by Snopes’ nonchalance toward accessibility, I feel I should mention that I continue to trust their fact-checking. They’re pretty good at that.

Jan. 3, 2011

Photos from Winterfamilytime 2010

Dad Laughing

I visited my parents and brother in Charlotte last month, and even though it had only been a few weeks since I had seen my parents for Thanksgiving, it was great to see everyone again (especially my brother, who I hadn’t seen in about a year). It happened to be a bit on the chilly side in Charlotte—the highs most days were in the lower 40s, if memory serves—but it wasn’t anything a little bundling-up couldn't solve.

I decided to try out some new lighting gear since I knew we’d be spending a good chunk of Saturday in the living room. As a key light, I hung a Canon 430EX with a Lumiquest Softbox to one corner of the mantle with a Gorillapod. (The Lumiquest Softbox was the smaller of the light modifiers I had on hand so I thought that would be a good fit for that spot.)

Then, as a back light (or fill light, depending on how people were facing), I attached a 430EX II with a Lumiquest Softbox LTp to the railings of the second-story walkway above the living room using a Gorillapod SLR. (The LTp is a 10×14 softbox—Lumiquest’s largest model—and I was really impressed by how much soft light it put out.) So, in all, I had two lights set up in the living room and I’m generally pleased with how things turned out; I’ll probably try a setup like that again sometime.

We happened to get a little snow while I was there (perhaps on Saturday?), and while Charlotte doesn’t typically get much snow, it was enough to cover the ground and trees. I didn’t exactly have the proper footwear for trudging around in the snow, but my one regret for the trip is that I wish I had managed to get some shots of the treetops (and other portions of the landscape) covered in snow; it was a pretty sight. Oh, well—there’s always next year.

Dec. 15, 2010

Photos from Thanksgiving 2010

Chris and Mom Looking Over Shots

I visited my family in Charlotte for Thanksgiving, and in addition to my mom and dad, we had something like seventeen other guests join us for the meal. There were cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends, neighbors—it was a full house, but good fun to see everyone.

On the other hand, my brother has been living in Cape Town for the past two (?) years, so he wasn’t able to join us. (It would have been too short of a stay to make the trip there and back, understandably.) He’s a cracking good chum, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing him over Winterfamilytime later this month.

Photography wise, I tried out a couple new lighting setups for some of my shots. For the exterior grill shots, I used my Gorillapod SLR to attach my Canon 430 EX II to one of the gutters (with a LumiQuest Softbox attached to it). That actually worked out better than I thought it would. (For instance, I think that helped fill in some shadows on shots such as this one of my dad checking on the turkey’s thermometer.)

Indoors, I used my second 430 EX (albeit not an “EX II”) to set it upon various spots on the countertop in out kitchen (with a Gorillapod functioning simply as a tripod). Partially through process of elimination—as I only have so many light modifiers—I used my LumiQuest Quik Bounce atop the flash in the kitchen. The idea with the Quik Bounce is that you can bounce some of the light upward while allowing the rest to project forward, creating—in theory—a balance of soft reflected light off the ceiling along with a dash of more focused light.

I have no qualms with the Quik Bounce as a product and I’m sure it often works quite nicely. In my case, though, I think the 9-ft ceilings in my parents’ kitchen probably weren’t ideal for bouncing one’s flash. Come to think of it, the ceiling in their kitchen might even be painted a soft creme color rather than plain white (which may affect the color of any light bounced off it). It’s a pretty great kitchen, but I may have to try a few more ideas in case there may be a lighting arrangement that works even better.

I think nineteen people may be a record for a Bischoff-family Thanksgiving and it worked out pretty well. The turkey was tender and I enjoyed many a conversation with family and friends. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite yearly holiday and this one didn’t disappoint.

Aug. 16, 2010

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Cookies

Back at my old job, my friend (and coworker at the time) Matt brought in some chocolate chip peanut butter cookies into the office a few months back. They were pretty yummy—the cookies were soft and full of peanut flavor. I recently asked Matt for the recipe and he was gracious enough to mention that I could share it as well:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup sugar (set aside in a small bowl for in which to roll the cookies later)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup creamy (or chunky) peanut butter [I used Skippy Natural creamy peanut butter when I made a batch recently and that seemed to work out pretty well. —Alex]
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter (softened)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 c. flour
  • 12 oz bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 375°

  2. Combine sugar (just the first cup), brown sugar, butter, peanut butter, baking soda, vanilla extract, and eggs in a large mixing bowl.

  3. Add the flour about ½ cup at a time. This makes it easier to mix by hand, but it also helps you achieve the right dough consistency. You want the dough to be as moist as possible, while still peeling cleanly off your finger. Much dryer than that and the cookies will be cakey. Not dry enough, and they'll be too doughy.

  4. Mix in the chocolate chips.

  5. Using a small spoon, scoop out little clumps of dough and roll them in the small bowl of sugar you set aside. Place the dough balls on a cookie sheet (no need to grease it).

  6. Bake each batch for 8–10 minutes. You want to take them out just before they look done and let them continue to bake outside of the oven on the hot cookie sheet for a few minutes.

These are probably my favorite chocolate chip peanut butter cookies and I’ll definitely be making these again. Om nom nom.

Oh, and on a side note, while I normally go for just-peanuts peanut butter (the kind with “Peanuts, salt” as its only ingredients), I’ve learned that most recipes that call for peanut butter usually do so under the assumption that you’ll use pre-sweetened peanut butter. So, if you’re buying peanut butter that you plan to use in a baked good (such as cookies), I’d recommend buying one that includes sugar among its ingredients. (And though its name may imply otherwise, Skippy’s Natural line does include sugar.)

July 19, 2010

In-Car Autocross Video

In the days leading up to my autocross on Saturday, I got to thinking that it could be fun to try recording some in-car footage with my Kodak Zi8. After thinking about it for a bit, I decided on using my Gorillapod SLR-Zoom to attach the camera to my passenger-side headrest:

The video worked out better than I had hoped. The wind noise was a bit more than I had expected, but maybe I’ll try getting (or making) a wind muff or the like for next time. And, if it’s of interest, I’ve also posted a few photos of how I set up the Gorillapod to attach the camera to my car’s passenger-side headrest.

Update 7/25: I’ve also scanned a copy of the drivers’ map for the autocross (PDF, 1.2 MB). You may also notice some hand-drawn arrows weaving through each of the slaloms. Drivers are allowed to go through the slaloms in either direction (whether Left-Right-Left or Right-Left-Right) and once I figured out which of those would offer a smoother line, I drew in those arrows to remind myself of the path I had wanted to take.

July 13, 2010

Photos from SXSW 2010

Andrew Huff Enjoying a Shiner

SXSW Interactive apparently had over 12,000 attendees this year, more than this year’s SXSW Music. And I still had just as much fun this year as I’ve had any year. It was great.

Once again, Grant Hutchinson helped organize a “Found Type Photowalk” around Austin. Ostensibly, it’s about typography—and there is quite a bit of typography talk—but it’s also a fantastic mid-conference respite where photographers of all types can enjoy a leisurely walk around Austin while taking shots along the way.

I brought along my trusty Canon 40D and it held up pretty well. If anything, the one thing I noticed is that even an image-stabilized lens (like the 17–55mm f/2.8 IS that I was mostly using) can’t save every shot—several of my shots during panels ended up around 1/13sec (at ISO 400) and shots that slow just don’t have a great chance of coming out sharp. (I could have theoretically bumped up the ISO to 800 or 1600, but my 2007-era doesn’t do that well at high ISOs.) Maybe I’ll consider Canon’s rumored 60D if that comes out in time for next year?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be even more attendees next year. And that’s okay. I’ve made so many great friends at SXSW over the years and I wouldn’t miss the chance to hang out with them again.