Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Living in an Apple Commercial

So out of the blue, someone asks my opinion on a computer question. I must have seemed knowledgeable when we talked about iPods. Turns out he bought a laptop the day before... and it runs really slowly... and of course the word "Vista" comes out during the same sentence. Just like in the Apple ad, I tell him the only solution (for a Windows-based laptop) is to "upgrade" from Vista to XP. Thanks to Apple for their ad that told me this was possible ("PR Lady")! :-)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Photoshop CS3: Problems with Stacks

Although I like the "stacks" feature in the Bridge, as discussed in my last Photoshop post, it's not without flaws. Let's look at things I would classify as problems, or at least unintuitive.

First up, there are 2 operations, "ungroup from stack" and "expand all stacks" that are a little too similar. "Expand" makes all the stacked pictures visible like in the original list of thumbnails. "Ungroup" makes a stack disappear and all the pictures are separate again. If, in a moment of distraction, you select all pictures and do "ungroup", poof all your stacks are gone. I lost a couple of hours worth of tedious work this way, after stacking together zillions of triplets produced by auto-exposure bracketing.

But, you say, "Undo". Sorry, Edit->Undo doesn't work for stack or unstack operations.

The menu operations would be less likely to get confused, if they employed consistent terminology and structure. You've got "Ungroup from Stack" and "Open Stack" right next to each other. "Open" does the same as "Expand All", only for a single stack, so why not use the same verb in each case? To ungroup all stacks you must select all, there's no menu equivalent to "Ungroup All" like there is for "Expand All". So the menu operations are indistinct in terms of what verb is used, and whether you need to select all first.

I wouldn't have been futzing around with "Ungroup" except that the "Group" operation has a problem with keyboard shortcuts. If you select a bunch of separate pictures, Cmd-G groups them into a stack. Select multiple stacks, or some pictures plus another stack, and Cmd-G does nothing. It doesn't work if any of the selected items is already a stack. To do that via the keyboard, you have to ungroup the existing stacks, then add new thumbnails to the existing selection, then group again. Yet you can drag-and-drop separate pictures onto an existing stack, although only when the stack is closed, er, collapsed. So a mouse operation doesn't have a keyboard equivalent, even though it would make sense for Cmd-G to handle the case of merging or adding to a stack.

The online help says that selecting the top picture in a stack means that operations apply to all pictures in the stack. But that's only true if all the pictures in the stack are selected, which they are when you first group them, or if you click on the thin 3-D border around the right and bottom sides. So in experimenting with stacks, I ended up with several cases where labels or keywords intended for the whole stack were only applied to the topmost photo. Also, when you mouse over the bottom region of the border, a tooltip comes up that obscures the whole clickable bottom area, so in practice it's only the right part of the border that you can use for selecting the stack.

The Bridge can be sluggish to process input events. A number of times, I've done a Group or Open operation on a stack, selected other pictures and done Cmd-G to group them, and had the Bridge decide I really wanted to open those pictures in Photoshop. So even though stacks save time overall, while putting them together you have to pause between clicks to give the Bridge time to catch up.

One nice feature of stacks, related to the drag-and-drop idea, is that you can stack photos that aren't in sequential order. Have you ever taken several shots of some landmark, taken shots of something else, then more shots of the first subject? (Anyone who has photographed Half Dome in Yosemite knows what I'm talking about here.) With a stack, you can put all the pictures of that one subject, even from different days, into one pile where it's easy to pick out the best one. Or, once they're in a stack, you can give them the same keywords or label.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Photoshop CS3: Looking Back vs. Charging Ahead

I just had my first in-person Russell Brown seminar, where he demonstrated some of the nifty features in Photoshop CS3. CS3 is the first release in a while that's tempted me, since CS2 is so unusably slow running emulated on an Intel iMac. With CS3, the Bridge + Photoshop combo is actually fast enough to make sense to make them separate programs, and some of the processor-intensive features like HDR and Photo Merge run in reasonable time.

I was struck by the way several of the features have to do with that scary 4th dimension -- time! That's a trend I'm seeing a lot lately across many types of software (cf. "Time Machine" in Leopard, "flashback query" in Oracle).

On the one hand, CS3 will make you want to go back and re-examine pictures you thought you were finished with. The enhanced Photo Merge makes doing panoramas a snap, with very good auto-aligning and even auto-blending to match colours across the different pictures. If you're like me, you have tons of photos filed or tagged with the intent to turn them into panoramas later, but the process was tedious and error-prone enough that it never seemed worth the trouble.

Also, you can bring JPEGs into the Camera Raw editor and apply some of the settings (sharpening, white balance, chromatic aberration, etc.) in there. The information gets stored as metadata inside the JPEG, and applied only when the file is opened in Photoshop. I expect it will be a big space-saver vs. taking every halfway decent JPEG and turning it into a 20+ MB PSD file just to improve levels and saturation.

If those were the only features, you might say CS3 is a time sink, because you're just going to go back over your old pictures. But with the ability of the Bridge to group pictures into "stacks" (similar to the feature by the same name in Aperture), you can display a folder full of images and see just the unique shots -- all 50 shots of the same waterfall, bird, etc. can be condensed into one thumbnail in the Bridge, and you can work preview the pictures in a stack together and pick the best one. This should prove especially useful for:

* Auto-exposure bracketing where you have 3 copies of every shot.
* Portrait and landscape versions of the same scene.
* Wildlife shots with many close-together pictures of the same animal.
* Individual frames from panoramas, which can be collapsed into one thumbnail entry.

With stacks, you can do your ranking in 2 stages. First, pick which compositions and subjects deserve a place in the final portfolio, then pick which exposure, orientation, or moment in time is the best for each stack. If that faraway bird was just a speck in all 50 photos, just disregard that stack; the individual pictures won't get in the way of critiquing the rest of that folder.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nitpicking "The Bionic Woman"

I think this last episode exhausted my (considerable) patience with this show. I waited for it to find its footing, but it's just sinking into quicksand!

Forget that the tired cliche of a plot (good guy must protect bad African dictator from assassination attempt) would work just as well to set up a skit on "Whose Line is it Anyway?". Forget that they're trying to introduce characters who are separated at birth from the daughter from Gilmore Girls and Xander from Buffy.

You know your show is in trouble when the viewers start nitpicking the lighting. The stock tech geek guy looked like he was wearing fluorescent lip gloss in his scenes. Isiah Washington's big death scene (oops, sorry, spoiler) was overshadowed by all the weird glare that made it look like one eye was still open after he was dead. Did the writers call in some pre-strike favours from the gaffers?

Nitpicking "Bones"

The only CSI-style show I watch is "Bones". Yes, I know the test results would take weeks in real life, and you'd never be able to draw firm conclusions from tiny scraps of evidence. But I expect at least the first level of facts to be accurate -- Latin names for microbes, things like that.

So the last episode was like fingernails on a blackboard for me when they brought in an Amiga (yay!) which they said was based on the "Motorola 6800 series" (er, dropped a zero there) and said that a Doom-style first-person shooter for it in 1987 would have made the creator "a billionaire several times over". Yeah, well, "Defender of the Crown" had first-person jousting, and where are those guys now? (Cinemaware went bankrupt in 1991.) The ones who prospered did so because they went least-common-denominator and ported to the PC et al. The best animation was actually in European demos -- mindless fun, but did anything more ever come out of it? Lastly, the Amiga used 3.5" fairly rigid floppy disks (an oxymoron I know). The black 5.25" floppy they held up on the show would only have been readable by someone using a PC-style drive (probably with a Sidecar for full PC compatibility). Someone running 5.25" floppies on an Amiga would not likely be a super-secret game coder.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Photo that's Too Good to Win

Here's a picture that I figure should do well in several competition categories. It did OK in Nature and Pictorial at the local club.

Yet when entered in a regional competition, the judge ruled it out saying "It looks like something was done to the wings", i.e. Photoshopping outside the rules. That's a Catch-22. The wing detail popped out after I did just the normal (allowed by the rules) amount of Photoshop sharpening. I sharpened the picture as a whole. The startling translucent effect is because the bird in flight is actually shot from above -- a very unusual angle -- with the afternoon sun hitting the wings from side-on. What am I supposed to do, put all that in the title?!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Watermarking Pictures in Photoshop

I've just started using this technique for watermarking photos, like the Carousel picture in the previous post. If you've only done photo retouching with Photoshop, this technique opens up the whole new world of text rendered as vector objects, paths, and all those layer styles and options like drop shadow, bevel, and so on. Until you lay down some text on a picture, all those things don't have much use.

I've saved my original watermark as both a custom shape, and as a single layer in its own file. The custom shape can easily be stamped onto any picture, while the layer can be dragged from the layers window onto another picture (carrying along all the layer options).

A Photo That's Too Good to Lose

I've taken maybe half a dozen photos in my life that qualify for a personal "hall of fame". This one just keeps winning awards in different categories. It illustratesmany aspects of photography and photographic competitions.

When I first entered this photo in competition, our club was still only judging slides. So I had to send the original file to a service that produced slides from digital images. In fact, it projected much better as a slide (more detail, brighter colours) than ever since as a digital image. It won "Creative image of the year" at the Berkeley Camera Club, even though I was only competing at the beginner level.

Savvy photographers know that you have to get as much mileage as you can from your best images. So I entered it again, in the Pictorial category. This time, it got an honourable mention at the year-end BCC competition.

This year I entered the Fotoclave competition for the first time. That's a regional competition for all of northern California. I entered it separately in several different categories, but it was only accepted in the Journalism category. It received an honourable mention, going through 2 rounds of judging -- top 20 pictures forwarded from the local group of camera clubs, then judged in a pool of 60 images from all across NorCal.

As a potential money-maker, the knock against it is the lack of a model release form. The iStockPhoto site, for one, won't sell an image with a recognizable face without a model release form. Obscuring the faces would solve that problem, but I think would weaken the image.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Geek Glimmerings #1 - Random-Access Kindergarten

They say most people can't remember anything before the age of about 5. For someone in the tech world, that's just so wrong. By the time I was 5, I already knew I was destined for a career in high tech!

At age 5 in kindergarten, I would do the little alphabet assignments in my little notebook. Every day the teacher would say "open your notebooks to a new page" and go from there. Now, it soon became clear to me that we were never asked to refer back to any previous day's work. And those notebooks had a lot of pages, way more than we would need in any school term. You can see where this is going. It was much faster just to open to a random page, and if the page was already used, repeat as needed until arriving at a blank page.

When I had the chance to work on the IBM compiler book "Optimization Guide for Fortran, C, and C++", it all made perfect sense -- all the caching and page-faulting techniques from kindergarten!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Photography Tips: Demystifying the Advanced Modes

With automatic exposure in digital cameras so good, it's tempting to just leave everything on automatic. It feels like a daring move just to flip the dial one more notch to "P"! (Of course, P is just automatic with some options to make things a bit brighter or darker than the camera would like.) Here are some tips for the beginner or intermediate photographer to encourage you to get beyond P into the exciting world of Tv, Av, and even M on the camera's mode dial.

The simplest way to keep track of all the settings is to realize that (for a typical picture) we want some numbers to be as big as possible, and some numbers to be as small as possible. But when the numbers go ridiculously far in the good direction, that causes other undesirable things to happen, so the ideal picture tends to have numbers that "meet in the middle".

What are these numbers? Shutter speed. Aperture. And ISO. Those are the big 3. Normally, the camera trades off between shutter speed and aperture. The third number, ISO, only comes into play when there's no combination of the shutter speed and aperture that works. (We'll cover ISO last.)

With Tv and Av, you control one number (either shutter speed or aperture) and the camera judges the other one.

Tv means that you control the shutter speed. It's the stupidest mnemonic ever devised. Just remember that A = Aperture, so Tv must mean the other one.

For most of the shutter speed range, the camera shows numbers representing fractions of a second, so a bigger number represents a briefer time when the shutter is open. "30" on the display means 1/30th of a second. "200" means 1/200th of a second. For most pictures, we want this number to be as big as possible. A picture taken at 1/200th of a second has relatively little chance of blurring due to the subject moving or camera shake. A picture taken at 1/400th of a second has even less, and so on. When the number starts to get low (60 for some people, 30 for others, even 15 or 10 if your hands are really steady), it's difficult to get a sharp shot while holding the camera in your hands.

This concept is relatively easy to understand, so Tv is a good first step for someone just venturing beyond P on their camera dial. Pick a number between 100-500, dial it in, and see if the camera will shoot without flashing any warning lights. If warning lights blink at you (meaning not enough light is getting in, and the camera can't find a good aperture value to "meet in the middle"), dial the number down a little bit and try again. Don't let the number get lower than your personal minimum, which you can only find through experimentation.

Av means that you control the aperture width. Easy to remember, but aperture is a tricky concept to understand. It's the width of the lens opening, which you never really see when you're behind the camera. So you have to take it on faith that the camera is doing something different as you dial different numbers.

Again, for the typical picture, we want this number to be as big as possible. Big numbers mean a larger area can be in focus (in terms of how far away things are). If the number is too small, Uncle George is in focus but the mountain behind him is blurry. Or the tree 2 feet behind Uncle George is in focus but he's blurry.

Here there's less chance of things going wrong, and a fairly reasonable set of values that work for most situations. Shoot with aperture values of 5.6, 6.2, or 7.1 and you can get good results for most situations. If there's plenty of light and you have a good SLR, go up to 16, 22, or higher and pretty much everything is guaranteed to be in focus, no matter how many close and distant objects are in one picture. That high chance of getting an in-focus picture makes this the mode that most photographers eventually end up with, once they advance to a certain level.

M is for manual, another easy one to remember. Now you have to pick the numbers for shutter speed and aperture. That would be intimidating to do if the numbers came out of thin air. But with a digital camera, just look at the numbers the camera gives you in one of the other modes, then plug in those numbers or ones close to them. You can either review a picture you already took and get the numbers from it, or half-press the shutter button and watch the numbers that appear on the display. (The camera tells you what numbers it would use, if you took the picture right at that moment.)

Manual mode is not needed in normal situations, only when something odd happens with the light that tricks the camera into taking shots that are too bright or too dark. If you are taking a picture that's half in shade and half in bright sunlight, you might have to start with the camera's suggested numbers, then dial a higher number for shutter speed to make things darker, or a lower number for shutter speed and/or aperture to make things brighter.

Remember I said that things go wacko if you push the Tv or Av numbers too far in the good direction? Basically, increasing those numbers lets in less light, which reduces the amount of motion blur (for Tv) and blur due to physics-related properties of light (for Av). Go too far though, and your pictures will be too dark, or the camera won't be able to come up with a small enough value for the other number. (As the Tv number goes up, the Av number goes down, and vice versa.)

So, what if you get a picture that's too dark (or flashing warning lights) when you bump the shutter speed to what seem like minimal values, like 60 or 100 for shutter speed, or 4.5 or 5.6 for aperture? That means there's not enough light overall to find a happy medium. That's where the ISO value comes in. Unlike the other 2, we want to keep this number as small as possible, and only increase it until the warning lights stop blinking, or the histogram stops being scrunched up on the left. With a point and shoot camera, ideally you'd never let it go above 100; going to 200 or 400 means you're in a dim situation and have no other way to get a bright enough shot. With a DSLR (particularly Canon), you might go to 200, 400, or 800 just as insurance in case lighting conditions darken unexpectedly; and if you're really in a dark spot, you might shoot with 1600 or even 3200. The negative factor with a high ISO value is a different sort of blurriness, random speckles throughout the picture, referred to as noise.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Photography Tip: Slow Synchro Flash

On our recent trip around the national parks of Arizona and Utah, we explored some new photographic challenges and solutions. One involved the use of "slow synchro" flash. Read on if you're not familiar with how to use that particular camera setting.

Slow synchro. Sounds intimidating, doesn't it? Do you need to be an expert on shutter speeds and flash strength to use it? Not at all.

This flash setting is the one to use if the flash isn't strong enough to light up the whole area of your picture. That's it. Slow synchro keeps the shutter open a little longer than normal, so whatever's in the background comes through more brightly than in the typical flash picture. There might be a little bit of blur from camera shaking, but you can't have everything.

We ran into this problem in two contexts. Sometimes in a restaurant, taking pictures of food, the light was dim enough that the flash from a point-and-shoot camera would only light up the closest part of a dish. Slow synchro evened out the lighting. Outdoors, a picture of a person in front of a landscape might also call for slow synchro. In the evening, the person might need a flash to be exposed properly, but normally the background would go all dark. At mid-day, harsh light might cast big shadows on the person, again calling for flash, again possibly underexposing the background (such as a mountain slope not in the sun).

Slow synchro isn't consistently placed or labelled across cameras. On smaller point and shoots (e.g. the Canon SD700), it's a distinct flash setting alongside red-eye reduction or auto/on/off. On bigger point and shoots and SLRs, it's typically a setting on the mode dial, often labelled Night Scene.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Be Not Afraid of Auto-Levels

Don't scoff at the "Auto" button in Photoshop's Levels dialog. Although it might seem designed for newbies who can't work a slider, it can come in handy no matter what your level (no pun intended).

Pick a photo that could use some punching up. (I shoot with a Canon 20D, which tends to undersaturate and undersharpen, so for me this is essentially any photo. :-) Create a new Levels Adjustment layer. Click "Auto", "OK", and just gaze for a minute at the result. You might see the color balance shifted way too much, or an excess of contrast or saturation.

But even if the end result is garish, Photoshop is at least showing you what direction to take. Back in the Layers dialog, select this new layer and gradually lower the opacity slider. If the Auto Levels adjustment made the color balance way too green, probably it needed to be just a little more green; if it supersaturated the colors, probably they could do with a little more saturation. Don't feel embarrassed to lower the opacity to 30%, heck even 10%, until visually it looks improved from the previous version.

With some more practice eyeballing your photos with such a layer visible and hidden, you'll develop a feel for when to apply some extra contrast, saturation, or shift the color balance. But until then, feel free to achieve the same effect via a low-opacity "Auto Levels" layer.

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Theory on the Sopranos Finale

[Stop reading now if you haven't already seen the final Sopranos episode...]

My first thought when the episode ended was that the cut to black signified that our window into this world had suddenly shut, i.e. the show was now officially dead. (After all the little hints along this line, like the use of Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hangin' On" at multiple points in this episode.)

But after a little more thought, I'm forced to reluctantly conclude that Tony really did get whacked. Yes yes, everyone who has that point of view mentions the foreshadowing with the conversation with Bobby about never hearing the shot that gets you, and when you die everything just goes black. But there are a couple of other things that were sticking in my mind already from previous episodes, that I think tie in even more decisively. (After all, clues that everyone picked up on could just be more feints, like all the next-week teasers lately that didn't have any payoff.)

First, there's a common thread running through most of the recent killings on the show. Bobby was killed because he was absorbed in his model trains. Didn't you have the thought when the gunmen came into the store, maybe Bobby will display lightning reflexes and make his escape? Didn't happen. Silvio's getaway from the Bing was delayed by just a few crucial seconds because he wanted to bring along his business ledgers. Didn't you wish that Sil and Patsy would be well armed and great shots? Uh uh. Phil got surprised because he was paying attention to his grandkids. In each case, someone paid the price because they took their eye off the ball, distracted by the thing that they loved the most. Even Christopher died because he was dazed by drugs, and the music distracting him was from the soundtrack of a gangster movie. He qualifies for a two-fer.

What was the significance of Meadow having so much trouble parking? The moment she came in was when Tony would be the happiest and least cautious, and easiest to take by surprise. So that moment was dragged out while we got an eyeful of all the shifty characters in the restaurant.

Some have said that's no good, we don't see the series through Tony's eyes, so why would we experience his point of view if he was being whacked? But remember when Sil was in the restaurant with Jerry Torciano. Reality seemed to go out the window for a few seconds, it was very confusing, and then we realized that we were getting Sil's perception of the scene with time slowed down and the gunshot seeming to come later than it really did. That was a notable departure in the cinematography from previous acts of violence. Which makes sense as foreshadowing, if the finale takes the idea to another level, by giving us the perception from the person who gets hit.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Life in the Left Lane

I'm not going to let a wonky shoulder keep me off the tennis court. The rotator cuff injury from falling on the ice at Berkeley Iceland isn't healed yet, and I'm sitting out this season of the local tennis league to rest it.

But where there's a will, there's a way. I've started practicing left-handed, and now can do everything OK that way except serve. Strangely, I had an easy time learning to judge topspin backhands on the left side, where I sometimes mishit the ball doing that with the right arm. Not sure if that's a vision thing, or a holdover from a right shoulder injury from the teenage years.

The rotator cuff is supposed to take "in the low months" to recover from this type of injury. As with ribs, the doctors don't do a whole heck of a lot unless there's something really serious. If it doesn't come all the way back, then an MRI is the only way to see exactly what's wrong. There are various tendons and ligaments that fall under the heading of "rotator cuff", plus the labrum which has its own set of things that can go wrong.

The Personal and the Professional

What does it mean when your professional life overshadows your personal life? I mean, I try to strike a good work/life balance. But not long after I set up a separate blog for work-related (i.e. Oracle) topics, that became the top-rated Google result related to me for a search on "John Russell". Last week it was on page 2 of Google results, now it's on page 1.

I guess it means that the web is growing up, that Oracle has a healthy and interested user community, and that my professional interests are worth sharing with others along with vegetarian recipes and Cancun travelogues. Or on a mundane level, it could just mean that my Oracle blog is the page most closely associated with me by name -- the people who link to it tend to call it John Russell's Tahiti Views blog.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Ice Ice Baby

Although California isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think "ice", there is some to be found outside a freezer or a cocktail. Berkeley has its historical "Iceland" rink, or anyway it did until the end of March. We went for a skating session the last week before it closed.

In Canada, we all grew up using hockey skates, which have a smooth blade all the way around. Iceland, by default, supplied rentals that were figure skating skates. Those have a set of spikes, the "toe points", at the front of the blade. For someone used to hockey skates, that means the normal motion of sliding the foot forward causes the skate to dig into the ice. Not good for maintaining balance at high speeds! Luckily, I protected the digital camera the one time I fell. Unluckily, I tweaked my rotator cuff, which typically takes a few months to get back to normal.

Iceland's history includes Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, and the old California Golden Seals. (I used to have Golden Seals hockey cards back in third grade or so.) A group is trying to raise funds to keep it open, but they have a long way to go to meet their goal.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Two-Handed Input with the Apple Remote

The future of user interfaces is in our hands, literally. Both hands. A lot of people are saying the way forward is multi-touch input on the screens of devices like the iPhone. I say, don't forget about the Apple Remote which is here right now!

When I worked at IBM Canada, I attended a talk given by Bill Buxton, who was doing UI research at Alias|Wavefront at the time. Bill is heavily into multi-touch interfaces. He described some gestural interfaces and two-handed input techniques employed by artists at alias, and that idea really struck a chord with me and has stayed in my mind ever since.

Fast forward to 2007. In photography, I'm losing patience with the tradeoffs between DSLRs and point-and-shoots, and have started using a two-handed, two-camera shooting technique for combined landscape/wildlife outings. At home, I have an iMac with an Apple Remote, and have started using the remote with Mira, a driver that lets the remote control any application.

At first, the remote seems like a good way to cut down on eye and wrist strain; it replaces the mouse for dead-simple interaction that shouldn't require hunching over the keyboard. I set up Firefox shortcuts so the remote can boost the font size, page up / page down, and close the current window. That way, open a bunch of tabs and then sit back and read 'em at a comfortable distance on the 24" screen. I set up shortcuts for image-viewing applications to go full-screen, forward/back, and delete the current picture. Then it's much simpler to cull the bad pictures from a picture-taking trip.

But as I ponder my most laborious interactive tasks, I realize that the remote can supplement the mouse by working in concert. In Photoshop, I can make remote flag, delete, launch, and do other common operations that usually involve double-clicks, multiple keystrokes, or widely spaced menus and icons. I still need the mouse to select the photo to act upon. Mouse in one hand, remote in the other, I'm a whirling dervish of photographic productivity.

It would be even better if Mira could adapt its remote functions based on which Photoshop window was open: in the Layers menu, do this and this, in the Levels dialog do that and that. I'll suggest that to the fine folks at Twisted Melon. Another multi-use sort of app is iTunes; half the time I want the usual Play/Pause/Next controls, half the time I want to assign ratings or edit metadata using shortcuts.

Other challenges await. A lot of programming work already involves cursoring up and down and copying and pasting. Maybe I can come up with a set of mappings for OS X's Terminal. I'm sure Mail.app will go faster when one hand selects a message and the other chooses from half a dozen actions on that message.

Now that I think about it, possibly the finest days of multi-handed input for the average person came in the '80s with the Commodore 64. I remember using a light pen, Koala Pad, and game controller spinning knobs all in the course of a day. Today, the parallels are a Wacom tablet, that glowing knob/button whose name I forget, and the Apple Remote. Ah, if only the infrared sensor could record position like a light pen!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

One-Hear Wonders

Am I the only one who ever had this experience? In the heyday of cassette recording in the '70s and '80s, sometimes I would hear the first few notes of a song on the radio, instantly decide it was worth recording, and turn on the tape recorder. (Until I acquired a radio with built-in tape deck, this process involved slapping a manual tape recorder upside-down on top of my clock radio.) Sometimes, I never heard the song again. Some of the songs had no or incomprehensible lyrics, so that I didn't even know their titles. I think of these songs as "one-hear wonders", where they stuck in my mind or even became favourites, just from a single airing on my local radio station.

My favourite examples from this category are:

Tempus Fugit (Yes): I didn't know its title or who did it, for about 15 years, until I bought "Drama" at Vortex Records in Toronto.

Battle Scar (Max Webster, guest vocalist Geddy Lee of Rush): I'm sure I only ever heard this once on the radio. For years in the MP3 age, I couldn't find any digital version of it.

Hocus Pocus (Focus): The only vocal on this song is some yodelling. I didn't know the group or the title. Iron Butterfly stuck in my mind, but that was wrong, leading me down a dead end. I vaguely remembered a DJ saying that it was a Dutch group, and ultimately some Googling turned up the song details.

Phasors on Stun (FM): Canadian group FM is very hard to track down online. Ditto the solo efforts of member Nash the Slash. I wound up getting a secondhand CD of "Black Noise" from Amazon and recognized this song from way back. I probably heard it several times on the radio, but never actually had it on tape.

Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young): "Live Rust" was an early addition to my CD collection, so it was only a one-hear wonder for six years or so. I only remember one radio play, yet it became one of my favourite songs on my own mix tapes.

Godzilla (Blue Oyster Cult): Between the SNL "More Cowbell" sketch and some old videos resurrected on VH1, other Blue Oyster Cult songs are more well-known. But this for me is their best. Bonus points to this band for inventing the Heavy Metal Umlaut.

TVC15 (David Bowie): I must have gone about 30 years without hearing this song. Not sure how I missed it through various Bowie "Greatest Hits" collections. Never had it on tape.

Candy Candy (Iggy Pop featuring Kate Pierson): My wife tracked down the vide for this song on VH1. She remembered it clearly. I only have a faint recollection of the tune, probably from a single play on the radio.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shooting Out a Plane Window

Every flight out of California over the Sierra Nevadas offers great opportunities for aerial landscape shots. I've tried with teeny camera like the Canon S30, and monster cameras like the Canon 20D with various sizes of lenses. On a recent flight to Florida, the Canon S3 proved the champion in this type of situation.

By chance, I booked a right-side window side on every leg coming and going. (6C, 24C, etc.) That was a lucky break, because the flip-out viewscreen made it easy to shoot sideways to the right. It wouldn't have worked nearly as well on the left side. When an interesting landscape came into view up ahead, the best unobstructed shots came while shooting straight out to the right. I framed those shots comfortably by tilting the viewscreen at close to 90 degrees, so I could look straight ahead but still see the view to the right, downward, and sometimes even a little behind the plane.

The S3's 12x zoom was also very handy. Zooming in from a great height produced a bunch of interesting shots with abstract shapes of mountain ridges. The S3 goes from wide angle to full zoom with only a tiny extension of the lens -- seems like about 1 millimeter! Zooming with the 20D required a lot more room next to the window.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Canon SD700 and S3 for Candid Food Photographs

One of the reasons I like a small camera is to snap pictures of tasty restaurant meals. I found the Canon S30 was a little underpowered in the flash and ISO areas for taking good closeups indoors in dim light. The 20D obviously is overkill to pull out at a small table in a crowded dining room; besides, it would probably still have the 300mm lens on! Now that we have the Canon S3 and Canon SD700, can we say we've got the solution?

The SD700 actually turns out to be the champ here. Normally, flash burns out the whole picture when it reflects off dining plates. But with the SD700 in manual mode and the flash turned down in strength to -1 EV, it gives a great exposure at low ISO every time.

The S3 has a problem because of its strong flash. I haven't found a consistent flash setting that avoids burnout. Luckily, with its powerful zoom, I can back off a little bit and zoom in. But that takes a bit of experimentation each time.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Large Bread Sighted in California!

Teensy weensy bread is one of my pet peeves about California. Artisan this, multigrain that, but none of it big enough to make a real sandwich. For $4-5 dollars a loaf, I expect it to come with a free toaster. I was pleasantly surprised by the veggie burger at the Wild Plum Cafe in Monterey. Not only is it a double burger with so many fixin's you have to attack it from different angles, it comes on a giant-sized bun that looks like a bun/bread hybrid.

Now if only I can get some shipped up to Berkeley!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lydia's Restaurant in Fairfax Closing

Sad news for all of us vegetarian and organic restaurant fans: Lydia's Lovin' Foods is closing on Monday. According to her website:

Dear Lovin’ Customers,
I will be closing the restaurant portion of my business effective Monday, January 22, 2007. I have decided to focus more attention to my nationally known dehydrated foods company and the festivals and fairs we have catered for years. Lydia’s Lovin Foods will, however, still is available to cater events and parties in the bay area as well.

This was a tough decision as I am grateful to all of my loyal and devoted customers. I want to thank you for all of your support and patronage throughout the years

Many blessings and love,

Lydia Kindheart
Lydia’s Lovin’ Foods

We will miss this wonderful place.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

2006 Roundup - Shark-Jumping Edition

The last couple of years, it's seemed to me that certain companies, sites, people, and so on have clearly jumped the shark -- timed nicely to coincide with the end of the year. So let's take a moment to reflect on the 2006 jumpees.

Salon.com: Went from a daily destination site to something akin to a visit to the dentist, mostly due to their "Day Pass" system. I have to turn off half a dozen flash blocking, ad blocking, and Greasemonkey scripts even to see the Day Pass ad. Some article pages still won't load on the first try. The process is onerous enough that I only visit about once a week, opening up a dozen or two tabs. Then if I don't finish them within the prescribed time, or the browser crashes, the whole machine grinds to a halt as these dozens of pages all constantly reload themselves.

Microsoft: Do I even need to elaborate here? Vista. DRM. Free laptops for bloggers. All that "Live" business. Has a monopoly ever imploded so completely from its own actions rather than external forces? (Regardless of the money still rolling in.)

Photoshop: As someone with an Intel iMac, I'm faced with Photoshop CS2 that wants me to do all my file manipulation in the Bridge, yet the Bridge takes tons more memory and is far slower than Photoshop CS with the File Browser. Plus it's not a Universal Binary, so the slowness is multiplied. The only potentially compelling feature for me is HDR -- slow again. Perhaps CS3 can un-jump this shark...

Online air travel booking: Try to book a flight through any online consolidator. Get past pages that won't load, date widgets that don't display properly, and bad input fields. Get waylaid by links saying there is a better fare, or other flight times. Find out that those other options cost more because of bogus extra charges, or involve several stopovers. Finally make a decision, only to find out that the system breaks down because you had different tabs open for the same site, or you left a page up for more than 10 minutes. Repeat about 30 times. That's my experience this year, anyway.

Air travel in general: This liquids business is really the last straw. Half a dozen people in England had a plot that they didn't actually carry out, so everyone in Duluth and San Antonio has to throw out their bottled water and suntan lotion? This is the same administration that's talking about building a moon base, right? How will that work if all the astronauts have to keep taking off their space boots and venting all their liquids and who knows what else because of some terrorist plot in 2015 in Fiji?

Slashdot: The reader comments used to add details, perspectives, and alternative links over and above the linked articles. Not anymore. Better to find articles via Digg and ignore the comment sections altogether.

The word "sectarian": How did I manage to make it through university and into the 21st century without hearing that word used in a non-pompous sentence? Gee, maybe it's the most obscure way possible of talking about religious violence, religious fanaticism, fanatical religious violence... You'd think an administration that loves to talk about faith-based this and that wouldn't try to bury the word "religion"...

Gossip columns: Note to every syndicated gossip column in the world. No one outside the UK cares about Jude Law and Sienna Miller, Posh and Becks, or any other narcissistic British demi-celebrities. Note to every place that reprints these columns: stop recycling this British drivel. Also, spare us from the dispatches from every D-lister's publicist. "Rising star ___ was spotted cuddling and kissing ___ at dinner. They weren't even trying to hide it, said a source." Oh for the days of alt.showbiz.gossip.

Political reporting: Just take the last item and substitute "major daily newspaper", "White House officials", and "GW Bush" where appropriate. I hear in the NY Times that GW got bad advice from generals in Iraq and now has to deal with their bad planning. Anonymous senior officials say so. Careful not to mix in Jude Law and Sienna Miller by mistake guys.

New York Times movie reviews: What's with this trend of movie reviewers who think the way to write a review is to summarize every single plot twist and then give away the ending? You know, the kind that say, "...but then the best friend turns out to be a Russian spy, and the hero's wife leaves him for the dentist, and in the end the killer gets away". The New York Times takes the prize for this technique. Even when they're not actually reviewing a movie, they can't help themselves. I ready the NY Times retrospective on Robert Altman, and had to give up after it tried to make some point by saying how several of his movies ended. Hey, ever consider some of us have yet to see some of these movies?

Google: Hasn't definitively jumped the shark, but is showing signs. The press has stopped talking about how clever their strenuous hiring process is, and now focuses on how the system doesn't work so well for anyone over 30 or anyone already working who doesn't have the time to pursue the drawn-out interview process. The business of selling vested options could be seen as an innovative, or as a sign of major discontent among post-IPO hires. And now right at the end of the year, many legitimate bloggers find that their sites are pushed way down the rankings, and Google gives different results depending on which data center you happen to hit. Some people's GMail data gets nuked. The saving grace(s) are: Blogger and Maps continue to improve, and the second-tier search sites don't make much of an impact despite a lot of press hype. Today's San Francisco Chronicle follows the lives of some ex-Googlers, and their reasons for leaving sound like a shark of some kind is involved.

New York Times regular columnists: First was "Times Select" where you couldn't read the regular columnists without signing up and paying. Then some bloggers re-posted the columns, but the Times came down on anyone who did that regularly. Then any buzz around the columnists completely evaporated -- I still find links elsewhere to Times Select articles, but rarely if ever to Times Select op-ed columns.

Now it wasn't my intention to bash the New York Times particularly, but I see they've made several appearances on my list for various reasons. So perhaps they should win the award for "broadest" shark-jumping, alongside Microsoft which I would say did the "deepest" shark jump.