Friday, December 23, 2005

Transit Strike, Bridge Views and One Dumb Photographer (i.e. me)

Something a little different today - more like a real blog post, but laden with photo goodness. You may have heard about the NYC transit strike that just ended today, and I, like all New Yorkers, was stranded by it. I normally take the N or W train from Queens into Manhattan to go to work, but with no service I was forced to walk across the 59th St. bridge in the bitter cold - around 5 miles each way. This is not the first time I've had to do this - I also did it during the Northeast blackout a couple of years ago, in temperature conditions at the opposite extreme. But that was an emergency situation and there was little time to stop and look around.

I stayed at home the first day of the strike, unprepared to walk and too late to make it to work anyway. My first time across the bridge on day two, I realized that I could make something good out of the situation by bringing my camera with me the next time. The views are some of the best in the city. So the next day, there I was, lugging my heavy camera bag on a ten mile round trip... but it was worth it. My night shots aren't perfect - even if I'd had a tripod, there'd have been no way to get a steady shot on this bridge because of the constant vibration - but I still like them.

Here we go:

Wasn't too crowded that day. The media almost always focuses on the Brooklyn Bridge whenever anything like this happens, I think because there's only one walkway (on the Queensboro/59th St. Bridge there are two) so there's a greater concentration of people, which makes for better TV. But it was a pretty pleasant walk at this time of day on the Queensboro. (The day earlier was a lot more crowded; I think a lot of people did just take the second and third days of the strike off.)

I thought this photo worked better in black and white because of the geometric shapes; I didn't want what little color there was to take away from the line composition.

Another shot across the bridge to show the light traffic that day. It was actually pretty surprising to me; I did hit some pretty bad traffic (both on foot and in vehicles) in Manhattan, but the bridge was empty. Even the Roosevelt Island tram was carrying a pretty light load.

Again, black and white because of the flat color that day. I like silhouettes in black and white anyway.

Part of the view from the bridge, looking south. That's the Williamsburg Bridge down there. You can tell how cold it was that day - look at that steam billowing up!

Ok, now the night commute, which was a little more crowded:

Strike traffic. It was like this all the way up and down as far as the eye could see, on every Avenue. The east-west streets were a little better, but not much.

This was the crowd getting onto the bridge at night. A few more people than I saw that morning.

The view from the bridge. I have a ton of these - I took similar pictures all the way across - but this one was as good as any, so I'm just posting one. Look at the line of lights along the edge of the coast of Manhattan - that's traffic on the FDR Drive that's backed up for miles. If you open this up and see the lights in the sky off in the distance, those are helicopters - most likely watching the Brooklyn Bridge foot traffic. If you're unfamiliar with NYC and wondering why there's no traffic on the street directly below me, that's Roosevelt Island - it's an enclosed island that basically just terminates in a dead-end at the end of that street.

More people walking. Some camera shake here but I still kinda like this photo.

At around this time my gloved hands were fumbling for the LCD backlight button on my camera and instead mistakenly hit the button to turn on the timer. From this point on I was convinced my camera had literally frozen. Unable to hear the beeping, all I knew was nothing was happening when I pressed the shutter button. So I had more photo opportunities after this point, but they were all missed through my own idiocy. I finally realized my mistake just before reaching home (thankfully in time to get the one final shot I wanted below, though I did blow the highlights).

You won't notice it after my processing, but all of my earlier daylight shots were also shot in the wrong shooting mode. I had the camera stuck on Av mode with an f/3.5 aperture - several of my shots were blown out, others lacking depth of field. I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on until I was more than halfway across the bridge, when I finally saw it and literally slapped my head and let out a "d'oh!"

Any decent photos I got on this day were despite my skills, not because of them.

This is not something you normally see in New York, where our subways run 24 hours a day. I hope to never see it again.

It was fun walking across the bridge the first time, and it was fun taking these photos - but two days of it was enough to completely wear me out. I've got blisters on my feet, I've got probably a dozen strained muscles in my legs; I can barely walk. It was just another New York experience, though... we seem to have some sort of calamity every few years. At least they usually make good stories.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

I've been wrestling with whether or not to post this - I love the color, but the sky was actually too clear that day. The smoke adds a bit to the photo, but not enough. The problem with flat skies is they basically ruin the rule of thirds - I normally would have panned up a bit (and cropped tighter on the left), but it would have just been more empty sky.

Well, I'm posting it so I don't have to think about it anymore. Every time I've thought of posting something over the past few days, I just keep coming back to this photo and trying to figure out how to make it work. At least now I can just move on...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A bit of an abstraction today. There's a ton of graffiti in New York, and obviously I'm not responsible for the original "artwork" here, but I liked the particular way all of the different types of graffiti came together on this particular wall. There's an interesting mix of the original color of the wall, some political graffiti, some basic name tagging, and some outright corporate advertising. Sort of a snapshot of what the East Village is all about these days... (that's where this was taken.)

I like the diagonals that happened here pretty much by chance too. It's a combination of the writing style of the graffiti writers and the light reflecting off an air conditioner and its supports just above the photo.

btw, for anyone who's in New York and is into this kind of stuff, head over on the 7 train to the 45th Rd/Courthouse Square station. On the way from Manhattan, look out the window on the left-hand side and you'll see a huge area of just amazing, amazing graffiti art on a little enclave of old buildings. (It's actually easier to see this coming from the other direction.) I'm talking old-school wildstyle stuff from guys who obviously know what they're doing, not these tagging posers you see today. I keep meaning to head over there with my camera one of these days but just haven't gotten around to it yet.

Friday, December 02, 2005

New stuff coming soon!

I know it's been a little longer than I usually like between new posts... I'll have something new up this weekend. We're in the process of buying a house, so my mind has been on other things lately. But I check my stats and I see you guys visiting and waiting patiently for something new, so I'll have something for you in the next few days (^_^)

Friday, November 25, 2005

RENT - the Film

Still working on my Boston trip report part deux, but in the meantime I wanted to encourage everybody out there (especially anyone outside New York) to go see RENT.

Yes, I know it's getting mixed reviews. But read between the lines of those reviews and you'll see that this is one of those movies where there is just no middle ground - you love it or you hate it, often based as much on personal biases and preconceived notions as anything else. It is a film that doesn't compromise, just like the Broadway show on which it's based. It presents a group of characters that are all far from perfect; beyond tragically-flawed, all of them. But it does not judge its characters; it simply presents a slice of life at a particular place and time.

I saw the Broadway musical a few years ago and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, in part because it reminded me so much of my own life living in the East Village at around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing the show. I saw many of the real-life events in the show first-hand - the squatter evictions on Avenue A, the riots, etc. I knew many people just like the characters in Rent - yes, people like that really do exist in New York, even today. The neighborhood has changed a lot since the stage show was written - it's richer, safer, more gentrified - but the script still feels relevant, the characters still feel real. (MSNBC said straight out that a story about characters dealing with AIDS "seems dated" today; I guess they stumbled onto a cure at some point and just haven't told anyone yet. If you also believe AIDS is "like, so five minutes ago", then no, Rent is probably not the movie for you.)

The film is for the most part a straight scene for scene shooting of the Broadway version, almost to a fault. I might have actually liked a little more imagination in the direction and cinematography, a little more fleshing-out of the visuals for film. The second half also feels a little choppy due to the removal of a couple of important songs, and the ending's a little abrupt as a result. A couple of other nitpicks: the main exterior set (Avenue A and 11th St.) doesn't really look anything like the real thing, and the time period is off by a few years - the film is set in 1989-1990, where the play was supposed to be present-day in 1996, when it was first performed.

But these are relatively minor issues in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the Broadway show is still better. But the point is if you have know other way of seeing Rent, then you need to see this film. It retains all the spirit, all the rawness and almost all the emotion from the original. You'll laugh, you'll cry, no joke. Go see it.

Any questions about the film, the show, or my thoughts on either, feel free to leave a comment. Annoying comments will be deleted at my discretion (this ain't a democracy).

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I went through this period when I was younger of trying to shoot all these nasty urban photos of a dying, decaying city. When I came back to New York in the early 1990's, that's pretty much what it was.

When I look at those photos now they're mostly not composed very well and they just feel kinda old. I still like this one, though, mostly because I get to make up some sort of new outlandish story about how I took it every time somebody asks - I was leaning out over the ledge holding onto a storm drain; I put my camera on a timer, held it on a rope and tossed it over the ledge; I strung it across the two halfs of the building on a wire. I love telling people stuff like this.

(Ok, I'll come clean - it wasn't really that hard.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

This may look oversaturated, but trust me, it isn't. I walk by this building every day on my way home, and I really doubt I could even crank the saturation up high enough to match the way this really looks. This particular evening had a great deep blue sky, and the light from this sign always just totally lights up the street green - the wash of color is tough to capture but I did my best.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Boston Trip Report Part One - the Trains

Quick August 2006 update - I'm getting a lot of hits to this page from people searching for info about the size of Amtrak's seats and the amount of legroom. I touch on this in the post below, but scroll down to the bottom for a more detailed answer.

A couple of weeks ago we took the train up to Boston. This is the first part of my trip report - in the interest of (relative) brevity I've decided to split it up into two parts. In this part I'll talk a little about the experience of getting there and back on Amtrak's Acela Express and Regional trains; if you're just interested in reading about the city itself, feel free to wait for part two.

A little background. In 2003 we took the train from New York to Oregon for Christmas. Most people I know thought I was crazy, but I've done the cross-country thing many times. I love the train; it's (usually) a completely relaxing and fun way to travel. This time, though, we happened to get a sleeping car with no heat, in December, in upstate New York. No, it was not pleasant waking up with hypothermia. We were awarded a $400 gift voucher for this "inconvenience".

Now, I've been into trains all my life and my wife is from Japan where high speed rail is pretty much a part of everyday living. So we decided first that we'd be taking the Acela Express - the destination was almost secondary. Boston seemed the natural choice, given my wife's taste for lobster. Given that it would only cost a few bucks extra, we elected to travel first class... though we had to settle for business class on the way back as there are apparently no Express trains to New York on weekends(?!)

We arrived at Penn Station in NYC on time and relaxed for a bit in Club Acela, Amtrak's first class lounge for both Acela Express and long-haul sleeper passengers (we'd been there once before). Amtrak's Club Acela lounges are basically equivalent to the business/first class lounges you find at most major airports; not particularly luxurious, but more comfortable than the cattle class waiting area, and with free food (muffins and danish) and drinks. Our train boarded and left on time, which was a relief given the problems the Acela Express trains have had lately. Despite being first-class pax on the way to Boston, we were left to fend for ourselves once the train was announced, fumbling for the right gate along with everyone else. (On the long-haul trains, Amtrak actually escorts the first-class passengers to their cars ahead of the other passengers.)

There's only one first class car on each Acela Express train and only three sets of two-seaters facing forward, and given that the train originated in Washington, we really didn't know if we'd get a decent seat, or even a set of seats together. (Check out the train layout at Trainweb here.) This is a pretty ridiculous design failing of these first-class cars if you ask me - no first-class passenger on any train should ever have to worry about getting a good seat. I mean, this is exactly the kind of thing we're paying extra not to have to worry about. I thought it was sort of indicative of some of the problems both at Amtrak and with the transportation industry in this country in general - you cannot really pay any amount of money for decent service anymore. First-class passengers should really know their seat assignments in advance, and should be able to pick from more than three possible sets of forward-facing double seats (or single seats, if they prefer that). Imagine making first-class reservations on an airline and learning that not only were there only three sets of seats facing forward, but they were first-come, first-served as you got to the gate!

We bum-rushed the front of the line and managed to get a set of facing table seats. We were not on the best side of the train (the right side, for the water views), but this is arguably the best seating arrangement for a couple - although I felt the amount of legroom and seat width was a bit on the stingy side for "first class". (Okay, call me a snob if you want - I just feel like first class is supposed to mean more than a free airline-style meal.) The styling of the car itself was very airliner-like, though closer to airline business class than first:

According to the in-train magazine, Amtrak is planning on a complete overhaul of the Acela Express fleet in 2006, so hopefully they'll fix some of the design's shortcomings.

We had our free airliner-style meal delivered to our seats by our car attendant, who was very friendly and attentive. No complaints there. Drinks were never in short supply (including all the free alcohol we could put down at 10 in the morning), though the quality of the food was middling at best. There were only two choices on the menu - a wrap and a sandwich (containing entirely too much bread) - both served with potato chips and a cookie. This is not dining car fare, folks, so don't expect too much.

One very nice thing about the Acela Express trains is the absolutely enormous windows. Amtrak's been on a window kick ever since the introduction of the Viewliner sleeping cars about 10 years ago. Apparently stung by the criticism of their first original offering's (Amfleet) modern but tiny "slit" windows, they've since gone almost overboard in the other direction. But I'm not complaining. The windows on the Acela Express extend from about armrest level to well above the rider's head and are about double that wide, all the better to see the extreme speeds these trains are capable of (by US standards).

Actually, 150mph is only reached once on this trip, and for about 10 or 15 minutes at most - but when you hit it, you know it. This is not the glassy ride you might expect on the TGV or a Japanese shinkansen - the Acela Express bumps and lurches like any other modern American train. At 150mph, this can feel downright scary. It doesn't help that US safety standards make the Acela Express a heavy train, and you can feel that inertia - a mid-sized lurch to one side on this train and you'll question whether gravity's got enough pull to keep it on the tracks at speed. It's exciting, and it's pretty amazing to see the ground rush by that fast in this country, but it's not for the faint of heart.

I wasn't paying much attention to the schedule but it seemed like we arrived pretty much on-time at Boston's South Station, in about 3 hours and 30 minutes. Again, despite being first class passengers, we were not offered so much as a redcap in Boston (not that we needed one, but I'd hesitate to call this a true "first class" experience). Not bad, and I'm glad to have had the experience of riding "high speed rail" in the United States. But it still feels very much like a work in progress - the service level is not quite there, the tracks were clearly not designed for high speed service, and the trains themselves already feel a bit old. (This will hopefully change after the overhaul.)

On the way back, we got stuck on one of the old Acela Regional trains because apparently, the Express trains like to sleep in on weekends. This didn't turn out to be an entirely bad thing. We arrived at South Station way early this time, after having endured the first day of snow in Boston this year and being utterly worn out by walking through some of the most ridiculous early autumn weather I've ever seen. We waited more than two hours for our train, only to see it delayed at its scheduled departure time. I was watching the tracks like a hawk and finally saw what I assumed was our train pull in. I called my wife over and we stood outside in the now freezing rain for 15 minutes while we waited for Amtrak to prep the train. Again, we were at the front of the line when they finally let the floodgates open.

We hurried to our car, actually ending up in the wrong one at first and having to ask the conductor to let us through the closed cafe car to the "real" business class car. (Don't be fooled by what it says on the side of the train!) I counted the number of passengers in our car as we left Boston. Including us, there were five. Five! This was practically our own private car. It was eerily quiet; quieter maybe than even the Acela Express train, which is a newer design. These old Amfleet I cars were designed and built in the 1970's, though they've been extensively refurbished and upgraded. The interiors are now pretty darn nice, the ride is very smooth, and the noise level reminded me of having a private room on one of the old streamliner cars that no longer exist (this was an almost mystical travel experience that I'm still sad is gone).

It's not really obvious from that second shot how much legroom there is. There's a lot. The seats themselves are bigger than they look - they're far larger than airline seats, which is what they probably look like in the photo. Even at 6'4", the backs of my knees were just barely at the front lip of the bottom cushion. So I had about 18" of clear air in front of me. It was easy enough to cross my legs without even touching the seatback in front of me, or for my wife to step over me without asking me to move (she had the window seat). When you consider how far back the seats recline (almost flat), if you've got nobody in front of you doing the same thing then you end up with about six feet of pitch all to yourself.

Traveling from Boston to New York at night, there's really not a whole lot to see. My wife slept most of the time, and I read a magazine and made a few trips to the cafe car for free drinks (business class!) and non-free food. I really did enjoy just listening to the sounds of the train as it sped through the darkness, without the chatter of businessmen on cell phones or loud family gatherings to spoil the serenity. I've always thought that riding a train at night is one of the most peaceful places you can be.

Coming in to New York, we ended up stopped right next to a Long Island Railroad train full of Halloween-costumed college kids. It was the most interesting scenery of the night! And whenever I'm riding Amtrak and end up stopped next to a commuter train, I'm always struck by the contrast - seeing those people standing or crunched into 5-across bench seats just made me appreciate the relative luxury I was riding in even more.

Train travel in this country can be aggravating at times, but in the end I'm always left with a sense of satisfaction that I know I could never get from flying or even driving. I'm actually a little sad whenever I step off a train at my destination. The Acela Express is a little rough around the edges and "first class" doesn't really live up to the name, but it's still a train worth taking - if only to be able to say you hit 150mph on the ground in the United States. Acela Regional trains are surprisingly comfortable and I'd have no problem riding one again.

Watch for my Boston city report coming up in a few days - yes, there will be talk of clam chowda! And maybe a few things you wouldn't expect...

Now, about those seats. As I mentioned above, they are big. The photo really doesn't convey it without a point of reference - something that you can use to visually estimate size. If somebody was sitting in those seats, you'd see it - the pitch (the distance between seats, indicative of legroom) is around 50". This compares to 31-33" for a typical airline seat.

Amtrak's trains have a variety of seating configurations in a variety of different types of cars, depending on how far you're going and where. The major types are going to be Amfleet, Acela Express, Superliner or Horizon cars. Amtrak also operates special corridor trains in the Northwest and Southwest but I am not familiar with these. In the other types, the coach cars are broken down between long-haul and short-haul configurations, with the difference just being the amount of legroom. (In the Northeast Corridor, just replace the terms "long-haul" and "short-haul" with "business class" and "coach class" and you'll have an equivalent.)

In a long-haul train, you've really got no choice where to sit - it's based on distance, and there are short-haul cars for those traveling short distances and long-haul cars for those going longer distances. Even the short-haul cars are better than airline seats, though.

In a long-haul or business-class car, you will have plenty of room to move around. In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak often mixes up coaches with different configurations - so you can have a business class seat in a coach class car. If you find yourself in a coach class car with coach class seating, try just walking forward or back a car or two - the real business class cars are at the very front of the train, so as long as you don't go up too far you'll still be in coach. It's easy to find a car with business class seats in coach, and then you'll be in for a nice, comfortable ride on the cheap.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Looked down this little street in Boston and just liked the color of the sky. The shot actually came out pretty much crap but I was able to rescue it with a few tweaks in the RAW conversion and some noise reduction. (I've still got some blown highlights, but I can live with them.) Still probably not my favorite shot, but I think I impress myself more when I manage to make something out of nothing than when I get lucky with a photo that's perfect straight out of the camera.

New car!

I'm busy right now writing a two-part trip report on our recent weekend in Boston (one part on the trains, the other mostly on the city and food), but until then, content yourselves with a shot of our new car:

It's a 2006 PT Cruiser. Brand new from the factory, custom-built for us, exactly zero miles on the odometer when we got it (and only 24 at the moment). We wanted something that would both help us move cargo around but also be small enough to drive around the city... not to mention cheap. The dealer actually made a few mistakes so we ended up getting it below cost (they gave us things like an auto trans and a $150 option paint job for free). Less than $15k!

I actually like the exterior styling of the '05 better but we didn't have a choice at the time we bought. I do like the interior of the '06 better, and the '06 also has stuff like power door locks standard (they were optional on the '05, and they cost $1,000 extra!). One of the things I'm really happy about is the regular old "aux" input on the radio - so rare to find these days, but so useful now that everybody's got iPods! As far as I know, this is also new to the '06 model. No, it's not real iPod control on the radio itself, but who cares? It's a little 5 cent part that lets me directly hook up my 'Pod and listen to tunes, and it's one of the only cars on the market that offers it standard, in any price range or class.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Trying a new way of posting this time...

This is the view outside my office window. I took it as a total throwaway image out of boredom (my internet connection was down today, and I couldn't do any work), but I actually like the way it turned out. I even like the window reflections. (And yeah, I know the corners are not completely straight...) Eh, what do I know...

Monday, October 31, 2005

I'd better post this before I change my mind - I'm playing around with a new lens and thought this came out kinda nice. Just four bottles sitting on a shelf in my apartment.

If you look at the photo of the tracks a few shots down, this was taken at the same spot looking in the opposite direction. This was part of the Sunnyside yards in Queens, NYC, and at the time this area was pretty derelict. It's hard to tell from this photo (and I wish I could have gotten closer) but the trains here were literally falling over, some of the cars were derailed, and all of them were covered in graffiti. It was really pretty cool. It's only been about five years since then but this whole area now has been completely cleaned up.

(By the way, if you look way off in the distance, near the center of the photo, you can see the World Trade Center.)

I'm posting these old photos because I feel like I'm sort of stuck in a rut right now. I have a lot of newer photos that I want to post but I just can't bring myself to hit that "submit" button - the more I stare at my photos, the less I like them. I've even gotten so far as typing up a submission for a photo and then said "nah" and cancelled at the last minute. I guess it's the photographer's equivalent of writer's block. I never really intended this blog to be only new photos but instead to be a mix of everything I've ever done, but until I get over this I'll probably just keep posting some of these old standbys from my collection.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

This is not the most artistic photo, but I just think it's really cute.

Friday, October 21, 2005

This was taken near my office. I work near Times Square. (Watch for the obligatory Times Square panorama shot any day now!)

I just re-uploaded the big version of this photo to my own server, so even if you clicked through before you might want to do so again to get a cleaner look.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I just liked the light on this one, and the pattern...

BlogSpot is compressing the hell out of this photo - it looks slightly better if you view the full size version, though even that's questionable. Oh well.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

This place no longer exists. It is now a grass field.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Web stats

So I've got this video game collection site that's pretty popular. And I've been keeping tabs on the stats of the visitors it gets. I thought some of you might like to see them, especially if you're thinking about putting up your own site and wondering how you should go about designing it. In my experience it's hard to come by real usage numbers for stuff like resolutions, javascript versions, operating systems, etc. on the net, so maybe this will help some of you and maybe others will just find it interesting.

These stats are over a seven month period.

Hits Browser

49609 Mozilla Firefox
30885 Internet Explorer 6
654 Internet Explorer 5
486 Internet Explorer 5.5
434 Opera 7
84 Gecko
62 Internet Explorer 3
48 Opera 6
1836 Unknown (my bet is most of these are Safari)

Hits Operating System
66297 Windows XP
6119 Windows 2000
4020 Mac Power PC
2525 Windows 98
1929 Linux
1106 Windows ME
371 Windows NT
54 Windows 95
34 FreeBSD
17 WebTV
9 Sun
1617 Unknown

Hits Resolution
42352 1024x768
15855 1280x1024
8842 800x600
5277 1152x864
2552 1600x1200
2073 1280x800
1246 1280x960
942 1400x1050
626 1280x854
544 1440x900
523 1680x1050
455 1920x1200
399 1280x768
120 1152x768
118 640x480
115 3200x1200
65 2560x1024
64 1280x720
59 1152x870
50 1600x1024
36 2048x768
33 1344x840
28 1152x900
27 1360x1024
25 1024x1280
24 1088x612
17 560x420
14 2304x864
11 2048x1536
11 1920x1440
10 1024x819
10 1050x1400
5 832x624
4 1024x600
3 480x272
3 1200x1600
3 960x600
2 1800x1440
2 1536x960
2 768x1024
2 1152x720
2 1200x900
1 1152x921
1 2560x1600
1 960x720
1 240x320
1 2560x960
1 1368x768
1 1776x1000
1 1792x1344
1539 Unknown

76335 JavaScript Enabled
7763 JavaScript Disabled

Visitors JavaScript Version
80494 JavaScript 1.6
1622 JavaScript 1.3
62 JavaScript 1.0
1920 Unknown

Hits Search Engine

(Obviously those numbers are pretty low in general because most people who come to my site aren't being referred by a search engine.)

Hits Country
36472 Network
17755 US Commercial
2788 US Educational
2757 Canada
2044 United Kingdom
1339 Australia
1310 Netherlands
901 Germany
871 Mexico
772 Brazil
728 France
716 Non-Profit Organization
505 Belgium
452 Italy
451 Portugal
444 United States
444 Finland
437 Sweden
421 US Military
273 Switzerland
243 Argentina
240 Denmark
211 Poland
173 Turkey
138 Hungary
137 Japan
123 New Zealand
114 Norway
112 Israel
104 Singapore
103 US Government
88 Austria
88 Thailand
77 Estonia
67 Greece
60 Colombia
58 Spain
58 Peru
51 Chile
48 Yugoslavia
48 Saudi Arabia
42 Czech Republic
41 Croatia
40 Malaysia
39 Malta
38 Honduras
30 Romania
27 Uruguay
25 Qatar
23 India
9572 Unknown

Hits Language
69945 English
2189 Spanish
2053 French
1740 German
1351 Portuguese
1313 Dutch
588 Swedish
553 Italian
243 Polish
212 Finnish
173 Hungarian
172 Japanese
132 Danish
129 Turkish
118 Chinese
105 Norwegian
85 Arabic
84 Bulgarian
72 Korean
72 Hebrew
69 Greek
58 Russian
41 Czech
33 Interlingue
33 Thai
22 Croatian
7 Slovak
6 Catalan
4 Slovenian
3 Maltese
3 Romanian
2 Lithuanian
2 Armenian
1 Indonesian
1 Ukrainian
1 Malay
1 Persian
1 Latvian
2481 Unknown

Surprised by the number of Firefox users? I'm not. (For what it's worth, I did cross-check with two stat counters and I also spot-checked the raw logs to make sure these numbers were correct.) Technically Firefox has around a 10% market share but it's like the whole AOL thing... sure, IE has this huge market share, but do you honestly know anybody other than your parents that really uses it on a daily basis? IE is one of those things that people use until they know better. I think if you've got any sort of site that's off the beaten path (i.e. a site that people need to look for one way or another, be it through a search engine or forum link or whatever), most of the users you're going to get will be running Firefox. So you've got to, got to, got to test for it when you're designing your site. I test primarily on Firefox and then just open up IE to make sure everything works... but my site does look a tiny bit better on Firefox than on IE (mostly due to font issues).

Some of the resolutions I see in that list are pretty interesting. 480x272 is likely someone browsing my site with a Sony PSP, for example. 3200x1200, 2304x864, 2048x768 and 2560x1024 are all dual-monitor configurations. And there's a surprising number of people still stuck at 800x600, but you know what? It's time for them to upgrade. I don't really consider that resolution when I put a site together anymore - there's only so far you can realistically go to satisfy the lowest common denominator.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

MySpace and Mixi community sites

Lately I've been wrestling with some extreme boredom as my wife works nights, and like any modern-day geek I've turned to the interweb for salvation. I'm probably a bit late to the party but I signed up with the gi-normous community site MySpace a month or two back, joining the ranks of the approximately 27 million other hopelessly young and immature teenage morons and idiots who like to "pretty up" their profile pages with the gaudiest, ugliest graphics and sounds they can find in an ode to web design faux-pas circa 1996. Maybe I'm just getting old, but it's a site like this - with a median age of about 16, a median IQ of about 65 and a hopelessly small age distribution curve - that will eventually force me to admit that the future of our country is doomed.

Yes, it took me about five minutes to get utterly sick of this site. Now, it is true that MySpace has grown so popular that you can literally meet people from practically anywhere in the world, and there's something to be said for that. And once you venture off the beaten path and actually seek out those beyond our borders, you will meet more normal people than you'll ever find in the high schools or malls of America. The problem is these people, like me, seem to get sick of MySpace real fast, and once you start to build up a little circle of friends you'll likely find it disappearing just as quickly as the normals drop off from lack of interest. Unless you just fill up your friends' space with a bunch of random jerks in a vain attempt at being the "most popular on MySpace!" like most people do. MySpace boasts a huge number of members and just looking through the profile pages will confirm that, but dig a little deeper and consider how many of those people haven't logged on in months and the story is a little different.

It's also a site that anybody can join, so probably a large minority (if not a majority) of its members are someone other than who they say they are. Sure you're talking to that hot 18 year old with a picture of herself spreading wide? How naive can you be? Heck, I had Natalie Portman ask me to be her MySpace friend. Real? Possible, I guess... likely? No.

Now, as we all know, everything's better in Japan. After slugging it out in the ghetto of MySpace for a while, my wife sent me an invite to Mixi, the better, stronger, faster Japanese equivalent. Mixi is an invite-only service - sorry, my fellow dumbass Americans, if you want to join you'll just have to make a real Japanese friend somewhere. Most people on Mixi have their real friends as their Mixi friends for this reason. It's a nicer place, with more thoughtful people, and the age range is a bit wider. It doesn't technically have as many members as MySpace, but I've still managed twice as many profile views there as I ever got on MySpace, in half the time. Who knew?

Mixi does have English-only communities and it does have both westerners and English-speaking Japanese as members. So it's not inaccessible for a foreigner. It just takes an invite...

To sum up -

MySpace: big and stupid. Typically American.
Mixi: smaller but smarter and more fun. Just what you'd expect from the Japanese.

Update: This post has been getting a sizable (and growing) number of hits from people coming in through Google searches. That's great, but please don't ask me for a Mixi invite either in the comments here or by email. I'm not going to delete them or anything like that - I believe in free speech (mostly) - but I'm not going to give you an invite. Think about it - everybody on Mixi was invited by somebody, which means everybody on Mixi knows who on any given profile page was invited by that person. That means that, unlike MySpace, people with lists of random "friends", who may or may not be behaving well on the site, are viewed quite negatively by others on the site. Given that most of my Mixi friends are real-life friends (one of the benefits of an invite-only system), and that their friends are also real-life friends of mine, I am not interested in having a stigma attached to my Mixi profile.

So, while I can appreciate your interest in Mixi, and I might have even been responsible for stoking the fire a bit with this post, you'll have to find an invite elsewhere. Sorry.

I found these metal handprints embedded in the sidewalk down in lower Manhattan. Just one of those random New York things...

Monday, September 19, 2005

You might recognize this area from the photo below it. I really love this picture, actually; it is just so New York in so many ways.

I shot this RAW, as I usually do, and it was a real challenge pulling anything useful from it. A shot like this is a real test of a digital camera's dynamic range, and the original values used by the camera for the exposure resulted in a photo that was over-exposed on the window scene and under-exposed for the interior of the train car. I had to perform some pretty extreme adjustments in the RAW conversion to end up with this. I think I did a pretty decent job, though I'm obviously keeping the RAW file around in case I feel like revisiting it later - I'm never sure if anything is really the best I can do.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

This was taken tonight, 9/11. This is the "Tribute in Light" that has become a traditional yearly memorial to the twin towers. I was about 5 miles away when I took this picture. Sorry, no clickable larger image this time - the original was too noisy; it's not worth seeing at a larger size. I was shooting handheld so using high ISOs - I wouldn't even be posting this if not for the subject matter.

Photos of this tribute do not do it justice. It's really amazing to see these two beams of light stretching up into the sky as far as the eye can see...

A brief interlude...

Today is 9/11. In 2001, I didn't have a very good camera - just a 1.2 megapixel Fujifilm MX-1200, which was among the earliest generations of digital cameras. It was capable of taking decent shots (see the Chiba Marine Stadium shot a bit further down the page), but it had its definite limitations.

Anyway, the point is this is the camera I had on hand on 9/11/01 and in the days after. I took some photos and eventually put them up the following year on my old Geocities page. They're still there, if you want to see them, as my own little memorial.

The page is here.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

I'm not sure if I like this photo or not. It's emotional, but does it stand on its own as a photo? I really don't know - as someone who lived through 9/11 I'm not that good at separating the emotion from the technical elements. I think the DOF effect might be a little extreme, though. I have a series of these, maybe I'll post a couple others somewhere down the line.

Monday, September 05, 2005

One more...

These are both from Bowl-Mor Lanes here in NYC, taken yesterday. I couldn't decide which one I liked better so I'm posting both. The second shot has a weird reflection on one of the pins, I know (it's actually a light reflecting on the glass case) - I could Photoshop it out but just didn't take the time to do it. I actually think I might like that shot a little better anyway, but the longer shot has a lot more going on in it. So I go back and forth.

Blogger seems to have some issues with compressing both of these photos - I'm linking to Flickr for the big ones this time, as it seems to do a little better job (still not very clean, though). The Flickr images are pretty large, so you may need to resize the photos if your browser squishes them.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Chiba Marine Stadium at dusk (or was it dawn?). Shot with an early 1.2 megapixel digital camera and not retouched at all.

Comments are welcome...

I know nobody wants to be the one to break the ice, but don't be shy - I left the comments switched on purposefully.

I do see that I'm getting visitors here, so don't be afraid to tell me what you think of my stuff. I reserve the right to delete anything I personally find offensive, but generally that will not include constructive criticism.

New photos coming in a day or two...

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Canon's Rebel XT - a long-term report

Canon's been churning out crazy SLR's on the low end ever since their introduction of the original Rebel back in the 1980's. Sort of the Sony of the camera biz, Canon always seems to find a way to pack high-end features into cheap bodies that almost anyone can afford.

I owned a Rebel 2000 for this reason, and have been waiting patiently ever since for Canon to release a DSLR with all the features that I wanted for under $1,000. That camera is the Rebel XT.

8 megapixels, true RAW+JPG support, DIGIC II processor, 35 zone metering, custom functions, bulb mode, independently selectable color space, non-crippled firmware (vs. its older brother), I mean everything an amateur shooter could want is in there, with none of the issues the original Digital Rebel had. I knew I had to have one.

I've now owned my Rebel XT for around three months, so you can consider this sort of a long-term test report versus an actual review. I'd recommend reading through the excellent writeup at DPReview for the all-important initial review and formal testing - it's very thorough and informative, as DPR always is. But as is usually the case, various issues - both good and bad - will make themselves apparent over time as opposed to on initial testing. So hopefully you can glean some useful info out of this report as well. (Feel free to ask further questions in the comments section - I will respond there.)

First, here are a couple sample photos I've taken so far with my Rebel XT (extra compression courtesy of Flickr - the originals are clean):

You can check out more as I post them at my photo blog site Doubleperf. Overall, I find the image quality to be excellent, with extremely low noise, very good dynamic range (though not quite equal to film), and no visible artifacts of any kind in either RAW or jpg modes.

I recommend doing a real camera test after buying any new camera body - don't just start shooting with it, do some more rigorous testing to make sure both that your camera is not defective in any way, and that its performance is satisfactory to you (building cameras and lenses is not an exact science, and no two are ever exactly alike). The first two things I did with my XT were the hot pixel test and the focus test. The camera passed the focus test with flying colors - you can see the results here. If you'd like to run this test yourself, you can download the instructions and the form to print out here. Nevermind that it says it's for the Nikon D70 - it will work with any camera.

The results of my hot pixel test were more interesting. Hot pixels are a point of contention in the digital camera world, but the bottom line is every camera has at least a few. Every single one, whether you see them or not. This does not mean all cameras are created equally - compare DPR's 30 second exposure test of the Rebel XT vs. the same shot taken with the Olympus E-300. (You'll probably need to refresh your browser after clicking those links.) Yet even in the Rebel XT test, in which review Phil Askey says he sees "no evidence" of hot pixels, I count at least three in the sky alone, with probably more masked by the ground lights.

What is a hot pixel? It is simply a transistor on the camera sensor that gets overcharged when exposed to light for longer than normal periods of time. There are also "stuck" pixels (which are usually a bigger problem), which will be the same color in your photos no matter what. With 8 million tiny transistors in the Rebel XT's sensor, you would have to be exceedingly lucky not to have a few performing slightly out of spec. But the fact is in almost all cases they should not be noticeable, and in cases where they are (such as long exposures), noise reduction will usually take care of them.

It is possible to have what some might consider an excessive number of hot pixels, however; or you may have hot pixels that are visible nearly all the time. This would probably be unacceptable to most photographers. The way to test your camera for this is to take a 25 second exposure at the lowest possible ISO setting with the lens cap on. You'll get a black frame, free of sensor gain noise, and you'll pretty easily see any hot or stuck pixels.

In my case, shooting in jpg mode I saw only one, very faintly, but near the center of the frame. Its location was annoying, but I did some further real-world tests and it never showed up. In RAW mode, I originally saw about eight or so hot pixels, and the one near the center was brighter than the jpg version, but somehow the second time I connected up my camera these all started getting "mapped out". This was true of both Photoshop CS2 and Canon's own applications. I can see it happen, too - I'll see the hot pixels for a second, and then poof. They're gone. So clearly I do have around eight or so mis-behaving transistors, but in jpg mode the in-camera processor seems to kill all but one, and in RAW mode the RAW processors manage to get them all. (This is probably why the people that claim to have no hot pixels think that - I'm sure they do, they just never actually saw them.)

Now, in terms of actual operation, I'm quite pleased with the Rebel XT, but with a few caveats. It is small and light, yes - bordering on too small. My right hand "overhangs" the grip a bit, and there is so little space between the grip and the lens mount that I almost always scrape my fingernails against the mount. No big deal, you say, except that there's something about the finish of this camera that literally grinds fingernails down. It feels like an emory board. So by the end of a day of shooting, my camera body is almost always covered in this white fingernail dust. Not a deal-breaker, but annoying to have to constantly clean off.

The Rebel XT has all of the controls you would expect a decent SLR to have, and it feels pretty meaty for a camera in its price range. People do argue about whether one camera or another has better build quality, but the fact of the matter is all cheap DSLR's are made of various types of plastic and they will all break if you drop them from eye height onto concrete. So, don't do that. Otherwise, though, the Rebel XT has a satisfying metal mode dial that locks firmly into position, and an almost too-robust shift dial for selecting things like focus points and program shift. It offers a lot of resistance - maybe too much - but feels like it would be impossible to wear out. The camera itself is built on a metal frame, and it has a metal lens mount. It has a satisfying heft to it and while I've heard some say otherwise about their Rebel XT's, my particular camera has no flex at all. It feels well built.

The back-of-camera controls and displays are a bit of a mixed bag, but they're basically fine, with one major annoyance that becomes more pronounced the longer you use the camera. Because of the Rebel XT's size, the status LCD is located on the back of the camera rather than on the top, like most. For me, this is not ideal, as I find I look at this screen most often just prior to starting shooting, when the camera is more at waist-level. Canon obviously thought most people would look at this info with the camera at eye level. Maybe they're right, but I'm used to the way other cameras work.

The bigger issue, though, is that the ISO is not displayed on the status LCD. This is just stupidity. It's my one real gripe with the design of this camera - nothing else I've said is really a major issue, but this just boggles my mind. Even my seven year old Rebel 2000 had this. Even full manual cameras 50 years or older had a little dial where you'd set the ISO and be able to see it at all times. This is pocket-camera territory here - why would Canon think photographers would not want to see their selected ISO? Ok, it is true that you can hit the "ISO" button on the back of the camera and see it immediately, but even that design has a bit of an ergonomic faux-pas, as rather than simply showing you the ISO, it shows you the entire list of ISO's with a small arrow next to the one you've selected. This can be difficult to see in bright sunlight.

I've been tripped up by this a bunch of times. I shot an entire series of photos at the Hayden Planetarium here in NYC in bright daylight at ISO 800, for example, because I forgot that I'd set that for the interior museum shots I had taken and there was no obvious camera display to let me know. (This was really my fault, but it would not have happened had the display on the camera been better designed.) I just have not seen a serious camera in many years that does not display the ISO setting by default.

A lot has been made in various forums about the Rebel XT's menu system, specifically the fact that the ISO, white balance, metering and auto-focus controls are simply hot-links to menu items rather than dedicated buttons. Myself, I don't see the issue with this. For example, to change the ISO on most cameras you either repeatedly press a single dedicated button to get the ISO you want or you press a button and turn the mode dial. On the Rebel XT, you press the ISO button and then press either up or down to change the ISO. In the end, it's no more difficult to make the selection by the Rebel XT's method, so I have no problem with this. The rest of the menu system is Canon's standard menuing system that's carried over from their entire camera lineup, so no real surprises there.

Technically speaking, the Rebel XT has done everything I could have wanted it to do for the price I (really, my wife!) paid for it - its image quality is excellent, it's lightning-fast, it's extremely versatile, and the only function I've found myself missing at all is spot metering. (It does have partial metering, but this is not quite as good as spot.) But what about the intangibles? Photographers like to think about cameras as an extension of themselves - the trick is for the camera to act intuitively, in a way that the photographer simply expects. The camera should never get in the way of a good photo.

After three or so months, I honestly can't say I've completely "bonded" with this camera yet. It may still be simply the effects of getting used to a digital SLR, but I'm not sure. Neither digital photography nor SLR photography are new concepts to me, but putting both together is more of a challenge than it seems. The ISO (non) display issue continues to trip me up, I've yet to fix upon an AF/AE button combination that I feel comfortable with (this is selectable as a custom function), and I still fairly often find myself either fumbling with the camera's settings before taking a shot, or missing a shot because I had various settings wrong.

Now, DSLR's are inherently complex to the point that every one of them will always require a certain amount of practice and learning. So I'm not at all worried about this yet, but it's something for anyone new to or unfamiliar with the world of DSLR's to consider before buying. If you're afraid of a learning curve, or if you think you're the kind of person to simply leave the camera set on "auto" all the time, you may as well save some money and go with a prosumer model with a built-in lens.

Which brings me to my last point - the kit lens. I sold all of my old Canon lenses a while back, so I decided to start out with the kit lens when I went for the Rebel XT. I must say I've been pleasantly surprised at its quality. Used properly, it is a cheap, versatile lens that will give you sharp results. Here's a little informal test of sharpness I did with the kit lens, auto-focused and set on a tripod:

Pardon my dust and shallow depth of field, but that looks pretty good to me!

Of course, the Rebel XT will accept any EF or EF-S lens in Canon's lineup, so you've got a lot of choices. But there's nothing to complain about with the kit lens, especially given the $100 premium you're paying for it. That's not a lot for a decent lens.

Questions, comments, I'd be glad to hear them.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Pretty pictures!

Some of you may know that I'm somewhat of an amateur photographer. I've just started up a photo blog to show off some of my photos. Yeah yeah, I'm using the same Blogger template - I'll probably be changing the one here, actually (photos just look better on black).

Some of the photos you're going to see there were taken with my fairly new Canon Digital Rebel XT, which I'll be writing up a bit about over the next couple days. It's not like you can't find real reviews out there for this camera, but in my experience, some good old-fashioned long-term hands-on reports from end-users (that's four hyphens in five terms, if you're counting) can be both an interesting supplement and a good source of info for your research.

Look for that post in a day or two.

(Have I abandoned my four-part Windows Media Center series? Well, no, but will I ever complete it? That's a different question.)

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A reflection of the World Trade Center in the rain.

I've shown this photo elsewhere and it usually gets a strong reaction. Some people call it "exploitive", which seems odd to me. This was taken in around 1996, when the twin towers were just two great buildings that I worked near and I liked the reflection in the rain, with the texture of the rainwater and the rain drops.

All four photos I've posted so far have been silhouettes - I'll mix it up a bit with the next batch.

The underside of the N line subway train in New York.

A cloudy mountain sunrise in the northern American Rockies.

This was completely unintended but I guess it's sort of interesting to me that this photo has the exact same elements and composition as the one below, but in a completely different setting.

The view towards Manhattan from the Queensboro Plaza subway station.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Puffy AmiYumi - New York, August 18, 2005

Post Moved!

This post now resides at my Puffy-dedicated blog amiyumidas. Please click here to be taken directly to the post. If you're interested in Puffy, you may want to browse around a bit while you're there - I've got a lot of cool stuff.

Please update your bookmarks.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Media Center 2005 Part One: Know Thyself (and Thy Home Theater PC)

It's been some time since my last real tech-related post, but that's because I've been giving some love to what's morphed into my Media Center PC. To refresh your memory, it still looks like this:

This thing has been taking up a fair bit of my time lately, which is both good and bad. Home Theater PC's are hot these days and since Microsoft released Windows Media Center 2005 as a standalone OEM product, I know a lot of you out there are doing what I'm doing and rolling your own. So I thought I'd rock your world a little bit and share some of the insights and some of the pitfalls I've experienced in building a (mostly) functional MCE-based PC. Originally intended as one single post, I've apparently just gleaned so much knowledge over the past few months that it now requires a multi-parter. Welcome to Part One: Know Thyself (and Thy Home Theater PC). Consider this a basic introduction to the concept of a home theater PC - in subsequent posts, I'll be doling out specific recommendations and other useful info for you to jot down on post-it notes suitable for sticking on various objects around your home.

What is a "Home Theater PC"? It can be different things to different people - hence this here post. Generally speaking, a Home Theater PC, or HTPC for short, is used to deliver some form of visual media content to a display device in a living room setting. Many people have HTPC's dedicated to progressive-scan DVD playback. Others use theirs to watch HDTV or SDTV, or both. Some use theirs to also play music and games.

The first question you'd probably ask is "why?" (I know that because it's the first question I asked.) Why not just use a standalone DVD player, why not just use a cable company-provided DVR? Why not just play games on your PS2 or Xbox? These are all questions with different answers for most people, but I think what it usually boils down to is a combination of quality and convenience. With an HTPC, you combine many components into one - you clear away a mess of wires, cut your electricity bill and reduce that jumble of remote controls. You also gain more control over the process of watching content, and can upgrade your system's capabilities over time (unlike a DVD player, which must simply be replaced when new technology supercedes it). And don't even get me started on cable company-provided DVR's - the only reasonable alternative to an HTPC for DVR functionality is TiVo or ReplayTV, but these are feature-limited and will reduce your picture quality. At any given point in time, you will likely get better quality picture and sound at greater convenience with an HTPC than with mid-priced separate A/V components. The only thing you need in your home theater system (other than the PC) is some sort of amplifier.

So you decide an HTPC is for you - how do you approach putting one together? The first thing you need to do is focus, focus, focus. This is true of anything in life, really, but it should be a mantra - print it on a poster, hang it up on your wall. Put it on one of those motivational calendars. FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS. What do you want this PC to do? Be specific. Know your needs, and decide whether there's anything you might want to add later. This is extremely important, because an HTPC is not just a desktop PC that also plays DVD's. It can be if that's all you want, but you need to ask yourself some hard questions, because there are always tradeoffs involved, and pros and cons to any decision you make. "What do I want to do?" Watch DVD's, watch TV, record TV? SDTV or HDTV or both? What about music and photos? What about gaming? What sort of display am I going to want to use? Will this PC be on 24/7? Do I want to do additional tasks like video capture and compression and/or video editing? Do I want to do common desktop tasks as well? What home theater software will I be using? And how important is expandability? Or home theater aesthetics?

The answers to these questions will guide what hardware and software you need, and whether or not you even really want Media Center or a competing product that may excel in one particular area where MCE does not.

In my case, functionality and expandability were key, but at the same time, I wanted a PC I could live with. I wanted near-silence, and I wanted to be able to leave the thing on 24/7 without worry. I wanted to watch SDTV with TiVo-like PVR functionality and have HD capability (I don't yet have an HD set, but I can still watch it on my old TV through the PC, and I'll have an HDTV eventually). I wanted to do video capture and editing, though I don't need to use this machine as a desktop. I wanted a music jukebox too. In short, I wanted a multimedia powerhouse, with room to grow, but in a form that's unobtrusive and invisible in daily use, and that would be utterly stable and worry-free.

I'm still not quite there yet, but I'm getting close.

Now, you may recall that I already had an XP Pro-based PC built out of old hand-me-down components (the one pictured above), which I was successfully using as both an iTunes jukebox/server and for dumb video capture and encoding - though it was so slow that encoding needed to be done overnight.

But TiVo pissed me off one too many times with their bugginess, their useless "TiVoToGo" non-feature, their subscription fees and their pop-up ads, and I decided it was time for a change.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Amagasaki Derailment

I wanted to just say something quickly about the recent derailment in Japan, which has apparently killed more than 100 people.

Japan has probably the most modern, technologically advanced and efficient train system in the world. Japan itself is an advanced society and culture with a rich history and great people - people who have made some mistakes in the past, yes, but by and large these days it is a peaceful country that has a sense of innocence about it that's long gone from America. I love it there; I love the country and the people.

I've ridden Japan's trains. I've ridden the shinkansen (colloquially known as "bullet trains" in the west), I've ridden the subways, and I've ridden commuter trains like the one that derailed in Amagasaki, near Osaka. I've ridden them with my wife (who is Japanese), I've ridden them with friends, and I've ridden them alone.

So I feel maybe unusually affected by this event for somebody who is an American, with no direct ties to any of the victims. It still hurts me to read some of the things I've read (and unsurprisingly, Japanese news sites have a lot more info about this accident than American ones), and to see some of the images I've seen - especially images like this one or this one, which are often censored from public consumption in the west. (Mainichi has an English-language photo site with some larger photos here.) The Japanese place more importance on seeing the human cost of tragedies like this than we do. This was not simply a tangle of metal and statistics - these are real people with families and friends and lives to live. People who just minutes before were quietly chatting on cell phones (with their mouths covered, as the Japanese do), talking with their buddies about the upcoming school day, or catching one last nap before work.

I think what really sort of gets to me is just how random something like this is. You can live in one of the safest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, doing something you do every single day, that billions of people do every year, and bam!
You're dead. No warning. Nothing you could have done differently.

Of course, this is certainly not the first random act of God (or man) to befall innocent people throughout the world, and I'm certainly aware of that, as someone who watched 9/11 happen from my balcony window before escaping as fast as I could run towards Long Island. I made it through that, but many people didn't.

It's sometimes hard to accept that death can strike at any time, and all we can do is mourn for those who fall prey when it does.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mother of All Monster Posts Coming...

I've got a good reason for my absence lately - I've been messing around with Windows Media Center 2005. I've learned so much useful info through the experience that it's taking me several weeks to write a post worthy of my newfound knowledge. When it comes, it will be a monster. Check back in a few days, if all goes well. (If you don't see it by then, you will know that my very written words have tumbled down from above in a massive cascade of death, burying me forever under the weight of my own thoughts.)

Monday, February 28, 2005

Picasa 2 - Photo Albums Done Right

After finally getting fed up with Adobe's Photoshop Album software last night, I went ahead and downloaded Google's new(ish) Picasa 2 - and I'm so excited about it that I just have to share. It's hard for me to get excited about any software application, but this one does exactly what I want from a photo album app, it looks slick and has a great interface, and by God, it's free.

Most reviewers don't seem to quite understand how people really use these things or why Picasa 2 is so much better than everything else. Let me explain my situation to you. My wife and I own two digital cameras between us, and a decent scanner that I've used to scan a whole mess of older film negatives, which are mostly in tif format. We also have a few RAW photos of our formal wedding pictures. And of course, tons of jpegs from our digicams.

I use Photoshop for heavy editing or retouching, such as I had to do for the RAW wedding photos, which I then organized and printed into a photo book using Shutterfly. Shutterfly's another great service, but I may get into talking about online photo services in another post. Anyway, the problem is while Photoshop is great for heavy retouching work, it has absolutely no capability for cataloging and organizing photos, and it is terrible if all you want to do is something like removing redeye from snapshots. (You can get a plug-in to do it automatically, but you've still gotta take two minutes to launch the app, then find the file, then edit it, then re-save it, which itself is another three step process.)

So a large photo collection demands an album or catalog application. Adobe themselves released Photoshop Album a while back, but it has several problems which, to me, make it basically useless. For one thing, it is not free - itself not a deal-breaker, but definitely an issue when there are free options available. The bigger problem, though, is that with large collections the app takes progressively more and more memory, and demands progressively greater CPU usage, until the point at which it simply chugs to a halt. It is simply a poorly-written application, bloatware of the worst kind. Its sluggishness is unacceptable, and combined with an unintuitive interface (for the life of me, I never could figure out how to view a photo full-size), it makes the program nearly impossible to use.

Enter Picasa 2, which suffers from none of the same problems and includes features I would never expect from a free application. Its red-eye removal algorithm is amazing. It includes several useful filters, and a workable (i.e. not too aggressive) auto-color and auto-contrast function. It includes a search feature, something Photoshop Album lacks, and you can search by both keyword and technical aspects (based on EXIF data). It includes a chronological timeline, like Photoshop Album, but Picasa's the only free app that I know of that does. These are all amazing features. But the thing that just bowls me over, and that would slay almost anybody who knows anything about digital photo editing, is this:

Unlimited undos. Forever.

Not even top-end image editors can do this. Photoshop can't. Photoshop Album sure can't. I don't mean multiple undos until your memory's used up. I mean edit the photo, move on to a different photo, close Picasa, shut down your computer, boot the next day, open up Picasa, move to that photo, and you can still undo everything. You could come back to a photo a year later and still have that undo button lit up.

I'm not sure how it works - I have a feeling it's not actually doing anything to your photos until/unless you export (which is actually good), but this doesn't matter. This application was written to take advantage of the way people actually work, not to force you to adapt to the way your computer stores files and folders on a disk. It's a very Mac way of looking at things, in a PC application. I wouldn't want Photoshop to work this way, but this is not Photoshop. I don't want Photoshop in an image catalog app. I love the way Picasa 2 works. It is great at what it does.

There are so many little things that make Picasa a pleasure as well; just little touches that the developers came up with that show an attention to detail that other applications lack. I love the way, for example, a little progress meter stays on top of my other applications if I'm uploading a large number of photos to Shutterfly through Picasa (so, for example, I can browse the web and still know what's going on with my upload). It's unobtrusive and informative and I'm glad it's there. I love the way scrolling through a catalog works - you can use the standard page-up/page-down keys, but Google has added a custom scroll slider where a normal scrollbar would be that functions more similarly to a gas pedal (the harder you pull it in one direction, the faster the scrolling). For a decent-size collection, this works much better than a standard scrollbar, which is far too imprecise when the content to scroll through is very large.

Picasa 2 supports pretty much every image format under the sun, and a bunch of movie formats too (for cameras that can shoot videos, like mine). It even supports RAW files, which is highly unusual for an app of this type, but a very welcome feature for me.

I cannot recommend this program highly enough. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Apple "updates" the iPod

The world needs another iPod blog like I need a hole in my head, and I'm doing my damndest to ensure that mine doesn't turn into one, but I can't let today's new iPod announcement pass without comment.

As you know, I purchased a 20GB iPod only a few short weeks ago. I'd been reading the latest rumors regarding this update with trepidation since then. I know all about this stuff; I'd visited Thinksecret and Macrumors before taking the plunge, and was self-assured that I'd have at least six months before Apple forced my fourth-generation iPod into obsolescence. But then the rumors picked up, and finally reached a fever pitch yesterday - the entire lineup would receive color screens, the 40GB model would be reduced to $349, bluetooth would be added, direct camera connectors would be standard, and the Mini would receive a bump in capacity. Many began to speculate that this was going to be the generational leap set for later this year, moved up in the calendar.

Lucky for me, and maybe not so lucky for some others, most of the rumors turned out to be false - as is so often the case where Apple's concerned. (Those of us "in the know" about such things will tell you that most of these rumors are PR department plants designed to throw off the scent in case any real info does manage to get out.) The Mini did get both a capacity and a battery boost, though the older 4GB models stay on at a reduced price. There's a new 30GB iPod Photo at the $349 price point, though it does not include the iPod dock (like the 40GB and 60GB models used to), nor does it include a firewire cable - both of which have been removed from the 60GB package too as it drops to $449. The 20GB monochrome-screen model stays on the market at $299.

The end result being that, while the 30GB model seems like a half-decent deal and one I may have considered over my 20GB, the fact that it includes no firewire cable makes it rather useless for me in practice (see my earlier post). In fact, I may have even given up on trying to get the thing to work at all before realizing all I needed to do was buy a firewire cable. (And because current iPods only include the dock connector, an iPod firewire cable is a $20 part, raising the total cost to $370, or actually around $85 more than I paid for my discounted 20GB model). So I'm still reasonably happy I went the direction I did, although if USB actually worked reliably with the iPod, I might feel differently.

For those of you expecting bigger and better things than what we seem to have gotten here, especially after getting smashed over the head repeatedly by the non-stop rumor-mill the past few days, I'm fairly confident the predicted full line refresh will still happen towards late summer and we'll see color screens throughout the line and a new design for the "big" iPod. Depending on the pricing, I may decide to upgrade at that point myself, although we'll see how compelling the upgrade actually is.

I will say that it's sort of lamentable to see Apple removing stuff to lower the price on even the top-end iPods. The entire lineup is slowly losing whatever cachet it's got left. I mean, even at $449 for the 60GB model I still might expect a freakin' dock. Come on, Apple - this is a cheap little piece of plastic with a connector port on it, it can't cost you more than two bucks to make. Do you really want to go this route? Do you really want to try to compete with Sony, Dell, Creative and iRiver based solely on price and capacity? Because you know what happened when you tried to do that with computers in the late 80's and early 90's. You really want to try that again?

I'm just waiting for the day when all iPods ship in those unopenable plastic bubble containers.

Friday, February 18, 2005


So you probably all pretty much know about this by now, but the other day Canon dropped a bomb on the photographic world in the form of this monster:

Click the picture for a link to the press release and some good info on the new sensor (you may also find the images there somehow familiar). DPReview has also posted an in-depth preview that should tell you all you need to know about the camera's specs and capabilities.

Now, I know there are fans of other camera makers out there, and I've personally used and enjoyed cameras and lenses from Pentax, Nikon and others. Canon's certainly not the only name in cameras, but they are sort of the Apple of the photographic world, or perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be a Sony in their heyday. They're just innovative enough to stay ahead of their competitors, their products are always among the most refined available, and they just seem to have a knack for knowing which few extra features will put them over the top, and at what price point are people not only willing to pay, but likely to be bowled over.

They were the first to release a sub-$1,000 digital SLR, and that was the original Digital Rebel (the 300D in Europe, the Kiss Digital in Japan). And that camera sent shockwaves through the industry, just as their original film Rebel had years before. I would argue that the Rebel XT (or 350D, or Kiss n Digital) is even more important, as it's bringing truly top-class features and performance to the sub-$1,000 market. Honestly, this is the camera I've been dreaming of - 8 megapixels, DIGIC II, 3fps continuous shooting with a 14 frame burst mode, flash exposure compensation (Canon listened to their critics on that one), a true RAW+JPG mode, USB 2.0 transfers, 0.2 second startup time, mirror lockup, and a slew of other features. And it's smaller and lighter than the original Digital Rebel.

All this for under a grand, or right at a grand with the kit lens. I'm so all over this it's not even funny. Set for release in late March, I'll probably have one soon after, and without question eventually. This is no "entry level" DSLR, but it's being sold at an entry level price.

I'm posting this not just because I'm interested in this model, but because I encourage any of you now looking at a "prosumer" non-SLR to take a look at the Rebel XT. Prosumer point-and-shoots are pointless cameras to begin with - I don't even understand how they can sell well enough to be profitable - and now with a camera like the Rebel XT soon to be on the market, there is just no excuse to settle for the poor-quality fixed lenses and image sensors these cameras invariably come with.

(By the way, if you're an amateur photographer who's now wondering why the pros spend the big bucks on even more expensive cameras, well, you do get extra features and performance from the truly top end... including things like full-size 35mm image sensors that do away with the field-of-view crop inherent to most DSLR's, higher ISO settings, faster shutter speeds and flash sync speeds, and more. But the Rebel XT looks to be a mid-range camera sold at an entry-level price, and easily the best deal out there in DSLR's. It will raise the bar for what's expected at the sub-$1,000 price point.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Desktop Linux Summit

So the Desktop Linux Summit apparently happened a few days ago and nobody seems to have paid it much mind. This is supposed to be the event that showcases all the progress that those Constitution-burning, anti-copyright communists like Novell and IBM have made in bringing Linux to the unwashed masses who wouldn't know where to even start using an OS without a big green button that says "start". Those limey geeks over at The Register have one of the more in-depth writeups about it, although they don't seem entirely enthusiastic about what went on there. I suppose you can't expect to go from skid row to The Hamptons overnight, but personally I'd have to say desktop Linux is in a far better state than most (including El Reg) seem to give it credit for. If only somebody - anybody - would notice.

I'm taking the liberty of including a few screenshots for illustrative purposes only. Now, I should explain first that eye candy is not what an OS is really about, but as we all know blondes do have more fun, and looks do matter. I will explain these shots - and provide some more substantive arguments in favor of desktop Linux - a bit further down.

The screenshot herewith known as Shot One:

The screenshot herewith known as Shot Two:

Now, ignoring my ridiculous 1024x768 screen resolution (resized to 640x480 for server space), which chunkifies all my desktop objects, there's all sorts of good things happening here. Even three or four years ago, fonts were a major problem on Linux - they aren't anymore. Both KDE and Gnome have progressed to a point where they are quite functional GUI's, offering as many features as you want (or don't want). Files are drag and drop, thumbnail previews are available for most file types, and all major forms of media are supported.

There's also some obvious eye candy going on in these shots, which I've added in myself... true translucency is not a standard feature of either X or KDE (it's built into X but turned off by default), but I like to play around with it, and am showing it here just to illustrate how far the Linux GUI has progressed. Developers are well beyond adding functionality and have now moved on to pure fluff. Actually, that's being harsh - there are practical reasons for desktop translucency. Being able to look underneath windows without having to move them does have its uses.

True translucency is not yet stable on X (though unlike Windows, if the composite module crashes, you simply lose translucency and not your entire OS or even your GUI). "Fake" translucency - where a part of the image below is simply drawn on top of what's above it - is supported, is available via checkbox in the KDE control center, and works fairly well, but is slower and not as clean. Again, though, the point is, the GUI itself works so well now that developers have in large part simply moved on to making things pleasant to look at.

You'll also notice some other niceties in those shots, such as the Karamba themes running on the desktop. For a Windows equivalent you'd have to think of something like MS's "active desktop", although both more limited in scope and narrower in focus, with none of the security or stability concerns of that crap Windows "feature". I think I can go so far as to say that Liquid Weather, which you see running in the bottom right, is about the most useful application of any kind that I've ever seen. And it sure is pretty. (The skin I'm using is just one of many - I have it set to a muted palette to blend in with whatever my constantly-changing desktop background is). Karamba makes heavy use of translucency effects, with no noticeable performance hit. This is advanced stuff, though - most users will not apply these customizations, but it's nice to know you can. A Linux desktop is whatever you want it to be.

I'm tempted to go beyond the GUI and talk a little about the underlying OS, but honestly, on the desktop it's the GUI that makes all the difference. A lot of people are still afraid of Linux because they associate it with command line interfaces - I can honestly say that since installing SUSE 9.2, there is not a single case when I have ever been forced to use the command line. Installing software is a one-click process, and running applications works exactly the same as Windows or Mac, for better or worse. (In fact, one thing I dislike about KDE and Gnome is that their default taskbars encourage you to close your apps when done with them - this is not the right way to use a PC, and it's only because of Windows' instability and security issues that we've been brainwashed into doing it. The Mac does a better job with its dock, which encourages you to leave all of your commonly-used applications open at all times - a much more efficient way to work.)

And obviously, Linux makes a better desktop OS because it's more secure. Honestly, I'm not sure how anyone can advocate using Windows knowing just how many zombie machines there are out there; how many virus-infected, spyware-infected, or other malware-infected PC's exist on this planet. It's ludicrous, and yes, this affects "grandma" way more than it does more experienced users. Windows has trained us that fully-updated anti-virus and anti-spyware applications are necessary components to security, which they are not if your OS is written properly to begin with.

What desktop Linux is missing is commercial application support, and for that reason alone I keep Windows on all of my machines and dual-boot when I have to. It sucks having to do it, but I play games and I use Adobe and Macromedia products - I have no real choice, as is true for a lot of others as well. I'd love to ditch Windows, but until the applications I want to run are supported on it, I can't, and application developers have no incentive to port to Linux as long as even the early adopters continue to run Windows. Chicken, meet egg.

But the OS itself is so there. And not just for the "freak mainstream", as The Register apparently likes to refer to half-nerds like myself. It's your grandma's OS, right now. Just as long as your grandma ain't gonna be playing no Half Life 2.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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