Archive for December, 2007

HD DVD: End of Week 1

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

It has now been nearly a week since we added an HD DVD player to the home entertainment system.

Some impressions.

We watched Serenity this evening. It is visually stunning. I’m sure the audio is pretty amazing, too, but I don’t currently have the 5.1 pre-amp / speakers hooked up.

By “visually stunning”, I mean: It looks better than it did in the theater. As an added bonus, I make better popcorn, have vastly superior beverages for far less money, and can watch a visually stunning movie while sitting in front of a fire.

No wonder the theaters are running scared. Hell — we paid $19 for Serenity on HD DVD which, accounting for the evening’s expense, is about 1/3rd to 1/5th the cost of actually going to a theater (depending on babysitting expenses).

Anyway — HD DVD really delivers in terms of the visuals when paired with a decent TV; 46″ 1080p Sony LCD, in my case.

The Planet Earth really drives it home. I have watched it on DVD, via Satellite, and on HD DVD. At 1080p, The Planet Earth is an awesome — a moving — tour of the awesome breadth of life on this planet.

As well, we watched the remastered HD DVD version of Blazing Saddles. The difference between it and the DVD is quite noticeable, but mostly in that HD DVD so clearly displays the noise and imperfections found in the original production process.

And, of course, if the discs do so, the extras on HD DVD can be considerably richer and more deeply integrated with the primary content than regular DVDs. Speaking of regular DVDs, the player does an awesome job of upscaling legacy content (though, honestly, I have no idea how it compares to the various $30 to $70 upscaling DVD players that are commonplace these days).

And that is pretty much where the happiness ends. Click on through for a bit of a rant on the vasty stupidity that is next generation media….
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Peggle.

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Apparently, Peggle is the top selling game at PopCap games.

I gave the demo a try — I dig puzzle games.

As far as I can tell, it is basicaly a really well presented simulation of pachinko with about an order of magnitude more control over how the ball is put in play.

Completing any of the levels beyond the initial set basically boils down to luck.

The brilliant bit is that the game is implemented such that luck and skill are nearly indistinguishable. Failure begets success by simply repeating non-stupid shots and the luck of the board layout. On any given shot, skill lasts about two bounces or so and then luck takes over.

It is really quite the brilliant bit of balance that anyone who pays attention to either user experience or industrial design (in the HCI sense) should pay attention to.

Regardless of the delicious implementation and even at 50% off, I still can’t see this game being worth $10 ($20 normally).

Of course, I don’t find slot machines at all entertaining either.

In the comments, Robert added a link to the Zero Punctuation review of Peggle. Spot on and brilliant, as well.

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007
The Christmas Table

Christine’s parents are in town and for Christmas Eve, we decided to do a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner.

My mother-in-law Ann is a fantastic cook who has a wide range of italian delicacies mastered. Christine and Ann put together a rough menu. Ann and I then obtained most of the fishes from the farmer’s market, along with a number of necessary accoutrements.

Click on through for the full menu, in order, with pictures and descriptions.

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Happy Festivus

Monday, December 24th, 2007
Janis Joplin Opens a Present Early

Janis Joplin — our lovely and mischevious dog — reminded us that today was Festivus by picking a present from under the tree and opening it.

Not terribly coincidental, it was the package that my Mom sent that contained a loaf of her amazing stollen.

Bad dog.

But, Happy Festivus! May your poles remain shiny and straight… may your grievances be well received (and other’s grievances with you be small)… and may you dominate in your feats of strength!

It happens to also be our 12th wedding anniversary today. Christine and I were joined by her parents at Sent Sovi for an amazing multicourse meal coupled with some excellent wines. Delicious.


HD DVD

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

After watching the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD competition for a bit, I decided it was time to pull the trigger and add an HD disc player to the home entertainment system.

I chose the Toshiba HD-A30 1080p HD DVD player as it was relatively cheap at $232, in stock (the A35 was not), it can do 1080p, and the reviews are solid. Coincidentally, like my TV, the player came with a copy of the GPL license and is running Linux (can’t find the download link, though).

Overall, HD DVD is a cheaper, simpler, format and the spec is actually complete. Blu-ray seems to be mired in incompleteness and disagreements amongst the consortium behind it. And the players are more expensive ($100 price different between entry level HD DVD and BluRay players).

At this point, it seems unlikely that Blu-Ray will “win”. Even if it does, there is enough critical mass of content on HD DVD, that I won’t run out of content any time soon. As well, I’m certain that the lifespan of this generation of high-def optical discs is limited, to be replaced in the next five years by a shift to online delivery of high definition content. Discs are inconvenient and fragile.

I also picked up The Planet Earth [HD DVD] along with the player (Sorry, Ann).

It is just flat out stunning. It is like watching a nature documentary composed of individual frames shot by a 2 megapixel digital camera. Just gorgeous.

As well, regular DVDs look amazing. The player does an excellent job of upsampling.

Setup was relatively easy in comparison to other similar devices, but catasptrophically stupid in the grand scheme of things. It is inexcusable that a digital device talking over a digital interface (HDMI) to another digital device while being plugged into a wired LAN with DHCP requires any manual setup at all.

The player still hasn’t quite figured out how to talk to the internet. But, unlike Blu-Ray (from what the review’s indicate), the player came out of the box running the full HD-DVD spec and, thus, has no problem playing the limited number of discs I dropped into it.

We also grabbed a copy of Serenity [HD DVD] (impulse buy at Target while obtaining an HDMI cable). Should be amazing. And today, I stumbled upon The Big Lebowski [HD DVD]. SCORE!

I also upgraded our netflix account to automatically deliver HD DVD discs, when available. This, of course, led to a browsing of the HD DVD selection and I was surprised by the quantity of remastered classics available on HD DVD; Blazing Saddles, Trading Places, Animal House, Caddyshack, Being John Malkovich, The Breakfast Club, Army of Darkness, Dune, Happy Gilmore, etc…

(Yes, my notion of “classic” is a bit different than many.)

I’m also looking forward to watching Transformers, What Dreams May Come, and a Scanner Darkly on HD DVD. All three should be flat out visually stunning.

Full Twisted as a Zip for Leopard

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

For those that aren’t familiar with it, Twisted is a truly amazing python based framework for building internet applications. For those that are familiar with Cocoa, Twisted takes a similar philosophy. You configure a server and/or client project with a few basic parameters — easily changed — like IP address, port or ports, UDP or TCP, and Twisted creates a client or server that does exactly that. It responds to or makes connections and has a standard set of hooks for processing data and dealing with all the random network events that may come up.

In other words, it is like a default Cocoa application. It does all the generic Cocoa application things and it is up to you, the developer, to modify it to do what you need to fulfill your specific ideas.

And, like Cocoa, there are a bunch of add-on toolkits, many included with the stock distribution (but not with Leopard, unfortunately), that add significant features. Whereas Cocoa has tools like CoreData to add persistency and change management, Twisted has tools like — say — Conch which adds a full SSH v2 client/server implementation upon which you can build additional tools.

Twisted really is an amazing technology stack. I have encountered nothing like it in any other language or on any platform.

Via PyObjC, Twisted integrates quite nicely with the Cocoa event loop and, thus, is a perfect choice for building and, even, deploying network heavy Cocoa applications.

Twisted is included in Leopard, but only the core. It is enough to build custom networking protocols and the like, but does not include the various modules that ease writing web apps, AIM clients, SSH v2 tools, or that embrace any number of other protocols.

As such, I built a zip file that contains all of the stuff included with the regular Twisted distribution; conch, cred, enterprise, internet, lore, mail, manhole, names, news, persisted, plugins, protocols, runner, spread, tap, trial, web, and words.

It is 32 bit only, ppc and intel.

You can grab a zip from http://www.friday.com/downloads/twisted.zip.

Now, you don’t have to actually unzip it (though you can — shove it somewhere in /Library/Python/). If you add it to the head of sys.path (or PYTHONPATH) before importing anything from twisted (so you don’t get the core stuff from Leopard):

>>> import sys
>>> import os
>>> sys.path.insert(0, os.path.expanduser("~/lib/twisted.zip"))
>>> from twisted import web # this will fail if you get the path wrong

Works well enough for me. If you need the support binaries, they are tar’d up for download at http://www.friday.com/downloads/twisted-bin.tgz (not encapsulated in a directory — just the binaries).

David Reid has been kind enough to toss together Leopard installer packages.

Ring Flash-o-riffic

Thursday, December 20th, 2007
Gallardia Bloom With Ant
Ant on Gallardia

As I had mentioned before, my ultra-cool Mom & Dad gave me a ring flash for my birthday. The Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring or the “battery eater”, as I call it.

Wow! Talk about steep learning curve! Lots of stuff to learn to effectively use this flash.

I did a bunch of research, including reading through troves of material linked to in my original post, and have compiled some random notes that would have been useful upon unboxing. Not sure if they are exactly right or not, but it is a starting point, at the least.

I also headed over to the garden and did some random ring-flash, hand-held, macro photography last weekend. Nothing formal and certainly would have been aided by a tripod, but I dig ’em.

At left is an ant wandering across a gallardia bloom. At full size, the ant wandering across a field of little flower peaks is quite striking.

Gallardia Blossom

Gallardia bud By using a relatively fast shutter speed, the background becomes nearly black as the macro optimized flash only illuminates the subject blossom.

So, toss the manual. Instead, spend your time reading the Flash Photography with Canon EOS Cameras on photonotes.org. An absolutely amazing resource. I promptly tossed a $40 donation in their direction as I would have happily paid $40 on Amazon for a book that covered half as much. My only criticism? Too damned much information spanning the entire recent history of Canon’s products — lots to wade through prior to knowing “just enough” to get the job done. (In the “more like a weblog” vein, strobist is awesome, as Eric commented and I have mentioned before).

Bottom line: when you slap a flash on your camera, the rules change. The only mode that remains consistent is full-manual mode.

Purple Bearded Iris

Into the Iris MawOne of the few Iris that blooms in December. A striking flower. The ring flash illuminates the throat of the flower.

Specifically, some random points (all highly opinionated and likely incorrect):

  • In [P] (program) mode, the Digital Rebel will set the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Good enough for a dark room, but too damned slow for hand held shots in bright light using the flash as a fill flash for the subject.
  • In [Av] (Aperture Priority) mode, the camera will set the shutter speed to whatever is necessary to normally expose the entire scene sans flash at the given aperture. This is typically surprisingly long. Why does it do this? Because, on a tripod, you can have a normally lit background — i.e. visible — with a subject that is brightly lit, even though reality is actually quite dark. Neat idea, but stupid for a macro optimized flash.
  • The flash unit has a maximum duration. It is considerably less than 1/60th of a second, more like 1/700th of a second or so. Thus, you can crank the shutter speed up quite a bit in conjunction with the flash and still have the foreground correctly exposed.
  • Which really means, “go manual” and experiment. And, as Duncan has repeatedly reminded me (sorry, man, I’m dense), use the damned historgram. Seriously. For macro photography, it is likely that the subject will mostly fill the frame. As such, the shutter speed isn’t really going to impact the exposure terribly much. Aperture and distance from the subject are far more critical. Have a look at the histogram after each shot. If the curve is too far left (underexposed), move in closer and/or open up the aperture. Too far right? Expand that depth of field or move in closer. Or adjust the ISO — that works well, too and such tight, fast, and bright illumination seems to avoid the noise problems associated with higher ISO.

Anyway. I’m still semi-clueless, but having an awful lot of fun with this flash! I post these notes more as a collection of my observations, not as a collection of facts. I look forward to various folks-with-a-clue-stick whacking my errors.

Sony: Leaders in Stupid Software Design & User Experience

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

About a year ago, we picked up a 46″ Sony Bravia LCD TV (KDL46XBR2). Generally, a gorgeous monitor that has loads of inputs and, thus, has become the all-signal-switchbox for the various game consoles, media players, and computers that may be hooked up at any one time.

Great picture and generally easy to use. Amusing, too, that the manual came with a GPL license notice with a hyperlink to download source. Turns out that the UI is implemented via Linux (and, yes, Sony has a whole “source distribution center“).

However, it is not without its flaws and some of them are just so embarassingly stupid in terms of the concious Industrial Design choices made.

Click on through for the gory details.

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Remote Buddy: Brilliant Bit O’ Software for iPhone & Mac OS X

Thursday, December 13th, 2007
Remote Buddy Dashboard Clipping

I use an AirPort Express to pipe any one of the 17,000 or so tracks from our master iTunes library into my work room / chillout space.

Works great, but getting to the UI just sucks. To select songs or play/pause, I have to wake up my MacBook Pro, unlock the screen, bring up screen sharing, and mess with iTunes. Tedious and annoying.

The moment I first touched an iPhone, I immediately thought “Damn! This would make a great remote for iTunes!”.

And it does!

You just need the right bit of software…

About 2 minutes after grabbing a demo copy of Remote Buddy, I purchased a license. It includes an AJAX based GUI that allows for easy control of iTunes. Way beyond simply play/next/pause/volume, it offers ratings, full access to the library, and — even — the ability to select which speakers to send the music too!

And that is barely scratching the surface. It can also control a slew of other functions on the computer and can even offers screen sharing functionality.

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Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring; My First Flash

Saturday, December 8th, 2007
Christmas Cactus Detail

My rather amazingly awesome Mom — the same one who recently taught me how to make pies — and totally awesomely amazing Dad — the same one who schooled me on all things gardening, patience, and dealing with a wife — sent me a slightly early birthday present; a Canon MR-14EX Macro Ring.

It attaches to the front of some — but not all — Canon lenses and effectively illuminates the subject with a typically even, shadowless, light.

Typically even?

Yes — it actually has two flash elements positioned opposite each other in the ring. The unit is highly configurable and, via the controls and LCD, the unit can be configured to vary the intensity of the two flash lamps to create a light gradient from one side of the image to the other. This includes being able to turn off one lamp entirely.

I simply could not have taken the picture at left without a ring flash.

Bromeliad Flower

I still have not a clue what the heck I’m doing with this flash. For example, if I toss my Digital Rebel XT (XTi being the latest model) into Av (Aperture Priority) mode, then the shutter speed is silly slow. But in Priority (automatic) mode, the shutter speed defaults to 60 — typical of the on-board flash.

And I haven’t even started truly messing with the various features of the flash itself. Hell, I’m currently in baffled mode by how the flash is integrated with the camera. Adding more variables isn’t going to help right now.

It also integrates with other Canon flashes, acting as a remote trigger master wirelessly.

Clearly, I need to spend more time on strobist. Coincidentally, strobist had a DIY coffee can ring flash instructions just this morning that I was reading when my wife handed me the gift from my mom & dad.

Ruby, Fully Charged

One of the tricks to eliminating red-eye in photos is to move the flash off the line between lens and eyes. Which is why built-in flashes always produce monster red eye; the lamp is right above or just to the side and above the lens.

Of course, a ring-flash is designed to sit directly on the focal line of the lens. It maximizes red-eye.

Thus, it is a perfect way to turn any puppy into Supercharged Laser Dog!