July 2011 Archives

Movie Review: "Cowboys and Aliens"
July 29, 2011 5:16 PM | Posted in:

Note: This review contains no plot spoilers.

We went to see the highly anticipated (well, by us, anyway) Cowboys and Aliens this afternoon, despite the lukewarm review in this morning's newspaper. I don't necessarily ignore movie reviews, but I have found that I often disagree with professional critics when it comes to science fiction. Perhaps my standards are lower, or I'm more easily entertained.

Regardless, I'm glad we ignored the review, because C&A was a lot of fun, and a fine "popcorn delivery vehicle." Some have expressed skepticism about Daniel Craig's ability to portray a cowboy, but he does an excellent job, and I wouldn't mind seeing him in future such roles.

If there was a disappointment, it was the character that Harrison Ford was asked to portray. His personality was inconsistent, and a little too non-nuanced. But he can still put on a mad face like no one else.

The special science fiction effects blended seamlessly into the Old West setting, ala Firefly. (I still think Firefly and Serenity are the best-written examples of sci-fi/westerns in existence; C&A won't threaten their status in that regard.) The aliens are sufficiently icky, and not derivative of any other particular movie. There were a few humorous moments, which was good, and a few overly serious moments, which was not so good, but overall, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours on a summer afternoon.

Plenty of good movies coming up, based on the trailers (I know...I'm easily impressed), including the next Mission Impossible and a bumbling criminal movie called Tower Heist that stars Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, and Eddie Murphy (apparently reprising a 48 Hours-type of role).

July 27, 2011 6:23 AM | Posted in:

Say, I think I forgot to tell you about the cool anniversary gift MLB presented me during our recent trip to Santa Fe. That's a photo of it floating off to the right.

Photo of Benchmade knivesYep, it's a knife...a Benchmade Model 470 Osborne Emissary, to be exact, and it's the best knife I've ever owned. It's got a 3" blade made from S30V stainless steel (a powder-made steel) with ambidextrous thumb-studs and a spring assist that allow easy one-handed opening. The aluminum alloy frame makes the knife quite lightweight (just over 2 ounces), including the reversible pocket clip. It's even got a safety catch that prevents it from opening (or closing...although that seems like overkill, given that it's got a bulletproof locking mechanism). American Handgunner Magazine describes it as "...a knife with the strength, speed and refined looks to go from a boardroom to a back alley, and handle either with ease." I don't frequent either of those things, but it works just as well in the garage or back yard.

I've always carried a pocketknife, and until now my primary knife was an old and tiny Swiss army knife, the one with the fingernail file, scissors, screwdriver tip, tweezers, and toothpick. Frankly, the Benchmade is overkill for most of the tasks I use the little one for, but it's such a finely-crafted tool that I can't not carry it. (And, in reality, I used it three times yesterday afternoon for various chores around the house, so it's not just a showpiece.)

Benchmade knifes are high quality, made-in-America products, and they're not inexpensive. But a good knife will outlive you, assuming you don't lose it. I bought my brother a Subrosa - a bigger model than mine; his work calls for it - for his birthday earlier this year and he loves it. If you're in the market for a new knife, skip the department store brands and check out Benchmade. And if you live in West Texas, you can buy these knives at prices under the MSRP at the new Bear Claw location in Midland, on the Andrews Highway just west of the hospital. You can also buy them online at substantial discounts over the Benchmade website's prices, but there's nothing like being able to handle a blade before making the buy.

Embarrassing confession: I wrote this entire post about the wrong knife and even had the wrong photo, and realized it only as I was about to save it. In my defense, the Benchmade website refers only to the "470 Emissary" while the knife itself is marked "Osborne Design." A search for "Osborne" on the website turned up a model similar to mine, so similar in fact that I didn't initially notice the difference in the photo. Perhaps I'm not qualified to carry a knife.

Scenes from a train station
July 27, 2011 6:20 AM | Posted in:

It's been a while since I uploaded anything to the Fire Ant Gallery. Here are a couple that started out as photos taken at the Santa Fe railroad station.

Highly processed photo
Highly processed photo

Borders Ruins
July 26, 2011 7:45 AM | Posted in: ,

On July 18th, Borders Group, Inc. announced that it was closing 400 bookstores and liquidating its inventory, having failed to find a rescuer after it declared bankruptcy. The company is another victim of technology, having missed the boat, the train, and even the bus that runs to the online hubs for selling books and music.

You might think that an ancient city like Santa Fe, New Mexico, would be slow to embrace change, but in this case, it seemed to be ahead of the curve, because here's what we encountered at the former location of its Borders store in the Sanbusco Center on the 17th, just a day before the aforelinked announcement. 

In reality, the Santa Fe store knew its fate back in February, soon after Borders announced its bankruptcy.
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore

This is downright spooky - 25,000 square feet of mostly empty space previously crammed full of books and music, although as you can see in the first photo, someone is trying to keep the coffee shop alive - it's now called the Lucky Bean Café - which actually makes the place even weirder. I assume that the café is the only reason this space is still open to the public. It's interesting to note that the store's website was active at the time of this writing and even listed events scheduled for later this summer.

This was one of our favorite places to visit in Santa Fe. Its collection of technology-related books was probably the best I've ever seen, ironic given the fact that technology proved to be the company's downfall.
It's probably because we're just rubes from the country, but we were amazed to discover during our recent visit to Santa Fe that there are [at least] two stores in the downtown area that specialize in selling olive oil and balsalmic vinegar in a wide array of flavors. We spent quite a bit of time in Oleaceae (the store name is the plant family that contains the olive tree, as well as being an extremely challenging word to type), a small shop on Old Santa Fe Trail (it's actually part of the La Fonda Hotel, adjacent to the candy store and knife shop, if you're familiar with that particular block).

Photo of tourists in front of store
Small town tourists

The little store is crammed full of small gleaming stainless steel vats, and you can sample any of the flavors, accompanied by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whose command of food pairings rivals that of any wine steward. And if you think that tasting samples of vinegar or oil sounds unappetizing, you'd be surprised at the reality. Most of what we tried was delicious...so much so, in fact, that we ended up ordering four bottles (two of the 18-year old balsalmic vinegar, one of roasted French walnut oil (good for ice cream topping, we're told), and one of arbequina olive oil.

One thing is for sure, salad time at Gazette HQ will never be the same, and there's no going back to Wishbone Italian.

Denver's Big Blue Bear
July 24, 2011 7:40 AM | Posted in:

One of the more entertaining sights in Denver is the installation of a whimsical statue entitled "I See What You Mean." See if you don't agree:

Photo of 4 story bear statue

The fiberglass statue was installed in 2005, stands 40' tall, and cost more than $400,000, according to this article. One can only hope that it's not staring into a stockbroker's office; dealing with a bear market is tough enough without another constant reminder.

Book Review: "Feed" and "Deadline"
July 23, 2011 7:12 AM | Posted in:

Imagine a scenario where every mammal on earth is infected with an incurable mutant virus that generally remains dormant until the moment of death, at which point the virus springs into action. Its goals are simple - survive and replicate - and it achieves these goals by taking over the dead host's neural and muscular systems, and begins to seek out new living hosts. In other words, it makes them into zombies.

Book coversConsider the implications. Every person, every warm-blooded animal weighing more than forty pounds (the threshold for critical mass) will eventually become the walking dead, with no purpose other than to infect others in order to propagate the virus. A second "death" is required to stop them and so every human with the means carries a weapon and lives with the idea that each new day they may be forced to "kill" a family member or co-worker.

This is the basic premise for the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant. The first two books have been published: Feed and its sequel, Deadline. Both are available in eBook and paperback versions.

But don't let the zombie angle throw you. These are not George Romero ripoffs (although in the not-that-distant future of the books, Romero's movies have become not entertainment but training films). They are sly, fast-paced, and fully fleshed-out (pardon the pun) looks at a terrifying future, and they feature unforgettable characters and plot twists that are as surprising as any mainstream page-turner on the market. And the main characters are professional bloggers. (Perhaps the most unbelievable part of this science fiction scenario is that they are actually profitable professional bloggers.)

Feed introduces us to the primary cast of characters and provides the societal and political context for the trilogy. If there's a theme, it's don't mess with a blogger with a big gun and a bigger audience. The Deadline continues with the same cast - sort of - and adds a conspiracy of surprising origin.

Grant has succeeded in combining real science (the references to microbiology, virology, and epidemiology ring true), technology, social media, journalism, and weapons (it's still about zombies, you know) into a fast-paced, believable new and scary world. My only complaint is that her religious and political views are rarely in line with mine; your mileage may vary.

Road Warrior Gear
July 22, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't travel much on business, or conduct much business when I travel, but when I do, I have a handful of accessories that I always pack to make the trip more efficient. In addition to the usual electronics (e.g. notebook computer and iPad and associated cables and chargers), here's what I bring:

Photo - Various pieces of road warrior gear

  • eBags backpack: I switched to a backpack from a traditional computer bag last year, and I'm never going back. Besides having a plethora of pockets and pouches for storing all kinds of gears and accessories, a backpack doesn't scream "steal me because I have $2,000 of equipment inside!" Plus, a backpack frees up your hands for carrying suitcases or coffee.

  • Eagle Creek mesh bag: This is one of the handiest accessories I've run across. Everything you see in the photo (except the backpack and the table!) will fit into this three-compartment (two smaller ones are on the back side) zippered bag...along with the power adapters and cables for my laptop, phone and iPad. The mesh bag then stores nicely inside the backpack's middle compartment.

  • Kensington notebook lock: This won't prevent a determined burglar from making off with your computer, but it will thwart snatch-and-run thefts by passers-by who peek in while the housekeeping crew is busy leaving you those useless little soaps.

  • Nite Ize gear ties: I've just discovered these at REI, and I buy a pair every time I'm in a store. They're twist ties on steroids, and their usefulness is limited only by your imagination. Plus, they're fun to play with! They come in multiple sizes and the big ones are truly heavy duty. Bend them to use as a makeshift tripod for your compact digital camera, or a document holder when you're typing.

  • 1-to-3 AC adapter and 12" power cords: Hotels are getting more savvy about providing abundant AC outlets, but you still occasionally find one that just won't accommodate all your electronic charging needs. These simple accessories multiply the available outlets, and the short power cords accommodate adapter bricks.
How about you? What are your "must have" business travel accessories?
Some random thoughts about some puzzling and odd - OK, let's be honest: they're annoying - business practices that have caught my attention:

  • Budget asked me to complete an online questionnaire about a recent car rental. I found it odd that the survey offered only check boxes and radio buttons, and provided no option for submitting feedback via text boxes. I think companies that craft surveys like this are fooling themselves into thinking they're really getting into the minds of their customers. Those companies may believe they're asking all the right questions, but invariably, they don't. Allowing for some freeform feedback should enhance the value of the process, but perhaps it's too much work for them to process. Why even bother, if that's the case?

  • Then there's the US Postal Service, who also asked me to submit feedback. They sent a printed questionnaire (I guess they get special postage rates) and provided an option to complete an online survey. A week later, I got a reminder postcard providing the URL for the online survey. Here's the odd thing: the survey requires a username and password to access, and I assume that combination is tied back to my identity. OK, I can live with that. But they also included that login information on the postcard. Now, I know my letter carrier and have no doubt it would never enter her mind to fill out that survey herself, but when you're asking for feedback about an individual's performance, this doesn't seem to be a very secure way to ensure that such feedback is coming from the right source.

  • My and Debbie's alma mater, Texas A&M, is updating its Former Students Directory, and has hired a company to compile that information. Said company, instead of providing a convenient online process for doing so, is requiring us to make a phone call to update/confirm our information. And they're sending each of us a weekly reminder postcard. We've gotten about ten of them between us, all of which have gone straight to the trash. Sorry, folks; we live in the Internet Age, and if it requires a phone call, it ain't happenin'. This is especially odd considering that the university does provide an online method of updating your contact information for ongoing purposes (like donation requests).

  • Ever notice how some companies are quick to charge your credit card, but slow to credit it if you return a product or cancel a service? We recently made a reservation at a hotel, then canceled it the next day due to a change in plans. The charge hit our account the same day we made the online reservation; the credit arrived two weeks after we canceled online. The result of those two weeks was that we'll have to pay the credit card bill this month, and wait until next month to get a credit, instead of getting offset transactions in the same month. Yeah, it's a valid business practice, but it doesn't build any goodwill with your customers.
I posted brief rants about the Texas Get Your Business Online (TGYBO) initiative yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, but that wasn't particularly satisfying, so I want to continue the rant here. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Here's a quick refresher. TGYBO provides free websites and hosting (for a year) to small businesses in Texas. It's a joint initiative spearheaded by Google and software company Intuit, and a number of national and state business advocacy groups. The FAQ on the above-linked website includes this blurb about why this is happening:
Small businesses are vital to America's economic future; the nation's 27.5M small businesses comprise half the US GDP and create two-thirds of all new jobs. Although 97% of consumers look online for local products and services, 51% of Texan small businesses do not have a website or online presence. This makes them invisible to many potential customers.
Sounds like a commendable program, doesn't it? And it probably is, unless you're a small business that's trying to generate income by building websites for paying customers, in which case this initiative has the potential to, well, put you out of business.

The reality is that small businesses and nonprofit organizations are the bread-and-butter of most web designers. I've never had a Fortune 500 client and never will. That's not all bad, but it does mean that I generate income via volume: creating a lot of small websites that individually don't amount to much money, but with luck might add up to a living wage (and even that goal remains elusive). So you can see why an initiative like this by a gazillion-dollar company like Google might cause a disturbance in the Web Design Force.

I have a couple of suggestions for Google. If you're so dead set on helping small businesses, why not just give each qualifying business a $300 (or $500 or whatever amount) voucher to be used to hire a local web designer to help get the business online? Not only do you not put a market segment out of business, but you also connect the client with someone local who understands and actually cares about the client's business. What a concept!

Or, Google, how about giving small businesses free advertising via your AdWords program for a year? Yeah, that's what I thought. Doesn't feel so good, does it?

I have no idea whether this program will actually affect my business. It's not as if there aren't a hundred different do-it-yourself website programs out there now; every large hosting company offers them. I still believe that most small businesses want to work with someone local, and also subscribe to the theory that you get what you pay for.

If nothing else, this demonstrates that there are unintended consequences to almost any program that's designed to give something for nothing. This one just hits a little closer to home than most.
I streamed the first 50 minutes of Gog* today via Netflix, during my workout. This movie debuted in 1954 to widespread yawns, for many good reasons, but it does provide some unintentionally campy moments.

The plot of the movie surrounds some apparent acts of sabotage taking place at a top secret government research facility (I know; how redundant is that?). Most of the top scientists in the US are assembled at the facility to pursue their pet projects, which range from harnessing the power of the sun via mirrors to inducing suspended animation by turning people into blocks of ice. Heady stuff. Oh, and someone has built a super computer, dubbed NOVAC ("Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer," which clearly demonstrates the primitive state of acronymization in the Fifties). NOVAC is also referred to as a "giant brain machine," and it's controlled by commands embedded in hole-punched paper tape ("Every punched hole represents a thought."). I didn't get all the way through the movie, but I suspect NOVAC is behind all the criminal hijinks, laying the groundwork for later similar hijinks by HAL.

Anyway, that's not important. What's important are the various product placements that are peppered through the movie. For example:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

There it is, a genuine Coca Cola vending machine with no discernible purpose other than to be an advertisement. Brilliant!

Then there's this:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

Notice how NOVAC is cleverly accompanied by a device provided by Bendix Computing? This is actually pretty interesting, because, according to our own Giant Brain Machine (aka "Wikipedia"), Bendix made a lot of electronic equipment but didn't actually introduce a computer until 1956. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with this. Did Bendix actually leak an impending product via a "B" movie? The company did get some sweet credits from the film:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

But the most fascinating product placement was this one:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

This IBM electric typewriter (note the "Return" key) was apparently the first computer peripheral, merrily typing away on its own while NOVAC pondered the imponderable. Its function was inscrutable, but apparently important as it garnered several close-ups during the movie.

But, do you catch the irony? In the movie, IBM played second fiddle to Bendix's computing superiority, but we all know that IBM became the king of Big Iron.

Incidentally, the producer of Gog was Ivan Tors. If that name sounds familiar, then you're getting close to being "of a certain age," as he created such memorable TV series as Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Daktari. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Mr. Tors was the driving force behind the product placements, given his later gift for ginning out commercial hits.

*Two of the "characters" in the movie are Gog and Magog, robots controlled by NOVAC. If those names sound familiar, then you know your Bible (see prophecies in Ezekiel and Revelation).

Illogical Keyage
July 18, 2011 8:35 PM | Posted in:

Has this happened to you? You rent a car and they hand you a set of keys that have the same mass and weight of a bowling ball. There are two identical keys on the ring. That's understandable; what if you lose one? You're still golden, right, because you have a duplicate. Uh, not so fast. That key ring is actually a seamless circle of titanium, designed to thwart any attempts to separate the key siblings. 

Photo of rental car keys
The fact that these keys resemble and work like switchblades
only partially makes up for the illogical assemblage.

Let's recap, shall we? They give you two keys, which can only be used one at a time, but don't allow you to separate them so that one can be a backup. So you have to carry around the equivalent of a dead marmot in your pants pocket just because the car rental company couldn't figure out what to do with the duplicate key.

This situation is sadly being played out across the nation every day and no one seems to be doing anything about it; everyone is content to look the other way, thinking that it will never affect them. Don't say I didn't warn you, the next time you rent that Equinox.
Texas governor Rick Perry's plans to host a day of prayer and fasting in Houston's Reliant Stadium on August 6th have - not surprisingly - evoked a wide range of reactions. Some are accusing the governor of crossing the line between church and state, some are suing to stop the gathering, and some are applauding his initiative.

The local NBC television affiliate posted a question via Facebook, asking for opinions regarding the event and whether it should be called off. My non-scientific tally indicated that a pretty big (that's a statistical term of art, in case you're wondering) majority of respondents were supportive of the event. But to my mind, one of the more interesting comments accused Perry of hypocrisy, citing this report revealing that the governor has given only $14,243 to churches and religious organizations - out of total earnings of $2.68 million - during the period 2000-2009. This report, based on Perry's federal income tax returns, is leading some to conclude that he doesn't "walk the talk."

While I won't dispute that such a report does raise questions, I'm pretty sure there's no law that requires one to report all charitable deductions on one's tax return. My point? We need to be cautious in drawing conclusions about a public official's moral, ethical, religious, or any other kind of behavior and/or motivation with no other support than what's found in that official's tax return.

So, why wouldn't one report all possible deductions, as a means of lowering one's tax liability? (This question is particularly relevant to Perry, a strong advocate of smaller federal government, and state's rights; you'd think he'd be at the head of the line of those wishing to give the feds as little money as possible.) I don't have an answer to that, other than to observe that we all have our own priorities and motivations, and they're not necessarily intended for public consumption.

For example, my wife and I don't include any cash donations under $25 in our tax returns, nor do we ever include the value of non-monetary items (such as clothing and food) we donate to local charities. Why not? Well, that's our business, not yours, although I'm not offended by the question.

Anyway, while it's interesting to inspect someone else's financial records and speculate on the meanings between the lines, the numbers don't necessarily paint an accurate or complete picture. We're all more than the sum of our tax returns.

A Tale of Two Nets
July 13, 2011 1:08 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, before we get started, I'll wait here while you go watch this. G'head, it's OK; just don't get distracted by videos of babies biting kids' fingers, or mimes. I'll wait here.

*finger tapping; random whistling*

Yeah, that was pretty awesome alright, seeing a whale rescued from a fishing net. My aunt in Albuquerque sent me that link, and little did I know that just a couple of days after watching that movie, I'd be doing a similar rescue. Yes, humpbacks aren't the only things that can have near-death encounters with nets.

It happened this morning, as I was preparing to mow the lawn. I had opened the gate to the backyard, weedeater already running, and I held it in one hand, inside the gate, while reaching around to grab the gate handle with the other hand. That's when disaster struck, and I was faced with the possibility that things would never be the same again.

Here...see for yourself.

Photo of weedeater entangled in bird netting covering a tomato plant

That, my friends, is a sight that no homeowner or lawn care professional ever wants or expects to see: a weedeater hopelessly (it appears) entangled in the voracious clutches of bird netting covering a tomato plant.

I acted as quickly as I knew how, running through the options open to me, and settling on the one drastic last hope. I pulled my trusty ARCO Permian swiss army knife from my pocket and set to work on the net, conscious of the precious seconds ticking away until my faithful companion might never again drink deeply of unleaded gasoline in preparation for a good day's work. I struggled mightily as the netting fought back, as netting will do when protecting its helpless prey in the face of would-be rescuers. The battle pitched back and forth, up and down, over and under; I grew nauseous.

In the end, however, through a combination of grit, determination, and pure luck, I was successful in freeing the trimmer, and the net retreated, licking its wounds and no doubt plotting its revenge. 

You might be successful next time, mi amigo, but not today. No, not today.

Q. Are we living in the End Times? A. Yes.
July 11, 2011 2:18 PM | Posted in: ,

Jim Denison was our guest preacher yesterday. His message centered on the End Times, and he opened it with the question and answer that comprise the title of this post. Simply put, when Jesus Christ conquered death and the grave 2,000 years ago, He fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies.

Every. Last. One. Of. Them. (Yeah, I dislike that twee construct, but sometimes it just works.)

And when He did, that ushered in the End Times...the Countdown to end all countdowns, so to speak. It doesn't matter what your eschatology is, because the ending is certain, and the only thing that should really concern you is whether you're ready for it.

But I'm not here to preach, not today, anyway. I'm here to party, or at least set the mood to celebrate the reality that Good will eventually win out over Evil. Dr. Denison's message brought to mind a musical commentary on the subject. And I've invited my special amigo, Paul Thorn, to offer his special twist on the Big Bang Theory...the real one at the END, not that other fake one. Enjoy, and remember: bottle rockets are two for one, but salvation is free!

Ever heard of the "Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK)"? If you have, I bow before your superior geekiness. I had never heard of it until I decided to research how I might be able to use my Canon PowerShot S95 to shoot in time-lapse mode. Out of the box, this otherwise highly competent point-and-shoot (P&S) won't allow you to automatically take a series of photos at set intervals.

Enter the CHDK, a collection of free software that extends the firmware of many Canon compact digital cameras - but not digital SLRs - and adds capabilities to those cameras that go far beyond their out-of-the-box features. One key feature of CHDK is that those enhancements are non-destructive and non-permanent. The camera's original firmware is not altered, and the CHDK programs can be easily and permanently removed at any time. Here's a brief FAQ about CHDK that documents some of the enhancements.

Well, that's the theory, anyway. And to be honest, I couldn't find any verifiable instances where someone had hurt, let alone ruined, their camera by installing CHDK. Still, the concept and processes are inscrutable enough to give one pause before diving in. Heck, I thought about it for all of about twenty seconds before I got busy rewriting the innards of my camera. (Don't try this at home, unless you really want to.)

I thought I might post a full how-to article on installing and using CHDK, but there are plenty of good articles on the web and there's no reason to invent the wheel. If you're a Mac owner, this is a good resource; here's another that's geared for Windows users.

It might be helpful to understand the basic concepts, without going into all the gory details, so here's a quick summary of the process:

  1. Right off the bat, you need to determine the version of firmware your camera uses. This is critical to ensuring that you install the proper version of CHDK. For me, the perfect solution was ACID - the Automatic Camera Identifier and Downloader. This free program, available for OSX, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux, is an all-in-one firmware identifier and CHDK downloader program. Once you download and install ACID, you can discover your firmware version simply by dragging a photo from your camera's SD card into the ACID program's window. The program not only identifies the firmware, it provides a link for downloading the proper CHDK for your camera.

  2. You need to have a properly formatted SD card onto which the CHDK can be installed. I found another free program called SDMInst that performed that task for me with just a few click. Note that this program works only with OSX, but I'm sure there are other similar apps for Windows.

  3. After the CHDK is installed, the SD card must be locked (you'll still be able to take photos); I think this prevents the programs from being overwritten by the camera's firmware, but that's just a guess. Once this is done and the card is re-inserted into the camera, you can confirm that installation was successful by the appearance of a new boot-up screen that appears briefly on your camera's LCD screen. Here's what mine looks like:
Photo - Startup screen of S95

In addition, the CHDK installs a new menu screen that's accessible by pushing a series of buttons on the camera. On the S95, for example, pushing the print button followed by the menu button brings up the following menu:

Photo - CHDK menu screen of S95

I have no idea what most of these do, because I haven't had a chance to research them. But the sub-menus provide an inkling of their capabilities. For example:

Photo - CHDK sub-menu screen of S95

This particular sub-menu allows you to override the camera's factory settings for things like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. And, again, anything you set on this menu is reset to the factory default as soon as you turn the camera off, so there's no danger of permanently altering the configuration.

Just for comparison purposes, here's the default menu screen, pre-CHDK, on the S95:

Photo - Default menu screen of S95

Boring, huh? Prettier, yeah...but still boring. 

Now that I've got it, what do I do with it?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the reason I embarked on this weird journey was to figure out a way to equip the S95 with time-lapse photo capability. So, installation of the CHDK is simply a means to an end.

The final step in my quest to equip my camera with automatic time-lapse capability was to install an intervalometer script into the CHDK. Ultra Intervalometer is such a script, a free uBASIC program that's easily installed by simply downloading and copying into the Scripts folder in the CHDK directory on your camera's SD card. Once installed, you have to manually load the script via the CHDK menu each time you use the camera. Here's the menu screen highlighting the script that will activate the time-lapse program:

Photo - CHDK script activation screen of S95

Once this script is loaded, the following parameter screen is used to configure how you want the time-lapse production to proceed: you can set the number of shots (or specify unlimited), the time interval between shots, and how long a delay you want before the first shot is taken (thereby kicking off the time-lapse; this would be helpful if you want to start the program in the middle of the night without having to actually get up and press the shutter button). Here's what the parameter menu looks like:

Photo - Ultra Intervalometer screen of S95

The benefit of using a digital camera for time-lapse photos vs. the GoPro is that I can use the digicam's built-in settings for flash and autofocus, as well as taking advantage of the zoom lens.

I've done a very rudimentary test of the time-lapse capability and it does work as advertised. I'll post a better example at some point in the future, as well as share any additional cool applications that might be useful via CHDK. 

By the way, you can write your own CHDK scripts, if you know BASIC (I don't), and load other scripts if you know how to use a browser (I do).

Making a Stop Action Video
July 10, 2011 8:56 AM | Posted in: ,

Note: After I posted this, I realized that what I'm referring to as a "stop action" video is more correctly called a "time lapse" video. Pardon my lazy usage of terminology; I'm still learning this newfangled moving pictures thang and I'm not yet convinced it's not just a fad.

I tested the stop action feature of my new GoPro HD Hero video camera yesterday evening, and the results, while not exactly mind-blowing, are still encouraging. 

I set up the camera on a tripod using the optional mount, and placed it in front of one of our hummingbird feeders on the back porch. I set the camera to take a still photo every 30 seconds until the battery ran out. That resulted in 380 pictures, or just over 3 hours of filming. (I didn't bother attaching the camera to an outlet for unlimited photos - well, until the SD card was full - but that was an option.)

I then imported the photos into iPhoto '11 on my Mac, then exported them to a new folder on my hard drive. I opened iMovie '11, created a new project, selected all the photos from the directory, and dragged them into the project section of iMovie.

I selected all the photos in iMovie and set the duration for each to .1 seconds using the "Clip Adjustments" menu. I also turned off the Ken Burns effect by selecting "Fixed" in the "Cropping, Ken Burns & Rotation" menu. This combination resulted in a fast-moving, smooth stop action video of 50 seconds in duration.

I exported the movie in .m4v format, uploaded it to Vimeo, and the result is the following video. It's nothing dramatic, but if nothing else, you can get a feel for our weather pattern by watching the clouds appear and dissipate without providing any relief!

With the right subject matter, this could be a really fun process to experiment with.

What will they think of next?
July 9, 2011 12:02 PM | Posted in:

So, we're driving south on "A" Street and I notice that a crew is pulling a pump from a water well at the northeast corner of the intersection with Solomon Lane. 

Me: "I didn't even know they had a water well there."

Debbie: "Yeah, it's underground."

Me: *staring at her*

Me: You know I'm totally blogging this*, don't you?

*OK, there is some literary license (a polite euphemism for "lying") going on here. What I actually said was "you know this is totally going on Facebook, don't you?" But I'm not above repurposing a good anecdote.

Rocking the Boat
July 8, 2011 6:14 PM | Posted in: ,

Twisted Sifter's Friday Shirk Report is a guilty pleasure, a weekly compilation of 20 amusing (usually) images, 10 fascinating (usually) articles, and 5 interesting (usually) videos. The following caught my eye in this week's report

I've never spent much time considering how new ships are launched, beyond the traditional smashing of the champagne bottle against the bow. I guess I assumed most of them were simply rolled backwards into the water from a gently-sloped ramp. But as this video demonstrates, at least some of those big boats are simply tumped (look it up) into the water sideways, in a sort of sink-or-swim maneuver. 

This is a pretty dramatic and violent action, and I wonder what kind of engineering computations go into deciding whether the height and draft of the ship, and the angle of entry into the water will result in the vessel staying upright. I'd hate to be the guy who punched the wrong button on the calculator that results in a new hundred million dollar boat becoming an even newer artificial reef.

Anyway - as the guy yelled to his buddies - hey, watch this!

If, like me, you aren't sure about the difference between a ship and a boat, perhaps this article will enlighten you. I scattered the terms around willy-nilly, hoping to cover all the piers.
Ran across this video (via Neatorama) of a guy getting a tattoo of a QR code that links to a website.

My reaction? *yawn* Been there; done that.

Photo of my Fire Ant Gazette URL QR tattoo

Yeah, that's right; I've got one, too. It's the Fire Ant Gazette URL. There's only one teensy problem.

It doesn't work.

Perhaps it's the artist's failing, or maybe it's just the distortion caused by the underlying rippling muscles* (eat your heart out, Ah-nold), but my phone won't recognize and scan the code. See, that's the danger of getting permanently marked with something like this; you don't know whether it will actually work until it's too late. Good idea...poor execution.

So, what do I do now? Well, there's really only one good option. 

Rubbing alcohol. You didn't think I'd actually do something this dumb, did you? Don't answer that.

*This was actually the only place I could find that was relatively devoid of hair. I'm not about to shave body parts for the sake of a blog post. And I do apologize if this is the visual equivalent of TMI

And if you want to make a temporary statement about something, I highly recommend StrayTats for good quality, fast service and very inexpensive custom temporary tattoos. The tattoo actually did scan properly before it was applied, so the creator wasn't at fault in this case.

Concealed Handgun License Renewal
July 6, 2011 8:32 AM | Posted in: ,

Around the same time that Janie was qualifying for her Concealed Handgun License (CHL), Debbie and I were taking the renewal class. Texas CHLs are generally good for five years, but through a quirk in the scheduling and the way our birthdays fell, we got only about 4½. So we found ourselves at Gaylene Stansberry's renewal class on a Monday evening for the 5 hour refresher course required by state law.

Contrary to what you might think, the Texas CHL process is geared toward convincing you that using a handgun against another person is a Very Serious Idea. The educational classes focus on the legal and emotional implications of carrying and using a gun for self-defense. If one is paying the least bit of attention, one will leave the class understanding the full burden of responsibility that accompanies the decision to carry a concealed weapon. It's not glamorous nor exciting.

The renewal class is mostly geared toward any recent changes in Texas laws and regulations concerning concealed carry (for example, since we took the first class, Texas now has a statute that allows anyone to carry a handgun in their car, for any reason and for any duration, provided they're not subject to other restrictions on handgun ownership. Previously, you had to be "traveling," and the definition for that term was the subject of ongoing debate). And there's the expected refresher on the basic rules for concealed carry, and a focus on the difference between the use of "force" and "deadly force" in a self-defense scenario...along with the aforementioned implications of what to expect if you decide to use the latter.

Screenshot of CHL renewal status
Even so, the class did have its moments of levity. At the beginning, we went around the room, introducing ourselves and giving one reason why we each decided to renew our permits. Most had the expected usual reasons of not wanting to be a victim, or wanting to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights, but some were, well, a little different. More than one person mentioned that they'd never gotten a speeding ticket since they got their CHLs; police and DPS officers seem to be more willing to cut you some slack if you have a CHL. You can guess at the possible reasons for this, and I've never experienced the phenomenon personally (perhaps only because I've not been pulled over since I got my CHL), but the anecdotal evidence to support it is plentiful. I'm not suggesting that if you have a leaden foot you should run out and get your CHL, but a couple of speeding tickets would more than pay for the course and the license fee.

The class went well, although we ran behind schedule which meant that some of the students were doing their target shooting in the dark. I was a little disappointed in my shooting performance, shooting a few points less than the first time around, but I do have an excuse.

The guy to my immediate left on the shooting range was a rancher who was firing a Kimber .45 auto (complete with a laser sight). It's a beautiful gun, and he knew what he was doing; he was extremely accurate - in two directions. You see, the Kimber ejects its brass straight out to the right, and I was right in the line of "fire." Almost every time he fired, a spent cartridge would plink me in the head. One even caught me in the eye just as I pulled the trigger, resulting in a complete miss. I realize that I shouldn't have been distracted by something like that; it wasn't painful or dangerous, but I wasn't ready for it and so it affected my shooting. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Anyway, we all passed both the classroom and shooting tests, and our renewed licenses should be on their way very soon. The Texas CHL website provides an updated status of the process, and we hit the final milestone less than two weeks after submitting our paperwork.

I suspect you may have a simple question at this point: "Do you generally carry a concealed handgun?" The answer is equally simple: "It's none of your business, but the important thing is that the bad guys don't know the answer either." Uncertainty often equals deterrence, and crime/conflict avoided is an even better solution than that which is confronted and defeated.
The post title is a little provocative but not technically inaccurate. See, MLB gave me one of these for my birthday and I finally figured out how to work it well enough to wear it on our tandem ride today through north Midland this morning. While the actual footage of the 22 mile jaunt is around 90 minutes (including some preliminary and post-ride scenes), I didn't figure anyone would actually be that interested in a tour of our fair city, so I compressed the timeline just the teensiest bit...well, by 800%, to be exact.

GoPro HD Helmet HEROIn case you're too busy to follow the link above, the "one of these" I'm referring to is a GoPro HD Helmet HERO video camera and housing, complete with a helmet mount. It's a wee little guy, weighing less than 4 ounces with battery, and under 6 ounces including the housing. It came with a couple of methods of helmet attachment, including a complicated harness that looks like something they'd put on Hannibal Lecter. I opted for the simpler - albeit no less nerdy-looking - "vented helmet straps" that weave through the holes in the typical modern bike helmet. The camera is snug and secure, but gives the wearer the appearance of, as Debbie put it, Marvin the Martian. Of course, that's a good look for me, so I went with it.

This truly is an amazing little tyke, capable of full 1080p HD video and 5 megapixel stills. With the right housing back, you can take it 180 feet underwater, and it comes with interchangeable backs that are rated for mounting speeds in excess of 120 mph on your car's hood or motorcycle handlebar. Video is recorded on a standard SDHC card (up to 9 hours on a 32 gig card). You can even program the camera to take a series of stills at fixed intervals ranging from 1-60 seconds, for that time-lapse masterpiece you've been planning.

I'd love to take it skiing, but I don't do that anymore, so cycling will probably be the most common application (although I'm considering mounting it on my lawnmower for a truly awesome view of lawn care). And maybe someday I'll have a chance to go scuba diving again. The HERO is totally coming along if that happens.

So, here's the vid from this morning, pretty much unedited except for that speeding up thing I mentioned. I might later post a more leisurely version of parts of the ride so you can see what our normal cycling routes look like, but this will have to do for now.

Happy Independence Day
July 4, 2011 8:08 AM | Posted in:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled hipster masses yearning to breathe free..."

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