Recently in Computers Category

A Baker's Dozen of Instagram Images
January 25, 2020 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

If you follow me on Instagram, feel free to skip this post...unless you want to read about the context of some of the images I've posted over the past several months. And if you don't follow me, I must remind you that I'm a very sensitive fellow and my feelings are easily bruised.

As my IG profile reads, all the images I post on that site are based on my original photography. This is code for "very little of what I post is unmodified, un-retouched, un-Photoshopped photography." The photograph is, for me, simply a jumping off point where I try to adapt the image the camera captures into the one that's in my mind when I take the picture.

OK, I realize that sounds pretty high falutin'. The truth is that I don't always know what I'm looking for in a photo until I see it. I might have the end result in my mind when I take the photo, but when I actually work with it, something entirely different presents itself. It's sort of like the novelist who lets her characters dictate to her how they're going to act and the results of those actions. In other words, we're not always in charge of our creations.

Anyway, following are thirteen images that I've created and uploaded to Instagram lately, along with a few words of how or why they came to be. I hope you enjoy them.

By the way, almost all of the following images are based on photos taken with an iPhone. The best camera is the one you have with you.



Photo - A small goat curled up inside a tub of goat chow

There's an exotic game ranch on Highway 281, a few miles north of Johnson City, Texas. Shortly after last Christmas, our extended family went on one of their guided tours. It was a lot more fun than I expected, and the variety of animals roaming [relatively] free through the ranch was impressive (although the absence of dinosaurs was a bit disappointing). At the end of the tour, while walking back to the car, I spotted these two goats, one of which was trying rather unsuccessfully to eat the food in the tub where the other had decided to catch a nap.

Photo - My wife walking down a trail in the woods

I'm a big fan of the dramatic potential of black and white photography. The technique seems to easily evoke emotions or tweak memories that might be lost in the distraction of colors. When you couple that with selective focus (e.g. the blurring in the lower left hand of the above image), it can bring a dream-like state to an otherwise mundane setting. Here, MLB is walking on a path in our neighborhood following a morning run.

Photo - Storm clouds form a backdrop to leafless trees

Black and white photography doesn't always mean, well, black and white. I took this photo as winter storm clouds gathered (the storm was mostly bluster and bluff; we just got a bit of wind not much rain at all from it...but it was impressive looking!). If you look closely -- it's really evident in the tree limbs in the lower left portion -- you'll see some ghosting. This effect was achieved by copying an identical photo on top of the original, and then offsetting it slightly.

Photo - Cactus pads interspersed with ivy growing on a wall

Of course, color can also bring drama...even when it's got its own monochrome personality. We were on a sidewalk in Johnson City last summer and I was fascinated by the many shades of green in this tableau of a prickly pear cactus fronting a wall of ivy.

Photo - A cicada emerges from its nymph exoskeleton

Speaking of fascination, the animal kingdom is full of amazing stories. Last summer was a terrifyingly fruitful season for cicadas. There were times when their "singing" was almost deafening, and their nymph exoskeletons (the dry husks left behind when the adult cicada finally emerges with a goal of starting the life cycle over again) seem to be omnipresent. I was fortunate to come across this newly emerged, fresh-looking cicada next to its abandoned husk. Those gossamer wings look incredibly delicate.

Photo - Praying mantis

Praying mantises are creepy and cool, especially when their eyes track your movements. They're always green in color, or possibly greenish-brown, until a crazed Photoshopper decides to improve upon nature. This one was clinging to the frame of our garage door, which isn't really as crooked as the image would suggest. Photoshop does have an image rotation feature, you know.

Photo - Sunset as viewed on Maui, Hawaii

We were fortunate to be able to vacation on the island of Maui last year, staying at the Andaz resort in Wailea. The reception area of the resort is open-air, and faces west, and each evening guests gather there to see the sunset. It's not always this dramatic, but it rarely disappoints.

Photo - Fungus on a live oak tree

Here's another black and white image, this one showing a tree fungus growing in an old wound on a live oak tree where a limb was removed. I use a desktop application called Tonality (sorry, Windows users; it's Mac-only) for a lot of my monochrome work. It's got a bewildering number of presets that you can apply to a photo, and while all of them can be duplicated in Photoshop if you have the time and skill, being able to apply them in Tonality with a single click is a no-brainer. And even the presets are infinitely editable if none of them achieve the exact effect you're visualizing. (Thus endeth the ad.)

Photo - An armadillo

Armadillos are generally nocturnal, and always shy, so it's rare to get a closeup photo. I love the detail in this image; the pattern on the animals shell is more varied that you might have imagined. By the way, this is a nine-banded armadillo (count 'em if you don't believe me), and it's the state mammal of Texas. But you knew that.

Photo - Two green anoles

This has been a very mild winter in the Texas Hill Country. We've had only a handful of freezes (which doesn't bode well for this year's peach crop), but we've protected our potted hibiscuses and bougainvillea by pulling them into the garage when a freeze is predicted, and putting them back outside during warmer weather. Sometimes, the local fauna take advantage of the changing landscape. In this photo, two anoles, a male (at top) and a female (with the zig-zag pattern on its back) sun themselves on the branches of a bougainvillea during a warm spell.

Photo - A two-stroke engine overlaid with a floral patter
Photo - Various plants and flowers

The two preceding images are actually related. The first one began with a photo of an old two-stroke engine from a defunct weed-eater. I thought the un-retouched photo was pretty boring, so I overlaid the engine with the flowers and plants shown in the second photo. If you compare the two, you'll be able to match up some blooms and leaves with their ghosted overlays on the engine. But I didn't stop there; anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I then flipped the second photo horizontally and placed it in the background of the engine photo! "Why?" you ask. "Why not?" I reply. "Well, because it's a stupid thing to do!" you retort. "Good point." I admit. But I had fun with it.

Photo - My mother's hand in mine

Let's transition from the silly to the sublime, as I end with this image which I've entitled simply "Holding Hands." It's my most recent post to Instagram, as the photo was taken last Thursday. My mother was in the hospital following surgery, and she had just had a rather uncomfortable session with a physical therapist. She was angry and confused and in pain, and she asked me to sit on the bed beside her and hold her hand. I did, and she eventually drifted off to sleep, still grasping my hand. To me, this is an illustration of the fragility of life and the importance of family. 
Last February I posted a brief review of Air Display, an iOS app that lets you use your iPad (or iPhone/iPod touch) as a second monitor. At the time, I had tested the app for only a short time and had done no real work using it.

For the past few days, I've been working from a hotel room in Denver and now have hours of experience using Air Display to turn my iPad into a second monitor for my 13" MacBook Pro. Or should I say, "attempting" to turn my iPad into a second monitor?

When it works, Air Display is a quite effective helper app, and increases my screen real estate by more than 50%. I use it in the following ways:

  • Menus - Adobe CS5 applications are infamous for their extensive menus which can consume your workspace and leave little room for the actual task at hand. Using Air Display, I can shift Photoshop's or Dreamweaver's menus onto my iPad and free up my entire MacBook display for the work.

  • Secondary applications - At any given time I'll have around a dozen applications open. Only a few of them are essential for the work I'm doing and I'll keep them on the notebook's screen. The others can be shifted to the iPad.

  • Separate browser tabs - Using Chrome's tear-off tab feature, I can move a browser window to the iPad while keeping the active window open on the MacBook. That's what I'm doing right now, in fact, with a separate tab on the iPad open to my previous blog post, while typing this on the notebook.
This is all wonderful in theory, but Air Display has some quirks that will drive you to distraction until you figure out how to work around them.

The initial connection process seems to be iffy. Since it requires that the Air Display apps be running on both your computer and your iOS device, if either of them aren't cooperating, you don't get a connection. I've found that after waking up my notebook and iPad in the morning, I need to quit the iPad app, and restart it - sometime a couple of times - before a connection can be made. Also, occasionally the iPad's screen will be blank (it should show your computer's wallpaper). For a while, I thought that indicated that the connection had not been made, but I discovered that dragging an application's window or a browser tab over to the iPad will, in effect, bring Air Display to life.

I also found that I had to disable my notebook's firewall in order to have a reliable connection with Air Display. I don't know if that's a quirk that's associated with the hotel's WiFi system; I didn't have that issue when I tested it at home. But if you're on the road and having problems, you might try this, assuming you're willing to live with the security implications.

And, finally, I've noticed that the longer Air Display is running and active, the slower it gets. This behavior is manifested by an increasingly jerky cursor movement, a disappearing cursor, or one that doesn't move at all. When this happens, a rebooting of the iPad and a reconnection of the Air Display software is often required to restore the original operation.

While these are not insignificant quirks, I must admit that Air Display has become an essential part of my "road warrior" toolbox. I'm willing to live with its eccentricities because when the app is working as it should, it makes a tremendous difference in my efficiency. 
You don't really need to be a certified geek to appreciation the implications of a three terabyte hard drive priced under $300. That's about a 50% increase over the previous maximum capacity, and enough storage to hold over 400,000 songs. Or you could store a hundred Blu-Ray movies (at 30 gigabytes each).

Unfortunately, many computers won't be able to take advantage of this extra storage without installing extra hardware or software, due to a 30-year old decision about hard drive standards. Fortunately, Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6 users don't have this limitation, so Seagate's drive will work for them right out of the box. Their biggest problem is going to be finding one of these massive drives; Seagate's website shows them to be out of stock, already.

OK, perhaps that's not the biggest problem. I suspect figuring out how to back-up one of these drives will be the real challenge. It would require 600 regular DVDs to make a copy of a full 3 terabyte hard drive.

[I had to use an Excel spreadsheet to make the preceding computations, because I can't wrap my mind around numbers this big.]

Using an iPad as a second monitor
February 2, 2011 6:08 AM | Posted in: ,

I love my 13" MacBook Pro. It's portable and powerful, and capable of doing every work-related task I throw at it when I'm traveling. But...

That display is so teensy. I know; that's the compromise I made when I selected that model, but it's occasionally (OK, often) aggravating not to be able to see two open documents simultaneously. Gee, if there was only some way to add another display, but without having to lug along another piece of equipment. Life would be so good.

Air Display IconWell, effective yesterday, life is so good. Yesterday, I purchased (for the princely sum of $9.99) a little application called Air Display from the App Store thereby increasing my laptop's screen area by about 55%. Air Display allows you to connect your iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) to your laptop or desktop computer and use it as a second (or third) monitor.

The main requirement is that the computer and the iPad have to be connected to the same wi-fi network, but once the app is installed on the iPad (and a small "helper app" put on the computer), the connection to each other is quick and sure. You can configure the app to automatically connect to your iPad when they're both in range, or you can do it manually.

And it works as advertised. There's some latency in the iPad's screen so you wouldn't want to use it for gaming or videos while functioning as a second monitor, but the resolution is crystal clear for documents and still graphics - probably even better than on my laptop.

With Air Display, I can put a Word doc on the iPad and use it to copy and paste text into an HTML doc on my laptop. Or I can monitor a website on one device while doing a blog post on the other. The really slick thing is that you can move the iPad wherever you want it - even put it in your lap - and reorient it to landscape/portrait mode and the picture automatically adjusts.

The iPad's touch screen continues to operate even while connected as a monitor, so you can navigate that device via either mouse or touch. According to the documentation, depending on your operating system, you can even use multi-touch gestures on the iPad, although I haven't tried that.

The Air Display works with both Mac and Windows machines (but check system requirements for both), and with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. And again, this app works only if you have access to a wi-fi network.

Note: Your mileage may vary, but I do find that the auto-connect feature is a bit jicky. If I use app switching on the iPad (double click of the Home button) to select a different app, and then switch back to Air Display, it doesn't always return to the original state. I'm not sure if I'm doing something wrong or if that's a bug. But when it does work, it's like having a Very Smart Monitor.

Note #2: I took advantage of Avatron's live chat support feature and the tech confirmed that the reconnect feature was somewhat dependent on the length of time you were away from the app. Jumping away for a few seconds to check WeatherBug is probably OK; leaving for a few minutes to play Angry Birds will require a reconnect. I hope they'll fix this in a subsequent release.

My Usual Great Timing
April 13, 2010 4:23 PM | Posted in:

My new MacBook Pro was delivered last Thursday, April 8th.

Apple announced its new MacBook Pro lineup today, meaning that I got to use the new computer for almost five days before it became obsolete.

OK, that's a little dramatic. In reality, Apple didn't do much to the 13" model (which is what I ordered) except improve battery life a smidgen and put in a slightly faster CPU. Neither of those things* tempt me to repeat the almost 12-hour ordeal of reconfiguring a new computer to fit my workflow.

Apple has a 14-day return policy so I could just send it back, wait a few days, and order a new one. Or I could whine to them and they'd probably let me replace it (lots of anecdotal evidence where that's been done before for customers purchasing computers just before the new models were introduced). But I knew I was risking this exact scenario when I ordered mine, and the fact is that I need it for an upcoming business trip. I can't afford to wait a week or two (at best, I figure) to get a replacement.

So, I'm going to simply enjoy my new computer and do my best not to be envious of anyone whose timing was better than mine.

Besides, the new models will probably prove to have a flaw that causes them to explode, and who wants to deal with that?

*I do wish I had the new multi-touch trackpad, although at this point I'm not exactly sure why.
My new computer monitor arrived late yesterday via FedEx (and, by the way, I'd like to know why our neighborhood seems to be The. Very. Last. Destination. for FedEx deliveries) and I immediately neglected plans to do some much-needed housekeeping in order to get it connected and configured.

It's a 24" Dell* display, and it replaces a six year old 19" NEC that had developed a disturbing...well, I'm not sure what to call it. It's like someone dribbled liquid down the inside of the screen, right in the center of the display. It wasn't always obvious, but while my mind had learned to ignore it, it was always there. Plus, it was just 19", and while I'm old enough to remember 13" monitors (OK, I'm old enough to remember TI Silent 700 terminals; what's it to you?), nineteen inches no longer seem to go as far as they once did.

I love the new monitor, and that may be an understatement. But here's the thing: I didn't anticipate the extent to which I needed to adjust my work processes to accommodate the increased screen real estate. I mean, I knew that on the old monitor I was constantly resizing and moving windows in order to work with the dozen or so applications I need to have open at all times to do my job, but it's not as easy as I thought to adapt to the extra space.

On the old monitor, I could take in everything on the screen via direct or peripheral vision. On the new one, I have to either shift my eyes or turn my head to see stuff on the edges. And I can't put everything in the middle of the screen. That pretty much defeats the purpose of having a large display.

I had also grown accustomed to having both sides of the screen dedicated to menus in applications like Photoshop, with my work situated in the middle. But it's now a lot of mousing to move from one side to the other to change tools or settings. I need to come up with a new toolbar workspace to cut down on that.

Nevertheless, these are problems I'm happy to deal with. Being able to put two full-sized documents side-by-side is nothing short of a joy, and I can now actually identify the 60 icons that rest perpetually in the Dock at the bottom of the screen. But, for now anyway, I'm glad I didn't fork over the extra bucks for a 30" monitor. After all, sometimes more is too much, something I've learned well by observing Congress lately.

*Yes, I know...why is a Mac guy buying a Dell peripheral? For one thing, I haven't had an Apple monitor since the 80s. I had a 15" Sony CRT prior to getting the NEC. For the price, I'm not impressed with Apple's monitors. But, primarily, when I started looking for a new monitor I confess to being completely discombobulated by the plethora of choices, and the disparity of reviews for any given model. I was locked in analysis paralysis until I had a meeting with my pal Darrell, who's the head creative guy for a local ad agency. He's also a Mac user, and the last time I was in his office he had a big honkin' Cinema Display on his desk. But this time, he had a Dell, and I asked him why. He basically said the same thing: for the price, the Dell is a fabulous value, and it was perfectly calibrated right out of the box. I figured that a recommendation from a graphics pro whom I know and respect was better than a thousand anonymous website reviews, and I went home and ordered the same model he had on his desk. Great call, Darrell!

Proof of Microsoft's Success
November 12, 2009 7:59 AM | Posted in: ,

Update: I'm been taken to task for unfairly maligning Windows 7, the final version of which is far superior to the beta version depicted below. In the final version, Hitler's mustache also jiggles.

Via xkcd:

Comic

Stalking the wily petabyte
September 2, 2009 6:45 AM | Posted in: ,

I can remember when an 80 megabyte hard drive was an extravagant, four-figure upgrade to a computer. I remember being blown away in 1998 when I learned that Microsoft's TerraServer project contained one terabyte of data.

Today, I've got three terabytes (that's ~3,000 gigabytes) of storage scattered among a handful of internal and external drives, and that's starting to feel a bit cramped. So, where do you go when terabytes are insufficient?

If you're BackBlaze, a company that provides "unlimited" online backup space for $5 per month, the next step is measured in petabytes (~1,000 terabytes or 4 quadrillion bytes, numbers that make even the US Congress look like an underachiever). BackBlaze has built and, presumably, continues to build its storage system in components that they refer to as "pods," each of which contains 45 1.5 terabyte Seagate hard drives, totaling 67 terabytes. Total cost of each pod: just $7,867. And if you want to build one for yourself, BackBlaze has helpfully provided detailed instructions. It really is a DIY project, albeit a bit more technically challenging than painting the guest bedroom.

BackBlaze has managed to get the cost of a petabyte of storage down to $117,000, or around 150% of the cost of the raw hard drives. This is a pretty amazing feat, especially considering that some of the currently available turnkey storage solutions run north of $2 million.

H/T: TechBlips via Twitter

Bruce Schneier's Advice for Managing Passwords
August 10, 2009 8:04 AM | Posted in: ,

Correction: As soon as I posted this, I realized that the list provided by Schneier is not his list; he's just linking to it. Sorry for the confusion.

Security expert Bruce Schneier shares a list of do's and don't's for passwords (and in a show of refreshing honesty, admits that he regularly breaks seven of his own the rules; that's pretty extreme given that the list contains only ten items).

I routinely break four or five of the rules, but I won't tell you which ones. I assume that I get bonus points for that. I thought about password-protecting this post to increase my security score, but, to be honest, I don't know how to do that.

I will tell you that I use a password manager application called Passwords Plus (created by DataViz). It's not perfect - there's no iPhone version, for example, and its password generation feature is limited to a maximum of eight characters - but it's served me well over the years. I have to keep track of around 300 passwords for myself and my clients, and an app like this is absolutely essential for me.

Although, now that I think about it, I really should be able to remember all of them without assistance, since I use nothing other than "mypassword." ;-)

Small {Apple} World
July 19, 2009 5:50 PM | Posted in: ,

I was visiting with a fellow in Bible Life Group* this morning, getting caught up with him and his family. They lived in Midland years ago, and moved to the Bay Area of California to be closer to family. He's back in Midland for a few months, working with his brother who owns a roofing company and thus is extremely busy following the terrible hailstorm earlier this year.

In the course of the conversation, I asked about his wife, specifically where she was working. His reply went something like this: She's a nanny, and works for a family that's pretty well off. Johnny Ive and his wife have twins and...

I interrupted him, making a huge leap of logic: Johnny Ive...as in Jonathan Ive? Apple's chief designer?!

Yes, that's the fellow.

Excuse me for being an Apple Fanboy, but I think it's pretty dang cool that I know someone who knows the guy who created the iPod, the iPhone, and the iMac, among many award-winning designs.

*Bible Life Group is our church's new-fangled name for Sunday School. I guess the latter term sounds too old-fashioned.

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