Over the past 30+ years (including 22 years at Microsoft), I have used a lot of computers, from my first TRS-80 Model III to my Mac Plus to almost the entire range of PCs from the original IBM PC and the first laptops to today's modern machines. I have some sentimental feelings toward some like my Apple II Plus, but I don't think I've loved any of them (with the possible exception of my iPad) -- until now.
Over the holidays, I decided to replace my Win7 home PC with a Dell XPS One 27 Touch running Windows 8. Based on my experience at work with Win8 on different computers, I knew I wanted a touch-capable machine for Win8 at home.
My new Dell (next to my "My First Bacon" plushie)
It's a lovely all-in-one computer, loaded with all the goodies like a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, loads of memory and storage, and a beefy i7 processor. However, when I first set it up, I was honestly a little unimpressed. I had it set up like a normal PC with the monitor upright and set back a little on my desk. It was just not very convenient or natural to touch the monitor there.
However, once I pulled the monitor closer to me, lowered to desk level, and tilted it back about 20-30 degrees, the device became magical. (It's easy to move the monitor up, down, and tilted.) Suddenly, as I was working over the PC a bit, reading became very natural. The 27" 2560 x 1440 screen is almost newspaper-sized and is sharp, so it makes for a great reading experience -- way better than my beloved iPad. Swiping the monitor to turn pages is very natural. I can see two full pages in the Kindle app or Zinio app (for magazines), and the Bing News app (which I didn't love before) has become a daily fixture for me now. Even the reading mode in Word (which I hate on my regular monitor/mouse combo at work) is fantastic on this machine.
I still have my keyboard and mouse when I want it, but I find myself using touch a lot more. I must admit, I feel very Minority Report when I'm using this machine, swiping and gesturing to do everything. I now really want more Windows 8 Store apps; Win7/desktop mode feels too old school and cruddy by comparison.
Of course, not everything is perfect. I don't love the wireless keyboard and mouse that come with the machine and will probably switch to an ergonomic wireless keyboard and a mouse with back and forward buttons. The video card (nVidia GeForce GT 640M) is only OK; I'm not a huge PC gamer, so this isn't terrible, but a little more oomph would be nice. I also wish the machine used SSD more effectively. There's an mSata slot with a 32G SSD which they use in Intel's SRT mode, basically a cache for the hard drive, like Apple's Fusion Drive. I'd rather have a big SSD with Windows and my apps on it. The machine is pretty quiet, with only a low fan buzz, but of course, more quiet is more better. Finally, this machine is spendy -- $2599.99 for the totally tricked out machine. I can't remember the last time I spent this much on a computer. (They do have lower priced configurations with smaller monitors, less memory, etc.)
Conventional wisdom says that Win8 is great on tablet computers but is only OK at best on desktops. This machine has blows that view out of the water for me. This big touch screen with Windows 8 is really a transformative computing experience for me. I just love it.
At last week's Seattle Maker Faire, Michael (11) became enamored with a Simon game, so we bought a kit to make one at home. (Those of you too young to remember, Simon was one of the first electronic games, introduced back in 1982. It had four buttons and would light one up. The player would tap it, then Simon would add another light to the sequence, which the player would then repeat, and so on.)
Today, Michael and I put the kit together. It was pretty straight-forward but it required some soldering. The last time I soldered was about five years ago when we built Herbie the Mousebot. Michael was really too young back then to solder, but today he did all the work. He seemed to really enjoy doing it and was very proud of his new game.
The Sparkfun Electronics "Simon Says" kit was very well put together -- good documentation and good quality parts. It cost about $30 at the show (although it's $24.95 on the website) and took us about 40 minutes to put together. We'll definitely get more kits. Hopefully, we can work up to Arduino stuff next.
With the untimely passing of Steve Jobs this week, like many people, I reflected on how I've been impacted by his contributions. I never met Steve or even saw him in person, but Apple and Steve Jobs definitely played a big role in my life.
My first programming class was summer school after 7th grade (1981?). We had Apple II computers with black-and-white 9" monitors and 110 baud teletype terminals connected to MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium). The Apples would overheat, so we'd have to open them up and fan them with their lids, but I didn't care. They were pretty magical. Over the next few summers, I improved my Applesoft BASIC programming and learned 6502 Assembly. (I didn't realize the Applesoft BASIC came from Microsoft and was an amalgamation of the two names.)
We eventually bought an Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, two floppy drives, an Amdek color monitor, and an Epson dot matrix printer. (This was in addition to the TRS-80 Model III we had first; we were definitely the first house of anyone I knew with two computers at home.) My friends and I pirated a lot of software (LockSmith is your friend) and played a lot of games like Loderunner, Choplifter, Castle Wolfenstein, and especially Wizardry.
I moved on to teaching Apple programming at home for $25 for five one hour lessons (maybe it was five two hour lesson); this was big money at the time since I was in ninth grade or something. I also wrote an Apple II database program for my school district to keep track of all of the padlock combinations for the lockers; as a result, I could open pretty much any lock in our school district. I got paid in stacks of floppy disks for this. I also got to borrow the first hard drive I ever saw -- a VCR-sized 5MB Winchester (I think); it was partitioned as something like two hundred floppy drives since the OS couldn't support big volumes.
At Stanford, I was a diehard Mac guy, with my Mac Plus with two 800K floppy drives (I eventually upgraded to a Mac SE with a 40MB aftermarket hard drive -- hot stuff.) I also worked at MicroDisc, the computer department of the Stanford Bookstore. At the time, we were the largest Apple reseller in the world. Senior year, I would borrow the new Mac Portable from the store on weekends. I would work on my programming projects at Denny's, drinking their bottomless coffee for hours. Most people hadn't seen a portable computer before, so I was definitely a trendsetter for the now-ubiquitous laptop-in-coffee shop scene.
I took this Mac experience to my first job Microsoft where I worked on Works for Macintosh 3.0 and 4.0. (I think my name is on one of the mailing labels on the box shot to the right.) I had a nice Mac IIci on my desk, but our developers had the screaming-fast (then) Mac IIfx machines. (I remember being amazed that the MacIIfx basically had two Apple IIs inside just to monitor the ADB ports. We'd come a long way...)
My team also ran the Mac lab where we got to see all of the new Mac hardware before they released. Back then, we had a lot of Macs around Microsoft. Every printer room had Apple Laserwriters as well as HP printers, and a lot of people used Word and Excel for Mac instead of on Windows 3.0 since the Mac versions were better.
Of course, even when I wasn't working directly on Apple products, Apple affected me a great deal. There's no question in my mind that Apple helped make Microsoft better by providing a great competitor. They had (and have) a different approach to making products that we envied, even when they weren't making as much money as we were (things have changed).
So, thanks, Steve, for all you've done for me and my life over the last thirty years. RIP.
On my digital SLRs, I've been shooting RAW files for quite some time now in order to get the most out of my images. However, I've had some concerns about being able to read these files later, so I've started converting all of my RAW files to Adobe's digital negative format DNG. I figure with Adobe backing it, it's more likely to be supported in the future vs. some random old Canon file format.
However, one my frustrations is that there hasn't been a free, Adobe codec for DNG for Windows 7 (especially 64-bit); this prevents me from seeing thumbnails in Explorer or from seeing the images in apps like the nice Windows Live Photo Gallery.
Well, my wait is over! Adobe Labs has a release candidate codec available now for 32 and 64-bit Windows 7 (Vista is not supported). It seems to run fine, albeit a little slow. (No word on their site about when they'll have their final release.)
You can get it here.
Once again, Michelle has found (for us anyway) another gorgeous, beautifully designed product. This time, it's Wasara paper tableware. These drop-dead stunning plates, bowls, and cups are designed by a Japanese company and made from sustainable, biodegradable products -- bamboo, reed pulp, and sugar processing by-product. Some of the items have thoughtful design touches to help you carry the items one-handed -- a nice touch for a paper plate. Even the packaging is beautiful.
They're not cheap ($12 for 8 plates vs. $4 for 36 Chinet paper plates - 13.5x more - Amazon has them in bulk for a little less), but when you want or need to use more elegant disposable tableware, Wasara looks perfect. (Even though they are made in China, we can't buy them here. Oh well.)
The Place shopping mall is just across the street from our apartment in Beijing. It has a huge, block-long video roof that normally plays random animations. However, I guess for the right price, you can do whatever you want with the screen. One guy decided to play video games on the display. I have to make sure the kids don't see this, or they'll want to play Halo Reach on it...
Even though iPads aren't officially available in China yet, there's no problem using them here, even the 3G versions, since (unlike US iPhones), the iPads are not SIM-locked to AT&T.
You first need to get a China Unicom 3G SIM with a data-only plan. You cannot use the 3G from China Telecom or China Mobile because they use different (read: incompatible) 3G standards. There's more information here on what to get.
Next, since the iPad only takes the new microsim size cards, you need to cut the China Unicom SIM card to the right size. This is pretty simple. I used the template on this site and had no real issues. Just remember to measure twice and cut once.
Once you insert the SIM into the iPad, go to Settings and turn on Cellular Data. Your iPad should find China Unicom right away. You need to set the APN settings; "3GNET" is the APN, username, and password.
Tada! You should now be surfing at a pretty fast speed, anywhere there's coverage!
I've been meaning to blog about RoadID for a while. As longtime readers of this blog know (thanks to all four of you, especially my mom!), I run and bike on occasion. I have a long standing paranoia, though, of being found dead or injured on the side of the road, and first responders not knowing who I am or how to reach my family.
So, to address this concern, I always wear a RoadID (usually on my ankle because it's out of the way). These are bracelets with your emergency info engraved on them. They have a few different varieties (e.g. one that you can lace into your running shoes). I now have one for China and one for the US. They're inexpensive and well-made -- I whole-heartedly recommend them to anyone who runs or bikes.
(As a side note, when I'm on the road or vacationing, I usually slip a note with my name and hotel info into my pocket. It's not as durable, but it's better than nothing.)
China is an amazing place in so many ways. One concept I'm especially fascinated with is shanzhai products. Translated directly, this means "mountain village" products, but they're really knockoffs of famous brands. There are shanzhai cars (ones that look like BMW X5s, etc.), shanzhai restaurants (Starbucks or McDonalds copies, etc.) and so on. There are even shanzhai celebrity performances where celebrity imitators will come perform for people who can't afford the real person. People have started using the term to refer to community generated content too (e.g. fan-videos, etc.)
This is a bit different that outright counterfeits (like crap liquor poured into Hennessy cognac bottles); these products don't claim to be the original. They are usually much less expensive but can be very good copies, with even more features than the original.
My favorite category of shanzhai products are the iPhone knockoffs. Products like the HiPhone (or CiPhone as shown here) physically look and feel great -- very close to the original. The software even looks like iPhone software (almost exactly, down to the Highway 280 icon on the maps, even though that has no meaning in China). The one I played with a year ago was just a titch thicker than a real iPhone, but unless you compared them side-by-side, you wouldn't have known it.
The software itself was much slower and clunkier than Apple's, once again reaffirming that the hard part is software. And, of course, it doesn't actually run Apple's OS, so the iPhone App Store apps don't run on it, negating much of the appeal of an iPhone.
Still, the prices are cheap (starting at around USD$70 on my friend's website, lightinthebox.com). What's more, these phones have unique features like dual SIM support, different colors (want a pink iPhone?), different form factors (I saw a HiPhone Nano -- even Apple hasn't shipped one), and even a HiPhone running Windows Mobile 6.1!
While I'm obviously disappointed there's so much copying of valuable IP here, I can't help but be impressed by how quickly and frankly well in some cases the companies here are making shanzhai products. I hope this energy will be applied to more creative endeavors someday.
More on Shanzhai:
How can you make a luxury SUV better? By adding a gun cabinet and "self-replenishing drinks cabinet", that's how. This is the Holland & Holland/Overfinch customized version of the Land Rover. If only it had a bacon oven, it would be perfect.
Holland & Holland Range Rover by Overfinch - Click above for high-res image gallery
This, friends, is how one rolls. Behold the Holland & Holland Range Rover by Overfinch, a joint effort between the gunmaker, Land Rover's bespokery and, well, Bacchus. One hundred tweed-wearing pheasant slayers will have the opportunity to drive this sybaritic super sled to the hunting grounds. Frankly, one wonders why anyone would ever bother leaving the SUV. This ultimate Range Rover is outfitted with a gorgeous, custom-integrated gun cabinet, a cavernous backseat console/fridge, and a liquor cabinet nicer than anything you'd find in Don Draper's office. Our favorite feature? Well, the liquor itself is "self-replenishing," meaning that for the first year of ownership, Holland & Holland Rangie owners will have the vehicle's booze supply refilled automatically. Think of it like bottled water home delivery, only with single-malt scotch, small-batch gin, and other fine adult refreshments.
Naturally, all the interior trim is customized to match the cabinetry, which, in turn, can be made to match the customer's Holland & Holland firearms. The paint colors offered are exclusive to this model, of course, and the exterior is dolled up with unique trim and wheels as well. Aspiring Limey ballers take note -- you can even swap the standard dubs with off-road rubber for a pavement-only 22" wheel/tire package as well. The whole thing is deliciously ostentatious and wonderful. Power comes from either the blown 503-horse gasoline V8 or the diesel TDV8. It should come as zero surprise that this sort of exclusivity carries a dear price, so bring money. The H&H Range Rover will set you back at least £120K. Not that that'll be a problem for the target audience. For more, check out the PR after the jump.
Read the whole article for more.
Thanks to Bryan for the pointer.
Last Friday, I took Andrew (12) and Michael (9) to see the Mariners play the Indians at Safeco Field. We were there with our friends the Shirouzus, who are huge baseball fans. Even though the M's were blown out 0-9, I really enjoyed the evening. I forgot how much I like going to see baseball games live.
It was a very lovely evening -- not cold at all. You can see the Seattle skyline behind the stadium, bathed in the beautiful sunset colors.
Their son (and Andrew's classmate in Beijing) made a sign that they waved around between innings; alas, they were never picked up by the scoreboard cameras.
Of course, my kids were more excited about the free application Nintendo (part owners of the Mariners) made for the Gameboy DS; you can install it from stations all around the stadium. It's a pretty cool wireless app that allows you to see replays, watch where the pitches go, order food at your seat, see the stats from other games, view player stats, and play sports related games against other people in the stadium.
All in all, it was a great evening.
This is so cool. The US Embassy (I think) is Twittering Beijing air quality stats. In addition to the sheer coolness of it, there have been some concerns that official local sources may not always have accurate numbers. Of course, I feel worse now about how bad the air really is. The average yesterday was 201 (very unhealthy) while I was hiking around town.
I need one of these. A lot.
A robot pours soup in a ramen bowl at "Momozono Robot Ramen," a ramen shop in the Yamanashi Prefecture city of Minami-Alps, as shop owner Yoshihira Uchida looks on. (Mainichi)
MINAMI-ALPS, Yamanashi -- "Momozono Robot Ramen," a ramen shop that opened here in November last year, is gaining popularity not only for its delicious ramen noodles, but for its robotic chef.
The ramen-making robot was built by 60-year-old shop owner Yoshihira Uchida, who spent about 20 million yen on its construction. Customers can place their orders on a computer in the shop, customizing various aspects such as the levels of soy sauce, salt, and richness of the soup. Uchida says there are 40 million different flavor permutations.
The noodles themselves are cooked by a human, with the robot creating a perfectly blended soup which is then delivered to the human chef via a conveyor belt, who adds the noodles and toppings. The whole process takes only about two minutes, a minute shorter than instant cup noodles. Prices of ramen per bowl are 500 yen for regular size and 300 yen for small size.
Uchida developed a love of electronics during elementary and junior high school, which he went on to study at the Musashi Institute of Technology (now Tokyo City University) and the University of Toyama's graduate school, focusing on electronic circuits and motors. After graduating, Uchida worked on noodle-packing machines at a food manufacturer until he retired from the company last year.
While working for the company, Uchida, a huge noodle lover, opened a soba noodle shop 10 years ago. He later started to make ramen -- which received mixed comments from friends, with some saying the taste was strong, and others too weak. In the end, Uchida hit upon the idea of creating a robot that can allow customers to choose the flavor they want.
Uchida began to develop the robot at his home in around 2003, asking an iron foundry to produce the specialist parts he needed. He finally completed the robot in November last year, but suffered teething problems: ramen with no taste, and computer crashes caused by spilled soup. After repeated repairs, however, Uchida finally managed to iron out the bugs.
He's now aiming at automating the addition of noodles and toppings, and shrinking the robot itself. He is also planning to open his second ramen shop in Kofu possibly by the end of this year.
"I want to mass produce the robot in the future and leave my mark out there," he says.
(Mainichi Japan) July 4, 2009
Like many geeks of my generation, I grew up writing code in BASIC, first on a TRS-80 Model III (2.03 mHz Z-80!) and timeshared mainframes (via keypunch cards and a 110 baud modem!) Back then, every personal computer had a computer language (usually BASIC) built in so almost everyone learned a little programming. Unfortunately today, it's harder to find the places to write code other than the browser (WSH anyone?) and even harder to find users to bother to learn.
I really want the boys to learn to program, not necessarily to become expert developers, but to see what's behind the games they love and to learn a little algorithmic thinking. So, I was delighted to find that Microsoft had built a cool, lightweight version of BASIC called SmallBasic. This free download has a nice IDE (editing environment), turtle graphics, and access to FlickR.
Since I gave to Andrew (11) this afternoon, he hasn't stopped typing in the sample code in the tutorial; better still, he's already started improvising off those programs. Just now, I said "I'm really glad to see you doing this." He replied, "It's fun." and returned to his coding.
I love it when Microsoft does cool stuff like this.
This is just the coolest game, especially on a Tablet PC. Check it out.
Michael (8) practically tore my Tablet PC out of my hands to play it. He's still playing it (well, actually, now he's watching me write this post, dying to see what I say about him...)
My friend Nigel Parker, who works in the Microsoft New Zealand office and who I met on my trip there almost three years ago, does some amazing things as he shows off cool new Microsoft technology. The latest thing combines two things I love - great technology and sailboat racing.
Right now the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series races are underway in Auckland. These races are in Americas Cup class boats with Americas Cup crews. Even for sailing enthusiasts, it's hard to watch sailboat racing, but Nigel helped build a very cool race viewer using Silverlight (a very slick newish product from Microsoft) that makes following the races easier to understand and frankly more fun.
He has such a cool job and is good at it...
(BTW, go Team New Zealand -- I can't root for BMW Oracle, even though they're the American team...)
As soon as we got our China Mobile mobile phone accounts we started getting a lot of Chinese text messages. We initially thought they were all spam text messages, but it turns out some are daily news messages from China Mobile. I'm sure if I could read Chinese this would be a nice service, but since I'm illiterate, it's not so useful.
Fortunately, my colleague John sent me the instructions for turning off the news messages. Just send a text message to 10658000 with QXCXP in the message body. You should get two text messages back.
Now, if there were only an easy way to stop the other SMS spam messages. It's really bad here.
The boys and I have been fighting over who gets to play this charming and fun game: The World of Goo. It's a little like Lemmings or Cloning Clyde in the sense that you are trying to get a set of dudes from point A to point B, but the game is very clever and well-executed with a construction twist.
You can try the game out first for free. We've played the PC/Mac version and love it. We'll have to try to Wii version once we unpack our Wii...
It' a little hard to tell what the game is about from the video below, but you can see even from here that it's just beautiful. Anyway, give it a whirl!
Throughout our trip to Japan, I took the boys to go play video games; there were tons of great arcades through out Tokyo and Kyoto. There were a few trends in games that I hadn't seen much of (if at all) yet in the US.
First, many of the popular games had physical components you could use in the game play, like a card or a token. Each time you play, you get another piece, randomly selected. The more you play, the more players or moves you have. This also adds a trading/collectable element to the video game and rewards players who play more often; brilliant. We saw this with Mushiking in the US, but this went even further in Japan, including the Pokemon Battrio game the kids played which gave out poker chip-like tokens with different Pokemon on each (gotta catch 'em all indeed).
A specialized form of this genre involved buying a starter deck of cards for 300-500 yen or so (about US$3-5) and then moving multiple cards from the deck on a game surface to control armies or players. For instance, the boys started playing Sangokushi Taisen3, a real-time strategy game based on the Chinese Three Kingdoms period. (It was pretty interesting learning to play a complex game like this without being able to read anything...) Each card represented a different military unit like archers or cavalry. You position the cards on the surface to select which units were in play and where they started. Then, you move the cards to advance or retreat; you can also turn the card to aim the attacks (like arrows) a particular direction. It was an elegant way of handling a hard UI problem for a video game (normally solved on PCs by mouse and keyboard) -- much more physical and direct.
In addition to Sangokushi, Lord of Vermillion, a party-based real-time adventure game, seemed popular. We also saw a baseball game, a soccer game, and a Gundam 0083 game in this genre. I hope they come to the US soon; they looked really fun. I'm sure they're even more fun if you can understand the instructions!
We recently joined the eco chic and bought a Toyota Prius (a loaded "package 6" in black). I thought we were buying a new car, but the Prius is really just a big gadget on wheels. We've had loads of fun messing with the Bluetooth phone stuff, backing camera, and the display that shows how the power is flowing around between the engine, brakes, and batteries.
The GPS mapping system has a really nice, sharp display -- much nicer than anything I've seen in a German or American car. The routing seems pretty solid and the performance is good.
We've also messed around with the voice recognition system, but they give long instructions after you push the button for each command ("After the beep, please say the command you might maybe want me to try and process even though you talk like a drunken two year old with a lisp") so it's not really very usable.
I love the keyless entry and starter. We can open the door and drive off without taking the key out of my pocket or Michelle's purse. I thought it was kind of a gimmick, but I love it. I wish I bought this option on my other car.
I know these features aren't really unique to the Prius, but this is the first car we've that had all the gadgets. Besides, the car just feels like a high-tech golf cart.
However, the best feature is the eco-smug feeling you get when you drive past an SUV.
OMG, I can't wait. Two of my favorite video game franchises in one. Read the whole article here.
Thanks to JFM for the link.
(Update: Here's the original article from 1up.com)
(Update 2: I guess you really can't believe everything you read on the internet. I missed the fact the original article posted on April 1st. It would still be cool. Really. I'm going to go sulk now.)
I can't stop playing with my new Zune 8. It's lovely to look at and hold, the UI is great, and the sound is super. I had no complaints with my iRiver Clix, but since Urge, the subscription music service I was using, merged with Rhapsody, I had to find a new music player (I would like to avoid give Real any money ever.) Contrary to what Steve Jobs asserted, some people (including me) really prefer all-you-can eat subscription music over purchasing songs $.99 at a time.
The only real complaints I have are around accessories. I couldn't find any cases or armbands for the Zune, which I need before I can use it running (I dropped by Clix several times, so I know I need some kind of protection for the Zune). Also, my car has an iPod adapter; as far as I know, there isn't a Zune-to-iPod convertor, so I may be out of luck there. I'm sure at least the case/armband issue will resolve itself in a few weeks, but I'm a bit stuck on the car thing.
I'm a pretty tough critic of the work we do at Microsoft; as cool as some of our stuff is, we can definitely do better. However, once in a while, we do something very slick. The new Zune is one of those times.
I just picked up a new 2008 Audi A4 Avant 2.0T . This is my first Audi. I'm impressed with the thoughtful design details in the car so far. For instance, you can fold up the cargo cover in the back like a tent to divide the space to hold grocery bags and such. Another nice detail is how the radio will show your presets next to the buttons with the RDS info as labels.
They did a nice job with the ski sack (a pass-through from the trunk into the back seat with a bag on the end to keep the skis separated from the passenger compartment); the bag drains out of the car, so if there's snow, etc. it won't collect in the bag). I'm also having a surprising amount of fun playing with the paddle shifters/tiptronic transmission. The user guide leaves something to be desired (the words are all in English, but the sentences are hard to parse), but if that's the biggest problem I have with the car I'll be doing well.
The car is "dolphin grey" (the same charcoal grey color as the image above), and the interior is black leather. I added the cold weather package (need those seat warmers and the ski sack), premium package (leather seats...), the "convenience package" (stuff like an electronic compass, folding outside mirrors, HomeLink, and xenon headlights -- I didn't really need this or even want it, but they were in the car that was available. Besides more toys are more fun), and the iPod kit (also, not something I needed or wanted, but it'll be fun to mess with).
I opted against the performance/sport stuff or bigger engine that I would have bought in the past. While I think the car looks better with bigger wheels, etc. they don't help snow driving or the ride quality; I've also just come to grips with the fact I'm not a sport driver. This is my daddy mobile with a six mile daily commute over side streets. No hard cornering, fast acceleration, or autobahn driving in my daily life.
I've always been a BMW fan; the first car I owned in college was a 1972 BMW 2002, and I've almost always had a BMW since then with the most recent being a 528iT (station wagon) I've had for the last eight years. The 5 was a great car; I still really liked it, but maintenance was starting to become expensive relative to the value of the car, plus I wanted something with all wheel drive for the wet and snow. I looked at the X5 and X3, but I realized I'm not an SUV guy. I didn't look at the other new BMWs because I think they look like ass. I don't care for BMW's new design direction at all, especially in the new 5 series. Also, I don't know that the BMWs are worth the premium over other European cars (let alone Japanese or American cars).
So, Audi won my vote this time. I'm looking forward to getting to know the car better...
I've been shooting my venerable Canon 10D for 4.5 years now; it's been a great camera and honestly, it's still better than I am. In most ways, my photography is not limited by the camera. However, I'm a gear junkie as much as a photographer; it's been hard to resist all the exciting new cameras that have come out these past few years, so I finally gave in and bought the new 40D.
I haven't had a chance to really put it through its paces yet, but so far, I love it. One of the limitations I did run into with the 10D was the frame rate; when I'm shooting the kids or an event like a sailboat race, I often missed the "decisive moment" because the 10D was a just a little slow at 3.3 frames-per-second. The 40D's 6.5 fps feels like a machine gun by comparison. Perhaps more frustrating on the 10D was the relatively small buffer size. I'd be blazing away and all-of-a-sudden the camera would stop taking photos once the internal buffer filled up; I'd be sitting there fuming and waiting to get another shot just as the naked supermodels appeared with an honest politician, Bigfoot, and Osama Bin Laden dancing with them. By the time I was ready to shoot again, they'd all be gone. The 40D has a much bigger buffer, so with any luck, I'll be able to get a snap of the elusive Bin Laden...
I'm looking forward to really messing with it some more. Watch for more photos soon...
Our sad Xbox came back today, happy again. Again, I think Microsoft did a good job here with a bad situation (even throwing in a one month free Xbox Live Gold card).
So, our lonely copy of Halo 3 finally met it's mate today. Andrew (10) happened to be home sick today (he really is sick -- swollen lymph nodes and a positive strep test are hard to fake), so he was pretty happy to kill Grunts, Brutes, and Hunters all afternoon. Even on our analog TV, it looks great.
Last weekend, I took the boys to Robothon, a robot festival at the Seattle Center run by the Seattle Robotics Society. In addition to battle bots (you could pay $5 to pilot a battle bot!) and other cool exhibits, you could buy a robot kit for $40 and someone would help you build it.
The kit was a "Herbie the Mousebot" from Solarbotics. Herbie has two light sensitive eyes and will chase the brightest light around. His whiskers and tail are touch sensitive; if they hit anything, he'll turn around. The two little motors drive Herbie along pretty damn fast. Herbie also has a taillight, so multiple Herbies can chase each other around. I have another kit (and a newly purchased soldering iron) to build before I can test this out. (I guess technically we have a Horatio, the black mouse, and Harriet, the white mouse.)
I took about two hours to build the thing. I've somehow managed to avoid learning to solder until this point, but I've always wanted to learn, so I figured this was the time. The boys were pretty interested at first; Andrew helped me solder and assemble the kit, but they quickly moved to watch the robot sumo battles that a school group was having the corner (I wanted to see it too.) The moment of truth arrived when I put the nine volt battery it. It worked! The motors ran and the speeds varied with the light. Actually, one of the motors was stuck at first, but it was because the tires were on a little tight. Fortunately, I didn't have to do any real debugging. I noticed some of the other builders had to reflow some solder joints - non-trivial once the kit is together.
We tested Herbie in our dark living room. The robot scurried around the room, bumping into stuff, backing up and jetting off in other directions. We could get it to follow a flashlight beam pretty easily. When we weren't paying attention with the flashlight, Herbie ran into the kitchen since the light was on. Scared the hell out of Michelle. Michael (7) thought that was really great...
More important, I passed the "dad test". These are terrifying moments where you have to prove you're a competent dad to your kids. I know they'll soon realize I'm just another loser, but I'd like to delay that as long as possible.
Anyway, Herbie is really very cool. There are a lot of other cool robot things going on for kids in Seattle including First Lego League and Junior First Lego League that I may need to check out for the boys.
GPSActionReplay is a cool Java applet that lets you plot multiple GPS tracks over a map or image. It animates the tracks so you can see how each track formed. The obvious application of this is to replay races. The app has a bunch of extra features for sail racing like wind charts, etc. The UI is a bit confusing, but it's a fun way to watch and actually pretty educational (well, to sailors at least).
I realize some might be surprised that a Microsoft guy likes Google stuff (or would say it publicly anyway), but I love Google Mobile. You can use SMS to get info like phone numbers, stock prices, or currency rates. Totally sweet and very quick.
Andrew (9): "Could I have an iPod? Maybe an iPod Nano?"
Us (two Microsoft employees): "Well, maybe for your birthday we can get you a Zune."
Andrew [confused]: "An iPod Zune?"
Um, I think we still have a long way to go on Zune awareness...
Now that Michelle and I both have the same phone (the awesome T-Mobile Dash), we need a way to tell them apart (having already had the embarassing problem of grabbing the wrong phone in the morning.) Since she bought hers first, Michelle has made it clear that this is my problem to solve.
Enter Tego, an online shop where you can make custom skins for tons of different devices including phones, computers, mp3 players, and gaming devices. The design process is simple and well-built. You just pick the template (they have tons including the Dash) and overlay your images.
Once I decide what to make, I'll order one and let you know how it turned out. I might them for our Xbox 360, the kids' Gameboy DS Lites, and my laptop if they're cool. Slick.
Now that we finally have an Xbox 360, I'm also on Xbox Live. My gamer tag is Disco Flow (old fraternity story...) I'd love to have more (which is to say any) friends on Live, so feel free to send me an invite so we can get our frag on. (Note, I'll only accept invites from people I know pretty well.)
Two weeks ago (before the storm and such), I took another trip to Whistler, this time with friends (and no kids). Eric (Group Program Manager for Microsoft's Digital Memories team) has a place up there and invited me and Chris (architect-type dude on Live Platform or some such thing) up for a boys weekend. It must have been an unofficial Microsoft weekend up there. We ran into zillions of Microsoft folks, including a girls trip of folks from my team (Kristen, Kellie, and Kellie's non-MS friend Juli) and Eric's sister, Stacey (who is a developer at Microsoft). We wound up hanging out with the girls and skied some with a bunch of other MS guys too.
It was really different skiing with adults vs. chasing Andrew (9) down the hill. My legs were definitely not ready for real skiing, plus I think my skis are simply too advanced and long for me. I was dying, but we had really good days for skiing. One of the fun things I did this time was wear my Garmin Forerunner 301 GPS while I was skiing. I used SportTracks (still one of my favorite apps) to pull the data off and then converted the tracks to Google Earth for a 3D rendering of the days' work. (You can see three tracks in the image above. The rightmost is the first day I skied on Whistler. The left tracks are on Blackcomb. The first track is me, the second track is Eric (who skied out down the mountain). Whistler Village is in the lower left corner.)
We also enjoyed the great apres-ski scene Whistler has to offer including many beers at the Longhorn Saloon (the inspiration for the codename of Windows Vista too, btw) and a great dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro, complete with Eric sabering a bottle of sparkling wine open (which is super fun incidentally, if a little less dramatic than one might expect.
Fortunately, the drive home was much easier than last time. I'm ready for another trip any time, hopefully with some new skis (maybe the Volkl AC2...)
Over the past few weeks, I've been playing with the beta versions of Windows Media Player 11. It's really a huge improvement over previous versions of WMP; the UI is much cleaner, focusing on being a great music player first vs. trying to be all things to all media types.
In particular I love the integration with MTV's URGE online music service. I played with the free trial of the service that allows you to listen to and download as much music as you want. It is incredibly addictive, finding old songs I'd almost forgotten, finding new music through their playlists (who knew there was so much great swamp blues?), and listening to current hits. I've spent hours and hours finding fun music online and enjoyed it enough to pay for a full year's subscription.
I also liked it enough to buy an iRiver Clix MP3 player. This is a very sexy little 2G music player (the terrible iRiver site does nothing to show off how slick this little guy is.). The whole screen is a big rocker switch, the UI is very swish in a Vista-like way, and the feature set is great (music, fm, video, Flash games, voice recording, photos). The Clix supports the DRM scheme from URGE, so I can download songs onto the player from the service as part of my subscription. It's been super fun listening to the songs on the Clix when I work out or in the car (through an FM transmitter I have).
The combination of WMP11, URGE, and the Clix is the first viable competitor to iTunes/iPod IMHO. I'm anxious to see what comes of the Zune player we're working on; in the meantime, I love this setup. (Note, I don't know anything about Zune aside from what I've read on the Internet and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the Wikipedia article I linked to.)
I'm writing this post using the Windows Live Writer beta. This is a client application that hooks up to various blog services and allows a more word processor like. Normally, when I write my blog, I use a web form and have to hand-code a bunch of HTML to do things like lists or images. Live Writer makes all that easier.
The setup couldn't have been easier. I just gave it the URL for my blog and my username/password. It figured out what blog software I used, and it imported all my styles and categories automatically. When I write this, it uses the styles from my blog, so I can easily see how everything will look. There's even a view that shows the draft post injected into my blog, so I can see it context.
The spell checking will be a huge plus too. Right now, background spell checking (you know, the red squiggles) doesn't appear to be working, but I'm sure it will be before release. The build also has some bugs; it crashed on me on my Vista box at work and lost my post. Life in the fast lane, I guess.
Still, this seems awesome. The UI is straightforward and clean. I can't wait to try it out over time. Give it a whirl and tell me what you think!
I gave in to my need for geeky retail therapy a few weeks ago and bought a white MacBook. It's a lovely machine (although it runs really hot), and OS X has a lot of things I like. I enjoyed messing with Dashboard widgets, doing fun transitions with Keynote, and enjoying the lovely screensavers. But the thing I really wanted to do was run Windows on top of all that OS X fun stuff.
I started with Parallels Desktop for Mac, a virtual machine that runs Windows like an application within OS X. The trial installed easily and everything worked really well. I especially liked the swooshy 3D transitions between OSX and Parallels when I ran Windows in fullscreen.
Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting Windows in Parallels to connect to the Microsoft corporate network, so I resorted to running BootCamp to dual boot the MacBook into Windows. Apple did their typical smooth job with BootCamp, even though it's still in beta. BootCamp first asks you to re-partition the disk into Windows and Mac drives; the interface for this was simple and elegant, nicer than PartitionMagic on the PC side and certainly better than the nothing we offer in Windows. They then ask you to stick in a blank CD to burn all the drivers you'll need in Windows to run on the Mac hardware.
After that you reboot onto the Windows installation CD and start setup. (There were some weird messups here with the Mac not ejecting CDs at the right time, but otherwise no prob). After setup and first run you stick in the driver CD, run setup and everything is great.
I was able to join the Microsoft corporate domain and then the wheels fell off. There was no way to type ctrl-alt-delete to log in. (The MacBook doesn't have a Windows "delete" key.) I hooked up an external USB keyboard, logged in, and tried to figure out how to proceed. With some almost correct help from the web, I discovered I could use remapkey.exe from the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit (a free download from Microsoft) to remap one of the keys (I chose the right Window/cloverleaf key) to "delete". Now I could log in.
I then set out to add a right mouse button (Macs only have one mouse button on the trackpad, although their zippy touchpad driver on the Mac side allows you to use two figures on the pad to indicate right mouse -- very slick). Yes, you could use shift-F10 to get context menus, but I think that's not very convenient. Instead, I found a scriptable input mapping utility called AutoHotKey that allowed me to write a logon script that remapped the Enter key (really the numpad Enter key) to right mouse.
To create the script after you've installed and run AutoHotKey:
Now, everytime you boot into Windows, you'll have a right mouse button!
The MacBook runs Windows well and there's something perversely fun about using a Mac at Microsoft. Not that I'd know. Michelle made off with the MacBook as soon as I got it working on the corporate network and is using now as her daily driver for work. Oh well.
In my post the other day about websites that reformat webpages for reading on phones, I pulled a bozo move and failed to include Microsoft's offering in this space. Fortunately, Ken pointed this out to me in the comments.
Apparently, it does local search (for places near you) and general web search. I'm having some problems with my mobile phone connection right now, so I can't test it, but you can try it out yourself. Let me know what you think!
Reading web sites on my phone is a bit of a pain. (Note: I'm not responsible for Pocket Internet Explorer -- that's another team...) Most sites simply aren't formatted for the little screens.
Google Mobilizer is a neat site that takes an URL and strips it down so it can be read more easily in a cellphone browser. The only thing I wish it did was create a new URL that I could set as a favorite, so I could immediately jump to the stripped form of all my favorite sites.
Skweezer does this as well and actually does provide the permalink to the stripped site. I like the smaller text (more on the screen), but Google did a better job hiding the navigation menus, letting me see the bulk of the text. Also, Skweezer removed the ads from the test site and inserted their own -- a bit annoying; Google didn't mess with the ads. Still, I like the name Skweezer a lot and may use it just because of that.
Thanks to Lifehacker for the link.
I just installed the v3.00 firmware upgrade for the Garmin Forerunner 301. In addition to some bug fixes, the major improvement in this release is the addition of support for MultiSport.
With this upgrade, you can configure the Forerunner for events like triathlons. You specify the order and type (run, bike, other) of each leg. After you start the event, you hit the "Lap" button to transition from one leg to the next. You can even have it record your transition times (hit the "Lap" button at the start of the transition and again at the end). I used this feature yesterday on my brick (run, bike, run) workout. Worked like a charm!
Click here for the upgrade.
Click here for the updated user guide (Owner's Manual Rev. D)
Click here for a page describing the bug fixes and previous firmware upgrades. Good accessories too.
Two of my friends Chris Wilson and Charlotte Lowrie) have picked up the Lensbaby, and I have to admit, I'm really tempted. The Lensbaby is this funny lens with a plastic accordian-like body. You push, pull, and skew the body to focus the lens, but because the lens can move out parallel to the film/sensor plane, you can selectively focus on parts of the image, throwing the rest into a beautifully artistic blur.
It's a super fun way to shoot and forces you to really think about the composition. What's more, it's pretty cheap ($150). You can add macro lenses for another $30 or so.
It's on my Christmas list; who knows, I might even get one. If not, I'll probably pick one up for myself.
This little doohickey is a pocket brain. The 20Q contains a neural net that plays 20 questions with the user and is apparently scary smart. I played 20Q against the web version, and it correctly guessed the thing I was thinking (a Pikachu Pokemon) in about 22 questions. Amazing.
The toy version is available for $10-14 (although the Amazon appears to be out.)
OK, I don't really need this, but I need it, if you know what I mean (and I know you do). The Suunto G6 not only helps you keep score (most days I really need a computer to help me), but it measures your swing velocity, tempo, backswing length, and so on. After you train it at the range, it can tell you on the course if you're off your normal swing. After the round, you can download the data to your PC for more second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking.
Pretty slick, although probably not $550 slick.
In any case, I found a pretty slick little gadget to help me self-massage (not that kind!) some of the knots and soreness away -- The Stick. This is a semi-rigid stick with 1" plastic wheels along the length. You roll the stick over the sore muscles for about 20-30 strokes. The result is pretty impressive.
I had a guy demo this on one of my calves at the health and fitness expo before the Seattle Marathon (I just shopped -- no marathon). He told me to walk around the show and see if I felt a difference. It was clearly noticeable! The leg he had rollered felt much better. I bought one.
They come in different sizes and flexibility. I have the Original Body Stick. In addition to my workout soreness, it helps with the knots in my arms and shoulders from typing all day. I love it.
Wouldn't you know it? A few months after I bought my Garmin Forerunner 301, there's a new one coming -- the Forerunner 305. It looks like they'll address a lot of the issues with the current generation including size and reception.
This one looks a lot nicer, but I guess I'll stick to my current one for a while. Oh well, such is the price of progress.
Thanks to Sportsim Weblog for this info.
[Updated to fix link to Sportsim article]
In my ongoing quest to get into shape and spend more time outside, I picked up a 2005 Trek 1500 today. This is my first road bike. I had done a lot of research online, but when it came to doing ride tests, I really didn't know what I was looking for. I tried a bunch of other bikes out; at the end of the day, the 1500 felt the best. The fact that it's a 2005 closeout and, hence, on sale, was a big plus. I also was happy to find one of the 1500's with an Ultegra rear derailleur and a 105 brake set. Some of the other 1500's I saw had a 105 rear and no-name brakes. Nicer components at the same price are bonus.
Of course, when you get a new bike, there's more than the bike cost. Naturally, I "needed" a computer, so I added a Shimano Flight Deck. This is a pretty standard bike computer except that it integrates with my other components; the control buttons are on the brake hoods, there are sensors that know what gear the bike is in, and it calculates cadence (how fast I'm pedalling) from a combination of the speed and gear. Slick.
Next up were clip in pedals and shoes. I went with Shimano again. I'm hoping to use the same clips and shoes for my other bike at some point, so I went with SPD-style clips on PD-A520 pedals (two sided, basic pedals) and SH-T092 shoes (ones I can actually walk in!). I need to learn to how to ride a bike with clips; I've already done the slow-motion fall twice in my garage, banging up one of my control levers, my knee, and my ego. Time to find a softer place to practice.
I added some bottle cages (blue to match the bike), a Blackburn Air Stik pump, a little adapter so I can fill the Presta valves with a Shrader pump if needed, and some Pearl Izumi gloves (full winter ones and normal shorties). I still need some riding pants and a water/wind resistant jacket. I think I can make do with my other running gear.
Jimmy at Gregg's Cycles (Aurora store) was a great help, explaining everything, making sure I had what I needed (and no more). I highly recommend the store and Jimmy.
I can't wait to go for a ride (once I figure out the damn pedals so I don't tip over like an idiot).
This is the map of a run I did in Beijing from the Grand Hyatt (lower right) to the Forbidden City (upper left) and around the hutongs (traditional neighborhoods) in the area. I just thought it was a cool shot; it's also amazing to see how big the Forbidden City is.
(This shot was generated by SportTracks.)
I've alluded to my new running toy a few times in previous posts, but I haven't blogged about it yet. The Garmin Forerunner 301 is a GPS-based workout tool. It combines a GPS, heart rate monitor, and some other training software. It tracks my distance, pace, elevation change, and heart rate as I run or bike. It also automatically calculates mile split times, tells me if I'm running faster or slower than the pace I set, and can even handle interval training (once I get around to inputting some workouts.) The 301 has a rechargable battery with good life; it recharges and downloads data to the PC via a mini-USB port -- pretty convenient.
The software Garmin provides is pretty bad, but fortunately, there's an awesome free application called SportTracks. This thing rocks. It's a good exercise log, provides tons of charts, and overlays my workouts over Google street maps and satellite maps. If you use a Forerunner, you simply must use SportTracks.
The device is reasonably easy to use to seems OK accurate (not sure if the weird paths on my maps are GPS errors, map errors, or software errors). The only downsides are that it's a bit big still (and dorky looking) and it takes a while to acquire the GPS signal each morning when I go out to run (although it's forced me to take longer stretching, albeit in the cold and rain.) Also, like all GPS units, it needs line-of-sight to the satellites in order to keep the signal. The Garmin does simple extrapolation of your path once it finds the signal again, but invariably, the path shorter than I really ran. Running under tree cover obviously poses problems (this is especially bad for me in my neighborhood.)
As many trainers advise, keeping a log is a good motivational tool as well as a good way to track your progress. The Garmin takes this to the next level and is fun, fun, fun for geeks like me.
When I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I bought a Dopod 566 Smartphone. This is one of the newer Microsoft Smartphones. This phone was codenamed HTC Hurricane and is also known as the C550 if you're in Europe. Unfortunately, it's not available in the US yet (although T-Mobile is apparently going to bring it here eventually.)
It's a beautiful phone with a very sharp QVGA screen (higher res than the Audiovox 5600 that everyone at Microsoft seems to have.) Cooler (for me as the IE guy anyway) is the IE button on the phone. I also liked the music transport controls on the outside of the phone; I had planned to use the phone as my MP3 player.
So, after a few weeks of using the phone, here's what I think.
So, I'm happy I picked up the phone overall; it's a big upgrade from my last phone. The IE button is a big hit on my team, and it serves my needs well. The MP3 sync issue is the only really huge problem, and I wish the transport controls worked when the phone is locked. Maybe Smartphone 2005 fixes that. I'll have to ask.
I succumbed to my latent desire to buy something from Apple; their design draw was simply too powerful. I had convinced myself that I needed a portable wifi hub for my trips. I also figured that I could use it extend the range of my existing wireless net and maybe use it stream music to a stereo.
The Apple Airport Express seemed like just the ticket. It's lovely, of course, and had all the features I was looking for, except, apparently, ease-of-use. I wasted hours of my life that I'll never get back.
I'm sure if I were a Mac user and don't have an existing network, it would have been fine. I'm not. I'm a PC guy with an existing DLink network. Pain, frustration, and agony resulted.
First, you have to install software to configure the damn thing (this must be the only router in the world without browser-based configuration). The software installer sucks. Since I had QuickTime and iTunes installed already, part of the setup fails and gives a cryptic error about failure. Now I don't know if I have enough bits on the machine to make this work. To make things worse, Apple has two products in this line -- the Airport Express and the Airport Extreme, both of which are referred to as base stations in the software but which have different configuration paths. The confusion between the two screwed me up a few times. Fine, I'm dumb.
Next, from my PC (which has to have a wireless card -- you can't bridge through a wired network to an existing wireless router), the Airport would appear and disappear, seemingly randomly. The only indication of status on the device is a single light that can flash and change color (what's next, Morse code?) I tried soft and hard resets several times (which is a real joy -- putting a paper clip into a little hole while I plug the Airport back into the power strip under my desk.) Finally, I put an Ethernet cable into the damn thing and plugged the whole thing into the wall. That seemed to help somehow, although I'm still not sure why.
Then, I can't get the thing to talk to my existing network. No indication from the useless documentation on why this might be. Finally, in the Airport Express support forums, I discover that Apple has chosen a different subnet than Dlink, so I need to reconfigure the Airport to the right IP address range. OK, now it's showing up occasionally after lots of reboots.
Then, I try to figure out how to extend my network. Turns out you need routers that support some standard called WDS, but the implementations of WDS are not standardized (one of the great myths of standards is that the RFCs clearly spell out how to create a compliant implementation). I still haven't figured out if Dlink's implementation is compatible with Apple's nor can I trick the two things into talking to each other. As a result, I failed on this front. No wifi range extension.
Finally, I configured the Airport to be a music receiver. It's got an output to connect to a stereo so you can stream music from iTunes (Michelle has an iPod and lives in iTunes). I set everything up, configured iTunes, and nothing happened. Restart the hub, restart the PC, restart iTunes. Suddenly, a new button shows up in iTunes and everything works perfectly. I'm still not sure what combination of prayer, animal sacrifice, and voodoo made this work, but it did. It's actually pretty cool.
Of course, I've screwed the whole thing up again by taking the Airport on the road with me (where I had to repeat much of this dance to get the thing working in my hotel room so three of us could connect and get our machines ready for the Hack in the Box talk.) I'm not looking forward to setting this up again, but once I do, I don't think I'll take it with me on another trip.
The Linksys adapter looks better to me for travel, plus it has a four port wired router built in too, so security will be easier and configuration might be simpler.
While I love Apple's drive for simplicity, once the wheels came off, there was nothing I could do diagnose the problem. I think it's bad design to assume something this complex will work perfectly 100% of the time. Apple: give your users a chance to fix problems. Luck is not a good customer service strategy.
[Edited to remove some factual errors. NB, I just tried to hook it back up to play music -- failed horribly and torqued my network. I hate this thing.]
I've always carried power strips and/or extension cords in my demo and travel bags; there are just never enough power outlets at the demo site or the hotel room (especially since I have to power my computer, cameras, wifi hub, cellphone, and sometime other people's computers). However, the problem with power strips is the outlets get blocked by the bulky transformers that much of my gear has.
Enter the PowerSquid. This is such an obvious idea, I'm surprised no one thought of it earlier. It's a power strip where each outlet is on its own cord. Simple. It was a huge lifesaver on this last trip and has earned a permanent place in my bag.
Thanks to Gizmodo for the original pointer.
This new camera is sweet. It's fast, fast, fast compared to my S230. Start-up time is zippy, shutter delay is short, and shut down is fast. It's also smaller, over twice the resolution, and shoots much longer videos. In short, it's better in every way over my S230 as far as I can tell.
I can't wait to take it out for a real test. I haven't been this excited about a new camera in a while.
My Canon S230 met an untimely end during our vacation. This little three megapixel digital camera was in my pocket or backpack all the time, producing great photos when the moment caught me without a more substantial camera.
My trusty sidearm died in the line of duty. I had both kids alone, waiting for the evening fireworks show at Epcot. As is often the case when I'm alone with the kids, I just had my S230 (I need at least one hand free to corral children). I had the camera balanced on top of a pointy fence post to stabilize it for the long shutter evening shots when it slipped out of my hand and dashed onto the rocks below. The kids were able to scramble down after the show to retrieve the parts (everything came off -- doors, memory card, battery, the whole works.) The shot above is one of the last ones before it returned to the darkroom in the sky.
Since I can't live without a pocket camera, I placed an order today for a new Canon SD500. This is a 7.1 megapixel camera in an even smaller body (yes, I know the SD550 has been announced. I can't wait and the change isn't important to me.) I hope it's a good successor to my good ol' S230.
(Some shot details: This was shot using the "Night" mode on the S230. This holds the shutter open longer after the flash goes off, allowing the background to get exposed more. None of the lights in the background or the Epcot dome thingy would have shown up otherwise. Normally, the little flash isn't enough to light up anything too far away, but the Japanese gate was pretty close and had some lights on it, so the longer exposure allowed it to fill in. I love trying to make the camera's automatic settings do what I want.)
There's a small set of things I always have in my pockets. My cellphone. A pen. An LED flashlight. These are all useful to me almost every day. But the thing I've carried most consistently over the past few years is a Spyderco Delica, aka the "Clip It"
The Delica is small, lockback folding knife. There are lots of these kinds of knives, but the Delica stands out in a few ways.
First, it has a clip on the side that allows me to hang it on the corner of my pocket; the clip is reversable so I can carry on either side of my body (and I do). This has a few benefits. First, it's just way more comfortable to carry this way; it's not turning sideways in the bottom of my pocket like the Swiss army knife I used to carry. Second, I always know exactly where it is and in what orientation.
This leads to the next benefit. I can open and close the knife with one hand, quickly if necessary. Invariably, when I need to cut something, I'm already holding it.
Next, the knife is super comfortable to hold and use. It's small and light (and short enough to legally carry virtually everywhere). The bump on the back of the blade is a perfect place to rest my thumb. Together with the slight curve on bottom, I feel secure that I can push a bit on the blade with less risk of sliding forward. This alone makes it preferable to me than most of the straight handled folding knives.
Finally, it's got a good blade. It's sharp and holds an edge. The blade comes in three configurations -- serrated, smooth, and combination (half serrated, half smooth). I prefer the smooth or combination blades. Spyderco also makes a trainer version with a dull blade.
While the knife looks purposeful and a bit scary to some (and I'm sure it would be useful in a fight), I find myself relying on it almost every day for some mundane task -- cutting down a box for recycling, peeling an orange, cutting out a newspaper clipping. I use the knives so often that I am acutely aware now when I don't have one (like on flights after 9/11.) These are useful tools, well-designed and well-made, and relatively affordable. What more could you ask for?
Honestly, I don't use support for my camera enough, but when I do, I'm always happy with the results. There's no faster way to negate a great lens and body than by moving them around when you're shooting.
I have four support systems depending on what I'm doing.
My main support is a Bogen 3021 tripod with Giotto MH-1000 ballhead. This is a nice tripod with good height; I can raise it up high enough to get some unique perspectives. However, it's too heavy and long for me normally to carry a lot, so I don't use it often; I've been lusting over a newer carbon fiber tripod for some time and will finally bite the bullet someday. (Note, the updated version of the 3021 looks like has a shorter closed length which would be attractive to me, but it's still heavy at 5.1 lbs.) I switched from a tilt-pan-zoom head to the ballhead a while back. It's a lot easier to use in most cases.
More often, I use my Bogen 3016 monopod. (This is no longer available. I think the Manfrotto/Bogen 679 is the closest currently available version.) I've added a Bogen 3232 tilt head so I can flop my camera into portrait mode. I've made it easier to carry the monopod by adding a Giles Tactical Sling; this is actually a rifle sling that happens to be perfectly suited and cut to carry the monopod. Super convenient.
On top of both of these, I use a quick release clamp from Really Right Stuff with the matching plates for my cameras and lenses. These guys make beautifully milled clamps and custom plates for each camera body. They're a joy to use and totally rock solid. Their site is also fun to read; they have thought a lot about how to build the right gear for shooters. You have to have quick-release plates if you shoot a lot; turning the little screw knob to attach and detach your gear will give you RSI and drive you nuts.
I always have a Manfrotto 3007 Tabletop tripod in my bag. This is a little "pocket" tripod, but it's no cheap plastic support. This is a well-machined metal guy with a ballhead and an extender to give it more height. Super versatile. I've even used it to steady (not hold!) my big 70-200 2.8. It packs up pretty small and comes with its own case.
Finally, I have a cheap plastic Velbon video tripod that I got for free with my video camera. It's a piece of crap, but it's light and folds up small enough it fit in my rollaboard suitcase. It's a good reminder that having high quality gear that is too big or heavy to use is useless.
So, some closing thoughts on supports. It's nice to have a tripod that puts the camera at your eye level while you're standing up. It's actually been useful to have one that goes even higher so I can project a camera over the crowd or a fence (I have to stand on something to see through the camera then.) However, this is somewhat antithetical to having a tripod that is small enough to carry. So, either get two, resign yourself to carrying the big one, or live with the trade-off. I'll probably get two.
Also, if you're shooting with a tripod, it's nice to use a remote release. I love shooting this way. It allows me to be more interactive with the subject. I've also used the remote release when the tripod is too high for me to see through or when I'm sticking the camera out somewhere with the monopod. Finally, it keeps the camera from moving at all on the tripod.
Previous "What's in my camera bag" posts:
Keep it clean
I'm continually messing with my camera gear and accessories and have slowly come up with the set of stuff I like (for now, anyway.) It turns out I carry a lot of stuff depending on what I'm doing, so I thought I'd break this into a few posts.
In addition to the camera and no matter how light I'm travelling, I always have some way to clean the lens. Expensive lenses and cameras and great photo training are meaningless if your lens is filthy. Sometimes, I just have a handkerchief, but usually I have one or both of the following:
Anyway, enough on lens cleaning. Stay tuned for more photo gear rants...
I'm getting ready for a two week long business trip to Asia. My Toshiba Tablet PC is great, but it doesn't have a DVD drive, and I don't want to carry a player. My solution is to rip a stack of DVDs to DivX so I can watch them on my laptop without a DVD drive. (Divx is like MP3, but for video. It's a compression scheme that has reasonably high quality at reasonably good compression rates.)
I've tried this many times before with limited success. I had a lot of bad results, e.g. out-of-sync audio, messed up aspect ratios, and so on. It always took a batch of tools, and it was just time-consuming.
So, I was very please to find a pair of tools that have finally taken most of the pain out of this effort. DVD Decryptor does a good job getting the data off the DVD onto your hard drive for processing, then AutoGK converts that data to Divx, converts the audio to MP3, and syncs the two.
There are very few settings, and the ones that there are almost understandable. The only ones I really mess with are the size (I picked 1G per movie to allow me to put them on my USB flash drive), and the encoding format (I picked DivX instead of Xvid because I already had the decoders installed and because there are some DivX DVD players coming out now.)
It's still not as easy as ripping MP3s, but it's getting closer. It's very cool to have a stack of my movies on my harddrive so I can watch them on demand. I love it.
Doom9.net is the best resource around for this kind of activity. It's still pretty geeky though, so roll up your sleeves.
(Yes, yes, yes, I'm only ripping DVDs I own, blah blah blah.)
I ran across the Intel Application Accelerator recently. This is a free Windows app from Intel that optimizes performance for Intel motherboards, especially unblocking disk I/O.
I installed this on my old 1ghz Dell and saw a dramatic improvement. Some video encoding stuff I was doing dropped from an average of five hours to around 2.5 hours -- amazing.
It only supports certain chipsets, so you have to read a bit first to make sure it won't hose your machine. (I got my chipset info from the Dell support site; I'm not sure of a way to determine it from Windows.) I'd recommend setting a system restore point before installing it just to be sure. (You can find System Restore in Start>Programs>Accessories>System Tools.)
I'm not sure if I should think this is cool, funny, or creepy. The "Quantum Sleeper" can fold up to become a "safe room" to protect you from intruders, terrorist attacks, or your murderous 4 year old son. I like that you can watch DVDs or play video games while you wait for the police or Army to show up (or Michael's baby sitter in our case). Another nice touch is that you can link multiple of these beds so the parents can close up the kids beds too and then talk to the them via some kind of radio. I'm sure Andrew and Michael would love that. Not.
Of course, if you were going to get one, you'd add the optional tear gas spray, robotic arms, and projectile weapons. Unfortunately, that would add more to the 1658lbs for a queen size unit (if I was going to be trapped in this thing for a few days waiting out a gas attack, I think I'd opt for the king sized bed.)
Anyway, check it out.
Thanks to Boing Boing for the link.
or, a day with the Canon 1D Mark II.
So, a while back I drooled (in blogspace) over Canon's hot new digital SLR, the Canon 1D Mark II. This weekend, my dear friend Charlotte (who is the editor for MSN Photos, a great photographer, a old friend) was gracious enough to part with her new 1D Mark II so I could play with it. After lusted after this new body for so long, I could hardly believe my luck. I had Michael's birthday party that afternoon for the perfect opportunity to test it out.
Well, I have to say, I didn't love it. There were definitely things to love. The autofocus is much faster than on my 10D. The new E-TTL-II flash metering is simply outstanding. And the speed. Oh, the speed. 8.5 frames per second leaves my 3 fps in the dust. It was just the thing to get the perfect shot of kids running around. (It's actually almost too fast. I had a hard time getting just one photo; I wound up with a lot of multiples.)
Still, I'm not sure it's the camera for me. This it the first professional Canon I've shot, film or digital. There were a bunch of odd things like you need to hold a button down while turning knobs or whatever to change settings. I suppose they do it so you don't accidentily change your settings, but what a pain. Similarly, there are a bunch of settings you can't seem to change in the field; you need to change them using your computer. And it's big and heavy. I kind of like the vertical shooting grip, but the extra size and weight are a bit much for me.
It's a supermodel sexy camera, no doubt, and I loved my brief fling. But, at the end of the day, I think I'll stick with the girl next door. (Now, of course, if I could have both...)
I guess this counts as a gadget. I just installed a very slick utility for Outlook called Lookout. It does blazingly fast searches across the email, schedule entries, contacts, etc. in your Outlook files; it can even index your documents. The speed makes it so much more useful than Outlook's search functionality. Like Google, it makes it practical to query over your data to find stuff rather than having to try to organize it.
I have a bit of a problem with computer games from time to time. While I normally avoid playing them (I'll never look back on my life and wish I'd played more), I occasionally lose big sections of my life to a particular game. In the past, I've wasted precious brain cells and my limited time on earth on Age of Empires and MechWarrior, but recently, it's been Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town.
Not exactly a macho game, it's a GameBoy title that my boys play. You basically run a farm in a small town, trying to make ends meet, make a local girl fall in love and marry you, and raise lots of kids. In the meantime, you raise crops, chickens, cows, etc. and try to keep them all happy (you need to talk to your chickens or they get cross.) There are a bunch of little side games and a surprising amount of depth for a handheld game.
It's a very simple and charming game, not unlike Animal Crossing (another sordid tale of addiction and self-loathing). There's a GameCube version as well that interacts with the GameBoy version via a special cable. I'm resisting the urge to go out and buy the GameCube version, but I'm afraid I may fail.
It seemed appropriate this weekend to finally build and launch the Meteor Rocket that Michelle bought the boys a while back. It's a kit from Scientific Explorer that results in a C02 powered rocket that is supposed to go a hundred feet into the air. The C02 is created by mixing vinegar and baking soda in a 1 liter pop bottle with fins (really). It's got a pretty cool system that keeps the vinegar from mixing with the baking soda until you're ready and that allows the C02 to build inside before shooting out the bottom.
We went to a baseball field near our house for the inaugural flight. I thought I was very swish for having had brought all sorts of nifty tools to help load the vinegar and baking soda. Feeling pretty confident, I began the first fueling. The kids and Michelle stood back as I sealed up the container, shook it up, and proceeded to shoot CO2 foam, baking soda, and vinegar all over myself. Michelle nearly died laughing, practically falling the ground.
I quickly diagnosed my errors, reloaded, and successfully launched the rocket about 50' into the air where it tipped over, and then headed right at my family. Fortunately, my mini-Scud missed all the Chors it augered into the field, cracking the nose cone and part of the body.
Buoyed by the successful launch and unswayed by the damaged rocket, I reloaded, stepped back, and waited for the second launch. And waited. And waited.
Like in a bad slapstick routine, I then walked up the stalled rocket, picked it up, shook it, and sprayed C02 foam, vinegar, and baking soda all over myself. Michelle, love of my life and my greatest supporter, was once again bent over with laughter.
Having exhausted our quart bottle of vinegar and virtually all of my pride, we packed up the debris and walked home with the kids saying, "Was that all?"
Anyway, if you can read directions, it's a pretty cool toy. They have a C02 powered rocket car and a rocket glider too (is it a glider if it's powered?)
I'm a huge fan of the flashlights from Surefire. These guys take their flashlights very seriously. They are mostly aimed at military and law enforcement applications, so the stuff is very tough, insanely bright (they have a light that can blind you through your eyelids), and super functionally designed.
The 6P is the granddaddy of their lights and a personal favorite. It's a good size, bright (see above), and happens to be a good fighting light if you find yourself in a shootout in lowlight. (Doesn't everyone?)
They have very slick LED and weapons-mounted lights too. Their website and catalog are glorious and really show off their passion for excellence.
I love companies who really care about what they build, are honest about what they can and can't build (e.g. they don't claim their LED flashlight is visible at 20 miles and can last a lifetime on a single battery), and build great products.
Great, great stuff.
During our vacation, I encountered an error downloading photos off my CompactFlash card (very bad.) Despite my prodigious troubleshooting efforts, I was unable to get the photos off the card. As I sat in frustration that morning in the hotel room, I was sure these were undoubtedly the best photos I'd ever taken.
I then remembered a conversation I had with a developer at Photokina (photography trade show) in Cologne, Germany a few years ago. He made a product called Photo Rescue for just such emergencies.
A quick download and some munging around later, I got all my photos off the card. They turned out not to be the best I'd ever taken, but they were important to me.
I highly recommend this app. I was well worth the $29.
Not quite sure where to file this, but I think Gadgets is OK. This link goes to the Armed Forces Journal where they cover the annual shootout at Blackwater; this is a tradeshow of sorts for weapons and defensive technology makers. Lots of cool streaming videos of neat new guns and ammo plus a cool bulletproof glass demo.
The most insane video is this one where a blended metal rifle bullet explodes a pot roast. All things being equal, I'd rather not get hit by this thing.
I really like my Motorola Smartphone, but the next version is way cooler. For starters, it can open either like a regular flip phone or sideways so you can type on the built-in QWERTY keypad (for doing email, etc.) Add Bluetooth, a 1.3mp camera, WiFi, and touchscreen to this Windows Smartphone to really top it off.
Of course, it's not shipping yet (expected second half '04), so nothing counts yet. Still, it looks sweet.
Canon also announced some cool new lenses including a 28-300 3.5-5.6L IS. Nice all-in-one lens, even if it is a little slow.
I'm a geek, no doubt. I am surrounded by geeks, so trust me -- I know geeks.
So, I say with some authority that this guy is truly a dork (much lower on the social scale than geeks). Who spends this much time, energy, and money turning his car into a Star Wars fighter? Clearly, someone who has not discovered girls or really any kind of meaningful social interaction. The worst thing is that there are enough of these guys to have a club.
Get a life!
OK, this is the coolest thing I've seen for a while. I will probably have to get it, and maybe more than one.
I'm talking about the Scott eVest. This is a jacket with a thirty pockets (42 with the zip-out liner) plus channels that connect the pockets so you can run wires between them to create your own personal area network. These guys have done a great job with clever design points like being able to divide pockets so you can keep stuff from banging together or to hold up a water bottle.
Camera gear, phones, other gadgets? No problem. And, to protect all your gear, the "Stealth" edition (originally built for the Secret Service) adds side zippers so you can reach your gun. Slick.
Tons of pockets without looking like you're on safari or going fishing. I love it.
GPS' are super cool. I've been carrying a Garmin eTrex for a while to put GPS coordinates into the photos I've taken. This is part of the WWMX Project from Microsoft Research. It's very slick.
One of the cool side effects of always carrying a GPS is that I can see where I've been. It's been neat to see my paths charted out. Now, people with too much time and money have started drawing pictures by moving along the streets of their town with a GPS. The resulting tracks make words 70 miles high, etc. Kind of neat. Check out http://www.gpsdrawing.com.
I should note that this entry and the food simulator entry come from today's New York Times Magazine. This issue has a fun article on the "Ideas of 2003". Other "winners" were things like the "Nicotini", "PowerPoint Makes You Dumb" (a view I have expressed for years...), and more crazy Japanese inventions like "Spray-On Stockings."
I love gadgets as much (probably more) than the next guy. I also love food. What to do when the two collide? Well, not this. This is the "Food Simulator." It's a horrible abomination that has a force-feedback sensor to approximate bite, a delivery tube that sends chemical flavors, and a speaker to emulate the sound.
We have enough fake food already. This is the horrible and unfortunately logical end to the increasing distance between people and our food. Yuck.
Of course, it still isn't as cool as the Pretec iDisk Tiny Luxury that I found in Taiwan. It's only 256MB (still super useful) and only USB 1.0, but it's so tiny (the size of the USB plug) and it just swivels out of it's case -- no cap to lose.
I love these little flash drives. I carry one all the time now and use it everywhere. I can't imaging getting by without this. In an age of wireless everything, it's funny how much I prefer sneakernet.