A weekend down in Florida

Ligia and I took a mini-vacation this past weekend and flew down to Florida to see my parents. You might remember it as the place where I feel most at home here in the States.

We left our cozy little apartment last Friday morning, and in a couple of hours, thanks to the amazing convenience of modern travel, I found myself wielding a weed whacker in my parents’ yard. After other assorted yard work, a little dazed by the torrid sun, I took refuge under the auspices of a cold shower, where I cleaned bits of grass and plants… from places I didn’t even know I had. There’s something funny about switching computer work for yard work. I just know there is.

So what else did I do? The usual geeky son stuff. I assembled a home theater furniture piece and rewired the various components that made it up, such as the two satellite dish receivers, VCR, DVD player and Apple TV. Now it looks really nice, if I might say so myself.

I installed the latest updates from Apple on their two Macs. Installed SP3 on their XP virtual machine running on Parallels. (Which reminds me, I need to check with my mom soon and see if Parallels will continue to give her grief now that I reinstalled it.)

Also updated their Drobo with the latest version of the Dashboard. By the way, their Drobo is still loud because the fan cranks into high gear prematurely and stays there inordinate amounts of time. I talked about this in my Drobo review, and I’d like to see Data Robotics come out with a firmware update for this problem in the near future.

We also found time to go to the beach, twice. I got to blind everyone there with my amazingly white complexion. It felt good — after all, I worked hard to get it. It took months and months in front of the computer to achieve that perfect pasty pallor.

One of our walks on the beach was at dusk.

As night fell and the sky darkened, city lights became more apparent in the distance.

We attended a friends’ wedding as well. I’d post their photo, but I’m not sure how comfortable they’d be with that, so I’ll stick to a photo of Ligia and I, taken by my mom.

I asked my parents if I could post a couple of photos I took of them, and they agreed. Here’s my dad.

And here’s my mom.

I’m happiest about convincing my mom to sit down with us on the last evening to watch The Awful Truth (1937), one of our most favorite movies. Yes, she enjoyed it.

Hardware review: mStand by Rain

The mStand is quite possibly the best stand for the MacBook Pro line of laptops. It raises the laptop to an appropriate height, it does not block any of the MBP ports or buttons, its design is truly distinctive, its cast aluminum build matches the MBP line to a tee, and it is reasonably priced at $50.

I’ve tried out quite a few notebook stands in my time, and I’ve looked at even more of them in detail. I am happiest with the mStand. It suits my needs perfectly. However, it is not without faults, as you’ll see shortly. Its Apple-like design and look isn’t executed to the Apple standards.

First, the good:

  • Functional, simplistic and very elegant design
  • Although it is built of a single piece of aluminum, it will not scratch your laptop because it has little rubber contact points where your laptop rests on it
  • All aluminum build means it will dissipate your laptop’s heat fast.
  • The empty space underneath the stand aids with ventilation and also serves as a great place to store the external keyboard when not in use
  • The wire routing hole at the back of the stand looks very similar to the one on iMacs and Apple Cinema Displays and complements their design nicely
  • It blocks NONE of the MBP ports or buttons, such as the IR remote port, the latch for the top lid, or the SuperDrive slot. Of course, it does not block any of the side ports either, as you can see from the photos.

Now, the bad:

  • The paper (recycled?) packaging leaves terrible scuff marks on the stand, which mar its otherwise beautiful design and matte finish
  • The stand itself was covered in a thick white dust when I unboxed it, which caused significant sneezing. I hope it wasn’t harmful to my health, not sure what it was, and it sure didn’t look like regular dust.
  • The edges of the stand are not properly filed, which means they can be literally sharp enough to tear through one’s skin if you’re not paying attention. I had to use a metal file to finish the job they should have done at the factory.

Still, I think this is the best stand for my needs. As you may know, I already tried out the Logitech Alto and the Rolodex Stand, and had already tried other stands through the years, including the original Griffin Curve. I looked at vertical stands as well, like the Docking Stand from Power Support. But none of the stands offered unfettered access to all of the buttons and ports on the MBP, were as stable, and looked as good as the mStand.

While I loved the idea of the Docking Stand, it blocked access to the IR port, the latch button and the SuperDrive altogether, because the laptop sits top edge down in it. Putting the laptop in that stand the other way would cause some serious overheating to occur, since the venting grille is on the lid hinge side.

At any rate, I’m very happy with my mStand. In spite of its faults, which can be easily fixed through better quality control, it looks great and works great.

Problems with meta-data entry in Lightroom

I’ve been having problems with meta-data entry in Lightroom, particularly the location meta-data. It’s not my computer that’s to blame. The problems exist on both the PC and Mac versions of Lightroom, although they’re more apparent on the Mac version.

When I first mentioned this on Twitter and Friendfeed (see here, here and here) I promised I’d put together a video if I found a good screencasting application. Ken Verburg pointed me to iShowU, which I used to make a short screencast demonstrating the problems. Thanks Ken!

I uploaded the video to my Vimeo account last night, but don’t try to view it there. The compression is terrible and you won’t be able to see what I’m doing. Instead, go there and scroll down till you see the download link. Click on that and view it locally on your computer (you’ll need Quicktime or iTunes). Another option is to download the video directly from my site. The original video has no loss in quality and you’ll be able to see everything properly.

The video will do a good job of conveying my frustration with the user interface in Lightroom. I really do hope the final version of Lightroom 2 will address these issues, because entering location metadata in Lightroom right now is terribly frustrating.

Three classic movie duds

If you follow along with my classic movie reviews, you may think I have only good things to say about them. Truth is, I don’t usually choose to write up movies I don’t like. But I’ve recently seen three classic movies that were so bad I needed to point them out. I’ll look at each in the order I’ve seen them.

Chicken Every Sunday (1949)

Made after a book which can still be found in print (at least the book was good), this movie is a convoluted, drawn-out, syrupy mush that does not entertain. It only frustrates.
One good thing is that it has Alan Young, one of my favorite actors, but he’s stuck in this horrible, lily-livered role that has him meowing and crying his way through the movie, and it’s just sad.

Individually speaking, the actors are good. They’re talented, they can play good parts when they get them — but this movie’s script doesn’t have a single good part in it. It just plain sucks. Stay away from it. Did I mention it’s long and you’ll be sorry if you’ll watch it?

Platinum Blonde (1931)

This is one of Frank Capra’s earlier movies. Any movie by Frank Capra ought to be good, right? WRONG. This movie is a real stinker. The direction is off. The dialogue is slow. The editing sucks. The script is pathetic. There are long, dead pauses, and the chemistry between the actors is non-existent.

As if that’s not bad enough, the movie’s principal roles were miscast. We have Jean Harlow playing the part of an aristocrat. Excuse me? JH?! A platinum blonde best suited for the more tawdry, tough roles, playing an innocent, educated, mannered, high class lady?! That’s a riot… Every move Harlow makes is a verdict against the part she’s playing. Every sway of her hip convicts her, calls her a liar. She simply wasn’t made for that role. It’s the antithesis of her.

Then we’ve got some dude I’ve never seen before in the principal role. Who he is, I don’t know, and I don’t really want to know. He’s not likable, and he’s not meant for principal roles, end of story.

The movie’s saving grace is Loretta Young, who’s stuck as Gallagher, the office girl men see as one of them, until the dude in the principal part gets things right in the last scene. You’ve got to be kidding me… Loretta Young is NOT a man and you can’t look at her that way. Frank Capra was cuckoo to cast her in that part, sorry — although she made the best of it and was the one shining actor in the whole movie.

How can I put it? This movie stinks. Don’t watch it.

Second Chorus (1941)

Here we’ve got another example of a movie that should have been good, but it’s most definitely NOT. You’d have to get a really crappy writer and director to mess up a movie with Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard. Guess what? They found both “geniuses” for this movie.

The plot is just pathetic. Two guys fight for the affections of one girl. Should be good, under the right circumstances, but it’s horribly complicated, and the plot devices are terrible and amateurish, the sort of stuff that made me cringe. The writing, the lines: yuck.

You know who else is in this movie? Rocky’s trainer — Burgess Meredith. He looks pretty much the same in 1941 as he did in 1976 for Rocky, and for the sequels. He was like George Burns. Looked old from his youth. And he’s unlikable in this movie.

There’s one scene that’s good in this movie, and it’s when Fred and Paulette dance together. Why couldn’t they do more of that throughout the movie? Why did they stick Fred Astaire, a dancing man, in a trumpet player role? Why do they have him trying to conduct an orchestra while dancing and playing the trumpet?

The movie is full of hair-pulling questions like these. It made me want to get a bunch of rotten tomatoes and start throwing them at the director and the other people responsible for making this idiotic waste of time.

My favorite pair of casual shoes

I’ve been wearing a new pair of Keen shoes for the past few weeks, and I love them. If they haven’t got the showroom look in my photos, it’s because they haven’t been sitting in the closet.

I spotted them at L.L.Bean and couldn’t resist the design. They looked so comfortable and cool, up there on the shelf, that I had to try them on and get them. Indeed they are comfortable, even for extended walks, and they’re a lot of fun to wear.

One thing I should mention, if you care about that sort of thing: this particular design will make your feet seem smaller. I took a photo of one of my formal shoes next to one of my Keen shoes, just to show you the difference. Believe it or not, the formal shoes are slightly tight on my toes (length-wise, not width-wise). The Keen shoe looks smaller, yet my feet have no problems fitting in there.

While women may love having their feet look smaller, I understand that some men may not go for that sort of thing… Apparently foot size is associated with a certain other size in our vernacular. Personally, I’ve gotten over that, because I like these shoes a lot. Just thought I’d put that out there in case any of the women reading this are thinking about getting them for their significant others.

Shenandoah Valley panoramas

You are about to see several panoramic photos that have taken me well over 35 hours to create — and I’m not counting travel time, setup time, time it took to take the photos, and the time it took to write this post.

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A couple of weekends ago, Ligia and I got into our MINI and drove up to Shenandoah National Park, for a single purpose: to take a few panoramic photos of the valley from the tops of the Appalachian Mountains. Fortunately, that simply meant driving on beautiful, scenic Skyline Drive and stopping at various points to set up the tripod and take series of shots that would later be stitched together. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t exactly collaborating, in spite of the cheery weather report. The day was neither sunny nor cloudy. The light was diffuse and had that washed, in-between quality that doesn’t really make it good for anything. But, I was there, and if that’s what I had to work with, so be it.

As it turned out, driving out there and taking the photos was the easiest part of the whole thing. Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, putting together the panoramas was by far the longest, most excruciatingly slow stretch of processing work I have ever done. I do not recommend it to anyone, for multiple reasons, which I’ll mention below. If you just want to see the photos, skip ahead.

A few thoughts on the whole thing

I will not do panoramas very often in the future, unless I’m commissioned to do specific ones. If and when I do another panorama for myself (not for a client), it will likely only be a 5 to 10 photo image, simply because it takes an enormous amount of time to stitch and process them on the computer if they’re made up of more images than that.

For one thing, you would need a super fast, quad-core or better computer loaded to the gills with RAM to get any sort of decent speed while processing panoramas. A Mac Pro worth about $7,000 or better should do the trick. Seriously, every single simple operation, like cropping or rotating, took at least 10 minutes or more to execute. Sometimes just assembling a single panorama in Photoshop (through the Photomerge feature) took about 45 minutes. I have the latest MacBook Pro laptop (2.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 512 MB video card, 4 GB RAM), and it still took what seemed like forever to get through each panorama.

The resolution of the photos also matters. My individual photos are 12-megapixels each, at 240 dpi, made by a Canon 5D. Just imagine how much processing power is needed to put together 20 or 30 of these photos into a single image!

People don’t appreciate panoramas. I bet you most people will skim this post, unimpressed, and move on. You can’t really appreciate panoramic photos unless they’re printed out in their full size and spread out on a wall, right in front of you. You can’t appreciate their size on your computer monitor, no matter how large it might be. The largest single monitors nowadays are 30″ and have a maximum resolution of 2560×1600. That’s equivalent to about 6 megapixels at 72 dpi. You can’t possibly appreciate a 12 megapixel photo at 1:1 size on a current-day monitor, much less a panorama made up of 20 of those photos.

As an aside, don’t confuse monitor size with resolution. There are LCD HDTVs on the market that are 42″, 46″ or more in size, but they can only display up to 1920×1080 pixels, which is much less resolution than a 30″ monitor.

I can’t show you the full panoramas on my site, because of photo theft. Not that I think my panoramas (these ones in particular) are spectacular and would fetch amazing prices, but I know for a fact that if I post my panoramas at full resolution, there will be people who will steal them and try to profit from them.

How does the new Lightroom 2 Beta handle panoramas?

After I processed the photos in Photoshop CS3, which worked without crashing for the whole bunch, although it ate an amazing amount of space on my hard drive for its scratch disk, I imported them into the new Lightroom 2 Beta, to see how it would handle them.

Most of the photos were over 1 GB in size, uncompressed. Because I saved most as TIFs, using ZIP compression, their file size on disk was significantly lower. Lightroom did amazingly well to start with. It created small previews very quickly, and also created the 1:1 previews much quicker than Photoshop would have been able to render them. I was able to use the spot heal brush to remove sensor dust spots, and also used the new selective retouching brushes, without any problems. Lightroom 2 was able to do these things without significant delays, and would show the effects instantaneously.

LR2 only started hiccuping when I started to add some meta-data to the photos. As I went through and added meta-data, then opened them at 1:1 size once more, it would hang, literally forever. I had to keep force quitting it, and had to do that regularly, for each and every photo that I wanted to look at. Interestingly enough, when I wanted to export the panoramas to use them here on my site, it did it without any problems, and without crashing. It’s certainly odd behavior, but it is in Beta after all.

On to the photos

While I cannot post the panoramas at full resolution here, I did post them at higher sizes than I would normally post, in order to give you a better idea of what they look like. I also created 1:1 previews of regions of each photo, to help you realize how big they really are.

If you click on each panorama (not its 1:1 detail), it will take you to its photo page, where it will tell you how large it is (in megapixels), and how many photos went into making it. If you click on it again (on that page), it will take you to its larger size. Sorry for the double-clicking, but that’s how things work in WordPress these days.

First, a panoramic of Skyline Drive itself. This road is amazing, and I’m so glad the US government decided to build it back in the 1930s. It literally hugs the tops of the Appalachian mountains and lets average John and Jane drive on top of the world (as high as possible in this area of the world, anyway).

We stopped along Skyline Drive, parked our car, and took a hike through the forest on one of the paths marked out there. In the middle of nowhere (literally), we found this cabin, called Range View.

It was a darling little place built out of stone and off the grid (in spite of the fact that wires ran right above it). The fireplace was outside the cabin, by the front door. While the place was locked up and the windows equipped with thick wire and netting, Ligia and I could spot beds and various pieces of old furniture inside. Don’t know what it’s used for nowadays, but it is used, because there was an open bottle of wine standing in plain sight near one of the windows, and it was of recent vintage.

The rest of the photos, including the 1:1 previews, are found in the gallery below. Click on each to get to the photo page, then click again to see it in a larger size. Enjoy!

Updates to my Drobo review

Updated 3/19/08: My review of the new Firewire Drobo is now published. I’m also glad to say that the issues outlined in my original Drobo review (and mentioned below) were resolved through firmware updates, as expected.

I’ve re-organized my Drobo review and also added two brand new updates to it, in the “Transfer speeds” and “How it sounds” sections. They’re marked with today’s date. If you’re interested in the Drobo or you already own one, you’ll want to look into this.

While my updates aren’t exactly flattering, I still think the Drobo is the best archival solution for my videos and photographs. Fortunately, the two things I pointed out can be resolved (to an extent) with firmware updates, and Data Robotics isn’t stingy with those, so relief may be coming in the near future.