Thoughts

Goodbye, Duke Nukem

When the Duke Nukem series came out in the late 90s, I was a huge fan. There was a time when I played it every day, and I knew almost every trick on each level. I even bleached my hair once to get the Duke Nukem look. Given that I was also working out regularly back then and had some fairly serious muscle on me, it was a pretty good approximation.

As with all such phases, my obsession with the video game passed on, but I still looked forward to the sequel, called Duke Nukem Forever. I waited, along with countless others, since 1997, only to find out last month that 12 years later, in 2009, work on the game stopped altogether.

It was, by all means, an expected conclusion to what had become a game industry joke and cliché. Still, when I see the trailer for Duke Nukem Forever, released in 2007, I still feel regret for the promises made so many times that never came true. I’d have loved to play the sequel, if only for nostalgic reasons. This should have been awesome. Instead, it ended up in the crapper. What a shame.

[Video from Don MacAskill’s Duke Nukem Forever gallery at SmugMug]

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Events

Goodbye, Smooth Jazz

While I’m on the subject of radio, I’d like to say goodbye to a station that I enjoyed listening to over the past five years I’ve lived here in DC: Smooth Jazz 105.9 (WJZW). It’s been in my radio presets for all of that time.

One morning, as I tuned in, expecting a change from the usual sonic assaults found on other stations, I got shocked with a really bad oldie. I’m a fan of oldies (sometimes), but this was a real dud. I couldn’t figure it out. I looked at the station call, and it now said “True Oldies”. Then some annoying DJ’s voice came on, touting the format change and the “return of oldies” to DC. No thanks. DC already had an oldies station, and it wasn’t in my presets. I tuned right out and looked for another station to store in its place.

To top it off, it turns out Don Imus is the new morning show DJ on True Oldies. Yup, that guy. I’ve met and seen a lot of revolting people, but he takes the cake. One more reason to stay away.

Ramsey Lewis, where are you? I will miss your cheery voice and inspirational quotes, not to mention the smooth jazz you played during your morning show. I hope things are okay for you and the rest of the DJs from the station.

Goodbye, Smooth Jazz.

Smooth Jazz 105.9 FM

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Places

Reagan National Airport

As you read this, Ligia and I are supposed to be in Florida. Instead, I’m back at work. We were supposed to fly out yesterday. Everything was set. We were really looking forward to it.

We got to the airport, checked in, went to the gate, and noticed that our flight was listed as leaving at 6 PM instead of 4:50 PM. A few minutes later, an elderly lady came by and asked if we’d heard that the flight was canceled. No, we hadn’t. Five minutes later, the notice was posted — the flight was canceled indeed, because of bad weather in FL.

To make matters worse, there were no other outgoing flights. All were full. The earliest available flight was on Saturday. No thanks. We went around to all the other airlines and checked. They had nothing, unless we were willing to pay Monopoly prices and fly tonight or on Friday. That would have been okay if only we could have paid with Monopoly money…

What were we to do? We could have gotten angry, but that would have been pointless. So I took out my 5D and started taking photos of the airport. I’d always wanted to do it and never got around to it. Isn’t DCA beautiful?

Travelers

The main floor is shown above. I love the pillars and arches supporting the roof.

Repetition

Light

Radiate

The ceiling is made up of repeating cupolas, as you can see above, and each cupola has a skylight in its center. It’s such great design!

Skylight

I think I could spend a few days walking around the airport and taking photos. There are so many possibilities with the light, as it comes through the wall of glass or the skylights and reflects off the floor… It’s just beautiful, and if you get the right mix of people walking through (not too many, not too few), it really makes the place look great!

Arrivals

Steps

Departures

I leave you with an outside shot of the control tower, taken from the Reagan National metro station. It felt pretty painful to get right back to it a few hours after we’d just left it, on our way to FL…

White tower

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Thoughts

It’s about expectations

Many of us have heard this before, but it bears repeating. Customer or user satisfaction depends, in large part, upon the expectations you set, as a service or product provider. Promise something you can’t or don’t deliver, and satisfaction goes right down the drain, no matter what you did right.

A great friend of mine put this another way: under-promise, and over-deliver. It’s plain, simple, and it should be the golden rule that companies use when they think about their products and services. I don’t mean you should set your sights on mediocrity, or that you should settle for the lowest common denominator. But you should ALWAYS make sure you promise only what you can absolutely deliver, and if you do anything above and beyond the call of duty, it’s icing on the cake, and it makes the customer ecstatic in a viral sort of way.

Have you heard of Micro Center? Neither did I, till a couple of weeks ago. Their website is certainly underwhelming — at least it is at this point in time, but I have a feeling that’ll change. I got a flyer in the mail from them, inviting me to the store for a free gift. I went in and was blown away. Their store has the coolest and best floor layout I’ve ever seen! It’s clean, well-lit, beautiful, stocked to the gills with cool technology, and everyone is friendly! Did they promise any of that in their flyer? No, they just promised the free gift and mentioned the new store. They delivered on the free gift just fine, and their store atmosphere was the icing on the cake that left me ecstatic.

And guess what? They have an in-store pickup option as well. I ordered a few CF cards from their site today, and went to pick them up in the evening. But do you know what they did? They didn’t promise a 20-minute turnaround. They actually put some thought into it. Their staff is new, their store is new, their systems are probably new or re-designed, and they knew they couldn’t deliver on something like that. They said the order would be ready for pickup in a couple of days. Was I disappointed? No. I got the price I wanted on the products I wanted, and as long as they were going to make good on their promise, I didn’t care. But I thought I’d test the waters anyway, and Ligia and I got in our car and drove to the store tonight.

When we got there, the same cheery atmosphere awaited us. The people were courteous and smiled, just like the last time we visited. We went to the customer service counter, where the representative looked up our order and explained that it wasn’t ready yet. No problem, I’d expected that. I asked if I could pick up the items from the store shelves and come back to the counter. She said yes. I browsed through the store, found what I needed, brought the stuff back to the customer service counter, and the representative fulfilled the order. She fiddled a bit with the computer system since it was new, but she was courteous and helpful, and I didn’t mind waiting an extra couple of minutes. In the end, I walked out with my order fulfilled, and the kicker was this: the price was the same as on their website.

It’s about setting the right expectations, plain and simple. Do what works for you, and more importantly, do what you know you can do! Under-promise, over-deliver, and you’ll have happy customers. Even if you go just a bit beyond what you promised, it makes a huge difference!

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Thoughts

How many of my photos were stolen?

For the moment, this is a rhetorical question. I’ve been re-thinking the way I publish my photos online in view of the recent and very prominent theft of Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir‘s photos from Flickr. Call me naive, but I really believed, and still would like to believe, that people will wish to stay legal and pay for the right to use my photos, especially for commercial purposes. That’s why I’ve been publishing my photos at full resolution. I wanted folks who weren’t able to pay (developing countries, for instance), or only wanted a nice desktop background, to be able to download a photo of mine and enjoy it without financial obstacles.

But I talked with my brother this morning, and he told me some things that made me think twice about my approach. He’s a professor at a university in Transylvania (Romania), and he does a lot of field research in ethnology and religion. He takes a lot of photos, and shoots a lot of video. When people ask him for copies of his work, he’s very nice about it and does so, hoping they’ll respect his academic work and cite him or ask for his permission when they use it. But he’s been finding out that they don’t. They’ll reuse his photos and his videos, and he won’t hear about it until he sees his work somewhere else. Just recently, someone entered one of his videos in a contest as their own creation, and he found out about it only after that person won. It was very disheartening. He’s now thinking of watermarking both his videos and photos, and of only publishing lower resolution copies on the Internet. He’s tired of constant theft and no attribution.

So I had to ask myself: how many of my photos have already been stolen? I haven’t yet heard of or seen a particular instance, but I also haven’t really looked around to see. It’s probably just a matter of time before I start finding my work in someone else’s portfolio, website or printed materials. When you combine high-resolution photos with people that have no respect whatsoever for someone else’s hard work, you’re asking for trouble. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, good people, those that respect other people’s property, are few and far between, and it’s best not to tempt the thieves or uneducated ones by making good photos easily available.

I’ve taken some steps already. I used to upload to Flickr at full resolution. Not anymore. Since they offered Rebekkah no help whatsoever, and even deleted the photo where she complained of image theft, along with the thousands of comments that she received there, I’ve lost respect for them. If that’s how they’re going to treat one of their best users, then I sincerely hope they get what’s coming to them, and I hope it’s a wallop.

I may also start to watermark my images. As much as I hate this (it uglifies an image, imo), I’ll do it, just to make it harder to pass my photos around without crediting them properly. I may also start to copyright my photography with the Library of Congress, and pursue damages to the full letter of the law (up to $150,000 per incident).

Finally, I may also stop uploading at full res to Zooomr. I keep waiting for them to push out the Mark III upgrade, and it seems that every time Kris is ready to do it, something happens to stop it. This week was the third time the promised upgrade didn’t materialize, and I’m pretty disappointed. Mark III is supposed to have this really nice image theft prevention built in, so I could continue to upload a full res, but restrict the sizes available to casual visitors or even my contacts at certain resolutions, and only make the full res size available to buyers. But if Mark III doesn’t show up any time soon — and since Zooomr has no photo replace feature like Flickr — I may just delete all of my photos, or make them all private. I do not want to see my hard work go to waste.

It’s a real shame that we can’t function equitably as a society, at the local, state, national or global level. If only everyone would respect other people’s property (physical or intellectual), things would work a lot better. One would think the concept of property has been around long enough for most people and cultures to grasp it…

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Reviews

Camera review: FujiFilm FinePix S9100

Bottom line: love the camera body and the user interface, good lens, good grip, but the CCD sensor is not as good as it should be. Read on for the details.

I won’t bore you with the specs, which you can check out for yourselves. I’m going to focus on real-world use. I purchased the FinePix S9100 because I wanted a good camera that would tide me over until I purchase a great DSLR (I’m eyeing the EOS 5D). I had no DSLR expectations from the S9100. I just wanted a decent digital camera with a good grip. I don’t like smallish cameras made for a woman’s hand, because they’re too light and don’t feel right in my hand. The S9100 was pretty close in dimensions to medium-sized DSLRs, and that was a strong selling point for me. I also liked the FinePix S line’s reputation. People kept saying these cameras take really good photos, and I wanted to see for myself. There were other selling points, such as the much-touted low light sensitivity, the 9 megapixel resolution, the 10x manual optical zoom, and the fact that it used AA batteries. I have a whole slew of rechargeable AA NiMH batteries at home, and I looked forward to the day when I could use them properly.

So, I got the camera this past Tuesday afternoon, and went out immediately to shoot with it. The menus of the S9100 were arranged very well, and I was able to find and set all of the options I wanted within minutes. Within 15 minutes of opening the box, I had the camera configured and the strap and lens cap attached. That made me pretty happy. I like cameras that are easy to use.

I started taking photos before getting out of the house, and that curbed my enthusiasm. The focus time was longer than I expected, comparable to and even longer than the focus on my Kodak EasyShare v610, which is a compact point and shoot. That didn’t bode well. At any rate, I pushed forward, and made it outside. The plan was to get sushi at a local restaurant with my wife, then go out into one of the local parks and take photos as the dark set in. This would give me a chance to shoot across the whole ISO range.

At the sushi place, I took more shots, and found two things that were pretty annoying. First, there was some serious lag time between shots. I shoot in RAW format, and the S9100 apparently takes a really long time to write the photo to the card. There’s no burst mode in RAW mode. You can only take one picture at a time, then wait until it gets processed and written to the card before you can take another one. I had to sit there counting second after second while the write light was on, unable to do anything else. And no, it wasn’t my card’s fault. I’ve used that card (120x CFII) with competent DSLRs like the Canon 30D and Olympus E-500, and it works beautifully. Second, when shooting at ISO 1600 inside the restaurant, there was a whole lot of noise in the shots. That really annoyed me, but I wanted to get out and take plenty of photos in the forest before I made a judgment call.

Once we got outside and I got more or less used to the long write times, using the camera was kind of nice. The flip screen was great. It allowed me to use some really interesting angles. I’d have had to guesstimate some of the shots if I only had a viewfinder to look through, since there was no way I could have craned my neck into those positions. I also liked the zoom lens. I like to twist lens barrels, I can’t help it. It gives me that tactile feel I need from my camera. The nice rubberized grip worked very well. Holding the camera in my hand, it was easy to forget that it wasn’t a DSLR. It feels very good, it’s balanced, and the buttons are just where they need to be. I had no problems using them. I loved their placement. I also loved the camera’s two Macro modes, one for closeup shots and one for really close shots of insects or other such tiny things. That’s a great feature!

As it got darker and darker, I switched to a higher ISO, and the camera worked decently up to 800 ISO in the twilight. Every time I’d switch to 1600 ISO, the noise was unbearable. But I figured, hey, I’m in the middle of a forest with no ambient light, and I’m also shooting handheld. Maybe this is to be expected. So I wrapped things up and we went back home. As we pulled into our garage, I looked at the lights in the parking lot and realized there was plenty of ambient light there to test out the 1600 ISO. I ran out, camera in hand, ready to test things, only to be disappointed once more. Every time I switched to 1600 ISO, the noise was too much, and there was serious pixel streaking going on. At the highest aperture (f2.8) and shutter speeds of 1/30 and above, there were no decent images to be gotten with the S9100, even if I stood right underneath a lamp post.

Finally, I switched it back to 100 ISO to try out some long exposure shots. I set it to a shutter speed of 4 seconds, and snuck it between the branches of a tree to stabilize it. The sky was filled with beautiful shades of blue that begged to be captured. After taking each photo, the preview screen, which is supposed to compensate for the shutter speed and show me what the photo will look like given my settings, showed me the sky exactly as I wanted it to look. I took a few shots, trying different angles, and according to the camera’s display, each photo looked fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get back inside and have a look at the photos on my computer.

After the shots were all loaded into Lightroom, Ligia and I sat at my laptop to have a look. What we noticed made us very unhappy. A lot of the shots were out of focus, even though they had seemed to be in focus on the camera’s screen. When we viewed the good shots at 100%, all of them were trashed. I have no better way of putting it. It looks like the sensor isn’t really meant for 9 megapixels. But that results in some really cheap-looking shots at full-size. Most of the detail is lost, and a whole lot of white pixels are seen instead. Really, the photos are that bad! To put things in perspective, the photos from my Kodak v610, which is a 6.1 megapixel camera released last summer, and my Panasonic Lumix FZ20K, which is a 5 megapixel camera that’s about three years old, are better than the photos from the S9100! Both of those cameras are less expensive than the S9100.

But wait, it gets better! I remembered that a cheap camera from Fuji, the FinePix A700, also uses the same 1.6-inch Super CCD HR sensor. Click on that link and see for yourselves. So what we’ve got here is a sensor from a $157 camera, being used in a camera that originally retailed for over $600. (Now it goes for about $420). That hardly seems appropriate to me, and as the say, the photos tell the truth. Have a look at a crop from one of the photos taken with the S9100 below. It’s a detail from a portrait, and it’s cropped directly in Photoshop, at 100%, with no other editing whatsoever.

Do you see what I mean? That photo’s no good, and every single one of the photos looks like this at 100%. All of the detail is gone because of that overworked sensor. Fuji might as well not have released the S9100. The inadequate sensor ruins it.

Oh, and remember those gorgeous long-exposure shots of the sky? They were all completely dark when I viewed them on my laptop. I mean pitch dark! And yet they appeared beautifully exposed on the camera’s screen. What happened? I’ll tell you: the camera can’t adjust the live preview accurately when composing the shot, and what’s worse, instead of reading the real image from the card and displaying it on the screen after taking it, it re-displays the stored live preview image instead. So I had no real way of knowing what those photos looked like when I took them. I suppose I could have switched to playback mode, but who’d have thought that the camera’s display would be this inaccurate?

After we saw all this, Ligia and I looked at each other, and we knew what had to be done. Even though I prefer to test out cameras for a month so I can get a really good feel for their usability, given the S9100’s shortcomings, there was nothing else to do but to wrap it back up and sit it nicely in its box. It’s going back. I was so disappointed. I loved the body, loved the grip, loved the zoom and ease of use, but when it came to its most important feature, the sensor, I just couldn’t live with it.

Here’s hoping Fuji sticks a good sensor in this camera at some point in the near future. Until then, my advice to you is to stay away from it.

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Reviews

Cannot edit EXIF data in iPhoto

Those of us using iPhoto (up to version 6) are probably pretty disappointed to find out that we can’t edit a photo’s EXIF data. What’s more, whatever data we add to the photo (changing title, date, description, rating) also doesn’t get stored to a photo’s EXIF fields. Instead, it gets put in some other associated file, and gets lost entirely when the photo is exported out of iPhoto — for example, uploaded to Flickr.

This may not be so bad for photos that we take with our digital cameras, because they’ve already got a good amount of EXIF data stored in them, but it absolutely stinks for photos that we’ve scanned in. I’ve got all of my family’s photos in iPhoto, organized and rated and dated. A good chunk of those photos — over 60% of some 17,000 odd photos — are scanned in. That means that when I email those photos or import them into a program like Picasa on my PC, or upload them to Zooomr, all of the date information and other data that shows up in iPhoto is lost, by design (and a poor one at that). Isn’t this ridiculous? It makes all of that time spent working with the photos in iPhoto useless. They pass through the program like a duck through water. All of that “water” drips right off when the photo’s out of the app. It’s just not right.

If I can crop and adjust a photo’s color, brightness, contrast, exposure, sharpness and other parameters in iPhoto, and have those changes be preserved when I drag that photo into an email, it stands to reason that any other changes made to the photo (date, title, description, rating) should also be preserved. Otherwise, iPhoto is really not a full-fledged photo management app.

Now, I understand there are apps like Aperture, Lightroom, and of course, Photoshop, for editing photos and getting at more of a photo’s EXIF data. But not everyone wants or needs those applications. They’re meant for users who do a lot more with photos. To me, even though I have Photoshop, it seems silly to open it up just to edit the EXIF data of a photo. And I’m not going to get Aperture just to edit EXIF data. Aperture is meant for professional photographers and I’m still just an amateur photographer. This is such a basic function that it should be integrated directly into iPhoto. If the EXIF data from a photo can be viewed in iPhoto, it should also be editable, and that same data should be preserved inside the photo when it is exported to the web or for use in other applications.

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Thoughts

Microsoft will drop PDF support as a standard option in Office 12

After whetting my appetite for Office 12 by talking about native support for PDF formats last year, Microsoft now disappoints once more by announcing it will drop the option. Interestingly enough, it isn’t to blame. Adobe’s up in arms about this – they’re unhappy that Microsoft will not charge extra for the option to save to PDF – which sounds hypocritical at first look. After all, the option to do so has been standard on the Mac through OS X, and is available through a slew of apps on the Internet (free, nonetheless) which let you do that very same thing on Windows.

So why has Adobe jumped up about this? I think it has to do with the following two issues:

  1. Microsoft’s market share: if saving to PDF becomes a standard option in Office, it will obliterate Adobe’s profit from Acrobat, which is its most popular software package.
  2. Microsoft wanted to include the ability to save to PDF as a fully functioning feature – in other words, hyperlinks and other special formatting would be preserved. Typically, with the free products out there, and with the Mac, when one saves to PDF, it’s essentially a print to PDF function, where special formatting and tags aren’t preserved. If you want the full-featured save to PDF function, that has usually only been available with the paid Acrobat product.

I have a feeling the months of negotiation between Adobe and Microsoft centered around these two issues, and neither wanted to budge from their position. Microsoft wanted to include the feature because it wants to dominate the market and please users, in that order, and Adobe can’t just give away a star product. I have to side with Adobe on this one.

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Reviews

New Hotmail shows Microsoft still playing catchup

I’ve been a user of Hotmail for several years, probably since 1998. I can’t remember the date very well, but it’s been a long time. The point is, I had a Hotmail account long before Gmail came out. Why do I say this? Because I stuck with Hotmail through the years. That’s not to say I wasn’t fed up with the service before – I had it up to my neck with the never-ending ads that overwhelmed the page.

What the Hotmail folks did recently is to move the service to the Live platform without regard for the users. While Hotmail worked fine on different browsers before, now it just doesn’t. Unless I use IE and only IE, the site doesn’t work properly. The functionality is stunted. I can choose between two modes, Classic and Live, and no matter which one I choose, unless I use IE, it just won’t work right. Just a few examples of the shortcomings: I can’t select multiple emails to designate them as Spam, I can’t empty my Junk Mail folder with one click, the site looks weird… The Live portal seems to do okay, but not Hotmail.

And while the Microsoft folks made a big deal about doing away with one of the ads on the page inside Hotmail, I still see two, and it’s still very annoying.

What’s worse, I can’t help playing the comparison game with Gmail. I love my Gmail account. I get barely any spam, and when I do, it’s sorted nicely in my Spam folder. Once in a while, a random message makes it to my inbox, only to be dispatched to its cyberspace grave. In Hotmail, unless I set my Spam filter to exclusive, spammers make it to my Inbox most every day. And if the filter’s set to exclusive, I run the risk of having legitimate emails end up in the Junk Email folder. I have to constantly check it and be barraged with ads for erectile dysfunction or penile enlargement and other such things. And the volume of spam that makes it to my Hotmail account is… voluminous, whereas at Gmail, it’s just a few every day. Hotmail obviously doesn’t have a very good spam filtering system, no matter what Bill Gates may say.

I also can’t help looking at my Gmail account’s size limit (now over 2GB), and Hotmail is still at 250MB. Let’s not forget that before Gmail came out, Hotmail was at 2MB. Not 20MB, not even 10MB, but 2MB! Pathetic… I had to constantly delete emails from my Inbox. If I hadn’t been able to POP into my Hotmail account with Outlook Express and download my messages, I’d have had to delete years’ worth of emails. That just wasn’t right.

While I’m on the subject, let me not forget that Gmail has worked cross-browser from the start. That includes IE, Firefox, Netscape, Mozilla, Camino, Safari, and I believe Konqueror. With Hotmail, and now with Live Mail, it’s IE or you’re guaranteed a less than full functionality experience. You’d think Microsoft, with all of its talent, could come up with something better, but no, they can’t… or won’t.

So, let’s see, Vista disappointed, Hotmail disappoints… Is there any other conclusion to draw, other than Microsoft is still playing catchup?

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Reviews

Bonjour for Windows 1.0.3

Downloaded Bonjour for Windows, tried it out, and I’m a little disappointed. All it does is to allow you to share printers across the network. True enough, worked very easily to allow me to install the shared printer from my iMac, but I expected it to allow me to see the shared Mac drives as well. See below for a snippet from Cult of Mac:

“Apple made Bonjour for Windows 1.0.3 available today. Bonjour is Apple’s implementation of zero-configuration networking — advanced auto-detection of other networked devices, basically, without the need for IP address knowledge. It’s also an integral part of sharing iTunes and iPhoto libraries, as well as networked printers. Apple’s been committed for a little while to making this truly cross-platform; the source is open, and Windows support has been out there for awhile. I don’t see this new Windows version as an indication of a product launch, just Apple placing its claim on simplified network creation — AppleTalk for the next generation. Plus, the more broadly Bonjour is supported, the better off Mac users will function in mixed-platform environments.”

Here is the link.

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