Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn colors in Meise

This is my favorite season of the year. Nature at its best. As I am constantly progressing deeper into the 'seniors' demographic and see my own kids growing to adults and dealing with adult challenges themselves (building a family, paying the mortgage, looking for a well paying job), things that seem to have happened to me only 'yesterday', I am feeling I'm getting closer to the inevitable conclusion of the final act, whenever it might come... More so as I see the season greens turning to yellows and reds before vanishing into the dark browns and blacks, at the end of autumn into the upcoming winter. In the words of Jim Morrison: This is the end, beautiful friend...

I love the view and smell of the colors of the fall, and I must have shot thousands shots of autumn scenes in my life. Especially in this country, with its rich plantation, woods and fertile ground, it is a pleasure to the eye to walk in parks and feel the passage of time reflected in the colors of plant leaves, from spring to winter.

It was my spouse's idea to visit the National Botanic Gardens at Meise, a northern suburb of Brussels, right off the A12 near its junction with the peripheral highway of the city. The both of us, accompanied by a dear friend who knew the place quite well, have since long planned our visit here, yesterday October 28th. I've heard of Meise and certainly seen the name on roadsigns and milestones, often driving past, but never heard of the botanic gardens in more than 30 years I live in this country. What a moron?!

It seemed like the garden of Eden in autumn, much richer than the Royal Gardens in Laeken, and always open to the public for a modest entry fee. A huge park, that we could only walk thru for one third in three hours, thus we are definitely coming back! There was also a castle, a shop and a tropical garden grown in a greenhouse; there were two greenhouses in fact, but we only visited one of them. We even saw fairy looking yellow orchids and flesh eating flowers inside a reincarnation of the Rain Forrest  in one of the conservatories! Spooky! One of the rooms was kept under high temperatures and humidity that I didn't dare enter for fear of ending like a slaughterhouse sweated pig... There was also that chamber with thousands of different sorts of cactii, if you happen to like them.

Check out the pictures I shot there for a better feeling of the experience.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Have they cracked it this time?

After a long-long wait, counting down from the launch of Vista onwards, the Windows crowd could 'breath' again this week. Starting October 22nd they got the chance to throw a few dear beans over the counter and buy the long expected painkiller, also known as Windows 7. Nowadays, it is right after new OS launches by Microsoft that I find myself testing Windows too... each time the Redmond kids launch a new OS version, for kicks and healthy curiosity I get my arms around a Windows box and try to taste the goodies, if any...

I've got a native Wintel box (from HP, I think, single processor, from before the Duo's appeared) and half a dozen Intel Macs (MacBooks, iMacs, mini Macs, the works). Ever since Parallels has brought virtual spaces to the Macworld, I always try to test Windows on both hardware architectures, a Mac box (any one would do) and a native Wintel box (clone or brand). So far my experience has shown that Windows installs perform much snappier on a Mac box (under Parallels) than on any of my other 'horsepower' comparable Wintel boxes.

How about Windows 7 then? Well, if you happen to have no clue what the 'Mac experience' is like, and all you used in your life were Windows or Linux OSes, then prepare for a pleasant surprise. Win 7 installs lightning fast (on my MacBook Pro it did that in less than 15 min, even beating any Mac OSX install I can recall) and it's quite snappy in its use. Definitely better than any of my previous Windows experiences on Mac hardware. Must say though, Parallels just sent a brand new upgrade of their latest version to the world, only 24 hours ago. I have no clue what this was, but I suspect it's got something to do with Win 7. Anyways, it seems to work. I could even imagine a life of doing some useful tasks on Win 7. I mean, it's not bad at all. Except for some ridiculous wallpapers that keep changing by default, that is... All those nasty pop-ups that Vista used to throw to users asking to confirm actions seem to have been reduced to a minimum. Win 7's look and feel is still very much Vista-like but quite snappier. On my HP box though, don't know why, Win7 took ages to install and kept spinning the drive, sounding like a calcium clogged coffee machine!

Nevertheless, Windows will still be Windows. Try to change a keyboard language in Win 7, for instance. And count the panels, tabs and box ticks you need to go thru to get there. Then, do the same on a Mac, to see how simply such things could actually be done... I rest my case.

As I was checking one of the configuration panels, my eyeball stuck on a menu command saying "Restore and install hidden updates". It was a trivial and common panel where I saw that command. Not the kind of obscure techie pop-ups with gibberish commands that only pro's know how to get to and what to do with. I'm like, WTF is this again?!?. I mean, ok, fine, I understand what it sez, but, golly... Why should any double digit IQ moron who'd only use a computer to do a few mails a day, some 3D gaming, maybe some Facebook shit, and also search celeb gossip on tabloids like MSN, would have to be served with menu commands like this? Dear Borg, when are you going to get this in your Homer Simpson sized brain? End users are no techie geeks like your Microsofties! Capice? Who needs shit like that in front of his gob. Gosh! Will they ever learn?!

Interesting things happened to me with IE8 too. Of course IE8 installs by default with Win7, and every time I launched it, it kept asking me whether I wanted it to become my default browser (hell, NO!). Mind you, there was no other browser installed at the time... Anyways, I tried next to test it on a rather sophisticated, in terms of implemented functionality and browser interactivity, homepage. I was honestly shocked to find out that it actually... played ball! Wow! I'm impressed!

Next thing, I tried to post something new on this blog, using, what else, Blogger. But IE8 was no go. Not good! Sucked! Nothing happened! Like Emanuel cried in Faulty Towers: No-Thing! The Blogger editor came out with no tool icons... unbelievable!

I then tried to download and install Google Chrome instead. I knew Chrome could tackle Blogger just fine. I also like Chrome for its simplicity and speed. Fastest browser on the planet. It may also turn out to be the best browser available one day. The way I normally do these things is search Google to look for the download server of the software I am interested in. As IE8 natively forced me into Bing, I wanted to change its default search engine to Google. In earlier versions, the Google engine was one of the proposed options. Not anymore though. I actually had to enter the whole URL address explicitly in the IE8 input field to get to google search. Anyways, once arrived at the Chrome homepage I started the install procedure but within less than 20 secs the process crashed. Tried again, crashed again! Just couldn't do it. Peculiar, as there were no known problems before, at least not in the Win 7 RC version I tested few months ago. Long story short, I then downloaded Firefox to make Blogger work... this time Firefox installed with no glitches. Is Microsoft 'facilitating' the Google experience when you're trying to install Chrome? Or did this just happen to me? Let me know if you haven't experienced the same...

Eventually, I ended up creating this post under Win7 and Firefox. Seems to have worked so far (no crashes or glitches).

Morale of the story. Win 7 will probably turn out a cool Windows... to the Win faithful, at least. Under the assumption of course, if you want the best experience, have it run on Mac hardware. Mark my words!

UPDATE: Jeez, I just found out how to change the default search engine to Google... IE8 offers plenty of search engine choices... two pages in fact. A dozen of them per page. I only found out this morning. Google appears nowhere in the first page. It is the first option in the second page though... kinda sleek! LMFAO!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is this the end of the Borg?

Last weekend the NYT published a tough article about Microsoft and about the Borg that made some real fokkin' ripples... I'd be really worried if I were in their shoes. Especially Ballmer's. Is this a pre-announcement of his ultimate going down the drain? With all his billions and stuff? The sad story is that the article is right in most of its arguments. I hold some MSFT stock myself and I can tell you, ever since the Borg took the company's reign in his hands MSFT sucks! And, want it or not, the market is the best judge of a company's management efficiency. Microsofties will tell you that Gates drove the company in disarray and left it entirely confused. However, trust me dudes, during the Gates days Microsoft dominated the headlines every single day - incl. the weekends -, the stock was flying high just like AAPL and AMZN do nowadays, and the world worshipped his Gateness to death! Microsofties will still tell you that the Borg sorted out the mess Bill left behind... Who knows... they might be right. Problem is, today the company looks as gray, bureaucratic, arrogant and incompetent as IBM was before Lou 'Nabisco' Gestner took control.  Among other excuses, the entire IBM executive Board would give you then all the 'proper' executive reasons why they monumentally fucked up in their dealings with a Mickey Mouse company called Microsoft, while its young 'nerd' CEO, William Gates III, wiped away all the relevant IPRs from under their nose, and eventually developed Windows at IBM's expense, to walk out as the richest nerd on the planet less than ten years later. Sounds familiar?

Well folks, Borg's Microsoft smells very much like IBM then... without the innovation bit. Indeed IBM developped some of the most advanced innovations that changed the face of the earth in technology terms. They even got a Nobel Prize (at least one dude on their payroll did, working in their Labs). Microsoft has stolen most of what it's got. In the words of Daniel Lyons, a.k.a. FSJ:

... look, the Borg has never been out ahead on anything. The difference is, they used to be able to catch up. They've always been copiers. That's been their business model from the start. Let others go out and create a market, then copy what they've done, sell it for less, and crush them. They got into the OS business by stealing DOS from someone else. They created Windows by stealing Apple's ideas. They got into desktop apps by copying Lotus and WordPerfect and then having the bright idea to bundle all the stuff into one cheapo suite. They pulled the trick off again with Internet Explorer versus Netscape, in the late 90s -- that was the last time they were able to let someone get out ahead of them and then pivot and copy and give it away free and take them over. By the end of the 90s they had broken through 50% market share in browsers, and that was it for Netscape.

But what happened after that? This is what we were wondering. Larry says two things happened. One, the Borg got slower. They got big and fat and bureaucratic. Two, everyone else got faster. Look at Google. They got so big so quickly that there was no way for the Borg to claw them back. Same for all these other Web businesses. Amazon, Ebay, Skype, Facebook, Twitter. They came out of nowhere, and what they were doing was free, so the Borg couldn't just do a crappy knockoff and sell it for less. They were up against free -- the Web companies were using their own strategy against them.

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gates Wisdom

Bill Gates recently gave a speech at a High School about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good, politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world..

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!
Rule 2: The world doesn't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.
Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.
Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

It's all about the glass...

There are many aspects that make a photograph look great. Composition, drama, contrast, color, subject, the scene's content and/or message, the (catching of a) moment. My personal favorite however is sharpness. The level of detail and resolution that is present in a photograph is almost a personal obsession. Especially in portrait photography. I know that most subjects, especially female, don't like their skin texture shown sharply in their portraits; they'd ask the photographer to hide away all little spots and irregularities and definitely avoid showing wrinkles and skin pores. To achieve that in digital photography nowadays is a trivial task indeed, done in a heartbeat, as any Photoshop practitioner can promptly assure you. In addition to any 'corrections' like these, many subjects prefer additional 'soft focus' applied to eliminate skin texture even further.

On the other hand, all great portrait photographers usually go for the sharpest detail their glass can capture. In the days of Kodak and Agfa B/W negatives, they'd boost sharpness and texture detail by using low ISO ratings first, high contrast studio lighting next (usually strobes with honeycombs), and by subsequently underexposing and then pushing development times to achieve sharpest possible texture, and smallest grain possible. Karsh's work is a classic example of this. As most of his work, one of his portraits of George Bernard Shaw was an exceptionally sharp photograph in which you could count one by one all of Shaw's hairs in his beard and mustache... of course the Great Yousuf used large format field cameras with 'huge' surface negative plates that could capture all that detail rather 'easy'. Ten years ago, I saw an original Karsh copy of Shaw's portrait hanging in the... restrooms of the Sterling Software offices at the company's Crescent Court HQ in Dallas, Texas!  I mean, can you just believe this? A Karsh in the restrooms? Self-made Texan billionaire entrepreneur Sam Wyly, owner of Sterling Software, used to decorate the offices with expensive artwork, to the extent a Karsch was only good enough for the restrooms! But this is another story...

Few days ago I came across the shots of someone going under the name Simon_01 on Flickr.  Simon's lucky enough to own an H3DII Hasselblad medium format DSLR. Maybe he won the Euromillions, who knows. These things cost north of 15K euro's the cheapest, incl. a normal focal length objective (80mm) and will certainly produce images of exceptional sharpness quality. Click Simon_01's male portrait above to 'experience' the sharpness we are talking about. Yep, it is an experience!

Think about that: Simon's portraits are shot from a distance of 3 to 5 feet from the subject, minimum. As you check out the sharpness captured by the Carl Zeiss glass on the H3DII-31mpx sensor, you just can't believe the level of detail. You can count this guy's pores and hairs hands down. I mean, to be able to observe most facial details shown on that shot on the live subject, you'd actually need a magnifying glass a few inches above his face, right? These cameras capture almost medical level detail from a distance that certainly qualifies as non trivial! This Zeiss glass is capable of the weirdest sharpness ever seen on a photograph! No wonder pro's like Erwin Olaf use no other than Digital Hasselblad gear with Zeiss glass in their studio work!

Anyways, as I can't afford an H series Swede or I ever will, I went to test the next best outfit I could afford. A Nikon D200 with a 'portrait' ideal lens, the Nikon 60mm 1:2.8D. I used a ten sq. feet Elinchrome softbox as my front lighting, and a secondary strobe with honeycomb on the model's left side. I shot a few pictures at 10mpx resolution, which is one third of Simon's H3DII-31's full pixel range. I used as low an ISO rating as I possibly could. The level of detail achieved this way, without any software sharpening involved (see picture to the right), is still impressive by normal DSLR standards. Click on each of the two shots shown here (Simon's and mine) and compare. You can then see why a Hasselblad will still cost you seven to ten times more. Remarkably far better resolution and sharpness, not to mention dynamic range and skin tones.  Nevertheless, the question still remains. How obsessive should someone be about technical quality in photography to still keep dreaming about owning one of these ultimate boxes? That is the question...

UPDATE: For those of you who are curious about whether one could further improve on a captured image and create the illusion of better sharpness by applying some minimal level software corrections (via On-One and Lightroom tools), take a look at an 'improved' version of my previous image with sharpness and color balance adjusted.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Everything you'd like to know about Telenet but you were afraid to ask...

Well, I'm not gonna be as ambitious as this blog title suggests, but I reckon, some of the things I learned by riding a road full of bumps in my quest to make an Internet of Things working in our house could benefit a few, especially those living in this country and renting Triple Play from Telenet, one of the largest and certainly the fastest local cable broadband provider.

I have reached a moron geek status to such a degree that I use, not one, not even two... but three (!) glorious Digital TV set-top boxes, two of them with recording capabilities and one without, just a channel decoder. The recorders, called Digicorders by Telenet, offer additional interactivity by connecting via Ethernet to Telenet's residential cable modem. Now that I'm thinking about it, the simple decoder, a.k.a. Digibox, might do the same too... I could verify this in a heartbeat, but right now I'm kinda lazy to leave my desk...

In fact, as the Telenet cable comes in thru the wall, it meets a splitter that separates the signal into one group riding the coax cables towards our TV sets, and a second entering a dedicated 'modem' that is used to provide service to the remaining two components of our Triple Play, i.e. Internet and Telephony. The Internet connectivity from that point on relies on just one Ethernet output on the modem itself. Thus, if one wants to connect routers and/or any other Ethernet appliances to that same output, one will have to use a separate 'port multiplier' hub. I've got one of these myself, and use it to connect my two Digicorders, and one Apple Time Capsule router. All three of them  instantaneously receive their unique IP #'s as soon as they get plugged into the hub. This is very much an improvement, as in the past with Telenet, at least for routers, if you happened to change the device that they had recorded in their databases via its unique MAC address, you had to wait three quarters of an hour to get a new IP reallocated. They just didn't want you to serve multiple computers those days (the days before routers, that is) or else you had to buy multiple access subscriptions (horny bastards). A huge hemorrhoids pain, if you ask me. Now this is gone and IPs are generously distributed as soon as you connect your cables.

What I found out the hard way though is that the theory often breaks down on the following detail: Having Digicorders and routers plugged into the same hub, and especially, if your router(s) were the last to connect, IP allocation conflicts may occur and prevent routers from receiving a valid IP address from the Telenet Mothership. You have to connect these devices in the following order sequentially to avoid any problems:  routers first, set-top boxes next, one by one.

Second thing I recently experienced, and I'm not quite sure if this is happening to everybody else in a similar situation, the moment a second set-top box gets plugged-in the hub, the router 'loses' its IP address and disconnects from Internet. I repeated the experiment a few times yesterday with always the same result. Not much of a deal though, as I am not using set-top box interactivity a lot anyway, so one connected box out of three will suffice.

Morale of the story: If you are a tech-geek nuts like me and you're using similar appliances as I described above, beware of too many Ethernet boxes seeking IP # allocations, when connected via the same hub. They might jeopardize your PC/Mac Internet connectivity and you'll think most of the time that the problem in in the router and/or your computers and even your Ethernet cables. It might still be there, but try some experimentation first before you condemn the wrong appliances and boxes, like connecting your computer(s) and router(s) directly to your cable modem (bypassing your hub) to see if they still can get a legitimate IP adress that way.

... Sure! ... You're welcome!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My grapes of wrath are... getting popular!

I recently moved them grapes into a Flickr group where members post their masterpieces painted with iPhone Brushes. All of a sudden, months after their original upload to Flickr, my grapes of wrath, that I first 'painted' last spring, instantly became quite popular among the "experts". I keep getting emails every other day from Flickr about new comments posted to my few digital drawings, 'painted' on my iPhone with Brushes and on my iMac with a Wacom pen and tablet. With a little more than a dozen comments on just a few digital drawings this is by far not such a big deal, if you think that really popular postings, mainly photographs, receive hundreds of comments by viewers. However, this is the first time postings of mine receive any attention whatsoever. One needs to start somewhere, innit?