Archive for August, 2006

Comic relief

August 31, 2006

If you use Linux at all, this is funny. (via Dave Slusher)

Excuse my overindulgence, but a quick trip to the source site of the comic brought an even bigger guffaw from me (and Linux usage is no prerequisite on this one). Take a look here.

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Getting Things Done… in plain text

August 31, 2006

For quite a while I’ve been interested in personal time management. I’m always keeping an eye on new ideas and concepts in this area. Of course I’ve watched the whole GTD ( Getting Things Done ) scene without dipping more than a toe or two into the water. It seems like there are many good ideas at play there, but I’m a bit wary of something so all-encompassing. I’m normally more willing to experiment with smaller scale changes and ideas.

One thing that fits right in with my move to Linux (although it’s not strictly a Linux thing) is a text based todo system. The idea was spawned when I read this article by Gina Trapani at Lifehacker. The article describes a rudimentary method of utilizing various command line controls to maintain a simple to-do list. From there it went on to this article, and then this article, and finally a dedicated domain at todotxt.com which houses the most recent scripts and discussion. I’ve found it to be very easy to implement and I love the fact that it doesn’t depend on anything other than simple scripts and some text files. I have been using Ta-da list off and on for a while, but I don’t like the fact that I can’t really do much with all that data I enter there. Using a simple text file opens up all kinds of opportunity for expanded functionality if I want. For now it just means I can take that simple list and filter it on the command line, import it and format it in a word processor or spreadsheet, or a variety of other simple things. I like having that freedom.

It seems I’m (by far) not the only one who feels this way. Check out the 43Folders Plain Text wiki page for more .txt love.

Of course I needed this system to function both at work and at home. So in due course I found out about Cygwin. This lets me run a very linux-like shell on XP at work. I managed to get the same text based to-do system up and running there as well. So it’s only a matter of transferring a simple text file between my work and home machines and I can work on the same task list at either location.

Linux Goodness 1

August 31, 2006

Moving to Linux as my OS at home has brought with it many challenges and discoveries. Every once in a while I think I’ll try to share interesting things I’ve found on my journey for anybody going down a similar road:

google.com/linux – Simply a Google search page aimed at Linux. It does a decent job of cutting down my searching when it involves something linux-ey.

www.tuxfiles.org – I’m not sure what happened to this site! The last time I checked (a couple of days ago) this was a great source for plain-english tutorials on Linux (the tutorials on the command line were fantastic). But now I see the link brings up a spammy site pushing pay products (unrelated to linux). Grrrrr. Anybody know where it’s gone??!!

listengnome.free.fr – A great music player for Gnome. It has very similar functionality to Amarok including a music library with features such as lyric-fetching, wikipedia info and cover-art fetching along with the usual playlist and music library features. I’m surprised I don’t hear mention of this app very much. It works great for me. Very slick interface as well.

Lottalinuxlinks podcast – Dave Yates creates this podcast that provides a great source for Linux-related information, especially for someone in ‘exploratory mode’ like me. He’s got a wonderful South Carolina drawl that makes it even more listenable to me. You won’t get super-polished sound quality, but the content and delivery is right up my alley. He covers a ton of practical issues with running Linux and provides his opinion on a wide variety of topics like software reviews, linux install tips, and a whole host of other great stuff.

emelfm2 – A GTK2 two-pane file manager for Linux. This is exactly what I have been looking for. It has a very nice interface that is also very efficient for file management and completely customizable. I heard about this one on Dave Yates’ Lottalinuxlinkspodcast. He sang its praises on his very first podcast and I immediately downloaded it to give it a try. I love it. It’s much more to my liking than Nautilus. That’s for sure.

The Compiz page at OpenSuse.org – This has to be the best page I’ve seen that outlines the functionality of Compiz. It gives all the keyboard shortcuts and good to-the-point descriptions of all the plugins. It’s not my distro (I’m running Ubuntu Dapper) but it’s very valuable to me nonetheless.

I’m trying to keep track of all the things I come across that might be of interest to others exploring Linux. Hopefully this will be the first post of many in this vein.

Positive Filter Engaged

August 28, 2006

The only thing easier than not linking to opposing opinion or thought is not posting about it at all – so Dave Winer has not taken the absolute easiest route, just the second easiest. He cites that there are several recent blogposts asking the question ‘why post from a Blackberry?’, and proceeds to link to ..er.. zero of them. It’s not quite ‘links are dead’ but only ‘opposing links are dead’ (not sure if SG would be happy on this one or not).

The reason it caught my eye was that Kent Newsome recently posted about that. In fact, doing a quicky Google Blog Search put a ZDNet blog post discussing (and linking to) Kent’s post on top of all other results when searching on the string "why would you want to post from a Blackberry".

No great soapbox speech here (I’m not strong on the issue since I don’t use my PDA for surfting- and to be honest don’t really care too much about it either way at the moment). It just made me shake my head. Keep on truckin’ Kent.

-link to Dave’s post not provided for immature but obvious reasons 😉

Is Everything Old really New(s) again?

August 25, 2006

It’s interesting to watch the continual fight for recognition that occurs on the web. I’m reading complaints about Dave Winer’s recent pushing of the ‘River of News’ concept. People are upset that many out there are acting as if this is a brand new thing. And meanwhile, Dave’s got his defenders and explainers.

I tend to agree with those that say it’s far from a brand new idea. Dave meanwhile tries to quell the unrest by saying that by just settling down and working together, they will all benefit. Heh. I’m not sure Dave would be so quick to reciprocate if it were someone more influential than him claiming ownership of the idea. And from what I’ve read, Dave has neither confirmed nor denied that it’s a retooling of an existing concept. Would it be that hard to say "yeah, it’s an existing idea, but I’m making it even better by doing x, y and z.". Wouldn’t you gain a lot of goodwill, nevermind move the cause further forward, by doing that?

I thought attribution and shared recognition were just the ‘right thing to do'(tm). Watching ideas percolate without either of those things isn’t nearly as interesting. As I recently posted in a comment to Scoble’s blog, many innovators and entrepreneurs I’ve met are headstrong, overconfident and sometimes boorish. But honestly, these might be prerequisites to success in those pursuits. However, in my view it doesn’t set the stage for good relations and certainly doesn’t make garnering respect from others any easier.

Perhaps even more interesting is the claim that ‘River of News’, whether a truly novel concept or not, is possibly not the cat’s pajamas. I have to say that it’s good food for thought. I’m not so sure I want to see every single story that flows by. Do important top stories flow down the list with nothing to set them apart from secondary items? If so, this is NOT what I want. I normally want the headlines first. I don’t want them to sink down until I tell them to.

I had a similar problem with Dave’s original concept of a River of News for RSS aggregation  (also known as the sushi-bar concept if I’m not mistaken). While it sounds very nice, I still don’t see the value in it for me. It doesn’t feel natural to me (however it may to others of course). Then again I don’t have any problems marking 200 unread Digg or BoingBoing posts as ‘read’ in one fell swoop. I don’t feel obligated to read every unread post. My Bloglines aggregator may look like email, but that doesn’t mean I treat it like email.

Bonus question: How will one go about avoiding the inevitable floating ad dingys bobbing by in the River of News?

Incidentally, there is another very similar, but entirely unrelated discussion occurring on the web recently regarding Apple’s new implementation of virtual desktops (something Linux/Unix has had for years). Ahh, but that’s another post for another time… 😉

Blogging for mere mortals

August 25, 2006

Earl Moore shares his typical day and the fractions of which he uses for blogging. He finds it difficult to imagine how someone with a full time job manages to do multiple posts per day. He asks others to share their own stories and tips. Here is a rundown for you Earl:

Before leaving for work in the morning I normally get iPodder (it’s still called iPodder in Linux btw) to run through my podcast subscriptions and then plunk those on an mp3 CD for the drive to work (I keep 3 CD-RW’s in rotation as I described in this previous post). I then do a quick check of my RSS feeds (on Bloglines) and my Gmail. If something catches my eye I flag it. Normally I don’t do any posts before work unless it’s something that really grabs my thoughts. If I do find something I’ve just got to comment or post on, then I’m late for work like Earl. Then it’s 50 minutes of back road commuting with a nice mug of coffee and an MP3 cd full of podcasts.

If I manage to get in a bit early, I usually read any posts I’ve flagged previously. If there’s something that I want to write a substantial post about (like this) I sometimes start a post in a simple text editor or in GMail. When I’ve got a good chunk of it out of my head and onto the screen, I save it, even if it’s incomplete, depending on the time.

I normally do one of two things at lunch. If I have lunch at my desk, I spend the time finishing any post I might have started or checking/reading any interesting blog or news posts. Other times I head out for a quick lunch (nothing fancy – we’re talking a double-whopper combo or the like, mmm). I keep a hardcover notebook with me to jot down notes on while I listen to other podcasts and munch away. This book contains a variety of things. I make notes on potential blogposts, reminders about things to do and check out, diagrams, project related sketches and notes and generally try to get at least some of the stuff meandering in my brain out onto paper. It’s absolutely amazing how much I can forget if I don’t jot things down. I have a Palm, but the notebook and pencil is far more natural to me.

After that, it’s work until 5:30 or 6:00 and then another 50 minutes home. The computer at home normally doesn’t come on again until 9pm or later. Those 2-3 hrs belong to my daughter and wife. I normally spend an hour or so before bed crafting a post, reading a blog, downloading pictures or something else PC related. The downside is that this usually ends up being midnight or later, and I’m getting too old for a huge string of nights with 5 hours or less of sleep. TV watching is getting very sparse these last couple of years. Not a bad thing IMO.

I simply don’t normally have the time to do multiple quality posts per day. I’m not sure I’ve got it in me anyway. I tend to latch onto an idea for a post and it might take me a few days to fill out the rest of the idea and generate the actual post.

That being said, one of my problems is that lots of times I don’t take enough time to prepare and edit my posts. I’m trying to fix that. Ideally, for a substantial post, I’d like to write the post, sleep on it, and then look at it again. But I tend to hurry things. For instance, my last Photography Concept post was generated with no previous notes, and in one sitting with 2 cups of coffee. Sometimes it shows I’m afraid.

Two things that I find very valuable:

– The hardcover notebook was one of the best purchases I made – it’s so useful to jot things down and go back to them later for fleshing out. It’s nothing fancy really, just a Blueline NotePro book . Very cheap, very sturdy and nice paper.
 
– I’ve recently discovered (although it’s not a new feature) that I can compose blog posts in my email program – GMail in my case – and email them in to my blog. For some reason, I occasionally have trouble accessing my blog from work and doing it via GMail is very convenient lots of times. It doesn’t let you do images but it works quite well otherwise. So I am using GMail as my blog editor more and more lately.

Hopefully you find some of this interesting. Share your own views and point to Earl, I’d like to read about others opinions on this as well.

The not-so-good ole’ days in Canada/US relations

August 24, 2006

I was never big into history when I was in school. I was busy playing videogames, doing a little Vic20 BASIC programming, and sticking to my maths and sciences I guess. But Matt Dattilo’s Today in History podcast has been one of my favourite listens during my commute. Today’s episode was especially interesting. It dealt with the burning of Washington DC by the Canadians ..er.. British back during the War of 1812. Strange to hear about war maneuvers between us and our friends to the south. Matt gives it a very even-handed treatment (as usual) and even interjects with his view on the patent office (not usual for Matt) which made me chuckle.
Give it a listen if you dismissed history as ‘boring’ during school.

By the way, Matt also typically gives a pretty accurate full text transcript of each episode as his blog post. I subscribe to his mp3 feed only, but if reading’s more your thing than listening, still check it out.

Photography Concept 5 – Histograms

August 24, 2006

It’s been over a month since I last posted a Photography Concept. My apologies. Simply taking on too many things once again I guess. Hopefully, some will find this one useful. In previous installments we’ve discussed exposure, focal length and lenses, depth of field, and metering).

This time we’re going to take a quick gander at histograms. As always, this will not be an all-encompassing discussion but a more practical look at what a histogram is, and why it can be useful to the digital photographer. Note: for those in the know, I have stayed away from things like output range, RGB channels and the like, to keep it simple and straightforward. As always I’ll try to point out a few good resources for further info.

In terms of digital imaging, a histogram is a vertical bar graph showing the frequency distribution of the different tones in your image. More simply, and more importantly, it’s a graphical representation of the exposure of your image. Imagine if you took a count of all of the pixels in your image and categorized them by their tone into 256 shades of grey (from black through to white). Now if you create a bar graph showing the number of pixels in each of the 256 categories with black on the left and white on the right, you would end up with a typical histogram. Here is a typical image histogram. (Note my screenshots were taken using the GIMP, but histogram displays are similar in other image programs like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, etc.)


The key things to remember when looking at a histogram for one of your images are:

1. The left end of the histogram represents black, the right end represents white.
2. The height of the curve above the horizontal (or ‘zero’) axis indicates the relative quantity of pixels at that tonal value. So when the curve hits the horizontal axis, there are few, if any pixels at that value.
3. By virtue of 1. and 2., if the curve runs into the left end of the histogram before hitting the horizontal axis, there are a significant number of pure black pixels.
4. Also by virtue of 1. and 2., if the curve runs into the right end of the histogram before hitting the horizontal axis, there are a significant number of pure white pixels.
5. If the curve runs into the horizontal axis well before it reaches the left or right ends, your image may not be making use of the full tonal range and might be significantly improved (more on this in a moment).
6. There is no one single ideal histogram curve. That is to say that 3. does not necessarily always indicate underexposure, and 4. does not necessarily always indicate overexposure. (eg. if you are shooting a scene with lots of black in it, you will undoubtedly get the situation described by 3.)
7. Just to confuse matters, it must be said that the histogram of an image can give you a good indication of over or under-exposure conditions in your image.
8. If you have an option on your digital camera to view the histogram after taking the shot (no matter how small the display), you would do well to utilize it. A small histogram can in most cases be a better, more accurate indicator of exposure problems than viewing the image itself on a camera’s LCD display.

So let’s look at an example histogram for the image below (a striking pose by Delilah, our Frenchie):


Here is the histogram for the image:


As you can see, there is a peak at the leftish end, most likely coming from the fact that our model Delilah is very dark. There is also another peak just right of the midpoint which is most likely coming from the abundance of wooden decking and brick in the picture.
Another key thing to note is that the right hand end of the histogram does not reach the horizontal (zero) axis – in fact it’s rising up when it reaches the right end. This indicates that there are a significant number of pixels in the shot that are approaching pure white. This comes from the overexposed blotches in the upper right.
Finally, it can be noted that the left end of the curve reaches the horizontal or zero axis prematurely. This indicates that there are no pixels in the shot that are pure black. It’s important to note that in this specific shot, we know because of Delilah’s colour, that there should be some pixels that are approaching pure black, but in other cases there may not be any pixels approaching black (take for example a photo of a blue sky with clouds). Anyway, for this specific image, this looks like a situation where we’re not utilizing the full tonal range in the image.

So how can we improve the image?

Well, unfortunately there isn’t much that we can do with all the overexposed pixels in the upper right. It’s difficult to recover image information from overexposed areas such as this. I’ve chosen to just ignore it, reasoning that it’s not worth the trouble to fix (you could crop it out if desired).

We can however do something to better utilize the tonal range of the image. By using the ‘Levels’ tool found in many image editing programs, we can improve the image significantly. Let’s look at the levels tool within the GIMP. There are similar tools in many other image editing tools as well – they won’t differ too significantly from what I describe. Here is the levels dialog box:


If we move the left slider in a rightwards direction as shown above so that it just stops where the histogram hits the zero axis, we can improve the image. Note that if there was a flat area on the right end of the histogram we would make a similar adjustment there. Also, there will almost always be a middle slider that will let you adjust the gamma of the image. This will result in brightening or darkening the midtones of the image. You can see that I made a slight adjustment to the gamma slider as well to slightly brighten the image after making the left-slider adjustment. If there is a preview checkbox available, I suggest you keep it on, as you want to see the dynamic changes to your image as you adjust. Here is a comparison of the original and corrected images (obviously the lower shot being the corrected one). Hopefully you will see the improvement:

This is a quick fix that you can apply to any of your images that need a little extra punch. You might also find that your camera rarely gives you an image whose histogram is this far out of whack, but it does sometimes happen. Scanning prints will notoriously result in histograms with flat left (and right) hand sections. I remember having to do this virtually all my scanned photos. Luckily it is a quick fix and only takes a few seconds to perform.

So what are the take-away points of all this?

If your digital camera provides a histogram display, make use of it, no matter how small it is. Once you get used to interpreting it, you’ll find that you can spot problematic photos immediately and possibly retake them with exposure compensation to correct the problem.

Don’t blindly expect the perfect ‘mountain’ curve in your histogram for every image. You may very want a lot of white pixels or black pixels in your shot. And the curve will look different for different shots.

Play with the histogram adjustment tools in your photo editing software if they’re available. They can vary from simple ‘levels’ dialogs, to more elaborate histogram adjustment tools (I quite liked the Paintshop Pro dialog for histogram adjustment, which would show you the percentage quantity of pixels you were modifying as you dragged the sliders left and right). Don’t be afraid to experiment. You can improve the quality of your images signficantly with this simple tool.

Hopefully you found this useful. If you want to further expand your understanding histograms, check out this, this and this.

Photocast Network Launches

August 23, 2006

A new podcast network has been created which focuses (parden the pun) on photography related podcasts. You can find it at PhotocastNetwork.com. There are currently 8 shows on board. I’m only a regular subscriber to one of them at the moment (TipsFromTheTopFloor) but I’ve listened to (and watched) some of the other ones from time to time and they are all worthwhile. Potentially a good source for those interested in getting their photography fix on a regular basis.

Of Blogs and Blowhards

August 22, 2006

Jeff Sandquist takes issue with Robert Scoble’s recent statement:

“Mike Torres of the Live Spaces team just said that more than half of all Live Spaces are private. Um, Mike, you DO realize that private Web spaces are NOT blogs, right?”

Backtracking to Robert’s original post I have to say it reads like a list of rigid demands. If you don’t meet the demands you can’t call what you do a blog. (To be honest, I actually wish there was another name… ‘blog’ is such an ugly word now isn’t it? But I digress..).

I really don’t agree with Robert’s definition of a weblog. Or anybody’s really. It just seems so petty to be pidgeonholing something so free and so new. And to be honest, who really cares? If someone’s got a static page that they update daily by hand, why should I care if they call it a blog or not?

But Jeff’s response garnered this statement from Scoble to Jeff:

“And, OK, I’ll grant you that my ego is out of control. Blogging is something I’m a weeeeee bit of an expert on. Do you listen to anonymous jerks who come in your office and try to tell you what a good community is or what good software looks like? So, why do you quote such when trying to argue against me? “

First of all, when somebody writes that they’re a ‘weeeee bit of an expert’ on something. It sends Richard’s respect-o-meter into a nosedive. One thing Robert seems NOT to be an expert on lately is humility. And who exactly are the ‘anonymous jerks’ he claims Jeff is quoting? The commenters on Robert’s own post? I’m still trying to sit down and figure this one out. But somehow leaving Microsoft has freed Scoble from his shell of humility and friendliness only to reveal an egostistical blowhard. I hope I’m wrong.

[UPDATE:] A quick visit to Scoble’s page..er…blog, reveals that he has since rescinded his statements. Not so sure about the honesty of this one. One of those times you should have got a coffee and then re-read your post before hitting ‘publish’ I guess.