Archive for 2010

Improvements in PhotoMerge

Published on October 12, 2010

I recently updated to Photoshop CS5 on my home computer, and I wanted to briefly share how particularly impressed I am with the new capabilities of their PhotoMerge process. The old PhotoMerge was a hassle to work with, and tended to screw up panoramas in weird ways. Getting the perspective right was usually a guess and check affair. Happily, the new system blows the old one out of the water.

Here’s are two examples to compare the systems:

The results with the new system are much better, and more in line with tools like Microsoft Research’s Image Composite Editor. I will be going through my panorama collection over the coming days and updating them as necessary, cleaning them up where needed. I’m looking forward to producing better panoramas in the future with this help of this great tool.

Mayo River State Park

Published on October 11, 2010

Earlier this month, I traveled to Rockingham County in north-western North Carolina to visit the newest member of the NC state park system: Mayo River State Park. Naturally, I took my camera along and got some photos. Though there are only two hiking trails, both are worth the visit. It’s a nice new addition to an already stellar park system.

Jury Duty

Published on September 26, 2010

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to serve on a jury for the first time. The experience lasted for three full days and I learned a lot about how the process works. Now that the case is closed and I can openly discuss it, I figured I’d write up a little bit about my experience. I’ll go through each day’s proceedings, the case itself, and the outcome.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sound Corruption in Windows 7?

Published on September 21, 2010

Has anyone here run into sound corruption problems in Windows 7? I’m having occasional audio problems with my current system, and I’m wondering whether my Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS is to blame (it’s an ancient card). All I need is another hardware failure…

Disliking Java

Published on September 21, 2010

If you were to ask me which programming language I hated, my first answer would most certainly be Lisp (short for “Lots of Stupid, Irritating Parentheses”). On the right day, my second answer might be Java. But seeing as hate is such a strong word, I’ll opt for the statement that I dislike Java instead.

For the first time in probably 7 or 8 years, I’m having to write some Java code for a project at work. In all fairness, one of the main reasons I dislike the language is that I’m simply not very familiar with it. I’m sure that if I spent more time writing Java code, I might warm up to some of its quirks. But there are too many annoyances out of the gate to make me want to write stuff in Java for fun. Jumping back into Java development reminds me just how lucky I am to work with Perl and C++ code on a daily basis. Here are a few of my main gripes:

  1. It’s a little ridiculous that the language requires the filename containing a class to exactly match the name of the class (so, a class named MyClass has to be placed in a file named “MyClass.java”). Other than making it easy to find where certain code resides, what’s the benefit of this practice? The compiler simply translates your human-readable code into machine-specific byte code; filenames get lost in the translation!
  2. It pains me to have to write System.out.println("Some string"); to print some text, when in Perl it’s simply print "Some string";. This leads me to my next major gripe:
  3. Java is way too verbose. I have to write 100 lines of code in Java to do what can be done in 10 lines of Perl. My time is worth something and I’m spending too much of it dealing with Java boilerplate code. In C++, I can use the public: keyword once, and everything that follows is public (until either another similar control keyword is reached or we come to the end of the block). It doesn’t look like that’s allowed in Java. Instead, I have to place the public keyword in front of each and every member variable and function. Ugh!
  4. Surprisingly, Java’s documentation is pretty poor. Examples are few and far between and varying terminology makes it unclear when to use what function. For example, in some list-based data structure classes, getting a count of the items in said list might be getSize(), it might be getLength(), it could be just length(), or it might even be getNumberOfItems(). There’s apparently no standard. Every other language manual I’ve ever used, be it PHP, Perl, or even the official C++ manual, has examples throughout, and relatively sane naming conventions. I can find no such help in Java-land.
  5. Automatic memory management can be handy, but it can also be a bother. I know for a fact that there are folks out there who make competent Java programmers who wouldn’t last 10 minutes with C++ code. Pointers still matter in the world of computing. That Java hides all of those concepts from programmers, especially young programmers learning the trade, seems detrimental to me. It pays to know how memory allocation works. Trusting the computer to “just handle it” for you isn’t always the best solution.
  6. Nearly all Java IDE’s make Visual Studio look like the greatest thing on the planet; and Visual Studio sucks!

All that being said, the language does have a few redeeming features. Packages are a nice way to bundle up chunks of code (I wish C++ had a similar feature). It’s also nice that the language recognizes certain data types as top-level objects (strings being one; again, C++ really hurts in this department, and yes I know about STL string which has its own set of problems).

I know there are folks who read this site that make a living writing Java code, so please don’t take offense at my views. It’s not that I hate Java; it’s just that I don’t like it.

The Future of Graphics Cards?

Published on September 13, 2010

Having recently replaced my graphics card, I was surprised to learn that the latest generation of cards requires not one, but two PCI-E power connections (with recommended power ratings of 20A on the +12V rail). Seeing as graphics cards have gotten larger (they now take up the width of 2 or more PCI slots) and more power hungry, I got thinking about their future. Several questions came to mind:

  • In 5 or 10 years, will graphics cards require their own dedicated power supply?
  • Will computer manufacturers forgo the PCI-E format for some sort of on-board socket, similar to the CPU?
  • If not, how will card size factor in to motherboard and case design?

It seems to me, especially seeing as how some graphics cards have cooling units larger than the card itself, that the PCI-E form factor for GPUs can’t last for many more years. Perhaps smaller-scale, multiple cores will prevent them from growing even larger than they are today. It’s interesting to think about the various possibilities.

Not as Bad as I Feared?

Published on August 27, 2010

I found an old video card around my house last night, so I swapped my current one out for it. I was able to boot my system, but upon entering Windows, I still see graphical trash. That indicates to me that the motherboard is most likely to blame.

After doing a little bit of hardware research last night, it appears that my CPU is still among the best, so I doubt I’ll replace that after all. And seeing as my graphics card might not actually be to blame, I’ll probably hang on to it as well (it, too, is still fairly decent). The motherboard definitely needs to be replaced, and I’m thinking about going to DDR3 memory instead of DDR2 (though if I stayed with DDR2 I could get by with just purchasing a new motherboard).

So, long story short, the situation doesn’t appear to be as dire as I had initially thought. It still bites that I have to deal with this though. Why can’t technology just work?

The Day the Computer Died

Published on August 26, 2010

My desktop computer at home has been giving me some occasional graphical problems ever since I updated to Windows 7. I have the latest and greatest drivers for my graphics card, but every so often I get graphical trash on screen that, usually, corrects itself. Tonight, it seems to have died for good. I can’t get the system to boot reliably, even after trying to reseat the card. To add to my woes, I’ve also been having the occasional “double-beep” at startup, indicating that I have a memory problem. This has been an issue ever since I switched to the abit motherboard I’m currently using.

Anyways, I’m going to bite the bullet and buy a bunch of new hardware to fix all of this. New motherboard, CPU, memory, graphics card; the whole shebang.

If you have recommendations as to what to buy these days, I’d sure appreciate it. I’ll be putting in some orders ASAP, so the sooner you can recommend something, the better.

Tracking My Weight

Published on August 12, 2010

I’ve been slightly overweight for quite a long time. Two months ago, I decided I would start tracking my weight daily, in an effort to try and motivate myself to shed a few pounds. Desiring a tool to make this easy, I immediately searched the Android marketplace and found Libra. This incredibly handy tool uses a weight trend line as described in the excellent book The Hacker’s Diet.

Allow me to quickly talk about The Hacker’s Diet. Written by John Walker, founder of AutoDesk, this book tackles weight loss as an engineering problem. The author is funny, to the point, and provides a careful analysis of how weight loss works. The briefest summary: you will only lose weight by eating fewer calories than you need. Exercise won’t do it (though it helps), and weird diets (Atkins, South Beach, et al.) won’t do it either. Read the book for further discussion and analysis of this viewpoint. The author presents a pretty solid case that’s hard to argue against. Best of all, the book is available for free as a PDF!

The trend line in a weight chart tells you where you’re headed: am I gaining weight (line going up), maintaining it (horizontal), or losing it (line going down)? With this simple tool, I was able to see in no time at all that my weight was going upwards at an alarming rate. After waking up to my weight gain, I set a modest goal of losing 9 pounds (I was 9 pounds above the “overweight” line for someone my height).

After reading The Hacker’s Diet, I made one simple change to my lifestyle: I altered how much I eat at each meal. I didn’t change what I eat; only how much. And wow what a difference that has made! Today, I weighed in at my goal weight for the very first time! Here’s the proof:

Weight Chart

As you can see from the chart, I started heading up, turned the corner, and have been headed down ever since. My trend line hasn’t yet hit my target weight (as of today’s measurement, it’s scheduled to hit the target on August 21), but at least it’s heading in the right direction. It was a great feeling to hit my target this morning. I’m looking forward to shedding a few more pounds and maintaining a healthier weight.

Greensboro Historical Museum and Guilford Courthouse

Published on August 1, 2010

This weekend, for my mom’s birthday, we took a trip over to Greensboro, NC to visit the Greensboro Historical Museum and the Guilford Courthouse Military Park. Having never visited Greensboro proper, we didn’t really know what to expect from either.

The historical museum in Greensboro is way larger than it may look from the outside. We easily spent two hours wandering through the various exhibits, some of which are tremendously large. More time could easily be spent here; the rainy weather limited our outdoor experiences (a few exhibits are outside the building). I was surprised to learn about the history of the area; a number of corporations were founded there, and several prominent events have occurred over the course of time. Best of all, the visit is absolutely free! I came away from the museum very impressed. It easily rivals the state museums in Raleigh.

Guilford county courthouse, site of a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War, is equally as entertaining. Again, the rainy weather limited our outdoor activity at the park, but it should be noted that there are miles of hiking trails and a number of memorials around the park. The visitor center has an excellent 30-minute film describing the events of the battle. A number of artifacts from the battlefield are also on display; from rifles, to cannonballs, to belt buckles, it’s all here. The collection is truly gigantic. Again, the visit is completely free. This is a park I will definitely return to.

If you’re ever in the Greensboro area, I highly recommend both destinations. Both provide a relaxing environment, and a historical perspective on the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Useful Tool: ImgBurn

Published on July 20, 2010

I needed a quick and easy way to burn an ISO image here at work, so I took a look around and found ImgBurn. A Windows-only app, it’s small, easy to set up, and took no time at all to get working. The only annoyance was that the installer included an option to install an “Ask” toolbar in IE (along with a few other advertising options). Thankfully, you can disable them all at setup time.

Recommended LCDs?

Published on July 12, 2010

Exactly five years ago today, I bought a used NEC 22″ monitor for my personal computer at home. It has served me well for that time, but I’ve seen it act up a time or two recently. Seeing as LCD technology has progressed much over the past few 5 years, I feel like it’s finally time to bite the bullet and join the mainstream. As such, I’m starting the hunt for a new display. Here’s what I want:

  • Real Estate: I run 1600 x 1200 at home, and I’d like to stay in that neighborhood
  • Fast Response Times: The display would primarily be used for gaming, so fast response times are a requirement.
  • Vibrant Colors: Some LCD displays have pretty weak white-balance; I want something with nice color reproduction, since I’ll also be doing occasional photo editing.

Does anyone here have any recommendations on brands or where to start looking? Is there a model or manufacturer you’ve been happy with? Any ideas would be appreciated!

Encrypted Google Search

Published on July 8, 2010

I’m currently working on adding secure search support to the next release of Googlebar Lite. This new feature complicates things slightly when using a non-default, top-level domain (google.co.uk, for example). Google’s encrypted search feature is not available for all search types, and is currently only available via one domain: encrypted.google.com. As such, here is how the new option in Googlebar Lite will work when enabled:

  • For search types that support encrypted search, all queries will be sent to the encrypted domain. Your custom top-level domain (if you have one selected) will be ignored.
  • For search types that do not support encrypted search, all queries will be sent to the top-level domain of your choice.

I want to make this option’s behavior as clear as possible before I release the extension, which I hope to get around to doing in the next week or two.

Early Thoughts on Windows 7

Published on June 21, 2010

On Friday afternoon, I finally upgraded my home system to Windows 7. Windows XP was feeling dated, and my old system had slowed to a crawl for unexplained reasons. I also figured it was time to upgrade to a 64-bit OS, so that’s the version of 7 that I installed. Here are a few brief thoughts I’ve had on this new operating system:

New Task Bar
Interestingly enough, the steepest learning curve I’ve had with Windows 7 has been with the new task bar. I’m quite used to XP’s task bar, complete with the quick launch toolbar. The new task bar in Windows 7 rolls these two toolbars into one; essentially combining currently running applications with ‘pinned’ applications. Also, by default, only program icons are displayed; none of the window titles are shown as a part of each process’ button. This new scheme is a little confusing at first, but I’m becoming accustomed to it.
Updated Start Menu
Microsoft finally got smart with the new start menu. No longer does it stretch to the top of the screen when you have a million applications installed. Instead, the “All Programs” menu simply transforms into a scrollable pane, showing the items available. This is a terrific UI change that should have been done at least 10 years ago.
Improved Speed
In the midst of going to Windows 7, I also made several hardware improvements. I upped my memory from 2 GB to 4 GB (I may go to 8 GB if 4 doesn’t suffice), I am using a new brand of hard drive (Western Digital, instead of Seagate), and I added a new CPU heat sink. Since I updated a few hardware components, I’m not sure what really made the difference, but most of my applications now start noticeably faster than before. For example, iTunes starts nearly instantly, which blows the previous 15 to 20 second startup time out of the water. Games also start way faster, which is a plus. I love getting performance boosts like this; hopefully they will hold up over time.
Miscellaneous
There are other minor things that I find interesting about the Windows 7 experience:

  • Installation was amazingly fast, and I was only asked one or two questions.
  • Drivers thankfully haven’t been an issue (so far).
  • The built-in zip file support has apparently been vastly improved; it’s orders of magnitude faster than XP. I’m not sure I’m going to install WinZip seeing as the built-in support is so good.
  • The new virtualized volume control is epic; why wasn’t it like this all along?

So far, I’m pleasantly surprised with Windows 7. Some of the new UI takes getting used to, but this looks like a positive step forward; both for Microsoft and for my home setup.

E3 2010

Published on June 18, 2010

This year’s E3 has come and gone, and I thought I’d post a few thoughts on various things introduced at the event. To make things easy, I’ll organize things by platform.

PC Gaming

Portal 2
This may be the game I’m most excited about. Whereas the first Portal was an “experiment” of sorts, this second title looks to be a full-fledged game. The puzzles sound much more insidious (physics paint!), and the new milieu of the game looks incredible. Portions of the trailer I watched are very funny, as can be expected. And hey, it’s Valve we’re talking about here. This will definitely be a winner.
Rage
id Software’s new intellectual property looks incredible. Part racer, part first-person shooter, this game looks like a boat load of fun. It’s pretty, too, as expected with titles from id (humans still look a little too fake, however; they need to drop the ‘bloated’ look). I’ll probably pick this one up when it’s released.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If this game is as fun (and as deep) as the first one was, I’ll definitely buy in. If it’s as lame as the second one was reported to be, I’ll skip it. Nevertheless, the trailer looks great.

Nintendo Wii

Lost in Shadow
This upcoming adventure game looks really impressive. You play as the shadow of a young boy, separated from him at the beginning of the game. The ultimate goal is to reach the top of a tower, where the boy is being held. But the twist here is that, as a shadow, you can only use other object’s shadows as platforms. Manipulating light in the environment looks like a large part of the puzzle mechanic. This is another very inventive title that looks promising.
Zelda: Skyward Sword
What’s not to like about a new Zelda title?
Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Kirby’s Epic Yarn has an incredibly unique art design. This time around, Kirby is an outline of yarn, and moves through a similarly designed environment. I’ve seen plenty of comments around the web poking fun at the seemingly “gay” presentation of the trailer; but this looks like an inventive, fun game to me.
Donkey Kong Country Returns
I was a big fan of the Donkey Kong Country games back on the SNES, so I’m really looking forward to this one. Some of the older games were ridiculously difficult; hopefully some of that difficulty will be ported over. The graphics in this one look fantastic.
Epic Mickey
Mickey Mouse goes on an epic adventure, using various paints and paint thinners to modify and navigate the world. The fact that this game includes a Steamboat Willie level, complete with the old artwork style, is epic in itself.

Nintendo DS

Nintendo 3DS
The next iteration of Nintendo’s hand-held looks interesting. I’d have to see the 3D effect in person to get a good feel for it, but all the press I’ve read has sounded promising. There are some neat sounding titles coming for this new platform and, if they’re fun enough, I may just have to upgrade.

XBox 360

Kinect (AKA Project Natal)
I’m not exactly sure what to think about this. I’ve read in several places that Microsoft really butchered the unveiling of this tech, opting for ‘family-friendly’ titles similar to what’s already on the Wii. That being said, Child of Eden looks like a phenomenal title that makes terrific use of the new technology. Only time will tell how this stuff works out. I think it’s funny, however, that Sony and Microsoft are just now trying to catch up to Nintendo in motion control. Nintendo gets a lot of hate from the hard-core gaming community (a small portion of which is justified), but they’re obviously doing something right; otherwise these companies wouldn’t be entering this space.

I’m sure there are a few items I’ve missed in this rundown, but these are the ones that really caught my eye. For those of you who followed this year’s event, what are you looking forward to?

Two Towers and Return of the King

Published on June 7, 2010

Yesterday, I finally finished reading the Lord of the Rings series for the first time. I can finally scratch them off my list of shame! As I did for the previous two books, I thought I would provide some brief thoughts on each.

The Two Towers

I found it interesting how this volume told two stories in separate chunks (books 3 and 4), rather than interleaving them. The first book follows the adventures of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf, from beginning to end. The second follows Sam, Frodo, and Gollum. In the movie adaptation of this book, the stories are intertwined, helping to remind the viewer that various events are happening in parallel. Telling each story in its entirety in the novel was much more rewarding from a reading perspective. I never lost track of what was going on during each story, and I found them that much more engaging. It’s interesting that Peter Jackson decided to move the scene with Shelob into the third movie, since it really happens at the end of the second novel. Again, this was a top notch novel, which I enjoyed cover to cover. Five Stars

The Return of the King

To me, this book differs more from its movie adaptation than the previous two. In the book, the army of the dead is used to gain ships for Aragorn and company: nothing more. They are released from service after helping the company obtain these ships. In the movie, the dead travel with them and fight Sauron’s army with the company. I think I prefer the novel’s version here. Likewise, I prefer the ending of the novel over the movie. How could the film’s writers have left out the scouring of the Shire? When Frodo and company return to the Shire, they find it in ruin. This was a key scene omitted from the movie, much to the movie’s detriment, in my opinion. Novel for the win! Five Stars

Now for a few final thoughts on the series as a whole:

  • It boggles my mind that Arwen is a bit character in the novels. Having seen the movies before reading the books, I guess my vision of her importance was tarnished. She barely has any speaking lines in the books, and is left out of the second story altogether.
  • While I enjoy Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of these books, the novels (as usual) far exceed them. Key elements were left out of the films: interacting with Tom Bombadil, several scenes with the Ents, and the scouring of the Shire (along with the deaths of both Saruman and Wormtongue). I guess it’s hard to beat a book.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Photos

Published on June 4, 2010

Photos from my recent visit to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse have just been posted. This particular lighthouse, the tallest in the United States, was quite fun to climb (and very tiring!). It’s amazing to think that the lighthouse was moved nearly 3,000 feet over 10 years ago. Again, this is a highly recommended visit if you’re on the Outer Banks.

I have one final photo album coming in the next few days, which I had forgotten about until last night. This last album contains some of my favorite photos, so stay tuned!

Defining State Parks

Published on June 3, 2010

While researching the North Carolina State Park System for my “visit and photograph every state park” project, I learned that there are far more state parks than I realized. My original list had 39 parks; the official list, as I eventually found on the NC parks website, lists 32 parks, 19 natural areas, and 4 recreation areas. Unfortunately, this list is only current as of January 1, 2007. As such, a few newer parks aren’t listed, such as Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock (which is actually listed as Hickory Nut Gorge).

All of this got me thinking about what, for my purposes, constitutes a “state park.” Not all of the official sites have public facilities or access. A number of the state natural areas are simply chunks of land set aside for preservation. Several areas are relatively new and haven’t yet been developed. Some others aren’t developed simply based on recent budget cuts and shortfalls.

These facts have all led me to the following decision: the “state parks” I will pursue in my visitation project will include those for which official attendance figures are kept. Attendance information is posted in each state park newsletter; it is from this source that I have pulled my park list. The result is 40 parks, which nearly agrees with my first list. I had omitted Grandfather Mountain in my first pass, simply because it only recently became a state park, and wasn’t listed on the official website until very recently.

I’m looking forward to visiting each park in the state. As of this writing, I’ve been to 13 parks, and have photographed 11. Plenty more to go!

Bodie Island Lighthouse Photos

Published on June 3, 2010

The next-to-last photo album from my vacation has just been posted. This album isn’t very large, but it showcases an incredible renovation being done at the Bodie Island Lighthouse. I was really impressed with the scaffolding around the lighthouse; that structure must have taken a long time to set up.

My final photo album will hopefully be posted in the next day or two. Stay tuned.

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