Archive for 2011

Skyrim Review

Published on November 21, 2011

For those who live under a rock, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released ten days ago. I’m already nearly 70 hours into this game, and there’s still a ton of stuff I haven’t done. That said, I figured I’d post a few quick thoughts about this game. In short, this is easily one of the best games I’ve ever played.

There is simply too much to do in this game. You could spend all day making potions, crafting items, enchanting items, or simply exploring the world, all without ever starting a single quest. I found myself completing many of the “miscellaneous” quests long before I joined any particular faction, or started along the main quest line. There are still giant chunks of the map that I have yet to visit, which is incredible given that I’m so far in.

The game’s graphics are outstanding; head and shoulders above Oblivion’s engine. I’m really impressed with the draw distance, and every dungeon, cave, and mine has a unique feel (fixing one of Oblivion’s few failings). It’s also silky smooth on my system, running on the “High” detail level. Story lines have been interesting so far (though the Thieves’ Guild seemed a little weak), and I’m loving the Dragon Shout abilities. Blasting an enemy off the top of a mountain is so incredibly fun.

I do have a few complaints. The user interface on the PC is pretty terrible, though I’m hopeful that a mod will come along soon to fix that. Voice acting is good, but some of the voices are reused way too much for my liking. Perk points (a new way of leveling your character) are too rare. Give me 2 or 3 points per level, not just 1! Finally, as is usual with this type of game, there are still quite a few bugs. Another patch is coming after Thanksgiving, which should hopefully smooth out some of the rough spots.

If you like role playing games, and you enjoyed the previous Elder Scrolls titles, you’ll like this title. It’s an instant classic in my opinion, and has taken its rightful place in my “best games of all time” list. 5 stars

Mount Mitchell State Park

Published on October 9, 2011

The final photo album from my trip to the mountains of North Carolina last month has finally been posted. This time, it’s a collection from Mount Mitchell State Park, located on the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. I enjoyed my visit to this park; it’s one that I will definitely return to.

Chimney Rock State Park

Published on September 30, 2011

I’ve just posted the fourth album from my recent trip to the mountains. This set showcases Chimney Rock State Park, which is a fantastic place to visit. Though it costs money to get in, the views and hikes are worth it. I’ve got one more photo album to post from this small vacation trip to the Asheville area; it should show up within the next week or so.

Whitewater Falls Photos

Published on September 22, 2011

I’ve just posted the third of five photo albums from my recent trip to the mountains. This time around, it’s a set from a short visit to Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains (though that term is debatable). Visiting the park costs $2, but the views are worth it, in my opinion. Definitely check it out if you’re ever in the southwestern mountains of our state.

Getting Form Data With PHP

Published on September 19, 2011

A couple of years ago, I blogged about two helper functions I wrote to get HTML form data in PHP: getGet and getPost. These functions do a pretty good job, but I have since replaced them with a single function: getData. Seeing as I haven’t discussed it yet, I thought I would do so today. First, here’s the function in its entirety:

/**
 * Obtains the specified field from either the $_GET or $_POST arrays
 * ($_GET always has higher priority using this function). If the value
 * is a simple scalar, HTML tags are stripped and whitespace is trimmed.
 * Otherwise, nothing is done, and the array reference is passed back.
 * 
 * @return The value from the superglobal array, or null if it's not present
 * 
 * @param $key (Required) The associative array key to query in either
 * the $_GET or $_POST superglobal
 */
function getData($key)
{
    if(isset($_GET[$key]))
    {
        if(is_array($_GET[$key]))
            return $_GET[$key];
        else
            return (strip_tags(trim($_GET[$key])));
    }
    else if(isset($_POST[$key]))
    {
        if(is_array($_POST[$key]))
            return $_POST[$key];
        else
            return (strip_tags(trim($_POST[$key])));
    }
    else
        return null;
}

Using this function prevents me from having to do two checks for data, one in $_GET and one in $_POST, and so reduces my code’s footprint. I made the decision to make $_GET the tightest binding search location, but feel free to change that if you like.

As you can see, I first test to see if the given key points to an array in each location. If it is an array, I do nothing but pass the reference along. This is very important to note. I’ve thought about building in functionality to trim and strip tags on the array’s values, but I figure it should be left up to the user of this function to do that work. Be sure to sanitize any arrays that this function passes back (I’ve been bitten before by forgetting to do this).

If the given key isn’t found in either the $_GET or $_POST superglobals, I return null. Thus, a simple if(empty()) test can determine whether or not a value has been provided, which is generally all you care about with form submissions. An is_null() test could also be performed if you so desire. This function has made handling form submissions way easier in my various work with PHP, and it’s one tool that’s worth having in your toolbox.

Gorges State Park

Published on September 18, 2011

I’ve just posted some photos from Gorges State Park, the westernmost state park in North Carolina. This park is also one of the newest; visitor facilities are currently under construction. That being said, the views and hikes from this park are fantastic. I will certainly make an effort to return to this park in the future; this is one that definitely warrants multiple visits.

South Mountains State Park

Published on September 13, 2011

Late last week, I stopped at South Mountains State Park on my way to the Asheville area for some vacation. The park is located south of Morganton, NC, and has terrific hiking trails and beautiful scenery. High Shoals Falls, an 80-foot high waterfall, is located at the park. Knowing this, I took my tripod along, and got some nicer-than-usual photos in the process. If you’re ever in that particular area of North Carolina, I highly recommend a visit to this park. This is one I would love to return to!

Don’t Always Trust Auto White Balance

Published on September 11, 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned two photography lessons on my recent trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Today, I will be covering the second lesson I learned. In short, never fully trust your camera’s automatic white balance setting. While shooting under cloudy conditions, I found that the automatic setting resulted in photos that were way too cool in color, resulting in inaccurate representations of what my eye saw. Here’s a great example from my visit to Mount Mitchell State Park (a wonderful place, I might add):

Automatic White Balance Scene
Photograph taken with automatic white balance

Compare the automatic white balance photo with the following one, which was taken with manual white balance (on the “Cloudy” setting):

Manual White Balance Scene
Photograph taken with manual (Cloudy) white balance

Note how this second image is warmer in color, with richer greens and reds. This second image is much closer to what I really saw, and the color difference was enough to be apparent in the little LCD display on my camera. The morning I visited the park, weather conditions were definitely cloudy. It’s interesting then that the automatic white balance didn’t pick up on those conditions better than it did.

One obvious solution to this problem is to shoot in RAW mode (assuming your camera supports it). My camera does not support RAW, and I’m not entirely sure that the additional post-processing work necessary with RAW photos is worth it (though I’m sure plenty of pros would disagree). As I have learned, you’re probably better off manually setting your white balance for a given scene. Just don’t forget to change it each time you go on a shoot. You wouldn’t want to shoot in “Cloudy” mode on a bright, sunny day.

Tripods Are Useful Tools

Published on September 10, 2011

I learned two very important photography lessons during my recent vacation to the southwestern mountains of North Carolina. Today I will cover one of those lessons, and I’ll get to the other one in a future post. As you might have guessed from this post’s title, the first lesson involves a tripod.

In my previous outings to the various state parks here in North Carolina, I’ve never carried a tripod with me. On a bright sunny day, it’s typically a tool I feel that I don’t need; lots of light, a steady hand, and my camera’s image stabilization feature help me out. On cloudy days, however, I inevitably end up with a load of blurred shots, especially when in a heavily forested area. On this particular trip to the mountains, I knew I would be shooting a number of waterfalls, so I was willing to haul my tripod down the trail with me.

Since I already had the tripod with me, I found that I used it for way more than the waterfall shots I had intended. Wow, what a difference it made! Instead of lots of blurred shots, the vast majority of my photos are keepers this time around, thanks to this handy tool. I’ve also learned a few things about the type of tripod I want in the future:

  1. It should be light
  2. It should have a ball head
  3. The adjustable leg locks should be sturdy

My current tripod is a tad bulky, and the multiple controls are a bother to work with. A multidimensional bubble level for my camera’s hot shoe connector would also be useful.

In short, if you’re planning a photo shoot in a forested area, or you’re shooting on a cloudy day, make an effort to carry a tripod along with you. Your end results will justify the extra effort of lugging extra gear down the trail. As an added bonus, carrying a tripod will pique people’s curiosity. I struck up more conversations with random people about photography on this trip than I’ve ever done previously. It’s a lesson I’ll remember for a long time.

Access Denied in PuTTY 0.61

Published on August 23, 2011

Update: This problem has been fixed in PuTTY 0.62.

Back at the beginning of last month, PuTTY 0.61 was released after four years (!) of development. Since upgrading to this new release, I’ve noticed the occasional “Access Denied” message when connecting to certain Linux systems at work. The odd thing about this message is that it appears between the user ID prompt and the password prompt; in essence, before I even get the chance to log in! Example output looks something like this:

login as: root
Access denied
root@myserver's password:

Making things stranger, I can enter the correct password and log in to the system with no problems. As I found out from a commenter on another blog, it turns out this message is due to a new feature in PuTTY 0.61. To prevent this message from appearing, do the following:

  1. Drill down into the Connection » SSH » Auth » GSSAPI section of your session’s configuration
  2. Uncheck the Attempt GSSAPI authentication (SSH-2 only) option

The phantom access denied message should then go away.

Random Tahoe Photos

Published on August 9, 2011

The final photo album from my trip earlier this summer to California has been posted. This time around, the album is simply a random collection of photos taken in and around the Lake Tahoe area.

Secret Cove Photos

Published on August 5, 2011

The penultimate photo album from my trip to California, Secret Cove, has just been posted. This location was technically in Nevada, and is one of the most beautiful spots along Lake Tahoe. It’s a bit of a hike from the parking area, but is well worth the venture. Be forewarned that clothing is optional at the beach area!

The Terrible Writing of Star Trek

Published on July 29, 2011

This afternoon, I finished season 2 of the original Star Trek series. The last few episodes of this season are incredibly bad, even by 1960’s-era science fiction standards. What really gets me about the last few episodes, is the feeling that they were written by grumpy old men, unhappy with the political climate at the time. Let’s take a look at the three worst examples:

Episode 23: The Omega Glory
In this bizarre episode, Kirk finds a star-ship captain violating the prime directive. The Yangs (yanks) and Kohms (communists) are battling one another in a bizarro-world parallel-Earth scenario. Worst of all? The Yangs have their own “American” flag, and the Declaration of Independence is considered their “holy word” (which, ironically enough, is kept in a large King James Bible). Be sure to listen for the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” every time the flag is shown.

Episode 25: Bread and Circuses
While attempting to locate a missing star-ship crew, Kirk and company stumble upon a planet whose oppressive government is a 20th-century version of Earth’s Roman empire. In the final 2 minutes of the episode, Lieutenant Uhura figures out that the “sun worshipers” (who are slaves in this world’s society) aren’t actually worshiping the sun, they’re worshiping the son of God. The “aw, shucks” sentimentality of the crew at this discovery is really misplaced and simply feels tacked on. Maybe a network exec forced the writers to put this twist in?

Episode 26: Assignment: Earth
The season finale plays on the cold war fears of the 1960s, and shows a lot of badly edited NASA footage of early Apollo-era flight tests. A stereotypical “dumb blonde” female character sums up the entirety of her generation’s shortcomings in this unforgettable scene:

Mister Seven, I want to believe you. I do. I know this world needs help. That’s why some of my generation are kind of crazy and rebels, you know. We wonder if we’re going to be alive when we’re thirty!

Is a quote like that the hallmark of an out-of-touch, angry old man, or what? “Kids these days … am I right?”

There are some other particularly annoying episodes, like Episode 22: By Any Other Name. This episode was terrific for the first 45 minutes of the 50 total. In the last few minutes, the aliens who have taken the Enterprise crew hostage simply cave in to Kirk’s reasoning for peace, totally destroying the tension that had built up to that point. I was hoping for the death and destruction of these monsters, but all they gave me was peace and harmony. This could have been a solid episode, but the ending ruined it completely.

I’m looking forward to season 3 (some of the episodes sound very interesting), but I’m boldly going forward with a grain of salt. There are bound to be rocky episodes ahead.

Musical Voyage – Completed!

Published on July 26, 2011

Way back in February of this year, I started a Musical Voyage: listening to my music in order, sorted by album title. Today, I finally finished the journey with Van Halen’s “5150” (an album I consider mediocre at best; I never was a Sammy Hagar fan). I found this to be an interesting way to enjoy my music. Sometimes the jump from one album to the next was very pleasant (e.g. Relayer by Yes to Revolver by The Beatles); other times, it was jarring and unexpected (e.g. from Best of Schubert to Best of The Doors). I heard a ton of stuff I rarely listen to, reintroducing myself to some terrific music. Occasionally, I even heard something I didn’t like (and which I’ve subsequently purged from my iPod). At least I can buy some new music for myself now; upon starting this goal, I set a rule that no new music could be added. There’s several things I’ve been eager to get, and now I finally can. Mission accomplished!

Cascade Falls Photos

Published on July 21, 2011

Another small photo album has just been posted. This time, it’s a collection of photos from Cascade Falls at Lake Tahoe. A simply beautiful landscape!

Eagle Falls Photos

Published on July 15, 2011

My largest photo album from my trip to California has just been posted. This time around, it’s a collection of photos from Eagle Falls, a beautiful place on the southwestern side of the lake. The falls are easily accessible, and as a result it gets really crowded. I highly recommend visiting this location, however; it’s totally worth it.

Napa Valley Photos

Published on July 10, 2011

My latest photo album, Napa Valley, has been posted. This isn’t a very large album, but there are some neat sights I captured. If you’re ever near the Napa Valley region, I recommend visiting it. There’s a lot to see and do (and more vineyards than you can shake a stick at).

Random Davis Photos

Published on July 5, 2011

My next photo album, a Random Davis Collection, has been posted. This album, and the next one in the queue, are both fairly small. I’ve got a ton of photos from Lake Tahoe, however, so stay tuned.

Davis Arboretum Photos

Published on July 2, 2011

I have just posted the first photo album from my recent trip to California (several others are in the works). This first album showcases some of the sights at the UC Davis Arboretum. The plant collection at this arboretum is fantastic, and the walking trail (3 miles long) is a fantastic place to walk, especially in the early morning hours. Lots of beautiful scenery and even wildlife make this place a must-visit if you’re ever in the Davis area.

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