Posts Tagged “observations”

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.

Smart Games

Published on February 2, 2011

Over the Christmas holiday, I purchased Dead Space on Steam (happily, for only $7). The game was a major letdown on a number of levels, but there’s one nit in particular that I’d like to pick. I was really struck by how dumb the game assumed I was. Often, direct audio cues (i.e. the spaceship’s computer) would tell you exactly what to do. Here’s a typical example:

The player enters a room filled with radioactive debris. Upon entering said room, the ship’s computer announces, out loud, that the room is locked down due to these dangerous conditions. In order to lift this lock down, all radioactive debris must be removed. To further complicate matters, the debris can only be removed when an airlock to outer space is opened (again, all of this is announced by the computer). A monitor in one corner of the room displays, in what would realistically be a 200-point font, the text “open airlock.” Using this computer opens the airlock, and the player is then free to remove the debris.

Sadly, a number of other games make this same assumption; namely, that I as the player am generally unable to figure out how to proceed on my own. I think this is what draws me to the games that Valve develops. Every Half-Life title ever released assumes from the outset that the player is smart. Clues are always provided as to how to proceed, but precious few hints are explicitly stated. Portal is another perfect example of this. The user is instructed (via the narrative itself) how the portal gun works. It’s then up to the player to figure out how to use it to proceed through the game.

As a gamer, I would much rather developers assume my intelligence, rather than my stupidity. It simply makes a game that much more fun to play.

Hess Race Cars

Published on December 6, 2009

Every year around this time, the Hess Corporation, an independent energy company, advertises their “Hess Racing Cars” for Christmas. Apparently, they’ve been doing this for 45 years now, a fact I find quite surprising. According to their advertising, the cars are available at local Hess gas stations. They clearly must sell these cars to someone; otherwise they wouldn’t advertise year after year. But who buys these? I never think of a gas station as a place to go to buy stuff like this. As a kid, I never said “hey, let’s go toy shopping at our local gas station!” And I don’t know who would do that today. Maybe truck drivers pick this kind of thing up for their kids?

According to the Wikipedia article, these cars (especially the older ones) are considered collectibles and can fetch into the thousands of dollars, depending on the rarity and condition. Pretty amazing! Does anyone here have (or previously had) a Hess car? If so, what did you think about it?

The Psychology of Pledge Drives

Published on February 13, 2009
Female Operator

Before I get to the actual point of this post, allow me to rant just a little. What’s up with the increasing number, and more importantly the duration, of public radio/television pledge drives? Our local public television station, UNC-TV, will be starting their Festival drive in February, and it will last for more than a month (February 21 to March 29)! If this kind of thing happened just once a year, I wouldn’t care so much. However, two months ago, the station had its Winterfest drive (November 30 to December 14). Occasionally, they’ll even have a drive in August! Public television clearly needs commercials. I would suggest having commercials between the television shows they offer, so as to keep the ‘commercial-free’ feel of today. Just my 2 cents.

Back to the real topic. Driving home yesterday, I listened to a little bit of our local public radio station. They are currently in the midst of their pledge drive, so programming is light and begging for pledges is heavy. In the midst of their asking for donations, you often hear the sound of telephones in the background. And I’m talking old school telephones. Let’s take a quick walk down memory lane and have a history lesson.

Back before the digital revolution, telephones had bells in them. Yes, physical bells. When someone called you, a small hammer oscillated between two of these bells, causing the telephone to ‘ring’ (hence the term ‘ringing’ someone). I haven’t seen one of these telephones in probably 20 years or more. Yet, during these public entertainment pledge drives, you hear them ringing constantly.

The funniest circumstance of this is found during the public television pledge drive. Volunteers can be seen in the background sitting at computers with their operator-style headsets. No telephones can be seen during this time. And, occasionally, none of the operators are talking. Yet the ringing goes on. So where are those ringing sounds coming from? Are the computers synthesizing the sound? Or is it a gimmick being pulled from the control booth?

I like to think it’s the latter. On my way home yesterday, while listening to the radio, I got thinking about this phenomenon. There must be a point at which this ringing trickery yields the greatest ROI, right? And someone must have figured this out. I’m no statistician, and I’m no psychologist, so the following logic is simply me thinking aloud. If the ‘phones’ were constantly ringing off the hook, with no breaks in between, it seems to me that listeners would be less likely to call in and pledge (why pledge, when everyone else is doing it for me?). Likewise, if the phones were too silent, listeners again might be less inclined to call (silence won’t prompt the listener into action). So the answer certainly lies somewhere in between. I’m guessing that, if the ringing is indeed a trick, the frequency of said ringing is somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum. As a radio station, you want to sound needy, but not too needy. Others are supporting us; why won’t you?

I’d love to know where the middle ground really is. Maybe an influential politician will happen upon this post and decide to funnel some of our country’s economic stimulus package into a research program on this topic. Our nation’s public media outlets might depend on it. 😉

The Ultimate Apple Ad

Published on January 22, 2009

Twenty five years ago today, the oh-so-epic 1984 ad from Apple debuted during the super bowl. This ad is as powerful today as it was back then. If there’s one thing Apple can certainly do well, it’s marketing. They have perfected the art of making their products cooler than the rest, something lots of other companies would love to learn how to do. If Microsoft had learned how to market as well as Apple, perhaps there would be no Apple at all. But alas, that was not to be (and we’re all the better for it).

Here’s to one of the best advertisements in the history of advertising!

Human Sign Posts

Published on November 23, 2008

Last month, I blogged about the strange trend of sign twirling. Stranger still is a new twist that I’m seeing introduced by Linens ‘n Things, which just happens to be going out of business. Around their various stores in our area, they have apparently hired people to hold up a going out of business sign. The people doing this job don’t twirl the sign or anything fancy. They just stand there, holding the sign up for people to read. Are metal sign posts too good to do this job? I have to believe the company could save some money by investing in a few of them.

Frustration Free Packaging

Published on November 3, 2008 has announced a new plan to begin converting products to a new line of frustration free packaging. This means that Amazon customers can begin to say goodbye to those horrible clam-shell packages that you need a chain-saw to get into. Another giant plus is the fact that the new packaging is recyclable, making things way greener than before. As Jeff Bezos mentioned, this transition will take years to fully implement. But I think it’s a giant step in the right direction.

Sign Twirling

Published on October 18, 2008

I was doing some furniture shopping this afternoon, and on my way back from the store, noticed two guys twirling signs out on the highway. Kinda like this guy:

So I got to thinking, how horrible a job must this be? You stand out on the street for who knows how long, looking like an idiot. No one can read the sign because it’s spinning around so fast, and even worse, no one knows in which direction to go if they could read it (again, because it’s spinning around). Talk about your dead-end jobs. I can’t imagine there’s much of a career opportunity in this line of work.

Has anyone ever done this? If so, what did you think? Were you as embarrassed and lonely as I suspect?

Visual Studio 2005 Threading Woes

Published on August 17, 2008

Visual Studio 2005 introduced support for doing parallel builds in solutions that contain more than one project. This is a great idea, especially on systems equipped with multi-core processors. Unfortunately, the developers at Microsoft apparently don’t know how to program a multi-threaded application.

Suppose we’re building two projects within one solution, call them Project A and Project B. If A and B exist in completely different folders, and are mutually exclusive in every way possible, the parallel build option is quite handy (improved build performance). However, if projects A and B share any code, any code at all, you run the risk of build failures. It seems as though Visual Studio doesn’t lock files appropriately during the build process. So, if each instance of the compiler tries to build the same file at the same time, one of them will fall over and die, complaining that “no class instances were found.”

It’s shocking to me that something so seemingly simple could be broken in an application of this caliber.

Digg on the Way Down?

Published on December 29, 2007

Is on the way down? I personally find myself visiting the site less and less, turning instead to Slashdot and Gizmodo for my news and entertainment. When I do visit Digg, there’s little that I find appealing enough to digg. In fact, looking at my profile, I find that the last story I dugg was on December 12, quite some time ago. The majority of stories seem to be very uninteresting, or (more likely) stories that are already covered on other websites.

Even the Diggnation podcast seems to be degrading in quality. The show used to be solidly funny, but I find myself laughing only a few times per episode these days. I’d much rather have the higher grade content as found in The Totally Rad Show. Neither Alex nor Kevin seem to put as much effort into Diggnation as they once did, which isn’t too surprising. Like the saying goes, ‘All good things must come to an end.’

The Loss of the English Language

Published on May 27, 2007

The English language has been sliding down the quality charts for a number of years now, and today it’s at an all time low. People’s grasp on grammar and spelling is tenuous at best. Take this story, for example. Note the sign in the picture (“Let are kids walk”). Are people really so ignorant that they would confuse the words ‘are’ and ‘our’? Sadly, this isn’t just a problem that surfaces in the general public. Professional editors are letting more and more errors slip by as can be found in this New York Times article on Jonathan Coulton. One sentence in the article reads “They pore over his blog entries…” Do you see the error in this sentence? I certainly hope so. I got this one wrong folks. Thanks to Kip for correcting me! 🙂 The very next sentence should explain why I made the mistake.

I was taught somewhere between little and no English grammar in school. At certain points, I’ve tried to better my use of the language on my own, through books like The Elements of Style. But self education for this kind of thing just isn’t good enough (at least for me). I really wish I had been given a decent education on this stuff, and judging by the way people are failing to use English every day, I really wish educators took it more seriously.

The State of NASCAR

Published on May 15, 2007

Having been born and raised in The South (the southern United States for any international readers), I’m a fan of NASCAR. In fact, it’s the only sport that I follow regularly. I know that the sport doesn’t appeal to many people, but I have enjoyed it greatly since I was little. There are a few things I’ve had on my mind recently about the sport, so I’ll present them here.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and DEI
I’m not an Earnhardt fan (I prefer the Hendrick Motorsports stables of Gordon and Johnson), but I think it’s great that Junior is leaving DEI. His step-mother Teresa really screwed Junior by refusing to give him a controlling share in his dad’s business. So Junior has decided to turn the tables on his step-mom and walk away from the team. Once he leaves, DEI will no longer have any “star” drivers. I predict that DEI will die out in another season or two as a result.

I hate Mike Helton. Under his dictatorial leadership, NASCAR has lost several historic tracks, including Rockingham speedway. It has seen idiotic rules changes, such as no driving below the yellow line on certain tracks and no finishing under caution (attempting a green-white-checker finish instead). And it has become increasingly contradictory, throwing debris cautions in some cases and not others. Being family controlled is such a shame; the sport needs a commission like most other sports, made up of people who don’t solely profit on the direction of the sport.

The Car of Tomorrow
NASCAR introduced the “car of tomorrow” this year in an attempt to level the playing field for all drivers. So far, only Hendrick Motorsports seems to have figured out the new package (something I’m not complaining about). But it seems more like a move towards the IROC style of racing, where everyone drives the exact same car. There is less room today for teams to tweak the car itself, which is a shame. NASCAR is clearly losing its roots, but that’s apparently what they want.

Graduation Mystery

Published on May 14, 2007

Yesterday, my sister Hannah graduated from UNC, with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology (though she essentially crafted her own neuro-science major, a topic she is most interested in). She was only 1 of 3 people in her (very large) department that graduated with highest honors, which is a real accomplishment. It’s hard to believe that my little sister has grown up so much.

My main focus with this post, however, is one of great mystery. After the Psychology department ceremony (the last one we attended during the day), my grandmother, mother, sister, and I waited around the Old Well while my dad went to get our car. In a grassy area nearby, a group of people were putting on some sort of show for everyone. There were four “characters” in this show:

The Drummers
The first “character” was actually a group of three people sitting atop some African-style conga drums, each playing a consistent, though seemingly random, beat. Each one did this without stopping, at least for the entire time we were there (which was about 10 or 15 minutes).
The Purple Monster
This character was apparently controlled by two or three people, and stood 12 to 15 feet high. It was a purple being, with a large masked head and two large hands. It never moved from its spot, but swayed and danced along to the music from The Drummers.
The Thought Police
This character wore a giant green mask and hat, while carrying a blue baton. They also wore a trench coat, and spent most of their time chasing the next player around the grassy area.
Blue-Haired Person
This player wore a blue wig, a Carolina-blue gown (from graduation, apparently), and red pants. When they weren’t being chased by the “Thought Police,” they sat atop a “Corporate Ladder.”

No one spoke the entire time, which made this strange thing even stranger. The chain of events I could see where this: the Thought Police chased the Blue-Haired Person around for awhile, at least until the Blue-Haired Person climbed the Corporate Ladder. Once the person climbed the Corporate Ladder, the Thought Police left them alone, running around the Purple Monster instead. I took a few pictures of the characters:

Does anyone have any clues as to what this means? Seeing that this was in Chapel Hill, there was undoubtedly an implied political message, but I fail to grasp what it is. Irregardless of the message, the whole thing was pretty bizarre.

Windows’ Painful Zip File Extraction

Published on March 26, 2007

One “feature” of Windows XP is the built-in support of what Microsoft likes to call “compressed folders.” But nothing new was introduced here; the zip file format is all that’s being used. When I first learned of this feature, I was fairly excited to see that Microsoft was actually trying to make life easier. No longer would I need a zip tool like WinZip to do my extractions. Instead, I would just use the features in Windows Explorer to do my compressing and uncompressing as needed.

That was an idealistic view if there ever was one, and I’m not too surprised to say that it was grossly mistaken. The zip support offered in Windows XP is utterly horrible. My work place is fairly strict about not having shareware applications installed on our personal workstations, so WinZip isn’t an option for me. As a result, I’m relegated to using the native support offered by Windows. What I’d like to know is this: what the heck are they doing when unzipping a file? We package stuff up in zip files all the time around here (since we often have tons of source code files to deal with), and unextracting them through Windows literally takes 5 to 7 minutes. Literally! WinZip could chew through these files in less than 30 seconds (I know, because I’ve tried it at home). Is the Windows stuff just horribly inefficient? Are they doing more complex file system stuff than WinZip? Whatever it is, it makes file extraction very slow.

I use the Cygwin package all the time at work, and so I occasionally use their command line zip utility. It’s way faster than what Windows provides, but it has the occasional problems with file ownership, which is why I use it sparingly. For instance, I’ve encountered the case where I extracted a zip file using the Cygwin tools, then tried to open a subsequent file for viewing. Windows then tells me that “I don’t have the authority to open that file.” I’m the freaking administrator of the machine! I should be able to do whatever I want, right?

If anyone has tips on how to improve things in the “compressed folder” world, I’d be glad to hear them.

Outsourcing Pizza Orders

Published on February 17, 2007

It seems that Papa John’s has “outsourced” the pizza ordering process. The past two times that I have called our local Papa John’s establishment, I was connected with an operator at who knows where. She took my order like the local folks normally do, but she clearly submits the order via her computer (“let me key in your order here on my computer,” she says). What clearly gives it away as a call center is the fact that the operator gives the actual address of the local establishment: “Do you want to pick up your pizza at [insert address here]?” The local folks never asked that in the past; it was simply “is this for pick-up or delivery?”

I’m not exactly sure why Papa John’s would want to send the ordering process to a call center. Is it simply to hire fewer people? Was our local establishment doing such a poor job that the corporation stepped in to help?

Has anyone else seen this behavior when ordering pizza? I’m not sure if this is just something at our local establishment or if this is a wider spread change. Either way, it’s very strange.

Observations on the General Public

Published on October 19, 2006

My family took a trip to the North Carolina State Fair today (as we do every year), and we had a great time. While there, I had some interesting thoughts on the types of people one sees at the fair. And, to some level, these groups also apply at amusement parks (though I’m not sure why). Here are the major people groups that I came up with:

This demographic makes up a large portion of those actually at the fair. Many teens apparently mistake the fair for some sort of mass orgy; the girls dress scantily and the guys hang all over the girls they are with. Some teen “couples” can be seen walking around as if in some sort of mental haze. These particular teens “hold hands” (rather loosely, mind you) and seem stare into the distance at all times. Is this a result of a drug induced stupor? Quite possibly. Many of the teens smoke, and curse like sailors. I enjoy avoiding this group as much as possible.

Pre-teens Trying to Be Teenagers
There are fewer people in this group, but enough to be categorical. The kids who aren’t quite teenagers do their best to mimic their older counterparts, albeit in a much more immature way. I mostly feel sorry for those included in this group, since they just seem so pathetic.

Parents with Small Children
Small children drive me crazy, and this year’s fair seemed to be packed with them. There were strollers everywhere, and whiny, snot-nosed kids populated those strollers. And, through all the whining and tantrum throwing, mom and dad do nothing. Could they too be in a drug induced stupor? This group makes up (in my estimation) roughly a third of the people at the fair, if not more.

The Elderly
Lots of older people can be seen at the fair, which isn’t too surprising seeing that people 65 or older can get in free. The only main problem I have with this group is that they always walk slowly, and I inevitably get caught behind them. Come on grandma; get a move on!

Black, White, Hispanic, it apparently doesn’t matter what color you are; “gangstas” can be seen all over the place. Baggy jeans, gold chains, over-sized clothing, threatening looks, this group has it all. The end result is so pathetic, I can’t help but shake my head in disappointment.

Ugly People
The fact is that there are a lot of butt-ugly people out there. And they seem to flock to the fair. Why must ugly, overweight women wear clothes that reveal more of themselves than anyone wants to see?

Can you think of a group I’ve omitted? If so, feel free to discuss.

Super Bull

Published on February 5, 2006

Every year, I forget how cheesy and how over-produced the Super Bowl really is. It’s not until the pre-game show really gets going that I sadly remember. This year’s tragedy with the legendary Stevie Wonder is a testament to how cheesy things have gotten. Let’s let Stevie play two of his songs: all the way through. Playing 10 second interludes of 50 songs, while rotating musical “stars” on and off the stage, is an insult to Mr. Wonder’s incredible talent. It cheapens what he’s done for the music world. Can’t we save the embarassment?

Sadly, the Super Bowl isn’t the only thing that’s this cheesy in the sports world. The Daytona 500 is just as over-produced. All the “pre-game” hype is just that: hype. I can’t believe that there are sports fans out there that want to see touchy-feely stuff before the game. Who exactly are they trying to market this stuff to? I’m clearly not the intended audience. Or perhaps I’m just too high brow.

Update: Well, there appears to be some hope. The half-time show with The Rolling Stones was done exactly as it should be. A few songs were played all the way through … and a good time was had by all.

Version Numbers Are Bad

Published on July 22, 2005

Recently, the Mozilla team changed the upcoming Firefox 1.1 release to version 1.5 instead. This got me thinking about version numbers in general, and how silly they are. I have gotten trapped in this kind of thing before, so I’m no less guilty than the next guy. Here’s what I think is wrong with version numbers:

Actual Numbers are Too Vague
As they are, version numbers are a little too vague. How is 1.0.3 different than Well, we put in a teeny-tiny change that didn’t warrant the 0.0.1 number bump. So why didn’t you name it if the change was so tiny? Well, it wasn’t that tiny. Sheesh.

Leading Zeroes
This is one place where I have been caught before. Typically, a leading zero (as in 0.8 or 0.9.1) indicates that the software is in a test or “pre-release” phase, and that is just fine. But there are far too many abuses of this numbering scheme. Firefox extensions like ForecastFox or Web Developer (both of which use leading zeroes as of this writing) are far too mature and stable to warrant the leading zero. Go to a 1.x release already, dammit!

Version Numbers Too Long
The maximum length of any version number should only ever be 3 positions long: “X.Y.Z.” That’s it. If you want some sort of date stamp for nightly builds, have that as a separate item; not as a part of the version number. I should not have to see versions like any more. And non-sensical stuff, like Adblock’s version of “0.5 d2 nightly 39” should be outlawed from the planet. Please, use numerals only.

Arbitrary Number Change Decisions
This kind of stuff irritates me, but I’m also guilty as charged. The Firefox team feels like the changes they’ve made are “worth more” than a 0.1 version number bump. I heartily agree. But this 0.5 version bump is a joke. Just bump the major version number! Go directly to 2.0 – do not pass Go and do not collect $200. What’s so bad about that? The next release, if it’s just as big, can be 3.0. And then we can go to 4.0 if necessary. Everyone is so scared of their version number becoming too “large”. Think about it: how many programs out there are version 12.0 or version 29.3? Not many. Once we reach double digits, we feel like we have to come up with a fancy name (like “XP” or “2005” or whatever else). The AutoCAD folks had it right years ago. “Buy AutoCAD 14.0 today,” they would advertise. Now it’s simply AutoCAD 2006. How cheap. What happened to AutoCAD 20.0? That’s just as “cool” sounding.

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