Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Weekend Update

I engaged in no special holiday activities. In fact, I had another back sprain, and spent most of the weekend being a big weenie. Jean was helpful and patient, for which I'm thankful.

I used SkypeOut to talk to my Dad again, then my sister, Brenda. Dad told her about SkypeOut and she was curious. We talked a bit, and it turns out she has a dial-up connection. I'm thinking that rules out Skype for her, since compressed voice data needs a bit more bandwidth than that, typically. But just in case, she can test her bandwidth by going to a site like this one and filling out the test parameters.

Sunday was Jean's birthday. We went to the mall, in search of a 'sound machine' for masking barking neighborhood dogs at night. After checking out a few models, we ended up getting one from Sharper Image. It has way more settings than we'll ever use, some of which are just absurd, like Cityscape and Steam Train. But the Ocean Breakers is pretty neat. And it's much better than another version I've heard, which included seagulls, and ran in a perceptible loop. After a short while, you just kept anticipating those idiosyncratic screeches, and it was not relaxing at all.

Monday I made a batch of chicken curry. Yum! I don't think Jean will be able to enjoy it, as she's concerned the garlic will make her unapproachable in class. Sorry, Jean.

That's the update!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Katamari E3

E3 promotional gimmick. It's cute.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

New Tech

We've been saving money on long distance since we switched to the new Verizon plan: $4.95 per month, plus seven cents per minute within the United States. Unfortunately, Verizon doesn't even try to maintain that rate if you call to Canada, where my Dad is currently staying. Just moving my calling destination north a hundred miles brought my per minute rate up to $0.78! That's better than ten times my base rate! What are they thinking?

So after seeing my last bill, I decided to try an experiment. I stopped by Fry's and bought a Plantronics D-SP400 USB headset. This is a combo of headphones and microphone that plugs into a USB port on your computer. Then I visited Skype and purchased 10 Euros worth of SkypeOut, a service that lets me dial ordinary phone numbers from my computer. Then I called my Dad in Canada. There were a few false starts while I got everything set up, but eventually we settled in for a long chat.

Quality is not on a par with true dedicated phone service. Sometimes I could hear my own voice echoed back to me. Sometimes my Dad reported hearing odd noises. There was a fractional second lag that led to some conversational toe-stepping. And unlike my wireless phone handset, I'm tethered to the computer for the duration of the call. But once I got used to the irregularities, I was able to settle in to natural conversation.

What did this slight compromise cost me? The per minute rate using SkypeOut amounted to $0.02. Much better than $0.78. In fact, it's even somewhat better than my regular Verizon National calling plan. At this point, I'm planning on using it for calling my Dad whenever he's in Canada, which is only a few months each year. I also plan to take the headset down to Anime Expo with me. Then I can try calling Jean using Skype, rather than use the inflated hotel phone rates (two years ago I made a call from a phone that had a credit card swipe built into the side).

One amusing bit. Jean wandered by while I was talking to my Dad, so I motioned her in to say hi. She put on the headset, and immediately became agitated. She was laughing nervously and commenting on how weird it all was. In short, talking to someone over a headset creeped her out. So I guess it's just me for now.

Anybody I know is welcome to set up a Skype rendevous computer-to-computer. They are even cheaper than SkypeOut, i.e. free...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Introducing ChaCha!

I should have gotten photos of ChaCha sooner, but I'm lazy. Currently in the banner you can see the new toy animal Kelly has. There is a set of images available at my Flickr account as well.

What sets this toy animal apart from most of Kelly's possessions is that she made this one herself. She's been taking a crochet class at school, and she used her knowledge of the basics (how to make a square, how to make a tube) to create the geometric units that went into this animal. Then she simply drew a couple of pictures and eyeballed her way to this cute little toy. The stuffing is composed of small squares of fabric she painstakingly trimmed out of old shirts I was going to give to Goodwill. So there you have it, a true masterpiece!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Star Wars

Okay, I'm not standing in line for tonight's midnight showing, and in fact hadn't planned on seeing it before NOVA this Saturday. But it looks like I'll be taking a long lunch tomorrow to see Revenge of the Sith, gratis. My friend Burr, who works in customer support, is going on a junket with his crew, but his boss can't make it, so she offered to give it to me.

Woo hoo!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Pop Cult

I took the trouble to add MTV to my ReplayTV lineup long enough to record the Xbox360 launch show, and promptly removed it afterwards. The launch 'party' was a thirty minute show that I managed to watch in about ten minutes. Maybe that was an over-investment of time. In any case, I found it sufficiently vapid that I wasn't going to bother writing an entry. Until I read Gabe's entry, which I shamelessly quote almost in it's entirety:

"The important thing to understand here is [...] that show was not for us. When I say us I am referring to the hardcore. The sorts of people who perhaps downloaded a torrent of last night's MTV show. The sorts of people who had to call their cable company to find out what channel MTV was on. The sorts of people who had their Tivo or media PC grab the show for them so that they could watch it at their leisure. Last night's unveiling of the Xbox 360 was not for us it was for the people who were already watching MTV. It's true, there are human beings out there who watch MTV in the same way your mom might watch ABC. Sitting through show after show and watching as rides are pimped and celebrities are punked. Last night's show was for them and when you look at it that way I have to say I think the show was a success. I cannot imagine those sorts of people not being entertained for the entire 30 minutes by the flashing lights and famous people. Gaming is cool now. Isn't that awesome."

I don't consider myself "the hardcore". Maybe a bit of a geek, but he captures my feelings about the MTV 'special' pretty well.

Oh, and if I do eventually buy an Xbox360 (when the prices are below a gajillion dollars), it will not be because of the label, "As Seen on MTV!"

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Series Finales

Over the last few days, I've been wrapping up a few series. Some I have already forgotten. Enterprise was okay in a mediocre way. Andromeda was the usual hash of non sequiturs and bizarre writing. I can't say that I'll miss either one.

More interesting to me are the shows I've been watching that centered around big mysteries, which, once solved, seem to seriously deflate the show. Lost, for instance, has managed to keep the tension high for a whole season, deepening the interest with clever backstory on all the key characters (who were they before they ended up on the island?). But eventually they'll have to reveal more than the snippets they've doled out so far. When that happens, I wonder how they'll be able to sustain things.

Veronica Mars just ended it's first season. Every episode has included "this week's story", wherein our heroine figures out some crime or helps one of her buds. Then there are the minor continuing plot threads, such as where her Mom went. And finally, there were the two major issues: who killed Lilly Kane, and who drug-raped Veronica the previous year? Surprise! They solved both the major issues, and reached closure on several of the minor ones as well.

In fact, their season cliff hanger seems to be pretty weak. She has broken off a new relationship because she (wrongfully) turned her boyfriend over to the cops as a murder suspect. Then she has discovered that her old boyfriend, whom she had though might really be her stepbrother, isn't. So in the denouement of the series finale, she is relaxing late in the evening and answers a knock on the door. She opens it, looks at the camera, and says "I was hoping it would be you." That's their cliffhanger. Okay, this is the soapiest of soap operas, but I like the writing and the characters, so I'm glad it's renewed for next year. But I'm truly curious how they'll sustain the energy now.


The ultimate humiliation: going to bed feeling fine, and waking up with a wrenched back!

Clean Screens

I bought my latest laptop in March of 2004. Now, over a year later, I finally broke down and bought a micro-fiber cloth and some screen cleaning spray. The screen has some physical divots in it, but I didn't really know that until I'd cleaned the caked dust off the LCD. The iLamp has fared a little better.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Vampire Trailer Trash

I just finished reading Dead Until Dark, the first novel in a series by Charlaine Harris. It's billed as a "Southern Vampire Mystery", but I think Vampire Trailer Trash captures it just fine. It was nice as a change of pace, but I probably won't get around to the second in the series any time soon.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

Raw Converters

As I wrote at the end of April, I was experimenting with standalone RAW converters for the Nikon NEF files produced by my D70 camera. I finally got around to doing a side-by-side comparison. I took the four flash pictures I posted to Flickr as my test group. I ran each NEF file through each converter, using only the presets which were available from the main controls of each respective converter. The goal here was to see how good a conversion I could get, using minimal effort (no tweaking of temperature, sharpness, color balance, etc. once I'd selected a preset profile). I then dumped each image to a TIFF file.

I just now got through comparing the results, and my ratings look like this:

Dark RoomCapture One Wins
DinnerRaw Developer Wins
Kitchen Backlit OneCapture One Wins (marginally)
Kitchen Backlit TwoCapture One Wins (marginally)

In no case did Adobe Camera Raw win with the presets available. Colors were usually so muted that the image seemed underdeveloped. Capture One suffers from the opposite problem. In two cases, while it won the contest, the images were saturated with color. If I were developing a full image production flow and using this to pipe images into Adobe Photoshop CS, I'd need a non-default profile that toned down the color saturation somewhat so I didn't feel overwhelmed. On the other hand, if I'm looking to imitate Fuji Velvia, I've found my converter.

The images in the link above are from Capture One, the overall winner of the contest. I've no intention of dropping $100 on this tool, as I'm too much of an amateur to justify the additional expense and steps. But if I ever find myself taking tons more photos, or charging folks for my output, I will definitely consider Capture One.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005


I finished Coalescent by Stephen Baxter, this evening. Unlike the majority of recent 'hard' scifi (or gosh-wow indistinguishable-from-magic-superscience scifi) I have read, this book centers around biology, evolution and sociology for it's scientific underpinnings. While it took me most of the nine week library renewal cycle to finish it, it was nevertheless quite intriguing. By the time I finished it, I had had that sense of wonder reaction that science fiction is sometimes capable of invoking.

I hear there's a sequel. Perhaps I'll look for it sometime.

iPod Down!

So I bought my iPod on April 25th, 2004, and foolishly opted for the default one-year warranty. Why foolishly? Because it is May 3, 2005, and my iPod is not responding to input. I can't even reset the thing, since it's not recognizing keypresses. We'll see if I can wake it up when I can tether it to the computer at home...

If it is DOA, I won't be repairing it at all, since the repair price for an out of warranty iPod is just $50 shy of buying a new one. And with Expo looming, I won't be buying a new one for awhile either. But I'm certainly enough of an addict to my portable audio device that I'll consider getting a new one (should this one be dead) eventually.

And I now call it my portable audio device instead of music device, because I tend to use it to listen to lectures and streamed radio shows the majority of the time. IT Conversations carries panels and lectures from all the hot technical conferences, and then there are four or five shows I listen to regularly, such as On the Media and Dr. Karl.


I hooked the iPod up to my computer, fiddled, unhooked, did a deliberate battery drain, hooked up, successfully rebooted, and now can get Sumomo to recognize digit input again. So for the time being I'm able once again to listen to On the Media. But label this iPod finicky!

Sunday, May 1, 2005

Chicken Enchiladas (with Red Chile Sauce)

This weekend's experiment was Chicken Enchiladas, as seen on America's Test Kitchen. I'm a big fan of this show, and I've made more than one of their 'simplified' recipes. They strive for recipes that are less work than traditional renditions, while attempting to preserve authentic flavors. This recipe is another winner. The link is behind a registration firewall, but it's free, so I'd recommend it.

I followed their directions pretty closely, with a few elisions (Jean's emphatic directive of no cilantro!!! being one of them ). We also used chicken breasts, rather than chicken thighs. On the plus side, this lowers the overall fat content of the meal. On the minus side, breasts don't tend to shred on cooking 1/4 inch strips, as thighs do, so our enchiladas had a bit more body than the authentic variety.

Their recipe needs some sort of adjustment, as they have ten six inch corn tortillas clearly specified, but a third of a cup of filling each, which barely permitted folding, much less "tightly rolled" enchiladas. A 9"X15" pan was just the perfect size for ten of these oversized suckers, though, so they got that right.

Kelly liked the sauce, which was spicy enough, containing ingredients such as onion, cumin, coriander and chili powder (three tablespoons!). But when it came to the filling, she put her foot down. She was okay with the chicken, but those little pickled cublets of jalapeño acted as little heat bombs on her young tongue and palette. No more standard filling for her. I suggested that I would make the same recipe next time, but prepare a side plate of ground chicken or turkey so she could grab some of the sauce and concoct an impromptu chili. That won't be for awhile, as this dish takes a bit of work.

Next time, too, I'll have to prepare a bit of our homemade Salsa.