Archive for July, 2008

Signs of the times: decoding the pub

Monday, July 28th, 2008

20071222-IMG_1309.jpgNo matter how long we live in England, we still seem to have difficulty understanding exactly what the signs are trying to communicate. Language conventions are just different here.

Take tonight, for instance. Getting the urge for some exercise, Elizabeth and I decided we could walk 10 minutes to the Dog and Partridge and get a couple of pints, too. Unfortunately, it is closed on Mondays. This being England, another pub was just minutes away. Even better, the sign outside of the pub advertised both Real Ale and some sort of pseudo-Mexican food.

In America, when an establishment goes to the trouble of making and displaying a sign, it generally means that this is what’s on offer. Not in this culture and not at this pub. Food is only served during lunch hours, and they weren’t pouring anything that didn’t come out of a very large and very generic factory. The Carpenters Arms did have taps for London Pride and at least one other real ale, but the barkeep wouldn’t give me any. Disappointed that I couldn’t get a proper pint, and unwilling to take a generic lager (like it makes sense to ship urine all the way from Australia, let alone Belgium), I took a Strongbow, an overly sweet fermented apple juice intended to give young people something to swill.

LondonFeb2007-33-Edit.jpgWe encountered signage ambiguity during our first several weeks in England, when we were living in a temp flat in Windsor. Heading out of town on foot, we stopped at the first building with a sign advertising ‘food’. Inside, we were told that they actually hadn’t been serving anything but beer and crisps for 2 years. Nobody else was wandering around looking for nourishment, and they seemed almost amused that these funny foreigners would think that a sign advertising food would actually mean that they serve food. I’m convinced that there is some sort of subtle signal, other than the overt and misleading one of the signage, that allows the native English to know whether or not a pub actually has food.

I think I’m beginning to crack some of the code, though. Assuming that the pub does have food, I can usually tell whether it is going to be any good or not. If the sign says “Good Food Served All Day,” it means “We Have a Microwave.”

Holes in the wall and Toilet Seats: DIY around the world part 2

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

The English feel that American houses are horribly dangerous. Not only are they flimsily constructed from sticks of wood, but they are unhealthy, blowing hot air out of all the walls in the winter, and cold air in the summer. The English have a natural trust for thermal consistency, preferring to heat their homes in lumps, instead of centrally.

Moving into a house in England, although a rental one, I was sure that I’d have plenty of opportunity to drill more holes in the wall, and buy more tools. When Elizabeth wanted to hang an IKEA bathroom cabinet, I figured it was a great opportunity to use my hammer drill. Putting an adapter on the Continental cord so that it could fit into the overly large English socket, I was ready for some major holeage. The external walls on most English houses are a sort of breeze block or cinder block stuff–a sort of fluffy masonry. Figuring that the wall was this stuff, I decided to drill a big hole and use a toggle bolt to solidly anchor inside the wall. To make a long story short, I stuck the toggle into my hold, and it didn’t catch like I expected, so I pushed it a little farther, and the next thing I know, Elizabeth is complaining that some piece of hardware just fell down the stairway. We got out of that house.

Still not fully cognizant of the different construction of interior and exterior walls, I ran into all sorts of metal pieces and masonry when trying to rehang a heavy curtain over the sliding door. My predecessor hadn’t done a very good job of it, and I naively assumed that I could just drill a bigger hole and put in a bigger screw anchor. This is what you do when brackets periodically fall out of the wall. You drill out the hole, put in bigger anchor, and then move before your local DIY store runs out of anchors (der Dübel in Austria, although I haven’t figured out what they use them for, given the cement walls).

Making the hole bigger wasn’t an option in this case because the (apparently) thick metal flange I ran into partway through the wall meant that I couldn’t go deep enough. Stepping back and taking a closer look at the problem, I realised that the reason the middle curtain bracket was off center was not because my predecessor was unable to use a tape measure, but because he’d already given up on the optimal spot because the hole had been widened too many times.

I walked 5 minutes down the high street to Chapmans Ironmonger and threw myself on their mercy. I left with an expensive little package of Power Putty, an epoxy compound uniquely suitable for filling holes in the wall (70kg/cm2 according to Euro Std EN 1465). It isn’t just drillable, sandable, paintable, and sturdier than whatever used to be ther, its fun. I started looking for other holes, just for the sheer pleasure of filling them full of kneaded epoxy putty (hint–spit on your fingertips so that you don’t glue yourself together).

Several months later, the drapes are still firmly attached to the walls of the living room. That’s one chronic problem solved.

I wonder how well Power Putty works on toilet seats.

Bass do have sex, after all

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Before they become truly amorous, fish need a certain amount of breathing room, so to speak, which varies by species. Common wisdom has it that Micropterus salmoides, otherwise known as the largemouth bass, needs more legroom than is offered by a 1/2 acre pond. I’d suspected that perhaps ours were becoming a bit less circumspect. For several years, I’d noticed some pretty small bass swimming around, which meant that the fingerlings we stocked were either not growing, or the bass were stocking themselves.

It was Elizabeth who figured it out. Before we’d even pitched our tent on the dam this summer, she’d identified a big fish and claimed first right of catch. It was the biggest largemouth I’ve ever seen in our pond, and I’ll bet it goes 2 pounds. Its got some meat on it, which is more than unusual for anything coming out of our little body of water.

Every time we saw old man bass, he seemed to be surrounded by a cloud of minnows. The funny thing was, he didn’t seem to be eating any of them. The first, and mistaken assumption, was that he was saving them for later. I dragged multiple lures right across his nose, but he evinced no interest in them at all.

He just cruised around in tight circles, always within a foot or two of the cloud of minnies. Most of them time, his territory was right around the large pipe that serves as the overflow, but sometimes he’d be 5 feet on one side, and maybe up to 15 feet on the other. His habits were predictable and he was easy to find.

It was Elizabeth who finally figured out that this was a parent, protecting its young. We did a little research and found out that the male is responsible for childcare.

Whenever the school of bass fry was disturbed, the fishlets would leap out of the water, making a series of popping sounds, like a handful of tiny pebbles landing in the water. Fun. We’d seen that effect for several years now, but never knew what kind of little minnow it was, and we thought maybe some new kind of aquatic critter had hitched a ride on a duck’s foot.

Certainly the pan fish have always bred in the pond. Within a few years of stocking it, there were fish nests all over the shallow parts. I don’t what the things are–blue gills and others. I think we had once stocked something called red eared sunfish, too, which Fenders now calls shellcracker. Maybe hybrid blue gills, too. All I know is that we’ve got more than enough of those. I don’t see any reason that our bass shouldn’t be well fed. The rule is, if you catch a pan fish, you do not throw it back.

DAM PCs: Configuring Adobe Lightroom for Dad

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

I spent 2 days of my vacation configuring Adobe Lightroom on my dad’s laptop. We are members of a unique generation, having been forced the hard way to learn how to coddle and configure computers, our parents are totally dependent upon us to ensure that they can send jokes and urban legend links to their retired friends. Our kids use Macs, and don’t need to know how they work, and don’t care.

Configuring Lightroom on my own PC in Feb 07, and actively using it ever since gave me some painful but useful lessons in Digital Asset Management (DAM), that were reinforced thru my experiences helping Dad actually make use of his year old license. He didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to do more than dabble with it, relying on Bridge CS3, although he actually has over 10,000 digital images. Believe me, if you have over 10K photos, you need some sort of DAM software. And you need to be comfortable with the way computers work in order to plan your asset management strategy (and fix it when you get it wrong).

Starting from a Mess

Over the years, Dad had been collecting external hard drives like baseball cards.When I arrived, he had 3 of them connected to his laptop–1 for ‘up to 2006’, 1 for ‘mostly 2007’ and 1 for ‘mostly 2008’. Some directories were duplicated, but nothing was actually backed up. When I finally finished, he had a coherent storage process, and a consistent backup process.

Consolidating and Simplifying

We bought an additional external drive (yes, a 4th one), so we’d have one for a backup. We retired 2 of the drives, making sure that the H: drive had copies of all the pictures, and the backup drive, in conjunction with the two smaller retired drives, between them had a copy of all the pictures, too. I took the biggest drive, and consolidated all the pictures on it, creating directories:

H:\2006
H:\2007
H:\2007
H:\SubjectX
H:\SubjectY
H:\SubjectZ

The last 3 names are just meant to represent several subject specific directories that I created for themes Dad repeats consistently. A series of event directories ended up in each of the years, which is the same system I use. I’ve found its reasonably easy to locate specific events and subjects, even if I have 50 or so a year. People who shoot hundreds of pages a day, and have bunches of subjects, usually setup Lightroom to automatically download files into the hierarchy Year\Month\Date. It really doesn’t matter how you organize files on your hard drive, because Lightroom mostly hides those implementation details from you. Just be consistent so you can access them outside of Lightroom if you need them.

Importing Into Lightroom’s Catalog

At this point, I made a tactical error. Instead of importing everything on H:\ into Lightroom, I imported each of the directories on H:\. This meant that it was impossible to create any directory at the top level, at least using the Navigator in Lightroom (yes, I can think of several ways to do it, but why burden Dad with that?). So I rearranged the catalog such that it started at the top of the drive. Now Dad can periodically right click on H:\ in the Navigator, choose ‘Synchronize,’ and be sure that no matter what he might of have done in Bridge, it’ll get picked up and incorporated.

The New Photo Download Process

To download pictures, Dad connects both the backup and the H: drive to his laptop. I configured Adobe Lightroom so that it automatically starts the Import process whenever a Flash card is inserted. Dad chooses the directory he wants the files imported into, and leaves the rest of the configuration alone. Its set to copy the files onto his H: drive, and copy a backup onto the other external drive. When he’s done, he disconnects the backup drive. He’s under strict instructions to not do any editing of files on that drive.

He leaves the keyword field blank. Or at least that’s what I told him to do. I find that its far too easy to inadvertently leave keywords from a previous import, putting spurious meta data into your pictures. Keyword in Grid View after you’ve got them all imported. That’s one of the tricks to Lightroom, making sure that you’ve put enough meta data into your pictures so that you can find them. I’ve got a bunch of presets for setting location, and a couple for setting the creator field. I can locate everything I’ve done for the past 5 years by country, state/county, and (usually) city. I keyword them heavily. Personally, I like to give them unique names that at least summarize the place or event, but I try not to rely on file names as a way to locate files. Its just too clumsy.

Because Dad still anticipates making heavy use of Bridge, I setup Lightroom so that it always makes XMP sidecar files for his NIKON RAW files. This way, Bridge and Lightroom can share the same ACR settings, along with keywords, color labels, etc. (Using DNG would arguably be cleaner, but that’s another discussion.)

When I left, Dad was sorting thru his pictures, tagging them and occasionally moving them–all within Lightroom. He can easily sort them by time (no, I didn’t show him how to edit the capture time of scanned photos), and is well on his way towards finding his favorites based on rating, and subject. Once you’ve done the planning, config, and initial import, your most of the way there. As long as you discipline yourself to put in the meta data, you, and your descendents, will always be able to find the right photo.

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A fake photo on the web? How could that happen?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

It was claimed this month that a picture of an Iranian missile launch was doctored to look more significant. A recent Scientific American article asks Hany Farid (a researcher into digital forensics) how likely that is, and he offers several subtle clues to suggest that this image is not authentic.

Digital Photographs are inherently vulnerable to manipulation. Indeed, manipulation is an integral part of the process of capturing and reproducing an image digitally. Factors that affect the appearance of the final image are set even before a photo is captured, starting with the photographer’s choice of shutter speed, aperture, focal length, position, perspective, timing. etc. All of these are of course relevant to analog photography. Just as different films react to light in different ways, resulting in different images, the camera sensor and associated processing mechanisms output a bitmap that is not identical with the light that fell on the sensor. Before that bitmap can be turned into a visual image, it needs to be further processed, especially if it is a RAW image, which is what most pros and advanced amateurs use.

Although the journalism field has been discussing the issues and problems associated with digital imagery since the 90s, embarrassing photo ‘fakes’ have continued to leak into the major media, which has encouraged the publication of increasingly stringent guidelines. Last year, Reuters shared their Photoshop guidelines on a blog, an interesting example of transparency in the media. In it, photographers are discouraged from doing any manipulation of their photo, including exposure and white balance, and are encouraged to rely on in house experts.

This is an especially sensitive issue with Reuters after a rather obviously manipulated photo caught the attention of the blogging world, and then the mass media (a lengthy and interesting analysis of this and several other faked Reuters pictures from the same period appears on another blog). It is certainly not the case that such incidents are limited to Reuters. A Toledo Blade photographer was let go for pasting a basketball into a game shot, which turned out not to be the first time he had manipulated a picture in a way that was considered inappropriate for the journalistic context.

Photographic integrity comes down to meeting the expectations of the anticipated viewer. If the person who you intend to view your picture knew what you did to it, would they approve? If they saw a before and after, would they consider that you had attempted a deception? Would the deception be for their gain at your loss? Expectations vary widely between media. No reasonable person should expect that the photos in glamor magazines of models look anything like a live human, but in Journalism, even the suggestion of manipulation is unacceptable.

In this month’s case of the faked Iranian missile launch, the New York Times reports that Agence France-Presse picked up the original picture from a political web site, and then it was published on the front page of several American newspapers before France-Presse retracted it. In an age when newspapers are imposing ever-stricter standards on their own people, how responsible is it for a news agency to sell a picture that they copied off the web?

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Not Quicken enough: does KeyBank have human employees?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

After all my struggles getting USAA and Chase configured with my instantiation of Quicken, you might wonder why I bothered to add my KeyBank checking account, given that it’s a small one we only have the because its a requirement for having a safety deposit box. But, I’d sent away for a PIN last Fall, and as long as I was on a roll, I figured I might as well try it out.

The enrollment only took about 5 minutes. How cool is that? The shocker was learning that since receiving the PIN, I had been dinged $3.95 every MONTH for an online banking fee (the price goes up if you press the download button more than 15 times a month). How greedy is that? I know that banks are making more money from fees than from banking, so to speak, but I’m still surprised that Key is charging almost $50 a year for something that allows them to fire more tellers and saves them the expense of mailing me paper statements.

I phoned them up, and canceled the Quicken support. They said I could use web-based banking at no additional charge, so I started the online enrollment process.

Elizabeth came into the room just as I was confronted with the inevitable request to read and agree to the legal verbiage. We were both pleasantly surprised that it was only a small screen in length, and was written in real English. Elizabeth said there would surely be a clause in which they impose arbitration on us in case of disputes, but it wasn’t there.

Elizabeth was right after all.

Once I accepted the first agreement, I was immediately confronted with the following request followed by 4 links and 2 buttons:

By selecting the Accept button below, I:

1. certify that I can view the Account Disclosures and Agreements set forth above and am able to save and print them for future review,

2. acknowledge reading and receiving all Account Disclosures and Agreements,

3. agree to and intend to be bound by the following terms and conditions contained in the Disclosures and Agreements provided above.

At this point, I turned cynical again. The 4 links, apparently the ‘all Account Disclosures and Agreements’ were entitled:

I did try to read them. Guess what? They not only contained the arbitration clause, they included the following:

Pages

90

Words

47,877

Characters

253,614

Paragraphs

923

Lines

3,754

What reasonable expectation would any human being have that another human being would at this point sit down and read 90 pages of legalese just in order to use vanilla banking services? What normal human would carefully sift through 47,877 words of gibberish? It took a quarter million characters for Key to dump their risks onto my lap. I’ve had lawyers tell me that I should read these things, but consider that moderately wired Yanks and Brits get one of these a week from a financial intuition, a software vendor, or some other well-lawyered firm that wants to reduce their risk at your expense.

If you don’t agree to sucking up whatever these bullies are inflicting on their so-called customers, what is your choice? Should you open up an account at another bank and then start the online enrollment prices to see if it is intended for human use? Whenever a bank does make a mistake, sending you a letter to inform you that they’ve lost your personal information and you might be at increased risk of identity theft, they consider their responsibility over. We sent you 5 pages on our privacy policy in an envelope that was filled full of advertising for a loan that you didn’t need.

The truth is, I lied. I pressed the button saying that I can and did read these, but I probably cannot and certainly did not. This is the state that lawyers have put us in today–forcing us to lie in order to participate in our economy. And they wonder why we make jokes about them. Are they laughing all the way to my bank?

What human being actually participated in the creation of a Kafkaesque system like this? I’m eager to hear someone defend it. If you did, then put your comments below, so we can all read why this is so beneficial for ordinary people.