Monday, March 30, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why Not?

Apple came out with an upgrade to the Mac Mini recently. Of particular interest to me was the vastly improved video card, which in my mind was the weakest link in the one I had. It would have been nice to have more than 2GB of RAM, but that video card was a dog.

Well, I had a brilliant idea.

My daughter has a hand-me-down eMac, the last one they made with a CRT. It's noisy, it uses a lot of power, and it takes up half her small desk. To do homework it has to be shoved around to make room. I thought, "Hey, I'll get me a new Mini, and she can have mine, along with an LCD screen, and it'll be quiet, efficient, and take up a lot less room."

As those of you who know me personally are aware, thought and deed are one with me, so I did some pretty elaborate shenanigans to get the maximum Frequent Flyer miles possible and the thing arrived yesterday.

Both "base" models have the same processor, but the more expensive one has more RAM, and Apple advertises it as having more Video RAM, too. However, the way it actually works is that if the machine has more RAM, it allocates more of it to the video card. A little deceptive, you ask me. I bought the absolute cheapest one: the hard drives were the same speed, the other one was just bigger, and I don't care about that. I have 2.5TB of storage in my office. I didn't get RAM from Apple, either, their prices are rapacious. I installed it myself, which is no errand for the inexperienced. If you want to see how it works, look here:

Amusingly, that site is run by a co-location company (they maintain computer equipment for people that can assist or replace their on-site equipment in case of demand or disaster) which specializes in co-locating Mac Minis. Look at the picture at the bottom, which is of literally DOZENS of Mac Minis on a big server rack. :)

Hooking the antenna back up was a bit dicey, but otherwise, no sweat. I did the Migration Assistant thing that Macs come with: it had to crank all night, but this morning I was ready to rock. Only two glitches, but both of them required some geek-fu: one of them required the use of "sudo." If you don't know what sudo is and you have this glitch, basically your Mac is going to be set to London time forever. :)

It works great: the video card rocks. Between the new video card and the 4GB of RAM (my old one was maxed out at 2GB) I can comfortably multi-task, Lightroom is much more responsive, and the water in World of Warcraft is SPARKLY.

Tonight I backed up my daughter's computer and set up her new one, which seems to be working although I have to make sure her bookmarks are moved and the Parental Controls are working. Since it's in the living room, I got a nice big monitor and we can watch Internet movies and stuff on it, too.

I'll take the old comp to work, safe-erase it, and donate it to anybody who wants it. Or maybe I'll see if my daughter's school wants it.

As always, I was Amused and a little disturbed by all the open WiFi networks I could see when I set up the computer in the living room. (We didn't want to run a cable so her computer had a WiFi card installed: the Mini has one built-in.) I could see three networks, including one which was still at factory defaults (which means I OWN your network if I want to) and one named "Aretha," which was fun. I didn't link into any of them: our network is SSID-silent and requires a 128-bit encryption key. The FBI could break it in short order but wardrivers won't even see it, especially since this is a target-rich environment for them anyway.

More after the jump - click here!

Monday, March 16, 2009

XKCD: Either You Get It, Or You Don't.

XKCD can be a little uneven, although it always delivers the geek. However, today's episode is made of pure iridium-plated WIN.

Friday's comic ( is also mostly composed of structural-grade awesome. If that worked I would so totally do that five times a DAY. Soon we would have a serious mirror-haunting demon shortage.

(Small spoiler ahead.)

I don't know why, but the alt text - if you read XKCD, always read the alt text, it's often the best part of the strip - is almost irresistibly hilarious to me. Here it is, if your browser doesn't support alt text:

"The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed -- for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane."

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I added the italics because that's the really funny part. He'd have put them in if you could put italics in alt text. I know this, if I know nothing else in this world. And that's the beauty of XKCD: where else are you going to get H.G. Wells, triffids, tripods, Al Gore and Cervantes, along with a reference to the totally batshit insane, in one freaking place? I ask you.

Up until now, this has probably been my favorite XKCD comic:

... because I love the "Boom De Yada" song. Many of the panels are sort of in-jokes about XKCD characters, but it's still funny.


More after the jump - click here!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New Gear is Fun. Yes, Indeedy.

I've actually been pretty good, compared to the way I used to be, about buying new photography gear. Other than the new printer I bought myself for Christmas (which I needed, as the old one was getting very old and the ink was getting hard to find and expensive) I haven't bought anything for quite some time.

Well, the tax refunds came, and I felt it was my patriotic duty to stimulate the economy a little.

I bought one of these:

EF 135mm f/2.8 with Softfocus

I read about this lens in a book Canon gave me for being one of the first purchasers of the original Digital Rebel (the EOS 300D.) I've been lusting after it for years. It's a 135mm prime lens with a max aperture of f2.8, which is faster than most zoom lenses, but not all that fast for a prime. However, it is unique, so far as I know, amongst currently available lenses in that it has a selectable soft-focus mechanism. It uses controlled spherical aberration to soften the image to two selectable degrees (you can also turn it off.)

In English, that means it can make the subject of the image softer without affecting depth of field or plane of focus. That's what that switch labeled "SOFT" is for - 0 for no softening, 1 for first degree softening, 2 for max softening. Example:

This is a totally unretouched self-portrait. Note how it looks like a Gaussian Blur has been applied or something... but the details are still reasonably clear, which would require either high expertise with the Blur filter, or a lot of fiddling with the parameters to get the optimum blur for this particular image, and maybe partially masking out the beard, which would have been very hard to not over-soften while getting the rest of the face right. Alternatively, I could have used a fast prime and opened it way up, but then I'd have had a very narrow depth of field, which also requires a lot of fiddling to get right, or a very high level of expertise, and even if you get it right, produces radical falloff on a dimensional subject if you want a fairly high level of softening.

This lens just did it all for me, with no work on my part whatsoever. (That's a Level 2 softening, exposure f2.8 at 1/200.) It produces soft, dreamy images which don't look overprocessed or out-of-focus. It'll be very, very handy for things like portraits of "ordinary people," who often benefit from a little softening, and should produce great results even in light which is a little harsh. I'm excited about it.

Interestingly, you hardly ever meet a photographer who's ever even heard of this thing. It was one of the very first Canon EF lenses, introduced way back in the day - first year of manufacture was 1987! It has no IS, and no USM. It's almost as loud as the infamous "Angry Hornet" 35mm f2. Its autofocus, for a lens this fast, is kinda slow in lower light, and it's a bit temperamental. However, as is so often the case with fiddly equipment, it seems to call one to rise to its challenge. You just want to play with it.

The autofocus does work in all softness modes, but the plane of focus shifts when softness is altered, which means you can't focus in 0 and then switch to 1 or 2. At large apertures or high softness settings, you have to pretty much trust the autofocus, especially in lower light, which means you have to be familiar with your camera and know when to be confident that the AF is locked on to what you think it is. On a side note, my cameras are always set to "Center AF only," and I lock-and-pan with separate Focus and Exposure locks, unless I am shooting something that moves around a lot, when I might activate more AF points. This helps me be consistent in my focusing technique.

So, like I said, it's a little touchy. But when it hits, it hits. Example:

ISO1600, f2.8@1/100. Softness level 1. The only light was a 40W tungsten bulb above and to camera right, probably at least six feet away. A little noisy, but dreamy and romantic as all-get-out, with very little post (crop, slight color adjustment.)

Also, I got a Kindle2. I'm still not sure why, but somebody gave me one. It's actually kind of cool. Free wireless internet is a Good Thing.

More after the jump - click here!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On Model Psychology

Well-known model Elyse Sewell (her blog is linked on the right) mentioned that she'd had a bit of a skin breakout recently and that she was subconsciously convinced that everyone was repulsed by her monstrous visage. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Here are a few responses I made, one of which has a funny little story about my photo shoot yesterday.

Response One, to Elyse's original post:

As I'm sure you know, it matters not how lovely the lady, as soon as she gets in her head that she has a problem, it immediately equates to her being actively repulsive. You are one of the most beautiful women in the freaking world, not to mention crazy smart and funny as Hell, and some rough zits convince you you're unfit to mingle with normal, decent folk. I see this with models a lot and it never fails to confusticate me.

The really funny part is, a man can be balding, scraggly-faced, and have a pot-belly peeking out under his "Def Leppard '89" t-shirt and honestly believe he is a good haircut and a nice jacket away from being Brad Pitt. God is an iron.

Response Two, to another poster's comment:

The model I shot yesterday had, for reasons known only to God, eaten an entire bag of carrots the day before. Although she had never had an issue before, she had a food reaction and broke out in blotchy red hives. (Her trachea also started to spasm, but she took some Benadryl and it went away pretty fast.) I suspect the carrots may have slightly contaminated with a mold or something, as I've never heard of anybody almost dying from eating carrots before. On the upside, we discovered that she can now see in total darkness.

In any event, it all appeared to be gone by the time I saw her but she was still semi-convinced that her face would scare small children and dogs and insisted on putting up makeup to run to the freaking store for a last-minute wardrobe addition. (The stylist didn't have anything plain enough, so we went to Target.)

This woman is beautiful, charming, and intelligent (she speaks several languages - some of which are non-Romance languages) as well as being an accomplished model, but for a solid half-hour I swear I saw her looking around to see if people were masking their horror at her appearance. The mind boggles.

More after the jump - click here!