Friday, June 2, 2017

Baby Seal saves the day ...

This baby seal saved two laptops and a netbook from certain death.

The two laptops were a couple of Dell Studio 1535’s stuck running Microsoft Vista with no prospect of an upgrade to a later operating system. Built like tanks and in perfect working order, it seemed a shame to throw them away just because the software was obsolete. The netbook was a similarly robust ASUS which was labouring under the weight of Windows 7 Starter edition - so slow it was unusable.

I had tried upgrading the Dells to Linux with no success, as I couldn’t find drivers for Dell’s wireless card. Then, last week I saw a YouTube video about “Cloud Ready” at www.neverwear.com.  Cloud Ready is a repackaging of the Chromium OS (the open-source version of Google’s Chrome OS). It effectively turns an old laptop into a Chromebook device. It is free for home use and is supported for OS upgrades through Cloud Ready’s servers in the same automatic way that Google upgrades Chrome OS. Read about the company here: https://www.neverware.com/about

I tried the ASUS netbook first with a do or die overwrite of Windows. Half an hour later I had a fully functional Chromebook, working exactly like the actual Chromebook we brought last year. I tried to be a little more circumspect with the Dells and set them up as dual-boot with Vista as a fall-back. Unfortunately, the Dells didn’t like this and forced me into an all or nothing conversion. I need not have worried, Cloud Ready installed perfectly (even though the Dells were not on their tested and approved hardware list). Everything on the Dells work, even down to the media soft buttons.

I am really impressed with this implementation of Chromium; the setup is easy and the Cloud Ready site has the most comprehensive set of installation instructions I have ever seen. Battery life on all three machines is massively improved from what it was under Windows (though still not up to modern day standards). There seems little not to like here; if a Chromebook can meet your needs, then this is a free way of breathing life back into an old laptop or netbook.

The cute baby seal? Oh, he was $5 in a bargin bin at Farmers. Rip his head off and he becomes an 8GB USB stick - just the right size for holding the Cloud Ready installer.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Goodbye Adobe

Back in 2013, when Adobe introduced their “Photography Program” - Lightroom and Photoshop for AU$9.99 a month - it seemed like a reasonable deal, especially compared to the highly inflated prices that Adobe had previously charged for Photoshop in NZ. At the time, one wondered how long those prices would last. The answer, it seems, was three years; in 2016 the price went up to AU$13.79 and now, in 2017, it has risen again to AU$14.94. And so,  once again, it was time to look for an alternative to Lightroom and Photoshop that would address all my photographic processing needs.

A Google search suggested ACDSee Ultimate 10. What? Surely not. Not that picture indexing, format converting, lightweight editing tool that I remembered from the early 2000s? How on earth could that replace Lightroom and Photoshop? But I had to look and, amazingly, found something beyond my wildest dreams. ACDSee U10, manages photos much like Lightroom, it developes RAW files much like lightroom and it edits photos much like Photoshop - and it does it all in one application.

I had some specific requirements that ACDSee had to meet. It has to support the RAW formats from all my cameras (past and present) - Nikon, Sony, Canon - which it did. It had to support my workflows for photography and especially infrared photography - which it did. And it had to support the Topaz, Photoshop filter plugins, which are an integral part of my workflow - it did that too.

There were two areas where I was worried at first - ACDSee’s lack of support for merging either panoramic photos or HDR photos. Both of these functions are standard in Lightroom and Photoshop and, although I rarely use HDR these days (modern camera sensors are just too good) the missing components were close to being a deal breaker. However, I have copies of both Microsoft’s ICE (free) for panoramas and Photomatix (paid) for HDR - both of these programs can be installed in ACDSee as ‘external editors’ and the handoff of files between ACDSee and these programs is seamless - making the process just as simple as in Lightroom or Photoshop. Issue avoided.

The tools available in ACDSee Ultimate 10 are not direct one-to-one replacements for those in Lightroom and Photoshop; U10 is clearly not a clone of the Adobe products. Having said that, I found that my knowledge of Lightroom and Photoshop allowed me to navigate ACDSee U10 fairly easily and come up to speed within a day or two, helped by ACDSee’s excellent introductory and tutorial videos. But, the key to ACDSee’s utility does not lie in any functional equivalence to Lightroom and Photoshop - the key question for me is, ‘can I produce equivalent results’ and the answer here is decidedly, ‘yes’. In fact, in some areas, like infrared, I found myself producing better quality results more easily than with the Adobe products.

I am, quite frankly amazed by ACDSee U10. Previously, when I have looked for alternatives to Adobe’s expensive products, I have only been able to find alternatives which had severe limitations either in functionality, usability or reliability. So far I have found nothing in ACDSee which has posed any significant issue. I am producing the work I have always produced just as easily, possibly easier, and at a much lower cost. Seven months of Adobe subscriptions will see ACDSee fully paid for (perpetual license) or ACDSee also offer a subscription plan for those that are interested at about 60% the cost of the Adobe subscription.





Christchurch Botanic Gardens 720nm infrared processed in ACDSee Ultimate 10 and Topaz.


Of course, you shouldn’t just believe me, so have a look at this review from fstoppers: https://fstoppers.com/originals/all-one-imaging-software-and-digital-asset-manager-fstoppers-reviews-acdsee-175036

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ticwatch ticks (nearly) all the boxes

With the untimely death of Pebble, Father Christmas brought me a Ticwatch 2. Ticwatch doesn’t ship directly to NZ yet, so  FC had to hunt around for an overseas supplier who would ship to NZ - he used Amazon (or you could use NZ Post’s excellent “You Shop” service to buy directly from Ticwatch in China). FC also used TradeMe to replace the silicone band with a metal one, effectively making the US$200 watch look like a Ticwatch Onyx (the US$300 model).

The Ticwatch is round, like a classic watch, and available with either a black or white coated aluminium case. It’s light on the wrist, weighing in at about 55g with strap - much lighter than my Pebble Time Steel. Like Pebble, Ticwatch has their own app store. Unlike Pebble, there is nothing worth having in it yet. I brought the Ticwatch for its standard pre-loaded apps; my experience with Pebble being that after the initial surprise of finding that you can run, say, Evernote, on your watch, it becomes glaringly obvious that using it on a watch is like trying to whistle into the wind - an exercise in futility. Most third-party watch apps tend to be a bit like this.

Out of the box, the Ticwatch can tell the time, display notifications, make and receive phone calls (via a paired phone), reply to SMS messages,  count your steps, track a run (or in my case, a walk), measure your heart rate, show calendar entries, show and speak the weather, play music on a bluetooth device, provide both stopwatch and timer, record spoken notes, and do simple calculations. Oh, and call an Uber (or other taxi services) though I haven’t used that yet. That’s not a bad list of functions and is much more than I used on my Pebble.

My only real complaint about the Ticwatch, is the screen. Indoors, it’s a lovely brilliant, 36mm, OLED screen with 287ppi resolution. But, like all LED-based watches, it becomes very difficult to read outside on a bright day - even with the screen set at maximum brightness. Pebble had it right by choosing to use a colour e-paper display - clearly visible on the brightest of days. Right now, however, there are no decent e-paper watches - nearly all manufacturers are using one type of LED or another (though Sony has an e-paper watch in development).

The choice of LED display also impacts heavily on battery life. Whereas the Pebble lasted well over a week between charges, the Ticwatch will last just over one day. This is par for the smart-watch course, but turns out to be less of a problem than I had originally thought - it simply means putting the watch on charge each night - along with the phone. At the end of a 16 hour day, the Ticwatch has between 33% and 48% of the battery remaining (I’m keeping count) - that includes some GPS use and heart rate monitoring each day. As I get used to the pattern of battery drain, my initial ‘range anxiety’ has reduced and I am getting more comfortable with the practicality of a shorter battery life.

The Ticwatch comes with a good range of watch-faces to choose from and more are being added to Mobvoi Store for free download (Ticwatch is made by Mobvoi). These are some of my current favourite faces:

From a style perspective, the Ticwatch is a much more ‘watchy’ looking watch than the Pebble Time Steel and, even after buying a metal band, it’s still a little cheaper than the squarish looking Pebble. In fact, outdoor visibility aside, there’s really nothing to dislike about this watch. Probably its nearest competitor would be a Samsung Gear S2 - a NZ$400 watch that has now been superseded by the Gear S3 at over NZ$600. Mine ended up costing NZ$340 with the metal band. If you are interested in snagging one, the Ticwatch site is here: https://en.ticwear.com and just search Google for “Ticwatch review” to see what others think about this watch.

Goodness, look at the time ... must fly.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

The long, slow, death of a Pebble Watch

My watch is dying. It looks ok on the outside but it’s internal organs have gone to a purchaser of body parts. The organisation that was Pebble is no more - sold to Fitbit for chump-change. Going too, are all the online services that kept the Pebble watch functioning day to day. It’ll keep working through 2017 we are told, but I have my doubts: Three times this week my usually ultra-reliable Pebble has restarted itself, once losing data. Undoubtedly symptoms of a more serious and terminal disease.

I’m sad. This was my second Pebble watch and I, like many others, thought that Pebble were one of the few companies that got the balance between form, function and price, just about right. Most observers seem to be blaming the ‘lacklustre smartwatch market’ but, that sounds like blaming someone (anyone) else for your own failure. At the end of the day, Pebble were simply underfunded, over expensed or a bit of both. No doubt the legendary optimism of engineers had a part to play; by their own admission, the Pebble Time took twice as long to develop as they originally thought. Technical product development might be exciting, but bringing a product to market is never an easy road.

So, around 2 million Pebble watches are now on life-support. Life with a Pebble watch will just get more and more difficult as 2017 rolls on. So, what do I do next for a smartwatch? Time is running out … tic, tic, tic.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The hidden world of infrared

Holy Innocents Anglican Church, Amberley
When processing infrared pictures, I'm as guilty as anyone of brushing aside the copper/blue colours captured by a properly white-balanced infrared camera. Either I take away the colours to go black and white or I rush into swapping colour channels so that I can get back to a familiar blue sky. This last month, I have been trying to do my colour infrared processing only in Lightroom, using just the tools that Lightroom provides out the box and retaining the captured colours.

Maybe I've been looking at these colours for too long, but they have grown on me - do they work for you too? Let me know.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

An uncertain living

Flying supplies north from Amberley
For the first 39 of my years, earthquakes were not a part of my experience. Then I moved to live in New Zealand. My first real experience of an earthquake was around 1990 on the 13th floor of a Wellington office building. To find a concrete building swaying from side to side like a young sapling in a gale was disconcerting, perhaps even a little frightening. But all was well and everyone evacuated the building safely.

The 2010 and 2011 quakes in Christchurch were a different kettle of fish - buildings collapsed, people died. Five years later, the effects on the city are still plainly evident in the many vacant city blocks. Now, in 2016, we have another massive quake and, while it’s centre was not near a big city, it has left devastation in its magnitude 7.5 wake.

There has been structural damage in central Wellington even though the initial quake was centred in North Canterbury. Some Wellington buildings will have to be demolished - though not on the scale of Christchurch. More significantly, transport routes in the north of the South Island have been completely cut. One estimate is that there are over 200 significant land slips blocking both road and rail links. In at least one case, the rail line and sleepers are now a buckled mess sitting on the adjacent highway.

The town of Kaikoura is completely cut off and those needing evacuation are being ferried out by air and sea. It is thought that it will be at least a week before a twisty inland route to Kaikoura can be reopened. The main road and rail links north and south of Kaikoura will take months to reopen, such is the extent of the damage. At a smaller scale, many individuals in North Canterbury and Marlborough are now homeless, and some communities are without power, water or sewerage services. The area impacted by this earthquake is huge, covering the eastern side of the country from Cheviot in the South Island north to Wellington.

And yet, this is not the overdue ‘big one’ - a rupture of the Alpine Fault which, we are told, will produce a magnitude 8+ quake when it happens. That’s life in New Zealand; our noisy neighbour is the earthquake. Other places have different risks, like tornadoes, flooding, drought, famine or war. Put in context, earthquakes are not such a high price to pay for a beautiful country, and I have the feeling that the earthquakes make this land and its people more beautiful than they would otherwise be.

Kia kaha.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Airwheel A3 'road' test

After a week of waiting and a misdirected delivery, the new Airwheel arrived on Friday. The A3 (sit down and orange) joins the S3 (stand up and blue) which we have had for eighteen months. The S3 has done over 600km around Oxford and has proved both reliable and fun to ride. It's even done duty as a video dolly. The S3 is currently available for NZ$1,795 while the A3 is fantastic value at $1,295 -  available in New Zealand from www.airwheels.co.nz

Bethany had only been on the A3 about 5 minutes when I shot this clip of her outrunning Annette on the S3. (Apologies for the video quality - Google seem to have butchered it during the upload)

And here is a short, hand-held video taken while riding the S3 at the "Spring into Oxford" show. At slow speed, the S3 produces a much smoother video than walking. Now all I need is a gimble setup and it will all be sweet.



Airwheel A3 'road' test

After a week of waiting and a misdirected delivery, the new Airwheel arrived on Friday. The A3 (sit down and orange) joins the S3 (stand up and blue) which we have had for eighteen months. The S3 has done over 600km around Oxford and has proved both reliable and fun to ride. It's even done duty as a video dolly. The S3 is currently available for NZ$1,795 while the A3 is fantastic value at $1,295 -  available in New Zealand from www.airwheels.co.nz

Bethany had only been on the A3 about 5 minutes when I shot this clip of her outrunning Annette on the S3. (Apologies for the video quality - Google seem to have butchered it during the upload)

And here is a short, hand-held video taken while riding the S3 at the "Spring into Oxford" show. At slow speed, the S3 produces a much smoother video than walking. Now all I need is a gimble setup and it will all be sweet.




Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Mountain and a Car

Another one from the infra-red department - this time a false colour IR picture. This was taken in the field behind our house and, though it is Spring here, I chose blue and orange tones to give an almost Autumn look. False colour IR can often look a bit bland but I'm quite pleased with the way this one turned out with a range of colours and tones - a change from the usual B&W IR anyway.
Mt. Oxford - false colour IR, Canon A590IS
Over two months since the last post, so I'll try to do a little better next time. But to catch up, two weeks ago was the annual "Spring into Oxford" fair, which has grown steadily over the last few years. This year there were about 250 cars on show including this lovely red BMW Isetta 300 - almost exactly the same as my first car - right down to the colour. Though, from memory, I think mine had a conventional chrome bumper running side to side.
BMW Isetta 300
How many people can you get in one of these and still drive? Well, I think it managed five - three across the bench and another two on the parcel shelf with their heads sticking through the roof - those were the days...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Like a toy

I was 17 years old when the spirograph was first brought out as a toy, so my introduction must have been with nieces and nephews. Nevertheless, I recall it as being an enormous source of fun and, in a similar vein, I found the cycloid drawing machine to be equally fascinating. I'm pretty sure that there is something similar going on with the fractals, but I only made the connection while working on the Royal Dragon Boat:
Royal Dragon Boat
I guess it was all those repetitive swirls and curves that brought the spirograph to mind. But a fractal does have that same repetitive, mathematical, self-similar nature as a spirograph so it shouldn't be a surprise; I just wish that Apophysis was as easy to use as a spirograph used to be. Anyway, eventually, the dragon boat appeared and after a short trip to Photoshop it was soon emerging silently from a cloud-bank into the moonlight.