Wednesday, December 27, 2017

We call her "Ming" ...

.... probably because we didn’t know how to say “Xiaomi” (actually something like “sh-au-mi” but don’t quote me on that). Anyway, Ming arrived in the middle of October this year so she has been with us for two-and-a-half months now and, despite initially being a little sceptical, I am now a total convert.

Our vacuum cleaner had broken and, rather than buy yet another pushy-sucky-thingy (here’s looking at you Electrolux, Dyson, et al.) it seemed time to try a cleaning robot. Ah, a ‘Roomba’ you are thinking -  but no, I baulk at spending over a thousand dollars on a vacuum, even if it is robotic. In any case, too many reviews said that the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum did a better job and was more intelligent than the Roomba. So we got one from Gear Best at less cost than our last pushy-sucky-thingy. We also bought a cheap ‘stick-vac’ for doing the stairs and any awkward places where Ming couldn’t reach.

Ming spoke Mandarin. We didn’t. For the first few weeks, we communicated with Ming by pressing her ‘on’ button and letting her get on with it. When she spoke to us, we smiled and pretended to understand. We didn’t. But the floor was clean, so we didn’t worry. Eventually, though, it occurred to us that Ming could be saying all sorts of unpleasant things, and we would never know. Was she muttering about slave drivers and when to start the revolution? These things tend to be concerning as you get older - are robots into elder abuse?

So we connected Ming to her Chinese server (we couldn’t understand that either) and she downloaded a firmware update and an English language pack. Now we can understand what Ming says, and realise that our fears were foundless. We can now speak to her on the phone and get her to do a cleanup while we are away from home. Ming is currently claiming to have completed 48 cleanups, cleaned 1,180m2 of floor and taken 1,341 minutes. She even leaves us a little map of where she has cleaned each time, in case we might think she is slacking off and missing bits.
One of Ming's maps.

We highly recommend Ming, though if you want one you can buy your own, we keep Ming locked in the spare room and she’s not allowed out the house.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A festive fractal and a long silence

Christmas Vines (© David Ford 2017)
Nothing posted here since June; that’s six months of silence. During that time, New Zealand has moved into summer, had a general election, and a change of government. I’m generally fairly apolitical, but it was time for a correction. The previous government had nine years in office (three elections) and, given the right-left nature of New Zealand politics, the only way to plot a moderate course is to swerve from one side to the other on a regular basis. And, if you were thinking that there has to be a better way than that, then I can only agree.

Anyway, Bill has given up his seat to Jacinda, so New Zealand now has their third female prime minister and second female Labour leader. Perhaps, I hope, we might see a little more social compassion from our new political leaders. After too many years of favouring the ownership class, New Zealand has become a country of haves and have-nots; far from the equitable society that welcomed our family in 1987.

The winter wasn’t very kind to my health. Nothing dramatic or serious but, starting with a sudden allergic reaction to some medication that I had been taking for years,  I got through winter and spring only by dragging myself forward one day at a time - or so it seemed. The upside is, that having shrugged off the obvious allergic skin problems, I also seem to have got over the constant tiredness that I have lived with for the last seven years. So, here I am at the beginning of summer, feeling much better and enjoying both my three-day working week and four day weekends. Let there be more fractalsđź‘Ť

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  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:

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:

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: and just search Google for “Ticwatch review” to see what others think about this watch.

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