Canon Powershot A1000IS

Last weekend was my wife’s birthday – I won’t say which one 🙂

Our camera is a Kodak EasyShare DX3900.  I have no complaints with it, but the camera does show its age in the fact that it only takes 3.1 megapixel pictures, only has a 2x optical zoom and only has a 1.5inch LCD screen.  For some reason my wife has always disliked this camera and wanted a new one.

Canon Powershot A1000IS

Canon Powershot A1000IS

So for her birthday this year I bought her a Canon Powershot A1000IS.  It’s 10 megapixel, has a 4x optical zoom and a 2.5inch LCD screen.

It has all the exposure, white balance etc. settings if you know how to use them, but more conveniently for us it has a very nice automatic mode.

The Powershot has a cool face detect feature to make sure that any faces in the picture are in focus.  It also has an optical image stabilizer which is extremely handy because I tend to move the camera just as I press the shutter.

The camera comes with a 32MB memory card, but as that’s only big enough to store about 12 pictures you’ll really need to buy a bigger one.  We got the Transcend 4GB SDHC Class 6 Flash Memory Card and it’s fine.

I also bought the Canon PSC-85 Deluxe Soft Case to go with the camera because Amazon suggested it, but it turned out to be too big.

The camera comes with two AA batteries, so unless you like spending money on batteries you’ll need something like the Canon CBK4-300 Rechargeable Battery and Charger Kit for PowerShot Cameras.

I hadn’t realized that it could do this when I bought it, but the Powershot can record videos.  At 640×480 the 4GB card can hold about half an hour of video.  It’s very good quality – at least as good as any webcam or digital camcorder.

So far we like the Canon Powershot A1000IS very much.

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Hype and Hyperbole in news reporting

Thunderstorm, captured from Garajau (Madeira, ...
Image via Wikipedia

When I moved from the UK to the US, one of the differences I noticed was in weather reporting.  First of all it’s a lot more accurate, but I think that’s a matter of geography not competence – the UK is on the meeting point of three weather systems, so if the meeting point moves slightly you can go from tropical to arctic, which makes it impossible to predict.  Atlanta is far enough inland that the meteorologists can see the weather systems coming several days out, and so their predictions are very accurate.  In the UK the weather report always says “chance of rain”, “chance of sun” etc. so either you always carry an umbrella or never carry one because the prediction is no help.  In Atlanta, if the weather report says it’s going to rain you’d better bring an umbrella because it is going to rain.

The other thing I noticed about the difference in weather reporting was the hyperbole.  In the UK they just say it might rain, whereas in the US they say DANGER – Severe rain warning! It’s always “DANGER – Severe something warning”, whether that’s rain or clouds or wind or sun.  Every day you’re in danger of the sky trying to kill you.

Now to be fair, sometimes the sky does try to kill you here.  They have tornadoes and floods every year.  Setting aside the question of why you would choose to live in such a precarious environment (I’m also looking at you, California and New Orleans), it’s still not that dangerous every day, the way they’re reporting it.

I do understand why they exaggerate, even if I find it reprehensible.  Information is so freely available now that they can’t really sell it anymore.  Why would you watch a weather report on TV when you could look it up online in a fraction of the time and at your convenience instead of theirs.  The answer is that if they can convince you that your life depends on watching their report then you’re more likely to do it.

The long term consequences of all of this hype is either (like me) you see all news reporting as tainted and ignore the tornado warnings (probably unwise), or you live in a constant state of fear.  I think that’s where most people are, nowadays – they’ve had so much of this kind of exaggeration that they see the world as a terrifying place – terrorists under every rock, pedophiles behind every bush!  Then they overreact, wrap their children in bubble wrap and who knows what problems that will cause a generation down the road.

If this is what news companies do for something as inconsequential as a weather report, imagine how much worse it is with real news.

Which brings us to a very recent news story that I’m sure we will be beaten over the head with for the foreseeable future – swine flu.  Some people in Mexico died of a new strain of the flu, and people who were recently in Mexico brought it to the US, New Zealand and Spain.  The World Health Organization has warned of a possible pandemic.

The overreaction is immediate and extreme – doctors are telling concerned patients to wear masks, countries are planning quarantines, and the news reporting goes into hyperbole overdrive.

3D model. (M2 labeled in white.
Image via Wikipedia

Now I don’t deny that a pandemic is possible – I don’t doubt that this is an unusually nasty variant of flu – but look at the facts of the story and it’s not as frightening as it seems.  There are no deaths outside of Mexico and Mexico wouldn’t be on the top of the list when it comes to good nutrition, hygiene or health-care.  If you’re concerned about getting any kind of flu, a doctor will tell you to wear a mask.  Planning quarantines is not the same as implementing them – governments are constantly planning for worst case scenarios and responses to disasters.  The World Health Organisation has warned there could be a pandemic, but it’s their job to warn about things like that – they’re still meeting with medical experts to advise on whether to raise the alert level.

It’s by no means the end of the world, but guess how it’s being reported.  If this all sounds very familiar, look through the news archives for avian flu and West Nile virus.  Remember when they wiped us all out?  No?

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Robocode logo
Image via Wikipedia

Robocode is a very cool game where you program a tank to fight against tanks that other people have programmed.

As a programmer it’s fun to write a frivolous program that’s concerned with blowing things up instead of serious business rules.

Basically several tanks are placed in an arena and are tasked with destroying each other.  Each tanks runs code written by a contestant.  The code has access to the angle of the hull and turret of the tank, other tanks that the turret sees, and can rotate and move the tank and fire shells.

RoboCode debug graphics
Image by synapse via Flickr

At its simplest the code can just drive the tank around randomly, firing a shell whenever it sees an enemy tank.  At its most complex it can track other tanks based on their last known position, use neural networks, multiple threads – the sky is the limit.

I found out about Robocode several years ago but only ever really scratched the surface.

You can download code other people have written to test your program against theirs before submitting your code in a tournament.

From my point of view Robocode isn’t ideal because the code the tanks are written in is Java, and although I’ve used Java before I don’t have a lot of experience in it.  Having said that, Robocode is really the only game in town when it comes to this type of thing, and it is a lot of fun.

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Project Wonderful vs Google AdSense

Project Wonderful logo

Project Wonderful logo

I’ve been using Google AdSense for over three years and Project Wonderful for six days, so this probably isn’t the fairest comparison.

I replaced the Amazon Omakase ads an my blog with Project Wonderful ones, as I only had 26 clicks on the Omakase ads in the last year.

Google Adsense ads are automatic and context sensitive.  A publisher (person with a website, e.g. me) puts the AdSense code on their site, Google crawls their site to find out what a page is about, and then shows ads relevant to the contents of the page.  To be honest it’s either not very accurate or there just aren’t that many ads out there relevant to my blog posts.  The second part of how AdSense works is that advertisers bid in an auction to have their ads placed for certain keywords.  The advertisers pay for either a number of impressions (times the ad is shown to a person viewing the site) or for a number of clicks.

Project Wonderful works differently in that the advertisers choose specifically what websites they want their ad to be shown on, and they compete in an auction with other advertisers that want to use the same ad space.  The publisher can then accept or deny the ads to keep things appropriate to the site.  It’s more involved than the AdSense model, and sounds like it could mean more work for everyone, but there are automatic accepts for publishers and campaigns for advertisers that can be used to automate things.  Advertisers pay for a certain amount of time, regardless how many impressions of clicks that involves.

So here’s where the comparison comes in – on average I make about $8 a year on AdSense and $1 a year on Project Wonderful (projected).  Not exactly big bucks, but it’s only been six days and I’ll give it more time.  At the moment the Project Wonderful advertisers are bidding a maximum of $0.01 per day to advertise on my site, which isn’t much.

Another distinction between the two is that AdSense only lets you withdraw your earnings once you get to $100, whereas Project Wonderful lets you withdraw at $10.

One thing I like about Project Wonderful is the manual approvals – if you have the time, it’s quite entertaining to see what ads people want to put on your site and how they bid against each other to get the ad space.

Where Project Wonderful has so far disappointed me is in the variety of ads – the majority seem to be for comics.  That’s fair enough if that’s appropriate to the publisher’s site, but what about all the non-comic-related sites out there?

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Castle – interesting gender roles in new police procedural TV series

Castle DVD cover

Castle DVD cover

I’m a fan of the new police procedural TV series Castle, starring Nathan Fillion.

It seems that there always has to be something special about the main characters in these shows  – Adrian Monk (Monk) has OCD, Shawn Spencer (Psych) was trained from a young age to be observant by his cop dad, Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) used to be a fake psychic…  What makes Richard Castle (the main character in Castle) special is that he’s a writer.

Now I realize that doesn’t sound like it makes him very special, and to be honest it doesn’t.  He consults with the police and won’t let them accept the obvious solution to a crime because it “wouldn’t make a good story”.  This is obviously ridiculous – in real life it’s almost always the obvious solution; the last person to see the deceased or the closest person to them is usually the killer.

It gets a bit better in the fact that as a famous writer he has access to important and unusual people that the police normally wouldn’t have access to.

Nevertheless the show is well written, acted, directed etc. and is fun to watch.

What I think is really interesting about Castle, though, is the relationships between the characters.  Although the main character is a man, he’s completely surrounded by women.  The other main characters are Detective Kate Beckett, Castle’s daughter and mother.

As a young(ish), white, male, middle class westerner I’m about as privileged as I could be1.  One of the ways I’m privileged is in the way books, movies, TV shows etc. are written from a male point of view.  I’m not a feminist, but once you notice how male-centric a lot of things are, it gets annoying.

Which is why I think Castle is interesting – he’s flighty and irresponsible where Beckett is responsible and serious; deliberate role reversal?  The climax of the show is usually the confrontation with the perpetrator, and Castle is always told to stay in the car out of harm’s way while Beckett dons a bullet proof vest and kicks in the door.

Although The Mentalist also has a female detective and a male consultant, it’s not the same because Patrick Jane dominates everyone he comes in contact with, so Lisbon never really gets any spotlight.

To be honest I started watching Castle because I enjoyed Nathan Fillion in Firefly.  I continued watching it because it’s enjoyable.  Now I’m appreciating it on another level.

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  1. short of being fabulously wealthy []


Polldaddy logo

Polldaddy logo

Last October Automattic (makers of WordPress) bought Polldaddy, a company that provides embeddable poll and survey widgets.

I tried out the original version of the Polldaddy WordPress plugin, and to be honest it wasn’t great.  The original version mostly just showed you pages from the Polldaddy website in an iframe on your WordPress admin pages, and it was pretty buggy.  The poll I created back then to see which WordPress theme people liked doesn’t even show up in my account now.

In March they released a new version of the plugin that’s much better – it integrates properly with the WordPress admin pages.  They’ve also embraced and integrated Twitter – you can create a poll and easily post it to Twitter in one step.

The new version of the plugin is finally in a state where I would confidently use it, although the difference between free and paid accouts still exists – free accounts are only allowed 100 survey responses and a paid account costs $200 a year!  I realize they need to make money, but that’s a hell of a lot of money.

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Airship cruises

I love airships.  I don’t know what it is about them – huge man made clouds hanging impossibly in the sky.  Somehow airplanes and hot air balloons don’t have the same mystique.

I love it when someone writes them into a sci-fi book or movies.

One of my favourite paintings is Returning Home, The Z-R-5 Macon:

Returning Home, The Z-R-5 Macon

Returning Home, The Z-R-5 Macon

Unfortunately airships haven’t been mainstream since the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, although the bad press from that should have worn off by now.

Nowadays there’s no practical reason to use airships – they’re slower than airplanes and more susceptible to bad weather.

This is where my idea comes in – airship cruises.  When you take a cruise you’re not concerned with how quickly you get to your destination, you’re concerned with how enjoyable the journey is.  Airships are expensive to build and maintain but so are cruise ships.  And no cruise ship can rival the view you’d get from an airship.

It looks like someone has actually taken this idea a bit closer to actually happening, although I’m not aware of anyone actually getting as far as offering it for real yet.

Aeros Cruiser

Aeros Cruiser

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WP-Cumulus plugin for WordPress

A while ago I found out about a WordPress plugin called WP-Cumulus that shows your site’s tags, categories or both using a Flash movie that rotates them in 3D.

WP-Cumulus screenshot

WP-Cumulus screenshot

WP-Cumulus adds on to WordPress as a sidebar widget, which means it ends up pretty small, and you lose a lot of the detail.

The upside is that the plugin looks very pretty – it spins in 3D and can be controlled by the mouse.

The downside is that normal tag clouds are just regular HTML hyperlinks so with WP-Cumulus you lose some navigability, especially from the point of view of a crawling searching engine.  You lose it completely if you don’t have Flash installed.  It also slows down your page loads a bit.

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Hunch logo

Hunch logo

Hunch is a new website (still in alpha) that helps you make decisions.

For example if you wanted to rent a movie and didn’t know which one to watch, Hunch would ask you a series of questions and give you a recommendation based on your answers.

Where Hunch gets really clever is that it learns about you based on your answers and gets more and more accurate as you use it.

An interesting thing they can do with Hunch is take a look at larger trends based on the answers of all Hunch users.  For example according to the Hunch blog, people who answered “Yes” to the question “Have you ever broken an arm or a leg?” were more likely to prefer games like Madden NFL 09, and people who answered “No” were more likely to prefer games like Super Mario Galaxy.

As the accuracy of Hunch’s predictions relies not only on your answers but on its knowledge of everyone’s answers, it’s not as smart now as it will be in the future.  For example if Hunch has no idea what to recommend you but other people who gave similar answers to you chose a particular answer, that will give Hunch an idea of what to suggest to you.

A question that some people are asking is how Hunch will make money.  One idea is for companies pay to be included in the recommendations Hunch makes.  How the recommendations would maintain their accuracy while at the same time being sold is another question.

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Baconfile logo

Baconfile logo

Sometimes you want to share a file – it could be a picture, a video, whatever.  You want to be able to upload the file somewhere and publish a link to it, for example on Twitter.  Enter Baconfile!

Baconfile is a web service created by Leah Culver (co-founder and the lead developer of now-defunct Pownce).  You create a login, upload a file of your choice and then share the (short) URL.  Basically it’s like TwitPic, only not limited to images.

Baconfile uses Amazon S3 for storage so it’s high availability and low cost, although it does mean that you’ll need to create an S3 account order to use it.  Apparently they’re considering free/paid accounts directly through Baconfile which will eliminate this requirement once it’s a bit more mature.

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