Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for Photographers

The title is taken from an article in the PCWorld magazine I read this morning. I am reproducing the tips here because they are actually what I have been doing for the past one year:

- Turn off Auto.
It was an unplanned move for me, but over the past one year I found myself using the Manual mode more and more, especially for flash-assisted photography. It gives the exposure more consistency.

- Edit and share your images.
Lightroom makes editing an entire day's shooting very easily. My workflow typically takes less than an hour from transferring out the images to my computer, edit in Lightroom, and upload to Facebook. Facebook is excellent for sharing lots of images after an event. It is easy to post an entire folder of images, edit captions, and allows viewers to post comments easily. I have recently started doing that and I am sure my friends appreciate it.

- Learn to note shutter speed.
Not only that, I have also learned to take note of the exposure indicator in the viewfinder. I have been using that very often since I started to use the manual mode more and more.

- Stop thinking a new piece of gear is going to make you a better photographer.
It's a mindset change. I have stopped looking at new lenses and camera since I bought my 24-70 f2.8 lens (which is still under-utilized). On the other hand, I have gained new respect for my studio accessories.

- Commit to practising.
I agree with what the author says: it's the only thing that will make you a better photographer. I take every opportunity to shoot at parties and outings. I feel I have improved through this, and still have much to learn.

- Study the work of photographers.
I think I need to do more in this area. I have also started to read up about paintings. It helps to see what make a painting work, and apply that to photography.

- Don't use a regular flash outside. Use slow sync flash.
This is something new for me to work at.

- Learn to use a camera's flash compensation.
I have done that, and I have also learned to use the exposure compensation regularly. This has worked wonders in improving my exposure control more than anything I have tried.

The article has several other useful tips. To read this article, go to:

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

About the CR-48 Chrome notebook

Google recently launched a notebook called the CR-48 to test the market. What is unique about this is that it is exclusively driven by the Chrome internet browser. It does not use a regular operating system and you do everything through the built-in browser. You cannot do things like copy and paste a file on the "desktop" by simple right-click options. So far, the concept has not made big waves yet.

One magazine review I have read says that this idea is bound to fail. Who would want to give up all the conveniences of a regular operating system and still have any internet browser you wish? Wouldn't that be a step backwards?

The same writer probably thought that the iPad would fail when it was first introduced. At that time I wrote in my blog that the iPad is reaching into a market that is still unexplored (disregarding Microsoft's dismal failure with PC tablets, which were actually regular PC's on a slate). In a similar way, the CR-48 concept is reaching into un-marketed territory. There is potential for the lightweight Chrome browser (not just the CR-48 notebook) to find its way into the TV set of every living room. It could reside in a set top type of device and turn every TV set into an internet access terminal. Or it could be incorporated into the TV itself.

The Chrome browser has a higher aim than to simply browse the internet. Together with cloud computing, it could potentially do away with the familiar OS altogether. It will be easier to learn and easier to maintain. A computer like the CR-48 takes just 10 sec to boot from sleep, and is instant-on from standby mode. The computer acts like an appliance; you don't need to know how the OS operates. You just see the browser interface. If I am not mistaken, you can't do any maintenance work like cleaning up the desktop, running virus checks, defrag, etc.

In time to come, the personal computer may not be so "personal" anymore. Digital content will eventually reside in the computer cloud. One can then access his work seamlessly from any internet access terminals. A Chrome-based portal is simply helping to hasten that change as it weans users away from OS-based operations to app-based operations. Apple Computer started the trend with the iPad; Google is going to finish it off (and Microsoft?) with the Chrome. If Microsoft still thinks that Chrome is just another browser, it can be forgiven for thinking that the iPad is just another PC tablet.

Monday, December 27, 2010

When to be compassionate?

A video news report is currently going around in the internet about a burqa-wearing woman who laid a false accusation charge against a policeman in Sydney. On 7 June 2010 she was pulled over and subsequently issued a summon. Luckily for the policeman, the actual scene was caught on the police video and the woman was sentenced to 6 months in jail. She lied in her statutory declaration and she declared that the policeman tried to rip off her burqa. The video proved otherwise. She is out on bail now pending appeal. A spokesman from the Australian Islamic Association said she should be shown compassion for the sake of her 7 children. The reporter said the accused did not show compassion on the policeman. And, may I add, his career and life would have been ruined, along with his family's as well.

This brings me to a question. Should the woman be shown compassion and be let off without a jail sentence? While I teach me children to repay good for evil; this incidence causes me to pause and wonder.

Reflect upon the parable of sheep and goats:
"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ " (Matthew 25:41-43)

I will still teach my children to repay good for evil, but tread with wisdom.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tuning in to the past

In the place where I work sits an old radio. Perhaps it has been there on the same spot for decades; I don't know. I just find old radios to be so fascinating. Most of them still work long after many other mechanical or electrical appliances have been happily replaced with modern ones.

From the radio, if you are an oldies fan, you will hear the same old melodies wafting out of the speakers. Close your eyes for a moment and you might be transported back to your childhood years.

I love old radios. I have had one where the built-in clock had a flip display. I bought it in Kmart when I was in college. The well-heeled college kids had a full hi-fi system in their room but I was happy enough with my little clock radio. It kept me entertained for several years and introduced me to songs that today's children call the oldies.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Through the artist's eyes

A painting, unlike other forms of art, is unique in the way it brings the viewer into an enhanced vision of reality. It does this in a way that a photograph is able to imitate to a certain extent. I'll explain why.

Have you ever wondered how a lovely scenery may remind you of a painting that you admire? Actually the converse is equally true; the lovely painting is what helps you to appreciate the scenery. The human mind does not process 100% of what the eye takes in. It subconsciously plays down unnecessary details and focuses on what it likes or chooses to see. The artist puts into his painting what the mind "sees". He leaves out a great deal of extraneous details and concentrates on the vital elements that make a great picture. He uses textures in his strokes to further achieve the desired effect. He uses colour in a way that non-artist have not been trained to do. For example, many people see the cloud as white in colour, but the painter would add a tinge of other colours to enhance the effect. Pure white alone does not replicate the real cloud, if you are observant enough.

A photographer is like a painter. The camera was invented to capture an image as realistically as possible, yet an exact copy of the real world is not what makes a great picture. It is the enhanced reality created by a seasoned photographer that makes an image appealing. In the enhanced reality, the photographer uses selective focusing and creative lighting (to put it simply) to help the viewer enjoy beauty, more or less imitating the way the mind works. Image editing techniques provide the photographer additional means to enhance the image after the image has been captured.

To this end, one may start to wonder whether photography is really art. I'll leave it to you to ponder and comment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book: How to look at a painting

I stumbled upon this book in the Monash Library last week. It is called "How to look at a painting," by Justin Paton. I borrowed this to read because as a photographer I am keen to know how other people view a painting or a photograph. This book is a delight to read because the writer is passionate about art, unpretentious in his opinions, and articulate in the way he writes.

This is what Paton says about how to be looked at by a painting: "When something is puzzling or beyond belief, what we most want to do is look. And often, when we look hard enough, it can feel as though we're the ones being scrutinized. Looking at paintings is never more memorable than when one looks right back at you."

Here is how Paton describes viewing art in Venice: "What's lovely and slightly absurd about looking for art in Venice is that Venice is all art and artfulness, from its shining spires to its waterlogged toes. You're heading for the museum, but the city is a museum. You're looking for paintings, but every patch of crumbling plaster looks good enough to frame."

(Written on the back cover, Paton is an art writer from New Zealand, presently a senior curator at Christchurch Art Gallery, and a frequent commentator on art on radio and television)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Democracy in the developed world

The developed countries generally think of themselves as defenders of the democracy. In a way that is correct; these countries make sure that everyone has the right to vote and every vote carries equal weight. Apart from the voting machinery, these countries are anything but democratic - in my opinion.

A democratic system is supposed to make decisions that favour the wishes of the majority of the population. These days, the population only choose who they want to represent them and the people voted in office quite often do things contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people. True democracy has long ceased to exist. Countries are now run according to the wishes of Big Supermarkets, Big Banks, Big Miners, and Big Mouths.

As for the individuals, yes they still have a voice. It is called Individual Rights. When you wield this weapon, it doesn't matter if the majority of the population is pissed. The odd ones are appeased. Think of shutting down Christmas music in public places, so that "individual rights" are preserved. Is that democracy?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photojournalism today

To be at the right place and at the right time, and with a camera... that is what made many pictures famous. Take this picture for example. It is called "V-J Day in Times Square", taken in 1945, and published in Life magazine a week later. In those days, it is usually a career photographer who manages to capture such an iconic image.

Today, cameras are everywhere, especially in the form of mobile phones. Whenever a newsworthy event occurs, there will be no lack of cameras nearby, ready to shoot or videotape everything at a moment's notice. What does that mean to photojournalism today, I wonder?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A minimalist phone

These days there are so many smart phones with advanced features. The prices have also come down quite a bit. At one time I used to look at which ones I would love to have, carefully comparing all the specifications and features. I have stopped doing that now. There is such a glut of good smart phones with decent prices to match that I am actually put off by them all. Now I just wish somebody would come out with a bare-bone minimalist phone.

Here's what I propose. First of all, I just want the phone to handle only calls and text messages; no camera, no social networking, and not even an MP3 player. I just want a large screen with e-ink that is highly readable in bright sunlight while consuming very little power. Without an LCD screen and without 3G or Wifi, and powered by a low-end processor, such a phone would theoretically last for weeks on a single charge for somebody like me who likes to keep calls short. It would probably be very cheap to make. It would probably be small enough to turn into a wearable phone that I can wear like a watch (borrowing the idea from the Apple Nano, which unfortunately draws so much power that it needs to be charged everyday). That would be my dream phone - for now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Selling out Australia

Australia is being sold off and sold out by the very people who have been trusted to run the government. State after state is selling off public utilities in a hurry, often against the wishes of the people. The latest in this scandalous and immoral assault on the public family jewels is the NSW government. Due to go for re-election early next year (in which the incumbent government is widely believed to stand a huge loss), the NSW government is rushing to privatize the state's energy retailers and electricity generation. This is to boost the election war chest by up to $5 billion in order to shore up its re-election chances.

I think it is utterly irresponsible of any government sell off any major public asset without going through a referendum. Public assets belong to the public. The political party elected to run the government should not assume they have a mandate to sell off what does not belong to them. If a family's fortune is placed in the hands of a trustee and the trustee starts selling off the assets, wouldn't anyone immediately put a stop to that? In the same way, the ruling party should be seen as only a trustee of the state's assets, without any right to sell off any public property without the owner's (in this case, the general public's) permission.

Finally, I question the timing of the sale. Australia is not going through a financial crisis now. I can understand if Ireland, Spain, or Portugal were to resort to such a move at this time, but goodness gracious... not Australia! If public utilities are sold off in a time of plenty, what do we have left to sell when bad times fall? Our best farmland? Our richest mines? (er, brace yourself... that has already been going on....)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch out for the National Water Commission

In today's The Australian, it is reported that the federal government is considering linking prices to dam storage levels and opening the water supply in cities and towns to further competition. I am alright with the first part. It makes sense that water bills rise when storage levels go down, as long as water bills also go down when storage levels go up.

What worries me is the second part: in order to boost competition, it is reported that the government may dismantle some public monopolies that control supplies in big dams. We have seen that all the so-called "free competition" that is supposed to result from selling off of public monopolies has only resulted in private monopolies. Even where more than one player exists, there seems to be a collusion going on between Woolworth and Coles, Telstra and Optus, Shell and Caltex, the Big Four Banks, etc, etc. The government needs to gain back more control over the supply of essential goods and services, not less. The government should set up a government-run bank to compete against the big four banks. The government should set up a housing development unit to lead the way in bringing down house prices. Yes, in this era, we need more government control, not less. Private companies are having a party making record profits, while pretending to be victimized whenever any policies are in place to take away their freedom to print money.

Watch out for more spin form the NWC. James Cameron, the acting chief, is going to tell you how good it is to privatize the remaining controls Canberra has over water supplies. Perhaps the federal budget is running into deficit again.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I think of Wikileaks

Julian Assange should not be prosecuted for leaking information that some government officials prefer to keep secret. I think many governments have gone overboard about what should be kept secret and what should not. I would love to know what has been agreed behind closed doors to allow the Myki and the desalination plant projects to be given such generous terms to the companies awarded the contracts. In the name of "official secrets", the public has been deliberately kept ignorant to suit the convenience of those in power. Many deals with private companies have been declared state secret by the now-deposed Brumby government.

Australia has gone even further by enacting privacy laws to provide secrecy to criminals after they have been released from jail. You don't know if your new neighbour is an ex-pedophile or a released murderer. I would be happy to see every hardcore criminal be named and identified publicly in Wikileaks for the protection of everyone else.

Should anyone be prosecuted for finding out another person's secret? If you have a secret, it is up to you and you alone to protect it. If another person manages to find out about your secret, you cannot take the person to court, can you? Why should Wikileaks be any different? The government in the developed countries who are supposed to champion freedom of the press are also at the forefront now to shut down Wikileaks. Judging by their panic reaction to Wikileaks, my guess is that most state secrets are just dirt that certain politicians prefer you and I not to know about.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buying things on eBay

My wife has suddenly discovered the thrill of shopping on eBay. Before anyone starts congratulating her on her new-found technological prowess, let me tell you that it is not quite as thrilling for me. She sees everything as a bargain. She gets attracted by the pictures and the product description. I have a hard time trying to explain to her that this is not how you buy things on eBay. So how do I buy things on eBay?

I am not an avid shopper on eBay, but I have bought a number of items there. I want to make a distinction between "shop" and "buy". To shop is to search for goods or services. To buy is to make the acquisition after you have decided what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it. I do my shopping in the physical world whenever possible. I go to the shops to see and touch the real thing. I make my buying decision after familiarizing with the product. Then I would turn to eBay to make the purchase if that is the best place to get it. Sometimes it is not worth the trouble or risk.

Would you look at a printed catalog and make a purchasing decision based on the pictures and the write-up there? Likewise, it is risky to shop on the internet. You won't know the product until you see it, touch it or try it on. You can't tell if a mattress will be comfortable. You won't know if a furniture will not creak, or a bed will not sag. You can't tell if a sound system is going to sound good just because it looks good. My point is, do all your shopping in the real world. Don't just browse the online catalog and make a buying decision there and then.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hindsight on desalination

I cannot understand the need to keep the Tugun desalination plant in Queensland running at minimum capacity, now that excessive rainfall has rendered this project a white elephant. The idea is that the plant can be brought to full capacity within 72 hours. But is there really a need to bring the plant to full capacity within 72 hours? Would there suddenly be a drought? Would the existing dams suddenly drop to critical level? Wouldn't it be alright to take three months to bring the plant up to full running capacity? Or six months?

I also cannot understand the need for Victoria to build such a huge desalination plant in Wonthaggi. Is there a need to ensure that the whole of Victoria will have enough water to use to everyone's heart's content, to get us through a cyclical drought? As it is such an expensive option, wouldn't it be sufficient to build just a small desal plant to provide enough for emergency needs only? After all, drought comes and goes, if weather patterns are to be believed. And they are.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What's driving your mobile device

The life blood of any mobile electronic device is the battery. The humble battery is often overlooked in many purchasing decisions, and yet it is the most important factor to consider. The iPad, which has a battery life of 10hrs, will suddenly be far less appealing if it were equipped with a 4-hour long battery. I used to own a Pioneer PDA which had a battery life of about 4 hours. It was a high-end PDA at that time. I was not able to make full use of all the features the PDA had, simply because the battery life was too short. I had to reserve the battery life for the more important uses, hence also limiting my use of the PDA.

The smart phone will not be quite so appealing had battery life improvements not kept pace with the computing power needed to run the smart phone. Putting it another way, the battery needed to power a smart phone for 3 days would probably be good enough to power a very basic phone today for 3 weeks. Now, that's a smart call (pun intended). We all need a phone to keep in touch, whereas the other functions in a smart phone are non-time critical (well, some people may argue with that...). The way I see it, perhaps phone manufacturers should start making solar-powered basic phones that can run indefinitely without having to recharge the battery. I will be the first to adopt it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making wise decisions

The $1.2bil Tugun desalination plant in Queensland is to be mothballed now, less than a year after opening. This is due to excessive rainfall. The same fate may befall Victoria's much more expensive desalination plant at Wonthaggi. The question we should be asking our politicians is whether they have made wise decisions. Many politicians have an inspiration (to put it kindly), and off they go, selling the idea and selling out the public. Sometimes they are are armed with survey results and statistics, which they rely on to vindicate themselves in the eventuality of failure. And the public seems to accept that. Not me. Politicians should be held accountable for making wise decisions. To do so, they have to consult the right people. Julia Gillard is not an IT expert. John Brumby is not an expert on the weather.

Back to the Tugun desal plant. Do we not have decades of data to tell us what the rainfall pattern is? Rainfall can very from year to year, but it is very hard to believe that a drought can suddenly happen that has not happened before in recorded history. Weather pattern is fairly consistent over thousands and thousands of years. It may vary slightly from year to year but it cannot change suddenly. Our water supply contingency plan should be based on year-to-year fluctuation. We should not interpret a cyclical drought as one that is about to change the landscape forever.

Tricyle for the overgrown baby

When I saw this 3-wheeled motorcycle, I thought it resembles the tricycle I used to ride on as a child. It even has the same kind of back seat for the rear passenger. This contraption must have been designed with the overgrown baby in mind. Some of you might recall the kid's tricycle that I am talking about.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Christmas gift idea

People nowadays are materially much better off than ever before. It is very hard to buy a present for anyone. Everyone has everything that he or she could possible need, and often in multiples (think watches, shoes, game consoles, mobile phones, etc). Gone are the days when you can delight someone with a present he or she really needs or wants and doesn't already have.

But "it's the thought that counts!" How often we hear that, so why don't we just do that? Here's how to do it: buy any item; just a small and simple one. Then package it as elaborately as you can, one layer after another. For example, take one simple candy bar. Wrap it in an expensive tissue wrapper. Place this in an nice present box. The wrap again in an expensive wrapper, complete with a ribbon and a gift card. Place this in a beautiful paper bag that is specially made for presents. This will really make a gift that is thoughtfully put together for someone who already has it all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Most popular e-reader today

These two charts are from CNET ( Click on the charts for a larger view.

It appears that the Amazon Kindle is the most popular e-reader, while Sony and Nook are distant competitors (5%, and 4% respectively, as compared to 47% for kindle and 32% for iPad). Apparently, the iPad is fast gaining ground. I suspect this does not really mean that Kindle users are switching over to iPad, but rather the number of iPad users are growing faster than the number of Kindle users. I am a Kindle user, and I am have not grown tired of opening up the Kindle each morning to read the newspapers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Image of the year

This image won the Image of the Year award at my camera club. This is a really great honour and I didn't expect to win the top prize this year, being only a 2-year old member of the club. There are many good photographers at the Knox Photographic Society and many great images were submitted for this year end competition. I am truly humbled and awed. I know I've still got a long way to go to become a really good portrait photographer. Looks like my emphasis on portraiture is paying off!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beauty is in the "mind" of the beholder

When a non-photographer sees a beautiful scene, he usually tries to capture everything he sees so as not to miss out any details. As photographers, we learn that "less is more". We try to capture only the main item of interest and leave the rest to the imagination. This often makes the picture more appealing. For example, the picture of wild flowers next to an old letterbox may stir up imagination of a rustic scene; the image of one corner of the garden may imply a larger setting; the profile of a person's face may carry a stronger picture than that of a fully visible person. I believe a really beautiful image cannot be just "seen" but has to be "imagined" as well.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chaos at the National Australia Bank

At this time the hottest seat in the corporate world has to be that of the CEO of the NAB. This bank has the worst nightmare any senior manager and I.T. manager will ever face. NAB says that a corrupted file has contaminated customers' records, resulting in delayed payments, phantom debts, and unusable ATM machines and EFTPOS terminals. (I wonder if anyone also reported extra money appearing in their account?). Basically the system has been brought down to its knees and NAB customers brought down to tears. The problem may even be contaminating the entire banking system in Australia. This is BIG.

While it is too early to start pointing accusing fingers, I think it is time to reflect on the CEO's role. The CEO is given a ridiculously high pay, while the critical jobs are done at the lower levels. When everything is fine and profits are rolling in, the CEO takes the credit and a giant slice of the profit cake. Let's see what happens now when the dust has settled on this computer fiasco. It is time to realize that the CEO is not sacrosanct.

Jumper cables

I always carry a pair of jumper cables in my car. I have found this to be a good insurance policy. Over the years, I have used them but a few times. However, each time they had been a tremendous blessing either to me or to someone else. Every car should be equipped with one. They are like the spare tyre; you never know when you are going to need them, but need them you will. Although the car battery can theoretically work forever, in practice I find that on average I have to replace the battery every five years or so.

Jumper cables don't cost much, and they don't take up much room in the car. If you don't have them, get them now and make sure you know how to jump start a car. When your battery goes flat (which it inadvertently will at the most inconvenient time and place) you'll be thankful you read this blog.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Screen obssession

Ever since the television was invented, more and more people spend their time in front of a screen more than anything else. First it was the TV screen, which grew larger and larger, in keeping with the side way growth of the couch potatoes sitting in front of them.

Then we have the monochrome computer screen, which evolved into colour VGA screen, followed by LCD screen. That gave us a whole generation of people sitting in front of a screen in almost every sedentary work you can think of. Honestly, I cannot think of any sit down job that does not have a computer screen on the desk of the person.

Screen obsession seems to follow us everywhere now in the form of a mobile phone. The more a person looks at the mobile phone screen, the less likely it is that he is making a call. He is using the mobile to text, to play a game, to surf the internet, or to do social networking. Closely related to that, and almost equally as mobile, is the iPad screen and the tablet PC screen.

If you look around you, there isn't a day when you don't face an electronic screen. This is how pervasive the electronic display has become in our lives.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Computer breakdown

I admit I didn't give much thought to the possibility of my computer breaking down. I pride myself in having an automated daily backup of all my files. I even do a periodic image backup of my C drive. Unfortunately, I have to accept the fact that my computer has now reached its end of life. It is dead. It started showing signs of deterioration a couple of weeks ago- a flicker here and there, unexpected slow down, etc. Now I have to admit it is time to move on to another computer. Although I am glad my files are all safe, I am not looking forward to re-installing all the programs and my favourite settings. As things go, the breakdown has to come at the most inconvenient time when I have a million and one things to do on the computer.

A moment of reflection: I have to admit the computer has become the single most important tool I have. Without it, I lose my regular contact with the outside world (email), my daily source of news and information (www), my electronic filing system, my digital darkroom (Lightroom and Photoshop), and my home financial management system (i.e. bill payments). Indeed, my life would need a major readjustment in order to go back to living without the computer. Would yours?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Which camera system to buy

The new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras such as the Sony NEX, the Olympus PEN, and the Panasonic GFx are all very alluring because of their compact size. Does it mean it is better for a newbie to start buying those new hybrid cameras? I don't think so. Here's why.

Take the Canon 550D as an example. The cost of a basic system consists of (in AUD$)
Body only: $1230
2 kit lenses: $470
Speedlite 580EX II: $650
UV Filter + Polarizer: $100

Working this out, the body itself is roughly 50% of the entire cost. This gets smaller as you start buying more lenses and other Canon-specific accessories. If you decide to upgrade your camera in 2 year's time (many of us do!), you only need to replace the camera, which is only a fraction of the entire cost.

Now assume you have bought into Panasonic instead. Your entire system is Panasonic-specific. Even when you decide to upgrade, you can only upgrade with another Panasonic camera. In other words, you are locked in. Should Canon or Nikon come out with a superior mirrorless SLR in the future, you cannot simply switch brand as you will have to replace the entire system (lens and other accessories).

The conventional wisdom still holds true: buy the system, not the camera.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chinese dining culture?

I was away in Adelaide last weekend. While there, I went to my favourite steakhouse in Hahndorf (a resort town) for dinner. I noticed that about half of the clientele were Chinese, unlike when I first visited the place. Back then, about 6 years ago, the customers were mostly Ozzies.

I can tell that the restaurant is now used to serving Asians. Back then, if we came in a group the waiter would write down what each person wanted to order, asking one by one in turn. We rarely finished the entire servings as they were enormous. This time when I placed the order, the waitress did not check to see if everyone had placed an order each. She just assumed that we would share everything. Looking around, I could see that the other Asian groups all share their orders (and they were still enormous servings), instead of ordering one meal per person.

I also ordered one soup for my mother. The waitress immediately brought bowls for all of us, assuming that would be sharing the soup. To cap it all, the waitress started talking to me about a popular Chinese actor. No doubt about it, Chinese clientele has pervaded Hahndorf.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blogger's break

I am taking a blogger's break for the next 4 days, as I will be away. Till then!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mobile phone or electronic leash?

Just as I drove away from my house to go and buy something yesterday, I remembered that I had left my mobile phone behind. For no reason I felt a tinge of guilt, as if I was expecting someone to call me. I'm sure many people feel the same way when they leave their phones behind. I think it is time we consciously break away from this electronic leash. We should be free to go anywhere without being connected. We don't need to be on call all the time. We should cherish moments of solitude and isolation; a quiet time when we can be by ourselves in our own space and time.

These days I often see people cradling their mobile phones as if it is the dearest companion in their lives. Even when people gather in a group, there will be someone who breaks out to make or answer a phone call every now and then. Perhaps people should start shutting down the phone at a fixed time every day. This will enable one to enjoy time with the family, or to socialize with friends without being interrupted by a phone call. A mobile phone should be just a means to make a call when you needed to. It should not be an electronic leash where you are expected to answer every call, failing which the caller starts to imagine the worst has happened to you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bulging wallets and the future

A bulging wallet used to be an item of envy because it would almost certainly be filled with money. That's what a wallet used to be for: keeping notes. These days you can tell a lot about a person by the things he stuffs into his wallet: bank cards, credit cards, licence cards, employee cards, membership cards, discount cards, coupons, and what not. Standing at the cash register, I have noticed that the more bulging the wallet is, the fewer dollar notes it seems to contain. The idiom about a fat wallet no longer holds true.

The bulging wallet may be put on a diet soon. Google and Apple are both racing to make the Android and the iPhone the means of making small transactions. At the same time, three of the four largest mobile phone carriers in the US have teamed up, and are inviting banks and retail outlets to join them, to turn phones into digital wallets. This was supposed to be one of the key features of the Newton, Steve Job's PDA that was way ahead of its time. I believe the time is ripe now for this to happen within the next couple of years.

Looking back, I must say that from the wallet perspective we can now look forward to the good old days where a wallet is a wallet, and not a miniature carry case anymore.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is money the solution to all problems?

As the state election draws near, it seems that the only election pitch our politicians know how to make is to pitch in more money into every problem. Crime rate high? Have more policemen. Declining educational standard? Have smaller classes and hire more teachers. Long waiting list in hospital? Build more hospitals and hire more doctors. The list goes on and on. Just keep promising more funds for every problem that excites the voters.

I dare say that many problems arise from poor conception and design, poor implementation (bad project management, like the Myki project), and subsequently, poor administration. Basically, many problems are due to putting incapable people to manage and to lead. That is why the election process is designed to replace all who are past their used-by date. Instead of addressing the root causes, what we see is both major political parties doing their porkbarreling best in the run up to Election Day. In a real-world corporation, under such a system of management the company would have folded a long time ago.

Notes to myself: Falloff

One of my first challenges in studio photography is to get the background pitch black. In my early attempts, even the use of a black cloth for backdrop doesn't always work. Now I know why; it is just the simple physics of light. Light falls off at inversely proportional to the square of the distance added. I have heard this preached many times when talking about how the flash works, but have not applied it to control the background exposure in a studio setting. (Note: since the sun is 93 million miles away from the subject, light falloff is hardly perceptible when shooting with daylight as the light source, either indoor or outdoor!)

The easiest way to apply this is to set the light source close to the subject and the background relatively far away. Kirk Tuck says in his book "Minimalist Lighting - Professional Techniques for Studio Photography":

"Background Control. Suppose you need your background to be much darker than your foreground (for, say, a portrait subject), and you hasve a limited amount of space and that back wall just isn't going to move any further. If you move your main light closer to the subject and adjust your exposure so that your subject is correctly exposed you'll find that the background will be darker. Falloff has worked to your advantage."

Here is where I don't want light to fall off quickly: group photography.
I recently tried to shoot a group of 3 people in my studio and had difficulty getting even lighting. Now I know why. I would have needed to move the main light to the front, or use one light on each side of the group.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lyrics Tube

Back in the B.C. days (before computer, that is), I remember how we used to seek out song lyrics and then hand copy into our own notebook. Xerox was not available yet, much less the computer. We copied lyrics from magazines and from one another's collections as if they were prized commodities. There were no MP3's and all the songs were in records or cassette tapes, which were not easy to duplicate and keep.

Along comes Lyrics Tube; see: This site is almost ideal for someone like me. It has all the oldies, lyrics, and video to go along. With it I can learn up any song without searching for the MP3 all over the internet. This very useful for learning a song to play on the guitar, as you can play repeatedly on any section by just moving the video slider. This is really great! Check it out!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

9 weeks into the Kindle

It has been 9 weeks since I received my Kindle. I have not missed one day of reading on the Kindle since. And since then, I have helped Amazon sell two more Kindles to my friends who really loved it. I have finished reading 2 full books, some short stories, weekly magazines, and daily newspapers. I find that my reading enthusiasm has improved. I can pick up a news bulletin and read it with the words sinking in, and my mind clearly focused in the richness of the text. It is as if the writer is actually speaking to me and using words to evoke emotion and feelings. The words are no longer just a bunch of information to be quickly filtered and processed. I have come to enjoy reading once more.

I hope the Kindle doesn't changed into a colour ereader soon. The black-and-white screen actually helps to free me from any distractions. My mind has less information to process (no colour). There's no strong temptation to click on the links, as internet speed is much slower than on a desktop. Overall, the reading experience is very pleasant and positive.

Painting Lessons 101

I visited an art exhibition in Armadale recently. That gave me an idea. Maybe I should try my hand at painting. After all, painting is not very different from photography. In fact they share a common root in the early years of photography in the late 18th century. In photography as it is in painting, the principles of light and composition are the same.

Of course, it takes a lot of skill and practice to paint portraiture or elaborate scenes. What if I start off with something simple? A sky, some trees, and some water will be enough to make a landscape picture. I looked into Youtube to see what tutorials are available. The search for "how to paint sky" yielded 5,090 results; "how to paint trees" yielded 4710 results, and "how to paint water" yielded 5290 results. A quick google search for "Artists' societies in Melbourne" shows the location of 10 such places. The activities in the club descriptions I have seen are similar to those in a camera club. One can learn to paint, participate in exhibitions, and watch demos by seasoned artists. It sounds like fun!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Notes to myself: camera upgrade?

Lately I have been thinking of upgrading to a full frame camera. Camera-envy is certainly one of my weaker points. In justification , I think of all the advantages one can genuinely get from a full frame camera like the D700, such as true wide angle and shallower depth of field. Coming back from the club meeting tonight, I changed my mind. I have a renewed commitment to my D90 now.

I realize that whatever faults I have laid charge on the D90, they are mostly to do with technique and skill. It is easy enough to set the camera to fully auto mode and get a mostly good enough picture most of the time. But that is not what photography is to me. My quest is not only in composing a good image, but also in having full control over the equipment.

Tonight as I mingled with the other club members and listening to their conversations, I found that one is also striving to get the image sharp (this guy has a D700); and another manually compensates the exposure (this other guy has a D5 MkII). Both members are very experience photographers themselves. They too are on similar quest to polish their skills. Tonight, I am determined to keep working on my D90 to get it to make sharp focusing and perfect exposure a repeatable experience. I know the D90 is capable. I know I am not quite there yet. I look forward to the renewed challenge I have given myself. D700 can wait.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Campaign spending promises

The Victorian state election is coming up in a couple of week's time. Politicians are busy making promises on what they will spend money on if elected. Australian politicians seem to know how to sing only one tune when it comes to campaigning for an election. They will tell you that if elected, they will build the much-awaited for railway extension, or inject more money into the health system, or pump more funds into the school system, etc, etc.

I have this to say to incumbent Premier John Brumby: stop making spending promises on an ad hoc basis. Just present the next year's budget and let everyone see how you are going to cut the budget cake. Whatever spending promise you make each time is going to mean something else will be taken out, if balancing the budget is important to you. Therefore I won't be taken in by the line "if elected, I will build this, or that..." You already have had 3 years to do that, and much more, if including the time you served as Finance Minister under the previous premier.

By the way, if you cannot manage one project - the Myki - how do you think you have been managing the state of Victoria? Myki project is behind by 4 years now. Your only way out of this mess is to keep paring down the project deliverables. If you have business sense (important for a premier, isn't it?), this project should be scrapped long ago. Of course, it does not look good on you. How did all the budget blowouts happen in the case of the desalination plant and the road improvement works? Did you even try to manage the utility companies that seem to be having a free run at increasing prices now? What ARE you managing?

Monday, November 8, 2010

How good is the Expodisc?

Some time ago, I bought an Expodisc to calibrate the White Balance setting on my camera. It costs me about AUD$100 and I have never put it to good use before. It is one of those things that I felt on hindsight I shouldn't have bought. Tonight, I learned otherwise.

I have taken some pictures recently with a set of Bunning's (non-pro) spotlight, which uses halogen bulb. Using the closest white balance preset of "tungsten" on my camera, I felt that the pictures I had taken were a little bit too warm.

Tonight I did some comparison shots. Both pictures shown here were taken with the same settings, except for the white balance. The first picture was taken with the white balance set to "tungsten", to match the lighting. The second was pre-calibrated using the Expodisc. As you can see, the second pictures gives a more accurate white balance. To be precise, the first picture has a colour temperature of 2950 Kelvin. The second was 2900 Kelvin; a difference of only 50 Kelvin.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Consumption gluttony

In today's world of fast-paced consumerism, we are often inundated with a wide array of choices and new products. This is so much so that it is sometimes difficult to discern between needs and wants. So we end up drowning ourselves in indulgence. We buy more than what we need. We feel deprived if we don't get everything we want; the TV commercials make sure you get that message.

Many of us own more than one device that we can log on to the internet with, more than one digital camera, and more shoes and more clothes than we can possibly need in a lifetime. Yet we keep on buying more things to keep in ever-bigger houses even as the average family size gets smaller and smaller. This is consumption gluttony. It is not much different from food gluttony. We will just keep on consuming and not feel satisfied. I think it is time we become more astute in our consumption behavior. Otherwise we will get the same bloated feeling that we have just consumed too much.

Friday, November 5, 2010

How people see differently

When I show off my Kindle, I get different types of response. Some people just take one look and you will get the hint that they are not interested. Others look at it and comment that the iPad can do the same and more. Only once did one friend get as impressed with the gadget as I was on my first encounter.

The first group of people view the gadget from a superficial or aesthetics point of view. They have to be "sold" on the item before they can relate to it.

The second group of people look at it from a functional point of view. They are more discerning (i.e with regards to the gadget) than the first group, but they are usually not too analytical in approach. Their only concern is what they can do with the gadget. Any gadget that can do the same thing is no different from the other.

The third group is one who looks beyond the appearance and functionality of the gadget. He has an interest in the design, quality, and performance of the gadget. He is interested in the features. He compares the gadget with other similar products of its class.

Whether you are trying to sell soemthing, or whether you are seeking the opinion of someone before buying something, it is good to know who you are talking to!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The profound mystery

Ephesians 5:31-33 (NIV) says "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

In trying to understand more about what this passage says, I looked at The Message translation. It says "And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife. No longer two, they become "one flesh." This is a huge mystery, and I don't pretend to understand it all. What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church. And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband."

This is a wonderful depiction of God's relationship with us. Unlike parental love which is held togther by blood ties, spousal love is special. A man meets a woman; by falling in love, he chooses her. Then out of pure love he is willing to sacrifice anything for her. It is this love that prevents him from breaking his vow to love and be constantly united with his wife. This "mystery" must be about the special relationship that God has with us, exemplified by the relationship between a man and his wife. That is why marriage is a holy union. The ideal marital relationship is one that is described in the above passage of Ephesians.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What did Christ look like?

I came across this interesting description in a book compiled by Eberhard Arnold, a 19th century theologian. It was from a letter written by Clement (a theologian) to the Corinthians in 94 A.D.

"He is like a small child, like a weak root in poor soil. He has no comeliness or glory. We saw him. He had neither comeliness nor beauty. His form was despised. It was uglier than the human form usually is... He was despised; he was disregarded. He bears our sins. For our sakes he is afflicted. We regarded him as one afflicted, and bruised and martyred. But it is for our sins that he was wounded, it is for our iniquities that he was bruised. He was under punishment that we might have peace. By his stripes we were healed. he did not open his mouth while he was abused. Like a sheep he was led to slaughter, and as a lamb he was dumb under the hand of his shearer, he did not open his mouth.... because of the sins of my people did he come to his death...he took upon himself the sins of many, and he was delivered up because of their sins.

"And again Christ himself says:
"But I am a worm and not a man, mocked and despised by the people. All who saw me scorned me, they muttered with their lips and shook their heads, "He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he has delight in him." "

I'll leave it to the reader to interpret this image of Christ for himself. Bear in mind that the Old Testament mention that the coming Messiah would have no stately form or majesty.

Sacrificial love

When it comes to giving, most people are willing to part with an insignificant amount of what they have. Very few are those who are generous enough by nature to give much more than the average person. Rarely do we find anyone who would give almost everything away and keeping just enough for his sustenance, although it is not unusual for a parent to do that for his children.

Have you ever wondered that the most painful sacrifice is not something that you give up materially? An evil person knows that to inflict the severest pain on you is not to hurt you directly, but to hurt your loved ones and see you agonize. On the same token the greatest sacrifice one can make, which God made, was to give his only begotten son, so that mankind may be reconciled to God. God loves us THAT much!

Ironically, some people are put through that test of sacrificial love by the very people closest to them - their spouse. How often do families break up because the spouse is asked to choose between his parent and the spouse! Pray for God's grace to enable you to "drink of the cup that God has given you!"

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Christian wife

I knew it was in the Bible somewhere that wives ought to respect their husbands, but each time I saw only the verse that says "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22). Today, I saw the other verse further down the passage. Ephesians 5:33 says "However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

I have observed over and over again, that there is something special in any couple where the wife shows respect to the husband in front of everyone else. Immediately other people also see and place the husband in high esteem, and they see inner beauty in the wife at the same time. If she sees her husband being put down, she immediately rises to his defense. If she is offered a compliment that makes her husband look small, she immediately shares the compliment with her husband. She knows when to decline when her husband is not equally honoured. Such is a woman's beauty that does not fade with time.

So, while we go about quoting Ephesians 5:22, don't forget to include Ephesians 5:33 as well.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Glib talk

The "wiktionary" define glib as "Having a ready flow of words but lacking accuracy or understanding; superficial; shallow; Smooth or slippery; Artfully persuasive in nature"

There is one glib public servant who recently lost $50 million, nearly all, of his personal fortune by investing in a friend's venture that misfired. His name is Samuel Graeme, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Ten days ago he says that the NBN (National Broadband Network, costing $43bil to the taxpayer) does not need a cost-benefit analysis. When contested, he says (watch and learn!), "I did not say that a cost benefit-analysis is not needed. What I did not then go on to say is that one was needed." Duh??? Is this guy for real?

Friday, October 29, 2010

What would a dog think?

A customer came into the post office today, smelling like he has never taken a bath in this life. I had to hold my breath the whole time while attending to him, and I rushed for fresh air as soon as he left. I wonder if people like that are aware of their own condition. It is not as if one cannot do anything about it.

That led me to wonder what if this person has a dog. A dog has a very keen sense of smell. Can a dog be repulsed by obnoxious smell? Would his dog still lick him and stay close by him all the time? What is it like to be the dog of an owner who smells as bad as the person I mentioned?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Between SLR and point-and-shoot

Some people buy an SLR because they are told SLR takes good pictures. Others buy the point-and-shoot digicam because they find that the features are all available as in an SLR. So what really is the big deal about an SLR over a digicam apart from interchangeable lens? There is nothing special about an SLR that could not be produced in a digicam if the manufacturer so desires. They would probably do so if it makes commercial sense. An SLR simply encompasses a certain level of features and performance, rather than an exclusive technology.

If you are undecided between an SLR and a digicam, here are some points to consider whether you really need an SLR:

1. Interchangeable lens
Obviously, this gives the SLR flexibility in the use of superior optics to achieve a desired effect. If the shot is achievable in a normal digicam, then the SLR will not contribute very much to producing a better shot for you, generally speaking.

2. Bigger sensor
The much-larger sensor in an SLR has better light capturing capability, thus expanding the range of ISO you can use. In an experienced user, it enables you to shoot with a shallower depth of field for creative effects. This latter advantage is seldom exploited by a novice photographer.

3. Faster shooting
Although digicams have improved tremendously in this area nowadays, a typical SLR still outperforms the digicam in how fast you can shoot. There are 3 key areas: the shutter lag, the time between shots, and the focusing time. When you are shooting an event, every second counts. That is when you need a fast trigger.

Bearing in mind the above three reasons, it is easy to see why a normal point-and-shoot digicam is all a person needs while on vacation. The quality or performance edge of an SLR sometimes does not justify the extra baggage you need to lug around. On vacation, you are seldom looking for outstanding creative shots (which is hard work), you are mostly shooting in broad daylight (even in non-ideal midday sun), and you typically shoot at your own pace (don't need a fast trigger). Having said that, I still carry my SLR on vacation, but shoot with a digicam unless I really need to pull out the SLR.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Learning to shoot

They say time and tide waits for no man. So is a good photo shoot. Although there are situations where you can simply take your own sweet time to set up your camera for the perfect shot, there are also many situations where your brains have to click as fast as your camera. The only way to do so is to keep on using the different settings on your camera and accessories until setting up for a shot becomes second nature.

After many years of shooting, I believe my first real speed challenge was during my Apollo Bay trip this year with a bunch of photographers. We woke up early to shoot the sunrise at Skene's Creek. My mind raced through all the settings on my camera, as the dawn broke over the horizon. The colour in the sky changed by the minute. It felt more like seconds. At the end of a hard work out, I managed to get a few "OK" shots out of hundreds, but the experience was invaluable.

Shooting in a studio is also training me to be more adept at setting up the camera as well as the accessories. When the model is watching, seconds count. You may have to tweak aperture, speed and ISO, exposure compensation, flash value compensation, white balance... all the time while you pose the model and shift the light stands. You might forget to turn image stabilizer off when using a tripod, and turn it on again when you remove the tripod. Or you set the metering mode for something and then forget to change it back.

I am beginning to appreciate continuous studio lighting, as opposed to using flash lighting. The seconds it takes for the flash to charge up and the occasional misfire makes a difference. It sound ironical, but home studio is great for training to be a fast trigger.

Monday, October 25, 2010

All-in-one and one-in-all

These days you will find many gadgets that do the same thing: access the internet. The common ones are the game consoles, smart phone, e-reader, and iTouch and various PDA-like devices. Following closely behind the media players are set-top boxes and the TV set itself, which will soon be able to access content from the internet. This is the "one-in-all" I am talking about: internet in everything. Of course, there are also the "all-in-one" gadgets. The smartphone that can do almost everything the PC can do. So can my Kindle e-reader, and so can my daughter's iTouch tablet.

It is time we start to back off from the all-in-one mania. For example, it is more practical, in my own opinion, to carry a simple feature-less (i.e. less features) phone and have a separate iTouch-like or iPad-like device, than to rely on an all-in-one iPhone for your needs or compulsion. I prefer to carry a simple inexpensive phone just to talk or text on the spur of a moment. I handle the phone for these purposes several times a day. It might get dropped and it might go missing. I won't need to sweat over it. On the other hand, the other things I do like surfing the web, making appointments, reading a book, playing games, etc, are activities that I can plan ahead. I have the choice of carrying a larger screen iPad or a more-portable iTouch for such activities. Or I can choose to leave them at home. No sweat.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Notes to myself: flash strobing

Someone at the camera club taught us how to create this effect using the strobe function in the flash (note: not all flash units have this function). It is really quite simple. A number of trial and error on the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings is all that is needed. Of course, you also need to know how to set your flash unit to enable it to strobe at a desired rate.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The sewing machine challenge

How hard is it to use a sewing machine? As a kid I have watched my grandmother and my mother use the sewing machine. It looked complicated, and that is the way it has been ingrained into my mind. I have one of the modern sewing machine that sits on a table. I have been meaning to try it out for years. Yesterday I took it out of storage and bravely confronted the manual. I kept telling myself that it couldn't be very hard. For a long time I have been curious to find out how it really works. This is one machine that every single woman, literate or not, could handle with ease, yet always appeared a mystery to me.

Today, the shroud of mystery lifted. I actually read through the manual and learned how to use the sewing machine. Surprisingly, this modern electric-powered machine works in the same way as the pedal driven sewing machine of yore. They both have the same mechanical parts to handle the threads. I learned how to make a simple straightforward stitch. With some help from my wife, I now have a black backdrop for my photo studio (spent AUD$25 on 5 meters of black muslin and stitched together for a bigger spread)

I feel I have made a significant inroad into a woman's traditional stronghold. It feels good.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Housekeeping made easy

I have been brought up in a generation where we were taught never to throw away things that could be of use to anyone. As a result, I find that many people, including I, have too many unnecessary things in the house. I used to think that every house should have a storeroom, because doesn't everyone have lots of things to store?

If you walk into a kitchen shop, you'll find all kinds of utensils; do we need every one of them? If you walk into a furniture shop, do you think that every home should have one of every type of furniture - a coffee table, a cabinet, a sideboard, a computer table, etc? We fill our homes with clutter just because we have been led to believe everything is a "necessity". That is why we buy things as soon as we find a nook or a corner to place them in. When we want to make room to buy even more things, we place them in storage - out of sight - so that we can continue to buy more things.

Word of advice: start giving away or throwing away things that you don't use and you'll find you have less housekeeping to do. Warning: this is very painful to do and requires great resolve. It will be accompanied with a feeling of loss and possibly regrets. Few people actually succeed in making a significant impact when it comes to clearing clutter; they always find a reason to keep things. After all, that's how the clutter builds up in the first place. Back to square one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Is this the end of Microsoft?

Microsoft is noticeably absent from the biggest IT revolution in recent years, with not one, but three converging products simultaneously jostling for media attention during this pre-holiday season. I am talking about the smartphone, the tablet PC (including iPad), and the e-reader. This may signal the end of Microsoft's stranglehold on our computers. For 25-years, Microsoft has used its monopoly on the operating system to fend off competitors while milking the public for as much and as long as it could. That was only possible because people needed a common set of software to enable file sharing and work collaboration. IT users had to face constant compatibility issues if they used anything other than Microsoft products.

Mobile computing has changed all that. You just cannot have a phone that cannot communicate with another phone. As phones get smarter, they have to share pictures, video, and eventually documents, across different phone manufacturers. The phones evolved into tablets. E-readers just found itself dragged into the scene, although it started as a distinct product in one corner of the digital library world. Suddenly, these gadgets appear sophisticated enough to threaten the laptop and the desktop PC. One will soon be able to share files across different phone platforms, and make extensive use of the internet and cloud computing to free oneself from the shackles of the desktop PC and its inherent limitations. Apps make all the difference; people can now install and launch an app without knowing anything about the operating system layer. The OS layer, like bios commands, and like command line codes, will someday be reserved for troubleshooting purposes only. Without monopoly of the OS, Microsoft cannot command the $100+ price it charges.

Google made the Android platform and gave it away for free. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers trust Google enough to install Android as the OS in their devices. That's what is killing Microsoft. Even if Microsoft can successfully sell its Phone 7, it has already lost the chance to save itself. Soon, I predict the free OpenOffice will become a standard office suite, thanks to tablet PC's that are just about to become ubiquitous. At this rate, I wonder how long Microsoft can continue its hegemony.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Australia's National Broadband Network

NBN was formed as an alternative to Telstra's unwillingness to cooperate to provide highspeed broadband to all of Australia. When the-then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced this, I applauded the proposal. Now I think otherwise.

First, it is unnecessary to provide high speed broadband to all over Australia. Remote areas are best served by upgrading existing copper lines to keep the cost down. Think: would rural Australia benefit from having a dual carriage expressway serving the town? Would the people be best served by high speed broadband or by having better school or better medical facilities?

What really takes the cake for governmental wisdom is the fact that Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants to make it compulsory for every household to sign up for NBN's broadband service. Yes, that's reported in the news today. If you don't sign up, you cannot subscribe to the telephone service.

Don't ask about the cost to subscribers yet; Julia is not saying, or does not know. As for the project cost, $43bil is just the indicative price. My bet is that it will be much more before we see the light at the end of the fibre optic.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Have we grown wiser from the GFC?

I think the short answer is "no." We have not grown wiser from the global financial crisis of 2008. Australia is going back to status quo, while the other first world countries that are still in recession are slowing trying to recover status quo from the looks of it. Chief executives of public listed companies are back to the game of rewarding themselves with multimillion dollar pay rises (e.g. Myer CEO Brookes' pay jumped from $2.9 million to $5.45 million last year), while retrenching staff to "increase productivity" (e.g. Westpac Bank in today's Herald Sun news). In the first case, CEO's are unjustifiably rewarded; in the second case, staffs are retrenched at a time when the banks are raking in record profits.

We all now that the GFC is caused by greed on the part of corporate leaders, especially those high fliers in the financial world of hedge funds and investment banking. Slowly but surely, the talk of financial reforms has been just that - talk.

No, I think we have grown too used to the comfortable existence of pre-GFC days to want to give it up so easily. The people who will pay the price of this lassitude are our children and the generations to come. Even the people who think they are doing alright today, they won't be doing their children a favour. Greed has reached a new level, where people are even willing to sacrifice their children's future wellbeing. Why else would local councils keep raising council rates? Why else would government leaders privatize the public amenities and allow the private companies to raise prices at liberty? Why else would companies retrench staff when they are making huge profits (and rewarding their CEO's with big bonuses)? Why else would companies re-locate offshore and starve their own people of jobs?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Soaring utility bills - who benefits?

The Herald Sun reported this today: ".... typical households are paying a staggering $900 more for the essentials compared with 2005."

I used to think that the government is being negligent for allowing utility companies to raise charges year after year, far greater than the annual inflation rate. It appears at first glance that the privatized electricity, water, gas, and telecom companies are gouging the public as much as they can and pretty much getting away with it. Why is it that the government is allowing this free ride?

Perhaps there is a good reason for this laissez faire attitude. When the utility companies reap in a bonanza in extra profits, the government also gains a windfall of extra tax dollars. The government does not get cop a blame from the public. Instead, the utility companies get blamed, but they don't seem to care. After all, EVERY other utility companies are doing the same. Perhaps this is the reason why the government is silent about utility hikes.

Monday, October 4, 2010

My digital collection

Today's digital age makes it possible for people to collect many things for free. With the low cost of hard disk drives, storage is practically unlimited. With digital storage, there's no dust, no mould, no silverfish and no deterioration.

I have a collection of my own photos and a collection of music in MP3 format. I am now building a collection of e-books on photography. I certainly will not attempt to read all the photography books (there's about 150 now, and counting), but I just wanted to have a reference library on photography. In the past, building such a library would be prohibitive in cost and storage space. With digital technology, this is just a cinch. I am also enthralled with downloading e-books of other genre. It is like looking for treasure on the internet.

Here's a great website for all kinds of books:
Here's one for Christian literature:

Notice that most of the free books are in pdf format, which doesn't go well on an e-reader, but opens up alright on a normal computer screen. I usually look for mobi or epub formats to use on my Kindle e-reader.

Notes to myself: sensor size and depth of field

I always learn something new in the camera club. Last Saturday while helping the newbies taking the beginner's camera course, I realized that depth of field is also influenced by sensor size. Let me explain the depth of field in its entirety, to give you the whole picture (pun intended).

Depth of field is shallowest (greatest blurry background effect) under these conditions:
1. the lens aperture is opened to the maximum (e.g. f2.0 instead of f11)
2. increased magnification (move closer or zoom in)
3. short distance between camera to subject, in relation to subject to background.
4. larger sensor size

While conditions 1,2 and 3 are frequently discussed, condition 4 is a new realization for me. I realized this when one of the students was trying unsuccessfully to get a shallow depth of field with her bridge camera (something like the Canon G11, but hers was a Panasonic Lumix model). I applied conditions 1 through 3, and the best I could do was not as good as when using a normal SLR (with a much larger sensor). It was then that I realized her sensor was only 1/1.7".

In the film days, condition 4 would be quite unheard of as nearly everyone uses the standard 35mm film. It is important to realize that it is very hard to get the shallow depth of field effect when you are not using a large sensor camera. Wikipedia has a good write up on this. See:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Seeing differently

Many have written and expressed their views about how the Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia are continually discriminated against in Malaysia. I reserve my comments here, as what I want to do here is to present a different perspective, while not condemning or condoning what others have said enough about already.

Consider this perspective: if we remove all talks about racial discrimination, we can concentrate on seeing Malaysia as a "corporation". What kind of CEO do we see? Is the management team effective in achieving the goals of the corporation? As a general public, do we want to invest in the company? Why or why not? Is Malaysia in danger of deflation or stagnation? Is the "corporation" spending more money that it earns? Is it borrowing money that it has no ability to repay? Is it selling off its prized asset in order to pay the management team big bonuses?

Many who emigrate from the country cite reasons of racial discrimination. However, I think that an equally strong motivation is pure and simple economics. I am only surprised that most people choose to dwell on the first reason, rather than discuss the second.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How fast can DHL deliver?

I am amazed by the speed of delivery when I bought a second Kindle from Amazon. This is the sequence of events:

27 Sept 2010 at 11:30pm
- placed order for Kindle. Within minutes, an email arrived to confirm the order.

28 Sept 2010 at 8:32am
- email came from Amazon saying item has been shipped.

30 Sept 2010 at around 9:00am.
- DHL delivered the item to my doorstep.

The total time taken is only slightly more than 2.5 days, all the way from America. Kudos to Amazon and DHL!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why a 9.7" screen is better than a 7"

The iPad has a screen size of 9.7", while a slew of iPad competitors are emerging with a screen size of 7". Here is one good reason why you may want to consider the larger screen size: you are likely to run into many free ebooks that are only available in pdf format. As you know, pdf is usually in the size of an A4 paper (after all, that is how pdf originated - as an electronic version of the printout from your printer). Naturally, if you try to read pdf on a smaller screen, you will either have to deal with a miniaturized page, or move the enlarged page around to see everything.

However, the 7" or 6" screen size is quite suitable for an e-reader (e.g. the Kindle). That is assuming you are interested to read novels and other regular paperbacks. The smaller screen is lighter and easier to hold and simulates a regular paperback quite well. You might think an A4-size screen would be better if you want to use the e-reader to read a newspaper. That is not quite the case, because an e-newspaper is specially formatted for reading on a small screen, and it is neither like an HTML web page, or a physical newspaper layout.

So there you go; horses for courses.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Communication cornucopia

I am ripe and ready for an iPad or a tablet PC. I am also ready to replace my aging mobile for one of the newer ones. I have already taken the plunge for an e-reader by getting the Kindle but that's about as far as I am willing to spend for now. The speed and ferocity of new gadget announcements is driving me dizzy; a new iPad competitor is introduced almost every other day, while a new Android mobile is superceded by another before it hits the local market.

All these gadgets - the tablet/iPad, the mobile phone, and the e-reader - overlap one another in function and purpose. They come in different sizes, enticing you to buy one of each. You buy the largest screen for home use, the smallest one for the greatest mobility, and one in between when you couldn't decide which one to take with you. Actually, there's really no necessity for any of these gadgets, as the good old PC can do the job. So why am I craving for a new gadget? Have I been brainwashed by the advertisements?

I have enough of this. I am just going to sit back and watch the gadget makers fight it out. Perhaps all I really need is a mobile phone that just makes calls and sends text messages, rather than high pressuring myself with one that has lots of apps, bells and whistles. We live in a world that is over-connected. It is time to break free and be just ourselves once more. It is good to be able to get "lost" once in a while, where no one knows where you are (no GPS), cannot reach you (phone battery dead), and cannot email you (no internet service).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I am ditching the newspaper

Like many people, I enjoy reading the newspaper in the morning over a cup of coffee. It has become a ritual that I have grown accustomed to over the decades. I look forward to picking up the newspaper in the morning (hey, even my neighbour's dog enjoys doing that!), and spreading it open to see what is happening all around the country and the world. So why am I ditching the newspaper?

Of course, you would have guessed that I am merely turning to the e-newspaper. I think it is time for me to move on and see what it is like to be one of the early adopters of the new medium. There are several Australian newspapers that I can download automatically and transmit to my Kindle everyday, including The Age, The Australia, etc. They are free, at least for the moment, and so are hundreds of other newspapers all over the world. I can even find The New Straits Times of Malaysia, but for some reason it fails to transmit properly. Oh well!

For a change, now I won't be seeing newspapers all over the house. I won't be having that tinge of guilt every Saturday when I only read my regular sections and leave 90% of the weekend volume untouched. I have the liberty of carrying my e-newspaper, as well as all magazines and books in my e-reader and take it with me wherever I want without inconveniencing myself or others around me. Think of holding up a newspaper in a crowded restaurant, in a park on a windy day, in your bedroom when your spouse is trying to sleep... I think you'll get the idea.

Lost in Electronica

The title of this blog is from an article written by clinical psychologist Adam J.Cox, and a write-up about it appeared in the Newsweek magazine. See:

I believe Cox has correctly identified a problem that has emerged in today's ever-increasing influence of electronic mobile devices on our lives. It has affected boys more than girls, resulting in a loss of social communication skills. This leads to ill-adjusted youngsters, who later become ill-adjusted adults that are unable to communicate with the outside world. I have summarized the key points below.

The cause: "The ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games makes “the chaos of constant connection” an addictive electronic narcotic." (in bold are words emphasized by me)

The symptom: "Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do. ........Perhaps flight from boredom prompts people today to take refuge in constant stimulation by visual and audio entertainments."

The result: "Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being...... So “the silent, sullen boy at the mall’s game store may be next in line for an underemployed, lonely adulthood if we don’t teach him how to maintain effective social contacts with others.” "

If you look around you, chances are you will find some people who fit into the above description.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is the future PC a smartphone?

The title of this blog is from this article:

Nvidia CEO Huang muses "Will a future PC be a powerful, multi-CPU handheld device that wirelessly connects to large displays and a host of other devices--so the PC is carried around in your pocket or small satchel and then connects on the fly to larger devices and/or peripherals?"

I am thinking that perhaps the other way around is also true: the future phone is a smart (portable) PC. I think gadgets like the iPod Touch and the Galaxy Pad will have VOIP apps in no time. As mobile broadband becomes more prevalent, it makes sense to carry voice over the data band, instead of the present voice band. Data band is a lot cheaper than voice band. I think mobile phone companies will do their best to thwart this, as this will see their revenue disappear into thin air. Eventually, I hope, mobile VOIP will prevail.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Kindle and not Nook

I am always on the lookout for the latest and greatest e-reader. When I found out about the latest Nook Wifi (cost US$149), I was very impressed by it. It is very similar to the Amazon Kindle Wifi (cost US$139) in terms of features and price.

Read about....
Nook Wifi:
Kindle Wifi:

I can tell you all the pros and cons of each, but I'll list the most significant ones here. One deal clincher feature me is the fact that the Kindle allows you to rotate the screen in any four directions, while the Nook doesn't. This is extremely critical because when you are reading a pdf book, the landscape orientation makes the font larger and much more readable. You can find a lot of good free books in pdf, but not in other formats.

The Nook's greatest advantage over the Kindle, on the other hand, is the ability to read any epub book (with or without DRM - digital rights management). Kindle doesn't. This is not a problem for me because I can use Calibre (3rd party software) to do format conversion, but it may be a serious problem for non-techies. Epub is the predominant format among ebooks, hence opening up your choices if you are shopping for ebooks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Debate on the burqa

There was an interesting debate on TV last night about the wearing of the burqa. The opponents basically cite security concerns and protection of women from oppression. Some proponents say wearing burqa is an act of worship, while other proponents say it is about freedom to choose what you want to wear. Naturally in a debate like this you will find strong arguments coming from both sides, as well as leaky arguments.

For example, when they say it is an act of worship, history says the burqa has been worn a few centuries prior to the coming of Islam. Yet on the other hand, that does not mean it cannot qualify as a God-sanctioned act of worship. As for freedom to choose, this is not a good argument either, because there are laws, like it or not, that bar people from dressing inappropriately and the burqa cannot be made an exception if society is strongly against it. Next point; clearly there are burqa wearers who do it willingly, yet the pro-choice people are unwilling or unable to to admit that many are forced to wear it, to the extent of physical abuse.

My turn to say now. I think the country should hold a nationwide survey. This is not an issue about a federal offence or a criminal act where there is need to research into precedence set at some other place or some other time. It is simply about how we can all live together peacefully. Based on the survey result, legislation can be enacted if it is necessary to ban the burqa.

If you are a guest in somebody's house, you do not go around doing things that upset the host. So it is with issues of culture and religion when one chooses (yes, there is a choice!) to live in another country. The freedom to choose does not equate to freedom to upset and offend those who want to be your friends. There are many laws against anti-social behavior and the argument that people have the freedom to carry out anti-social behaviour as they like is simply a wrong interpretation of democracy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Brother Like That

I have a bad reading habit. I fast and I read between the lines to try and soak up as much information possible in a short time. It is the result of many years of conditioning in a fast-paced world. Once a while or perhaps even more often, we all need to slow down and savour the words we read. When I was a kid and had the occasional treat of reading a new Enid Blyton book, every single word came to life as I slowly immersed myself into a make believe world where fairies and elves came alive. It was magical.

Here is a story that I pulled out from a book called "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Double click on it to enlarge it. Then read it slowly. I bet you will enjoy every word of it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The school bell

My primary school used to have an old fashioned bell that hung from a window at the school office. At the sound of the bell, everyone hurried to his class. I loved that sound because it had a clear warm tone, unlike the electronic buzzer that many schools use today. Bells always sound so much more cheerful. The school bell was a friendly clarion call to get down to serious work. It brightened the day ahead for me. I also looked forward to the next ringing of the bell, which was at recess time. Of course, the final bell of the day was the most welcomed one.

As little kids, we considered it a treat when the teacher asked one of us to go and ring the bell. I used to do it with great pride, as you can well imagine. Years have passed since those days. I am sure I owe my disciplined approach to time keeping in general to the simple school bell. It regimented all six years of my primary school life and it still echoes happily through my mind whenever I think of it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My opinion on iPad and Kindle

While many are oo-hing and aa-hing over the iPad, I have been totally besotted by my Kindle. When the iPad was launched, many people felt sorry for Amazon because they thought that the iPad spelt the death knell for the Kindle, which was launch just a few months prior.

Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon) made a brilliant move; he did not give in or give up. He improved on an already great product (the Kindle 2), and dropped the price for the Kindle 3 (which yours truly immediately queued up to buy). Many companies were already making e-readers then, but few can achieve what Amazon did with the Kindle.

Back to the iPad. Many people are inclined to compare the Kindle with the iPad. Kindle is not iPad and iPad is not Kindle. The difference is not form or fit, but function. In my opinion iPad and Kindle can coexist. Use the Kindle if you want to enjoy the pleasure of reading. Use the iPad if you want to browse for information quickly; just make sure you keep your charger handy all the time.

Why I love the Kindle - Part 2

It has been many years since I have gone paperless. Every note that I keep, from income tax records to instructions, letters, memory joggers, schedules, etc, are stored digitally. Therefore it is only natural that I embrace ebooks so readily. I can add volumes to my collection without adding one single piece of paper to my cabinet.

Amazon has a super built-in support for the Kindle. Any book you buy or download for free exists as an archive record in Amazon's database. You can choose to delete this permanently if you wish. As long as it is there, you can re-download your book at any time without making the same purchase again.

As for the reading experience, I think I can get used to reading from an electronic tablet. Some people might miss the feel of a book; I don't. I quite like the fact that the page I am reading is always there. The pages don't get accidentally turned or blown by the wind. I can change the font size if it is too small. The Kindle allows me to play music on its built-in speaker while I read. I can even get the Kindle to read to me, if I wanted to. I love the built-in dictionary and I have used it many times.

If everyone embraces ebooks, what will happen to the future of paper books? I think reference books will continue to be printed and sold. At the same time, fiction and news articles will probably exist better in bytes than in books.

Why I love the Kindle

The Kindle is not perfect yet. It could do with some built-in word games such as Hangman, Word Train, Jumble, etc. It could do with an even faster processor. This is the test of true love: I still love it despite its present shortcomings. Here's why.

Before getting my Kindle, I didn't think that the wifi feature was a big deal. I thought it was just as easy to use the USB cable to connect to my computer whenever I wanted to download anything. That was until I found that I could download lots of newspapers and magazines automatically using Calibre (another software), and setting up Calibre to automatically send the content to my Kindle. This is all done through wifi. Of course, with the Kindle you can also pay Amazon to deliver the content to your device, but I quite enjoy doing it myself for free. I have already downloaded Reader's Digest, PCWorld, US & World News Report, The Australian, and Daily Telegraph. There are lots more to choose from: USA Today, BBC, CNN, Business Week, Discover Magazine, Engadget, etc, just to name a few among the hundreds available.

I can always visit the Amazon bookstore through my wifi, choose any book to download, and go back to my reading. A few minutes later, the book is in my Kindle. If it is not a free book, I get to download the first chapter at no charge, with the option to purchase later if I like it. Just for fun, I downloaded the Koran.

As I read a book or an article, I can highlight it, add my own notes, and press two buttons to send it off to my Facebook (or to Twitter). This is particularly useful when you are reading a news article and you want to add your own thoughts to it and publish it in Facebook for all your associates to read. This is almost instant with wifi turned on.

Also thanks to the wifi, I can make use of Amazon's Whispersync to synchronize my reading on any Kindle device, be it on my computer, on my laptop or on the Kindle e-reader. This can be very handy, but I haven't really taken advantage of it yet.

I think Amazon did the right thing to put wifi and 3G into the Kindle. I think Sony made a mistake of not putting wifi into their entry-level e-readers. As for other e-readers in the market, some do have wifi, but they may not have the "ecosystem" (such as mentioned above) for the wifi to be used effectively.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cloud computing will reduce need for backups

As I tried to help a friend following a virus attack on his laptop, I realized that it is not easy for a non-technical person, especially of my generation, to be self-dependent on the use of a computer. Many people simply do not know what to do, from repairing the damage to recovering the data. This is where the importance of a good data backup strategy becomes painfully obvious.

This is what I do to safeguard my data. I do not claim this is the best, but it suffices for my needs. I have an image backup of my C: drive, which means I can easily re-create my whole computing environment (including all customizations) if my hard drive crashes; which it will eventually. I regularly back up all 340GB of my data onto another drive, which I store externally. This is set to run automatically on a nightly basis using a freeware called Syncback. I also have copies of the most important records burned into DVD's, which I keep in successive iterations.

Here is where we ought to think about cloud computing. Google Docs is a very good example. In the days of client-server, dumb terminals run off the server. If one terminal breaks down, you simply go to another terminal. Cloud computing is just like that. Google, in this example, provides the software for you to run a word processor, a spreadsheet, or a presentation. All your files are stored in the "cloud", which is the server or servers Google maintains. Your computer is just the "dumb" terminal. The great thing about this is, there is no need for all the back ups I mentioned above. There is no need to manage your computer, such as regular registry cleanups, disk defrag, spyware removal, and constant software upgrades. Incidentally, the iPads and the Android tablets show promise of what it takes to move into cloud computing.