Thursday, March 31, 2011

Self portrait

I have always liked to make my portraits look like a painting. Here's one that I thought came out quite well, so I added my signature to it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts about video calling

I have installed Skype on my multimedia computer, which is hooked up to our main TV set. I have made a total of one video call to a niece since installation about 2 months ago. Last night I made one call to my son, who had just installed Skype at my urging. I wonder how many video calls I will be making after this (not many?).

When Skype was newly introduced eons ago, I thought it was a revolutionary idea. I thought it would eventually replace regular voice calls. After all, don't we want to see the other person face-to-face when we talk? When you watch futuristic sci-fi movies like Startrek, you see the characters making video calls on their PDA-like device. Isn't this the future of communication?

Somehow, that's not the future as we envisioned it to be. It is still going to belong to voice calls. People still prefer to talk into the phone without seeing the other person. It is as if we can concentrate better if we just focus on the conversation and not having to digest all the visual information as well. With video calling quality now at its best on the Apple Facetime, I still doubt that even Apple can revolutionize the world in this instance. But I could be wrong...

Why the camera club is a great place to be

When people get together, what do they talk about? It is said that men tend to talk about sports and politics. Well, I am not into sports. As for politics, there's only so much you can talk about before it becomes a broken record that spins endlessly on the same gripes. Some talk about money; the share market and investment opportunities. I am not into the share market and I am past the age where I am too keen about risky investments or new business opportunities.

Here is why I enjoy being at the camera club. Although we talk about many things, we have one overriding subject that is everybody's passion. Just mention anything to do with photography and all ears are instantly pricked. We talk about the things we love, places or events. Invariably, that leads to talking about our photography experience and how we captured the beautiful images. Well, to be honest, they are not always stunning images, but they sure mean a lot. We encourage one another and we help one another in whatever areas of need. There is no envy, no bitching, no ulterior motives. Everyone is equal; we are not interested in social status. We don't discuss about other people's wealth or material possession. When we go on outings, we stay at caravan parks or other low cost accommodation. Nobody has to feel left out, whether young or old, male or female, novice or accomplished photographer.

You might imagine that class distinction definitely comes into play as far as camera gear is concerned. Of course there are members who own expensive gear while others are equipped with entry-level equipment. In the more-than two years that I have been with the club, I have learned to be less and less concerned about what camera I have or use. I personally find that it is more gratifying to be able to use what I have and still produce good images, than to be equipped with high quality lenses and not really pushing the boundaries of photography with them. In fact, I am still using my kit lens (read: *inexpensive*), while my very expensive ones (bought when I thought I really needed those to take great images) are still lying fallow.

In the club we see each other without any imaginary age, race, or social status "filters". That is why I think the camera club is a great place to be. If you have a passion for photography, join a club.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Club outing to Marysville

I wish I had seen Marysville before the big bush fire wiped it out two years ago, in an event remembered as Black Saturday. It is only a 75km drive from my house and is very well worth more than one visit. The town is rebuilding itself now. Beautiful deciduous tress have come back to life and the autumn season promises to turn the town into the colorful and charming place it once was, although minus all the quaint old buildings. Those have been razed to the ground. Some new buildings have come up and businesses are operating once more.

Marysville has a lot to offer to visitors. Just outside Marysville, one gets to enjoy the scenic landscape of pastureland on the rolling hills. Like Bright (another scenic town in Victoria), it has snow fields in nearby Lake Mountain for winter sports. At other times, one can visit the waterfalls, which is what our club did yesterday. A lovely river meanders slowly behind what was once the busiest part of the town. There is a spanking new caravan park just behind the new shopping center, with BBQ pits for families to enjoy a relaxing time away from home. I had a great time and I look forward to taking my family there to enjoy this beautiful place.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Photography market

Today is the first time I visited a photography market. It was definitely well worth the visit. I picked up a slide projector for song. This beauty is in brand new condition. I got it for just AUD$80. I tested it out just now and it works perfectly.

(I have wanted to get a slide projector for a long time, as I have lots of slides taken about 25 years ago. The slides are mouldy now but I can still enjoy them. It is like I have just taken them out of a time capsule, viewing them for the first time since I took them years ago. I have hesitated on buying a slide projector until now because I couldn't bring myself to pay a about $300 to purchase from a shop, knowing that I wouldn't be shooting anymore slides. However, at $80 a pop and with the trays thrown in, I couldn't resist taking it home.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

My hot water system

My hot water system broke down at about the same time the terrible earthquake in Japan struck. I first noticed water running down my driveway when I came back from work. One quick look at the water gushing out from inside the hot water system was enough to convince me it was time to have it replaced. As it happened on Friday evening of the Labor Day long weekend, I braved myself with cold showers for the next few days.

Going without hot water for a few days was a good experience for everyone, as we all agreed. Getting into the shower on a cold day had never been pleasant. The thought of feeling cold already sent shivers down my spine each time before I even removed my clothes. Things changed, however, as soon as we installed our new hot water system. It actually felt good to walk into the shower, with the knowledge and assurance that when I turn the tap I would get - voila - hot water! The colder the day is, the more I can now appreciate the warm showers of blessing!

Food for thought: the next time you don't enjoy your food, think about going on a fast. If you feel discontented with your house, go camping or sleep in a caravan for a while. Or if you think your car is not good enough, try walking or take public transport for a while. Life never feels so good as when you have experienced what it is like to go without.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Getting good referrals

Many of us like to ask our friends to refer to us their tradesman, mechanic, physician, or dentist when we need such services. This helps to reduce the chances of landing up with poor service, high cost, or both. However, one still has to exercise wisdom in making the choice when given the choice of several recommendations.

Let's say a friend recommends his mechanic to you, based on a very pleasant experience. His car did not give any problem; it was just a routine service. The mechanic was jovial and friendly. The charges were reasonable. The job was completed quickly and your friend walked away feeling good.

Let's suppose another friend had a different experience with his mechanic. During a routine service, the mechanic found some problems that could affect the reliability of the car. This coincided with your friend's lingering suspicion, so he knew the mechanic was telling the truth. The mechanic was knowledgeable. He explained the problem clearly and he outlined the charges professionally. He was understanding about budget constraints and he gave several options for the repair, while not pushing your friend to have it done.

Comparing the above two examples, your first friend would have given his mechanic a rave review, while the second one may not be so enthusiastic since his visit to the mechanic cost him a bomb (and I don't mean his car).

When looking for a good referral, you need to ask why the person thinks the service provider is good. What kind of experience has he had? Had there been any difficult situations? How did the service provider go about it? Was your friend happy with the charges? Were there any surprises? The best referrals are those based on actual encounters with difficult or unexpected problems, and how the service provider had handled it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Start up costs in photography

Coincidentally, in the last couple of weeks three people have asked me about buying an SLR camera. Taking up photography as a serious hobby can cost quite a bit. It is good to put the various costs into perspective so that one can see the whole journey ahead before taking a shot at it (pun intended)

Buying the SLR is just the first in a series of purchases you are going to make. But hang on; don't go buying everything until you grow into it. You'll appreciate it more when you acquire the pieces carefully and with great discernment over time.

First, the lens. You probably will start off with the kit lens, which is good. I have a zoom kit lens (18-105mm) which I use almost all the time and I still find it adequate for almost all my needs. Over time, when you find yourself venturing into different genre you will find it useful to buy just what you need. There are lenses to suit closeups, portraits, landscape, sports, and wildlife - to name the common ones.

You will need the basic accessories: a proper camera bag, an extra battery, a large memory card. These things will last you years, so get good ones. A good camera bag cushions your camera and lenses. An original battery is more dependable than third party ones. A good quality memory card ensures you don't lose your images. Conservatively, these could set you back about AUD$250 in total.

Every serious photographer needs a tripod. A good basic one costs about $300 (Manfrotto 190XPROB, with head and adapter).

You will learn to appreciate the use of a polarizer and perhaps other filters. These can be added to your gear over time. A flash gun will be useful too, when you need to take photographs at a function. A good flash gun is worth investing in, as it can last you over the lifespan of many cameras. A top of the line one costs about AUD$650-$850.

At this time, I would assume you already have a suitable computer with adequate hard-disk space and processing power for image editing.

Brain speed

The brain works in a mysterious way. It is as if the more you work on a certain set of problems, the more the neurons get connected, thereby speeding up your ability to think fast. Thinking fast leads you to move fast.

Don from our local dance academy used to talk about brain speed. He tells his students that they have to develop brain speed when learning to dance. It is not about dancing quickly. Rather, it is about thinking quickly what the next step is going to be and doing it right. You cannot learn to dance by just memorizing all the steps. You won't have enough brain speed to keep up with the music.

We can apply this to many instances. When a person learns martial arts, he is actually building up brain speed at the same time. His hands and feet have to move fast to a prescribed set of movements. In combat, a good fighter moves at a speed that is much faster than an average person. The speed does not come from his physical condition alone, but more so from a trained brain speed. That is what gives him the fighting edge.

If you are a guitarist, you will realise how difficult it was to change the chords when you first started learning. After a lot of practice, you can do so effortlessly. I am sure this applies to a drummer, a pianist, or any other musician. It is all about developing brain speed.

I used to tell my children that when they are learning maths, they have to practise in order to develop brain speed. It is not enough just to know how to solve a set of problems. They also have to be able to think fast. The only way to achieve this is through practice.

As I teach my daughter to drive, I tell her that what she is practising is brain speed. When she makes judgment on when to cross the road, she has to process all the information about the traffic condition quickly. A new driver cannot think and respond as fast as a seasoned driver. A seasoned driver can brake, switch gears, turn on the lights, honk, etc., almost simultaneously when needed to. A new driver will be exposing himself to danger if he or she so much as holds a coke in his hand.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The car

It is only when you send your car for service that you will realize how indispensable the car is. It is like going on a fast; suddenly life takes on a strange perspective without the use of a car. This is intolerable, your inner self probably tells you. You want to get out of the situation as soon as possible. Once you are back on the road again, literally speaking, you'll quickly forget the inconvenience you have just endured. You'll happily go back to your life, reassured that your car will be at your disposal at all times once more.

Everyone's life revolves around the car as soon as he is qualified to drive. Without the car, one cannot go to work, socialize with friends, or simply shop for necessities. We have all become accustomed to a car-dependent lifestyle.

How has humanity managed to become so dependent on the car? I think it is a matter of conscious choice. Until recent years, China has been largely a nation of bicycles. This proves that bicycles are a viable alternative to cars as the primary means of transport. One day I am going to make the switch away from the car. The car is still a necessity at times, but when I can help it (target: 90% of the time), you will see me on a motorized bicycle or a motorcycle. That's a promise. And if I can spur another person to do the same, that's much more than what Julia Gillard has done for the environment.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Carbon Tax and Emissions Trading Scheme

Someone asked me what the Carbon Tax is all about. Also, closely related to that is the ETS, or Emissions Trading Scheme. Here is a link which will give you a very clear idea of what these are about:

Briefly, Carbon Tax is just a tax on the amount of carbon dioxide that an industry produces, while ETS is like the COE (certificate of entitlement) practised in Singapore. Like the COE, the government issues permits for X amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted. If the permit is used up, the company has to buy more permits, perhaps in the open market, where permits can be freely trade.

My say: the intent is good, which is to force industries to be more conscious of the amount of CO2 it produces, and to take steps to reduce it. That is where all the good stops: just good intent. The implementation of it is pure nonsense; it is just another tax revenue for a government that has lost its ability to manage the country within a given budget. Don't listen to all the spin Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard are busy churning out. When any country has to make a choice between polluting the air or keeping factories running, which country will sacrifice for the environment? Julia Gillard will tax Australian companies into oblivion while every other developing country will happily keep their factories running at lower operating costs (no carbon tax). No other country has agreed to do this in their own country, so why does Julia Gillard think she is so "clever"?

Before Labor Government implements this harebrained scheme, I would like to see what comprehensive plans it has for saving the environment. Is it going to build an efficient public transport system, so that people are less reliant on cars to go to work? Is it willing to penalize owners of gas guzzlers by increasing the road tax for big capacity engines while subsidizing "green" cars? Is it going to make all government vehicles small and "green", to show that it is serious? Will it build bicycle tracks and encourage the use of motorized bicycles to replace cars for commuting? Enough of carbon tax spin. This is worse than a direct form of tax because not only will the general public eventually have to pay its cost, but manufacturing industries themselves may perish in the process. In a twisted way, perhaps this is the fastest way to reduce emissions.

I wish for.... a videophone

I wonder how many people would be keen to replace their home phone with a videophone if one is available for the price of a modem (~AUD$100?). Perhaps the reason why it is so uncommon is that there is no demand for it. Yet I would be the first to look seriously into it if it were available. All the technology that is required to produce a simple videophone for the mass market it is already here, so why isn't anyone making it?

This is how I think it could work. Of course, it needs to be connected to the internet. As with Skype, one can choose to either make a voice call or a video call. Suppose this is simplified so that one begins by making a voice call. Then upon request, he can press a button and his video image will appear at the other end, and vice versa.

Yes, I am really hoping that the next evolution of the home telephone will be a simple videophone. I emphasize on "simple" because that is the only way to make it appealing to even the most technophobic individual; the proverbial grandma or grandpa. As with voice recorders, perhaps one might even be able to record a video clip of the conversation, for playback if grandma misses seeing her grandchildren.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mini Wireless Keyboard N5901 (AUD$99)

I have recently commisioned one of my old computers to use as a media center. One of my old computers has been upgraded with a new VGA card (~AUD$50), so that I can use my big screen TV as the display. I can now watch Youtube, play DVD's, or make Skype video calls. It is quite a different experience than doing all these things at the desk top.

The only other thing I really needed to complete my media center was to be able to use the keyboard and mouse wirelessly from the couch. Today I found exactly what I have been looking for. It is a mini keyboard that incorporates a trackball mouse. It handles just like a remote. In fact, after a bit of handling you would think of it as a remote rather than a keyboard. It connects to the PC wirelessly via a USB nano dongle. And it works right out of the box.

The beauty of this gadget is that it is small enough to operate on one hand. It has all the keys that are found on a regular keyboard, plus multimedia keys for sound volume, play, pause, etc. The USB nano dongle can be kept in a holding slot in the battery compartment if storage is required. It uses just 2 AAA batteries, and there is a switch to turn the keyboard off to prolong battery life. I am convinced this gadget is just the thing everyone needs to truly enjoy multimedia PC from the couch.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wishful thinking vs positive thinking

We all have wishful thoughts. Instead of looking at what we have been blessed with, we often look at what we lack. Soon after I first bought my D90 SLR two years ago, I often had wishful thoughts about other cameras. I wasn't 100% happy or contented, until I learned to appreciate my camera for what it can do, and not what it cannot do.

I must admit there are moments when I wished I had a different camera. I've always had this feeling that Canon's rendering of colour would suit my taste better. At other times I wished I had gone straight into buying a full frame SLR, such as the D700. Of course, that would have cost 3-4 times more than the D90. The feeling of making the wrong choice of camera has been exacerbated by several important points in my photography life.

The first was White Balance control. Buying the D90, I misled myself into thinking that I would achieve perfect WB. When that didn't happen, I blamed the camera. Now I realize that no camera can give you perfect WB. Not even the top end ones. I have made my peace with WB control.

Next was exposure control. Some cameras actually gives a more pleasing exposure when shot in semi-auto mode. I was not very happy with the D90 in this respect. Until now. I have learned that many seasoned photographers use the exposure compensation button all the time. I have learned to do the same myself, so this D90 nuance doesn't bother me anymore.

Of course, the APS-C sensor will still have the 1.5 crop factor, no matter what. That cannot be helped. I still cannot make full use of wide angle lens, nor get the shallow depth of field, nor use very high ISO, such as can be achieved with a full frame SLR. However, the D90 has stood up well and I am beginning to appreciate it for what it can do. That, I think, is the most important lesson in my photography journey. I have stopped imagining I could shoot better pictures by getting a better camera (and I know that's a false proposition). Instead, I now focus on what I can do with my D90 (and I know there's still lots more room to grow!).