Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year greetings

Today, on the last day of the year, we are going to hear a lot of new year greetings. But really, if one compares one year with another, generally half the time things get better and half the time things get worse. The reason for this is that life is cyclical. There will always be ups and downs. The new year is not going to be any different from the current year, so there is really no reason to feel all excited over nothing.

One thing, however, is always going to go up. This is not just a load of hot air; prices of things are always going up. Most of the time the advent of a new year triggers many price increases. It is as if businesses sees it as a given right to set a higher price at the start of each new year. Mostly without any justification, but simply because it has become customary to do so.

In view of all the impending price increases, why is everyone ushering in the new year with glee instead of gloom? Or with fireworks instead of getting fired up? I love the old year. I was younger, my hair was fuller, and prices were lower. Nevertheless, Happy New Year to you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Universal travel adaptor

When I saw going to the US earlier this year, it was really difficult to find an Aussie-to-US adaptor, except in some travel shops where they were ridiculously expensive. I managed to find this universal adaptor in Malaysia for RM17, less than a quarter of the price of an ordinary adaptor. I found it in an ordinary hardware store. Later that day, I found a large selection of universal adaptors in a departmental store in One Utama, but I still like this one best. Now, wouldn't it be perfect if it has a USB charger built in as well?

(The images show the two sides of the adaptor. One side shows all the pins fully extended. For Australia and US use, the pins can be turned at an angle)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Google Translate and the Tower of Babel

I recently received an email, written to me in English, but it was really meant for my mother who could only read Mandarin.

So I went to the Chrome Store and located the Google Translate app. It is installed as an extension on my Chrome browser. I opened up the said email and simply clicked on the translate extension. A menu bar appears on top of the screen and gives me the option to translate the page in any language at all. Changing the page to Chinese, I handed my notebook to my mother and she was able to read for herself. Apparently the translation is pretty accurate, judging by the fact that my mother didn't show any puzzled look. I am impressed!

Google Translate has just broken down the language barrier. If you don't consider this epic enough, you must read Genesis 11:1-9 (The Tower of Babel). God confused the language of man so that they could not complete building the tower. Have we just usurped God's action?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review of the Asus T100TA Transformer notebook

I have used my new "toy" for about two weeks now and I love it to bits. It is amazing how many different ways it transforms itself to suit my needs.

Form factor:
As a tablet, the screen itself weighs about 10% less than an iPad 3.
As a laptop, at just 1.44kg, it is about the lightest laptop you can find.
Assuming you are happy with a 10.1" screen (which I am), the display quality is impressive, albeit 1377x768 pixel in resolution and not full HD (but that's asking too much, considering I only paid less than AUD$600 for it). It even has touch screen.

It comes factory installed with Windows 8.1, and Microsoft Office Home Edition.
If you are into apps, Windows 8.1 has its app store to tap into.
If you are thinking of a Chromebook, just install Chrome and you can use it as a Chromebook.
For work, just switch into the regular Windows environment.

What makes this notebook particularly outstanding:
Processing speed. It uses the latest quad core Atom processor from Intel. I find this notebook performs just as well or better than my old desktop computer. Even when running photoediting in Lightroom.
SSD drive. In this age of cloud computing, who needs a large HDD drive? This notebook has 64GB SSD, which can be supplemented by another 64GB in a microSD slot. That is quite ample if you store your data in the cloud. I believe SSD is more robust than HDD when it comes to hauling the notebook around.

There is plenty more to say about why I so like the T100TA but I'll stop here before I drool over the keyboard.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Smartphone camera versus dedicated camera

While a smartphone camera is a practical one to carry; it is definitely practical to carry a dedicated camera.

Nowadays a top-of-the-range smartphone comes with a very capable camera indeed. In many cases the image quality is on par with that taken with a compact camera, if we are talking about sharing on social media, making prints, or even making a photobook. And I really mean just the top-of-the-range smartphones, if you are serious about image quality.

However, there is a good reason to buy a dedicated camera, say a compact point-and-shoot camera. The difference is in how fast you can shoot. I am talking about 4 kinds of "fastness".

1. It takes several moments to get the smartphone ready to shoot, whereas it is almost instantaneous with a dedicated camera. The same goes for video; a reasonably good camera nowadays has a dedicated video button. At anytime one can immediately press the video button to shoot video without changing the settings.

2. Focusing speed. A camera generally can focus faster. That is not only because it has a dedicated processor, but also because it has a dedicated shutter release button. You don't get that on a smartphone, unless you are buying the oddball Samsung Galaxy Camera (a hybrid between smartphone and camera).

3. Shot-to-shot speed. Once an image is taken, it is processed and saved in the camera. The smartphone takes a noticeably longer time to do this than even a budget point-and-shoot camera. Hence you can shoot many times over on a dedicated camera before your very obliging subject disappears.

4. Shutter lag. Shutter lag is becoming less of an issue with a good smartphone. This is the time between pressing the shutter release button and when the image is actually captured. Thus the reason for the half closed eyes and the faded smile.

For a photographer, there is another reason to use a dedicated camera, even when conditions are favourable for shooting with just a smartphone. The reason is image compression. For now, images from smartphones come only in Jpegs, whereas a good compact is able to shoot RAW. This allows the photographer more flexibility in post-processing work to improve the image; if nothing else, at least for exposure and white balance correction.

Monday, October 28, 2013

How to unclog your bathroom sink

Recently my bathroom sink was getting clogged. The water could only drain out very slowly. I had tried pouring sodium bicarbonate and vinegar into it, in the hope that that would work. Before long, the sink would have been fully clogged up and I would have to do what I did last time, which was to use a very long metal cable that snakes through the pipe from the exterior. It was very tough and dirty work and I was not looking forward to that.

Yesterday I came across this product called the "Drain Clean, Hair Unclogger". It costs about AUD$8 and I got it from Bunnings. Following the instructions, I poured about 500 ml into the sink and left it overnight. Yes, it is literally pouring money down the drain, but for a good cause! The sink is now unclogged and I am now able to leave the tap fully running. Mission accomplished.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Thy will be done

The one part of the Lord's prayer that intrigued me today was: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done".

An average human being wants everything his way. We are happy when things go right; when our children behave the way we want them to; or when our spouse behaves exactly the way we expect them to. We are happy when strangers follow all the rules of courtesy when we are present. We are happy when service providers render good service to us. However, as soon as things run contrary to our expectations, we become a different animal. A prayerful Christian might start to pray for OTHERS to change and become "good". We seldom think that it is we ourselves who need to change.

If we truly pray for God's will to be done, I think it is useful to look inwards. People around us will always fall short of perfection. If we are able to accept them for who and what they are, then we will begin to understand what we are praying for, and we will no longer be a sweet Christian when things go well, and an ugly sinner when the going gets ugly.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Travelling with a point-and-shoot and a flashgun

I have just returned home from a holiday in Malaysia and Jogjakarta, with about 2500 shots to show for. On this trip I took just my Lumix LX7 and my SB600 flashgun, which was used only in the manual mode. So what have I got to tell, as far as shooting satisfaction goes? 

First of all, let me qualify by saying that the shots were purely social shots (or record shots). The intent was to get properly exposed, technically good shots, rather than competition-quality shots (which is always difficult to do on a family event).

During this trip I had many opportunities to use the flashgun: a wedding dinner, inside a museum, just before sunrise and just after sunset, inside a batik factory, and an indoor social gathering. A high percentage of the shots were taken with the flash. 

Here is my experience. The flash-aided shootings went as well as I imagined they would be, but could be improved. For one, I think I should have kept the ISO fixed at 80 (the lowest possible in the LX7). I used the P mode, which worked quite well. On hindsight, it wouldn't have hurt to keep it in M mode with speed setting of 1/60s and aperture wide open.

In the following, the wedding dinner image was at ISO 100, the sunset was at ISO 100, the factory hand was at ISO 400, and the museum was at ISO 80. All were shot at speed 1/60s, with Stofen diffuser fitted on flash.

In the wedding dinner scene, a large sensor high-ISO camera would have been better, especially since the presence of large mirrors actually created an annoying flare in some of the other images when the flash fired. This LX7/flash combo worked alright, but only just. In the other scenes, I did not miss having my Nikon D700 with me, as the tiny LX7 was a joy to carry around (although not the fairly large flash gun). I did get a few looks from other photographers at the wedding, as I must have looked odd holding the LX7 on one hand, and the flash on the other.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:4 says: "Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” " By itself there seems nothing wrong with that declaration.

However, God saw differently. In Gen 11:6 "The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." Again, by itself this verse doesn't seem to contain any malicious intent on what man is trying to do.

In the context of what the gospel teaches, God wants us to be one body in Christ, not one body without Christ. By ourselves, through science, human beings can collectively do wonders. Just think how much the internet has accelerated human capacity to gather, and disseminate knowledge almost instantly. It is as if mankind is once more able to gather together in one place (via the internet) and virtually build anything the human mind can imagine. Without God in the picture, this is dangerous.  Many decades ago, we already have enough nuclear power to destroy the whole world. Now, through breakthroughs in genetic engineering, man may soon be able to clone another human being, or "create" new species of animals.

The more we advance scientifically, the more we are led to believe that we can do life without God or that there is no God. Yet all the advances of science cannot solve any of the basic problems that have prevailed since the dawn of time: wars, hungers, diseases, and social ills. People need God and God knows that. So it makes perfect sense to me now that in Genesis 11:6, God took a preemptive strike by confusing the people with different languages as they were trying to build the Tower of Babel . From then on they stopped building the tower and they scattered all over the earth.

The good news is, it was never God's intent to let us be perpetually scattered. God wants us to be united in Christ. Romans 12:5 says "... so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Father's house has many rooms

In the gospel of John, Chapter 14 verses 2-3, Jesus said, "My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

I once heard a child asking his parents how he is going to find them when they all die and go to heaven. Heaven must be such a big place that it will take forever to locate all your loved ones! Fortunately for us believers, we are not going to a strange new place, but to Jesus' own dwelling place in heaven. Jesus is there to prepare a place for us. What a comforting thought!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Arum lilies in my garden

Arum lilies are lovely subjects to photograph. The bright yellow stamen stands out against the white petals. The flower has lovely curves. The shiny green leaves provide a beautiful backdrop.

The plant itself is easy to cultivate. I planted a row of rhizomes some years ago, and every single one of them sprouted successfully without any care or attention. They even survived a dreadful drought without any watering at all.

When the flowers wilt, I simply cut away everything and leave only the rhizomes in the ground. When the growing season comes around, all the plants just appear like magic to charm you with many weeks of lily blooms.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My garden shed

I have just finished building this garden shed with the help of my son. Laying the concrete slab was a very back breaking job. We eventually got around to it after procrastinating for many months. Assembling the shed was the fun part, which we took just a day (yesterday) to complete. I spent half of today bolting it down to the concrete floor, as well as cleaning up the area.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Do you consume or create

The iPad started an era of unparalleled content consumption. Prior to the iPad, computers were mainly used for work or for creative activity. Content consumption, so proudly heralded by Steve Jobs with his iPad, is in my opinion a bane to mankind and should be reckoned with.

I still like my desktop PC. When I am at my desktop, most of the time I am doing something I consider a productive use of time. I might be researching into a subject, working on my images, paying bills and filing up the paperwork, or writing a blog as I am doing now.

On my smartphone, I find I am mostly squandering away time. I might be reading snippets of news, or the-mostly unsolicited emails from companies that I once bought something from; or deleting off those email "invitations" from friends who apparently do not have the faintest idea they were sending out invitations for me to join their social group (there should be a law against this!).

What about you? Are you a content creator or are you endlessly consuming content on the internet? If you are heavily on the content consumption end of the scale, beware that content consumption works in a self-feeding  vicious cycle. The more you indulged, the more you crave. Think about what better things you could be doing with your time.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Personalized mug from Harvey Norman

Got this from a Harvey Norman special for $5. What a deal!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cherry blossoms

I can imagine why poets and painters muse over the cherry blossoms. Even I cannot help but be mesmerized by its frail beauty as I clicked away happily at the cherry blossoms in front of my house this morning. The flowers bloom only once a year, and even then for only a couple of weeks. During this time, my eyes will feast hungrily at the sight of the beautiful blossoms. They remind me of a picture I once received of a beautiful girl posing next to the cherry blossoms.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who needs a smartcamera, anyway

First we have the smartphone. Then we have the smartTV. Now cameras are evolving into "smartcameras" as manufacturers race to add Android and wifi and internet features to their new cameras.

I was also caught up in that hype myself. I thought that it would be nice to be able to publish or email the images as soon as they are captured, all without going through a PC. I almost bought the Nikon S800C (Android camera) when it was first released. I was totally sold on the idea... until now.

With reference to my previous blog, it is all too easy to use an Android smartphone or tablet to view images from the memory card directly. This is more sensible than building Android capability into the camera. Putting Android into a camera adds cost but little benefit to a photographer who has a smartphone or a tablet. I would rather have a conventional camera. If I am away from home, I would prefer to use a tablet to view the images after a shoot. And I can still do everything I would have been able to do with a smartcamera (i.e. edit, email, share). Yes, all on a bigger screen than that of a camera.

How about wifi-enabled camera? I think there is also limited use for this. I was also quite enthused about the idea before. However, it takes several seconds for even a small file to appear on a remote screen after the camera snaps the picture. With a tethered cable, it is a bit faster, but again it is not instantaneous enough. I would rather view the images after a shoot, and selectively download what I want to keep. The rest is trash.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

View DSLR images on your Android

Here is an easy way to use your Android device to view images captured with a normal camera. You just need an OTG cable (see image below. You can get one for as little as AUD$1 on eBay). You would also need a card reader.

There are several image viewer apps you can use. I use the built-in "My Files" app. This app helps you to navigate around files and folders like you are used to on a PC. You can download any image from the USB/OTG-connected storage, and then "share" it via Gmail, Facebook, etc; or download selected images on to your Android.

Here is the step-by-step instruction. Remove the memory card from your camera and plug it into your card reader. Use the OTG cable to connect the card reader to your Android device. Open up the "My Files" app and click on the USB folder. You can now start to view your  images.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A purpose-driven life

Jeremiah 1:5 says:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

When we set out to create something, we usually have in mind what we want to do. If it is a painting, an artist will have a mental picture of what he wants to paint. If it is a designer, he will have pre-conceived the result he wants to achieve. Even before I became a parent, I had in mind what I hoped for my children to be like. I wanted them to love one another, to respect their elders, to get along well with others, etc.

It is therefore not inconceivable that God the Creator knew us before we were even formed in the womb. If we believe that our life originates from God, then we must also believe that our life has a purpose. One does not create something that is of no purpose or value.

I would like to think that everyone of us has a designated purpose. We just have to be aware of what that purpose is and then do our best at what we have been set apart for, all to the glory of God.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Portrait shot

Here is a simple portrait shot I did last Saturday.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mottled backdrop for studio portrait shots

The hardest thing about buying a mottled backdrop is deciding which colour you need. It is difficult to tell just by looking at it. Actual shooting is different. After tossing back and forth between a selection of colours, I decided to go for the one as shown here.

I tried out this backdrop last Sunday. I must say I am pretty pleased with the result, much to my relief!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Yongnuo YN560-II Flash Speedlite

This might be the best flash gun for those new to flash photography. A friend of mine loaned me this flash gun for a couple of days. This is a China-made product, costing under AUD$70 in eBay (new). Being a manual flash, it can be used with any camera as long as there is a way to trigger the flash.

Used off-camera, the flash is triggered by using a PC cable (in M or manual mode) or via the built-in optical sensor (S1 or S2; slave modes). Used on-camera, simply mount it onto the hot shoe of a camera and use the M mode.

Why I love this flash:
Very inexpensive.
Very simple to use.
Settings in 8 levels of flash intensity
Zoom setting of 24mm to 105mm
Guide number of 58 , as strong as the top end Canon or Nikon speedlites.

What this flash does not do:
There is no TTL mode
There is no built-in remote trigger
There is no high speed sync

I found that the optical sensor is not very consistent. If I use my D700 to trigger it, I have to set it to S2. While S1 also triggers the flash, only S2 will sync properly to light up the subject. On my LX7, it will trigger the flash only in S1 mode; however the flash is not in sync and the subject does not get lighted. Hence, try out before buying if you are counting on using the optical trigger.

What this flash is great for:
For beginners, this flash is very user-friendly. The interface is very basic. One can learn to control it almost rightaway. Great for anyone who is intimidated by the highly sophisticated and highly expensive proprietary top end speedlites, which can cost ten times more.

For advanced users, this flash is excellent as a second flash. For example, as a secondary light in a multi-light source setup. It is also great for use in a home studio, due to the ease of making manual adjustments.

Note: The 560-II has been superceded by the 560-III. The latter comes with built-in remote control. However, the user interface has also grown significantly more complicated. Personally, I would prefer the 560-II over the 560-III. For more sophisticated applications, I would go for top end proprietary speedlites.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Notes to myself: Focus stacking

Learning about photography techniques is not as good as actually doing it. Therefore I was glad I did not miss last night's educational night at the camera club. I learned to use the adjustment rails I bought quite a while back, but never put to use. The following image shows how the rails are put together to provide x-y movement. This inexpensive contraption can be used for focus stacking in macro shots. With an L-bracket added, it can also be used for panorama shots.

After shooting a set of images with varying focal points, the images have to be processed in Photoshop to combine into one image. Here are the steps to do focus stacking in PS:
1) Files>Scripts>Load files into stack (to load multiple images into layers in PS)
2) Edit>Auto-Align Layers (to align the layers in a focus stack)
3) Edit>Auto-Blend Layers (to blend the layers)

As an added bonus, I saw someone using an interesting camera app that night. This app is called DslrDashboard. This app allows me to use an Android phone to control my DSLR camera via a USB cable. It looks very interesting. I have installed the app but am waiting for my USB OTG cable to arrive before I can try out the app. I am hoping to be able to use the larger screen of an Android device as the LCD display for my shootings. Image viewing is but only one of a myriad of features this app is capable of. But don't hold your breath if you are not a Nikon user... DslrDashboard is primarily for Nikon, plus some Canon cameras. Even then, it is not for all models.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Renewing the Malaysian passport in Melbourne

Recently I took my wife to the new Malaysian consulate on St.Kilda Road to renew her passport. Here is what you need to know.

The address is: Level 1, 432 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne.
Tel: (613) 9573 5400

Map link: http://www.kln.gov.my/web/aus_melbourne/location_map
Roadside ticketed parking is quite ample when we were there at 9am on a Monday.

What you need to bring:
(a) Your old passport and your Malaysian identity card.

(b) 2 photos. See requirements: http://passport.my/Passport-Application/Malaysia_Passport_Photos_Size.htm

(c) Photocopies. Make 2 photocopies of the passport (just the photo page), 2 copies of the Australian visa page, and 2 copies of the front and 2 copies of the back of the Malaysian i/c.

If you don't have your photos, you can take the photo there for AUD$10 at the vending machine. If you forgot to bring photocopies of your documents, you can do the photocopying there for AUD$1 per page.

How long it takes:
We obtained and filled out the form at the consulate itself. Including wait time, we spent a total of 1 hour there. We were told to go back in 3 weeks' time to pick up the new passport.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ebook enhancements I would like to see

Ebook has certainly gained much grounds over printed books. There is no doubt that ebooks will replace most of printed books in time to come. With modern technology, I see no reason why ebooks cannot be further enhanced, other than simply imitating conventional books in electronic form.

For starters, how about including music and sound effects at various points in the book? I remember that as a child when I was reading children's books, I loved the illustrations. They helped to bring the story alive. If the ebook author could include a clickable music icon or a sound effect icon here or there, one could bring the sound to live as he continues to read.

Even video clips would add to the reading thrill. Say you are reading a book after a movie has been made or released. A video clip at selective points in the book will further bring the story to live. Or, if you are reading a biography, a video recording of the subject will bring the person to life. You will be able to see the person and hear his voice.

I would also like to see at the end of the book, a list or recommended readings by the same author, or of the same genre. This is already available in the back cover of many books. However, it can be enhanced now that it is far easier to include a far richer content in an ebook without being intrusive.

The technology is all available now. It is just a matter of taking advantage of it to re-invent the book.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kobo Mini vs Kindle

I have been using the Kindle Keyboard e-reader for some time. I simply love it. So I found it hard to justify buying the Kobo Mini, but the sale price of $48 (down from $109) was too good to resist. I caved in to this temptation. So what if it doesn't have the latest "glo" to illuminate the screen in the dark. (Oh, I might be tempted by that someday and buy my 3rd e-reader and become a collector)

Anyway, now that I have used the Kobo Mini for a few days, here is what I think of it. First, the physical size. One official review I read says the 5" touchscreen is neither big enough for reading at home, nor small enough for carrying around. Hence, it will not be very popular. I beg to differ. I love the size. I wouldn't want it any other way. Plus I love the aspect ratio.

Overall appearance. I think it looks really great. There is only one button, which is the power button. Everything else is touch screen. This gives it a charming simplicity. I chose white over the alternative black because it seems to go better with the simplicity theme. The silver backing on the white model is really nice.

The built-in 2GB of memory can store about 2000 books; much more than I can ever read. It has a built-in dictionary. I just need to tap on a word to see its meaning. The page turn is fast enough for me. The fonts are as crisp and clear as I can tell. Font, font size and line spacing are customizable. This e-reader is capable enough to satisfy almost anyone's reading needs, providing even annotation and bookmark capability. Page turn can be customize to touch on left edge or right edge to flip pages right or left.

Adding epub books to the Kobo is simply a matter of dragging from the PC to the Kobo when attached through USB cable. There is built-in wifi to sync my Kobo to other Kobo readers on the PC or a tablet. I don't really care about the wi-fi synching bit. I am not in the habit of reading any one book on several devices.

What I really like about the Kobo Mini over my Kindle is that the touch screen makes no clicking sound when I read in bed. Of course, the better featured Kindle has other bells and whistles, but for pure reading enjoyment, the Kobo pretty much has it all (save for LED illumination). I am sure the sale price I got indicates this model will soon be supplanted. Oh well! It is still a marvelous gadget.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The scourge of privatization of public enterprises

When I was a young lad and at a very impressionable age, I was schooled in the thinking that privatization leads to greater efficiency. I was taught that privatization brings greater benefits at lower costs, due to the inherent superiority of capitalism at work. When the government in Malaysia started to privatize one utility after another, I failed to see at that time what this was leading to. It gradually lead to massive outflow of wealth into the hands of a few private individuals. Yes, capitalism was certainly working very hard; but only for the benefit of the exclusive few. It was more like milking the economy for what it was worth.

I see the same thing happening in Australia, a first world country. I also see it happening in all the other developed countries, except perhaps in Singapore. The impact to the population is the same; costs keep rising as a result of privatization. In my work at the post office, people come in to pay their utility bills with wads of money. It is not unusual to see a few household bills add up to hundreds of dollars. At the same time, the same people might withdraw (usually) anything from $10 to $200 for their personal use. I cannot help but feel the bondage of modern slavery playing out before my eyes when I observe the huge difference between what goes into discretionary spending and what is fed into the ever growing profit margin of the privatized companies.

The problem with privatized companies making all the profits is that wealth being transferred over to private hands no longer returns to the public in terms of other public benefits, such as building infrastructure for a growing population. Ironically, the growing wealth in private hands only serves to bolster inflation, thus further aggravating the situation. So why is the government in such a hurry to privatize whatever is left to privatize? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, June 14, 2013

My Yamaha RX-V473 AV Receiver

I have just bought a new AV receiver to replace my 15 year-old Kenwood receiver. My new Yamaha RX-V473 AV receiver is just a notch above entry level in its range (sale price AUD$420) but it suffices for my needs. My old receiver simply lacks the connectivity for modern equipment, namely: LAN, HDMI, optical port, and USB. The new receiver has all these plus the old component video and composite video connectors. I am pretty happy with it and here is why.

Without going into the technical details, suffice to say that my receiver is now connected to my home network router, which allows me to use my Samsung phone and iPad as remote controls. It is also supposed to allow me to access internet radio, but I have not been able to get it running yet.(19/Jun/13 update: my Net Radio is working now! It has something to do with the network connection)

Of course I can now properly connect my plasma TV to the receiver to make full use of my 5.1 surround sound speaker system for TV, thanks to the available optical cable feeding audio back to the receiver.

HDMI allows me to connect my Blu-Ray player to the receiver for better video output than the ancient composite video RCA connector.

USB port allows me to plug a USB stick into the receiver. My entire collection of MP3 music can reside in one 32-GB thumb drive. My Android app can remotely switch on the receiver and play any song from my collection .

Sound quality on the Yamaha RX-V473 is as good as the reviews say. Not exactly an audiophile myself, I must say the sound system is as good as I can ever tell. My system as it stands now consists of the amplifier receiver as the hub, 5.1 speaker system, TV, and Blu-Ray player. I am so blessed!

(Note: Smart TV is another way to get LAN connectivity. Multi-HDMI ports in the TV can also provide for various game consoles and disc players, like what the receiver does. However, it is doubtful that any TV manufacturer will incorporate a high end sound system into even a high-end TV, for cost reasons. Hence the need for an AV receiver if you are after a more satisfying home theater experience.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Notes to myself: how to optimize Lightroom

Adobe has very good write-ups on things to consider when trying to improve the performance of Lightroom and Photoshop on the computer.The considerations include everything from HDD to RAM, to video card, to software configuration and settings. Adobe's websites also explain the why's and the how's.

For Lightroom optimization, see: http://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/kb/optimize-performance-lightroom.html

Here is a list of settings which has helped to make my Lightroom a lot speedier. The notes are taken from the above link.

1. Render 1:1 Previews on import or manually
On import: When "Import" is clicked, make sure the Render Previews is set to 1:1.
Manually: In the Library, select grid view. After selecting the photos to render, click Library>Preview>Render 1:1 Previews.

2. Catalog and Preview cache
Both are in the same folder buy default. Keep it that way. To see location, click Edit>Catalog Settings>File Handling. The location is set at the very first time Lightroom ever imports a file. To change the location, delete all files in the existing location. Lightroom will then prompt for location when you next import a file. To set default location, start the first import process, then click Quit before setting any new catalog location.

3. Keep standard size previews as small as possible,
but not smaller than the screen's resolution. My computer screen's highest resolution is 1280x1024. In Edit>Catalog Settings>File Handling, set Standard Preview Size to 1440, and Preview Quality to Medium or Low. Keep Automatically Discard 1:1 Previews at After 30 Days or never, but remember to delete if hard disk space starts running out.

4.Turn off Autowrite XMP
In Edit>Catalog Settings>Metadata, uncheck Automatically write changes into XMP.

5. Once in a while, optimize the catalog
Click File>Optimize Catalog...

6. Increase Camera Raw cache size.
Click Edit>Preferences>File Handling. Set Maximum Size to 20GB.
The location of the cache is also shown here.

For Photoshop optimization, see: http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/kb/optimize-performance-photoshop-cs4-cs5.html#main_Scratch_Disks

p/s Do a registry cleanup on the computer after changing the Catalog and Preview caches. This is important and necessary. How? Just google for "free registry cleaner". 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Are senior politicians a dying breed?

At least in the Australian context, mature-age politicians seem to be a dying breed (figuratively speaking, of course!). Many of our MP's have young children. Thus they are still preoccupied with raising a family while attending to the affairs of state. Finance Minister Penny Wong has just become a mother (or father?). Prime Minister Julia Gillard seems to be getting younger and younger on TV (botox or plastic surgery not discounted). She is 52. Her nemesis Tony Abbot is slightly older at 61. However, both Julia and Tony are like overgrown babies, judging by the name calling and mud slinging matches they display with gusto in Parliament.

Here is my point, seriously. Surely we have a wisdom deficit situation. From Federal Parliament to State Parliament, and down to the local councils, the average age of politicians is getting lower and lower. One (and there may be more) local councilor in my area was fresh out of university. Surely we could use people with more experience and wisdom that comes with age.

The Victorian State government recently awarded itself a 15% pay rise, while the state is travailing in growing unemployment and budget deficit. This monkey-see-monkey-do business is simply apeing what the Federal government is doing. Just three months after awarding itself a hefty pay increase, the federal MP's were awarded another 3% increase*. The justification? It could not be for a job well done, or for balancing the budget, or for building a better future for all Australians (writer's opinion). Back to my point; when you expose kids to a cookie jar, they are going to help themselves big time.

I categorically deny that older politicians will automatically make better politicians. My point is that surely we could use more wisdom in our leaders, and wisdom normally takes time to develop in a person. I, for one, would love to see that our local council is staffed with mature-age, experienced, and wise people who are more keen to promote community welfare than their own career. Likewise the State and Federal parliaments. Would you rather travel in a plane flown by a matured, experienced pilot, or by someone who is still clocking up flight time?

*see: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/anger-over-mps-pay-rise-20120704-21gfu.html

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Best way to roast chestnut

I must say I feel pretty confident that I have finally cracked it (pun intended). After trying to roast chestnuts year after year, I think I have finally gotten it right. The shell and the skin comes off easily on more than 90% of the chestnuts I have roasted on the last three occasions this autumn season. Here is how to do it right.

Basically there are three things to consider: choosing the best chestnuts, making the right slit, and roasting at the right temperature and duration.

Buy fresh chestnuts. Cut open, the nut should not look dried or dark. It should look fresh and yellowish. I prefer not to get the giant chestnut as they are less tasty than the regular-sized ones.

Before roasting, you have to make a slit on the shell. Do not slit at the pointed end (I have tried and failed). Do not slit in the side (also tried and failed). Just make a slit across the bottom of the nut (this is the the key to success!). First, wash the nuts. Next, holding the flat side with your thumb, rest the nut on a chopping block. Then holding a sharp paring knife with the other hand, cut a slit across the bottom of the nut. Do this for all the nuts.

Preheat the oven to 210 deg C. Spread the nuts on a tray and roast for 20 min. The exact duration may very plus or minus a few minutes depending on your oven. Before taking out from the oven, check that the shell has started to crack open, revealing the beautiful edible part inside. When properly roasted, the shell should come off easily, along with the skin covering the edible part of the nut. If the skin does not come off easily, try roasting a bit longer.

The nuts are easiest to shell soon after removing from the oven. Do not wait for them to cool down. Try it and surprise yourself how easy it is to get it right.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Alfred Nicholas Memorial Garden

The Dandenong Ranges are still full of unexplored sites for me. Take for example the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens. I have heard it being mentioned many times before, but I have never visited it until now. Bathed in the colourful splendour of autumn, this is simply a must-see place for any photographer. You have to be fit enough to make the almost one kilometer long steep walk down to the lake and back (which I still am, obviously). In the absence of other visitors, the isolation and serenity of the lake feels truly magical. Enjoy the pictures!

Monday, May 27, 2013

My Apple Store experience

I went to the Apple Store today with my wife. She was there to see if Apple can do something about certain software faults in her iPad that only surfaced recently. As I looked around the store, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. Sure, there are many other customers in the shop, and all of them seemed to be promptly attended to by the almost-equal number of Apple staff. The store looks bright and the staff are friendly.

I pondered why I didn't have the same thrill as the other customers. I normally love to browse in a computer shop; but I didn't feel that way in the Apple Store. In a regular computer shop or in an electronics shop, I am surrounded by products from many different manufacturers. Every product will have more than one manufacturer vying hard for my equally hard-earned dollars. I am in control there and I decide what is best for me.

In the Apple Store, I felt like a dumb consumer. Apple decides what is best for me. I just have to utter what I want to do and Apple will do the rest to get me equipped. This is not a geek hang-out place; I felt that the only geeky-looking people are the Apple staff. Their clients are all seeming newbies in a high-tech arena. I must say I felt out of place. I wonder if the Apple staff are trained to talk to people at the client's level of competence, rather than assume everyone is a noob.

Perhaps the Apple Store is designed for the segment of the public that still feels phobic about using a computer or a handheld device. The Apple Store doesn't quite work for me. Give me a regular computer shop any time.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The cheapest good camera

According to a Bill of Materials report (re: IHS iSuppli Research, March 2012), the camera component of the iPad3 costs only US$12.35. On the iPad2, it costs even less; US$4.10. Of course, I am sure this only refers to the lens and sensor components. The other costs of the iPad3 : display ($87), touchscreen ($40), processor ($23), battery ($32), and so on. But my point is, it only costs $12.35 for Apple to include a really good camera in the iPad3. No doubt it also costs Samsung and others more or less the same amount to include a good camera into the tablet or smartphone.

As for the quality of the images taken by a high end smartphones (i.e. iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, Sony Xperia, etc), they are now comparable to images taken by most point and shoot cameras. Image quality is no longer the differentiator. The web-publishing features and carry-anywhere convenience of a smartphone is what counterbalances the advantages of a faster turn-on time, longer battery life and the zoom lens in a P&S (point-and-shoot) camera. Even video shooting on a smartphone has caught up with the P&S world.

To underscore the coming of age of "iphoneography", the Australian Photographic Society is launching its inaugural Mobile Phone Photography Showcase in July 2013.

So if you ask me today what is the cheapest good camera to buy, I might tell you to look no further than to upgrade your smartphone or tablet. Or, if you are an Apple aficionado, your iPod, iPhone or iPad. The only caveat is, what is your image making goal?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The customer is always right: wrong!

Whoever came up with the maxim "The customer is always right" cannot be a very perceptive person. How can anyone always be right? We are all human and we all make mistakes, whether you are on this side of the cash register or on the other side. The silly notion that everyone must always give in to his customer should be dispelled once and for all. I have seen many "ugly"(as in character) customers who don't deserve to be served at all. Such customers are best served by self-checkout counters.

A CEO who imposes this maxim on his staff  is certainly out of touch with reality. As a result of this silly directive, his staff will have to endure abuse from the public.The public expects to get away with it, while the hapless staff gets berated for not providing "customer satisfaction". No, I do not agree at all that the customer is always right.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Notes to myself: Insights into black-and-white photography

The talk at the camera club tonight taught me what a novice I am at black-and-white photography. I realize that up until now all I know about making black and white images are just the methods and not the skill. (It is like learning to drive a car. You can learnt to operate a car in a few minutes. But it takes years of practice before you become good at it).

The speakers tonight are from the Ringwood Black-and-White Camera Club. They have been doing it since the film and darkroom days. Here are some useful tips I have picked up tonight. They are not all new or astounding, but I have gained a clearer insight.

1. We "see" images with our brain and not our eyes. The brain has an uncanny ability to just focus in on any subject and filter out everything else. B&W simply helps us to focus better than colour images on the artwork in an image. Colour distracts.

2, The eye has more green receptors than red or blue receptors. Also, in dim light, the black-and-white receptors are more effective than the colour receptors. Therefore in dim light we see things more or less in B&W. When an image is presented in B&W, our perception is heightened, just like when the light is dim, all our senses are in high alert. I don't know how true this is scientifically, but it makes sense.

3. Not all subjects lend themselves well to B&W. Rainbow, colourful flowers, and sunset are examples of what won't do well in B&W. As in colour images, a B&W photographer knows what type of shots to go after.

4. In B&W conversion, it is necessary to control the R, G, and B channels separately to bring out the contrast successfully. (Not sure if this is due to the fact our eyes have more green receptors than red or blue receptors). Just moving the contrast slider is not good enough. Also, make use of colour filters and dodge and burn tools to do selective toning.

5. A B&W image is better at evoking an emotion in the viewer. Therefore a successful B&W image is one that can evoke an emotion.

In summary, the beauty of B&W, done properly on a suitably chosen subject, can turn an ordinary image into a piece of art, just like some of the portrait images I saw tonight.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Autumn in the Dandenongs

My wife and I went for a drive up the Dandenongs today. The deciduous trees are simply ablaze with the colours of autumn.We made a number of stops as we drove. I managed to capture some pretty looking houses, accentuated no doubt by the colourful autumn foliage. The sky was constantly threatening to rain but fortunately it held on long enough for us to make the drive up there worthwhile.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Digital photo frame app

When the digital photo frame was first introduced about a decade ago, I really thought it was a great idea. It can continuously display a set of images, perhaps even accompanied by soft background music. It saves the trouble of making prints and hanging up pictures. Speaking as a photographer, I thought that was a must-have accessory. As it turns out, I have never found it compelling enough to buy one even as the prices keep coming down and the display quality keeps getting better.

Last night, while fiddling with my newly updated Android OS, I was intrigued enough to try out the in-built Picture Frame app on my Galaxy phone. It wasn't to my satisfaction. So I did a search on Google Play and installed the free Animated Photo Frame app. It has just the features I like:

o You can launch the widget and have it permanently displayed fully on a screen.
o While fully displayed, you can play it in slideshow mode or manually click to change.
o You can select and change albums anytime.
o You can shuffle the images to display.

Just a word of caution when you install this. You need to restart your Android once immediately after installation for the app to appear.

Now I can enjoy viewing my own photo gallery each time I take out my smartphone. I really don't need a regular digital photo frame to put on public display. This one is for my own personal enjoyment.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Blessed are the peacemakers

I was thinking over this today. Why are peacemakers called blessed? After all, peacemakers actually run into a lot of personal attacks while trying to get two opposing sides to see eye to eye. Peacemakers can be accused of taking sides. Or, they are accused of not really understanding the problem at hand. So what blessing is bestowed upon the peacemakers?

In the Bible, in Matthew 5:9, Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God". Jesus did not say the peacemakers shall receive this or that. In the other blessings, Jesus said "...theirs is the kingdom of heaven", "...they will be comforted, "...they will inherit the earth", "...they will be filled", "...they will be shown mercy", "..they will see God".

Peacemakers, on the other hand, will be called children of God. The reward of peacemakers is not something material or spiritual. It is a recognition that they are children of God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Baby photo shoot

I did a photo shoot for some friends last week. This is my first attempt at "semi-pro" type of work and I am glad it turned out well. Here are my favourite shots of the day.

Baby and family friend

Baby surrounded by friends

Baby and Mum

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One afternoon at the Pirianda Gardens

 I love the beautiful colours of autumn. Mt Dandenong is one of my favourite places to visit at this time of the year. It is just less than half an hour's drive from my house. The drive up the Dandenongs is a treat in itself. You will get to see many beautiful plants resplendent in dazzling colours, especially under bright sunlight.

At the Pirianda Gardens, we had a little picnic under a pine tree. The cut logs make a wonderful set up for a woodlands feel, while the coffee mugs and jacket add a rustic touch. A woodcutter's axe would have completed the pictures below, so to speak. These pictures were taken with an iPad.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Club outing to Woodlands Homestead

Last Sunday we had a club outing to the Woodlands Homestead, which is located outside the Tullamarine Airport. This 1700-acre property is home to retired champion race horses. The facility is maintained by government grants, horse owners, and the fee-paying public. It is also home to more than a thousand wild kangaroos. From the homestead we were transported by a mini bus to a remote section of the property where we had a field day shooting in the outback. Here are some photos I took.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The mistake of overselling

Would you like fries to go with that? Would you like to up-size your meal? Those are familiar questions to try and oversell you a meal at McDonald's. Sometimes overselling can be a mistake, as the following shows.

My wife and I went shopping for a watch for our daughter while we were in Miami. After picking out one, we proceeded to the payment counter. The cashier, with good intentions no doubt, asked if we would like to also buy three batteries at a special price of $10. My, was that her biggest mistake of the day! Immediately my mind sobered up. I asked, "How often do I need to change the batteries?" An uncomfortable moment followed. I quickly realized that I didn't want the watch after all. A watch is not something my daughter is going to wear all the time. If she has to change the battery every other time she wears it, it is going to be very troublesome. Needless to day, I didn't buy the watch. I beat a hasty retreat while trying to be as gracious as possible. We got out of the place as quickly as we could. I hope the watch seller realizes that trying to sell their customer batteries when they buy a watch is a big no no. Can you imagine buying a parachute that comes with a special on parachute-repair-kit?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Serving the poor in Cambodia

My son sent me these pictures from Cambodia. He is there on a short stint with a non-profit organization providing dental treatment to people who I presume are poor and in need. I am happy for him because I think the greatest gift one can give to another is that which the other person needs the most. Think of it this way: if you give $100 (in cash or service) to a rich man, that will not mean much to him. but if you give $100 to a penniless man, it means the world to him.

I cannot find anywhere in the bible that compares giving to the poor versus giving to the rich. However, this is almost like the story of the poor widow in the Gospel of Mark 12:41-44, except from the perspective of the receiver. (In that passage, Jesus observed a poor widow giving just a few copper coins to the temple treasury. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on" ). In that sense, if one has no material possessions, he is going to be grateful for even a small little gift.