Archive for April, 2006

DIY Film Can Flash Diffuser

I was approached recently to take some pictures at an event. I’m not going to go into the details because the whole idea was both remarkably flattering and a little terrifying, and there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed to admit that I even considered it for a second.

By way of comparison: When I was approached to write a book, I had no idea how book-writing worked and so was flattered, but not particularly terrified (until later down the road, when good sense caught up to me and it was far too late to back out anyhow).

This proposition had me feeling none of the hubris of the day I woke up and said “Yes … I am an author and I will take money from those who have finally recognized this fact.” More just a sense of preemptive flop-sweat that had me imagining the horrible things that could go awry, even as I knew reflexively it was something best avoided.

On the other hand, the matter spurred some exploration of how to fix one of the more vexing problems in point-n-shoot photography, which is how to deal with the god-awful built-in flashes and what they do to the subjects that cross their paths. There aren’t a lot of choices out there, but an issue of Popular Photography came last week that made mention of the Lumiquest Soft-Screen flash diffuser. At $12.95 it’s cheap, but it also looks kind of huge and unwieldy, plus right there on the product page there’s mention that it doesn’t always work with all bodies and might require a velcro mounting kit.

DIY Filmcan Flash DiffuserSo I went wide with Google and quickly came across a DIY popup flash diffuser made from a translucent film canister. A visit to the basement for a rustle through a shoebox netted me three. A few seconds with an x-acto knife and a black marker got me my very own. A few test shots (not to be presented, because they involve a doughy nerd staring fixedly into a camera while he waits for the self-timer to pop) showed that it works really well. Skin tones don’t bleach as badly and shadows are softened considerably.

And yes … that’s me with a blue sweatshirt over my head to help contrast the diffuser a little better. The iMac’s built-in iSight looks really good when it’s just taking pictures of people, but you come to realize some of that goodness is because it isn’t the sharpest camera in the world.

It Was the Best Of Software …

I’m not clear on what’s what, exactly, with all this, but some more software notes:

  • fink remains stalled at the “Not ready for Macintel boxes” stage. DarwinPorts, on the other hand, has a UB installer in place. You could argue that a ports-oriented lifestyle is a big drag because of all the delayed gratification you have to endure. Just remember that these are your tools … Anduril wasn’t forged in a day, dude. Just don’t go too far with that.

  • Getting over my resistance to running X11 on a Mac has opened up a few more doors: I hate Excel, but Gnumeric runs lickety-split. It takes a little while (with DarwinPorts) to build up the libraries needed, but I just moved the terminal where that was going on over to the secondary display and forgot about it.

  • mutt:

    • lbdb can be set to talk to the OS X Address Book, via DarwinPorts

    • the DarwinPorts mutt is broken, but building from source works o.k.

    • get the msmtp port for a lightweight smtp listener that’s easy to configure

    • use the dev branch of mutt to get IMAP header caching, which makes mutt scream with remote IMAP

    • elinks makes a nice HTML mail viewer, if you must, via DarwinPorts. Just put this in your .mailcap:

      text/html; /opt/local/bin/elinks -dump %s; copiousoutput; nametemplate=%s.html

It was the worst of software ….

In other news:

  • Skype released a universal binary at long last. Sadly, it bounced once then quit. The Skype OS X forum is aflame.

  • Parallels came out with beta 5 of its virtual workstation. Ordinarily this might belong under “best of software,” since it now handles full-screen mode with the actual widescreen resolutions of both my displays, but it also created a monstrous tmp file of some sort that actually ran the machine out of both physical and virtual RAM, crashing a few processes and driving me to a reboot to make the frightening “You’re OUT OF RAM! QUIT SOMETHING NOW !” messages go away. Before that happened, though, Windows was teh snappy.

It was sort of a “Flowers for Algernon” situation, I guess.

Late-Breaking Software Something Day News

OmniWeb 5.5 sneaky-peek betas are out and about, too. You have to sign up for their forum to get one and the disk image has a password. For the mildly, non-downloading curious, the release notes will tell most of the tale.

I hope it doesn’t suck when they’re done.

Closet Linux User

Since installing X11 on the iMac was necessary to get the GIMP running on it, it seemed like a useful science experiment to go ahead and see about running X11 for remote logins to the former Windows machine in the closet.

I installed Ubuntu (5.1) and set gdm to allow xdmcp connections, then took a stab at logging in from the Mac using some instructions near the top of the Google heap.

For some reason /usr/X11R6/bin/X -query didn’t work so good, but /usr/X11R6/bin/X -broadcast worked great. I got a full-screen X session almost instantaneously, with both my primary 17″ iMac and 19″ secondary displays just working.

“Now what,” right?

I dunno. I’ve been wanting an easily-to-admin file server and Web testbed, which I’ve now got. And I guess I’ve got a spare machine I can keep maintained with little hassle in case of some dire eventuality.

Update: And for anyone struggling with that hideous and strange yellow X cursor under X11 on a mac: MacOSXHints to the rescue.

SuperDoubleUpdate: If I’d bothered to make sure DHCP was turned off on that Ubuntu box (hence assigning the address I’d meant to assign it), I’d have an easier time finding it without the –broadcast flag. Duh.

Realism (now w/quick addendum)

I’m coming to hate the word “realism.”

One of the side effects of working on “enterprise” focused Web sites is an adoption of a “realistic” view of the subject industry. You learn that the value of things is assessed not so much as a function of their qualitative worth, but the chance they have of making a quantitative impact. A few examples:

  • Boot Camp will not dent the “enterprise” market, so it’s effectively “vaporware.” (Paraphrase of some coworkers, who didn’t seem to understand that if it’s running on a bunch of computers, it’s not exactly vapor anymore, even if it isn’t going to cause Apple to drive Dell from corporate desktops.)

  • Moving enterprises to Linux desktops is not likely to happen thanks to the overwhelming entrenchment of a variety of non-Linux-compatible desktop and server applications, so Linux desktops are worthless.

  • The GIMP, while feature-packed and powerful, has a few flaws that will keep it from penetrating most professional design shops and varies wildly from the Photoshop menu structure, mostly for the worse — it’s not a very good application.

From a mainstream technology journalist’s point of view, those are all very realistic and sensible stances, even if we don’t like to contemplate them. The filter of “realism” helps a journo plow through the stack of press releases, prioritize the weekly queue of requests for briefings, and assess a mediascape that’s completely and totally saturated with self-serving hype, deceptive astroturf, hired forum enthusiasts, lying publicists and demented computer zealots who have nothing better to do than insist that their favorite toy is the next big thing.

The unfortunate thing about all this realism is that it’s predicated on a few things that might be true of large organizations (“the enterprise,” by which developers usually mean “suckers waiting to be fleeced for the privilege of having a badly reengineered kitchen sink thrown into their ‘solution,’ and journalists mean “like, rilly rilly big and stuff,”), such as “it’s hard to just move everyone over to something new” or “people have become unspeakably lazy about technology in ways that bode ill for a society that likes to imagine it’s going to stay out front in that area,” but that aren’t very useful for speaking any sort of objective truth.

I realized that last night when I noticed that has been recompiled as a universal binary, something that Adobe’s not going to do for any of the current products on the market.

That piqued my interest because I’ve been struggling with Photoshop Elements on the iMac the past few days, seriously hating it with every new benchmark that comes to light. I mean … yeah … it runs “fine,” where “fine” = about .25 GHz faster in practice than it ran on my 1.25 GHz eMac, but it wasn’t every really what you’d call “snappy” on an eMac. So I downloaded, a repackaged version of The GIMP, which provides some nice stuff like a very Aqua-esque GTK theme and drag-n-drop from the rest of the OS X GUI (like iPhoto or the Finder or Safari) and tried it out.

Holy crap. It flies. By “flies” I mean that it performs with the same buttery smooth speed that I’ve come to expect from every other app running on this computer besides Photoshop Elements, which I expect to grunt and heave even to merely load.

Naturally my inner realist began to protest:

“The interface … it’s strange and fussy!”

“The filters — they’re named for the obscure 20th century mathematicians who invented the algorithms behind them!”


Then I thought “This is insane.”

Because it suddenly occurred to me that I’m running a piece of software that, for free, does everything I could want in a digital photography tool provided I spend a few sessions not knowing where everything is and maybe having to tweak a few settings. Plus it does it three or four times as fast as the $75 app Adobe sold to me.

Read all that as you will. Since I know of only two people I can reasonably expect will make it to the bottom of any entry I write about technology, I don’t feel super-compelled to spell much out very explicitly except that this gives me something new to chew on in a few other areas where I’ve let “realism” cloud my thinking about quality.

Update: More to the point, and by way of useful clarification via a conversation with Amy:

“The point I didn’t make clear before I petered out was that I kind of ‘get’ the realist perspective because I have to, but that it’s a bad criteria for when I’m sitting in front of my computer in my bathrobe deciding which image editing software to use.”

Sorry for running out of steam before actually making a point. :-)

Easter Greetings

Easter Greetings!

Because cfdisk is Haaaaard.


Novell comments on its transition to Linux desktops:

“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but it’s pretty hard to remove Windows from a machine, so many have just left it there. We’ll get those off with time.”


I hear that Windows actually has small nano-particles that are smuggled in on the install disk and attach themselves to bits of the host computer. They have little nano-claws and little nano-grappling hooks and little nano-tentacles with little nano-suckers on the end. They cling and cling and cling. No matter how hard your nerd scrubs with special Linux-brand computer cleaner, the Windows nanites cling and cling and cling.

Finally, your nerd gives up and goes back to whatever he was doing, which probably involves harassing Novell for not getting rid of Windows on all its computers.

I’m sort of torn: On the one hand, I’d like to savage sites like DesktopLinux, which feel the need to dash off a quick e-mail to Novell employees to get to the bottom of scurrilous claims that someone might have a use for Windows that Linux can’t meet; on the other, I wouldn’t mind heaping opprobrium on Novell for wasting its time with a stammering, heavily qualified answer because it’s afraid the fanboys might stop liking it.

Probably I should heap some scorn on me, too, for even noticing this story and commenting. Maybe if I didn’t keep seeing stuff like this year after year I wouldn’t bother, but there’s something about the ever-replenishing supply of OS fanatics who can’t come to grips with a multi-platform world that makes me want to shake the whole interweb until its teeth rattle.

Meanwhile, in the interest of equal time:

Users Find Flaw in Boot Camp:

> Some Mac users are reporting problems with Apple’s Boot Camp, the software that lets Intel-based Macs run Windows. Ironically, some users have said been stuck with Windows, with their hardware left unable to reboot the Mac OS.

> ‘This isn’t a minor glitch, but a major problem. Barring erasing my drive and reinstalling OS X, I am stuck with an Apple laptop that only runs Windows,’ wrote a user. ‘I don’t want solutions that entail using the command line. I would like something from Apple saying that they recognize the problem and are working on it.'”

That sort of rekindles the old tech bigot in me, who’d say “If you aren’t willing to type something into the command line to fix your problem, you probably deserve to be stuck with a Macbook that only runs Windows.”

My own Boot Camp experience, by the way, has been satisfactory. I used it yesterday so I could listen in on a webcast without worrying about the usual rigamarole with online streaming media, and I’ve got all the basic support apps installed on it. The Intel iMac makes for a very smooth Windows machine.

Two beefs: It ignores the presence of connected speakers in favor of using the iMac’s built-in speakers, and it resets the clock to UTC every time it boots, which I absolutely do not understand but will assume has something to do with the fake BIOS trickery Apple had to employ to get it all to work.

Wasn’t This in “The President’s Analyst?”

This, by the way (and if true) is kind of fucked up.

EFF Charges AT&T Assisted NSA in Surveillance Plan:

> The watchdog group this week followed up on a lawsuit it filed in February against AT&T claiming the company provided the National Security Agency (NSA) access to its caller database, as well as facilitated surveillance of customers.

> This week’s filing by the EFF references a declaration by former AT&T technician Mark Klein; the EFF claims it implicates AT&T’s involvement with the NSA.

> AT&T refused to directly comment today whether it installed equipment in its San Francisco hub to assist the NSA in sorting through telephone and Internet traffic.

Older, Wiser

Manzanita RentalI don’t think I had any big birthday entry in mind, which is probably a good thing, since the usual post-weekend-on-the-coast psychic hangover still seems to be with us going into Wednesday night. So here are some highlights:

We rented a house in Manzanita about five minutes from the beach and a few minutes more, perhaps, to Laneda Ave. It was a pretty cozy place with a fireplace and comfortable rooms. Sue and Michael were with us the first evening, then Justin, Dunetchka & Amelie joined us all the next. Ben and Amelie do well together, even though they don’t really play together so much as next to each other. We had to disconnect all the phones in the house because Ben’s thing involves talking on the phone in little conversations that go something like:

“Hello? Yeah. Yeah. O.k. Bye.”

Since there were two phones, we figured there’d be enough to go around for the children, but a screeching match ensued over who’d have a monopoly. We gave them each a phone, which seemed to satisfy Ben. Two minutes later, though, he walked up to Amelie with a sippy cup, held it out to her, said “Milk?” then snatched her phone when she took the cup.

Sue continued her newish tradition of anatomically correct birthday cakes with a chocolate cake topped with a naughty bit she had to special order from an (the?) erotic bakery in Seattle. She got her credit card number stolen for her troubles, but her bank appears to have a good fraud department, so the Finnish train tickets someone bought on her card won’t come out of her pocket.

Because I was the birthday boy, the weekend had an aspect I found pleasing: Not a lot of insistence on doing stuff and plenty of hanging around, with time to reflect on the fact that my birthday wishes each year seem to get more heartfelt.

BenWe spent some time on the beach Saturday. Amelie likes to munch sand, and she & Ben both had the same way of stamping in the puddles, though Ben seemed to favor digging in the sand with sticks this time around. He was also less intent on throwing himself into the ocean, which was o.k. with us.

We stopped at Camp 18 for lunch with Sue and Michael on the way home. Even though a service station attendant campaigned hard to get us to not go there, I would not be dissuaded. Camp 18 is a key part of the coast-going experience. I’m not sure if it’s the stuffed cougars or the antler chandeliers.

I’m winding this entry down thinking “Wow … sounds boring,” and it may be that it was, though I wasn’t bored at all. It was unstructured time with good people, which is the best kind as far as I’m concerned.

I didn’t take a ton of pictures, but here’s the flickr set all the same. I’ve got a special movie to put up soonish, too, featuring an unexpected talent from one of our party.


So that covered the “older” part.

The wiser part today is about chairs.

I’ve had the same “executive chair” in my office for about six years now. It’s a sturdy chair, but the padding has broken down and it was never ideal for doing a lot of typing/mousing. So I got sick of it a few weeks ago and went in search of a new one.

On the good word of a Cool Tools contributor and some trial lounging around in the store I picked up what I thought was a Russell Executive Chair for a decent price. Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve discovered the real point of a chair is its adjustability. The chair I got (and I’m not even sure it’s the right one) had a mild booby trap in the form of a fairly rigid lip on the front of the seat, and a fairly high concept of “low,” so the circulation in my legs has suffered a little because they press against the lip and I can’t make the chair go low enough to reduce the pressure.

So back to the office supply store this evening, with more attention paid to how many points of adjustment a given chair has.

AmelieAs much as the “executive chairs” are tempting, they’re really not for people like me. It’s too easy to sink back into them, so while they feel great in the store, they become a nightmare in the office, where it’s hard to sit forward enough to type and mouse but still get any back support.

It turns out the class of chair I was after is a high end “task chair,” which has a lower back and less trim, but sports a few more adjustment points. The one I got (for much less than the plush executive models) has three adjustment levers (height, tilt, back tilt), a recline tension adjuster and adjustable arms (which I’ve set to just get out of my way so I don’t have to reach over the right arm to get at my mouse.

It’s no Aeron, but it offers a much more custom fit than the chairs in my price range, and with low arm rests I won’t be cutting off the circulation in my arms from leaning on them when I type for long periods of time.

I think I just had more to say about my new chair than my whole birthday weekend. Read nothing into that at all, except, perhaps, that birthdays come but once a year, while my desk chair is something I deal with every other day of the year.

30 Gigs Lighter

Installing WinXP on an Intel iMacSo, last night I knuckled under and, in the name of science, made a slipstreamed WinXP SP2 disc and went through the Boot Camp install.

Fast impressions:

Apple did, indeed, manage to make dual-booting pleasant. The non-destructive partition is a trick that’s been around the Linux world for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it work quite this quickly.

The partition setup screen is a simple slider with a counter of how much space is going to the Windows partition. No fair comparing that to the likes of DiskDruid or past Linux efforts, because you aren’t using Boot Camp to turn an iMac into a server with more sophisticated partitioning needs.

The install itself was just a Windows install. No faster or slower than I’ve come to expect over the past few years. The iMac knew to hand things over to the Windows bootloader during the repeated reboots the process involved. Once the install was finished, I loaded up the Mac Driver CD that Boot Camp burned for me and everything just loaded up, video drivers and all, driving both the built-in 17″ monitor and the secondary 19″ LCD I’ve got at the right resolutions.

WinXP on an Intel iMacWhat else to say? My Mac can now run Windows XP, and it seems pretty nimble. When I’m booted into OS X, the FAT32 partition I created turns up as a writable device, so I can plonk my Mac Firefox bookmarks and other stuff down into my Windows desktop. I haven’t installed any games to test it out, and I need to configure the printer so it’s still shared with the iBook when I’m booted into Windows.

I don’t see myself using it a lot, but it’s kind of cool to know I’ve got a Windows machine easily available without the performance hit of the VM.

I think a lot of the carrying on about how this somehow will put the Mac on more business desktops is quite possibly insane except when laden with qualifications, including addressing the question of whether “more” is useful if it’s barely measurable.

Time will tell, but the thought of supporting a dual-booting userbase in a large organization just seems nutty. Twice the updates, twice the periodic maintenance, twice the number of things that can go wrong, twice the number of files lost (times two, since the question will always be there of whether said file has been, perhaps, saved somewhere in the hinterlands of the other OS), and twice the number of support scripts. Plus call center headaches that come from “helpful” “power users” deciding to “fix” other peoples’ computers to boot into this OS or that by default. The head swims.

I know there are plenty of edge-casey-type things where a dual-booting Mac would seem pretty useful: sandboxing, testing, etc. etc. etc., but those are the edge, and they’re not whole large organizations.

Anyhow, I guess Gruber’s assessment is sober enough to be useful on that score.

For a more nerd-level view of the install process and what results, Cabel’s rundown has pictures and a video and says:

> Look at it this way: if I keep a crappy PC around the office for one or two tasks (checking websites in IE and MAME management, basically) — and I’m a Macintosh software developer — then I can only imagine there are a lot of people out there in the world with their one or two PC hang-ons that find this software as exciting as I do.

I can agree with that. I keep a crappy PC around the office, too, and it’s about to become a much nicer Linux file server than it ever was a Windows box.

Putting the “Thug” in “Rethuglican.”

Lampson Calls For Special Election As DeLay Faithful Hoot,” and blow air horns and, evidently, assault a 70-year-old woman. Huh.

What a bunch of despicable thugs.

> DeLay campaign manager Chris Homan acknowledged organizing the protesters.

> “Nick is Nancy Pelosi’s liberal lapdog from Beaumont, and he should get used to being confronted … for the next seven months,” Homan said.

> […]

> Theresa Raia, a state Republican Party executive committee member and precinct chair from Sugar Land, carried a sign and protested at the Lampson press conference along with her husband, Sam.

> “We just didn’t like him coming in to Sugar Land,” Raia said. “He surely should have known he was going to get some opposition.”

To paraphrase a sign said to have been posted in Elwood, IN once upon a time: “Liberal boy, don’t let the sun go down on you here.” And, I guess “Liberal old ladies … expect to get double.”

© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.