Category Archives: Geek

On double standards

I have just finished watching the first season of Buffy (yes, I am a few years late), and I couldn’t stop myself from comparing Sunnydale High to Hogwarts. (mild spoilers for both series follow)

You see, Hogwarts seemed to be under the constant threat of being closed due to risks to the students. For example, in Chamber of Secrets, after a student is attacked by the basilisk the headmaster is suspended and the school comes very close to being shut down. Similar situations occur later in the series — and this is among people (wizards and witches) who are (or should be) used to magical monsters and risky situations. I mean, Hogwarts is not the safest of places in the best of days; the whomping willow alone is an OHS nightmare, and don’t get me started on the moving stairways. It’s a wonder that they don’t lose several first-year students every year.

In contrast, Sunnydale High is supposed to be a regular school somewhere in California; except for the fact that Sunnydale lies on top of the “hellmouth”, it should be pretty much your ordinary small-town school. However, in the first season of Buffy, at least 10 students are killed on school grounds; one principal and one teacher also die (two teachers, if you count the replacement science teacher), not to mention the school mascot and the students who are killed at the dance place — oh, and there’s also the girl who catches on fire, plus several assorted injuries all around. Still, no one seems to care that much. You barely see the police showing up at the school (except for the men in black who take the invisible girl away). At no point there is any threat of closing the school, or even of parents taking their kids out of such a clearly dangerous place.

So, I am not quite sure what to make of this. There seems to be a clear case of double standards at work; either that, or British wizards are much more paranoid that Californian muggles, even where supernatural events and creatures are involved (by the way, wouldn’t Giles know about Hogwarts? Angel should, too). That might make some sense, as the wizards would know how dangerous the supernatural creatures are, while the muggles wouldn’t — but you don’t need to know that to realise that a school where over a dozen people are killed in one year is not a good place to send your kid to.

I guess I will just write that off as the effect of the hellmouth on the Sunnydale residents…


We still can’t have Kindles in Australia, and the price Dymocks is charging for their e-paper based reader is outrageous… so lately I’ve been reading a lot on my iPod.

I didn’t expect it at first, but ebooks are very convenient. You can have a wide selection in a small and light device (real books are heavy), you get the ability to search, you never lose your page because the bookmark fell off… one downside, of course, is that battery life is not that great.

Another is the screen size. The iPod Touch has a relatively small screen (which, of course, can be a good thing — it makes it very easy to carry it everywhere), but I found that you get used to that. Granted, you’re turning pages every few seconds, but that is not that much of a problem. What is a problem is that you do need books that are stored in a way that can be reformatted for your device, and that rules PDF out, as that file format was not made with reformatting in mind. There are PDF readers for the iPod, but you can’t realistically read a PDF file formatted for A4 on that screen; it’s ok for a quick glance on a reference manual, for example, but not for continuous reading. And that has some implications for content availability: lots of free content is distributed in PDF format (ebooks, scientific papers, e-magazines etc.), but that is not an usable format for the iPod.

I have been using two different applications: eReader and Stanza (see screenshots below; click to enlarge). They are both very similar, and they both offer the ability to easily download books straight into the iPod from a variety of sources, with both paid and free content; Stanza does seem to offer a much larger selection of sources, including technical books from O’Reilly, while eReader is more tightly connected to their own bookstore, (which includes the mostly SF-oriented; both are owned by Barnes and Noble).

The free content, which makes up the bulk of what I’ve been reading, include mostly out-of-copyright classics and Creative Commons-licensed books, but you do get the occasional surprise, such as Random House giving away free copies of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”. As an aside, Stanza offers a desktop companion application that supposedly can convert PDF files into something readable on the small screen; my tests show that this definitely does not work well for most PDF files, even those that are text-only.

Both applications are very comfortable to use, and as a whole the experience is very good (although I have to say that I like eReader’s interface better, and I really like the little “progress indicator” for each book in the main window). Without a doubt, what I like the most about reading in this way is the portability, even if that means that the screen is significantly smaller than a typical book page; unless the book has relevant illustrations, that is not a problem at all. Battery usage does worry me a bit, though, since the backlight needs to be on at all times while reading (that is the main difference with electronic paper devices; in those, you only use power while changing pages); this is not a problem in normal day-to-day usage, but it may be if I try to read during a long flight (does any airline offer USB power on their seats?).

Canon EOS1000D – final thoughts

As I mentioned a few months ago, I was contacted by Canon Australia and offered the chance to “play” with their new DSLR camera, the EOS1000D, for a while as part of Canon’s Blogger Product Review Program. This is probably a good time to repeat my disclaimer that I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they provided me with, but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

Well, now it’s been almost three months since I’ve started using that camera, and it’s time both to return it to Canon and to post my thoughts about the experience. In short, I like it — but not as much as I like the Sony A200. Do read on.

My first impressions of the EOS1000D, it turns out, were quite accurate: one of the most striking features of this camera is how light it is. It makes a lot of difference when you are carrying it around the whole day (hanging from your neck or in a shoulder bag), and it makes it very comfortable to use. The impression of fragility goes away after you get used to the camera, and it doesn’t seem to be any more fragile than any other model (I managed not to break it, at least, which is always a good sign).

I have changed my mind about the user interface, though: with a bit of practice, it becomes very easy to use, to the point where I was a bit confused when going back to my own camera. For many functions, you need to push fewer buttons in the Canon than in the Sony, and the sequence of steps makes sense for more complex operations.

However, I did not change my mind about some limitations of this camera. I still find it a bit odd that it won’t shoot RAW images (or even JPEGs at the highest available resolution) in any of its more automatic modes (the so-called “basic modes”), including full auto. Granted, this forces you to think a bit more about what you’re doing, but it seems very much an artificial limitation; is there a technical reason for this behaviour?

Another of its distinctive features (for an entry-level DSLR) is the “live view” mode, which allows you to use the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder to frame images when shooting. I may not be the best person to talk about this feature, as I found out that I don’t actually like doing that — it seemed to me to make things harder rather than easier. It might be more useful if the LCD screen could be tilted, but that’s not the case (the screen is also not bright enough to be used in direct sun light, but that’s the case with any camera I’ve ever used). In the end, it’s probably a matter of habit — I tend to use the viewfinder even in point-and-shoot cameras.

The easy-to-use interface makes it very easy to play with the settings until you get your desired result, as shown in the series below: this is the same water feature taken with different exposure times in the “shutter priority” (Tv) mode (click images to enlarge).

1/8s, F/32, ISO 640

1/8s, F/32, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640


The automatic white balance did not like some types of lighting, though, as the pictures below show. The first one is the picture as recorded by the camera, and the second shows the result after I adjusted the white balance manually using the desktop utilities that come with the camera (which, I might say, are very good); the picture was taken under regular residential halogen lights, with automatic white balance turned on (RAW, exposure of 1/8s, f/5.7, ISO 800), and the images below were cropped and resized.

Original picture

Original picture

After adjusting WB

After adjusting WB

To sum things up: in general, I’ve been very happy with this camera and it will be a pity to send it away. Image quality is consistently good, automatic exposure levels work well and the automatic focus is very fast. Or, I should say, the camera is remarkably fast as a whole; it turns itself on very quickly, and the shutter is instantaneous. Also, the image stabilisation deals very well with long(ish) exposures without a tripod (in low light and no flash; say, up to half a second or so). It has an excellent performance at high ISO levels, by the way, and the battery seems to last forever (I used the flash very sparingly).

Why do I still like the A200 better, then? Well, that issue with the image quality limitations annoys me quite a bit, to be honest. I also like (very much) the finer-grained information on battery charge provided by the Sony (even if that does mean that batteries for it cost a bit more), and it is much easier to transfer photos to a PC with the Sony than the Canon — if I were to keep the Canon, I’d consider getting a card reader ASAP. By the way, with the introduction of the A300, you can find the A200 around for very good prices — cheaper than the EOS1000D, probably.

Speaking of which… despite this being marketed as an entry-level DSLR camera, when it first came out a few months ago it was a bit too expensive, hovering around $1200. This price has gone down significantly since then, and it is in a much more competitive range now: you can find the standard kit (the one I was using, with the Canon EFS 18-55mm Zoom lens) for less than $850, and in the lead up to Christmas you can probably get an even better deal with a twin-lens kit — I’ve seen it for under $900. At this price, it is a very good camera for someone being introduced to DSLRs, and will give good results even to beginners. Also, it is a Canon, and that is something that should not be overlooked; you will find the enormous array of accessories (made both by Canon and third parties), software, literature, discussion boards etc. etc. that should be expected from a leading brand.

Canon EOS1000D

A few months ago, I wrote that I was looking for a new camera and that I was reading about several DSLR models. I eventually chose one of them, and during a recent trip to the USA I bought a Sony A200. It’s a 10.1 MP camera, based on the old Minolta line that was acquired by Sony a few years back, and it came with a 18-70mm zoom lens. It has a number of very good features (image stabilisation, dynamic range optimisation etc.), and I have to say that I’m very happy with it so far.

More recently — two weeks ago — I received an e-mail from Canon Australia asking me whether I’d like to give their new camera a shot; they’re apparently reaching out to Australian bloggers and they saw my article about my search for the perfect camera. I thought their offer sounded interesting, and last week I received a box containing a shiny (well, black) new Canon EOS1000D for me to play with for three months (tip to Canon: next time you might want to send a memory card with the camera). This model is known in the USA as the Rebel XS.

So, for the next few months I will be using this new camera and writing about my experiences. Keep in mind that I am not a professional photographer, nor do I have a lot of experience with digital SLR cameras – therefore, I’ll be mostly offering “consumer” opinions and comparing it to my A200 (and I guess that is ok, since neither of these cameras actually targets professionals and — I think — they are more or less in the same range). The EOS1000D is also a 10.1 MP camera, and the one I received came with the standard lens kit it is sold with — that is, an 18-55mm lens with auto-focus and image stabilisation.

Also, for the record, I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they sent me (which I’m doing right now), but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

First impressions:

  • it’s light; very light, compared with A200, and that does make a difference after a few hours carrying a camera around (the EOS1000D weighs 500g with the battery and no lens, against 636g for the A200). However, that also gives an impression of fragility (and that is exacerbated a bit by the texture of the camera body, in fact)
  • the manual is much better than the one that came with the Sony, but the user interface in the camera is a bit less intuitive for the first-time user
  • there are several options for image quality, but you can’t use the highest (finest) JPEG setting or record RAW images if you’re using the camera in full-auto mode or any of what Canon calls “basic modes” (macro, landscape, portrait etc.); this is a bit annoying
  • this model includes “live view”, the ability to use the LCD screen to frame pictures before shooting (that is not a common feature for SLRs), but I haven’t tried using it seriously yet
  • the PC software that came with the camera and starts up when it is connected, CameraWindow, claims that the EOS1000D is not a supported model, which is a bit strange; also, the drivers don’t quite expose the camera to Windows as a simple disk device, and that makes it a bit harder to operate than it should be, in my opinion (another piece of software that was included, EOS Utility, did work properly)

I will definitely have more to write about after I go out with the camera a few times and play a bit more with it, so expect more posts in the near future…

Bushwalking – Sherbrooke Forest

This weekend I went for a walk in the Sherbrooke Forest, part of the Dandenong Ranges National Park. I followed a track described in the book 150 Walks in Victoria, by Tyrone Thomas and Andrew Close, and everything went fairly well.

To get to the track, I took the train to Belgrave and, from the station, walked approximately 1km (uphill) on Old Monbulk Road to the gates of the park. From there, I followed the trail in a clockwise direction, first north up to Grant’s Picnic Grounds (close to Monbulk Rd and “infested” with cockatoos trying to get food from the families eating there), then approximately south-east on Lyrebird Walk, continuing south on Neumann Track then south, and later west, on Paddy’s Track leading to an apparently unnamed track going west from a clearing known as Jack the Miners back to the starting point. A map of this path is here, including some pictures I took on the way (more pictures at my Flickr page).

The length of the path is around 6.3km, with some significant vertical movement as well; the first leg of the track leads steadily up, while the southward leg goes a bit up and then steeply down. The final few hundred metres go steeply up and reduced my average speed significantly…

This was also the first “field test” of the GPS unit I bought (and mentioned here), a Magellan eXplorist 400. It did very well (as the map linked to above shows), but I did find a few things out:

  • the “trip odometer”, which should tell me how far I’ve moved, is either very inaccurate or using the wrong units; at the end of the track it was showing “4.0km”, while the recorded route was actually 6.31km long (which equals 3.92 miles…); this is definitely not good
  • when you turn the device on, it takes around 60 seconds to lock to the satellites and get your initial position; that’s normal and more or less unavoidable because of the way the satellites transmit data; however, if you are moving — however slowly —, it seems the device won’t reliably find the satellites after any amount of time; this is not very good, but I can live with that (after it finds your initial position, it can be moved with no problems; also, being inside a backpack is not a problem)
  • it won’t find the satellites from inside a train; I’m honestly curious about how it will perform inside a car
  • marking positions is a very easy and quick process, but “typing” using that on-screen keyboard and mini-joystick is a pain


I really like GPS; it’s one of the cooler “general use” technologies out there.

GPS is the closest thing we have to a worldwide information network. Granted, it doesn’t really give you that much information: it will tell you where you are and what time it is (assuming you know your time zone), but nothing else. And, ok, it doesn’t really work indoors and accuracy is not great in urban areas (because of shadows and reflections caused by buildings), but it’s still very cool. Think about it: I can be (almost) anywhere in the world and a small handheld device will be able to tell me, in just a few seconds, exactly where I am using only information from a constellation of satellites flying overhead, unseen and ignored by most people. Fifty years ago this would be the stuff of sci-fi.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that I recently bought a handheld GPS receiver, and I spent a few hours playing with it yesterday. The reason for that is that I’ve recently started engaging in bushwalking (or “hiking” for those outside Australia and NZ) with the Melbourne Bushwalkers. After my first somewhat “serious” walk, in the area of the Lorne waterfalls (about 13km downhill in the rain…), I tried to identify the path the group followed on a map and failed miserably. So, I thought “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to record the track so I could, later, trace it on a map?”. Well, a GPS receiver is a good way of doing that.

The model I bought is a Magellan eXplorist 400. It’s a discontinued model, but it is fairly decent and there’s a healthy market of new units on eBay for very good prices. It can track up to 12 satellites and will use ground-based (WAAS) and satellite-based (EGNOS) auxiliary signals to increase accuracy where available; none of those are available in Australia, alas. It has a grayscale LCD display with a reddish (amber?) backlight and can display fairly detailed background maps (it won’t give you address-based directions or convert addresses to positions without additional software), and it uses SD cards as additional memory to record tracks, routes, points of interest and maps. It’s also fully waterproof (full immersion of up to 1m for up to 30 minutes), which is great for rainy days… And it comes with a USB cable to upload and download data from/to a computer.

I haven’t yet used it “in the field”, so I can’t talk much about it’s performance there; I hope to remedy this soon enough. I can’t talk about battery durability either, for now. I did try to use it in central Melbourne yesterday, with sort of mixed results… it does well in areas that are somewhat open, but “canyon-like” streets (with tall buildings on both sides) are usually blind spots (I wonder how it does in real canyons…). I uploaded the track log to Google Earth, generated a KML file and made a public Google Map from it, which is here; the recorded path is in a barely-visible light blue, and it actually covers about half of the path I followed; I guess it lost the signal in the other areas. The receiver was inside my backpack, which may also not be the best possible position for it.

I will be using it in future walks (and in a trip to remote areas later this year, where I plan to use GPS data to geotag the pictures I’ll take — and to not get lost, also), and I’ll write about how it does later on.

That phone

For those in Melbourne interested in seeing an iPhone “in real life”, there is probably going to be one at the Melbourne Twitter Users Meetup, this Thursday, 5:30pm, at the Horse Bazaar (397 Little Lonsdale St), courtesy of Ben Barren.

You can’t make calls with it here, but everything else works, and the Horse Bazaar has free wi-fi.

Google Developer Day

I attended the Google Developer Day, “Sydney edition”, yesterday. There were lots of interesting announcements: the first session was about Google Gears, and it was very exciting. The demonstration (achieved by, literally, unplugging the laptop from the network mid-presentation) went very well, and gave everyone ideas. Soon after, Mapplets were also introduced (well, actually they had been mentioned briefly at Where 2.0 the day before); they’re sort of gadgets for Google Maps, allowing the creation of “instant mashups”.

Also interesting were the “non-announcements”. Everyone got a brochure at the beginning of the day with a list of several Google products, and one of them was the Google Mashup Editor; when I read it, it sounded like it was something new, but it wasn’t mentioned by anyone during the day, so I kind of assumed it was actually something “old” that I hadn’t heard about. It turns out it wasn’t.

It was a great event, and it was interesting being the first ones to learn about Google Gears (as one of the presenters mentioned, usually Australia wakes up to news from the US; yesterday, it was the other way around). It was a bit ironic that, being at the event, I couldn’t play with the tool (or even write about it) yesterday, while everyone else who got the news online could start right away. But they didn’t get the great free food Google gave us 🙂

Integers, integers, get your integers here

Well, not here. Here.

If you don’t like the idea of the AACS being the only organisation that owns a number, now you can have your own. And you, too, can demand that people remove your number from their website, thanks to the DMCA!

This is how it works: by visiting the page linked to above, created by Edward W. Felten, you will be assigned a unique, 128-bit integer number. That number is used to encrypt a haiku written by the author of the page, becoming, then, a circumvention device as defined by the DMCA. All rights are transferred to you, and thus you become the legal owner of a number. Or so goes the movie industry’s thinking.

My number is F9 21 B7 FD DD BE 56 91 92 13 63 FD 4A 2C A5 E7, but it’s illegal for you to know this, even if I’m the one telling you.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read this and this.

The pizza configuration problem

Yesterday, at lunch, we had an interesting problem. Our group wanted to order a chicken pizza; however, we had one person who wanted red capsicum on the pizza, but no mushrooms; one other wanted mushrooms but no capsicum; and a few others wanted both. We ended up ordering a chicken pizza, half with capsicum and 3/4 with mushrooms; what we had in mind was something like this:

It took us a while to get the waitress to understand the order; we had to draw a diagram not unlike the one you see here. The fact that she was taking the order in a PDA-like handheld device can’t have helped. And we could see from our table that it took her quite a while to explain the order to the guy actually making the pizzas.

And it didn’t quite work out. In the pizza we actually got, the quarter that should have both mushrooms and capsicum had only mushrooms; so, it was a chicken pizza, 1/4 with capsicum and 3/4 with mushrooms. We’ll try again next week.

Does anyone know of a pizza place that will accept arbitrary areas for toppings and allow for the toppings to partially overlap? It’s probably not a common requirement, except maybe for places that frequently cater to geeks…