…assorted thoughts, musings, rants, etc…

General

Competing narratives of America

As a non-partisan observing the “Occupy Wall Street” protests (merely the latest salvos in a long barrage of rhetoric about the economy and the culture), it strikes me that a couple of basic narratives about America and her citizens are coming to blows. While public policy based on these narratives does tend to (more or less) fall along party lines, the fundamental narratives themselves are (I believe) less constrained to party affiliation. The narratives might be compared and contrasted as follows:

One Narrative Another Narrative
Views the government as being the answer to most problems in society Views individuals and private groups as being the answer to most problems in society
Believes that the government is the optimal provider for citizens in crisis Believes that individuals, private organizations, and religious groups are the most effective providers for citizens in crisis
Views citizens primarily within the context of groups and classes Views citizens primarily as individuals
Views citizens generally as helpless pawns Views citizens generally as people able to make and deal with their own decisions

Much of the “Occupy Wall Street” rage appears to be against the banks, who made loans to people who couldn’t afford them, but then got bailed out by the U.S. government. Now, I’m no apologist for the banks – many (not all) of them did undoubtedly get greedy and take advantage of uninformed borrowers. But if we’re looking to assign blame, it would appear to me that there are at least three parties to spread that blame among:

1. Certain members of congress, who threatened to sue (and/or regulate out of existence) banks who would not institute a policy of “affordable housing” for low income people. (Translation: Make mortgage loans to people who cannot afford a mortgage payment).

2. The aforementioned banks, who responded to the congressional blackmail by getting greedy (though, again, not all banks were guilty of predatory lending).

3. The borrowers, none of whom (at least as far as I can tell) was forced to sign the loan papers with a gun to their head.

The selective outrage displayed by the protesters is clearly targeted at people for whom passionate expression comes easier than critical thinking. It’s also clear that there are forces involved whose goal is to collapse the entire capitalist system, and replace freedom with totalitarianism. To that end, it appears they have no shortage of what Lenin derisively referred to as “useful idiots” to aid them in their cause.


Blog Resurrection

I’ve decided it’s time to resume at least semi-regular posting. As I was faced with once again manually updating the WordPress installation on my host (which I was way behind on – I was running 2.1 and they’re already up to version 3), I decided to just move the blog over to wordpress.com where I won’t have to worry about security updates and such. Thankfully it was dead simple to export my stand-alone blog and import it at wordpress.com.

I’ve had a few potential posts floating around in my head for a while now. Time to convert brain synapses to bits and bytes.


Post-election thought…

As a non-partisan, I have no problem with party affiliation. But hyper-partisan people, regardless of party, are among the biggest threats to democracy and our republic. They are unable to deal with, and unwilling to even try to understand, people who don’t think exactly like they do. They bring a Jr. High level of maturity and sophistication to their political discourse. And they make it difficult to hold out much hope for the future.


Confluence

I’m trying for the umpteenth time to implement the principles from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. It’s a system for keeping track of obligations and projects, and while I’ve initiated the attempt several times in the past, I’ve never really followed through.

One of the main principles of GTD is to get all the “have to”, “should”, and “want to” items out of your head and into a trusted system that you’ll check regularly. Otherwise they keep floating around in the back (or forefront) of your mind and distract you from being able to focus on specific things you could and should be doing.

Allen defines a “project” as anything that will take more than one step to accomplish, and another principle of GTD is that you can’t really “do” a project – at any given time, you can only do one piece of the project. So he advises thinking about any given project and then identifying the “next action” that will move the project along. Doing so provides a sense of focus in the moment, without thinking or worrying about things which can wait or aren’t yet actionable.

So it was in that mental context that I read this morning’s “Deeper Walk” email devotional from Relevant magazine. The topic was “Simple Obedience”, and here’s an excerpt:

I want God to wave the magic wand and make me whole again. So far, He hasn’t. God will help me. God will guide me. But, as far as I can see, He plans to only tell me the next step, the next truth. The how and the where and the when of my redemption cannot be my concern. The question for me is this: When God speaks, will I obey?

I’m amazed and humbled when Big Concepts come together from disparate directions, like a light bulb clicking on inside my head. May I focus on what I can do TODAY, and not worry so much about tomorrow.


Precious time, less than worthy pursuits

Last evening I spent a whole lot of time on things that, in the grand scheme of things, really don’t matter.

For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea – and resisting the urge – of upgrading my cell phone to something newer, sexier. I currently have a Palm Treo 755p, the final Treo running the venerable PalmOS. I’ve had a PalmOS device of some kind since the mid-90s. In all honesty, the Treo is working just fine. It runs the Palm apps I’ve accumulated over the years. It has a rudimentary web browser. It allows me to make and receive calls, and to send and receive texts.

Yet I found myself driving to the Verizon store to look at phones. I currently have a grandfathered monthly plan from the Alltel days, and a sweet employee discount that was also grandfathered (probably beneath the notice of Verizon). So I was curious/concerned about whether switching phones would require changing plans, whether I would be able to keep my discount, etc. I waited 20 minutes in a mostly empty Verizon store before a salesperson came over to help me. By that time I had scoped out some phones and gained some hands-on experience of them. The salesperson couldn’t answer my questions and concerns to my satisfaction, so I left.

When I got home, rather than putting the issue aside, I called Verizon’s toll-free number to pose the same questions. I did eventually get a fairly helpful representative named Elizabeth, but that exploration led to a discovery of an anomaly on my forthcoming bill. Sorting out that anomaly took 20 minutes in and of itself. Then we spent another 20 minutes sorting through the what-ifs of changing phones/plans.

By the time I got done, I had spent nearly 2 hours of my life on the question of potentially replacing my phone, when my current phone really works OK. Technology, and the time spent chasing/acquiring/learning/troubleshooting it, can be a curse. There are thousand ways I could have better spent that 2 hours: attending to some overdue house cleaning, reading a worthwhile book, catching up with a friend.

Did I end up replacing my phone? Yep, it’s on order. Will I spend precious time learning to use it – time I could spend on more worthwhile things? Undoubtedly. Will I ever learn to be content with what I have? Lord, I hope so.


Windows 2000 – R.I.P.

Windows 2000 was officially retired this week. Long my favorite version of Windows for its down-to-business, no-nonsense GUI and its modest hardware requirements, I’m sad to see it go.

XP was basically a gussied-up version of Windows 2000, and shared most of the same code base. But where XP tried to be prettier and fancier for mainstream computer users, plain-jane 2000 was content to just get the job done.

Windows 2000 lost any additional feature upgrades starting in the summer of 2005, and was only getting security updates since that time. But on July 13th, 2010, Microsoft stopped issuing those as well.

While I generally prefer living in the linux world these days (PCLinuxOS, to be exact), I do still have some ties to Redmond. I’m running Windows 7 on my media center PC to take advantage of the integrated Netflix streaming in Windows Media Center. And I have found Windows 7 to be pretty solid as an operating system.

So I raise a toast to Windows 2000. It served me well for many years.


A new year…

OK, it’s been quite a while since I made a regular blog post here. The arrival of the new year seems like a good reason to establish a more regular habit, so here goes…

I just completed the setup of YNAB3. I’ve been using the basic version of YNAB (a spreadsheet that can be used in Excel or OpenOffice) for about 18 months. Even though there was a newer YNAB Windows app, I stayed with the basic version because I’ve been primarily using Linux during that time, and the spreadsheet file can be easily used cross-platform. YNAB3 is now cross platform as well since it runs on top of Adobe Air, so I decided to upgrade and take advantage of the extra features.

I’m also hoping it will serve as an impetus for making (and keeping) a commitment to staying with a budget. While I’ve been setting a budget each month, I’ve generally been lousy at keeping within the boundaries of my spending plan. I mean, I haven’t completely sucked – I did finally pay off all my debts except the house last month. But I could have done it sooner if I didn’t habitually over-spend each month in different categories, from groceries to entertainment to the catch-all “misc” category. So I’m striving to become a better steward.

After I get my recent cataract surgery bills finalized with the insurance company and paid in full, I’ll work to build up a solid emergency fund, start saving for a new (used) vehicle purchase in 2-3 years, increase my charitable giving, etc.

Here’s to some discipline in the new year!


On technology and reflection…

In the spring of 2007 I opened an account at twitter.com. At the time it was all the buzz among Silicon Valley types, so I thought I’d see what all the hub-bub was about. The “prompt question” on Twitter was “What are you doing right now?”, and the idea was for people to send text messages from their mobile phones throughout the day in answer to that question. The idea became known as microblogging – short posts that generally consist of fleeting thoughts or status updates. Because Twitter was designed around SMS text messages, Twitter established a 140-character limit for each post – the same limit that exists for SMS messages. Users could also choose to “follow” (or subscribe to) others peoples’ Twitter feeds.

I did a couple of “tweets” (the annoying term for posts on Twitter), and left it at that. The idea of continually posting the trivialities of my day seemed a bit too narcissistic for me. And there became a juvenile contest among tech insiders to see who could get the most followers on Twitter. Because I already had a standard blog, and a Facebook account (where I could post status updates if I wanted), Twitter seemed largely redundant and unnecessary.

Of course, for whatever reason, Twitter – like Facebook before it – has now started to catch on among the mainstream public, and the continual references to it have prompted me to reflect a bit on technology and culture. As I’ve stated in other forums, it’s been difficult for me to see Twitter as much more than a narcissistic, mutual-masturbatory echo chamber. I will concede that other people find it useful – perhaps even I will at some point. But some of the comments in support of Twitter have left me scratching my head, and have caused me to wonder about how we adopt new technologies without much rigorous reflection.

For example, a discussion of Twitter (and an argument for its usefulness) came up a few weeks ago on an email discussion group I participate in. It was right about the time that the U.S. Air jet crash landed in New York’s Hudson river. Somebody stated that, thanks to Twitter, they knew about the crash within minutes of it happening. It was simply assumed that this was an incredibly useful thing – all made possible by Twitter.

One question I have is this: Why do I need to know that the U.S. Air jet went down in the Hudson at the moment it happened? Unless I had a friend or loved one on the flight (extremely unlikely, given the limited number of people in the world I personally know, the number of flights on any given day, and the rarity of plane crashes), or I was in a position to render immediate physical assistance in the rescue operation (again, extremely unlikely given the total surface area of the earth and rarity of plane crashes), I have no immediate need to know about the crash. Aside from the rather childish “bragging rights” for having heard about it before anyone else, what purpose can that immediacy possibly serve?

Some might respond with, “Well, you could immediately start praying for those on board the plane, and those involved in the rescue operation”. And that’s certainly true – I believe very much in the power of prayer. But since I believe that God exists outside of our timeline, and isn’t constrained by temporal considerations, I believe that I can pray about it after the fact and that the prayer still “counts”. God isn’t bound by immediacy.

A broader subject that doesn’t seem to receive much serious reflection is how new communications technologies – including things like Twitter and Facebook – affect the ways in which we interact, live out our communal lives, process ideas, and view concepts such as friendship (and other relationships). There seems to always be two camps when it comes to new communications technologies: one predicting the demise of culture because of the new technologies, and another uncritically adopting the new technologies while regarding those in the first camp clueless, alarmist Luddites. But as these two camps cite studies supporting their position, and lob verbal grenades at one another, there never seems to be any middle ground of calm, rational dialogue about both the potential benefits and pitfalls of the technologies.

Technologies are almost always a mix of benefits and risks. For example, more opportunities for information and entertainment, while also enabling unhealthy isolation. It’s these types of issues that I’d like to see us, as a whole, become more reflective about, without having to worry about being labeled as too exuberant or too fearful about technology. For example, here are a couple of questions I’ve been pondering:

1. What effect do sites like Facebook and MySpace have on the concept of “friendship”? It’s clear that sites like these allow people to connect with one another in ways never before possible, and that can be a great thing. But is the person I sort of remember meeting at a party two nights ago really my “friend”? What are the characteristics of friendship? How do these sites enhance or distort the idea – and practice – of friendship?

2. As we adapt more to communicating via “tweets”, attempt to follow the feeds of hundreds of Facebook and Twitter friends, and get our general news and information in the form of short summaries delivered via RSS feed, how does that affect our ability – and willingness – to think and communicate deeply about things? In the midst of the constant barrage of input from email, text messages, IM, Facebook, Twitter, phone, radio, TV, video games, and iPods, how do we carve out space to be truly present with other people, and to hear the still, small voice of God?

Anybody care to disengage from the chatter long enough to engage in the dialogue?


The Creative Habit

I recently read (well, mostly skimmed) a book called The Creative Habit. It was mentioned in a post by Merlin Mann several weeks ago, and while I haven’t gone as ga-ga about it as he has, I thought it made some useful points. Although the book was written by a choreographer, the ideas can be applied to any creative endeavor – art, music, design (of any kind), even programming.

I came away with a couple of main points from the book…

Point #1 – Creativity isn’t a gift reserved just for the chosen few. I’ve seen quotes from some artists suggesting that “you’re born with it or you aren’t”, and that it’s not something that can be learned. Hogwash. Such an attitude is driven either by an over-inflated ego or by a fear that maybe they’re not as uniquely gifted as they’d like to believe. It’s certainly true that some people are more naturally gifted in particular areas than others, but while you may never be “the best”, it’s certainly possible to get better, and maybe even get “good”.

Point #2 – Creativity takes a lot of work. This is the point that served as sort of a wake-up call for me, even though I instinctively knew it to a degree. Creativity isn’t about waiting around for the inspiration to hit. It’s about going through the motions, on a regular basis, whether you’re feeling particularly creative or not. (Hence the name of the book – The Creative Habit).

Here are the implications in terms of my photography hobby: If I wait around to go out and shoot until I’m feeling really creative, I’ll be shooting much less often. And that’s because I never know when the creative muse will come calling, and when it does, there’s a decent chance I can’t act on it because of other responsibilities (e.g., my paying job). So I need to regularly put myself in situations where I can practice creativity – making myself go out and shoot…putting that into my schedule.

That’s why I headed out this morning as the sun was coming up. I’ve been wanting to get some winter countryside shots, and I knew that most of Thursday night’s snow would be melted by this afternoon. (I still want to get some non-snowy winter scenery too – preferably on a cloudy day). It’s also largely what prompted me to try the “photo-a-day for 2009” project. It challenges me to keep my creative eye open for potential photographic opportunities every day.

And I have to say – forcing myself to do it is starting to help me notice more creative possibilities. Just sitting here now on my couch, typing this entry, I noticed 5 potential photographic subjects within about a minute. And that motivates me, and encourages me, and gets my creative juices flowing in a way that sort of feeds on itself. I know there will still be times when I get stuck in a rut creatively. But having the habit – making myself go do it – is the best recipe for getting un-stuck.

So here’s to the hard work of creativity…


Photography magazines and radical boundaries

A year or so ago I signed up for a $5 subscription to American Photo magazine. I thought it might be interesting/instructive to see what was being featured from other photographers – that maybe I could be inspired or challenged to branch out or try something different.

After several issues, I have to confess that I regard my $5 as pretty much wasted. Because American Photo magazine really isn’t about the fundamental and classic elements of photography – a compelling landscape, and interesting abstract, and candid glimpse of someone. It’s about pushing the boundaries of subject matter. The latest issue that arrived this week, showcasing the winners of an “Images of the Year” competition, featured such gems as a group of body builders sitting at a table in parochial school attire, a girl with a deer head superimposed instead of hers, two Indonesian store owners in their underwear, and a topless pregnant girl wearing a Batman mask.

Really? These were among the “Images of the Year”?

I discovered the same thing a couple of years ago after hearing about a new photography magazine starting up called JPG magazine, featuring photos submitted (and voted on) by users. “Cool concept”, I thought to myself, so I plunked down my $20 and signed up for a year. But, again, the agenda was to push subject matter boundaries as far as they can go. One issue’s theme called “Beauty Redefined” really did take some unattractive subject matter and try to spin it as beautiful – a sort of in-your-face “Yeah, well we’re taking all your ordinary sensibilities and telling you you’re WRONG!”.

It’s a shame that photography seems to have become more about pushing boundaries than about light, composition, wonder, and compelling scenes. I’ll be the first to admit that there IS a place for photography to be stark, even uncomfortable – capturing sorrow, depicting injustice, creating empathy. But that’s just a fraction of what photography can and should do – stir the soul towards awe, wonder, longing, comraderie, even action.

Let’s hope that the craft can eventually return to First Things – the fundamentals that have helped stir souls for the past 100+ years. I’ll do my (very) small part towards that end.


Photography and stylized flavors of the moment

I’m scratching my head a little at a local trend of senior photos – especially girls’ photos – being really stylized, over-saturated, and Photoshopped almost to death. I mean, it’s fun to play around with effects for some shots, but every shot?

I can’t help but think that this is a photo fashion trend that will fairly quickly fall out of fashion, as most trendy clothing fashions do. Just as basic color and lines seem to always be regarded as elegant in clothing, I suspect that photographs with classic composition and good exposure will have a timeless quality regardless of the ever-changing winds of trendiness. I also suspect that 5, 10, or 20 years from now, many of these seniors will look back on these photos and wish they didn’t all look quite so “2008”.

I guess on the plus side for would-be photographers, this trend doesn’t require all that much in the way of photography skills – just a little basic Photoshop knowledge.

So here’s a hint to all you trendy seniors who want to save some cash:

* Get a half-way decent digital camera, or find a friend who has one.

* Get Photoshop Elements, and a basic tutorial book. Learn how to crop, rotate, and boost saturation.
* Do a search on Google for “Photoshop lomo plugin”, then download it and install it.

* Head out with a friend and have them take crazy fun pictures of you.

* Afterwards use Photoshop Elements to crop, slightly rotate to an odd angle, over-saturate, and apply the lomo plugin.

There you go. You’ve just saved hundreds of dollars for your senior photos.


WKRP, music rights, and why the RIAA sucks

I just finally finished watching season 4 of the “unofficial” WKRP DVD set I picked up online some time ago. From what I can tell this was a joint labor of love from a variety of contributers who had videotaped episodes off the air.

For those too young to know, “WKRP In Cincinnati” was a comedy that originally aired in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s centered around an AM radio station, and the mostly oddball collection of people who worked there. Being set at a rock and roll station, at various times during the episodes they would play snippets of actual songs by popular artists Apparently even at that time, the licensing fees were so high that the show was shot on video tape (as opposed to more expensive film) to offset the licensing costs.

After being canceled, the show went into syndication in the early- to mid-80s, and as is usually the case with syndication, 2-3 minutes of each episode was cut to allow for more commercials. After the first syndication run, the original song licensing rights had expired, so for the 2nd syndication run the song snippets for almost all of the original artists were replaced by generic rock music, and in some cases the actors’ voices were overdubbed with different dialog if they even mentioned the name of an artist.

The series is now being incrementally released on official DVDs, but with the generic music.

The “unofficial” DVD set is almost entirely from the 1st syndication run. So the bad news is that 2-3 minutes of each episode is gone. The good news is that all but one of the episodes in the set still has the originally aired music. And even though the video quality of some of the videotaped episodes is pretty low, it’s still preferable to the full episodes with the crappy generic music being released now.

What’s sad is that the full episodes with original music will probably never see the light of day again. The inane licensing policies of the music labels will make it cost prohibitive. And some are saying that even if some reasonable agreement with the labels could be reached, it’s possible that master copies of the non-overdubbed versions of the episodes may not even exist any more.

If the labels could have seen the incredible promotional value of having their artists featured for a few seconds in an episode, this regrettable situation could have been avoided. I mean – please – did they really think that someone hearing a few seconds of a song would deprive the labels of sales? If anything, it would be more likely to boost sales.

So thanks RIAA for ruining what could have been a great official DVD release. The day that the RIAA dies cannot come soon enough for me.

And sincere thanks to the folks who assembled the unofficial set. You’ve at least somewhat salvaged a great show for posterity.


Long overdue…

It’s been too long since I engaged in any intentional photography, but I think I’m back in the swing of things.

Photo Friday is returning from vacation…


Wal-Mart To Sell Jesus, Religious Action Figures

I saw this on Digg this morning. Apparently Walmart is going to sell Bible action figures in some of its stores.

Here’s the original link:

http://www.local6.com/news/13686443/detail.html

Here’s the Digg posting, with well-deserved commentary in the comments:

http://digg.com/offbeat_news/Wal_Mart_To_Sell_Jesus_Religious_Action_Figures

And here’s the actual website selling the action figures:

http://store.messengersoffaith.net/taofgltost.html

All of this reminded me of a posting made on the rec.music.christian Internet newsgroup over a dozen years ago by a net acquaintance of mine named Andy Whitman. His posting was in criticism of a new line of “Action Heroes of the Faith!” dolls being sold at Christian bookstores across the country. His criticism caused quite a stir among some of the readers of the newsgroup, so he responded to them with the following. It communicates, better than I could, my feelings about the latest offering of Bible action figures.

Okay, I’m in a foul mood, and that probably colors my perceptions on life, the universe, and everything for the time being, but I’ll do my best to restrain my tongue.

I’ve received a half a dozen or so email messages over the last couple of days questioning my salvation and wondering why I bother to disturb the peace and unity of rec.music.christian. Apparently this is a result of my posting from last week where I suggested several new products for the Christian bookstore market, among them being AbbaWear, evangelistic toast, Phileo Mignon steaks, etc. Apparently some people have interpreted this posting as “mocking Christianity” and “mocking Christ.”

Since I don’t have the time or the inclination to respond individually, let me attempt to address the issues raised in this newsgroup. I apologize if this is the wrong forum, but I don’t have several hours to devote to responding to a bunch of email messages, and I’m hoping that I can address the issues collectively.

First, I am a Christian. Not a particularly good one, but if you put me on the rack and grilled me on my doctrinal positions I’d probably pass muster. I’m trying, with God’s help, to have my life reflect what I believe. The last thing I want to do is mock Christ. Nor do I want to mock Christianity, or other Christians.

In fact, I care about these things very much. And because I care about these things it disturbs me when I see the faith trivialized, and when I see the complexity and richness of the biblical revelation reduced to slogans and caricatures. And, unfortunately, I see this all the time in Christian bookstores, the very places where I would *expect* to find help. It disturbs me to see David, one of the most complex human beings I’ve ever encountered, reduced to an Action Hero of the Faith doll, as if this man who was full of faults and full of faith could be reduced to Rambo in a loincloth. It disturbs me to see bookshelves full of “Ten Easy Steps to …” titles, as if the Christian life was a matter of studying programs and techniques. And it angers me to see so-called Christian companies marketing “Truth Clothing”, turning the gospel into mere crass commercialization, something that Jesus had little patience for in his dealings in the temple.

So do I want to mock Christ, Christianity, Christians? No. But I want to mock those businesses whose business is to make the faith palatable for the masses, who want to turn the tough, lifelong journey of walking with God into a matter of what you wear, and what techniques you follow, and what cute little sayings you tack up on your wall. Do I want to mock that? You bet I do. Because it’s a lie. *That* is not Christianity. And I simply don’t buy the pious rationalizations of, “well, God can use it anyway.” God doesn’t *want* to use it. It’s crap. He wants you to know *Him*, not the dealers at the Jesus Mart.

And I’m getting carried away. Sorry. But I do get frustrated by it all sometimes. I hope this at least partially explains my views.

– Andy Whitman


In praise of older versions

I’m to going to run afoul of conventional wisdom and state the following:

Windows 2000 is the best version of Windows ever released.

Photoshop CS is the best version of Photoshop ever released.

Winamp 2.91 is the best version of Winamp ever released.

Yes, even though Windows 2000 and Photoshop CS are both now 2 versions behind the current release, and even though Winamp 2.91 is now 3 versions behind, I still believe they represent the best when factoring in all the elements. Allow me to explain why.

Windows 2000 is solid, well-behaved, and fairly non-bloated compared to XP (and certainly compared to Vista). It requires far fewer resources (in terms of processor speed and RAM) to run well. It may not have all the pretty interface components, but that’s not what I use an operating system for anyway. I’d rather devote the CPU to processing photos than to animating desktop windows.

Photoshop CS was the first version to offer full 16-bit color support, the LAST version to offer the integrated File Browser (CS2 and CS3 both use the separate Bridge application), takes up about 25% of the disk space of CS2, and requires less RAM to run well. Any newer features integrated into later versions of Photoshop – at least the features that may interest me – can be found via plugins or Photoshop actions (many of which are freely available on the web).

And Winamp 2.91 is lean, no-frills, and I’ve had a set of useful add-on plugins for it stored on my hard drive for several years now.

So let’s hear it for the behind-the-curve, non-bleeding-edge members of the software ranks, who prove that newer isn’t automatically better.


Ubuntu Linux – Almost there

At Easter I completely reinstalled Windows and set up limited user accounts on my parent’s computer, because there were indications that it may have been compromised by spyware. But I’ve since discovered that a limited user account n Windows is VERY limited – you can’t even install a new font when running as a limited user. I have them set up so that I can connect remotely and help them with questions and problems, but getting admin access to fix certain things required logging out of their limited user account, which drops the connection.

So I downloaded the latest version of Ubuntu (actually, Kubuntu, since the K Desktop Environment seemed like an easier interface for switching them from Windows). I’ve tried Linux a couple of times in past, and had heard a lot of good things about the latest version of Ubuntu. One of the key factors in wanting it for my parents is its almost-zero risk of spyware and viruses. So I installed it on a spare machine and gave it another go.

First let me say that Linux keeps getting better. And Ubuntu/Kubuntu is a nice distribution. You get access to a great repository of free software, including games, media players, OpenOffice, graphics apps, etc. And utilities like the Adept package manager make installing those applications even easier than Windows. It’s dangerously close to being at a state where I could switch over to Linux from Windows – even closer to where I could switch my parents.

But there were a couple of issues that are holding me back for now:

On 3 different machines, I installed Linux into the old C: drive partition, with my data files intact on another partition. And in each case, Linux failed to see the pre-existing partitions after installation. I did some research, and from what I can tell Linux still has a problem reliably reading to and writing from NTFS Windows partitions.

Then, when I used Firefox to access a common news site like CNN.com, it couldn’t play any of the Windows media videos because it didn’t have the Windows media codecs. I searched online, found some instructions for installing additional codecs, did the installation, and discovered that I still didn’t have the Windows media codecs. I looked further, and found a site with a download, but no instructions for installing them.

Granted, if I wanted to spend several hours chasing down all the details, I could have probably eventually figured it out.  But if Linux is really going to have a shot at becoming mainstream – and I think it could – developers need to iron out some of these last details. I’m still running Windows 2000 on my desktops, and Microsoft has committed to releasing security patches for it until 2010. By that time (or possibly before) I expect Linux will be on par with Windows in terms of ease of use, especially in terms of program installation and software/hardware drivers. Having Dell offering Linux PCs and throwing its weight behind the operating system will help as well. And at that time I’ll make a wholesale switch to Linux, maybe keeping a virtual Windows 2000 machine loaded up inside Linux for any Windows-specific apps (like Photoshop CS) that won’t run under Linux. (Although I’m holding out hope that by that time there will be a platform for reliably running almost any version of any Windows app seamlessly within Linux).

In the meantime, I’m getting my parents ready for the eventual switch by having them use Firefox for web browsing and OpenOffice for word processing, since they’re both available for Linux and Windows. That way they’ll have familiar apps on the new platform.

Go Linux! I’m almost on board.


Too funny

There was a discussion on Digg today about a Digg-clone type of feature rolling out this week on MySpace, where users can vote on news stories. Some of the comments on Digg:

I’m betting the number one story of all time will have something to do with Panic at the Disco!

I see spammers taking control of it…

I don’t see Myspace users noticing the difference.

Now accepting bets on any of the top 10 stories after 24 hours…

1001 Ways To Customize Your Profile. >>>HAY GUYS ADD ME TO UR FRNDS IF U LIKE THIS LOLL

HOW TO: Cut yourself

37 Ways to Make Yourself Look Emo
101 Ways To Make Your Page Darker and Harder to Read
Top 10 Camera Angles that Hide Who You Really Are
Looking for a Friend? Add Me Lonelygirl666!!1

People on myspace read news?

People on myspace read?

I bet I know what the majority of comments will look like…

“FIRST!”

more like “FiRsT!!!”


Winter fatigue

more snow

It’s that time of year again. It usually kicks in for me in early February. I grow weary of the cold, weary of the stark landscapes. We’ve had a 2-3 week stretch of weather where – except for a couple of brief periods on a couple of different days – the temperature hasn’t gone above the freezing mark. And, as the above photo indicates, we’re getting more snow as I type this post.

I long for a thaw (both with the weather and inside myself). I know that we’ll start to turn the corner towards spring in another 3-4 weeks, but I also know that spring won’t fully arrive until early April. It’s not that I hate winter – I actually like living in a place where there’s a definite change in the seasons.  I just sort of wish that winter was confined to December and January, spring lasted from February to May, summer was June and July, and autumn was August through November. But it’s not up to me, and I didn’t design the system (a very good thing on both counts).

So I try to look ahead with hopefulness. And for the past 2-3 years I’ve scheduled some vacation time for mid- to late-February – just a day or two – as a sort of respite from the doldrums of the late-winter season. Here’s looking forward to sunshine, warmth, green grass, and new growth. I’m ready.


Social networks and self portraits

I’ve had a Facebook page for a while now, and one thing I’ve found interesting is the customary habit that most younger people have of turning the camera on themselves for posting on their pages. It’s interesting to me because it’s an inclination that I honestly don’t posess.

Is it a generational thing? I’ve talked to a few other people who are older than the majority of the Facebook/MySpace crowd, and they also seem generally less inclined to do the self portrait thing. Or is it less of an age issue and more due to the simple fact that high school and college people have come of age in the digital camera era? Would people who are 5, 10, 20 years older engage in the practice more if they had the technology as they were growing up?

As I’ve thought about it, I think the reason I don’t turn the camera on myself is because

a) most of the time the idea never even occurs to me, and

b) the infrequent times it does occur to me, it strikes me as somewhat narcissistic.

That’s not to say I think the practice is necessarily bad. It’s fun to look at some of the photographs that were taken in this method. I just find it curious that it comes so naturally for some and is so foreign to others.

Things that make you go “Hmmm”…


Innovations and standing pat

Last summer I took advantage of a discount magazine website offer and signed up for a year of Popular Photography. I subscribed for a year or two during high school, so it’s been a while. I also got a free subscription to PC Photo magazine through the purchase of some equipment in early summer.

I’m amazed by the number of new digital SLRs released by Canon and Nikon (and to a lesser degree Pentax) every few months. As an Olympus user I was frustrated by the comparative dearth of Oly models being released, featured, and discussed in the pages of either magazine. But in the past few weeks I’ve actually become thankful for the slower pace of Olympus DSLR releases. I’m less tempted to think I need the latest and greatest, and more prompted to use the tools I already posess to improve my skills. There’s plenty to learn and lots of fun to be had with my 2-year-old technology.

So I’m going to try to ignore the megapixel wars and the latest innovations for a while, and concentrate on learning how to see and notice the world around me – capturing bits and pieces that maybe, collectively, represent a larger meaning of things. That’s one of my goals in starting the EPC Shooters group – both to motivate myself to get out and shoot more often, and to share (and possibly spread) the mystery and wonder of photography with the others in the group. There’s definitely a spiritual component to the hobby for me, and my hope is that it’s the case for others as well.

“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” – Ansel Adams


On the veracity of information from the Internet

On the whole, I’m a big fan of the Internet. I’ve found it to be a great source of information on an impressive variety of topics. My first instinct when I want to know something is to Google it, and that instinct is usually well served.

But I found some information on a photography software forum in mid-summer that turned out to be inaccurate. The information had to do with color management in a digital photography workflow. As a result, all of the images I processed from early July through mid September were a bit out of whack from a color prespective. The problem was, because I calibrate my desktop and laptop monitors identically, the problem wasn’t apparent on my machines. It only showed up when other people viewed my photos online. I only found out by accident when viewing the photos from my (non-calibrated) work PC one day.

So I’m going back through and reprocessing my photos from that 10-week period. All it takes to correct them is a change in one setting within my RAW development software. Hopefully I’ll have the corrected versions posted by this weekend. And in defense of the Internet, I found the solution to the problem through another online photography forum with lots of helpful folks.

Here’s to the learning process…


On photography

I first got into photography during my senior year of high school. My neighbor Larry Funk (2 years older than me) had embraced the hobby a couple of years before, and my best friend Mike had just gotten a camera and was slated to take pictures for the school paper and yearbook, and I decided I wanted in on the action. So sometime during my junior year, my parents and I drove to a camera store in Overland Park, and I ended up with a Pentax K-1000.

I took some extension community college classes in an effort to learn the basics, which I sort of did. I still think the few good shots I got were more attributable to luck than skill. But I had a free supply of Plus-X and Tri-X film from the school, and free run of the school darkroom, and I developed (no pun intended) an appreciation for black and white photography.

The Olympus digital cameras that I’ve owned have always produced really vibrant, pleasing colors, and I think that fact made me forget about black and white photography. As I’ve returned to the hobby over the past year and a half, I’ve had the intention of trying black and white in the digital realm “someday”. But shooting with my friend B.J., who fairly recently was taking some B&W photography classes in college, has prompted me to jump back into some experimentation with black and white, and it’s been fun. So expect to see more B&W photos posted here and in the photo album. I’m not abandoning color by any means – it’s just fun to render some shots in black and white to see how they look. Sometimes they look better. It’s also fun to have a couple of Photoshop plugins that can mimic different classic film stocks, utilize virtual colored filters to affect tone, and introduce grain.

So I feel like I’m coming full circle in a sense. And this time around I think I know better what I’m doing when I shoot, so hopefully I’ll be a little less reliant on luck.


You shall not make for yourself an (American) idol

OK, I admit I’m probably a couple of steps outside the mainstream. But I seriously don’t get the apparently widespread fascination with the lame spectacle known as “American Idol”. This week I’ve seen several blurbs on various news shows speculating on who was going to win. This morning I’m seeing all sorts of blurbs online about who won. And the one, overriding question that keeps flashing across my brain is, “Who gives a rat’s a**?”.

Manufactured “pop” stars who don’t even write the material they’re singing – all the complexity and staying power of a sugar-laden breakfast cereal.

If my life ever gets pathetic enough that I start caring about such things, just shoot me.


Springtime in Nebraska

We hadn’t really had much snow this winter, so why not on the first day of spring?