Photography walking workshop around Chinatown

April 22nd, 2012 | 18:12

I did a “photography walking workshop” around Chinatown, which was a little disappointing: the thing was aimed at a median student who doesn’t know how to work his camera (i.e., got the new DSLR a few months ago, has been operating it in full auto, doesn’t know how to set aperture/shutterspeed/ISO, or those ideas relate to each other).

The instructor was also a last-minute substitute, who was regularly leads a similar workshop around northern Central Park , but was generally unfamiliar with the Chinatown area.  During introductions, I mentioned that I worked nearby, and wound up being asked for suggestions on which street to walk down for interesting things to photograph and, at the end, where the group could sit down, have some coffee or tea, and compare photos.

Anyway, here are the better ones from my set:

Chinatown Photo Walking Tour

Brooklyn Botanical Garden

April 15th, 2012 | 19:44

Cherry trees are at their peak, I think.  Unlike Washington a couple of weeks ago.

Washington DC 2012

April 4th, 2012 | 08:35

Cherry Blossom and Kite Festivals

Wood’s Hole and Martha’s Vineyard

October 2nd, 2011 | 09:54

Wood's Hole and Martha's Vineyard

Key West

February 22nd, 2011 | 08:22

Back to Key West, a week away from the snow and cold:

Florida 2011

South Carolina and Georgia

July 25th, 2010 | 12:48

Photos from the trip.


Charleston, SC

Beaufort and Hilton Head:

Beaufort and Hilton Head, SC

And Savannah:

Savannah, GA

Longwood Gardens

April 12th, 2010 | 10:12

We spent Sunday afternoon at Longwood Gardens, which is about 30 minutes from downtown Philadelphia. The weather was great, though a bit hotter than we expected, and it’s the time of year for botanical gardens to have lots and lots of blooming flowers (though they haven’t turned the fountains on as of yet).

Mostly, it was a time to play with the camera:

Non-Flash link to the Picasa album is here.

Seattle and Los Angeles

March 22nd, 2010 | 08:55

A couple of months ago, we’d bought somewhat awkwardly scheduled air tickets for Grace’s job interviews on the West Coast. Since those interviews are now moot, we just used those tickets for vacation, staying in Seattle and Los Angeles for a few days each and doing touristy things.

Seattle and Los Angeles 2010

Some highlights for Seattle:

  • We stayed in a hotel a few blocks south of the Art Museum, and generally walked around in the area between the Space Needle and a bit south of Pioneer Square.
  • We did the Ride the Ducks Seattle tour, mainly to get orientated. There’s a similar tour in Philadelphia, but the Seattle one seemed more wide-ranging, probably because the city is a bit more spread out than here. The water-borne portion of the tour was in Lake Union, which had far more interesting things to look at than the sparse Delaware River waterfront.
  • We had a couple days of great weather, where the sun was out and the sky was clear enough so you could see Mt. Rainer off in the distance, and the Olympic Mountains ringing the western horizon. Possibly, people in Seattle lie and say that it’s raining and cloudy all the time, to keep other people from moving there.
  • We ate at or near Pike’s Place Market pretty much every day, from the piroshky stall, to the French bakery, to fancier Matt’s In the Market, to picking up fruit and yogurt and bringing it back to the hotel. If one were to live in downtown Seattle, one should live as close to the Market as possible, and get fat. We also had sandwiches at Salumi, which is a salami place near Pioneer Square.
  • In terms of restaurants with tablecloths and good views of the harbor (for whatever that’s worth), I liked Cutters Bay House the best, both for food and scenic harbor views. Ivar’s is right on the docks, near ferry terminal, so you can see the rush of bicycles and the cars driving on and off the boats, but I didn’t like the food quite as much.
  • The Science Fiction Museum and the Experience Music Project were kind of blah. They’re in the same Frank Gehry-designed building near the Space Needle, and it’s the same ticket for both. SFM consists of a couple of rooms off to the side and in the basement, and is smaller than you think it should be, and there’s way too much Star Trek. EMP is a lot less interesting than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which feels like a real museum and does a great job in taking you through the history of rock, whereas EMP feels like something attached to a science fiction museum. There is a nifty piece of Web 2.0 tech in EMP, though: there’s a small digital photo studio, where you can dress up and pose like a rock star, and your photo gets posted up to the EMP website.

In Los Angeles, for the most part we stayed with friends, and got driven around.

  • There was the standard vista of Los Angeles as seen from Mulholland Drive. The haze made the city a vague hulk off in the distance, with a river of cars flowing in the flats around it.
  • Yes, the traffic is atrocious. For some reason, I thought of the area east of Cleveland, on Mayfield, where you’re passing endless strip malls, and the cars are backed up because of construction near I-271, but there is no construction: it’s just horribly congested because everyone has to drive everywhere.
  • There’s a dog run in a residential neighborhood, where you can get pretty close to the Hollywood sign. On the way to the dog run, there are notices posted, warning tourists that there’s no access to the Hollywood sign on this road.
  • There’s a giant Scientology “temple” (or whatever they call it) under construction near Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
  • The area with the Hollywood Walk of Fame is what you expect: crowded with tourists, people aggressively selling tours to tourists, people dressed like Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe posing with tourists, shops full of plastic things tourists buy, etc. Fewer buildings need a new coat of paint than I would have thought.
  • Porto’s Bakery in Burbank is pretty awesome.
  • UCLA is pretty nice.
  • We went to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is, in some ways, a piece of performance art meditating on the nature of museums and the way museums present Truth. I had first heard of the place in a Harper’s article from a long time ago and its subsequent book, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, and had wanted to visit since then. The Museum is surprisingly large and labyrinthine, though I didn’t see the famed African ants. Possibly I missed them. Possibly they were no longer on display. Possibly they never existed in the first place. Who knows what the truth with this place?
  • We ate at the Farmer’s Market, which is an old cluster of food stalls, now next to a high-end shopping mall (complete with Cheesecake Factory and Apple store). The food stalls themselves are family run, and range from Korean barbecue to an ice cream/soda fountain that’s been there since the 1930s, to the Middle Eastern bakery serving a version of pizza (lahmajoun).
  • We borrowed bikes from the hotel were were staying at for the last night of the trip (it’s near LAX, so we didn’t have to worry about traffic, especially with the LA Marathon closing down a good section of the city), and rode from around Marina Del Rey, past anarchic Venice Beach, to a point just north of Santa Monica pier.
  • For the last dinner there, we had Persian food, which is I think the first time we’ve done that. I suppose it’s similar to the more familiar-to-us Turkish food, but with a different mix of spices. Interestingly, we were told that there’s a large Iranian population in Beverly Hills, and shows like 90210, full of blondes at the high school, isn’t actually representative: there’s a plurality of Persian teens there.

HTPC Build

September 10th, 2009 | 23:40

Notes on the Home Theater PC build.

This machine is to replace the older Series 2 Tivo with the build-in DVD player, mainly because the building’s cable set up will have a odd-ball channel line-up. A Tivo HD will be around $100 (after discounts), plus a couple hundred dollars in subscription fees.

The timing is also to fit in with the new TV season, as well as news about the pricing on, say, Asus EEE nettops with the Nvidia ION chipset. A homebrew machine with ION, plus a bigger drive, faster ION, Blu-Ray, etc., costs about the same as the Asus.

The important bits and pieces were picked up from NewEgg. The bits are:

  • Zotac ION Mini-ITX N330 (dual-core Atom). The ION should be able to decode 1080p video without hiccup.
  • Rosewill RS-MI-01 BK Mini ITX case. This is a bit larger Mini-ITX case, mainly to allow for a full-sized optical drive, instead of a slim drive. It also has 2 3.5″ bays. The PSU is a nice addition, though it turned out to be unnecessary (and in the way).
  • Lite-ON Blu-Ray drive.
  • KWORLD ATSC TV Stick UB435-Q. This is a USB digital TV tuner, which works well enough.
  • nMEDIAPC HTPCKB-B RF wireless keyboard and WMC remote control.
  • Plus the usual big drive and 4GB of memory.

Assembly went relatively well, though the Rosewill case, even if larger than the typical Mini-ITX, is a bit tight. The included PSU wasn’t actually needed, as the Zotac motherboard comes with an external power supply. For that matter, the PSU would have gotten in the way of the CPU heatsink. The external 3.5″ bay, with a regular hard drive in it, stuck too far in the back; the SATA cables got in the way of the CPU fan in this case. But the case has an internal 3.5″ bay and the drive fits there nicely. Shorter SATA cables would have been nice, but I didn’t bother. Note that the Zotac’s CPU fan screws directly into the heatsink fins; there are no screw holes. Other note: the case front panel LEDs aren’t glaring, which works nicely in the HTPC context.

The heatsink fan is necessary, I think. Without the machine really doing anything, the heatsink fins were hot to the touch. Who knows what it would have been with the machine trying to process HD content? With the fan, the fins were cool.

The operating system is Windows 7 beta (build 7100 specifically). Of course, I’ll install the released version of Win7 when that comes out. Installation went without a hitch off a USB flash drive boot.

Zotac BIOS update caused a minor hiccup with the CRC checksum failing after the flash (and recognition of only 950MB or so of RAM). In the flash program options, make sure the flash writes to every part of memory to fix this. Also, make sure the BIOS doesn’t start up with numlock enabled, as the wireless keyboard doesn’t have a numlock indicator; password entry failed until I realized this was the issue.

Additional codecs/software should be installed for Win7 to be able to open MKV files, specifically the CCCP codec pack. 720p playback of a test file went without a hitch after the pack was installed.

The HTPC is hooked up to an older Toshiba 46HM84, which is a 720p DLP rear projection set. The Nvidia control set has it at a weird resolution, 1176×664. Additionally, the “display type” within Media Center has to be set to “Projector” to deal with overscan issues. Everything looks better now with this setting. Possibly, a new TV would fix this, but there’s no need for that right now. Maybe when the current bulb burns out.

In terms of media center functions, recording scheduled shows works, as does playback of downloaded content. Netflix doesn’t have an add-on for the pre-release Win7 — I believe they’re going to come out with a fancy one when Win7 is officially released — but playing movies from within a browser seems to work fine. Same for Hulu Desktop. I haven’t tried Amazon’s streaming service yet.

Live TV works fine, though the antenna with the USB tuner stick might be better. I ordered a second tuner, a hybrid one this time, because I didn’t realize that the building’s cable signal is purely NTSC analog. Media Center should be able to handle multiple tuners (I believe up to four with Win7), so we’ll see how that works, and how annoying it’ll be to set up a custom channel line-up for the building’s cable.

Other software: UltraVNC so I can do stuff without having to turn the TV on. uTorrent, well, because.

I haven’t tested Blu-Ray yet, since I don’t have any disks. I should pick one up. I’m thinking of the Planet Earth series, since that’s something we’d actually want to keep. Netflix will cost an extra $4/month for access to the Blu-Ray collection.

The wireless keyboard includes a trackball in the corner, with mouse controls on the sides (e.g., a trigger-type left mouse button underneath the trackball, and a scroll wheel on the left side). The mouse has to be activated by clicking on one of those buttons instead of just rolling the thing. The remote also has a trackball, which is kind of awkward and makes the buttons kind of smaller and less ergonomic. The Tivo remote is light-years ahead in terms of usability compared to this, i.e., commonly used WinMCE buttons are too small, and so on. It’s a hefty remote, though.

So, the Tivo is going to get retired really soon. I had already suspended the account when we moved to Philadelphia because it wasn’t clear what kind of TV service was in the building (and Verizon FiOS TV wasn’t available yet). I’m going to forgo the CableCard thing: I don’t see anything useful for the high additional cost, since the building gives access to basic and extended channels (e.g., Discovery, FoodTV, etc.) The current line-up of Tivo HD devices also doesn’t have any with a Blu-Ray drive, so we would have to get a dedicated Blu-Ray player with a new Tivo.

My impressions so far is that Tivo is more polished in the things it does, but it does less than a modern Windows Media Center HTPC. It’ll cost about the same as the homebrew machine, once you account for the stand-alone Blu-Ray drive. I’ve had a Tivo since the early days, around 2000, but I think we’re at the end of the road now.

Anyone want a Tivo Series 2 Humax with a built-in DVD burner?

Update: the second tuner arrived today. Yay, Newegg, shipping from New Jersey. WinMC required manual configuration to get it working, though: it’s a hybrid tuner, WinMC would detect the digital part and ignore the analog part. Interestingly, the cable line-up was already there, specific to this particular building.

Oh, throw in the second tuner, and this Blu-Ray equipped dual-tuner HTPC comes in at under $650, albeit I’ve deferred paying for Win7 until later.

Update 2: Blu-Ray is working, though it took a bit of effort. The drive came with a bundled version of Cyberlink’s PowerDVD version 8. PowerDVD8 required at least 1024×768 for the display, which is a problem on a 720p TV. Changing the PC to one of the 1080i resolutions got PowerDVD8 to start up, but lead to a driver incompatibility error having to do with the ION chipset.

I tried PowerDVD9 with the same 1080i mode and got the same driver incompatibility error. I tried an alternative like Nero, but the trial version didn’t support HD playback (which is stupid, since this is what people will be testing). Looking at reviews of the ION, I was encouraged that some of them used PowerDVD to test Blu-Ray playback: someone out there got it to work.

Eventually, I tried setting the screen resolution back to a 720p mode. PowerDVD9, unlike v8, started up fine, and played the Blu-Ray test disk I picked up. I don’t know what the original problem was.

Note that Cyberlink’s Blu-Ray test program still showed that I wasn’t supposed to be able to play Blu-Ray. In one instance of the test program, it showed the driver incompatibility. In the other, it showed that and a HDCP failure, even though Nvidia’ control panel showed a valid HDCP pathway.

Of course, I now have to pay for PowerDVD, but at least there’s one working version for my setup. “Planet Earth” in HD looks gorgeous.

Phoenix and Sedona

April 30th, 2007 | 18:12

Nowadays, I seem to get to these posts about a month later. We were in Phoenix in March, one of those spouse-tags-along-to-conference trips. We also went up to see the red rock cliffs of Sedona for a day. As usual, pictures:

The area’s main places of interest we went to: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Scottsdale, the Heard Museum, and the day trip to Sedona, with a stop at Montezuma’s Castle along the way.

Note that it was 90F in Phoenix, and very sunny. Cleveland at that time, not so much. Actually, given how unseasonably cold it was in Key West the previous month, this was the first time we’ve experienced shorts-and-t-shirt weather this year. Very nice. Probably not very nice by August, though.

We were staying near Squaw Peak, about 15 or 20 minutes north of downtown Phoenix. My brother recommended visiting Taliesin West, and it was an easy drive on local routes from there. Wright’s office, still preserved like he had left it, was interesting, with a huge work table and a wealth of natural light from the desert sun filtering in through sailcloth ceilings (now a white, translucent plastic). The whole room was a giant lightbox, washing out any shadows. The rest of the living areas were similar, integrating indoors and outdoors, though in a sort of difficult to work with 1940s style. There are ideas you want to take for your own house, not copy wholeheartedly: the light is fantastic, and you can certainly work with the environment rather than in spite of it (we saw green lawns in front of the various desert McMansions we drove by), but you’d ways to power and run computers, and maybe do away with the, well, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture.

That afternoon, we went down to Scottsdale and stumbled upon the weekly artwalk in the gallery district there. Ate at a Mexican restaurant. Not much to say beyond that it’s a nice walking town. One of the galleries apparently had real Rodin and Degas sculptures, as opposed to the run of the mill local artists’ works and dolphin sculptures.

While Grace was attending the conference, I spent part of the day at one of the local coffee shops. Entertainingly, I overhead three conversations happening near my table that reinforce certain stereotypes of the American southwest: there was a small Bible study group on one side, and across the aisle was a pair talking about how to do no-money-down/foreclosure real estate investing in the still hot (to them) Phoenix market. The Bible study group left, to be replaced shortly thereafter by another pair. One was a life coach, the other the life coachee. I don’t recall if they got into The Secret, such as it is. But the coffee was good, breakfast was cheap, and the wifi was free.

One interesting museum is the Heard Museum, specializing in Native American culture. There’s a mix of older artifacts — Apache baskets, various figurines including the interesting “storyteller” motifs — and contemporary art by Native American artists. One part of the museum featured an exhibit on the forced assimilation of children through boarding schools, in a less multicultural era. The museum guide had to spend some effort stopping a group of Chinese tourists from using their camera flashes, but was generally informative about the displays and the various tribes in the American southwest. The only lacuna was what exactly constituted a different tribe. Linguistics and geography?

The highlight of this trip was Sedona, a few hours north of Phoenix. On the way, we saw the intriguingly named “Montezuma’s Castle” on the map and decided to detour there. This was a pleasant surprise: the “Castle” is one of the largest, best preserved cliff dwellings in the area. The highest portions are still well preserved, though, as ordinary tourists rather than certified archaeologists, we were restricted to the marked paths well below the cliff dwellings. The larger portion of this village has deteriorated to the point of being only outlines of walls near the cliff base.

The main feature of Sedona itself is the red rock landscape surrounding the town. I hadn’t seen this landscape before in real life; only in movies. It actually is an amazing place, and the cliffs rise unperturbed over the modern clutter of the highway and outlet mall just south of town. The map that they give you when you get to downtown Sedona is vaguely useless and confusing. It took a while to figure out that the tourist trap section is only a small part of the map, and the most of the long main street is the standard residential/commercial portions, complete with supermarket and hardware stores. Distances weren’t well marked, and we actually though it’d be reasonable to walk from point A to point B, not realizing that down that first hill was only a fraction of how far we needed to go. Thankfully, the parking lot where we put the car was free, and not too far away. The Google Maps client for Blackberry was far, far more useful than the paper map we got, though the tourist office did give us a tip on the best place to take pictures of the landscape: halfway along the airport road, you can see the whole town.

The other good tip we got from the tourist office was to forgo the little trolley tour and sign up for a 4×4 off-road tour. We opted for the Pink Jeep Tours. This was a couple hours of kidney-shaking fun as the jeep climbed up and down dry creek beds and boulder falls, all the while receiving a geography lesson from the driver on how the red rock formations actually came about, over millions of years of flowing waters. Even though we were in the midsts of the desert, I was reminded of the Norman Maclean’s closing paragraph of “A River Runs Through It”, about the river carved out by the world’s great flood and the rocks from the basement of time. And there we were, surrounded by unimaginably old rock, sediment from a Permian sea.

The tour was timed to reach a high vista at the start of the photographic “golden hour”, just before sunset when the red cliffs deepen in color. The other group in our jeep had a cheap disposable camera for this ride, which seemed to be a waste. For my part, I was an idiot who hadn’t recharged the battery on the Nikon since Key West the month before, and I was on the last blinking bar just before the jeep tour started. By the good graces of capitalism, a photography store in the tourist section keeps a supply of SLR batteries fully charged (the last charge date handwritten on the package), just for idiots like me, and it was only about $20 over B&H’s price for an uncharged battery. I think of that $20 as the dumbass tourist-photographer tax.