…on Gadgets

The Projectionist

There comes in the career of every motion picture that final occasion when all the artistry, all the earnest constructive endeavor of all the man-power and genius of the industry, and all the capital investment, too, must pour through the narrow gate of the projector on its way to the fulfilment of its purpose, the final delivery to the public.

The delivery is a constant miracle of men and mechanism in the projection rooms of the world’s fifty thousand theatres. That narrow ribbon, thirty-five millimetres, flowing at twenty-four frames a second through the scintillating blaze of the spot at the picture aperture and coursing by at an exactingly-precise 90 feet a minute past the light slit of the sound system, demands a quality of skill and faithful, unfailing attention upon which the whole great industry depends.

The projector lens is the neck in the bottle through which all must pass. The projectionist presiding over that mechanism is responsible for the ultimate performance upon which we must all depend.

The projector must not fail, and more importantly still, the man must not fail or permit it to waiver in its performance. It is to the tremendous credit of the skill of the modern projectionist that perfect presentation of the motion picture upon the screen is today a commonplace, a perfection that is taken as a matter of course.

Adolph Zukor, Chairman of Paramount Pictures, 1935. It still applies as much today as it did back then.

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Learning Photography with the Panasonic GF1

Thanks to several evil friends of mine, I started to take an interest in photography at the end of last year. I’ve always wanted to have a “real” camera instead of a point and shoot, so at the start of 2010, I bit the bullet and bought myself a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1, usually just called The GF1 amongst the camera geeks.

I tossed up between the GF1 and the then-just-released Canon EOS 550D (a.k.a. the Rebel T2i in the USA) for a long time. I figured that getting a compact camera would make me tote it around a lot more, and after ten months of using it, I think I was right. I recently went to a wedding in Sydney, and I literally kept the camera in my suit pocket instead of having to lug it around strapped to my body or neck. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do that with a Canon or Nikon DSLR. The camera’s so small with the kit 20mm f/1.7 lens that I stopped using the UV filter with it, because I didn’t like the 2-3mm that the filter added to the camera depth. Here’s a size comparison of the Nikon D3000 vs the GF1.



(Image stolen from dpreview.com’s review.)

I won’t write up a comprehensive review of the GF1 here; other sites have done that, in much more depth than I can be bothered to go into. If you’re after a good review, the three articles that swayed me to the GF1 in the end were DPreview’s review, and Craig Mod’s GF1 photo field test article and video tests. What follows is my own impressions and experiences of using the camera. The one-sentence summary: the GF1 perfect for a DSLR newbie like me, the micro four-thirds lens system it uses looks like it has enough legs that your lens investments will be good for the future, and learning photography with the GF1 is great and deserves a Unicode snowman: ☃.

The reason you want the camera is to use the 20mm f/1.7 lens. For the non-photography geeks, that means that it’s not a zoom lens, i.e. you can’t zoom in and out with it, and the f/1.7 means that it can take pretty good shots in low light without a flash. All the reviews of it are right: that lens is what makes the camera so fantastic. Do not even bother with 14-45mm kit lens. The 20mm lens is fast enough that you can shoot with it at night, and the focal length’s versatile enough to take both close-up/portrait shots (whee food porn), and swing out a bit wider for landscape photos or group photos. It’s no wide-angle nor zoom and it’s not a super-fast f/1.4, but it’s versatile enough and so tiny that you will end up using it almost all the time. It feels weird to get a DSLR and only have one lens for it, but the pancake 20mm lens is so damn good that it’s all you really need. The only thing it really can’t do at all is go super-zoomalicious, for wildlife/distance shots.

The 20mm non-zoom (a.k.a. “prime”) lens has another advantage: it teaches you to compose. Despite all the technology and all the geek speak, photography is ultimately about your composition skills. Prime lenses force you to move around to find the perfect framing for the shot you’re trying to do; I think learning with a prime lens moves your composition skills along much faster than it would if you were using a standard zoom lens. If you’re a photography beginner, like me, shoot with a prime. It’s a totally different experience than shooting with a zoom, and you learn a lot more. Plus, primes are cheap: the Canon 50mm f/1.8 is USD$100, and Canon’s near top-of-the-line 50mm f/1.4 is USD$350. The Canon 35mm f/2, for something that’s similar in focal length to the Panasonic 20mm prime, is USD$300. (You need to multiply the 20mm by 2 to convert between micro four-thirds and 35mm framing, so the actual focal length of the 20mm in traditional camera speak is 20mm*2=40mm.)

After playing it for a few months, you realise that the GF1 is a fun camera to use. The combination of the 20mm prime lens, the super-fast focus, the size, and the great UI design just begs you to take pictures with it. You feel like you’re wielding a real camera rather than a toy: one that wants you to shoot with it. It’s not imposing like a bigger DSLR so it doesn’t feel like the camera is with you all the time, but it’s not so small that you feel like you’re just snipping super-casually with something that’s cheap. And did I mention the excellent UI? It’s excellent. The better controls are a good reason to get the GF1 over its rivals, the Olympus EP series.

One big bonus: I’ve found that the full-auto mode (“iAuto” as Panasonic brands it) very rarely gets stuff wrong. This is useful if you hand the camera over to someone else who doesn’t know how to use DSLRs so that they can take a picture of you… or, like me, if you just don’t know quite what aperture/shutter speeds to use for the particular shot you’re taking. The full-auto just adds to the joy of using it. I usually shoot in full-auto or aperture priority mode, but honestly, I could probably shoot on full-auto mode all the time. I can’t recall a single occasion where it didn’t guess f/1.7 or a landscape correctly.

Do follow DPreview and Craig Mod’s advice and shoot RAW, not JPEG. Honestly, I’d prefer to shoot JPEG if I could, but RAW lets you turn some bad shots into good shots. I use it because gives you a second chance, not because I want to maximise picture quality. Here’s one photo that was accidentally taken with the wrong settings: I had the camera on full-manual mode, and didn’t realise that the shutter speed and ISO settings were totally incorrect.

However, since I shot it in RAW, I could lift up the exposure up two stops, pulled up the shadows and pulled down the highlights, and here’s the result:

Seriously, that’s just frickin’ amazing. Sure, that photo might not be super-awesome: it’s a little grainy, and it looks a bit post-processed if you squint right, but it’s still a photo of a precious memory that I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and you know what? That photo’s just fine. If I shot JPEG, I would’ve had no choice but to throw it away. RAW’s a small pain in the arse since the file sizes are far bigger and you need to wait a long time for your computer to do the RAW processing if you’ve taken hundreds of photos, but boy, it’s worth it.

I did finally buy a wide-angle lens for the GF1—the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6—and have been using it a lot for landscape shots. I bought the Olympus 9-18mm over the Panasonic 7-14 f/4.0 because it was cheaper, and also smaller. I figured that if I was getting a GF1, it was because I wanted something compact, so I wanted to keep the lenses as small as possible. (Otherwise, if you don’t care about size, then a full-blown Canon or Nikon DSLR would probably serve you much better.) I’ve always wanted a wide-angle lens from the first day that I asked “how do those real estate agents make those rooms look so bloody large?”, so now I have one, woohoo. The next lens on my shopping will probably be the Panasonic 45-200mm. (Never mind the quality, feel the price!) Here’s a shot taken with the Olympus 9-18mm; click through to see the original picture on Flickr.

The main thing that I wish for in a future version of the camera would be image stabilisation. Panasonic follow the Canon path and put image stabilisation in the lens, rather than in the body. I think Olympus made the right decision by putting image stabilisation in the body for their compact DSLRs; you can keep the lenses smaller that way, and you then get image stabilisation with all your lenses instead of the ones that only support it explicitly, e.g. the 20mm f/1.7 prime doesn’t have image stabilision, boo. In-body image stabilisation just seems more in-line with the size reduction goal for micro four-thirds cameras. I’d love to get my hands on an Olympus EP for a week and shoot with the 20mm to see if image stabilisation makes a difference when it’s dark and the environment is starting to challenge the f/1.7 speeds.

The only other thing I wish for would be a better sensor. The GF1’s great up to ISO 800: at ISO 1600+, it starts getting grainy. 1600 is acceptable, and you can do wondrous things with the modern noise reduction algorithms that are in Lightroom if you really need to save a shot. Shoot at ISO 3200+ though, and it’s just too grainy. This is the main advantage that more traditional DSLRs have: their larger sensors are simply better than the GF1’s. I’ve seen shots taken with a Nikon D50 at ISO 6400 in the dark because a slower f/4 lens was being used, and bam, the shot comes out fine. Don’t even try to compare this thing to a Canon 5D Mk II. The GF1 just can’t do high ISO. Here’s an ISO 3200 shot, which is just starting to get a little too grainy. It’s fine for Facebook-sized images, but if you click through to the original, you’ll see it’s noisy.

But y’know, despite the two nitpicks above, the GF1 is a fine camera, and the 20mm f/1.7 lens is an amazing do-it-all lens that’s absolutely perfect to learn with. There’s really nothing else out there like it except for the Olympus EP range (the EP-1, EP-2 and EPL-1), which you should definitely consider, but get it with the 20mm f/1.7 lens if you do. I’ve had a total blast learning photography with the GF1, and I’ve captured hundreds of memories in the past year that made the investment completely worthwhile. I don’t think I’m at the point yet where I feel like I need another camera yet, but it feels good knowing that the micro four-thirds format will be around for a while so that I can use my existing lenses with future cameras I buy. If you’re interested in learning photography, the GF1 is a fantastic starting point.

Update: Thom Hogan did a comparison between the most popular mirrorless cameras: the Olympus E-PL1, the Panasonic GF1, Samsung NX100, and Sony NEX-5. It’s written for people who know photography rather than for novices, but basically, the GF1 came out on top, with the E-PL1 being recommended if you can live with the worse screen and the far worse UI. That’s pretty much exactly my opinion, too.

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Solid State Society

The traditional hard disk that’s likely to be in your computer right now is made out of a few magnetic circular platters, with a head attached to an actuator arm above the platter that reads and writes the data to it. The head’s such a microscopic distance away from the platter that it’s equivalent to a Boeing 747 flying at 600 miles per hour about six inches off the ground. So, when you next have a hard disk crash (and that’s when, not if), be amazed that the pilot in the 747 flying six inches off the ground didn’t crash earlier.

Enter solid-state drives (SSDs). Unlike hard disks, SSDs contain no moving parts, and are made out of solid-state memory instead. This has two big advantages: first, SSDs don’t crash (although this is a small lie—more on that later). Second, since SSDs are made out of memory, it’s much faster than a hard disk to get to a particular piece of data on the disk. In other words, they have a random access time that are orders of magnitude faster than their magnetic cousins. Hard disks need to wait for the platter to rotate around before the head can read the data off the drive; SSDs simply fetch the data directly from a memory column & row. In modern desktop computers, random access I/O is often the main performance bottleneck, so if you can speed that up an order of magnitude, you could potentially make things a lot faster.

Unfortunately, while SSDs are orders of magnitude faster than a hard disk for random access, they’re also an order of magnitude more expensive. That was until May this year, when this thing appeared on the scene:



(Image courtesy of itechnews.net.)

That boring-looking black box is a 120GB Super Talent Masterdrive MX. As far as SSD drives go, the Masterdrive MX is not particularly remarkable for its performance: it has a sustained write speed of just 40MB per second, which is a lot lower than many other SSDs and typical hard disks.

However, it’s a lot cheaper than most other SSDs: the 120GB drive is USD$699. That’s not exactly cheap (you could easily get a whopping two terabytes of data if you spent that money on hard disks), but it’s cheap enough that people with more dollars than sense might just go buy it… people like me, for instance. I’ve had that SSD sitting in my lovely 17” MacBook Pro for the past two months, as an experiment with solid-state drives. So, how’d it go?

I’ll spare you the benchmarks: if you’re interested in the raw numbers, there are a number of decent Masterdrive MX reviews floating around the Web now. I was more interested in the subjective performance of the drive. Does it feel faster for everyday tasks? Is it simply a better experience?

The overall answer is: yes, it’s better, but it’s not so much better that I’d buy the SSD again if I could go back in time. With a hard disk, things occasionally get slow. I’m sure I’m not the only one to witness the Spinning Beachball of Death while I wait 5-10 seconds for the hard disk to finally deliver the I/O operations to the programs that want them completed. With a hard disk, launching a program from the dock would sometimes take 20-30 seconds under very heavy I/O load, such as when Spotlight’s indexing the disk and Xcode’s compiling something. With the SSD, those delays just went away: I can’t even remember a time where I saw the evil Beachball due to system I/O load.

The most notable difference was in boot time. A lot of people love how Mac OS X is pretty fast to boot (and I agree with them), but when you go to log in, it’s a very different story. If, like me, you’ve got about ten applications and helper programs that launch when you log in, it can take literally minutes before Mac OS X becomes responsive. I clocked my MacBook Pro at taking just over a minute to log in with my current setup on a hard disk (which launches a mere half a dozen programs); the SSD took literally about 5 seconds. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1done. What is thy bidding, my master? I wish I’d made a video to demonstrate the difference, because it’s insanely faster when you see it. 10x faster login speed is nothing to sneeze at.

However, aside from boot up time, normal day-to-day operation really was about the same. Sure, it was nice that applications launched faster and it booted so fast that you don’t need to make a coffee anymore when logging in, but those were the only major performance differences that I saw. Mac OS X and other modern operating systems cache data so aggressively that I guess most of the data you’ll read and write will usually hit the cache first anyway. The lower sustained write performance didn’t end up being a problem at all: the only time I noticed it was when I was copying large torrented downloadsfiles around on the same drive, but that wasn’t slow enough for me to get annoyed. The one benchmark that I really cared about—compiling—turned out to take exactly as long on the SSD as the hard disk. I thought that maybe it was possible that random I/O write speed was a possible bottleneck with gcc; it turns out that’s not true at all. (I’ll also point out that I was using Xcode to drive most of the compilation benchmarks, which is one of the fastest build systems I’ve seen that uses gcc; no spastic libtool/automake/autoconf/autogoat insanity here.) Sorry to disappoint the other coders out there.

Aside from performance, the total silence of the SSD was a nice bonus, but it’s not something that you can’t live without once you’ve experienced it. In most environments, there’s enough background noise that you usually don’t hear the quiet hard disk hum anyway, so the lack of noise from the SSD doesn’t really matter. It was, however, very cool knowing that you could shake your laptop while it was on without fear of causing damage to your data. I’m usually pretty careful about moving my laptop around while it’s on, but with an SSD in there, I was quite happy to pick up the machine with one hand and wave it around in the air (as much as you can with a 17” MacBook Pro, anyway).

So, with all the nice small advantages of the SSD, you may be wondering why it’s no longer in my MacBook Pro. Here’s some reviews of the disk on newegg.com that may give you a hint:



It turns out those reviewers were right. Two months after I bought it, the Masterdrive MX completely died, which seemed like a pretty super talent for an SSD. The Mac didn’t even recognise the disk; couldn’t partition it; couldn’t format it. So much for SSDs not crashing, eh?

While SSDs don’t crash in the traditional manner that a hard disk may, there’s a whole number of other reasons why it might crash. RAM’s known to go wonky; there’s no reason why that can’t happen to solid-state memory too. Maybe the SATA controller on the disk died. No matter what the cause, you have the same problem as a traditional hard disk crash: unless you have backups, you’re f*cked. Plus, since I was on holiday down at Mount Hotham, my last backup was two weeks ago, just before I left for holiday. All my Mass Effect saved games went kaboom, and I just finished the damn game. André not very happy, grrr.

So, what’s the PowerPoint summary?

  • The Super Talent Masterdrive MX would be great buy if it didn’t friggin’ crash and burn your data with scary reliability. Even if you’re a super storage geek, avoid this drive until they have the reliability problems sorted out.
  • The Powerbook Guy on Market St in San Francisco is awesome. They were the guys to install the SSD in my MacBook Pro, and were extremely fast (two-hour turnaround time), professional, and had reasonable prices. (I would’ve done it myself, but I’d rather keep the warranty on my A$5000 computer, thanks.) Plus, they sold me the coolest German screwdriver ever for $6. (“This one screwdriver handles every single screw in a MacBook Pro”. Sold!)
  • The MacCentric service centre in Chatswood in Sydney is equally awesome. When the SSD died, they quoted me the most reasonable price I had ever seen for a hard disk swap in a MacBook Pro (have you seen how many screws that thing has?), and also had a two-hour turnaround time. Yeah, I know, decent Mac service in Australia! Woooooah.
  • Back up.
  • SSDs are great. I think they’ll complement rather than replace hard disks in the near future, and possibly replace them entirely if the price tumbles down enough. Next-generation SSDs are going to completely change the storage and filesystem games as they do away with the traditional stupid block-based I/O crap, and become directly addressable like RAM is today. Just don’t believe the hype about SSDs not crashing.

I, for one, welcome the solid state society. Bring on the future!

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iPhone: Currency Converter

A small tip for l’iPhone digerati (aw haw haw haw!): if you, like me, like to look up currency rates, forget about all this Web browser and Web application malarkey. Use the Stocks application instead:

  1. go to the Stocks application,
  2. add a new stock,
  3. use a stock name of AUDUSD=X for the Australian to US dollar, USDGBP=X for USD to the British Pound, etc. (Use the Yahoo! finance page if you don’t know the three-letter currency codes.)

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here you go:

Pretty!

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Hacking Your iPhone Headphones

Perhaps the most annoying feature of the iPhone is its recessed headphones jack:

This miserable little design decision has spawned an entire bloody industry of headphones adapters just so that you can use your own preferred set of headphones with the thing (though admittedly some headphones adapters are way cooler than others). Me, I preferred a slightly cheaper hack. And by hack, I mean hacksaw.

Process:

  1. G’day, where’s the cheese?Get a kitchen knife.
  2. Use kitchen knife obtained from step 1 to cut off the end of the rubber sheath at the end of your headphones plug.

Et voilà! Headphones that fit in rather nicely to that stupid jack. It also seems that a few other people have done this as well, but they applied slightly more rigourous methods than me (i.e. they used one of those “proper knives” rather than, say, a kitchen knife).



It's entirely stupid that we have to do this in the first place, but on the bright side, it does solve one of the only major annoyances I've had with the thing, which elevates the iPhone from being "pretty damn good" to "near perfect" in my eyes. One hopes that Apple won't be repeating this particular design decision for their next iPhone revision.
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Australians: 5GB mobile broadband for $39/month

This is a Public Service Announcement for Australians: if you’re looking for mobile broadband access for your laptop (and what geek isn’t?), Vodafone are doing a pretty spectacular deal at the moment for ‘net access via their 3G/HSDPA network.

For $39/month, you get 5GB of data; no time limits; no speed caps; and fallback from 3G to GPRS in regional areas where HSDPA isn’t available yet. It’s a fantastic deal for people who live in metropolitan areas and work on the road a lot.

The main catch is that it’s a 24-month contract, so is a somewhat long time to be locked in to a plan. However, I have a feeling that no other mobile Internet offering is going to be competitive with 5GB for $40/month within the next two years. (Hell, $39/month for decent mobile Internet access is competitive with even some fixed-line ADSL2 providers.) One other small catch is that you also can’t use multiple devices on the plan: it’s tied to the single SIM card that you purchase with the plan. So, all you cool kids with 3G/GPRS-capable mobile phones, you can’t include that device on part of the bundle (looks sadly at iPhone). Other than that, it’s really a pretty bloody good deal.

To compare this with other plans:

  • Vodafone themselves offer a craptacular 100MB for $29/month, which is barely enough to just check email these days. (And that doesn’t include the modem, which is another $200). A mere 1GB of data is $59/month, or $99 per month with no contract!
  • Telstra are even worse (this is my surprised face): $59 for 200MB. I’ll say that again: $59 per month for 200MB. 1GB is $89.
  • Bigpond (who are different from Telstra1) offer vaguely competitive plans if you’re OK with a 10-hour-per-month time limit: that goes for $35/month. (This translates to around 30 minutes per business day, which may be OK if you just hop online occasionally to check email.) The $35 plan is the only timed plan, though: other than that, it’s $55 for 200MB (puke), or $85 for 1GB.
  • I can’t even find out whether Optus have mobile broadband plans available. Comments?
  • Virgin Mobile Broadband used to be pretty spectacular at $10/month for 1GB, and is still somewhat OK at $80/month for the same 1GB if it’s bundled with a phone plan. Considering that Vodafone’s $39/month for 5GB, you can still pair their deal with a phone plan of your choice and have 5GB instead of 1GB, though.
  • Three (or 3, or whatever) just launched the next best alternative with their new X-Series plans. Their Gold plan is $30/month for 1GB, and their Platinum plan is $40/month for 2GB. Interestingly, the X-Series plans give you a ton of free Skype minutes (2000 minutes on the 1GB plan and 4000 minutes on the 2GB plan), so if you’re a really heavy Skype person and chat about 130 hours per month, the Three deal may be better than Vodafone’s.

The 3G modem they use is a Huawei E220, which looks like it’s the same modem used by Virgin and Three. There appears to be Linux support for it, and I can confirm that Mac supports works fine on Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) thanks to an alternative driver.

So, if you’re interested, visit the Vodafone 5GB webpage. You can sign up through the Internet on the spot. However, you can also sign up over the phone, and if you do, you have a 30-day “cooling off” period where you can opt out of your contract if you’re not happy with the service. (Stupidly enough, you can’t get the 30-day cooling off period if you pop into a Vodafone store, because phone service has different conditions to face-to-face service. Ja, whatever man.) Hurry though: the deal expires on December 31, 2007. Get it as a late Christmas present for yourself, I guess!

1 Telstra Mobility Broadband is a completely separate service from Bigpond Broadband, and Telstra and Bigpond are separate entities. I found this out the hard way, when I was on a 10-hour-per-month CDMA/EVDO plan with Telstra, and couldn’t upgrade to the 10-hour-per-month 3G plan with Bigpond, because Telstra and Bigpond are separate things. Ahuh. (I couldn’t upgrade to a 10h plan on Telstra, because Telstra doesn’t even offer hourly plans anymore.) Way to go for rewarding all your mobile Internet early adopters that braved EVDO, you frigtards.

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Blister Packs

Now I know why blister packs are called blister packs. It’s because you get fucking blisters whenever you try to open them.

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CNN Trashes the Zune

CNN do a quick 3-minute review of Microsoft’s Zune, and they didn’t like it at all. I love the bit where the female presenter says “May I show you my new Shuffle?” toward the end, and pulls one of the gorgeous new iPod shuffles. The design contrast between the two devices is night and day. I think that review will probably sell more Shuffles than Zunes.

You know, I really do wish the iPod had a kick-ass competitor. While there are plenty of geeks who’ll say “Well I have an iRiver and it’s much better than an iPod!”; I mean I’d like to see another device that has 30-40% of the MP3 music player market instead of Apple owning such a massive chunk of it. A single company holding such a large percentage of a market just isn’t good for consumers in the long run. Creative, Samsung, Microsoft, and every single other large electronics company have had how long now and how much resources to put out their so-called iPod killers? Get with the program!

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640GB of Storage On the Road

Do you work with audio and video on the road? How does an astounding 640GB of storage on your laptop sound, with performance nearly meeting that of a desktop?

  1. Buy a MacBook Pro, which can net you 160GB of internal hard disk storage.
  2. Rip out the internal DVD drive and replace it with another 160GB internal hard drive, via an MCE OptiBay.
  3. RAID-0 your internal 320GB of storage, for twice the read/write performance.
  4. Buy a LaCie Little Big Disk, which will net you another 320GB of RAID-0 storage that’s totally bus-powered over FireWire 800.

Wallah, 640GB on the road. Of course, if you’re a serious performance freak, you’d probably opt for the 7200rpm 100GB drives instead of the 5400rpm 160GB ones. But that’ll only net you a meagre 400GB of storage instead of 640GB.

Your batteries might only last for about 30 minutes, but hey, it’s probably still longer than one of those Dell XPS Gaming laptops, and you can actually carry a MacBook Pro around without needing a truck.

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Firewire and Robust Connectors

I read somewhere a long time ago that the cable connectors for IEEE 1394 (better known as Firewire) were inspired by the connectors that Nintendo used for their game consoles. This assertion now seems to be on Wikipedia, so it must be true:

The standard connectors used for FireWire are related to the connectors on the venerable Nintendo Game Boy. While not especially glamorous, the Game Boy connectors have proven reliable, solid, easy to use and immune to assault by small children.

Clever. The 6-pin design for Firewire cables is great: absolutely impossible to plug in the wrong way, and you won’t damage a thing even if you try really hard to plug it in the wrong way. There are no pins exposed on the connector that can be broken, unlike, say, those damn 9-pin serial or VGA cables (or even worse, SCSI cables, ugh). It’s like the Firewire was designed by Jonathan Ive. (I dunno if Ive designed the iPod dock connector, but that’s definitely not as robust as a Firewire one.)

Yay for good industrial design.

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Dodgy blank DVDs

Note to self: Before thinking your DVD drive is broken because it apparently can’t burn data DVDs properly, try another brand of recordable DVDs!

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Video iPod Can Do Better Than 640x480

One of the features of the new video iPod (the “Generation 5.5” one) is that it handles videos bigger than 640×480 just fine. This shouldn’t be surprising for geeks who own the older video iPod that plays 320×240 video, since the alpha geeks will know that the older video iPods could play some videos bigger than 320×240 just fine.

A nice side-effect of this is that if you are ripping DVDs to MPEG-4, you can very likely rip them at native resolution: I had zero problems playing Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica on a new video iPod, and it had a native resolution of 704×400. (Note: This is with a standard MPEG-4 video profile, not H.264 baseline low-complexity.) This is pretty cool, since you can now hook up a little video iPod direct to a big-ass TV and know that video resolution is no longer a differentiating factor between DVDs and MPEG-4 video. Now if only the iPod had component video connectors available…

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MacBook Pro First Impressions

It’s been about a week since I got my shiny new MacBook Pro. Since then, I’ve used it for both work and play, so I think it’s about time I put more crap on the Internet and blogged about my very important personal feelings on this issue.

First, this thing screams. It’s fast as hell. Mac OS X zips along even more smoothly than the Dual 2.3GHz Power Mac G5 I have at work, and the interface generally feels snappier than a G5, which is already reasonably teh snappy. To my amazement, some stuff on the MacBook Pro is way faster than on the G5. As an example, here’s how long it took to compile a debug version of cineSync, our little project at work:

  • Dual 2.3GHz Power Mac G5: 5m10s
  • MacBook Pro: 1m40s

That’s a 3x speed improvement — versus a 2.3GHz G5, which is a pretty blazing fast machine already. (I didn’t believe the performance difference that I ran the test three times!) I really don’t understand the performance discrepancy here: the G5 is at least the equal of the fastest x86 chips in raw processing power, so where’s this 3x difference coming from? Even fork(2)/exec(2) speed in Darwin is an order of magnitude quicker on the MacBook Pro than on the G5, so running those one terabyte ./configure scripts finally doesn’t look so paltry compared to Linux. My only thought is that x86 code generator for gcc is an order of magnitude better than the code generator for the PPC. I guess this is a feasible possibility, but it does seem somewhat unlikely. Can a compiler that generates better code really be responsible for that much of a speed difference? Maybe indeed (quiet you Gentoo fanboys down the back)… thoughts on this issue would be welcome!

Rosetta, the JIT PPC-to-x86 code translator, also works amazingly well. While the technology in Rosetta is already an extremely remarkable achievement, its greatest achievement is that you don’t have to worry about it: I downloaded some Mac OS X binaries of Subversion a while ago, and only realised later that they were PPC binaries. So Rosetta works completely transparently, even for UNIX command-line programs. I suspect that part of the reason Apple haven’t open-sourced the Intel xnu kernel for Mac OS X/Darwin is because Rosetta may be tightly integrated with the kernel, and it’s technology that they don’t want to (or perhaps cannot legally) give away.

The whole Windows-on-Mac thing also works rather well. Windows XP running via Boot Camp is, well, the same as Windows XP running on a vanilla PC, except that it’s running on a very pretty silver box (with very pretty ambient keyboard lighting). It does have some slightly annoying issues (such as Fn-Delete on the internal keyboard not functioning as a proper Del key), but those issues will be solved with time. (Unfortunately, Counter-Strike isn’t all that playable with a trackpad :).

Parallels Workstation is equally impressive: hardware-assisted virtualisation really does fly. It’s remarkable to see Windows XP running in a window inside Mac OS X, and have it run at more-or-less native CPU speed. Setting breakpoints in Visual C++ Express also works fine, so Parallels appears to be virtualising hardware breakpoints correctly too. There’s still a lot of work to be done in virtualising drivers, however: it would be mighty cool to see a virtualised PC game running at nearly native speeds, since that requires virtualised accelerated video and sound support.

The upshot of the successful Windows-on-Mac stories are that I’ll never be buying a generic PC yum-cha box ever again. On the road, I finally have a machine that can actually run Mac OS X, Windows and Linux all side-by-side, both virtualised and “for real”. For my family, that means that I can actually buy them an iMac even though they need to run Windows. (The iMac really is a beautiful machine: there’s no single-box-with-built-in-display solution like an iMac at all in the PC world. Yeah, I’m sure there’s some cheapass Taiwanese knockoff of an iMac, but that certainly doesn’t count.)

One nice touch to end of this story is that my local AppleCentre offered me no less than A$1000 to trade-in my faithful old 1GHz Titanium Powerbook, which I intend to follow-up on. (I’d have done it already if I didn’t have to head out-of-town so soon.) If you’re thinking about upgrading an old Mac to a new ICBM model, see whether your AppleCentre will accept trade-ins. I was very pleasantly surprised that I could get a four-digit figure from a trade-in of a three-and-a-bit year old laptop.

So, overall first impressions of a MacBook Pro? I’m a pretty happy boy indeed. The only regret I have is that I already used the name shodan for another computer that’s much less deserving of the name. Seriously, I called a Dell box shodan? What the hell crack was I on?

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MacBook Pro Fun

I suspect that if you don’t know that Apple released their Boot Camp tool to enable normal PC operating systems to be installed on their shiny new ICBMs, you’re probably not a geek, and this article doesn’t really concern you…

Since there have been plenty of other articles written about Boot Camp and its implications for the future of the Macintosh, I won’t say any more about it here. I just wanted to say the following:

  • Tuesday, April 4: Pick up shiny new MacBook Pro from my local AppleCentre.
  • Wednesday, April 5, ~8pm Australian CST: Apple announces Boot Camp.
  • Thursday, April 5, ~2am Australian CST: Windows XP SP2 installs on my Mac.
  • Thursday, April 5, ~3am Australian CST: Visual C++ Express 2005 and Counter-Strike are installed (the latter running at a rather nice 72.7fps in Valve’s Video Stress Test).
  • Thursday, April 5, sometime later: Parallels announces a beta of their Workstation product, enabling Macs to virtualise running guest operating systems. Hooray for x86 hardware virtualisation technology.

Not bad for the first three days of owning a MacBook Pro, really. Bring on the tech!

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Ultrasone HFI-550 Headphones

After quite a bit of hunting around, I found one absolutely kickass pair of headphones for work: the Ultrasone HFI-550. They’re great for a work environment because they’re sealed headphones, which means that if you’re like me and play stuff loud, you won’t disturb your workmates because sealed headphones keep the sound in. The sound quality from them is superb: they’re up there with my beloved Beyerdynamic DT531s for serious listening. They’re also comfortable: I’ve worn them for hours on-end with no problem or fatigue at all.

For Australians, the best thing about them is that thanks to AusPCMarket, you can actually get them in Australia for a reasonable price: they’re USD$189 at Headroom, but you can get them at AusPCMarket for A$231—including shipping. Considering that equivalent competing headphones (such as the AKG-K271) are around the same price range in the USA but are quite hard to find in stores in Australia for anything less than about A$330, A$231 for these things is a bargain.

And, of course, the day I got these nice pair of cans is the same day that I managed to code my way out of a coding slump, and get back into deep hack mode. Coincidence? I don’t think so…

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An Optical Mouse of a Mouse

The optical LED for Apple’s Mighty Mouse emits a cute little picture of a mouse if you look hard enough, and apparently this has always been the case for all of Apple’s optical mouses. Kudos to them for the little design touches! Now if I could only find another Logitech MX-300, which is the best weighted and most comfortable mouse I’ve ever used.

(Man, you know you’re a total nerd when you start talking about the weight of your frigging mouse.)

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In-ear Headphones Adventures

I’ve been on a bit of a headphones splurge lately: anyone who knows me will know that I like my music, and I love my gadgets. I like in-ear headphones for travelling since they’re small, unobtrusive, yet can still give excellent sound quality. While nothing beats a nice pair of full-head cans for comfortable listening, they’re a little bit awkward to tote around. Interestingly, I’ve found that my experiences with in-ear headphones have been quite different from most of the reviews that I’ve read on the ‘net about them, so I thought I’d post my experiences here to bore everyone. The executive summary: make sure that whatever in-ear phones you buy, wherever you buy them, be prepared to bear the cost if you don’t like them, or make sure you can return them.

Note: For comparative purposes, my preferred non-in-ear headphones are the Sennheiser PX-100s (USD$60), IMHO one of the best open earphones in its price range. I don’t consider myself to be an audiophile at all: I think I know sound reasonably well, but I’m not fussy as long as the general reproduction is good. A general guideline is that if I state that something lacks bass compared to something else, you’ll be able to hear the difference unless you’re totally deaf, but I’m not fussy about whether the bass is ‘soft and warm’ and all that other audiophile crap. For serious listening/monitoring, I currently use Beyerdynamic DT 531s, and previously used AKG-141s. The Sennheiser PX-100 nor any of the headphones below are any real comparison to these beasts: the 531s and 141s are meant for professional monitoring with serious comfort; it’s a whole different target market.

So, here are some in-ear headphones that I’ve tried over the years:

  • Apple iPod earbuds: Mediocre sound quality, trendy white, comes with iPod. Stays in the ear reasonably well. Not enough bass for my liking, but that’s no surprise considering they come for free. That said, they’re a hell of a lot better than the earbuds that come with most MP3/CD players; the Sony PSP also came with trendy-white headphones, and they sucked a lot more than the iPod earbuds.

  • Griffin Earjams (USD$15): Designed as an attachment to the iPod earbuds. This doobie significantly changes the output of the earbuds so that you now get a good amount of bass, with very little treble. Not good enough: I like bass in my doof-doof music, but I don’t want to hear just the doof-doof-doof, you know? If you’re tempted to get these, I’d suggest trying Koss’s The Plug or Spark Plug in-ear phones instead, which are just as cheap, have just as much (if not more bass) reproduction, and don’t suffer so badly on the treble end.

  • Apple in-ear Headphones (USD$40): I really liked these. About the only thing I don’t like about them is that they don’t fit in my ear well enough: they’re fine for a couple of minutes, but after about 10 minutes I realise that they’re falling out a bit and I have to wiggle them in again. I don’t find this too much of an annoyance, but no doubt other people will. If you plan to do exercise with your in-ear phones, you will definitely want to give these a very good break in and find out whether they come loose during your gymming/running/skiing/breakdancing/whatnot.

    I’m fairly sure the loose fitting is due to a different design they use: the actual earpiece/driver seems to be much bigger than the other in-ear headphones I’ve tried here, and I guess they’re designed to be used further away from the ear rather than being stuck deep into your ear canal, as with the Sony and Shures I tried (and no doubt like the Etymotics in-ear phones too). The nice thing about this design is that you don’t have to stick them really, really deep, which is the main reason I like them. I find the Sony and the Shures want to be too deep for my comfort level; see below.

  • Sony MDR-EX71SL (USD$49): Available in white or black. After much internal debate and agony, I got the white model. (Trendy or street-wise? Trendy or street-wise? Trendy it is!) This was the first model I bought after the Apple in-ear headphones, expecting to have seriously better sound. After all, everyone knows that for audio, more expensive always means better—especially those gold-plated, deoxygenated, shiny-looking, made-from-unobtanium Monster Cables. Anyway, I was fairly disappointed with their sound quality: less bass than the Apple’s iPod earbuds. Well, OK, let’s be honest: I’m sure they do sound really good if not far better, but I’ll never find out, because I really don’t want to shove them in my ear that far. Unlike the Koss Plug series, these Sonys don’t come with foam earpieces that can be inserted at a comfortable distance, so I think you have to put the earpiece far deeper into your ear than I did. In the very unlikely scenario that I did insert them as far as they were meant to go, they sounded pretty crap indeed.

  • Koss Spark Plug (USD$20): The sequel to Koss’s suspiciously cheap older model, which was simply named “The Plug”. The Spark Plug’s just as cheap as The Plug, but supposedly better (or at least different). For $20, I don’t think you can complain a whole lot: they give you a pretty good amount of bass (comparable to the Griffin Earjams), but they’re definitely lacking at the high end, though not as much as the Earjams are. I find the foam earpieces that come with these fit my ear pretty well, don’t have to be put in that deep to deliver that doof-doof bass I’m looking for, and they’re also reasonably comfortable. They’re not quite as comfortable as Apple’s in-ear headphones, but still, better than I’d expect for a piece of foam stuck into my ear. If your sound-playing device has an equaliser, you can likely correct for the Spark Plug’s lack of treble response by putting it on an Eq setting that boosts the treble a bit: I found the Spark Plug to be sound pretty good on iPod’s Treble Boost or Electronic Eqs. A good, safe (and pretty cheap) buy.

  • Shure E3c/E4c (USD$179 and USD$299): So, I found the Apple Store stocking one of the most acclaimed in-ear phones I’ve ever read about, which would be the Shure E3c. (Note: the ‘c’ in E3c stands for consumer, and basically translates to “trendy iPod white”. The Shure E3 is exactly the same, but is black, and therefore faster.) Additionally, they also had the Shure E4c in stock, which are far more pricey than the E3c (and therefore better). Unfortunately, I put both of these headphones into the same category as the Sony MDR-EX71SLs: I’m sure they’re as absolutely awesome as all the glowing reviews say, but I’m just a wimp and refuse to shove those damn things that far into my brain. Oh yeah, on a not-very-relevant note, Shure changed the packaging between the E3c and the E4c. The E3c had a (gasp) easy-to-open plastic pack, but apparently Shure have since been attending the American School of Plastic Packaging, and used them evil blister packs instead.

  • Griffin EarThumps (USD$20): Released at the start of 2006, I managed to find a pair of EarThumps calling me at my local AppleCentre, and I like them alot. They’re pretty cheap (they’re sure as hell not in the Shure E3c/E4c price range), and they sound great. The bass production is nearly as good as Koss’s Plug series, and they actually manage to produce pretty decent treble too, so you won’t have to play around with your graphic equaliser too much to make these sound decent. Additionally, they appear to have the larger drivers that Apple used for their in-ear headphones: this means that you don’t have to shove them so far in your ear. In fact, these were even easier to get into your ear than Apple’s in-ear headphones, and were much less annoying to put in than the Koss ‘phones. They’re also reasonably comfortable and stay in your ear quite well, and come in both black and white models if colour-matching your iPod is an important thing to you.

For on-the-road listening, my current preferred earphones are the Griffin EarThumps: small enough to fit next to an iPod nano in one of those evilly cute iPod socks, with good enough sound and a good comfort level. I was previously using Koss’s Spark Plug, and before that, Apple’s in-ear headphones. The EarThumps are a set of earphones that I can heartily recommend to friends, since they’re reasonably cheap, and more importantly, I know that they won’t have to shove some piece of equipment halfway inside their brain to get any decent sound out of it.

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Pang's Law

When you buy a bunch of CD jewel cases, at least one in every ten will be broken or cracked.

(While I’m at it, don’t buy the crystal-clear jewel cases. They look cool, but they’re a right beeyotch to open up so you can slide in the inlay…)

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Mike Evangelist on HD's AACS

Mike Evangelist (yes, I do believe that’s his real name…) is calling for a boycott of HD video products, due to restrictive digital rights management schemes that the industry is intending to push on to consumers.

There are plenty of folks out there speaking out against DRM, of course. One thing that distinguishes Mike’s opinion from the rest of them is that he’s a former executive at Apple. What’s also interesting is his opinion on CSS (the encryption mechanism used for consumer DVDs) and FairPlay, which he wrote in his blog comments:

CSS never bothered me that much because everyone in the industry knew it was just a placebo to satisfy the movie studios. Nobody expected it to actually do anything. AACS on the other hand is being designed to work, by some very smart and very serious people.

I view the DMCA as a criminal conspiracy that should be prosecuted under RICO statutes, but of course it wonít be, as the conspirators are in charge.

But the big difference with AACS is that they can change the rules after the fact. If you buy an high definition DVD, youíll have no certainty what rights you will be granted in the future. Itís insane.

PS I find FairPlay to be a reasonable compromise, but it doesnít work for me because I want to play my music from my server using devices that donít support it. Hence, I buy my music elsewhere.

It appears that both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will be adopting AACS as part of their rights management schemes, unfortunately.

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IBM Model M now in USB

For followers of the One True Keyboard, UniComp now have the IBM Model M (a.k.a. the Battleship, a.k.a. IBM 42H1292, a.k.a. 1391401) available in a USB model. Now, if only I could get some volume and eject keys, and the Command (⌘) and Option (⌥) sigils emblazoned on them…

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Your Laptop LCD vs the Sun

If you’re like me and quite enjoy cafÈ-style computing, you’ve no doubt tried to use your laptop sometimes in some pretty harsh sunlight. LCD backlights just aren’t powerful enough to compete with our lovely life-giving star, so usually I have a lot of trouble reading stuff on the screen in bright sunlight.

The solution? Try inverting your screen colours, so that black comes out white, and white comes out black. You’ll be amazed just how much more readable white-on-black is in bright lighting than black-on-white, and also how little you’ll have to set your screen brightness to properly read stuff:

I don’t know if there’s a way to invert colours on UNIX systems (XFree86/X11): if somebody’s keen enough to find out and drop me an email, I’ll add the information in here. (Of course, all you hardcore UNIX geeks who run white-on-black terminals will now get black-on-white terminals instead. Ahh well, just screen invert back when you’re in a terminal I suppose!)

As an added benefit, some laptop LCDs also seem to get longer battery life when they do this. Kudos to this Mac OS X hint for the heads-up on this!

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Mighty Mouse

I wrote up some first impressions of Apple’s new Mighty Mouse on the Whirlpool forums, if anyone’s curious. The things appear to be selling like hotcakes at my local AppleCentre!

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Sony PSP and Wipeout Pure

One thing that made a serious dent into my ever-growing credit card debt while I was in Toronto was getting a Sony PSP, which I’m glad to say was money well-spent. Wipeout Pure absolutely rips arse. (Dom, I’m up to 21 gold medals now, go me!)

There’s been plenty of good reviews on the PSP floating around on the Web, so I won’t add to them. All I will say about it is that Wipeout Pure is great: if you’re an oldskool Wipeout 2097/XL fan like myself and was a bit disappointed with the feel of Wipeout Fusion, Pure brings back all the goodness of 2097. At first I thought it would be a bit restricting playing on a small screen instead of a nice big TV or monitor, but the freedom the PSP gives you is a big win: I was playing the thing at the airport lounges, planes, and in bus shuttles. I wouldn’t use it as an iPod replacement simply because the iPod does that job a lot better (and as significantly longer battery life, too), plus the PSP isn’t quite small enough to fit into one’s pocket yet.

So, at least if you were interested in the PSP for Wipeout Pure, go get one. Pure is the pinnacle of the Wipeout series so far.

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SD card with built-in USB

Mmm, I want one of these (never mind that I already have a 1GB SD card and a tiny 1GB USB flash drive):

SanDisk has today announced a unique SD card which has a hinged portion, flip this over and the card becomes a USB 2.0 Flash Drive. This neat piece of engineering means that you can flip the card out of your camera and straight into your computer without the need for any card readers or cables. Clever. SanDisk expect to be able to produce this new card in capacities of up to 1.0 GB, they will have more detail and initial samples at the upcoming PMA 2005 show.

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Logitech V500

Aww jeah, I gotta have me one of these. And it’s even accompanied by the most impressive advertising I’ve ever seen for a mouse. (I particularly like the “see the scroll panel in action” demo. Look at that spreadsheet fly!)

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For the price of one ink cartridge

I can buy 7 gallons of motor oil.

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Griffin SightLight

If you travel alot and want to be able to video conference with iChat AV properly, the Griffin SightLight is an awesome little gadget. I’ve now had numerous iChats which would have been crap without the SightLight, and worked very well thanks to it.

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The Perfect Father's Day Present

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Non-Sucky Bluetooth Adapter

If you’re looking for a non-sucky Bluetooth adapter, the D-Link DBT-120 seems like one of the best ones out there. It appears to have good Linux support and Mac OS X support, and its Windows drivers are actually half-decent. (Perhaps Windows XP SP2 might standardise on a Bluetooth stack, but I wouldn’t trust that to make the dismal state of Bluetooth on Windows any better.)

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