Thursday, December 31, 2009

Media player: EN391TV

This is an interesting media player. My son got it for just AUD$49 from PC Case Gear (the hard disk is purchased separately). It serves as a HDD docking station, connected via USB2.0 cable to a computer. You can connect it to a TV and play all your media files. It even comes with a remote control. I tested it out today by comparing it to my existing MVIX media player, which I bought for ~AUD$300 more than a year ago.

For $49, I wasn't having very high expectations of the EN391TV. After trying it, I must say I would be happy to recommend it to anyone without a media player at home. It is very easy to use, it can play most of the formats I have (primarily ISO, JPEG, MP3, AVI, MPG, WMV, etc, etc), and the video quality is as good as played from my MVIX player, although JPEG looks over-saturated and could do with some tweaking on the TV display. It doesn't have a cooling fan, so it is completely silent.

It's so simple to use that I didn't even have to refer to the manual. To transfer files, just connect to the computer using USB cable. The computer immediately recognizes it as a hard disk. To connect to the TV, just use the RCA cables provided. Switch it on, and it shows you all the files you have. Click on any to play. If it is a music file, it will pay music. If it is JPEG, it will go into a slideshow, and so on. PLAY, PAUSE, STOP, FF, etc, are all there on the remote, but you can also operate it without the remote using the buttons on the docking station itself. Left on the computer, it can be used as a swappable hard disk. Or take it with you on a trip and you don't have to carry all your individual CD's or DVD's. It even has a built-in SD card reader to play your photos. I will not ditch my MVIX player for this one because the MXIV is conveniently networked to all my computers, but I will be perfectly happy to use the EN391TV media player.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Myki: Brumby's political timebomb

I am convinced that the Myki ticketing system is going to be a hot potato for Premier Brumby in next year's election. Despite Transport Minister Lynne Kosky trying to spruik up the system with rhetoric, the system is far from being ready to release. It was done so yesterday only because the Victorian government is too embarrassed to admit it has failed to keep its promise to have the oft-delayed project finally launched by 31 Dec 2009.

From personal experience in managing software projects, it is very clear to me that Myki is far from ready to launch. There are just far too many un-met deliverables, the most critical of which is that the touch system on unwired transport (trams and buses) do not work properly. This is no small matter. In project management practice, the touch system would be considered critical enough to warrant testing right at the beginning of the project; i.e., at least 5 years ago.

If only 20% of commuters use trains only, while others use a combination of train, tram or bus, then common sense says Myki cannot be considered close to being ready when it is only useable on trains-only for now. From reports of test runs to top up tickets at the train stations, the failure rate is typical of software in an "alpha" run. "Alpha" testing is carried out when a software is newly written. After the obvious bugs are ironed out, then the software is released for beta testing to uncover more subtle bugs. In the case of Myki, the system looks like it is at alpha testing stage. It is a software developer's suicide attempt to try and release a software under such conditions. Even beta testing is done under carefully guarded conditions before it is deemed ready to launch. To have an idea about beta testing, think Microsoft and Windows releases.

As for Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, her answers to the press only show how unfamiliar she is with the project. Either she is too busy with other ministerial functions, or the Myki project is not high enough on her list for her to be too intimately informed of its progress. It is no wonder the project keeps slipping; the project appears to have taken on a life of its own. As stakeholders, Premier Brumby and team should have held tighter reins on Myki's progress, with periodic reviews on milestones and key stages. Looks like the only string they are capable of pulling in this case is the public purse string.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My new camera bag: Lowepro Fastpack 200

I like to do some research before buying something. There's a certain thrill about gathering information and making the best decision. There's always lots of choices and often the best choice depends on the individual user's needs. After some research, I narrowed down my choices to the Lowerpro brand, and the models Trekker, Slingshot, or Fastpack. Each of these models are available in different sizes. Lowepro is to camera bags is like Manfrotto is to tripods. I ended up buying the Fastpack 200 for these reasons: When I go out on a photo shoot, I will be selective in what gear I need to carry and it will be weight-limited so as not to bog me down. The Mini Trekker carries a lot of lenses, but will probably be left at home to house my gear rather than carried around on trips. The Slingshot is great for fast access but has only one strap which makes it tiring to carry for a long period of time.

Fastpack 200 is just the right size and the right design for me. I can carry it as a backpack. I can have fast access to the side pocket. The general compartment above the camera compartment is useful to carry anything on a day trip, or to carry more gear (like chargers, flash guns, filters, or even a back-up camera). I took it to a wedding yesterday. Left on the floor, I could access the top compartment easily. When following the guests around, I could carry the bag on one shoulder and fast-access the side pocket to grab my camera. Plus, I still have lots of room left over for future acquisitions.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day shopping

Everyone shops for presents for others before Christmas Day. Then they shop for themselves on Boxing Day. That's Dec 26th, if you are not familiar with Boxing Day. That is the biggest sale day of the year. This is what happened in Melbourne yesterday. It seems like everyone wants to go to the Chadstone Shopping Mall, which is the largest in Melbourne. I am not sure about the other big malls, but the smaller ones don't seem to have that pull. I am not a shopaholic. In fact, my eyes get dry and tire very easily inside a shopping mall. My legs grow weary after a short walk. I feel uncomfortable with sales assistants waiting to pounce on me the moment I show the slightest interest in a display. I happen to like looking at cameras and mobile phones. Boy, do they love to pounce on you when you go near one of these!

Anyway, back to Boxing Day sale... I decided to go to two places yesterday with my son who simply loves shopping. First, we went to Chapel street. It was a pleasant experience. The shops were nice upmarket ones. They were not crowded and there was no shopping frenzy. The discounts were genuine. If ever there was I time I wouldn't mind shopping for clothes, this would be THE time and THE place to go.

Next, we headed for Chadstone Mall. The cars going there were backed up more than a kilometer long. Inside the mall it was as crowded as a fun fair. You'll find the same shops here as in Chapel Street, but vastly different crowd. Department store like Myers and David Jones were like giant flea markets. While Chapel Street was a pleasant experience for me, Chadstone Mall had the opposite effect. Unless you already had in mind what you wanted to pick up, I suggest you stay away from a Boxing Day sale at Chadstone. I did manage to part with some money on a few good buys, but it was mostly in Chapel Street.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Postal strike - civil service in revolt?

Civil service has lost its meaning these days. As I recall growing up in Malaysia, civil service has a different beat to a private service. If you are a public servant, you work for the government. The government takes care of you in the form or job permanency (i.e nobody loses his job in the civil service). Along with complete health care for you and your dependents, you also get a pension when you retire. As for strikes, this is simply out of the question. The private sector, on the other hand, operates on a supply-demand basis. The pay is based on market value, but there is no absolute job security, health care package, or a pension to look forward to. If you are not happy with your employee, you can go on strike or you can quit your job.

The public sector typically comprises essential services (although many countries have privatized a large portion of this, often to the detriment of the public). As such, it is my personal opinion that public sector employees should not be allowed to go on strike if it means crippling the smooth running of a public service. The government, and therefore civil servants, hold a monopoly in all essential services. To turn this monopoly into a bargaining chip for pay rise demands is just holding the public hostage. To be fair to civil servants in Australia, the condition of service has become very "private sector-like", hence it is not surprising that the same private sector malaise (e.g. strike actions) also affects the public sector.

The postal service is a very important public service. Before the advent of the internet, it was the primary means of communication for every single person living in even the remotest part of the country. Even now this role is still very important. Nobody should be using his privileged position, as a civil servant with monopolistic power, to hold the public hostage at any time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What about iPhone apps?

About 30 years ago, Apple Computer's founder Steve Jobs envisioned the Newton as a personal digital assistant that will be able to give you information at your fingertip. It was essentially a hand held, portable computer. The product did not catch on due to the infancy of the technology, but the word PDA (for personal digital assistant) lived on and for a while became a popular commercial product sold by other companies. That was until mobile phones got smarter and moved out of the role of a phone and into the role of a PDA. So now we have "smartphones", of which the iPhone is currently the most popular one. With the iPhone, one can download an endless number of apps (small applications), some for just a small fee. The apps turn the phone into a store house of features. Unlike a computer program, the apps are usually simple to use and their portability makes it very handy for people constantly on the move.

I do not have an iPhone but I have a Symbian phone that essentially does the same thing. After some time, I found that I do not really need many of the apps I have installed. After all, there is a time for everything. If I want to look up a restaurant, I find it better to sit in front of my computer before setting out, rather than drive out unprepared and start seeking out a restaurant on my phone. If I want to go somewhere unfamiliar, I would google it on my computer before leaving the house, rather than having to rely on a GPS.

Having said that, it is handy to have certain apps to carry around with you. I love being able to look up the dictionary just about any time when I need to. I love having the calculator handy. I love being able to take notes on my voice recorder. I love being able to read an electronic book or play some games when I have some time to kill. All these functions exist simply as apps in my smartphone. I think smartphones are here to stay for those who are tuned in to this technology. For those who are not, here's a tip: you can get a perfectly decent mobile phone for anything between AUD$40-80, instead of shelling out more than AUD$200 for a smartphone that will only confuse you with all kinds of unnecessary features.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Graffiti writers

I took a train down to the city today. As usual, one is entertained to graffiti-littered walls all along the way to the city. Today is the first time I saw a group of graffiti writers in action. They did not seem too concerned that train travelers are actually witnessing their act. It looked like the group was taking their own sweet time to do the "job".

As a way to fight graffiti vandalism, I suggest that local councils display a phone hotline at all places where graffiti writers are prone to strike. This should be in a prominent position where passersby can see from a distance and where it is out of reach of the graffiti writer. Hopefully this will send a strong message to would-be graffiti writers and discourage them from carrying out their acts.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New hybrid Camry

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is very proud of bringing the production of the new hybrid Camry to Australia. This means more job opportunities for the locals. Added to that is the fact that Kevin is a self proclaimed champion of the environment. The hybrid Camry will cut down on fuel consumption by a third, owing to the use of hybrid technology.

I think the government can do better. If we are really interested to cut down on fuel consumption, why not encourage the use of a smaller car? Nissan used to have a marvelous model called the Sunny which was very popular in Malaysia about 30 years ago. It was about the size of today's Corolla. It had big bumpers for direct front and rear impact. This car was truly the people's car: it was cheap to buy, cheap to run, and cheap to maintain. And it almost never gave any problems. So why are the big car makers making big-engine cars, only to improve the efficiency by a third? A Nissan Sunny would have cut down by two thirds the fuel consumption without any fancy technology. Better still, a motorized bicycle would run circles around a car and save on road congestion and parking shortages. Yet the government is silent on all these ideas.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheaper mobile alternative

I am convinced that TPG has a much cheaper mobile phone plan than Optus (and Telstra too, for that matter). On TPG's $19.99 plan, you will get $300 worth of calls. In comparison, Optus charges $49 for $330 worth of calls. Or, if you choose Optus' $19 plan, you'll get just $50 worth of calls.

That is not all. Consider also:
1. Optus charges 80c per min plus 35c per flagfall. TPG charges in 30sec blocks at 40c per min and 35c per flagfall. If you call for less than 30 sec, Optus takes from you $1.15 while TPG takes from you $0.75.
2. If you are on TPG broadband service, you just pay $15 to get the $19.99 plan. Compare that to Optus' $49 for more or less the same amount of calls!
3. In TPG mobile, you can download data (i.e web, email) at 5c per 10kb, which will be counted towards the $300 worth of calls. In Optus, you will have to sign up separately for this service and pay over and above the cap value.
4. TPG has no contract. You can terminate any time. Furthermore, in TPG you can check your usage call-by-call online, anytime. In comparison, Optus provides you a convoluted bill at the end of each month which is extremely difficult to interpret. I often find dubious charges in Optus bills that are difficult to comprehend.

Forget about "free phone" offers from Optus. You can work out for yourself that it is not free. If you are interested to change over to TPG and start saving on you mobile bills, here's a tip: you can use any Optus-locked or Virgin-locked phone on TPG Mobile without having to unlock the phone. Oh by the way, you cannot use Blackberry on TPG Mobile. I was told by TPG that you cannot use iPhone, but on the internet forums I found that it can be done. More research required on iPhone.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Disappearing services

Some years ago I bought a supplementary health insurance policy from Australian Unity at a shop in Glen Waverley. Yes, all claims were handled over the counter then. I also remember going to an AGL office to apply for my electricity supply connection. Nowadays you cannot find such offices anymore. You have to telephone an anonymous person. You cannot see the expression on their faces when you try to lodge a complaint. It is a faceless, expressionless, anonymous voice that we get to deal with. If you cannot settle any matters over the phone, you are left out in the cold as you would be at the mercy of the service provider. Yes, theoretically you can choose another provider, but then they all behave the same way. Is society regressing or moving forward with advancement in technology? In my opinion, the public is shortchanged. As more and more companies move into providing faceless service, they have not passed the savings to the public.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Idiot Law

There are many laws which I cannot understand why a sensible lawmaker would introduce. Therefore I call such laws the Idiot Laws. They seem to be made by idiots for the benefit of idiots. For example, if a burglar breaks his leg while burglarizing your house, you will be penalized for not keeping your house accident-safe. How about this: some years ago if a kid suffers an injury in the playground, the local council can be sued. What followed then was that all the public playgrounds became closed to the public. Fortunately a law was quickly implemented to repeal that "idiot law". Here is another: teachers are not allowed use the cane to punish a student. As a result school discipline in Australia is a joke by Asian standards.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Happy kids

These children are a delight to watch. I saw them at the Lilydale Lake yesterday where our camera club held its year-end picnic. I first noticed them playing together by the lake. They had a puppy called Max, which was just as high spirited as the children. The children were always together; they laughed a lot, and they made up games as the day passed. There were no manufactured toys, no handheld video games, and no MP3 player. The children were just enjoying each other's company as they ran after each other, chased after their puppy, or explored different parts of the park. They even posed for a photograph when they saw me taking their pictures. I wonder how often one gets to meet such children these days.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Christmas in July... and November

In Australia, there is such a thing as celebrating Christmas in July. It has not really caught on, thank goodness, but some businesses actually try to promote that. This year, my daughter's chemist is having their Christmas party tonight and it is not even December yet. The idea is that you get these parties out of the way so that you can have more time for your family as the big day approaches. Christmas season is starting earlier and earlier now, and it is not just the shopping malls that are the culprits. Even the radio has started playing Christmas carols. Today is only the 28th of November. I'm not sure if I can last till Christmas.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Something funny happened last night

I attended a friend's birthday dinner at the NGV last night. It was held in one of the gallery rooms. At an opportune time, I walked with a couple of friends to the gents. We had to pass through a some other galleries with 17th century painting displayed on the walls. As we walked, we heard church hymns being played in what sounded like piped in music. The sound of pipe organ and opera-pitch voices seemed appropriate for the ambiance. I was beginning to enjoy it. One of my friends naively commented that it was "classical" music. As we entered the gents, the music seemed even louder, and I thought it was quaint of them to pipe the music into the toilets. Upon leaving the toilet, a security guard pointed out to me that the phone in my pocket was ringing. I picked it up and saw that it wasn't ringing but the music player was switched on. I even commented to my friends that my player was playing the same music as the gallery's piped music! What a coincidence! Hallelujah! Surely there must be a divine message in this strange coincidence! But guess what? It was my mobile phone Mp3 player all along and there was no piped in music....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pink Lake

This is surreal: blue sky, but pink reflection. This is the Pink Lake, which is near Dimboola, on the way to Adelaide. I have made this stop many times, but this is the first time I have seen the lake so full of water. Every time I passed this place before I had only seen a thick crust of salt which crystallized out of the sea water that somehow has been trapped there, although this place is nowhere near the sea. It so happened that the sky was very cloudy on that day, so it made the shot all the more interesting. (The pink colour of the water comes from a pigment secreted by microscopic algae. The intensity of the pink varies with the amount of water in the lake. When the lake is drier more light is reflected from the white crystallized salt reducing the impact of the pink)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The VET system - a lesson for Malaysia?

VET stands for Vocational Education Training. VET in Australia is highly structured and it provides formal recognition for people who choose to have a career outside of the university system. The NTIS (National Training Information Service) sets the framework for quality in training, the qualifications awarded, and gathers the training packages for various industries. Private training organizations subscribe to the NTIS for accreditation. By this means tradespeople are able to maintain a good standard of workmanship in their vocation, which also means that they can charge a uniform fee for a standard quality of work. The fees are normally high but regulated and reasonable, which results in a win-win situation for both the tradesman and the public at large. It is a win-win situation because this system provides a good career path for vocational work, while at the same time it enables the public to enjoy a high quality of services.

Look at what happens if such a system does not exist. Malaysia is a good case in point. In Malaysia there is a virtual absence of systematic training and assessment for vocational work. The quality of work is generally poor as unskilled workers undercut skilled craftsmen by offering much lower prices. Therefore the career path for vocational work is shunned and viewed with disdain. Instead, everyone tries to get a university degree. This results in a gross oversupply of university graduates, who become underemployed and whose careers aspirations are seldom fully met. With a fast growing population, Malaysia is missing out on the opportunity to create a service industry that can certainly contribute towards the GDP.

Government by Man, Mammon, or God

Basically the system of government throughout the world can be viewed in one of these three contexts: socialist, capitalist, or theocratic. It used to be that governments see themselves as provider of service and care for the people; i.e. the socialist context. Governments then acted in the interest of the general public, not Big Business.

As people became more and more materialistic, they allowed mammon to take over, in the name of capitalism (with controls given to Big Business). This is based on the over-simplified supply and demand theory. The supply and demand scenario is probably best exemplified by the new blockbuster movie called "2012" where one has to pay 1 billion euros to buy a place on the modern ark which is built to withstand the physical annihilation of planet earth. In a very capitalistic country, one's education and wellbeing depends on the ability to raise money.

A theocratic country is one where the country is governed by religious teachings. Unfortunately that too can be a problem if the religion teaches hatred and encourages its people to destroy anyone of another religion. Only God knows that human beings are not able to govern itself properly. The reason is simple: God gave mankind dominion over the earth, but He did not give mankind dominion over one another. Check with your pastor.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Love the nagger

When we remind our children to tidy their rooms, we are accused of nagging. When we remind the other family members to bring their own plates to the sink, we are said to be nagging. The list goes on and on. I say that nagging is a misused word because an occasional loving reminder invariably appears as a bothersome nag to the other person. That "nagger" is a loving parent who quietly does all the housework while the others sit around waiting to be served. Very rarely do you find a household where everyone chips in for the chores out of a sense of shared responsibility. Sharing chores is only something you might find in a scouts camp or while visiting another person's home.

Back to the nagger... just observe the person doing all the chores at home. Occasionally, he or she feels that it would be good if everyone chips in to do his part. That is love in action, isn't it? But no, as soon as a suggestion is made, everyone says "you like to nag", without sparing a thought for the parent or the spouse who does all the work. I say love the nagger; your nagger is not your servant but somebody who loves you and cares for you and deserves your respect.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Different value systems

What would you say if somebody you see every day does not honour a commitment he has made to you? A friend of mine runs a cafe in a popular shopping center. He has a certain customer who comes in every day for coffee, all by himself. This has been going on for about a year now. My friend sometimes chats with this guy; let's call him Ernie. Ernie claims to operate a car workshop. Recently my friend decided to engage him to do a bumper repair job. Being a trusting person, my friend immediately paid Ernie for the bumper, and expected to pay him the remaining upon completion, even though one does not usually pay anything up front for such a job. For what usually takes less than three days, it has been at least three weeks now since Ernie took the money. Till now my friend does not even know when the bumper is going to get fixed. Ernie still comes to the cafe for his usual coffee and he seems the least perturbed by my friend's constant querying. I cannot understand a person like Ernie. He does not seem to have a conscience. He does not feel a sense of responsibility towards my poor friend after accepting the part payment.

I said to my friend that Ernie just has a different value system. My friend disagrees. He says if the table were turned around, he is sure Ernie would feel equally mad. This is where my friend got it wrong. My friend's value system is: don't do to others what you don't want others to do to you. Ernie's value system is: "what's YOUR problem, mate?" Pray that you do not meet many Ernies in your life because it is exasperating; you simply cannot deal with people who cannot make a commitment and keep it. Ernie just keeps giving my friend a new excuse each time he fails to keep his last promise... and then goes on to make a new one.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Processed food

Here's a little "food" for thought. Two days ago I bought a packet of pre-marinaded fish and one of pre-marinaded octopus from a supermarket. I did not have time to cook and the items looked fresh and good. This is the first time I have bought pre-marinaded seafood. Well, they tasted fine, alright. However, my wife broke out in an allergic reaction the very night. And it was not due to the fish or octopus, as she have had those before. It must have been due to some chemical preservatives that have been added. If you care for your health, I think it is best to avoid all processed food that supermarkets love to sell. Even unprocessed food uses a lot of chemicals in the production process. Processed food is therefore much worse, especially processed seafood. One hard lesson learned. I shudder to think what sort of chemicals are routinely added to all our foods in the supermarket. No wonder supermarket chains in Australia are fighting for the right to open a pharmacy in the store.

A tropical paradise

Once upon a time, there lived a peace-loving people whose kind and gentle nature was known throughout the world. When travelers journey through this place, they did not talk about the beautiful weather or the unspoiled landscape. They talked about the friendly smiles, the genuine hospitality, and the slow and unhurried pace of life. It was a tropical paradise and I loved this place. I thought the whole world was full of people like that.

Time passed. I grew up and traveled to many places in the world. The people I met were different. The world out there was not filled with the same gentle people I knew and admired. Returning to the tropical paradise, I was even more alarmed that the gentle people I once knew have been replaced by greedy, callous, and corrupt people that I never knew existed before. In their drive to enrich themselves, they have polluted and destroyed the environment. Through corruption and mismanagement, they empty the public coffers. The utopian world of free public health care is slowly replaced by privatized hospitals. What used to be quality education is replaced by poorly run and sometimes dubious institutions from primary schools to colleges and universities. A peaceful society now lives in barricaded houses with hired neighbourhood security guards, numbed to escalating crime, and harassed by the very people who are there to serve and protect them. A tropical paradise, like the Garden of Eden, has disappeared.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What makes a good camera

Only a few days ago I was thinking about what kind of camera I would like to get next. I thought it would be a terrific idea to get a really good point-and-shoot. That will do nicely when I go on a holiday. It will save me from carrying a lot of gear. Oh yes, it must have an articulated LCD for me to get those type of shots that you don't normally get looking through a viewfinder. But it must have a really good sensor; at least an APS-C or a Four-Thirds sensor, because I am a firm believer that a good sensor makes a good camera.

Tonight at the camera club my appetite for a good sensor is further increased. Ron Cork showed pictures taken on his Europe trip. The pictures taken in low light at high ISO strongly convinced me that the crucial factor in today's camera lies in the sensor. Technology has blurred the gap between cameras on things like shutter lag, image stabilization, and ease of use. Lens technology is nothing new and you'll always get what you pay for. Gimmicks like face recognition, water proofing, and ultra-zoom are just that: gimmicks.

The distinguishing feature lies in the sensor. I believe even the sensors used in the best DLSR's today are still evolving. In the D700, it has reached a point where you can take most pictures in low light condition without using a tripod (there you go: less gear to carry on your holiday. Just make sure you have a very fast lens, though). I mean good pictures and not grainy ones you get when you bump up the ISO in a cheap camera. I believe there will come a time when one can shoot in any lighting condition without using a tripod or a fast lens. It is unlikely that such a super sensor will be cheap or available soon, I think it is better to get a fast lens as my next acquisition, instead of chasing after a dream camera. It is like buying a computer. You only buy the fastest processor to suit your needs at that time. As I am still learning how to shoot well, I think I could live with my humble D90 for some time yet. I could do with a fast lens though, and I think I'll forget about getting a point-and-shoot camera now, no matter how good the successor to Panasonic LX3 or Canon G11 comes long. Someday I'll go after the best-in-class sensor. Just not now.

Notes to myself: How to do a better slideshow

Tonight at the camera club I was very impressed with the slideshow that Ray Goldsmith put together. He started by saying that it is time to write a book; what shall he write? I realized that he was saying he needs to start off with a theme. I recall that my best slideshow efforts were those that started off with a theme. I had a mental picture of what I wanted to do in the slideshow. For example, in Derby Day, I wanted to include clips from the movie My Fair Lady, and I wanted to use the movie introduction as my slideshow introduction to give it a spoof. In the Rhododendron Gardens slideshow, I wanted to show a peaceful walk through the garden using "The Garden" hymn as the theme song. It worked very well indeed. Other slideshows I did which were just "ordinary" were uninspiring because I started without a theme. I simply put all the pictures together and then added a sound track or two. So now I must remind myself once again when I do my next slideshow: I must start with a theme.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How much is the doggie in the window?

I walked in the King's Arcade today and paused to admire a tiger skin on the big display window. It was too small to be from a real tiger. It was probably the skin of another animal but dyed to look like the skin of a tiger. Next to it was a leopard skin, also of about the same size. My gaze turned to the third skin, which was black in colour. I thought it looked like a dog. Sure enough, it was that of a large black dog, which had chosen the display window to take a nap. The head was partially hidden from view. I wonder if the shop owner did that on purpose. It certainly caught my attention and my imagination. Life is full of interesting surprises if you look hard enough.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Motivated to gamble?

Can anyone be motivated to gamble? We can say that a person is motivated to make money by gambling, but can we also say he is "motivated to gamble?" We are motivated to do something when that something is the end result by itself. If we say a person is motivated to gamble, then it implies that gambling is the end result; it doesn't matter if he wins or loses. It seems strange to me when a friend of mine said to me today that some people are motivated to gamble. I really have to think about it. I may be wrong. I think we can say a person is addicted to gambling, or he has a gambling habit. However, he should not excuse himself by saying that he is motivated to gamble, as if it is a wonderful thing he is trying to achieve.

I know I am just making a mountain out of a molehill here. I hope all my children will be smart enough to recognize that gambling is an addiction and an antisocial behavior. No one should be motivated to gamble, even if there is such a thing. In life we are sometimes motivated to take a gamble but to gamble for the sake of gambling.... isn't that a costly indulgence?

My Picasa online album

I have decided to go with Picasa for my online album, not because it has the most impressive layout to display my pictures, but because it is the most practical for my needs now. I have included the link here on my blog page. What works well for me is that I can keep reorganizing my folders. All the folders I have set up to display will be automatically synchronized to the online album. That saves me a lot of work. I can also block the display of any pictures in the folder without moving them out of the folder. On the online album side, the display is fast (pictures are preloaded for the viewer) and easy to navigate. It is also supereasy to fire off an email directly from Picasa to anybody or any group on my mailing list when I feel like sharing some photos in an album. My only gripe about Picasa is that the display is oh so bland! I hope that the next time Picasa does some upgrade they will take a page out of pbase.com

Thursday, November 5, 2009

He and She

Of all the surnames I have seen or heard, I probably encountered the most interesting ones today. A mother and her daughter came into the post office to pick up registered letters for her family. Her surname was "She" and her husband's was "He". They are Chinese, by the way. She told me how she often introduces herself: "Hi, I am She and my husband is He." It just sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Perhaps it would be even funnier if she is "He" and he is "She".

The couple have two daughters and no son. So the daughters are called "He", after the father. That doesn't sound quite right, does it? Perhaps they should consider themselves lucky because their male cousins in the maternal line will have the surname of "She". He is lucky and She is not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Forgive us our debts

The Lord's prayer says "... forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Various translation refers to the word "debt" as "sins, trespasses, or wrong doings". This verse reminds me of the parable of the man whose debts were written off by his master, yet he very quickly turns around and demands payment from another servant who owes him some money. How often we feel justified in demanding restitution for a mistake done against us. If only we can practice humility more often, and work together to rectify a mistake, it would be much more pleasant all around for everybody. The next time a cashier gives you wrong change, or a waiter brings you a wrong order, think of the Lord's prayer. How about if somebody knocks your car and you are not in the wrong? Or if a workshop repairs your car and it is still not running well? Or somebody makes a false accusation? "Forgive us our debts (wrong doings), as we forgive our debtors (those that do wrong against us) ..... "

Monday, November 2, 2009

The rice cooker

As I get ready to go out for a walk just now, I nonchalantly measured some rice into my rice cooker and set it to cook. It occurred to me then what a wonderful appliance the rice cooker is. It works all the time, faithfully delivering perfectly cooked fluffy white rice. It never needs maintenance and it runs for years before it breaks down. Well, it never really breaks down, to be honest. It just suffers from cosmetic aging and you feel obliged to replace it when you remodel your kitchen.

The rice cooker is indeed a great marvel of kitchen productivity. When I was small, I used to cook rice in a wood fired stove. I had to light the fire, keep it going until the rice is cooked. Then I had to remove the wood so that the rice doesn't get crisp. Cooking rice was a chore then. Now it is just a flip of the switch. Even tried cooking rice over a gas burner? It isn't any easier.

Like our parents, the humble rice cooker is always there when we need it. We often forget that it is ever there, except when we want to scoop rice out of it. It never breaks down; it never fusses. We often fail to appreciate what it does for us, just like how many of us fail to show appreciation to our parents. Yes, it could do with a little more respect too.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

KPS camera class in session

Here's a simple slideshow I did using Picasa. All photos are as shot during a class in session. Blogspot is great; it can handle pictures as well as video. Unfortunately, it does not handle audio clip. That would have been nice.

Using a polarizer in bright sunlight

I thought I knew enough about polarizers from reading about it. However, it was in this recent Walhalla trip that I really learned to appreciate what a polarizer can do while taking pictures in bright sunlight. Here are some examples with and without a polarizer. With a polarizer, notice the bluer sky, more saturated colour in the rust and the leaves, the greater detail in the shadows, and the absence of shimmering in the water. (Pictures below are in this sequence: first without polarizer, then with polarizer)

Difference between Photoshop and Lightroom

Perhaps I should explain what is the difference between these two photo editing software. Both are products of Adobe. When Adobe first released Lightroom, it was advertised as a tool for photographers (which I have found to be very true indeed). Even though Photoshop has long established itself as the industry standard in photo editing, Lightroom did not unseat Photoshop, but appears to complement it very well. Adobe has cleverly filled in a workflow gap that has made "light" of post processing work (pun intended).

Here is the difference. When you use Photoshop, you work with Layers. You cannot master Photoshop without mastering Layers, and without mastering the various Selection tools. Both are not easy to master. Lightroom does not require you to work with Layers or the Selection tools, which is a big relief. Indeed, for someone familiar with photo editing, it can be learned in one sitting. In Lightroom all the adjustments are made on one layer. Since there is no Selection tool in Lightroom, you cannot do cut-and-paste. For such graphics work, one can seamlessly migrate over to Photoshop and continue working on the image.

Adobe Lightroom 2; 4 weeks later

I have used Lightroom for about 4 weeks now and I have grown to love it. This is the first time I have given serious thought to improving my workflow, thanks to Lightroom. What do I mean by workflow? In digital photography, some of us take lots of pictures. In a typical day's shooting, I would shoot about 500 pictures. It is not easy to sift through thousands of pictures after a trip. I have always kept everything I shoot, but since I started shooting in RAW, my hard disk is filling up very quickly and I have decided to sort out the rotten apples. Using Adobe Lightroom, I would "import" a folder that I want to sort. Lightroom makes it very easy for me to put a star rating on the pictures I want to keep. I can quickly sift through several rounds until I am happy with those I want to keep.

Next, I can quickly make slight adjustments to those that need a bit of tweaking to get it right, such as a bit of cropping or exposure adjustment, etc. I can even copy the adjustments made on one picture and apply it to any number of others. This is particularly useful when you need to adjust the white balance of pictures shot under artificial lighting.

Finally, when I have sorted out all the pictures I want to keep, and made adjustments to those that need correction, I can compress all the files to the size I want and "export" to my archive. At the same time, I would cherry pick those good enough to be placed in my gallery for public viewing.

Lightroom must have been designed by photographers because the thoughts that have gone into designing the software fits the needs of photographers very well. I am delighted by two things in particular: 1) if you shoot Jpeg and Raw at the same time and you import these into Lightroom, it automatically lets you edit in Raw. When you delete, you can delete both Jpeg and Raw at the same time; 2) when you have done all the preliminary work in Lightroom, you can still continue to do more fancy manipulations using Photoshop if you so desire.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to recover files from a formatted card

I used to think that when I format a flash memory card in my camera, the files are deleted forever. A friend of mine did just that and started asking around for a way to recover the files. Another friend did a quick google and easily found a number of applications that will do just that. I went a step further; I wanted a freebie. I found one called ZAR, downloaded and tested it out. It works and it is very easy to use, and it is free for recovering picture files. For other type of data recovery you will have to purchase the software and it costs US$40. I don't think I will have much use for this application as it is not often that one accidentally formats a flash card. However, it is good to know that there is a solution. If you are interested, here is the link for ZAR: http://www.z-a-recovery.com/

Monday, October 26, 2009

Walhalla-Rawson excursion; Part 3

I took a few extra items on my trip, not knowing for sure if I was going to use all of them. Here is the trip report:

For the first time since I bought my tripod, I really appreciated taking that along on an outdoor shooting. There were many instances when I had to open up the aperture, thereby causing a reduced shutter speed, and I did not have to worry about camera shake. I guess the alternative is to pay a lot more to get a brighter lens. There you go, buy a tripod if you are tight on lens budget!

I brought along my camera stand, studio umbrella, and two flash guns. I actually had a chance to use them when we were shooting portraits because someone forgot to bring along the club's light stands and we had to improvise using whatever we could lay our hands on. I also got to do off-camera flash shooting in a few outdoor instances.

My computer was also put to use. I was one of only 2 people who brought a computer. I used it to show a few people how to use Adobe Lightroom. It is a great software and it is growing fast on me. It was pure delight to be able to share it with other enthusiasts and seeing the excitement on their faces when they see what they can do as well.

What I also brought, but didn't put to use was my Expodisc, which would have been absolutely ideal for the rain forest hike for which we drove off-track for 25km and hiked 1km just to see the Ada Tree, which is a 300yr old mountain ash. It was not possible to get the correct white balance in that environment without the Expodisc. I left it behind in the 4WD when started the hike to the Ada Tree.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Walhalla-Rawson excursion; Part 2

I just came back from the Walhalla-Rawson excursion. As far as I can tell, everybody had a great time. I did. We stayed in a plain but comfortable-enough place in Rawson. Walhalla is another small town about 15km away from Rawson, and the centre of attraction in the region. We walked many of the hiking trails and took lots of pictures. Back at the lodge, we talked about photography, exchanged notes, or simply picked the brains of the more experienced ones.

Here's what I have learned from my trip, photography-wise. Firstly, I realized that to get the most out of shooting, I should not strive to take pictures with competition in mind. I should set myself free to take whatever pictures I feel like taking. That way, I will enjoy taking photos, and I find I am more successful in getting some shots that I really liked. On this trip, I did just that and I really enjoyed myself. In the last club outing to Cranbourne, I was trying very hard to get good pictures and I ended up with nothing. Also, I did not enjoy myself at all.

On camera gear, I looked at the various cameras everyone brought. They were all either Nikon or Canon. I must say I am happy with my choice of Nikon D90; comparing with what others had, the D90 is truly a midrange camera. Quite a few were using D700's and 5D Mark II, Nikon's and Canon's flagship products, but I am really satisfied with mine because I believe I won't be able to get much more out of the more expensive cameras than from my D90. I am also very happy to have chosen Nikon because of the ease of doing off-camera flash with the built-in commander mode. This is something Canon doesn't have ... yet?

I am also happy to have really got the most out of my polarizer and my tripod. Both were put to good use with effective result. Previously I was only using the polarizer to get a bluer sky, but now I can appreciate how it can also give me a richer colour by removing reflections from leaves and trees; certainly a great accessory to have on a very sunny day. As for using a stand, I learned to be more critical of even tiny camera shake, and that's where a tripod comes in. One member showed me what to look for when checking image sharpness at 200% view.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Walhalla-Rawson excursion

My camera club organized this excursion to Walhalla. We will be staying over for two nights this weekend in country Victoria. I think I'll write about my feelings about the trip before I go off tomorrow. It is more interesting to look forward to it than to reminisce about it after I come back. I haven't been to Walhalla. From the description in the website, I can imagine a rustic country scene with rolling pastures, quaint village, and in this case, an old goldmine and various ghost towns. I can't think of a better way to spend a weekend on my own than to be in a rural retreat with nothing to do but take photographs whenever I feel like it. If the inspiration is not there, there's always a bunch of photographers to chat with. I can talk about photography all day long. Yes, the next few days are going to be AWESOME!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why are we paying so much tax?

Australians are among the most heavily taxed people on earth. Does that mean Australians are getting a bad deal? I can only compare between Malaysia and Australia, as I have lived in both places. The maximum tax bracket is 45% in Australia, and 28% in Malaysia. Added to the basic income tax, one should also include municipal rate (or assessment), land tax (or quit rent), sewage disposal, service tax, value-added tax (VAT or GST), capital gains tax, estate duty, import duty, etc. All these are just different ways of emptying your pocket. In return, the government provides services.

In doing a comparison, one should look at how much services he gets for the amount of tax he pays. Although one pays less tax in Malaysia, I feel that when everything is added up, an Aussie taxpayer gets more out of the system. I won't delve into this quantitatively. The point I want to make in is that while we complain about high taxation, we should not forget that Australia is quite a socialist country in the sense that there are a lot of benefits going to the disadvantaged, the poor, and the old. Australians enjoy free medical care and highly subsidized education, plus a host of other benefits such as child care, youth allowance, family benefits, unemployment benefit, etc. What we should do in Australia is to ensure that the politicians do not steal these benefits away from the people while still maintaining high taxation.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Portraiture Class - continued

The recommended reference setting is ISO 400, f4, and 1/60 sec, with the key studio light at 600W and a secondary lighting at 120W. Energy saving bulbs with daylight colour temperature were used. They are less expensive and do not give out as much heat as the halogen ones. I suppose ISO400 was chosen because most people in the class would not have a bright enough lens and this ISO will retain the perfect quality on all DSLR's. The f4 aperture gave the right depth of field to blur out the backdrop while keeping the entire figure in focus.

I can speak from experience now that it is not the camera that matters, but the lens. An entry level DSLR would be good enough. I had to struggle with my kit lens, where the maximum aperture starts from f3.5, and increases to f5.6 at maximum zoom. Whenever I zoomed out, the maximum aperture reduces, thereby slowing down the shutter speed (making it hard to hold steady). A constant f3.5 short zoom lens would have been ideal for the portraits session. Actually, a lower cost prime lens would be sufficient for home use because you can move back and forth towards the model, but when you are with a crowd, it helps to be able to stand in one spot and zoom in or out. Finally, I should have brought my monopod to better steady my hand while pushing to the limits with my lens.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Portraiture Class

Yesterday I attended a much-awaited portraiture class organized by my camera club. It was every bit as interesting as I thought it would be. We had a model who did a fabulous job of posing for us, and an instructor who is an accomplished photographer. The instructor, Paul Robinson, belongs to the who's-who in photography in Australia. He was very approachable and kept encouraging us with positive comments as he looked at our shots and helped us to achieve the kind of pictures only pro's would take. Here are some pictures I would like to share: the class in session, teacher and model, a shot of the model that I took. All in, I shot more than 500 photos. This is something you can only do when you have a model, so it was a rare treat indeed to be able to keep shooting at a subject.

It might appear that I have suddenly mastered the art in one class. The truth is, taking portraits requires a lot of practice. Knowing how to set the camera correctly takes but a moment to learn. Setting up the props and lighting is also not difficult. These are all "knowledge" stuff. The "skills" part takes years of practice to hone. Telling the model how to pose so that the picture turns out nice and pleasing is not something that happens by chance. The instructor explained how he positions the hands, tilt the face, etc. Once this is done, all of us in the class just kept shooting to our hearts' content and the pictures all came out nice.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Asylum seekers debate

It will be interesting to see what everybody has to say about this issue that Australia is facing. It is hard for anyone to give a non-biased view. What stand should the church adopt? What does my conscience and my faith speak to me? Can I honestly say that as God's children we should provide refuge to anyone and everyone who wants to come? We all know it is impossible to throw the door wide open to all asylum seekers without the country falling apart.

We must recognize that asylum seekers will always be around. People all over the world hope to escape poverty or danger in search of a better life. The countries that are able to provide refuge have a moral responsibility towards all humanity, but it is impossible to throw the door wide open. Yet to keep it tightly shut will certainly attract criticisms at home or abroad.

Without joining the debate on asylum seekers, here's what I think the government should do. The US actually has a lottery system that we can emulate. While tightening the rules on asylum seekers to discourage illegal entry, the government can still give such people an avenue of hope by conducting a migration lottery every few years. Eligibility can be controlled by specifying how many people from which targeted countries will be accepted. That way, the country can adopt much harsher illegal entry policies without reproach.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Notes to myself: advanced selection in Photoshop

In Photoshop there are many ways to select a desired area, which is then used to cut-and-paste to another picture. When it comes to marking out the hair or similarly intricate objects, it requires some special techniques to make the job easier. One such technique is to use channels. The procedure is as follows:

1. Open an image, then go to the Channels window. Select the channel (in grayscale) that gives the most contrast.
2. Go to Image>Calculations. Choose Source 1 and Source 2 to be the same selected channel and choose the Blending option that maximizes the contrast. Set the Result to New Channel (Alpha channel).
3. Hit Ctrl L (shortcut for Image>Adjustments>Levels) to make adjustments to further boost up the contrast.
4. Use the paintbrush to paint the image, or eraser to erase undesired parts of the image. The idea is to be able to paint in the area that will be used as a mask later on. The hairy parts, which are difficult to paint accurately, should be made automatically black by the preceding steps so that not much painting is involved.
5. Without making any selection, but with the Alpha channel still active, hit Ctrl I (shortcut for Image>Adjustments>Invert) to inverse the selection from black to white if necessary. White is what will be used for mask later on.
6. Hold Ctrl and click the Alpha channel to make the selection for mask. Now reactivate the RGB channel and deactivate the Alpha channel (i.e. the "eye" icon). Go back to Layers window and you will see the selection you have made.
7. Alternatively, you can click Select>Load Selection and choose the Alpha channel to reload the selection to be used as mask. Use Ctrl J to copy and make a new image minus the background (if desired).
8. Now you can copy and past the selection to another image. To further improve on the parts of the hair that is not well defined, use Burn tool to darken. (In newer Photoshop, use Refine Edge).
9. Alternatively, if the hair is light in colour, try converting to Lab colour mode and use the channels to paint the background black, instead of the subject black. The technique is the same.

How to remove stain from clothes

I seldom take notice of laundry detergent ads. They always claim to be able to remove all kinds of tough stains easily. This week, however, I have to take a chance with a special stain remover washing powder. I had put a load of washings into the washing machine and some the clothes were affected by a colour run. Without a great deal of faith but with a bit of hope, I went to the supermarket to look for a solution. In the washing powder section there were a lot of choices. I settled on a bright pink container of Napisan that claims to to the job.

Back home, I simply followed the instructions to wet the affected areas with a concentrated mixture of detergent and water. After soaking for 5 mins, I put the affected clothes into the washing machine to wash again, using the Napisan in place of regular detergent. I am glad to say my confidence in the detergent ads have been renewed. All the stains disappeared like magic.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What would you say?

An African lady came into the post office yesterday to send some money to Zimbabwe via Western Union. She spoke English fluently, albeit in heavy African accent. I proceeded to serve her as I do any other persons, without commenting on her descent. Another customer nearby overheard us and remarked, "It's good to get out of there, isn't it?" She just smiled politely. "Where do you come from?" he asked. The African lady replied that she has lived in the UK for several years before coming to Australia recently. (Oops; we all immediately assumed she has just scrambled out of a hellhole, didn't we?)

I just wonder how she might have felt being asked those questions. Was she offended that somebody noticed she's African? Did she feel the questions had racial undertone? She must have been asked those questions a thousand times; did she mind talking about it for the 1001th time? Were the questions condescending? I don't know if she was even sensitive about the questions, but I thought it proper not to make any remark until or unless I knew her better. How would you feel if you were the African lady?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sunshine one moment, minefield the next

Napoleon works as a parcel delivery man. When I first knew him, he seemed to be a very unfriendly person and one who didn't like to make small talks. Once you get to know him better, you'll find him to be friendly and interesting. I greeted him with a cheerful "good morning" today and commented what a nice day it was. He replied with a smile, "Yes, it is a wonderful day, but you'll never know when something bad is going to happen next". He proceeded to tell this story...

When he was in the army in Africa, he woke up one morning feeling on top of the world. The sun was shining and he was simply feeling great. His sergeant told his team that they have to walk to a certain place. As they were walking they suddenly got a call to freeze and stay where they were. They were told they had entered a minefield. Napoleon said that at that moment, he felt that what started as a great day had suddenly turned horrible in an instant. "My friend," said Napoleon, "you can say it is a great day, but you'll never know when something bad is going to happen next." I agree with Napoleon. No matter how fortunate your circumstances today may be, things can just change in an instant. You'll just have to anchor yourself in God.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Creativity is unique to humans

Many of us like to create something. It can start off with an idea or it can appear spontaneously. When you get that magic moment you have to express yourself. You have to let the creative juice flow. You allow your idea to take shape or form. It may be a piece of music (if you play an instrument), a poem (if you are a poet), or a painting (if you paint). Creativity is unique to humans for as long as humans exist; and no one has ever discovered any prehistoric drawings made by an animal. Yet while humans were still preoccupied primarily with seeking food and shelter, they already have a proclivity for creative arts like cave drawings, music and dance. The ability to be creative did not come into being as a result of humans getting more sophisticated; rather it has always been in the human nature. In the same way too, it has never been in the animal nature to produce a work of art.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Flower Shop on Swanston Street

Went down to the city last Sunday. Took a shot of this flower shop along Swanton Street. I turned it into black and white because this seems to go better with the scene (antiquated shop against old brickwork).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Adobe Lightroom ver 2.5

This software is designed for photographers to make adjustments to a digital image. While Photoshop has been traditionally used to make those adjustments, I have always thought that Photoshop is an overkill. I confess I did not immediately take to Lightroom. In fact I went as far as deleting it a couple of days after downloading and installing the trial version. Even now I still immensely dislike the "Library" function, which is actually a cataloging function that can potentially lock you into a rigid system of managing your files and folders. Thanks, but no thanks, Adobe.

The "Develop" module is what I love about Lightroom. It truly simplifies all the tasks a photographer would typically need to do on a digital image. There are no "layers"; which I say is the life and soul of Photoshop, and the bane of one trying to learn Photoshop for the first time. Instead, all changes are done virtually on one page and can always be completely reverted back to the original. The best part of all is that it can be learned fairly quickly, so that the photographer can stick to shooting pictures without having to master Photoshop as well. Having said that, it is only fair to say that Photoshop is still the king of digital manipulation, so don't expect Lightroom to do everything.

A walk in the park

It was just an ordinary day and an ordinary walk in Jells Park that my wife and I took this evening. Depending on where you come from, this simple event could be deemed extraordinary. You see, we passed a number of people. I carried my camera in full view. I didn't get robbed and I did not feel threatened in any way. Even when we passed a group of young men, I did not cringe inside. I breathed freely. I enjoyed the fresh air and the unpolluted grounds. Even the birds do not seem perturbed by the presence of visitors.

Do you realize what a privilege it is to be able to walk freely in the park in a free country? For me, to take a walk in the park is to savor freedom, and to remind myself how lucky I am to be here in Australia. When I was a young boy, I used to imagine that people in developed countries spend a lot of time enjoying nature and the wilderness. Now that I am here, I want to do that as much as I am able to, for as long as I can.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Review of Picasa 3.5

Picasa is Google's free online web album. Version 3.5 has just been released, so I decided to give it a try. I am already using several web albums to display my photos(see links on my blog), so I will only use Picasa if it is worth the trouble. After using it for a few days, I am beginning to like it. Let me tell you more.

First of all, I like the simplicity. I want to be able to maintain my online album with minimum fuss. Picasa does that for me. There are three things you have to do to use Picasa: a) sign up for a free account; b) download and install Picasa on your computer; c) choose the folders on your computer to upload and synch with Picasaweb. That's all the hard work. From that point onwards, whatever you add or delete from the assigned folders on your computer is synchronized almost immediately to the web gallery.

Typical of Google, the user interface of Picasa is pleasingly useful in a simplistic way. It gives me an alternative way to open up my picture folders without navigating through a lot of irrelevant folders. There is an option of either dealing directly with your folders or assigning "albums". In Picasa terminology, albums are like pseudo folders. You can assign pictures from various folders into one album. I prefer to deal with real folders, though. With real folders, when you manipulate the files outside of Picasa, the same will be seen when you open Picasa. This looks like a petty detail, but I think it is very important. I don't like all the "file missing" prompts one gets when a cataloged file is unwittingly moved around (which happens when you use programs like Photoshop Lightroom or ACDSee) .

As for editing and other features, you'll have to check out for yourself. All I can say is, they are very useable. Picasa in my opinion is great for people who want to store pictures on the web without actually doing anything once your have enabled the synch mode on selected folders. It is also great as an alternative way to view your photos without navigating through a bunch of irrelavant files. To see my work-in-progress Picasa album, go to: http://picasaweb.google.com/howyitmeng

Monday, September 28, 2009

How The Apostle Peter Died

A friend forwarded an email to me describing how each of the apostles died. Among them, Peter was crucified upside down on an x-shaped cross. Church tradition has it that Peter requested to be crucified that way because he felt unworthy to die in the same way Jesus died. He was totally convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the Son of God. Peter was willing to die for his conviction in the belief that he (Peter) will soon be joined to Jesus in eternal life.

Yet Peter was not always the picture of bravery we see here. In Matthew 14 we read that Peter trusted Jesus enough to step onto the water, but soon got scared and began to sink. Matthew 14:29-31: "... Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!"Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" "

Perhaps an more even poignant example of his lack of bravado was his denial of Jesus even after Jesus had told him that he would deny Jesus; not once, but three times. When Jesus was arrested and charged with blasphemy Peter was terrified and tried to slip away. Matthew 26:73 says "After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away." Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!" Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly."

If someone of so little courage can in the end stand up for his conviction even after his mentor is gone, I cannot think of any greater demonstration of faith. Moreover, every one of the apostles stood up and died for their belief after the resurrection. Not a single one escaped persecution; not a single one caved in.

When you face trials

When we face a major problem in life, the normal reaction is to surrender the things that bring meaning to life itself. It may be our family (for e.g. people run away from home), it may be our faith (people give up their faith), or it may be life itself (people give up the will to live). We do not choose the problems that confront us, but we can choose how we deal with the problem.

The apostles were certainly men of great conviction. Every single one of them, after the resurrection of Christ, faced severe persecution. All, except Apostle John, died violent deaths. Not a single one of them chose to surrender their faith but they chose to give up their lives. This is a great testimony of their strong conviction.

Few of us ever face a problem in life half as severe as the apostles faced. Yet we complain that our cross is too heavy to bear. Shouldn't we stand up as brave soldiers of the cross? Do we so quickly forget what a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear? "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" as the bible says in James 1:2-4.

Today I feel my burden weighing heavily on me, so I am writing this as a reminder to myself, and not to preach to you something alien to me.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Population Growth's Hidden Costs

Ross Gittin's article in the business section of The Age newspaper today warns of the danger of misreading the GDP as an economic indicator. See: http://www.theage.com.au/business/beware-population-growths-hidden-costs-20090927-g7ro.html

Basically Australia is trumpeting its success in overcoming the global recession of 2008. In terms of GDP, yes. According to Ross Gittins, this is done at the cost of increasing the population (through migration). Bigger population, bigger consumption and bigger demand for labour. All this adds up to a greater GDP, but not necessarily GPD per capita. In fact, GDP per capita contracted 1.5% in the last 15 months, and has fallen in three of the last five quarters (according to reports).

This is where I find myself having mixed feelings. On the one hand I am a beneficiary of Australia's generosity in accepting migrants. Yet once here, I know that continued high rate of migrant intake will only dilute the quality of life for which I am here. This is clearly explained by Ross Gittins in his article. Politicians and businessmen will continue to pretend that high migrant intake is good. The former is interested only in getting re-elected, while the latter is only interested in getting higher profit. So who is watching our for the welfare of the country? Generally speaking, the answer is nobody. I only hope that I am wrong.

Cranky Old Man

(This was forwarded to me by a friend and it is circulating through the internet. I liked it very much, so I am sharing it here in case you missed it. I do not know who to credit this to)

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in country New South Wales, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value.

Later, when the nurses were going through his meagre possessions, They found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital.

One nurse took her copy to Melbourne. The old man's sole bequest to posterity has since appeared in the Christmas editions of magazines around the country and appearing in mags for Mental Health. A slide presentation has also been made based on his simple, but eloquent, poem.

And this old man, with nothing left to give to the world, is now the author of this 'anonymous' poem winging across the Internet.


Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . . . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . . . . when you're looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . .not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . . with faraway eyes?

Who dribbles his food .. .. .. . . . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . . . . .. 'I do wish you'd try!'
Who seems not to notice . . . . .the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . . . . . . A sock or shoe?

Who, resisting or not .. . . . . . . . . . . lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . . .The long day to fill?
Is that what you're thinking? . . . . . . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . . . . . . you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am . .. . . . . . As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, . . . . . . as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of Ten . . . . . . . with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . . . . . . who love one another

A young boy of Sixteen . . . . . with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . . . .. . . a lover he'll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . . . . . my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows ... . . . . . that I promised to keep.

At Twenty-Five, now . . . . . .... . . . . I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . . . . . . . . .. My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . . . . . . With ties that should last.

At Forty, my young sons .. . . . . have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . . . . . . to see I don't mourn.
At Fifty, once more, . . . . . . ..Babies play 'round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . . . . My loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me . . . . . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future ... . . . . . . . . . . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing . . . . . . young of their own.

And I think of the years . . .. . . . . And the love that I've known.

I'm now an old man . . . . . . . . . and nature is cruel.
It's jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. . . . ... . . . . . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone .. . . . . .. . where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass . . . .. A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . .. . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . .. . . . . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I'm loving and living . . . . .. . . . . . . . . life over again.

I think of the years . all too few . . . . . . gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . . . . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people . . . . . . . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man . Look closer . . . . see . . . . . .. . ME!!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wacom multi-touch tablet

Shortly after I bought the Bamboo Fun tablet, I told a friend that it would be nice if the tablet had a touch pad just like what you find on a laptop computer. A little bird must have heard me and told Wacom about it. What do you know, just 2 days ago Wacom announced their new multi-touch technology. The second generation Bamboo Fun tablet now works both as a touch pad and as a pen input device, all for about the same price as what I paid earlier. With it also comes the Corel Painter 4, as well as the latest release of Photoshop Elements (Elements 7 for Windows).

That's it, this is a must-have device for one of these people:
1. those who need a pen input device for Photoshop, like me.
2. those who want a better input device than a mouse, like me.
3. those literally in pain from using a mouse (repetitive stress syndrome), like me.

Go out and get one. I recommend the Bamboo Fun range. Choose the smallest pad. It is cheaper, takes up less space on your table, and you can move your cursor faster across the screen. Only a graphics artist has any need for anything larger than the smallest tablet.

Friday, September 25, 2009

First pay day

We had dinner with some friends last night. On one of the conversation topics, one of our friends talked about how he felt when he got his first pay working as a pharmacist. He said he was paid in cash on that day. He felt so elated that he went straight to a restaurant and ordered a meal all by himself. I can imagine the feeling; finally you have arrived at the real world of working adults. You feel a great sense of worth because you are being recompensed for professional services rendered.

I believe that that point in a person's life is the apex of the feeling of being rich. You'll never feel richer than when you get your first pay. Very soon after that you will be mired in utility bills that you have raked up yourself, car installment, house mortgage payment, insurance, tax, repair and maintenance, traffic offenses, and buying things you don't really need but want. And social entertainment... you can't be a loner. Then you get married and have children... more expenses... No matter how much more you earn thereafter, you'll never again get that same feeling of being superbly.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Digital painting

When I was in college I bought an easel and tried my hand at oil painting. I actually did a complete canvas and eventually gave it to a friend when I left America. It was a delight to see the image progressing from an empty canvas into a completed work. In the same way, when you develop pictures in the darkroom, it is exciting to see the image slowly appearing before your eyes.

Corel Painter actually lets you draw or paint digitally, as well as automatically transforming the picture for you. This is where the fun begins. The picture shown here is half painted by Corel Painter and half by me using digital brushes and ink on a computer screen. Now that I have tried real digital painting and real oil painting, I must say the Corel Painter software does quite an amazing job of emulating the real thing! You can choose the brush type, different media, as well as applying wet or dry paint, etc, etc. (Photoshop has Brushes too, but I haven't tried that yet)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Selling a house in Australia: the paperwork

Again, this is taken from last weekend's Domain, published by The Age newspaper. There are three documents involved:

1. Sale authority.
This is a legally binding contract that outlines the sale of your house through the appointed agent. Take note: 1) there is no set industry-standard for the agent's commission; 2) the seller is liable for advertising expenses even if a sale doesn't happen; 3) it is illegal for the agent to underquote the seller's reserve price.

2. Vendor's statement (or Section 32).
Typically prepared by a conveyancer or solicitor, it must be complete and signed by the seller. Take note: prospective buyer must receive a complete and signed vendor's statement or else the contract of sale would be void.

3. Contract of sale.
Verbal offer is not binding. A contract of sale identifies the buyer, seller, particulars of the property, settlement date, deposit amount, sale value, and which chattels to go with the house. Note that: 1) buyers can request a sale to be subject to finance approval, sale of their own property, or building inspection; 2) buyers have a cooling off period of three business days (can back out subject to a small penalty), unless the property is bought within three business days of a scheduled auction or if they took legal advice before signing the contract. Auctions can have no cooling off period and no attached conditions.

Cost of selling a house in Australia

I am just reproducing here the information I gleaned from last weekend's Domain, published by The Age newspaper. The cost of selling a house is not something to be taken lightly. Take as an example a house that is worth $400k and eventually sells for $440k. Here's a typical breakdown:

1. Real estate agent's commission: 2.5% of $440k = $11k
2. Variable commission: 5% for amount over $400k = $2k
(note: that's a whopping 7.5% in total for the $40k "extra")
3. Advertising cost: 1.5% (for signboard, online listing, print ads, etc) = $6.6k
4. Building inspection (if required) = $1k (say)
5. Legal costs (vendor statement, auction contract, etc) = $1k (at least)
6. Exit fee from bank for outstanding mortgage = $1k (say)

Total = $22.6k, which works out to 5.1% of $440k. In addition, if you buy another house to replace this, expect to pay about 5% in stamp duty. That makes a grand total of roughly 10%, excluding moving costs and the cost of hiring temporary props to make the house look more attractive to the buyer.

The bottomline: everything above is negotiable; but not after you have signed any papers. So negotiate first!! Don't be fooled into thinking that the rates are non-negotiable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corel Painter with Wacom tablet

I shot this image in the Rhododendron Gardens last year. Using Corel Painter, I have instantly converted this into an impressionist painting!

It was quite by accident that I came across this software, which comes bundled with the Wacom tablet I bought primarily as a mouse replacement for my computer. After much research I was ready to part with AUD$139 for a Bamboo Wacom tablet as advertised. Instead I got the better Bamboo Fun tablet instead, and it comes bundled with Corel Painter. So here I am, an overnight digital painter!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Rich Young Man

Matthew 19 (my comments in italics)

16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" (He presumes that eternal life is obtained by doing good things)

17"Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. (Jesus did not answer his question directly. Instead he tells him that it is not what we do, but what we are that is important. Are we good? Only God is, because ultimately we all fall short of God's standard) If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

18"Which ones?" the man inquired.

Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother, and 'love your neighbor as yourself."

20"All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"(He still thinks he can earn his way to heaven by doing good)

21Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."(1. Jesus implies that the young man could do even better by getting rid of his possessions; 2. Jesus did not tell him that if he got rid of his possessions he will qualify for heaven. He only said that he can exchange earthly treasure for heavenly treasure; 3. Not just giving away his wealth, but next to follow Christ. That is what the young man must do if he wants to go beyond what he has been doing)

22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Obviously Jesus knew his heart well. The young man has done all the praiseworthy things, but in his heart he still holds on dearly to his earthly treasure.)

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"

26Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Jesus says it is impossible for man to save himself)

(Note that in verse 17 Jesus says that to gain eternal life one must obey the commandments. Yet in verse 26, he says it is impossible for man to save himself from eternal damnation. I believe that ultimately salvation cannot be filtered down to a set of rules that will clearly spell out who is in and who is out. The only clear answer is "follow me (Christ)". We are like wanderers in the dark and Christ leads the way because he knows how to get there).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Notes to myself: How to add border to image


I picked up this tip from a photography magazine. It is just a simple task. To include one of the ready made borders, you simply add the border as another layer to the opened image in photoshop. Then select "Lighten" or "Screen" and the image will appear with the predefined border, as shown in the example here. It does add a bit of character to the image, doesn't it?

Bill paying before the computer age

I told myself that whenever I can't think of what to write, I'll write about the past. Perhaps someone in the future will find this so amusing, because it will be like looking at old photographs. So quaint, one might say.

When I started my working life after graduation in 1982 the service industry was run on pen and paper. In fact the personal computer was only in its infancy with the Apple IIe only starting to make its mark. In those days (in Malaysia) most people had only three household utility bills: water, electricity, and telephone. Nowadays in Malaysia many people subscribe to pay TV and broadband, in addition to the other three utilities.

At that time, each utility bill could only be paid at the utility company's outlet. We had to wait in a long queue to pay each bill before running off to the next place. It was a blessing that traffic and parking were not such a colossal problem as it is in Malaysia today. Nowadays people can choose to pay all their bills through the internet, or to pay different bills at just one location. It is funny isn't it, that even as computerization has made life easier and supposedly freed up time, we all still live terribly busy lives, don't we?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Internet power = people power

Three days ago I wrote about petrol pump irregularities. A friend of mine commented that I should report this to the authorities. Well, in a way I am doing my part by reporting this in my blog and encouraging friends to read about it. Would you do your part to get your friends to read about it too? If all my friends forward the link for "Watch where you pump your petrol" to their friends, in no time this will spread to an astronomical number of people and this apparent dishonesty will soon find a solution. I believe this country has regulators who are genuinely interested to do their job. If news like this gets to be so widespread that it becomes common knowledge, rogue bowsers will soon be brought in line.

I admit it; I am not cut out to be a fighter. A writer I might be. It takes a lot more effort than just reporting to the authorities. I would rather not start something that I can not see through to the end. If any of my readers feel motivated to do so, he is welcome to pick up on the case.

That is not to say we should resign to accept status quo. Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by people power, harnessing the SMS of their mobile phones to rally the nation. If we do likewise using the internet or email, we can amass unprecedented strength in number to fight any social injustice. "The pen is mightier than the sword" rings true once more. Or shall I say, Mighty Mouse to the rescue!