My first lengthy exposure to digital photography

Well, I took the plunge. I’ve entered the world of digital photography.
Panasonic lowered the retail price of its Lumix DMC-LC20 digital camera to $249. That, along with a promotion that threw in some memory cards, made me bite.

It’s a 2.1-megapixel unit (2 megapixel usable, according to the sticker on the front of the camera–kudos for truth in advertising) and its main selling point is its Leica lens. Leica, for those who aren’t hard-core into photography, is a German camera maker known for its high-quality and very expensive lenses.

I’ve been playing with it a little, and here’s what I’ve found (besides my need to practice some more).

You’ll probably have to take precautions for the included single set of charged AA NiMH 1600mAh batteries to have enough juice to take more than 16 meg worth of pictures. That’s not a lot. They aren’t the bottom-line batteries available (an awful lot of people seem to be selling 1400mAh batteries), but you can get 1800mAh or even 2000mAh batteries. The 1800s are a proven, mature technology. Buy at least two pair of 1800s, charge them up and take them with you. This thing munches ’em fast.

The included 8-meg SM card doesn’t hold a lot of images. Of course, people go ga-ga over the Sony Mavica cameras that use floppies, and a floppy is less than 1.5 megs. Be glad that Panasonic is throwing in a couple of bigger cards.

USB transfers from the camera’s SM cards are quick and easy, which really makes me wonder what the big deal is about Mavicas.

Image quality is very good. I’ll share some images once I’m not posting over dialup.

Professional photographers aren’t too keen on consumer-grade digital cameras, because a 1600×1200-resolution image is only enough to print a 4×5 print with acceptable quality (and it’ll look better smaller). But the only way to get good at taking pictures is to take a lot of them. An inexperienced photographer is going to take a lot of bad images. With digital, you don’t have to pay to process and print all the bad images. And digital gives you instant feedback. You’ll find youself compensating immediately for the effects of lighting.

The downsides of printing your own photographs are the cost of the prints (no less than the individual cost of a print off film, by the time you figure the cost of the ink cartridges and the special paper), and the longevity, or lack thereof. Inkjets aren’t known for producing long-lasting images. Inexpensive color laser printers will eventually give great strides in the right direction towards solving both problems, but right now “inexpensive” means $1,000. It’ll be a year or two before they hit the magical $499 mark.

But if you figure $1 per print, it won’t take long for a digital camera’s savings to pay for itself and for that printer.

It’s very easy to increase the Lumix’s exposure time for taking night shots, and I got some good ones. But I was missing my tripod. My hands aren’t steady enough to take sharp images without one once you lengthen the exposure time.

I’m not feeling any tinges of buyer’s remorse over this thing. Especially not after a night on the town with it. (Kansas City on the night after Thanksgiving offers lots of interesting subjects.)

Transferring VHS movies to VCD or DVD

Mail from Maurie Reed about VHS home movie transfers to digital formats.
MR: Dave, I’ve read all of your threads on video editing with interest. I’m not claiming to have understood everything but I’m less in the dark than I was before ( a 20 watt bulb as compared to a 10?).

DF: Remember, there are people who get 4-year degrees in this stuff. And graduate degrees after that.

MR: My question is: does the Pinnacle DV500 work in conjunction with a regular AGP video card or is it the sole video device in the system?

DF: It works in conjunction with another card. The DV500 does the heavy lifting and then sends its display over to the other card. So if you’ve got a DV500, any video card on the market today will be way more than enough. I used an S3 Savage4 card for a long time, and it was fine.

MR: Maybe better yet, what I’d lke to do is take the VHS tapes that we have made of the family over the years and transfer them to DVD. The first reason is to archive them for safety. After that’s done I’d like to edit them for quality, i.e., clean up, lighten,etc.

DF: PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff has done some columns on that. His approach, using Sonic MyDVD 4.0 (though Dazzle DVD Complete gets better reviews), is simpler than mine and eliminates the DV500, though you’ll still need some way to get the analog video into your PC. An ATI All-In-Wonder card would be good for that. I know Newegg has the less-expensive All-in-Wonders sometimes but they tend to sell out quickly so you’ll probably have to use their notify feature. Then you can spend the money you’d spend on a DV500 on a DVD writer instead (I suggest one of the Sony drives that can do DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW, that way if one format works better in your DVD player, you’re not stuck.

Keep in mind that Ulanoff used Firewire to get his video in, but that’s because he used Hi8 as his source, and those tapes will work in a Digital8 camera. If you’re using VHS, you’re limited to using analog inputs.

What you gain in simplicity you lose in power, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MR: Toward this end I’ve been slowly building up a new machine: P4-2.4, Asus P4-533E, 512M PC-2700 RAM, 120G WD HD (SCSI’s not quite in the budget right now although I do have some Adaptec 2940 cards). I’m running an old S3 8M video card in it right now to test components (all from newegg…thanks for thesuggestion!) and I have no DVD-ROM drive or DVD burner yet (I do have a LiteOn CDRW). I thought I’d work on the video first. I’m sure at some point down the road we would like to do more video but never anything professional (read – making money at it). It would probably be my wife and daughters working with it anyway as I’m more of an audio person then video.

DF: You’re off to a great start. Add a DVD burner and an All-In-Wonder card (or a similar nVidia card with analog inputs–if your camera or VCR supports S-Video, use that, since its picture quality is noticeably better) and you’re ready to go. You might want to grab a smallish drive to hold your OS and apps so you can dedicate the WD drive just to video. Watch the post-Thanksgiving sales. For VHS-to-DVD transfers, IDE is sufficient.

Since you do have a CD burner, if you want to get started right away, get the All-In-Wonder and the software and start making VCDs, then get the DVD burner later.

As for being an audio person rather than a video person, I come at it from a magazine/newspaper background. I think it’s a shorter step from audio to video than it is from print to video! (And you knowing what it takes to make the video sound good is a very good thing. The audio quality on some of my projects has been positively awful.)

MR: I understand you’re very busy and NOT in the free advice business so I’ll understand if you decline to comment.

Thanks (no matter what the answer) in advance and have a great Thanksgiving!

DF: Thanks for the good questions. You have a great Thanksgiving too.

The most disturbing story in the Old Testament

Probably everyone who’s ever been to Sunday School is familiar with the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
Matchbook-cover version: To test Abraham’s faith, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his long-promised son, born to him and his wife Sarah when they were aged 100 and 90, respectively. He was their only son. Abraham loaded them up, and as he prepared to slay his son on the altar, an angel came to him and stopped him.

Did you know there’s another case of human sacrifice to God in the Old Testament, and the Bible is a whole lot less forthcoming on whether the burnt offering actually happened?
Read more

Another RISC platform for Linux

Vintage workstations. I’ve read two articles this past week about running Linux or another free Unix on vintage hardware.
http://www.debianplanet.org/article.php?sid=605
http://www.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=02/02/19/049208&mode=thread

And while I can certainly appreciate the appeal of running a modern free Unix on a classic workstation from the likes of DEC or Sun or SGI, there’s another class of (nearly) workstation-quality hardware that didn’t get mentioned, and is much easier to come by.

Apple Power Macintoshes.

Don’t laugh. Apple has made some real dogs in the past, yes. But most of their machines are of excellent quality. And most of the appeal of a workstation-class machine also applies to an old Mac: RISC processor, SCSI disk drives, lots of memory slots. And since 7000-series and 9000-series Macs used PCI, you’ve got the advantage of being able to use cheap PC peripherals with them. So if you want to slap in a pair of 10,000-rpm hard drives and a modern SCSI controller, nothing’s stopping you.

There’s always a Mac fanatic out there somewhere willing to pay an exhorbinant amount of money for a six-year-old Mac, so you won’t always find a great deal. Thanks to the release of OS X (which Apple doesn’t support on anything prior to the Power Mac G3, and that includes older machines with G3 upgrade cards), the days of a 120 MHz Mac built in 1996 with a 500-meg HD and 32 megs of RAM selling for $500 are, fortunately, over. Those machines run Linux surprisingly well. Linux of course loves SCSI. And the PPC gives slightly higher performance than the comparable Pentium.

And if you’re lucky, sometimes you can find a Mac dirt-cheap before a Mac fanatic gets to it.

The biggest advantage of using a Mac over a workstation is the wealth of information available online about them. You can visit www.macgurus.com to get mainboard diagrams for virtually every Mac ever made. You can visit www.everymac.com for specs on all of them. And you can visit www.lowendmac.com for comprehensive write-ups on virtually every Mac ever made and learn the pitfalls inherent in them, as well as tips for cheap hardware upgrades to squeeze more speed out of them. I learned on lowendmac.com that adding video memory to a 7200 increases video performance substantially because it doubles the memory bandwidth. And on models like the 7300, 7500, and 7600, you can interleave the memory to gain performance.

Besides being better-built than many Intel-based boxes, another really big advantage of non-x86 hardware (be it PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, MIPS, or something else) is obscurity. Many of the vulerabilities present in x86 Linux are likely to be present in the non-x86 versions as well. But in the case of buffer overflows, an exploit that would allow a hacker to gain root access on an Intel box will probably just crash the non-x86 box, because the machine language is different. And a would-be hacker may well run into big-endian/little-endian problems as well.

http://homepages.ihug.com.au/~aturner/7200boot.html

It’s Thanksgiving.

It’s time to be thankful. And do I have a lot to be thankful for. I’ve got a Bible study group that’s made up of a couple dozen of the best people you’ll ever meet anywhere. A bunch of us are getting together on Friday just because we like hanging out. You can’t ask for better friends.
I’m thankful that my wrists are working just fine. Vitamin B6 and B complex and Omega-3s are a very good thing. Take lots. They help your wrists feel better and help you think more clearly and make you less moody. What’s better than that? I’m thankful for those, and thankful that someone pointed me to a book that pointed me to that trick. It saved my career and my livelihood.

My computer’s acting up and my Pinnacle DV500 has a mind of its own. I’m thankful that I have the means to afford a powerful computer to do the DV500 justice, the skills to troubleshoot the thing, and once it’s working, the skills to produce something with it that makes it look like I know what I’m doing (even though I honestly don’t have a clue). I’m thankful that I’m surrounded by people with great ideas.

I have to drive two hours yet tonight to see my family. I’m thankful that I have a family to go visit, and that we’re on good terms. I’m also thankful that there are dozens of people who want to know what I’m doing for Thanksgiving. I’m thankful that they care. And I’m thankful that I’ve got a reliable car to get me there, and safely. And as annoying as road construction is, I’m thankful that MODOT is working on I-70, because a year ago that highway was completely unsafe to drive on.

And speaking of unsafe to drive on, I’m thankful that my friend Emily is alive and recovering after that car accident that would have killed any lesser person.

I’m thankful that I start transitioning into a new job starting Tuesday, doing something that challenges me more and that I enjoy more.

And I’m thankful, though still a bit confused about why, people are reading this.

There’s more, but I really need to make a phone call and get packed.

I hope you’ve got as much to be thankful for as I do.

Linux and PC cubes

PC cubes! Yes, I want a cube-shaped computer, because it’s small. No, I don’t want one made by Apple, or an obsolete NeXT (I used those in college when I couldn’t get time on an SGI). I want something small and cheap, and if it’s reasonably good looking, that’s a bonus.
Enter the Shuttle SV24.

Unlike Apple’s cube, it has a brushed-alumninum case, so it won’t crack. Just like Apple’s cube, it generates extreme reactions, and not everyone who likes Apple’s cube likes Shuttle’s.

I admit, it doesn’t have Apple’s styling. But I like Lian-Li’s styling a lot better. I wouldn’t put this in Lian-Li’s league either. But it’s certainly no uglier than any of the PCs I own now, and it’s small and light. So yeah, it has me thinking.

Where can you get one? Two of my favorite vendors have it, at a price of $250: Newegg.com and Mwave.com.

I also saw on Ars’ forums that MSI makes a slimline PC called the 6215. Newegg has it (search for “6215”) for $210. It’s tiny, but has two PCI slots and is more conventional-looking. I’m thinking the 6215 would be great for a server appliance, seeing as it has two PCI slots so you could put a SCSI card in it. You could also disable the onboard Realtek NIC and replace it with a card like an Intel EtherExpress Pro that uses less CPU time.

More Linux. The biggest thing holding me back from migrating to SupaSite is its requirement of the Apache, MySQL and PHP trio. I’ve tried to get those three to work together before, and the setup wasn’t exactly trivial, especially when trying to do it from RPMs. It looks like it’d be a whole lot easier to just compile it yourself. But this past week I found Apache Toolbox, which downloads the source for those three, plus bunches of Apache modules and compiles them for you. It sounds like it even helps out with configuration. I’ve gotta give this one a shot.

Failures (of the modern man).

I love Joy Division references. For those of you reading this on the front page who can’t see the title (I’m sure I can fix that but I’m lazy and it’s late), I titled this “Failures (of the modern man),” which was the title of an early Joy Division song. I don’t remember what it was about. It was just a really cool title.
I saw another ghost today. Not literally. A ghost from the past. Someone I knew a long time ago, someone I hadn’t seen in eight years. I know I looked vaguely familiar to him because we made eye contact and he gave me the I-know-you-from-somewhere-but-I-don’t-know-where-so-I-won’t-say-anything look. I gave him the very similar I’m-pretty-sure-I-know-who-you-are-but-I’m-not-saying-anything-just-in-case-I’m-wrong look.

I met him in 1991. I’d just turned 16 and this was my first job, at a place called Rax, a now-defunct fast-food joint whose specialty was roast beef sandwiches. I was ambitious and worked hard. I had several reasons for working: It was something to do. I liked having date and weekend money. (Not that I got many dates–so it was mostly weekend money.) It was another place to meet people outside of school.

A lot of people looked down on me because I was working in a restaurant, and a fast-food restaurant at that, and it made me mad sometimes. I got the job easy and I didn’t want to make a lateral move, so it made sense to stay there. At that point in time, it was virtually impossible for a 16-year-old male to get a job outside of food service because until you turn 18, you can’t be prosecuted if you steal stuff. At a fast-food joint you can steal little stuff but they can fire you for doing it, and that’s usually enough deterrent. And I was ambitious. This was my job until I turned 18 and could get something else. Then when I turned 18 it was hard to get something else because not many places were hiring in 1992. We were in a recession. So I stayed until I left for college. No shame in any of that. I worked hard, I did the job well, I was good at it, and I did move up. My next job was in retail, hawking consumer electronics for two summers and two Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. My next job after that was as a part-time computer tech, which grew into a full-time network administrator job.

I’ve been a young professional for just over four years now, and I can look back over the four years, see good reviews, a lot of work accomplished, and a steadily increasing salary, presumably a reflection of how my employers have valued my work. My car’s a 2000, I wear a tie most days, and I command respect. I guess I turned out OK.

Back to this guy I saw yesterday. He worked part-time. He was the guy who walked around the mess hall “dining room” and cleaned off the tables. He swept the carpet. He washed the trays. He got people refills. He was a good guy, a nice guy, personable. He didn’t strike me as dumb either. I remember him being reasonably articulate. He’s not of old European stock; he’s at most a second-generation American and more likely he’s an immigrant, but he had a very light accent.

I don’t know how well respected he was. One night I came in, and the general manager asked me to fill out the night’s lineup. The positions were usually pretty obvious. You had to be 18 to run the slicer, so you’d put the 18-year-old there. One of the people working until close took the salad bar, and the other closer took the drive-thru. Of the two people left, one took the dining room and one took the front register. Most of us had our specialties. I was good on the register, fast at making change, so I was usually on the drive-thru or up front. So I filled out the lineup, handed it to her, and asked if it was OK.

“No, put [this guy] on front cash,” she said, then laughed. “No, it’s great. Post it.”

I don’t know when I last saw him. The store closed in 1993. I left a little before that to go to college, but I remember the store’s last day. I don’t know if I came in just to say goodbye, or if I came in that day to get my last paycheck. I know I didn’t see him that day. The store fell on tough times near the end, because the company was struggling big-time, and just about all of us knew it. More often than not, we went without someone in the dining room. The salad bar person or the front cashier would pop out there and clean up the dining room when things were slow, which was often. He probably didn’t make more than $4.50 an hour, but if the store could save 9 bucks by not having him there from 5-7, the pressure was there for them to do it. He may well have sought employment elsewhere long before the store closed.

I saw him today. I was bad today. I rarely eat fast food anymore, because it’s terribly unhealthy, but today I had a Jack in the Box craving, so I went there. And there, working the dining room, was a dead ringer for the guy I was talking about. This guy had a beard, and he looked older, but it’s been 8 years, so of course he looks older. The name on his badge was a diminuitive form of the name he used when I met him, and it’s not a terribly common name. If I were a betting man, I’d eagerly wager a hundred bucks it’s the same guy.

And I felt bad. I’m 26 now. I said something derogatory about yuppies a couple of weeks ago, and one of my coworkers said, “But you are one.” And I guess he’s right. I wear a tie. I drive a 2000. I can afford a ritzy apartment. (I prefer to bank the money instead.) I’ve done OK.

And here’s a former coworker, in all likelihood in his 60s now, still doing the very same job he was doing when I met him more than 10 years ago. I confess I don’t know what minimum wage is these days because it’s been eight years since minimum wage affected how much money I made. And I never made minimum. My starting pay was $4.50 an hour, when minimum was $4.35.

While all fast-food jobs, outside of management, are considered unskilled labor, cashiers are generally paid better than the people who clean dining rooms. I doubt he made much more than minimum 10 years ago, and I doubt he makes much more than minimum now. Meanwhile, the only way minimum wage affects me is by raising the price of things like soft drinks and milkshakes.

And I’m wondering, where did it go wrong? Maybe he likes working fast food. I don’t know. But he didn’t look particularly happy, so I doubt it.

You can learn a lot in 10 years. I’ve been slacking. I wanted to know Unix by now. I also wanted to be able to read Greek and Hebrew by now. I can build and administer simple Linux servers now, but the only non-English language I know is Spanish, and I sure don’t know much of that. I can find the bathroom and I can ask for three of my favorite foods, I know a good way to get funny looks is to say, “Llavo mis manos con sopa de pollo,” and when one of my coworkers curses in Spanish, I know she’s cursing but I usually don’t know what she’s saying.

But I have learned a lot.

Why hasn’t he? Where were his opportunities? Did he choose not to better himself, or has the door been slammed in his face? I know it’s not the government’s responsibility to see to it he betters himself, or necessarily even to give him opportunities, but isn’t it his neighbors’ responsibility? What have they been doing? What should they be doing? What should I be doing?

Those are tough questions I don’t have an answer for.

How to get mod_gzip working on your Linux/Apache server

My research yesterday found that Mandrake, in an effort to get an edge on performance, used a bunch of controversial Apache patches that originated at SGI. The enhancements didn’t work on very many Unixes (presumably they were tested on Linux and Irix) and were rejected by the Apache group. SGI has since axed the project, and it appears that only performance-oriented Mandrake is using them.
I don’t have any problem with that, of course, except that Mod_Gzip seems to be incompatible with these patches. And Mod_Gzip has a lot of appeal to people like me–what it does is intercept Apache requests, check for HTTP 1.1 compliance, then compress content for sending to browsers that can handle compressed data (which includes just about every browser made since 1999). Gzip generally compresses HTML data by about 80 percent, so suddenly a DSL line has a whole lot more bandwidth–three times as much.

Well, trying to make all of this work by recompiling Apache had no appeal to me (I didn’t install any compilers on my server), so I went looking through my pile-o’-CDs for something less exotic. But I couldn’t find a recent non-Mandrake distro, other than TurboLinux 6.0.2. So I dropped it in, and now I remember why I like Turbo. It’s a no-frills server-oriented distro. Want to make an old machine with a smallish drive into a firewall? The firewall installation goes in 98 megs. (Yes, there are single-floppy firewalls but TurboLinux will be more versatile if you’re up to its requirements.)

So I installed Apache and all the other webserver components, along with mtools and Samba for convenience (I’m behind a firewall so only Apache is exposed to the world). Total footprint: 300 megs. So I’ve got tons of room to grow on my $50 20-gig HD.

Even better, I tested Apache with the command lynx http://127.0.0.1 and I saw the Apache demo page, so I knew it was working. Very nice. Installation time: 10 minutes. Then I tarred up my site, transferred it over via HTTP, untarred it, made a couple of changes to the Apache configuration file, and was up and going, sort of.

I still like Mandrake for workstations, but I think Turbo is going to get the nod the next few times I need to make Linux servers. I can much more quickly and easily tailor Turbo to my precise requirements.

Now, speaking of Mod_Gzip… My biggest complaint about Linux is the “you figure it out” attitude of a lot of the documentation out there, and Mod_Gzip may be the worst I’ve ever seen. The program includes no documentation. If you dig on the Web site, you find this.

Sounds easy, right? Well, except that’s not all you have to do. Dig around some more, and you find the directives to turn on Mod_Gzip:

# [ mod_gzip sample configuration ]

mod_gzip_on Yes

mod_gzip_item_include file .htm$
mod_gzip_item_include file .html$
mod_gzip_item_include mime text/.*
mod_gzip_item_include mime httpd/unix-directory

mod_gzip_dechunk yes

mod_gzip_temp_dir /tmp

mod_gzip_keep_workfiles No

# [End of mod_gzip sample config]

Then, according to the documentation, you restart Apache. When you do, Apache bombs out with a nice, pleasant error message–“What’s this mod_gzip_on business? I don’t know what that means!” Now your server’s down for the count.

After a few hours of messing around, I figured out you’ve gotta add another line, at the end of the AddModule section of httpd.conf:

AddModule mod_gzip.c

After adding that line, I restarted Apache, and it didn’t complain. But I still didn’t know if Mod_Gzip was actually doing anything because the status URLs didn’t work. Finally I added the directive mod_gzip_keep_workfiles yes to httpd.conf and watched the contents of /tmp while I accessed the page. Well, now something was dumping files there. The timestamps matched entries in /var/log/httpd/access_log, so I at least had circumstantial evidence that Mod_Gzip was running.

More Like This: “/cgi-bin/search.cgi?terms=linux&case=insensitive&boolean=and”>Linux

Dual AMD processors, coming soon definitely maybe

The latest on AMD. I read yesterday that dual motherboards supporting Palominos (the next rev of the Athlon core) will be released June 4. These will be server-oriented boards, and thus very pricey. It’s an interesting strategy, because I would think Dual-AMD configurations would be more popular in the enthusiast market and the pointy-haired bosses are leery of putting anything but Intel CPUs in their server closets (better not tell ’em their Sun, SGI, and IBM RS/6000 servers ain’t Intel-powered, huh?). More on that in a second. The rumor I heard (and most of this should probably only be counted as rumor) said the boards will require 450W power supplies with a special supplemental connector, similar to the P4’s extra connector. No idea if it’s the same as the P4’s supplemental connector, but that would have made a lot of sense.
Obviously, if the boards will be out and use Palominos, that means the Palomino will have to be out on or before that date if there’s to be any hope of selling these boards.

The only part of this that I would bet my life on is the 450W power supply requirement. AMD probably could release it in that time frame, but they’re selling every CPU they can make, in spite of the slowdown in the PC market. So why the server play? Easy. AMD owns the enthusiast market and can pretty much count on owning that for a while yet. But AMD wants a piece of the server market, because that’s a slower-moving, higher-margin market. To get that, they have to have industrial-strength boards from top-tier makers and a solid chipset. AMD doesn’t have a lot of chipset experience, let alone SMP experience, so they want to make sure they get this right. That, I think, is the reason this has been so long in coming. They’d rather miss some target dates and deliver a solid product than come in right on time with something that’s still buggy.

More Like This: AMD

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