HDTV and the video look

I spent some time last night playing with my parents’ shiny new HDTV, which puts my 2005-vintage 26″ set to shame.

Pretty nice set; 40-something inch, 1080p, 120 Hz whatchamahooie, and you can plug in a USB stick full of JPEGs and force your family to watch your vacation photos. Nice!

It seems to be all the rage on new sets to have motion interpolation which can take 24-frame-sourced content (feature films and most US drama and sitcom TV shows) and smooth out the frame-to-frame motion, making it look more like 60-field video. Lots of higher-end sets advertise 120 Hz or even 240 Hz, which honestly seems excessive to me — the human eye can’t distinguish much more than 60 frames per second. :)

I’m a bit torn; on the one hand, the faster frame rate makes motion look much more vivid and realistic from any objective point of view. On the other hand, audiences have been trained over the last few decades to associate the video look with “cheesier” programming — soaps, reality shows, etc — while “serious” programs are shot on film at 24fps, making them feel more like a big-budget feature film… even to the point that lots of money was spent developing HD video cameras that could shoot at the slower, less realistic 24fps instead of HD’s native 60!

We stumbled into Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo of all things on HBO, and ran it for a while just to get a feel for the set. At first it drove me nuts seeing a movie I’d already seen on film looking distinctly like HD video, but after a half hour I got quite used to it and rather grew to like it. Of course as a former cinema-television student I’m extra-sensitized to this stuff — my wife immediately took to the more vivid display and commented on how much better it looked than when we’d seen it in the theater!

Looks like the mass audiences are happy to embrace high-motion video… I wonder if the long-standing holdover of the “film look” over the last decade was driven more by the oversensitized film geeks in the industry than any actual audience comparison…

Let’s learn a lesson here with our software development as well — those of us who’ve been nose-deep in web sites and software UI for years aren’t necessarily the most qualified to tell what our actual users are going to be most comfortable with.

Still alive!

In the last few weeks:

  • got married to my awesome lady Marti
  • saw Fleetwood Mac concert
  • took two weeks vacation in Chicago area (still sorting and uploading gajillions of pictures)
  • dragged 11-13-year old nieces & nephews all over Chicago
  • hit wacky science-fiction/fantasy cons in California and Illinois
  • sold my soul to Apple & AT&T again for a new iPhone 3G S on order (mmmm, delicious gilded cage)

Whew! Ok, now I need a vacation from my vacation, and that means… back to work!

(mu)blogs are the new trades

Blogging and microblogging tend to get disrespect from folks who “just don’t get” the purpose for them and consider them at best mindless entertainment and at worst an attention-sapping pest.

As a second-generation programmer, I found that I “got” them pretty quickly.

My dad programs for embedded and industrial-control systems; I grew up watching him bring home stacks of trade magazines — not to read every article in detail, but to skim through as an environmental scan, updating his awareness of the state of the art. If anything the ads and editorials were far more useful to him than the articles!

As a web developer in the 2000s, I started to use blogs and microblogs much the same way: little bits of information here and there which fill in my background map of what’s current among my peers (say, everything awesome in web browser work).

Scars of the past

Poking around Google Earth to optimize a hypothetical bicycle commute to the office, I noticed an unusual diagonal strip of alleys and divided lots running through San Francisco’s Mission District from about 22nd & Harrison to around Cesar Chavez & Guerrero:

Mystery line!

I figured it had to be an old rail right-of-way, but wasn’t sure what for. At first I thought it might be BART-related, since it runs right by the 24th & Mission station, but BART runs underground straight north-south to the 16th St & Mission station.

A little Googling on a portion of the strip cryptically labeled “Juri Cmns” turned up a page about the Juri Commons park which explained that the strip was originally part of the San Francisco and San Jose Rail Road. After the 1906 earthquake, the portions running through the Mission were torn up replaced with a line running nearer the bay — the same route today’s Caltrain operates on.

[Side note: I composed this post offline in Yojimbo’s rich text editor and tried to copy-paste it to WordPress’s WYSIWYG editor in Firefox. Total paste fail when including the picture; links stripped when pasting paragraphs only. Tried it again in Safari — all links came through intact, just missing the image.]

Netbook trial by FOSDEM

Welp, I’m on the plane to FOSDEM to meet up with all you fun folks over there and get some MediaWiki action going on. To get fully in the FOSS spirit, I’ve left my trusty MacBook at home and am doing the whole trip with just my Linux netbook. (Well, that and my iPhone of course! 😉

I’ve replaced the Dell-customized factory Ubuntu install with Ubuntu Netbook Remix 1.0.1, which is basically Hardy with a nice launcher and a window manager/panel optimized for the small screen; definitely a help for keeping things clear and organized. I’ve also brought along a BlueTooth mouse which’ll be nice when I get off the plane; the touchpad still feels a little awkward, and I’ve found the machine a lot more comfortable to use with an external mouse. It also doubles as a presentation remote, switching into a mode where the buttons serve as virtual page-up/page-down keys. Very nice, since I’ve become completely spoiled by using the Apple remote for my Keynote presentations.

And yes, the BlueTooth mouse worked on desktop Linux first try. Shocking, right?

So far I’m very happy — the Mini 9 is half the size and weight of the MacBook, which makes a huge difference lugging my carry-on around. More importantly, I can actually operate the damn thing in an economy-class seat on the plane! Even my old PowerBook 12″ left me too cramped to type and see the screen at the same time.

OpenOffice Presenter seems actually fairly passable for editing my presentation at 1024×600. Threw together a pretty gradient background for my slides in OpenOffice Draw… ick. :) Editing colors and gradients in OpenOffice is terrible… must make a note to see if this is improved in 3.0 and see if we can improve it if not.

I’m not 100% sure I’ve turned off the BlueTooth radio, but the plane hasn’t crashed so I guess I’m doing ok. Disabling wifi is easy through the network doodad on the panel… Battery life seems somewhere in the 3-4 hour range, though I haven’t run all the way down yet.

Currently using Tomboy for offline note-taking on the netbook… It doesn’t support images and syncing isn’t quite first-class (and the Mac build is very experimental) so it’s not ready to replace Yojimbo for me, alas. Also playing a bit with Evernote, which does most of what I want out of Yojimbo plus good web and Windows clients… but no native/offline Linux client or support for encrypted notes/passwords.

Carless one year in Northern California


This week marked a full year since my fiancée and I sold our cars and moved to San Francisco, and we still haven’t felt the need to buy a new one.

That’s a full year without taking a car in for expensive, mysteriously-described maintenance… a year without worrying about the price of gas or parking… a year without ever-rising insurance premiums… a year without a designated driver. 😉

For the most part we just haven’t felt the need to go driving around much. Our daily commutes to work are pretty straightforward by the subway, and most of our day-to-day shopping is within comfortable walking distance (groceries, pharmacy, etc). There’s plenty of restaurants, theaters, and clubs accessible by walking or public transit… and those that aren’t, we mostly just don’t go to. :)

Google Maps has added public transit and walking directions, now both on the web and on the iPhone application, making it as easy to look up directions to unfamiliar locations as it was when we lived in the Florida suburbs.

We have made use of ZipCar hourly rentals, but really not that often; just for a bulk shopping trip here, an out-of-town event there. For a couple trips all the way down to Southern California to visit family we’ve done traditional daily/weekly rentals… After our grueling Thanksgiving drive, though, for Christmas/New Years we’re going to try flying and borrowing a car down there. 😉

Dell Mini love

We finally replaced my fiancée’s ancient PC with a shiny new Dell laptop. While ordering, I couldn’t help myself and tossed in a Inspiron Mini 9 for myself:

This little cutie weighs in at just 2.26 pounds, less than half of my MacBook’s hefty 5 pounds. I’ve found that the Mini is much more back-friendly than my MacBook; I can painlessly lug it to the office with my laptop bag slung over my shoulder (easier for getting on and off the subway) instead of nerding it up in backpack mode.

The top-end model I picked packs 16GB storage and 1GB RAM running on a 1.6 GHz Atom processor — far more powerful than the computer I took with me to college in 1997. Admittedly, my iPhone also beats that computer at 8GB/128MB/300MHz vs 6.4GB/64MB/266MHz. 😛

The compact form factor does have some impact on usability, though. The 1024×600 screen sometimes feels too tight for vertical space, but they include a handy full-screen zoom hotkey for the window manager which opens things up.

The keyboard feels a bit cramped, and some of the keys are in surprising places (the apostrophe and hyphen are frequent offenders), but it’s still a lot easier to type serious notes or emails on than the iPhone. I had to disable the trackpad’s click and scrolling options to keep from accidentally pasting random text with my palms while typing…

The machine shipped with a customized Ubuntu distribution which is fully functional; they include a “friendly” launcher app which can be easily disabled, and even the launcher doesn’t interfere too badly. The desktop launch bar that’s crept into Gnome nicely handles my “I need Spotlight to launch stuff with the keyboard” fix. :) Firefox works fine (after uninstalling lots of Yahoo! extensions), Thunderbird installed easily enough, and I even got Skype to work with my USB headset! (AT&T’s international roaming charges can bite me…)

The biggest obstacle for me to use this machine every day is my Yojimbo addiction. I use Yojimbo for darn near everything — random notes, travel plans, budgeting, grocery lists, recipes, encrypted password stores, saving articles and documentation for future references. It’s insanely easy to use, the search works, I don’t have to remember where I saved anything, and it syncs across all my Macs. But… it’s Mac-only. :(

I’m trying out WebJimbo, which provides an AJAX-y web interface for remotely accessing your Yojimbo notes. It’s very impressive for what it does, but I’m hitting some nasty brick walls: editing a note with formatting drops all the formatting, but I use embedded screen shots and coloring extensively in my notes.

I’ve seen some reports of people hacking Mac OS X onto the Dell Mini — very tempting to avoid OS switching overhead. :) But I think if I really want that, eventually I should just suck it up and buy a MacBook Air. The form factor is the same as my MacBook (full keyboard, roomier 1280×800 screen), but at 3 pounds it’s much closer to the Mini than to my regular MacBook in weight, so should be about as back-friendly for the subway commute and air travel.

Of course, the Air costs $1799 and I got my tricked-out Mini for about $400, so… I’ll save my pennies and see. 😉

Google Transit yay!

A few months ago I whined about the Google Maps transit planner not working very well.

Well somewhere since I last looked, they fixed it!

Transit directions now include San Francisco MUNI bus and train routes and walking to/from stations, so you can actually put in start and end points and get something useful! The alternate route selection is a little different from the driving directions (you get a short list of a few options, rather than being able to click and drag waypoints to whatever route you like), but still quite useful; it comes up with pretty close facsimiles to the three alternate commute routes I use in reality.

Goodbye, 511.org!

Now if they can just integrate the transit lookups into the iPhone Google Maps widget… d’oh!