Things to Do during a Power Outage. No, not that…

Last night we had a mean set of thunderstorms roll through our area – the worst we’ve seen in quite a while.

In the midst of trying to get my daughter to settle down (blackouts are tremendous fun don’tcha know), I decided to dust off the tripod and have a little bit of fun. We did some quick and dirty light-writing with our flashlight, something I’ve seen many times, but never tried. Needless to say we did not reach perfection. With a 25sec shutter speed and a slightly flexible floor, you ain’t gonna cut yourself on the sharpness of those photos. But hey, it was fun, which is the point no?

lightwriting1

lightwriting2

I also got a nice photo of my daughter reading by lantern light. If you look closely to her right you’ll find Jessie, our Westie. At over 15 years old, he’s mostly deaf and pretty tired these days. He used to freak out at the slightly rumble, but slept quite soundly through the whole thing. :)

ReadingByLantern

Blender Video Editing Screencast No. 3

Okay so it’s been about 5 months since I last posted a Blender screencast. Guilty as charged. Let’s move on.

I’ve posted my third screencast about editing video using Blender. This one is a quickie at about 9 minutes in length. It covers a few very useful keyboard commands along with an introduction to using the proxy feature to really start boosting your editing efficiency into high gear.

Also worthy of note is that I did the post processing in Blender as well. I wasn’t 100% happy with the flash video rendering output I got from Blender on this one, but this will just take some further tweaking, mostly to limit filesize and maintain quality. So for this screencast, the last step involved rendering to avi from Blender and then falling back to my mencoder script for the final conversion to Flash.

You can find this third screencast right here.

Here are the links to my previous Blender screencasts No.1 and No.2.

Expect more in the way of Blender screencasts and Blender video editing info. Troy Sobotka and I have been discussing where to go with this. Of course I’m going to try and drag Heathenx in as well so I can share the blame around. ;)

ps. For some weird reason, I had a helluva time trying to get the flash version to work properly for this episode. Kudos to Heathenx for doing an OGV version (for those with Firefox3.5) with a Flash fallback for those with other browsers. Heathenx, you da man! :)

SELF Schwag!

self_schwag

I got home today and found a nice package in the mailbox. I always get giddy when there is anything in there other than direct mail ads and bills. This time the giddyness was fully justified. It turned out to be my package of schwag from The SouthEast LinuxFest. W00T!

I helped out with some of the graphics for the conference and this was my reward. :) Honestly, I would have loved to attend but it was just too far for me. I am booking in for the Ohio Linux Fest this September though so hopefully I can meet some of the wonderful people in this community.

Congratulations to Dave Yates and the rest of his cohorts on what by all accounts sounded like a complete and utter success. Indeed the reviews have been so glowing that I would think they’re wondering what they have to do to meet expectations next year.

Anyways, with yet another thunderstorm fast approaching, I decided to get my daughter to pose with all the SELF schwag for a quick photo. Kudos to all the SELF guys and thanks so much for the stuff, and for allowing me to help out.

Now I’ll have a clean change of clothes to wear in Ohio!

GIMPing a car out of thin air

In a second attempt to make more use of my Wacom tablet, and learn a little bit more about using the Gimp in the process, I sat down tonight and decided to attempt a little more sketching. I always liked doodling cars in my youth, so I did a quick sketch in the Gimp and one thing led to another and I ended up with this about two hours later (click it to get a slightly larger version):

There are a lot of problems with it if you look too closely (doing anything remotely attractive with the wheels is still completely above me) but it’s a starting point anyhow.

I got all inspired today at lunch after checking out stuff like David Boyle’s awesome portfolio, that has wonderful things like this.

So tonight I finally got familiar with using Gimp layers but I realized one thing:  I really need to study up on Gimp shortcut keys. I’m quite comfortable with keyboarding in Inkscape, but in the Gimp I’m pretty much hunt and click at this point.

If anybody does sketching like this with the Gimp and can give me any pointers, please grace the comment section with your wisdom. :)

A pro-Windows post from a Linux fan

While I make no bones about being a fan of Linux and Free Software, I’m also someone who tries, at least most of the time, to understand opposing ideas and differing perspectives. For instance, I regularly listen to the MacBreak Weekly podcast even though I don’t own any Apple products and likely never will. I think the show is entertaining and it gives me a feel for how “the other half lives”. I also realize that the show was created by Apple fans, for Apple fans, but I’m not sure you can throw out all reasoned judgement in the name of supporting Apple…  even on such a pro-Apple show.

First a quick observation about the show in more recent weeks. It used to be that Andy Ihnatko was as staunchly anti-anything non-Mac, at least that’s how I remember it. But he is impressing me more each week with his reasoned observations and his willingness to call a spade a spade when it comes to things Apple could be doing better, or even things that Microsoft is doing well. His recent appraisal of the benefits of having more hardware choice in the PC (Windows) world, and the benefits of the netbook are refreshing to hear. I could be wrong, but I also remember him picking Ubuntu as a software recommendation as well some weeks back. I’d like to say it happened, but checking the mbwpicks.com site, I don’t see Ubuntu even mentioned. Maybe I just dreamt it.

Now take all of the sunshine in the preceding paragraph, invert it into darkness and evil, and heap it onto Scott Bourne. If you want to hear from a staunch Mac zealot, unwilling to entertain reasoned arguments for the other side of any issue no matter how well supported, then Scott is your man.

Case in point, Windows and viruses.

The standard argument is that Windows XP and Vista are virus magnets (and Windows 7 will be better but in no way immune). This is Scott Bourne’s response to just about any Windows related suggestion – sure, the netbook might be useful, but you’ll be so overcome with virus and spyware problems within 10 minutes that the machine will be rendered useless. Andy countered that the problem is “manageable”, and that while it might be severe if you had an old XP machine back on Service Pack 1, anything newer was not perfect, but simply manageable. Of course there is also the perfectly reasonable argument that Windows is 95% of the market and targeted much more so than any other OS. I’m not sure if all of this logic and reason is simply lost on Scott, but it appears so.

Now I’m strictly a Linux guy at home (Crunchbang FTW! ;) ), but I’ve been using Windows XP Pro here at work for about 10 years now (and Windows 98 before that). I’m fully connected to the Internet, and surf daily using both Firefox and Google Chrome. I have auto-updates turned on but almost never use Internet Explorer (I think IE7 is installed on here). However, I DO NOT run any anti-virus or anti-spyware software over and above the standard Windows Firewall. And I have not had any virus, spyware or pop up problems on this machine in years. Funny, I used to have spyware and pop-up problems back when I used to use McAfee, Lavasoft something, and later on, AVG. But I haven’t used any of those programs in the past 3 or 4 years and I haven’t had any problems. I install new software now and then including bittorrent clients, irc clients, web and desktop apps, mostly Free software and not Shareware stuff. A-ha.. maybe that’s my secret! :)

So either I’m just damn lucky or maybe I’m just smarter than most – I’d like to believe the latter ;) – but Windows hasn’t given me anything to complain about in terms of viruses and spyware. Make no mistake, it gives me plenty to complain about in terms of aesthetics and configurability among other things.

In the end I guess I’m just venting. The pro-Apple attitude at all costs approach just galls me. Enough so that even as a Linux fan I have to defend Windows in the face of blatant misinformation.

UPDATE: Per Chad Wollenberg’s suggestion, I downloaded and ran an anti-virus/spyware program (AVG Free Edition). It found about a zillion tracking cookies and nothing else.  And if anyone’s thinking we’re severely locked down here at work and that’s why I don’t have problems, I admit we’re behind a router, but I have port access for ftp, bittorrent, http, irc and streaming stuff, so I don’t think much is blocked.

UPDATE 2: It was not Andy Ihnatko that picked Ubuntu as his software pick.. Even better, it was Paul Thurrott on the Windows Weekly podcast Episode 104!! Ha!

Doing fun things for a couple of great projects

I’ve had some fun the past night or two helping out a couple of guys on a couple of cool projects. I’m not much of a cartoonist (wish I was) but it was great fun sketching some ideas up and making them come to life in Inkscape. It’s never been something I’ve been really interested in, but after the great fun I had doing these I think I’ll spend more time on stuff like this. You can probably see lots of places where my skills need work.. but if you don’t try you’ll never improve.

First, I came up with a fun little logo/mascot to help out rowinggolfer, who is trying to solve his proprietary (aka Crap) software problem at his dental practice. He (along with many other dentists apparently) are stuck with poor quality and poor service when it comes to their expensive dental database management software. After trying to help them solve the problem with constructive feedback and getting nowhere, rowinggolfer has decided to bite the bullet and create his own open source solution. Check out the OpenMolar project to see what he’s up to. Here’s what I came up with for him:

Another fine project I’ve recently helped out on is the newly created freelinuxbox.org site. Created by Linc Fessenden, one of the original hosts of TLLTS,  freelinuxbox.org is a great site that tries to connect up people who want to give away fully functional computers running open source software to individuals who need a computer, free of cost. Absolutely awesome idea. I had fun creating this one too.

Stop Recommending (Quality) Free Software with a Proviso

Just noticed this post about “35 Tutorials to create amazing Vector Graphics using Inkscape” come across Twitter. And while I was quite happy to see a post aggregating some great tutorials on Inkscape, I was a little bothered by the blurb at the top of the post itself:

“Inkscape is a free vector graphic design alternative software similar to Adobe Illustrator and CorelDraw, only it doesn’t cost you a penny. It is maybe not as powerful as its higher priced rivals, but certainly powerful enough to design high quality vector graphics.
If you are looking to venture into vector design, I recommend using Inkscape first, learn as much as you can and then if you need something with more kick splash out on Illustrator.”

Why does there have to be an immediate proviso that somehow it’s not as powerful? The last sentence is even a little more bothersome to me. I can see someone saying, ‘hey, learn all about vector illustration with Inkscape, it will help you if you ever have to use Illustrator or CorelDraw’ or something like that.. but I really don’t see how using Illustrator is going to somehow give my work more ‘kick’.

If you need something with more kick.. then obviously you should sit in front of whatever you’ve created and give it more kick. I can’t stand the insinuation that somehow if you need higher quality artwork, you’d obviously have to go with the paid option.

While recommendations for free software alternatives are increasing daily (or it seems to me that they are), it bugs me that they always seem to come with a proviso. And sure, while in many cases those cautionary notes are completely valid, in other cases they are not.

Rant over. ;)

I got published in Linux Journal… well sort of… :)

About 6 or 7 months ago I was invited to submit some logo concepts for the SouthEast LinuxFest. I was absolutely thrilled that they chose one of my submissions. Since then, I’ve done a few ancillary things with the logo such as a flyer design and some web site badges.

The venerable Dave Yates of the LottaLinuxLinks podcast is one of the organizers of the event. Several weeks back he asked if I could provide a couple of print ads for the event and I was thrilled (and to be honest, quite nervous) about accepting. There was something a little nerve-wracking about creating something that will actually appear in a publication. It’s one thing to create some web site graphics or desktop wallpaper, but it’s another to actually create a print ad… at least for me. I’ve never created an ad before but it actually turned out to be quite easy.

I created a half-page ad for Linux Journal (which you will find on page 55 of the May 2009 issue of LJ) and it turned out quite well I think. I created the graphic for the ad in Inkscape (of course!), exported the PNG file and then made a CMYK TIFF version using the Separate+ plugin for the GIMP. From there I used Eckhard M. Jager’s fantastically useful CMYK Tiff 2 PDF plugin to create a PDF in CMYK. Like most things I try, it was a real seat-of-the-pants sort of process for me.

Eckhard by the way, has a really fantastic blog called appropriately enough Linux For Designers. I’ve been subscribed to it for ages and I encourage anyone interested in design on Linux to check it out. There’s lots of great stuff over there.

The fact that I know absolutely nothing about CMYK or creating print ads is a testament to how useful those two plugins really were to me. It was satisfying to know that I could really create an honest to gosh print ad using free software tools and come up with what looks like a decent result.

There is another full page SouthEast LinuxFest ad I created that is supposed to run in the next two upcoming issues of LinuxPro Magazine too, so keep an eye out for them. Hopefully my sparse knowledge of CMYK will not fail me in those ones either. :|

While to most people they’ll just be another (hopefully attractive) magazine ad, to me they’re definitely getting stored safely away so I can brag to my grandkids about them someday. :)

The Kodak Zi6 – Sample Videos and Thoughts

eyestillBack in February or March, my trusty Flip Ultra camera stopped working. Granted, I wasn’t being all that careful with it, even thowing it into my coat pocket along with my car keys and other stuff. Shame on me really. I was disappointed that it died, under the manufacturer’s instructions I took out the batteries for 72 hours and hoped that a full cold reset would do it, but she was a no-go.

So facing a week long trip down to Myrtle beach at the end of March, I decided to buy another low cost video camera. I was looking at the Flip Mino, but it was nearly $300.00 up here and just didn’t look like something I should be spending all that money on. I was heading back to the Flip Ultra at $158.00 but then noticed that Best Buy was selling the Kodak Zi6 for about $168.00. It had significantly higher resolution than the Ultra and sounded like the build quality was a step above. I bought the Kodak, and a month later, I have to say I’m quite impressed.

The build quality does seem to be a significant step up from the Flip Ultra. It’s significantly heavier and wider but has a much larger LCD screen on the back and a much more durable feel to it. Slightly scared because of what I did to the poor Flip Ultra, the new camera has been shuttled back into it’s velour pouch every split second it’s not it use. Slightly paranoid I guess.

The Kodak shoots in (technically “HD”) 1280×720 at 30fps or at 60fps. It will also shoot in VGA (640×480 like the Flip Ultra), and it will take 3MP still shots. I have largely stuck with the 30fps 720p mode, but I’ve also taken a few stills which have not disappointed me too much either.

Clearly though, this is not a $1000 camcorder. I find the quality to be quite good, but it’s very lighting dependent. Although as many people I’ve discussed this with mention, almost any consumer camcorder loses significant quality in low light conditions. The Kodak is much the same and probably worse. I’ve used it happily indoors under normal lighting conditions, but of course like any handheld video camera (or still camera), it really shines when outdoors or under good natural lighting.

The camera is almost as simple as the Flip Ultra was. It has a nice flip out USB plug, and get’s detected in Linux as a mass USB storage drive. Very simple. It does let you fast-forward and rewind through videos under playback which is nice as well. Unlike the Flip Mino, this camera uses 2 AA batteries. And even nicer is the fact that for $168.00, they give you a nice pouch, two NiMH batteries AND a charger for them too! Yes, daddy.. indeed the batteries ARE included with this toy. However the SD card it stores video on was not. Luckily I had a 16GB SD card that my wife recently received at some company shindig. I never had a use for SD cards before this (my DSLR uses CF), so it was just good luck for her to have it at the same time I needed it.

Note also that the camera has a macros switch for close-up work. I’ve rarely used it, but I have included a still shot I took earlier today of my daughter’s eye. You can see it’s quite nice and you’ll notice the reflection of the Kodak right in there too. :)

It ain’t all rainbows and flying ponies though. There are two things which may cause a little concern…

First, the 1280×720 video is quite nice. Nice enough that it wouldn’t play back smoothly on my 5 year old P4 desktop system (even with a 7 series NVidia card). However on my new laptop (a Dell Studio XPS13) it plays back full screen just beautifully. So it may be great to shoot HD resolution video, but be aware that you may not be able to play it back in full resolution if your computer is getting somewhat long in the tooth. Once converted down to something smaller like 720×405, my P4 system played it no problemo.

Second, the video it produces is in MOV format. That is, it’s really h264 with AAC audio encoding. This is fine for many people. However if you’re interested in editing this video in Blender, you may want to re-encode the audio to something that the current stable version of Blender likes more (like MP3). You can do that using ffmpeg like this:

ffmpeg -i input.MOV -vcodec copy -acodec libmp3lame -ab 128k output.MOV

Blender will then happily accept the video and audio for editing.

I’ve included a few sample files in this blog post for those interested in evaluating the quality of the video and images. Note that the video sample is done under what might be the best quality light for a cheapy camera… overcast conditions. Your mileage will vary under more harsh lighting conditions. The camera is not lightning quick to in moving from dark to light spaces, but what do you really expect for a sub $200.00 video camera. The normal still shot is indicative of a tiny sensor. The light is fairly harsh so you’ll see a significant loss of detail. This won’t match a good 3MP point and shoot, but it might be better than your average cell-phone camera under these conditions.

I’ve included an original full res video clip (30 sec and about 30MB), another sample full res clip with the audio re-encoded to mp3 using ffmpeg above, one short macro video sample taken of the CD player display in my car (dust and scratches anyone?) and two sample full res images, one macro and one normal.

And although this didn’t play a part in my choosing the Kodak, I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to Troy Sobotka’s video which he shot with this Kodak Zi6 and edited in Blender. Just to show you what even a cheapie camera like this can do when in the right hands.

As I found with my Flip camera review way back when, there usually aren’t a lot of people willing to post a full res video sample, and I can’t see the usefulness in reviewing a camera and then posting a YouTube sample for people to evaluate. Hopefully it helps some people thinking about purchasing a cheapy video camera like this.

Full Resolution Original File (30MB, 30 sec)
Full Resolution File with audio encoded to mp3 instead of AAC (30MB, 30sec)
Full Resolution Macro Video sample (7MB, 8 sec)
Full Resolution Normal Shot
Full Resolution Macro Shot