Migration Complete! Thanks NameCheap!

The migration of the blog off my friends shared environment (Thanks Allison!) is complete. Welcome to the new service!

NameCheap has been advertising their EasyWP hosting service for a while, and given it’s relatively inexpensive model ($3/mo-ish), and the fact that I was having a hard time figuring out how to get full SSL service on the blog, I figured the time was right.

The migration was pretty painless, and I used LetsEncrypt to generate the SSL cert. Because Google downranks sites without SSL support, finally having this in place is a big win.

Onward!

Router Upgrade – Netgear Nighthawk AC2300 (R7000P)

It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been having some serious problems with bandwidth from home. Since I work remotely, this has gotten to be a serious issue. Regular daily checks against Speedtest would result in abysmal numbers (we’re talking between 8 and 15 Mbps.) I knew my cable modem could do better, and after a bunch of debugging, I realized it was most likely the Archer C7 TP-Link router I was using. This was originally supposed to be a decent performer, but in the end, it’s turned out to be absolute crap. So I went shopping.

The fix turned out to be replacing the router with a Nighthawk AC2300 Dual Band Router The installation was super-duper easy, and setting it up with my reserved IP addresses, guest network, customized DHCP range, etc was a breeze. The initial config was done via an app on my phone, which was pretty helpful, as it allowed configuration while hopping around on the new Wifi network I was creating.

So how fast is it? Well, here’s what Speedtest is showing me now. To say this is an improvement would be a gross understatement. This is epic.

Thanks Netgear for providing an excellent product with excellent performance results. I’m a fan.

The Olympus PEN-F – Biggest Flaws After 8 Months of Use


I’ve been using my Olympus PEN-F Micro Four Thirds for about 8 months now, and on the whole, I’ve been super-happy with a number of aspects of it. It’s small, it’s light, the picture quality is excellent, the glass available is very good, and after a relatively busy learning curve, the menus and controls are easy to work with.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have problems. There are several, lets run them down.

No external displays

I understand this is probably a factor of the small size / mirrorless nature of the beast. But not having any external indicators showing the camera is on, or how many shots are left, or battery level is a real problem. A very small LCD screen (even on the back) would have helped. Having to power up the camera, wait for the EVF to power up, and glancing through it to see if you have a decent battery is a pain. (BTW, there’s a noticeable delay on the battery reader. It can easily say GREEN, FULL, particularly right after putting hte battery in, but 10seconds later it’s showing almost empty. Beware!

Slow Focus Speed

This has been noted elsewhere, but the focus time on the unit is quite slow. If you’re working a shot that has multiple depths of field, the camera can ‘hunt’ around trying to set AF. I tend to run my camera in AF/MF mode, which means it’ll autofocus, but then you can use the focus ring to adjust it to where you want. This is a win, but if the camera is ‘hunting’ for an AF spot, you can’t stop it until it gives up and locks onto something. THEN you can use the manual focus ring. I’d like to see the camera automatically try to stop focusing if I touch / move the focus ring.

The controls can be confusing

There’s 8 turnable dials and 5 pushbuttons on a device half the size of a paperback book. Many of these are unlabelled, because they have a ‘variable’ purpose – they can be reprogrammed to do different things, and this doesn’t include the interface controls on the back (another 10 buttons), but at least these are labelled and make sense. I like the big ‘index finger’ wheel on top which is used to twiddle whatever variable setting you’re currently tuned to (For instance, I tend to shoot in A mode, which means exposure is automatically set, but my aperture is set by the finger wheel. This allows me to change DOF on the fly to get the ‘feel’ I want. I can’t imagine if I’m running in full manual mode trying to keep track of what dial does what.

Battery Life

This is relatively minor, but I wish the camera had either better battery life, or an external power connector. The 2000mAh battery will last about half a day of heavy usage, so I carry 3 of them with me. If I want to do any long exposure work or time lapses, I’m pretty much SOL.

Poor “No Card” handling

Okay, this is the big one, and the reason I decided to write this post. Now, to set the stage, I’m running the latest firmware available (v3.0), so this problem has not been fixed (though it can be with a simple software change). Here it is.

It is TRIVIALLY easy to go out for a shoot and not have a card in the camera, and not notice it.

The camera will operate normally, triggering the shutter, showing all the information in the EVF, but obviously won’t record anything. The ONLY indication there is no card is if you’re looking through the EVF and do not have your finger on the shutter release in ‘half press’ mode. Which, honestly, you never do. If I pick up my camera to take a shot, my finger is already on the shutter setting focus for the shot. I don’t just stare through the EVF unless i’m trying to get a focus point and setting in place.

I’ve caught this problem several times, and it was just annoying. This past weekend, I went out for a long walk in the city, and didn’t realize I had left the card out. I took 20-30 shots and when I got home that night… saw my working card in the laptop.

“But wait, Dave, isn’t there an indicator in the EVF?” – yes, but it’s very easy to miss particularly in bright light, AND only if you’re not touching the shutter release. The left image is a view through the EVF touching no controls, with no card in it. The right image is with my finger on the shutter release, still with no card in the camera. If I trigger the shutter, it’ll act like it took a shot – blanks the EVF, makes a click-kerchunk sound, and goes back to that display if I leave my finger in place (which I do) :

In this case, I was shooting clouds and rainbows… it was that sort of day – fortunately I took some shots with my cell phone, which could do panoramic shots).

Summary

So, after 8 months carrying the PEN-F full time, what are my thoughts?  Would I recommend it?

Positives:

On the average, yes, I would recommend it, but with some caveats, not just the ones mentioned above.  But lets start with some of the positives.

It’s a beautiful camera.  Really, you can’t avoid that.  The styling and setup are wonderful, and adhere to the Olympus PEN styling that goes back 50 years.  I’m proud to carry it and use it.

It’s very comfortable feeling.  The controls, though there’s a lot of them, are easily accessible, comfortable in my hand, and easy to work with.  I added the leather carrying case in the picture, which lets me sling it comfortably under my arm when not using it, and it doesn’t get in the way.

The four-thirds lens platform is quite well supported, and glass is available for reasonable prices.  I have 4 lenses now and being able to get things like a 300mm equivalent zoom lens for $99 makes it a great deal.

Negatives:

No need to recap the technical issues above.  None of them comes close to a deal breaker – at the most they’re irritations.  Olympus has patched firmware on the camera in the past to fix issues, I hope they’ll fix the No Card issue soon.

It’s expensive.  The PEN-F body-only is $999.  That’s not cheap, and in an increasingly saturated compact mirrorless market, while the camera is good, this is on the expensive side.

Conclusion

I would recommend the platform and camera for people who really are into the styling and are looking for a very good compact camera that is professional and competent enough to do serious photography on.  Is it the same as carrying around a full size DSLR like a 7D?  No, I’d say mostly because of it’s speed, battery life, and EVF.  But do you really need that much weight and bulk for most of your photography?  If you want a professional camera you can carry with you full time with exchangeable lenses and excellent features, and the price doesn’t scare you off, the PEN-F is a great camera.

I saw the Paris Protests today and I’m fine

So, I’m sure folks have heard the news about protests in Paris today. That did happen, and in fact I was right in the middle of it for a good part of the day. How could I miss the opportunity to take my camera into a real live protest? 2018-12-0145.jpg

The very short version is, yes, I was at the protests. Yes, there was tear gas and water cannons and lots of people moving around. There were really only a handful of instigators that were egging the crowds on to do damage, but that was enough.

I primarily stayed outside of the major crowds, but I had my camera with me the whole time. Pictures are here:

2018-12-011.jpg

And yeah, now I know what tear gas feels like. I don’t recommend it.

Back in the States for Thanksgiving

I’m back in the US for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. It’s already been a bit of a culture shock but I’m enjoying recharging my New England American needs, starting with my wife, upon seeing me at the airport, handing me an XL Dunkin Donuts French Vanilla coffee. Ahhh.

Lunch is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (th French don’t do peanut butter. I missed it.)

Hopefully I can take this time to catch up on a few things before I head back to spend most of December in Paris.

Solved: Problems with WyzeCam Android Client

I’ve become a huge fan of the WyzeCam IP cameras. They’re small, very high quality, and have a very good mobile client to connect to them. But sometimes, the mobile client will refuse to start. It comes up with the startup screen, and never proceeds.

Searching around the Reddit and WyzeCam forums, many people have seen this happen, but there’s not a clear reason why.

I’ve had this happen on occasion on my Samsung S9+, and I’ve finally found a pattern – it’s quite simple actually.

On the loading screen, the client is making it’s initial connections to WyzeCam’s cloud services. But it’s quite common for providers, corporate networks, and sometimes even hotels or wifi hotspots to block connections to certain services. If the phone cannot connect to the cloud service, it will sit stuck at that startup screen forever, without ever doing anything.

I discovered this when my phone had connected to a mobile hotspot in the office which required authentication to start operating. The phone was connected, but could not reach the internet. The WyzeCam app was sticking at the opening screen. Once I completed the registration, and reloaded the Cam app, it came up super-fast.

I was able to duplicate this experience at a hotel stay recently as well. The local wifi was extremely crowded and performing extremely badly. The WyzeCam app was hanging at the startup screen again. As soon as I switched my phone from the WiFi to my carrier data, the screen loaded correctly!

I think Wyze could fix this very easily by giving some feedback on the loading screen, showing it’s trying to connect, and giving a timeout message if it fails after X amount of time. But for now, this frustrating behaviour is easy to understand and deal with.

Paris, end of Week 1

So it’s Friday, I have made it through my first week in Paris. All in all, things are going fine. My new apartment is comfortable and easy to deal with.  I’m quite close to the Metro station I use to get to the office (half a block), and the ride is about 20 minutes.  

I’ve mostly shifted sleep schedules (though for some incomprehensible reason, i couldn’t sleep well last night.  Not sure what was up with that).

I’m trying very hard to get as much French and city culture into me as possible, but I fall back on comfort food and headphones when it gets overwhelming.  There’s a lot of simple restaurants around the apartment that have been great for “tonight I’ll just have X” for food.  Supermarkets are no problem, though sometimes it’s hard to decipher food labels.

For example, milk. “Lait entier” is whole milk, “demi-écrémé” is the equivalent of 2% (it’s closer to 1.5, but whatever), and “écrémé” is skim.  Almost always sold in 1 liter bottles (I have yet to see the depth-charge sized GALLON milk jugs so prominent in the US.

There’s whole volumes of stuff I’m learning about paris, france, the people and the country.  So far I’m enjoying it, though I do miss home.  My coworkers are helping me enormously with my French, and if I can get more of that working, it’ll make the whole experience more rewarding.  I can feel myself learning the idioms and I feel like i’m on the edge of assembling comfortable dialog, but I’m still in the “groping for the right word” phase.  I’ll get there!

For map searchers, I’m living in the 15th arrondissment, which is on the western side of the city, about 8 blocks from the eiffel tower (which I can see outside my window every day).  I take the metro about 1/3 of the way across the city to go to work.  I haven’t missed having a bike or a car yet, though the electric scooters that so many people ride around may be a great way to get around.  For now, I’m sticking with the Metro (I have a full 5 zone pass that gets me anywhere in Paris and the surrounding areas, as many times as I like.  That’s a huge win).

Now that I’m relatively settled in, I’m going to start looking around for ‘things to do’.  Volleyball, pingpong, biking, music, art, longer walks – dunno, I need something to keep me active, otherwise I just work all day (this week has been pretty much steady 10-12 hour days).

I have another 4 weeks until I have family folk coming to stay with me.  I think it’ll be okay, if I can keep my brain occupied and not spinning off into lonely spaces.

Bye Bye Volt

Alas, all good things, etc etc.

Tonight I returned the Chevy Volt I leased three years ago. In the intervening time I drove 54,000 miles, at an average of 98mpg, using 550 gallons of gas. Had I continued with the Passat wagon I had before that, which got about 28mpg, I would have burned 1928 gallons. That 1400 gallons saved 28,000lb (14 tons) of CO2 from being emitted. That’s about a years worth of emissions for a fairly efficient house.

Nowadays I work full time from home, so my daily mileage has gone from 70-75 miles a day down to about 6. In a sort of weird reversal of history, where in the above article I lamented trading in my Jeep for the Volt, I now have a 2000 Jeep TJ as my only personal vehicle. Of course Mrs. Geek has a Subaru wagon, which we use for most errands, trips, etc, but the Jeep is mine, and I adore it.

I did have a reservation in to buy a Tesla Model 3 when they were available (which is now), but given the low miles I’m driving, and that I’m spending more and more time out of the country, it doesn’t make sense to have an expensive electric vehicle just sitting at home.

So here I am in mid-life with “nothing but an 18 year old manual truck in the garage”.

I’m okay with that.

Paris

I’ve been in Paris for the last couple weeks, spending time with the engineers I work with. It was a great trip, but I’m also happy to be home in my familiar surrounding… the busy-ness of my home, and the deep deep greens of a beautiful spring.

I spent 2 weeks at a hotel right on the Place de la République, which was an adventure in it’s own right. The Place is about 8.5 acres of open space in the middle of busy part of the city. There is ALWAYS something going on there. Could be demonstrations, could be parties, could be music, could be dancing… for the last weekend, there was a Biodiversity fair where they literally hauled in few acres of sod, grass and plants and make it into a small farm. Complete with cows.

For the last few days, Mariama joined me, and did the sightseeing thing, walking something like 20,000 steps a day for 3 days (OW MY FEET). Gotta admit, the Paris Métro was clean, fast, easy to understand navigate, and EVERYWHERE. You were always a block or three from a station.

I have tons and tons of stories to tell from the trip, too many to ramble about here. But, in my usual style, here’s a bullet list…

  • The Eiffel tower is really friggin huge.
  • Coffee in the EU is challenging for Americans. I stand by my tweet from a few months ago:

  • Did you know Paris is 6 degrees further north than Boston? Yeah, means it gets dark at 10pm around now. Surprise!
  • The French know to to make a damned tasty burger.
  • The French also really like smoking 🙁
  • Contrary to popular perception, most French are pleasant and open and charming. Sure I had my taste of a grumpy personality or two because my french is atrocious, but the VAST majority of people were happy to work a sort of mishmash of english and french that worked well.
  • I did find myself missing open green space. The city is very tightly packed stonework, asphalt, and cobblestone. When I spend more time there, I’ll definitely need a way to get out to the parks and trails outside the city.

I’ll be coming back in the fall… looking forward to it!

Internet Addiction is Killing Your Photography

There’s a wonderful post over on Petapixel (What? You’re not following them already? Get on that… seriously, they’re awesome, whether you’re a photographer or not)..Un petit coin de paradis...

Wait, what i was saying? Oh, right, the post. The post is about how internet addiction is destroying creativity. The author talks specifically about how it relates to photography, but the general case is true…

What I’m getting at in the headline is that the Internet is most likely the cause of your impotence when it comes to productivity. How many people pick up their smartphones and check something online or in an app in the morning, instead of picking up a camera and capturing a sunrise?

I bet 99% of us look at a smartphone before anything else in the morning. If only your first thought out of bed was “What photo will I capture today?” think about how much more you would achieve.

And he’s absolutely right.

Over the last couple weeks (and through being sick with a head cold the last 5 days), I’ve found myself almost breathlessly refreshing news.google.com and my Feedly page or whatever just to keep up the constant stream of input. And when I felt like doing something, it would have to compete with the information overload I was getting off the net. How can creativity thrive under this kind of mental onslaught?

I’m going to try and change things up. Move politics out of my “must check once an hour” need. Stop refreshing feedly to get the latest DailyWTF. I’m not a big social media wank, so Facebook, Twitter, etc are not my main distractions, so I can’t really put this under “i’m quitting social media for a while”. It’s more “I need to set priorities a little. This is not healthy for me.”

In the past I’ve done little life adjustments like this, and whether they stick long term or not, they do shift the balance a little, and nudging yourself out of a well worn groove isn’t a bad thing, even if it means things are a little shaky until a new smoother path is found.

Soylent’s New Flavors and My Weekend at a Con

This past weekend I made my yearly mecca to Arisia, the big SF / Fantasy convention in Boston. I’ve been going to Arisia for almost 25 years now, sometimes as a staff member, sometimes as a volunteer, but I haven’t missed an event since 1990, so it’s sort of ritual now.

Since making the decision to make Soylent a part of my diet, I’ve waxed and waned on how much I take in. Soylent regularly changes the ‘mix’ in it’s products, so that has impacted this as well.  The original version wasn’t particularly exciting, but did fill my belly.

A few weeks ago, Soylent announced 2 new flavors for their ‘2.0’ premixed drink. I’ve been enjoying the premix bottles for 6 months already, and the opportunity to have some new flavors for Arisia seemed like a great plan.  I’d tried the ‘coffiest’ flavor, but wasn’t impressed (I like my coffee super-sweet, and coffiest was bitterer than I like).

Soylent "ready to drink" food bottles, in all 4 flavors
Soylent “ready to drink” food bottles, in all 4 flavors

I ordered 2 case (one of Cacao and one of Nectar – 12 bottles each), and they arrived in time for the con. My plan was to cover half my food intake for the event just via Soylent.

Here’s my take on the new flavors. Note that nutritionally, these are no different than the stock 2.0 bottles. They’re just flavored.

  • Nectar – A subtle taste change. My partner thinks it tastes like rose water – a slightly sweet, flowery taste. Better than the stock 2.0 flavor (which is somewhat like a think vanilla shake), but not “MMMM, this is GREAT!”.
  • Cacao – This may turn into my new favorite drink. It has a rich chocolate taste – essentially a bottle of thick chocolate milk. I’m still trying to get past feeling guilty about chugging down a small chocolate milkshake, but this is one heck of a lot better for me than a Five Guys shake (and still only 400 calories).  The trick is thinking of these as ‘food’.  So not something I’m going to have WITH a burger, but INSTEAD of a burger.

Traditionally, keeping well fed at a convention is a challenge.  Hotel food tends to be expensive, and taking time out in the middle of an event to go get a meal can be frustrating.  It’s easy to fall back on cheetos and Dr Pepper, which does no one any good.  Having what amounts to the caloric equivalent of a Subway sandwich at hand, and requiring only the time it takes to chug down the bottle (I drink mine all at once) is pretty awesome.

I think the only thing we noticed is that you have to think of the Soylent bottles as food.  NOT drink.  Both of us found we needed lots of water or similar even though we had just downed 12oz of liquid.

Overall though, it was an excellent experience.  We stayed fed, it was tasty, and we didn’t need to spend major bucks on buying food, or making a mess mixing our own powders (like you do with Soylent 1.x). Highly recommended!

Revisiting Tethering

For the longest time I was stuck in a weird no-mans land regarding WiFi Tethering on my cell phone. I’m referring here to the practice of enabling a hot spot on the phone so other devices, such as a laptop, can share the data connection the phone is using. This is super-handy when in an area that either has no Wifi service, or the service is sketchy as hell.

Problem is, I had an Unlimited data plan with AT&T. And with that unlimited plan, hotspot service was not available.

A year or two ago I made the change and moved my data service to a family plan with a shared data pool. 5 gig a month spread over 4 phones. We haven’t come anywhere near that limit, even with some heavy duty usage, so all in all, a good choice. What I forgot though, was that by going to a metered billing structure, I was able to start using tethered mode.

My cell phone is a Moto X, aka a Moto X Pure Style.

Speeds over tethered wifi with my Moto X
Speeds over tethered wifi with my Moto X
I’m deliriously happy with it, so setting it up as a Wifi Hotspot would just bring it to a new level of functionality.

Enabling it was easy. I was initially worried about performance, but after connecting to it with my laptop and running Speedtest, the numbers are pretty good.
Working from my laptop over the tethered connection is just like sitting at home. I’ll need to set up a better “show how much data I’m using” mechanism, but right now, this is pretty cool.

I went Sailing Again.

Sailing on Boston Harbor
Sailing on Boston Harbor
This afternoon Zach and I took advantage of a Meetup group in Boston to go sailing on the ‘C’est si bon’, a 46ft Formosa out of Marina Bay, south of Boston. I’d sailed with Ralph before, but this was the first time I was able to go with my son Zach. It ended up being awfully hot, and not much wind, but as many have said before me, a bad day out sailing is better than a good day in the office. We had enough wind to take us from Marina Bay all the way to Deer Island and back again over around 5 hours.

We had a great time, and Ralph was as always a wonderful skipper. We had a crew of 6 total, which was just the right number of people, with skills ranging from newbie on up.

I ended up being completely wiped out by the trip, and once I got home, fell into a zombie-like sleep. I’m still sore and worn from 5+ hours on the water, but it was a great day out.

Pilot G-2 07 – The Best Pens Ever?

I’ll admit it. I hang out with geeks. But not just geeks who love computers or tech or whatever, but also writing geeks, library geeks, and, well, you get the idea. Among the literary circles, I’ve found people sometimes go on and on about a certain pen or pencil they love. This always mystified me, as to me, a pen is a pen, a pencil is a pencil, and the greatest amount of thought I put into the process is trying to figure out where I just put one down.

pilot gel pensAlas, I may have levelled up. I’ve moved into the realm of “This is something I really like”. About a year and a half ago I started writing a fulltime journal (on paper, sorry, no URL). Naturally, I used whatever pen I had lying around. Somewhere along the line I picked up a Pilot G-2 07 pen, and… wow. I found a pen that was comfortable, had a great flow to it, and looked good.

Have I finally gone off the deep end? I found myself two weeks ago placing an order with Amazon to keep a stock of these pens in my carrying bag, and at my desk at work. I have never, ever done this before (okay, qualified – I did it once for mechanical pencils, which I use when sketching out projects), and certainly never for a single style, brand, whatever of pen.

Maybe it’s the fact these are ‘gel pens’, which have a smoother stroke than your typical roller ball pen. That combined with a good feel (rubber grip, etc) just make them a joy to use.

I’m going on about enjoying using a certain pen. Definitely cracked.