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.
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.
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.
So I’m packed. Three months abroad. Now it’s not like I’m heading to the mountains of the Moon or anything. It’s friggin Paris. They do have restaurants, department stores, and pharmacies there. Not to mention, Ya no, shelter from the elements.
So the pack up is 90% clothing, and 10% geek support hardware. Cables, adapters, all that stuff. The new apartment is supposed to be complete, but I’m taking no chances. I even enabled my amazon.fr account. Gonna be roughing it I tell ya.
Honestly I’m sort of surprised I got everything into these bags. There was some judicious editing by Mrs Geek to be sure. But it’s ready to go.
I’m off to the airport in 3 hours. As an experiment I’m going to be blogging directly to planet-geek from my phone. If you want to stay updated, make sure you add my RSS feed to your reader. Y’all are using an RSS reader, right? Right?
Okay, that’s a little dramatic. I’m not moving permanently, just for a couple months.
Earlier this year, my employer asked if I’d be interested in relocating to Paris for a while. After talking it over with my family, I enthusiastically accepted, and the wheels were set in motion. Since my last trip went so well, I was looking forward to returning. It took a month or two of wrangling with Visa application documents, US records offices, and other red tape, but last week I received my travel documents. It’s on!
So, stay tuned for more missives from the City of Lights!
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”.
Over the last year or two I’ve taken time off building and flying quadcopters. Life and other things has been taking up my brain, so some hobbies took a back seat.
Up at the lab, an event was coming up that would bring in some other pilots from New Hampshire and do a race day. I decided it was time to build a new quad, and get some race time in.
The last big event I went to was NAFPV 2017. It was great fun, and I ended up winning a 220mm carbon fiber frame. With that in hand, I began building up a new quad.
The technology has changed dramatically since my first builds. All in one components, ‘stacks’, and other tech has made the builds both more complicated (lots of tiny wire soldering), and easier (most boards are the same size, and can be stacked on top of one another). Turns out pretty much none of the components I had on hand would work on the new quad, so I had to purchase all new pieces. Here’s what I ended up with:
Wolfwhoop TX1912 5.8 video transmitter – I chose this board for the MMCX small antenna connection, and the ability to select bands and channels easily via a button and an LED display on the top. Super handy.
CrazyPony 4in1 ESC This is probably the biggest change for me. Originally I built quads using separate discrete ESC’s. This board puts all 4 ESC’s on a single board. It definitely makes the wiring cleaner, but a little denser on the stack.
Betaflight F4 flight controller Betaflight is certainly the star as far as flight controllers and software goes right now. Their configuration tool is excellent, and the board is very good. I was slightly concerened about working with a board that had no header pins, but decided to roll up my sleeves and get experience in very tight soldering setups.
FS-X6B Flysky receiver – Yeah, I’m still rocking the FlySky setup. It’s still working well for me. I like this receiver because it can mount on the component stack (even though it’s a half-board).
The build went off without too much trouble. I found all the missing tiny bits I needed, did lots of very small soldering, and over the space of 3 weeks, got everything assembled and tested. It worked! All the components were talking to each other properly, and I even have a fully function OSD (on screen display) showing stats from the batteries, flight controller, and receiver. Even got the LED strip showing the arming state and a set of ‘tail lights’. Hurray!
I did a very quick flight test to check stability, then went up to the lab to put the final touches on things. This is where I made my first mistake.
I decided to take Quadzilla outside for a quick LOS test fly. My FPV gear wasn’t ready for flight testing, but I wanted to see the LED’s and play around. I put the quad on the ground, armed it (which spin the props slowly), stepped back, and gave it a little throttle. The quad lifted, started to move backwards, and basically… fell into my hands… still throttled and running. Those props HURT. I scraped up my hands a bit before I was able to disarm.
So what did I do wrong? Pretty easy actually.
I flew Line of Sight at night. LOS requires visibility on the yaw, pitch, and roll of your craft. I coudln’t see it, it was too dark.
The rear LEDs were pointing at me, which made it even harder to see.
I was in Air mode, not Angle mode, which means there was no flight stabilization. Quad did what I told it to, which in this case was to fly right at me.
Embarrassing, slightly painful, but no major harm done. Bleeding stopped within 10 minutes.
Chagrined, I took the quad home, cleaned up, and started prepping for the race, which would be in 3 days. The quad was pretty much ready to fly, I needed to set the mode selector properly, and tweak the LEDs. I also decided to move the battery from underneath the frame to on top of the top deck. Plenty of room there, and the quad would sit on the ground when taking off or landing, not on the battery. Win!
Turns out my batteries needed some love. The 1300mah 90C batteries i got last summer had been sitting idle for a year. Of the 8 batteries I had, one melted while charging, another was puffy so I decided not to use it. That left 6, which charged okay, but my parallel charger has seen better days. A new gang charging situation is needed, more on this in another post.
I charged all my other gear, including a nifty little all in one 9″ monitor with build in 5.8 receiver I carry with me. Great for checking video and watching other pilots fly. I packed up everything into the Jeep and on Sunday, headed up to the lab for race day.
The folks from the 603 Southern New Hampshire Drone Pilots group showed up, bringing our total pilots to about 10. We ran a couple heats with 4-5 craft in the air at once, on a short ‘H’ shaped course that had several gates and a ‘turnaround’ cube in the middle. The course was off the end of the back parking lot, so there was plenty of room to drive up, park, set up your tables, and get flying without fear of getting hit or getting in anyone’s way.
I flew 3 batteries. First flight was a very basic FPV test (as really this was my first FPV time on the new quad this year, and things went fine. Video was strong and clear, and the quad was very responsive. I flew completely in Angle mode, which is a VERY simple flight mode. I wasn’t comfortable enough yet to go into anything that would let me go more crazy. This was a first time out, I didn’t want to shatter anything.
Second battery apparently was in bad shape. No strong thrust, just running limp. I figured out later the 4S pack had a dead cell, and was functioning as a 3S. That explains that.
Last battery was in good shape, and I was feeling the power of that 4S setup. Unfrotunately, because I was in angle mode, I couldn’t pitch forward enough to get decent speed out of it (I’d just climb), so I was taking it pretty easy. I flew a gate or two, then went through the last one on the course – I caught a motor on that, which spun me out into the trees. The damage to Quadzilla is pretty minor, but I did rip out my VTX antenna, so that ended me for the day. I’m not complaining, I flew, I had a great time with the other pilots, and you’ll be damned sure to see me flying again soon.
While up at MakeIt a few weeks ago, a fellow maker came up to me and handed me a Samsonite briefcase. With a wink and a smile, he said “Take this. You’ll like it.”
Ohhhkay, I’ll bite. Lets check this out.
Opening up the case revealed… an HP 75C handheld computer, made by Hewlett Packard in the early 80s. This machine has some pretty nifty functionality. A built in BASIC, expandability, magnetic card reader for loading / saving programs, a full QWERTY keyboard, and rechargeable batteries.
Writing code on it is remarkably easy, with a clear easy to read screen and nice tactile feel to the keyboard.
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:
Having spent a week in Paris, I think I have cracked the coffee code, and why American coffees are so huge by comparison. In America, coffee is considered a food. In Europe, it's a medication. #Coffee#espresso#Europe#murrica!
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!
This month finds me in France for a few weeks, away from hearth, home, family, and all my worldly posessions. While getting ready for this trip, I spent a bunch of time reviewing what I carry in my backpack – cleaning out debris that had accumulated (A few handfuls of receipts, some cold meds, and cables that didn’t make sense anymore), and making sure I had everything I’d need while away from home for an extended trip.
I realized while double-checking my kit that it really doesn’t change much. And since I got here (about a week ago) I haven’t had to replace or change anything, and I haven’t gone “Dammit, I’m missing something, guess I’ll go buy it.”
Now I’m not off in the wild jungle or anything – Paris does in fact have stores – but I’m pleased to say everything I’ve needed for work, and for my various jaunts around the city, have all been pretty well covered.
Someone on Slack asked about what I’m carrying for kit gear, so I decided to quickly write it up…
OGIO Camera bag – I got this bag something like 5 years ago, and it’s been great. It’s starting to get a little worn, but nothing is broken, and it came with a rain shroud that I’ve used a few times. It has a special pouch along the bottom specifically for camera gear.
Macbook Pro 13 – this is my every day computer. I don’t have a desktop machine at home.
This is both my work and my personal machine. I’m typing on it as we speak!
Camera Flash – A small electronic flash for my Olympus
Memory cards – This bag contains about 20 memory cards – some USB3, some SD, a few microSD cards, and adapters. I used to have a specialized plastic case for cards, but there’s no reason to keep them that organized. Just toss ’em in the bag.
Earplugs – These are wax custom forming earplugs. I’ve used them on overnight plane flights, or in hotels that are just Too Damned Noisy
Macbook power supply – The smallest configuration I could get
Checkbook – Yes, there’s circumstances where I may need to use a check. I will probably just pick a few checks off this and put them in my wallet soon.
My journal – I have a journal. This was a gift from my sweetie – it’s about 3/4 full of a lot of dense writing. I find the act of writing in it cathartic. It slows me down and lets me think without all the geekery
Brainwavez Delta IEM Headphones – This is my second set of these (and I’m using them right now). They’re still fantastic sounding, and roll up into a nice light zippered case. The only reason I replaced them was the laptop fell off my lap at one point and bent the headphone connector all out of whack. Oops
Yes, I carry a rubiks cube around. It’s a great fidget toy, and a great way to relax. Also tends to start conversations. Best time right now is 1 minute 14 seconds for a full solve. But I’m out of practice, so nowadays it’s closer to 2 minutes. Also, a friend just reminded me that I sometimes use it for showing scale in a photo. Everyone knows how big a rubiks cube is.
My passport – I don’t keep this with me all the time, just for this trip. I keep it in a buried pocket in the pack, very difficult to reach unless you’re trying hard Pickpocket proof as best I can do it.
Cleaning cloth for glasses – I wear glasses. I have sunglasses. Not having a good cleaning cloth at hand can be infuriating, particularly if you’re not wearing a cotton shirt or something.
KMASHI K-MP816 10000 mAh battery – This is critical. This battery has saved my ass a dozen times. It’s your typical portable battery pack. The reviews on it aren’t particularly stellar on Amazon, but for $12, I’ve totally gotten my money out of it. It’s a good balance between weight and capacity.
LKY DIGITAL Travel Adapter – This is a nifty little cube (it’s int he black zippered case) that has also been a godsend. It is a multi country adapter, able to plug into most European countries, as well as Japan and others I don’t know about. The real kicker is it has 2 USB charging ports on it also, so at night I can plug in my laptop, my cell phone, and my watch for recharging (or my travel battery), and have enough plugs for them all.
Apple Displayport to Ethernet adapter – Sometimes you’re in a place where the wifi just plain sucks or isn’t available (like a datacenter).
WMZ Multi Charger Cable – I love this thing. It’s a single USB cable with 3 ends on it. Lightning, Micro USB, and USB-C. It’s pretty rare I need more than one at a time, but I have a very good cable in case I need to charge my SO’s iPhone, or charge my KMASHI battery. My phone uses USB-C, so I’m all set no matter what I need. The cable itself is very well built, with a little velcro keeper and everything.
A spare small USB multiport charger, just in case.
Gerber Bear Grylls Compact Multitool – So, this is a bit of a problem. This is a very small (and inexpensive) multitool that I like to have with me, because having a multitool is handy. I normally carry that inside the Altoids tin with the rest of my ‘support stuff’, but out of the last 10 plane flights, two of them have been pulled out by the TSA and confiscated. Now what I do is take the multitool out of my bag and put it in my checked luggage (if I’m bringing some). If I don’t have checked luggage, I leave the multitool at home. Frustrating, because this thing is tiny, and incredibly useful.
Altoids ‘kit’ – It’s a little hard to see in this pic, but there’s 2 altoids tins there. One is full of tasty altoids goodness. The other is a sort of emergency kit I build after reading some of the more sane prepper sites. In that second tin I carry:
A small LED flashlight
Several rubber bands
Several paper clips (these things have come in handy SO MANY TIMES, I honestly cannot tell you. Seriously, carry some.
Some anti-itch cream
The rest of the items are specifically for my Olympus PEN-F Mirrorless Camera. A note here – this is the first long trip I’ve taken with the smaller camera, and I LOVE IT. I’m already having ideas for different lenses to carry but my current set is working quite well.
Spare lens caps
Olympus 25mm F1.8 Lens – The equivalent of the standard ‘nifty fifty’ lens so common on 35mm bodies. It’s been okay for my work, though I think I’d like faster glass.
Spare batteries and charger. I carry 3 batteries with me, because I’m almost ALWAYS having one go down, so having one to switch to that’s fresh, and one in the wings is great They charge pretty fast, so keeping them all charged isn’t much of a challenge.
Leather case for PEN-F – I freely admit one of the reasons I got the PEN-F was it’s retro styling. This brown leather case completes the image, and of course works really well protecting the camera. I leave the lens cover off when carrying it around on shoots, and bundle it up when it’s on it’s way any long distance (like on a plane).
Theres naturally other stuff I have that’s not in the pic, like my cell phone, but one thing I’d like to add in is I carry a Pocketmonkey Wallet Multitool. This is a super handy thin credit card sized piece of metal that has things like a bottle opener, screwdriver, wrench, etc etc on it. I’ve used it half a dozen times, and it is 100% TSA approved (I’ve only gotten nudged on it once, where an overzealous TSA agent asked about it, took it out of my wallet, went over to confer with his supervisor, and came back “Huh, these are 100% okay. Cool!” and off I went.
I’m sure there’s stuff I’m missing. Leave a comment if you think of something I should change or get. I will probably be looking to replace my Ogio pack soon, as it’s a little long in the tooth. Something a little more outdoorsey would be nice.
For a while I was very into an interesting niche of games. Generally referred to as ‘incremental games’, these games combine “Sit back and watch stuff happen” with “click a bunch of times to do some small task over and over again.” The games tend to lea a combination of watching things run, and ‘click something to move the game ahead’. Some examples are Cookie Clicker, the Paper Clip Game and the Kittens game.
Naturally this made me look at games like this for mobile, and after some digging around, I found Tap Titans 2.
Now, this game has a cute backstory – Titans (big monsters) are appearing around the world, and you lead a band of heroes to head them off when they appear before they wreak havoc.
The basic idea is pretty straightforward. Click on the screen, your hero makes an attack and does damage to a titan. Do enough damage, the titan is destroyed, and the next one appears. Each time you destroy a titan, you get a certain amount of gold. That gold can be used to summon and level up other heroes to help fight the Titans. Every 5 titans there’s a Boss, if you defeat the Boss, you move on to the next stage. At some point, the amount of gold you’re getting can’t level up your heroes enough to defeat the Boss, and you stop progressing. When this happens, you have the option to Prestige, which basically resets the game back to the start, but you get a ton of bonuses (skill points, artifacts, etc) that help your hero be stronger the next time through. In the beginning, getting to a point where you Prestige may take a day or two. In the upper levels, it gets down to a few hours, and then with certain artifacts and other bonuses, you can do it in 20 minutes.
So where’s the challenge and interest, and why have I been playing this game non stop for almost two months?
Well, first, the graphics are outstanding. It’s a beautiful game to watch and interact with. The developers have taken lots of time paying attention to the animation and color detail.. almost to a fault! With the game in full graphics mode, I’ll drain a battery faster than I can charge it!
The second reason is… well, it’s fun. I know it sounds odd to watch a game mostly run itself, but it’s the small changes, upgrades, tweaks to the damage boosts, figuring out when to pay for what when… it’s… fun. Anyone who plays incremental games I think has a hard time explaining why it’s relaxing and enjoyable… it just is.
Lastly, the developers did a lot to keep the game interesting. There’s tournaments every week that pit you against similarly-levelled players. There’s regular drops of upgrades, ‘fairy boxes’ (big gold bonuses), and a simplistic, but pleasant Clan system where you can team up with other people to gain bonuses. Being in a strong clan can be a huge boost to how far you get in the game.
Do I recommend it to everyone? Nah. Do I recommend it to people who like incrementals? Definitely. It’s free, and is definitely not a “pay to win” game. I played for a month without contributing, and decided in the end to buy some diamonds, not because I needed them to win (I haven’t even spent them yet), but because I felt the developers had done a great job, and this was my way of supporting them.
The photography community is going through yet another sea change driven by technology. The first big adjustment happened when digital cameras got good enough to replace film. This was primarily driven by DSLR’s becoming price and performance competitive with analog cameras, and the entire industry pivoted to digital.
The next wave is the move from DSLR to mirrorless technology. This is fairly recent – technically the earliest digital cameras were ‘mirrorless’ in that they didn’t have the internal mechanisms that SLR’s have (and thus were considered inferior in many ways). But recently mirrorless cameras with sensor and lens ecosystems as good as professional (and ‘prosumer’) cameras have been gaining popularity, and it’s become pretty apparent that the DSLR’s days are numbered.
I went whole hog into DSLR land after taking pictures for many years with ‘point and shoot’ digital cameras. My first DSLR was a Canon Digital Rebel XTi (nee ‘400D’), and later a Canon 70D. I continued using both through weddings, portrait shoots, event photography, etc, enjoying the quality and ‘feel’ of the platform.
Eventually I realized I was using my camera less because of it’s bulkiness, and the fact that I was already carrying a pretty decent camera in my pocket. My cell phone camera was, to use the well worn phrase, the best camera you can have (ie, “the one you have with you”). I was using my phone camera for snapshots, shooting subjects I was interested in in the moment, etc, but my pictures stopped being ‘art’, and started just being ‘documenting’. I’m not interested in just being another snapshot phone cam photographer. I want to make beautiful images, and while some of that is possible with a cell phone, I wanted better. It was clear I wasn’t using my Canon (though I carry it in my camera-enabling backpack a lot) because it was heavy, bulky, and unwieldy. Hauling out 2 pounds of camera to take a picture of the beautiful sky or a street at night was just becoming a hassle.
Time to look at mirrorless cameras.
Canon had already been working on a mirrorless line, with the M50 and the M6 bodies. They were relatively expensive, and the reviews were okay, if not exciting. If I was going to invest in an entire new camera platform (and lets be clear, when you replace your camera, you’re also replacing all the accessories – lenses, flashes, etc – you’ve gotten for the old platform), I wanted it to be something I was excited about, and had a good ecosystem behind it.
I was attracted to the Micro Four Thirds family of lenses (referred to as ‘m43’ or ‘m4/3’ or ‘MFT’ by the technorati – I just use m43). There seemed to be a lot of support for the platform among many manufacturers, so I started focusing on what platforms were around. My attention was drawn to the Olympus PEN series of cameras – these cameras go back to the late 1950’s, and are easily recognizable in their styling and form factor. Olympus has made digital versions of the PEN cameras for a few years, but only recently have they gone all out and made a high end digital mirrorless version that supports the M43 lens platform, all in the same form factor.
And it looks cool as hell.
After reading many reviews and details online, I took the plunge, and ordered the camera. Because I knew I’d be banging it around a lot, I also added a very nice retro looking leather case for it, as well as a few extra lenses with associated filters, including a 25mm F/1.8 (what is equivalent to the standard 50mm fixed lens on most DSLRs), since much of my style works with shallow depth of field shots.
I received the camera just before a trip to California, so I basically bundled everything into a bag and got on the plane. My first real experience using the camera was during some walkarounds in San Francisco.
It’s small. In some ways, the camera feels a bit like a toy, but only because I’m so used to handling a large bulky device. Once I got past the size issues, the camera is pleasant to use. Fast on the shutter, good autofocus and it makes nice decisions about auto settings. I’m avoiding fiddling the manual modes for a while, because the manual is ENORMOUS, and there’s a lot to get through. I did change the autofocus setting to be a sort of hybrid manual mode. You can set it to autofocus for you, then you can manually adjust the focus off the initial setting via the lens ring. Handy.
I immediately ran into a problem where the camera would lock up after several shots. No amount of on/off, button pushing, closing / opening the display or anything would cause it to come back to life – and it would get HOT, draining the battery very quickly. It was obviously stuck in some software loop. Popping the battery out and back in cause it to reboot, and I could continue shooting, but having to do this every 3-4 shots was frustrating. Turns out it was a known firmware bug that was fixed in version 2.0. Olympus provides a (remarkably well written) download / update tool to upgrade the camera via a USB cable. Once the firmware was updated, no more lockups. Hooray!
The next thing I had to overcome was the viewfinder. Because this camera is not an SLR, which shows you, via the viewfinder, exactly what the camera sensor will see when it takes the picture, The PEN-F has a secondary digital display within the viewfinder that shows you what the sensor will see, but obviously at a much lower resolution. It has the advantage of showing you all the details you’ll need to know about the shot (ISO, aperture, exposure, battery life, storage information, etc), and has a neat presentation style after you take the shot (you half press the shutter button to set focus, then full press to shoot, just like most cameras… On the next press, you get a very fast preview of the last shot taken – about 1/4 second, but it lets you know what the last shot looked like. I found this extremely useful when taking multiple shots in a row, to understand if the last shot was focused right, got what i needed, etc). The digital viewfinder has drawbacks though. It doesn’t come on until the camera senses your face is near the display, so there’s a noticeable delay before the image comes on. This can be disconcerting. The display is a low resolution version of the actual photo you’ll be taking, and because it’s a luminous version of the shot, the colors and values can feel ‘off’ – this isn’t a reflective version of what your lens would see, it’s a replayed version of reality using glowing pixels. It has a very different feel, and takes some getting used to.
The back of the camera has a flip out high resolution touch sensitive display that is great for replays, working through the (VAST) menu system, or doing maintenance on the camera. The display can be folded out, flipped over, and hidden, which is how I prefer to shoot – I don’t like having a sensitive glass display open to being banged about in my bag. The menus and environment were snappy and easy to navigate, but the menu system is quite deep and detailed. I’ve had to refer to the manual and to online forums several times to find things buried in the multilevel menu system.
The PEN-F does have wifi support, and it looks to be much better than the Canon configurations (which I found all but useless). For now I’m using SD cards to move content from the camera to my Mac running Lightroom. I’ll try the wifi process at some point, but or now it’s something that’s not on my hot list.
So, how does it perform?
So far, I’m exceptionally pleased with the quality of shots coming off it. First, working with the fixed 25mm lens has been an experience pretty much dead on with my work with the standard ‘nifty fifty’s. The lens is fast and responsive, and handles light just fine. The focal depth is about what I’d expect for a fixed lens of this size, and the form factor is just right. In my bag, the entire assembly is hardly noticeable compared to my bulky 70D.
Olympus also offers a 150mm (300mm equivelent) ‘long lens’ for an extremely reasonable price (I got mine for $99). I recognized I wanted to do long lens shots, so picked up the 150mm, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Motion on the lens is excellent, and I was able to ‘snipe’ profile shots at a big social gathering beautifully. I also took this lens to a soccer practice, and was very pleased with the quality of shots coming out of the system.
So, lets talk physical comparisons for a bit.
The obvious part is – the Olympus is small. Roughly half the size of the Canon equipment. This makes it much easier to carry around and not have it be a burden. Batteries, camera body, lenses, associated gear, all half the weight, for roughly the same performance.
Weight wise, I compared the Canon 70D with a 1.8mm 50mm lens against the Olympus PEN-F with a 25mm 1.8 lens. The Canon weighed in at 925 grams, and the Olympus was 650 grams, putting the Canon setup about 50% heavier than the Olympus. That’s a pretty significant change.
In short, the Olympus is smaller, lighter, and easier to work with than the Canon, with comparable performance.
What about picture quality?
I’m not the worlds greatest photographer. In fact, I’d argue I’m somewhere in the ‘meh’ to ‘okay’ department. Sometimes I luck out, and sometimes something I’m really trying to capture happens as I envisioned it. I love the work I create, and want to get better, but I know I have a lot to learn. Having said that, I don’t think i’ve come anywhere close to pushing the 70D or the PEN-F to their capability limits, so while some may argue the PEN-F has this or that deficiency or advantage over the 70D, that’s not really what is going to impact my work. I got the camera because I felt I needed something more portable, lighter, and easier to work with, which would encourage me to get out and shoot more. I believe in that I’ve succeeded.
I’ve done some street photography (which I enjoy), and have been super happy with the results. I’ve taken it out for your typical day of touristy fun, and I’ve shot portraits. I’ve used it at a soccer game for sports photography. In all these settings, it’s performed well and I’ve been happy with the results.
Wrapping it up – Conclusions and thoughts
After a month with the new camera, I have to say I’m pretty satisfied. The form factor, the picture quality, and the performance has been great. I won’t lie, part of my attraction to the camera was how it looks and feels. It’s got a retro affect that I find attractive and interesting. Very little of the styling is ‘there just for show’ – it’s all functional and useful (okay, maybe the on-camera post-effects set via a dial on the front of the body are a little strange), but overall, the controls are effective, well placed, and functinal.
I’m fully committed to using the PEN-F as my primary shooter. There’s no reason I’d need to bring my 70D with me for 98% of my photowalks or other events. Am I getting rid of my 70D? Probably not – having a second body is very handy for events and paid gigs. I’ll probably work with both cameras for weddings where having two cameras set up with different lenses is needed.
“The Curta was conceived by Curt Herzstark in the 1930s in Vienna, Austria. By 1938, he had filed a key patent, covering his complemented stepped drum, Deutsches Reichspatent (German National Patent) No. 747073. This single drum replaced the multiple drums, typically around 10 or so, of contemporary calculators, and it enabled not only addition, but subtraction through nines complement math, essentially subtracting by adding. The nines’ complement math breakthrough eliminated the significant mechanical complexity created when “borrowing” during subtraction. This drum would prove to be the key to the small, hand-held mechanical calculator the Curta would become.”
I’ve been hunting around for one of these for years, and I’m happy to say I finally acquired a Type 1 a week or two ago. This one is serial number 20120, manufactured in November, 1952 in Lichtenstein, where all Curtas were manufactured.
My unit functions perfectly, and I’m happily going through tutorials learning not only how to do basic math, but also more complex operations like roots and long division.
I was excited to hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos has been renewed and will be airing new episodes next year. When I was in high school, I was absolutely transformed by Carl Sagan’s original series. I cannot understate the impact it had on my worldview and personal development as a critical thinker and supporter of science.
At the end of season two of Dr. Tyson’s series, he closed with, well, okay a slightly preachy, but still impactful commentary that included Dr. Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” quote. This was given during a lecture in Cornell in 1994. As Voyager 1 completed it’s mission and was getting ready to leave the solar system forever, Dr Sagan convinced the JPL to turn the Voyager camera around and take one last picture of earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles.
That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
This, by itself, would have been a wonderful end to the series. But Dr. Tyson continued and presented his Five Rules of Science. In so many ways, these points build on Dr Sagan’s deep philosophical thoughts, and add concrete rules and guidelines. These are the foundations we should build our debates, our discussions, our ideas on….
Only a few centuries ago, a mere second in cosmic time, we knew nothing of where or when we were. Oblivious to the rest of the cosmos, we inhabited a kind of prison, a tiny universe bounded by a nutshell.
How did we escape from the prison? It was the work of generations of searchers who took five simple rules to heart.
Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me.
Think for yourself. Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.
Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.
Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.
And perhaps the most important rule of all…
Remember: you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. Newton, Einstein, and every other great scientist in history — they all made mistakes. Of course they did. They were human.
Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves, and each other.
There will, naturally, people who pick and choose from this list to simply further their personal agenda. These things cannot be taken in isolation. Either you accept, embrace, and follow them all, or you’re doing it wrong. Humility must go hand in hand with discovery. No one has all the answers. Be a searcher. Learn, grow, and explore.
I don’t do much home finishing work, but I’m sort of proud that I got this thing done myself.
After finishing the attic, the windowsill on the one window was unfinished. I decided to do the work myself. It was an ugly and glaring flaw in the otherwise well finished space, it was time to fix it.
The first step was picking up some wood of the appropriate thickness from Lowes, and cutting it to shape in the sill.
I wanted a bit of a lip over the front of it, so I ‘notched’ the side of the front board (it required two pieces because of the depth of the sill) and fit it into place. I was working with relatively rudimentary woodcutting tools (skilsaw and jigsaw), so the fit wasn’t perfect. If I had a chopsaw and/or a scrollsaw, this would be much easier, but there’s only so many tools I can fit in my house. I used my belt sander to smooth / round off the edges of the lip and the nailed the pieces in place with finishing nails, using a small punch to countersink the nails so they wouldn’t stick up.
Because the fit wasn’t perfect, and I hadn’t cut into the drywall to fit the pieces in snugly, I used some silicone to fill in the gaps and seal the wood against the wall. After that, it was just a matter of using some leftover paint I had from when the room was painted, and voila! I had a lovely new windowsill.
Is it perfect? Not even remotely, but it’s a damned sight better than the raw unfinished sill. Onward!