Thursday, December 30, 2010

I'm Kinected

I was blessed with a Kinect for the Xbox 360 this Christmas. There's probably some irony in the fact that when I was 10, my parents would have never given me anything like this. Yet, now that I'm 32, they went out of their way to find me the hottest video game system of the season. (I think my mother has much more time on her hands these days.)

Setting up the Kinect was incredibly easy. You simply plug it into the Xbox 360, it prompts you for the disc that came with it, and you’re done. The Xbox at my house hadn’t been connected to the Internet (or even turned on much) for the better part of a year, so it did about 30 minutes of updating once it was back online. Again, aside from the wait, no problems.

The Kinect must be between 2’ and 6’ off the ground, directly under or above the television. I had some trouble with this because I went to great pains to wall-mount my TV. I decided my best bet was to re-purpose an old music cart I’d built for my portable 8-track recording studio. I loaded the Xbox, Kinect and all the cables onto the cart. It rolls right under the TV. Then when I’m finished, it rolls back into the corner. I think I’m also going to add a couple brackets for Rock Band guitars on the edges for total video game organization.

Kinect Cart

So far I’ve played Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports. I have to say, the infrared sensor works at least as well as the Wii. Occasionally it loses you, but not often, and usually it’s because you leave the playing area to grab a drink.

Unlike the Wii, there are no buttons to push. I can tell this was a noticeable challenge to the game designers. The most obvious replacement for button-pushing is jumping. At least in these two games I’ve tried, you do A LOT of jumping.

Kinect Adventures was fun for about an hour, but it only has four games that you basically repeat over and over. There’s only so many times I can put my hands and feet over the holes that fish are making in a glass tank before I’m not amused anymore.

Kinect Sports is also somewhat limited, but it does a good job at integrating competition between two players. While Ping Pong and Beach Volleyball might not be too taxing, try a couple rounds of Track & Field. I guarantee you’ll break a sweat.

Aside from high-knee running in place during the Track & Field, I never felt physically taxed while playing the game. However, I woke up sore the next day. While my body is used to low-impact, repetitious motions, it’s not used to the sprinting, jumping and fast arm-swinging involved in Kinect games. Whether or not playing those games for an hour every day would actually make someone lose weight, well, that’s hard to say, but every little bit helps.


I wish I was one of those smart guys who had already hacked the Kinect to fly their quadrotor remote control helicopter or navigate their computer like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Instead, I give you this video of my family jumping up and down in front of the television.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Perfecting the portrait

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One of my big projects for 2011 is to shoot new headshots of our executives for tendering proposals. I have a journalism degree. My background is shooting news out on the street, not in an Olan Mills studio. I wasn't too excited about the project, and my original plan was to contract it to some photographer with lights and a backdrop who works at Sears or does class photos or something. That was until I found out it was something like 300 employees that needed these photos done. Budget no longer allowed me the luxury of contracting it out. Instead I spent just under $400 to put together a mobile studio that I could set up in the office to churn out these headshots.

Keeping in mind that I also wanted to utilize this equipment for video, here's what I got:
The Super Cool-lite 4 One-Head Fluorescent Kit
An 8' Light Stand
A Backdrop Alley STDKT-10BW Studio Stand with 10' x 10' black and white muslin backdrops

The light kit comes with both a softbox and a dish with a diffuser. So far I've only used it with the softbox, but it seems to work well. It can be used with just two or all four lights. While it's adequate, in retrospect I think I would have asked for a little bit more money to get a six-light kit.

I also realized there's another important item you'll need to buy to make this work -- a steamer. These backdrops are all folded up and creased like crazy. Ironing will fade and discolor your backdrops. You need a good handheld steamer to knock all the wrinkles out whenever you set up.

When the equipment showed up last week I took it home to sort it out and make sure it all worked. However, that gave me a chance to get a little creative while I was playing around with it.

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When using just one light, I found that the best results were to have it high shining down on the subject. This creates flattering shadows as if one was standing in the sun. While putting the light low or off to the sides can create a dramatic look or film noir effect, you also run into a problem with shadows from eyeglasses falling across the cheeks, glare on the lenses of glasses, and the shadows of peoples' own noses falling across their cheeks.

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When shooting outside or in a crowd, I usually use the lowest f-stop possible for minimum depth of field. With my Leica X1, that's f2.8. This highlights your subject and blurs the background. However, when shooting against a backdrop, there is essentially no background. I decided to stop down the X1 to f9.0 to see if I could get sort of a hyperfocal effect that brought out all the detail in the subjects. The only downside is that to get the proper exposure I had to drop my shutter speed to 1/2 a second. I was really impressed with the detail I was able to get with the X1, but it kills a little bit of the spontaneity in a shoot when you have to tell people to freeze. Otherwise everything gets a little blurry like this.

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However, I also tested the light with the camera at f2.8 and the shutter speed ramped up to 1/250. It wasn't too bad.

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All of these were taken with the X1 in B&W High Contrast mode. I think they look great, but the 35mm lens required my subjects to be much closer to the camera than felt natural. I noticed they both had a tendency to keep backing away. I'll be doing the headshots with my Nikon in color with a softer setting and around a 90mm focal length.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

So you want to karaoke?

My brother recently turned 28, and he had one request from me. He didn't ask for presents or car parts -- all he wanted was to have karaoke at his party.

Extreme Karaoke

While I love my brother, I wasn't about to spend several hundred dollars to rent or buy a karaoke machine, so like any self-reliant nerd, I turned to the Internet.

I already owned a PA system. I guess that's the upside to having spent a previous decade of my life pretending to be a rock star. However, all you need is a portable computer and a stereo or good set of speakers to pull off a karaoke hack. For the other rockers out there, it's really easy to plug the computer into a stereo and repurpose your guitar amp with a microphone. However, the more microphones you can offer people, the better participation you get, so even a cheap four-slider mixer from Radio Shack can quadruple the fun.

Friends in low places

Of course, you have to have microphones and mic cables to match, so if you're on a serious budget maybe one mic is enough. You can also repurpose USB mics or headsets from Xbox to work through the computer if that's all you've got.

When trying to find software to run the karaoke, I had three requirements in mind.
1. It had to have a search function.
2. It would allow me to use dual monitors, so I could queue songs on one screen and have the lyrics maximized on the other screen.
3. It had to be stable.

I tested five different programs on my Windows 7 machine: Kjams Lite, Kjams Pro, Karafun, Walleoke, and Karaoke5.

Right away, Walleoke failed the stability test. It was off the list.

Kjams Lite/Pro shows promise. It is designed to mirror iTunes, so it has a familiar layout. Searching songs is easy and the lyrics show up in a separate window that can be put on a second screen. It would be perfect for the home karaoke enthusiast ... IF it was stable. Both the Lite and Pro versions crashed like crazy. They also had many features in the menus that just hadn't been written yet. Allegedly the Mac version works great, so if you're on an Apple, try it out. Unfortunately, it's just not up to par yet on PC.

Karafun was solid. It didn't allow two screens, but it keeps the program management small and maximizes the lyrics area. It was also the first program I tested that didn't crash every other click. However, it had no search function. That would be fine if guests were only scrolling through 10 or 15 songs, but I had compiled a library of over 5,000 karaoke hits for the event. You can't scroll through 5,000 songs.

Karaoke5 was impressively advanced. It had much better sounding MIDI instruments for the horrid MIDI versions of songs that show up in so many karaoke libraries. It also had full tone and speed control, so when the singer is killing you softly, you can take the song down a couple steps for them. Karaoke5 also allows playlists, queuing, announces the next singer, compiles and prints off your song database -- all sorts of functions that the professional karaoke DJ would need. However, to access the feature which allows the use of a second screen for the lyrics, you have to register and buy the full version. I was actually interested in doing this except that the programmer is Italian and not so good wit da English, no? Trying to buy the full version of Karaoke5 is a nightmare that starts with a paypal link and ends with very unclear instructions that have something to do with a dedicated USB drive that must always be plugged into the computer where you're using Karaoke5. Plus, it's about $200.

After a week of searching for the perfect Karaoke program, I finally gave up and went with the free version of Karaoke5. Despite all the features, it was still light enough to run on my netbook, which can't support a second monitor anyway. We simply clicked back and forth between the search box and the lyrics box all night and nobody seemed to mind.

So what about songs? All of these karaoke programs use two main file types, .kar or .mp3 paired with a .cdg file, which contains the lyrics. Using Vuze, I was able to find more than 5,000 songs available via bit torrent. I know, the legality is questionable, but it was for a one-night stand. I’m not taking this karaoke show on the road. Nor will I ever even listen to all those karaoke files again. I wanted the hard drive space back. They’re now free as a bird, or dust in the wind, or something like that.

When downloading or purchasing music, I highly recommend going the .mp3 and .cdg route. That gives you real music. Most, if not all, of the .kar files are terrible-sounding MIDI tracks. However, sometimes that can add to the cheesiness of the party, especially if you have an 80s theme going. Of course, if your friends are inebriated enough, they won’t really care.

KaraFun also makes an editor that allows you to strip the vocal track from an MP3 and create a lyrics file for it. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to use, and as you probably guessed, the results are pretty mediocre. You still hear the vocal track, it’s just kind of quiet. However, if you really need that perfect Usher song to initiate some love in the club, that’s the easiest way to make it happen.

Hope this helps. Happy singing!

The power of Gawker

I've been doing a little testing to see just how much influence Gizmodo and the other Gawker Media sites really have. The answer is A LOT! At this point if a Gawker site links you in an article it's like a DDOS attack from the traffic generated.

Just linking a photo in the comments of an article on Gizmodo.com, I was able to jump my flickr click-throughs from 325 the previous day to more than 3,500 in less than 24 hours.

Some days are better than others

I've repeated this experiment several times to verify, and I also linked a YouTube video. That video jumped from 20 views to 450 by the end of the day.



I tried this same experiment with fark.com. It generated a measly 20 click-throughs. In comparison, Facebook and the Leica Forum generate somewhere between 5 and 10 clicks per day.

Interesting stuff. Now to figure out how to generate 10,000 per day.

The perfect Christmas gift

This was one of the prizes for the company bake-off held last week. I actually sat across the room for ten minutes trying to calculate in my head whether a 5 volt USB port could possibly ever generate enough heat to toast bread.

USB Toaster

I know, it was way too exciting to be real. It's actually a fake product gift box sold by www.theonion.com.

You've got to love the slogan, "Perfect software means perfect toast ... every time."

However, this giant OREO cookie cake was very real!

Giant Cookie Cake

Another 15 minutes?

I seem to be gaining a bit of notoriety as of late. I wish it was for my book, Building Business Communications on a Budget, which I published for the Kindle platform over Thanksgiving. However, nobody seems to think a window into my marketing genius would be a very good holiday gift. Oh well, maybe it will pick up in 2011.

However, I did get linked on the Leica Rumors blog yesterday for my prototype Leica X1 macro converter. Must have been a slow news day, but still kind of fun. Check it out at http://leicarumors.com/2010/12/16/leica-links-6.aspx/ .

I've also had more than 700 views of my Leica X1 adapter and hood on flickr.
Leica X1 with adapter tube and lens hood

As sad as I was to do it, I actually sold them both this week to pay for continued research. I actually purchased both 135mm and 90mm Leica Wetzlar lenses from eBay in hopes of creating a true Leica macro converter.

My Leica X1 adapters and a 135mm M lens

While I LOVE the way these lenses just screw apart, so that I can disassemble and experiment without damaging them, I didn't realize M lenses were so incredibly narrow in diameter. Unfortunately, I get terrible vignetting, so I'm going to have to find a new home for these lenses and go back to using larger diameter Nikkor lenses.

vignetting problem

I'm still waiting for the square lens hoods to arrive from China. I'm dying to see how they'll look on my adapters.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Celebration

My sister was kind enough to invite me to the Christmas Celebration Show that is produced by First Baptist Church Houston every year. Last year my brother-in-law played both a wise man and an elf, but this year he was just a spectator like us.

I have trouble sitting through a one-hour church service, so the two-and-a-half-hour show got a bit tedious for me. It might also have been that I had 30-some-odd people headed to my house for a party and was a bit pre-occupied with that. However, my impatience aside, the technical and production aspects of the show were amazing. There was a flying Santa, flying angels, and a real live pachyderm in the show.

First Baptist Church Houston Christmas Celebration

So this elephant walked into a church ...

If you're into sitting through long musicals and Broadway-style shows, I highly recommend you grab tickets for next year's event.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Conquering the Mega Mel Burger

It's been one of those weeks where nothing I actually PLANNED to get done, actually got done. By Tuesday morning everything had snowballed into a hectic cluster of overwhelming deadlines. I found myself still at the office 9 p.m. Wednesday. Then, I did remember it was my brother's birthday Thursday morning and sent him a message on Facebook, but by the time I arrived home that evening I was completely confused as to why his friends were at the house wanting to go out to eat.

It was a foot-in-mouth moment when he suggested Mel's Country Cafe, and I said, I'll pass. All I was thinking was that I was tired and about to miss another workout. Then he said, "Should I open my birthday cards here at the house then?" I felt dumb.

I had no idea what Mel's Country Cafe was or where it was located. I just knew he'd been there a couple weekends ago with the Cobra Club. When we got there, I found out why he requested that particular eatery -- he wanted to conquer the Mega Mel.

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Here are the contents of a Mega Mel:
1.5 pounds of fresh ground beef
1 pound of bacon
.25 pound of America cheese
LOTS and LOTS of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles

Here are the rules if you want your name on the wall of fame:
1. If you leave anything in your plate, you will be disqualified.
2. If anyone takes anything off your plate, you will be disqualified.
3. You must be able to walk and talk after eating the Mega Mel Burger.
4. If you get sick at any time, you will be disqualified.
5. You have two hours to eat the Mega Mel Burger.
6. You will be stopped from eating if at anytime the staff feels you are going to get sick.
7. The most important thing is to remember that the Mega Mel Burger is a fun event at Mel's Country Cafe, so please have fun with it.

Needless to say, he didn't finish.

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But he did have fun, and he has enough leftovers to eat the rest of the weekend.

As for me, I finished putting out all the fires and fulfilling everyone's requests late this afternoon. I wish I could have paginated the December newsletter somewhere in between town hall meeting slides, answering help calls, and digging up proposal photos, but it's not like I don't get to come to work next week.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Leica X1 adapter tubes and lens hoods

I finally finished the last bit of painting on my Leica X1 adapter tube prototype last night. All in all, it didn't come out too bad.

Leica X1 with adapter tube and lens hood

However, because I was using a handheld cut-off wheel instead of a fixed saw, I ended up lightly nicking each of the three tubes at least once in the raised grip-like area around the end. I know, I know, I should be using the right tool for the job, but I don't own a pipe saw, nor do I have the capital to invest in one just for this project.

Leica X1 adapter tube

The paint came out ok, but it took a few attempts. While I was rather proud of the color-matching I did with the silver paint, I found that I had to wait at least 24 hours before I could mask over it to paint the black sections or the tape would rip the silver right off. Then the slightly recessed area towards the rear between the sections I painted black and silver never seems to want to come out all black or all silver. It kind of goes back and forth in color down in the crack, which drives me nuts.

From five feet away, these things look great. Unfortunately, due to the various nicks and imperfect paint edges, I don't feel like I can manufacture and charge people for them. People that use Leica cameras want a perfect finish, and I think I'd just have unhappy customers returning them. Even if I gave up on the two-tone paint job, they'd still have nicks in the metal. Hopefully I can sell the three I've made at cost for $50 each to recoup those funds for other projects. Of course, I'm keeping the original for my own use.

Despite the fact that I can't keep the paint from bleeding in the cracks, these things work great. I was able to screw on a Quantaray circular polarizer, a 52-49mm step-down ring, and a Leica vented lens hood with no vignetting. I think I could add at least one more filter to the stack, but I was out of things to screw on to it.

Leica X1 adapter tube and lens hood

Now that the shortened adapter is done, I'm turning my attention back to lens converters. I have an old 135mm Leica Wetzlar Hektor on its way via eBay. I hope to use the elements to test some ideas for creating a wide-angle converter and teleconverter, but even if they don't pan out, I can at least create a Leica-quality macro converter.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The pants crisis

I got a rude awakening last Friday. The time had come for the annual office Holiday Party, and I'd made arrangements to stay at the hotel to avoid and drinking and driving, my camera batteries were charged, all was good -- until I tried to put on my tuxedo.

In the days of old, I'd throw on the monkey suit at least four or five times a year to grace the movers and shakers of northwest Houston with my presence and editorial coverage of their social and charity events. However, in recent years, the tuxedo has only come out of the closet once a year for holiday parties. I should have paid more attention to how snugly the pants were fitting back in October when I wore it to the Society for Underwater Technology Subsea Gala. I should have continued the workout regime I abandoned in August. I should have eaten less pie at Thanksgiving.

My pants wouldn't button.

This wouldn't have been such an emergency except that I hadn't brought anything except jeans and the tuxedo to the hotel, and there wasn't time before the party to drive back across Houston to grab a suit. I briefly wondered if the front desk kept a stock of safety pins on hand for instances of this nature.

I had a Chuck-style intersect flash and channeled every Special K commercial I'd ever seen. I sucked my underestimated girth in as far as it would go, fell backwards onto the bed kicking my legs up into the air and stretched the waistline to its breaking point.

That gave me just enough slack to hook the metal loop. I prayed it would hold as I tried to find zen regarding how tightly my waist would be squeezed for the entirety of the evening.

I survived and so did my pants.

My vest and shirt collar were also a bit too tight. After ten years of fitting in that suit without a thought, it was time to face the music that I'm getting fat. Upon my return home Saturday I downed the last chicken pot pie and the three ice cream sandwiches in the freezer in a reflective binge, symbolically saying goodbye to the carefree eating habits I've enjoyed for the past decade.

I haven't eaten much since then. I know I can't starve myself forever. The dizziness and lack of focus makes it hard to work. I've got to start a low-calorie balanced meal plan. I know how to do this. I've had the cooking classes as well as the kinesiology classes, and I even own the Bowflex cook book. It just all goes back to being lazy and unmotivated. I'm thinking I may just pre-cook chicken and rice for a week at a time.

So yeah, I'm on a workout kick. My goal is to be able to fit comfortably back into those tuxedo pants by New Years. Failing to do so in unacceptable. I refuse to be one of those people who just keeps buying larger and larger pants every year until they're suddenly having to buy two seats on an airplane and asking for seatbelt extenders when they travel.

The weekend before Thanksgiving my brother and I got a chance to take the boat out for the first time in a couple weeks. I have no actual data to back it up, but it FELT like it was sailing better with the changes made to the rigging.

We anchored near an old platform and did some fishing.

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We didn't catch anything. Later that night we tried again at the marina, but still failed to catch anything noteworthy. There's obviously a trick to ocean fishing that I have yet to discover.

The diesel started puffing white smoke again, so I pulled the heat exchanger for a second time. I discovered a seam between the coolant reservoir and the exhaust ports that I'd missed with the JB Weld first time around. Hopefully I have it sealed up for good now.

As everything swings into full holiday mode, I picked up a few decorations for the house. However, as I'm trying to build my photography portfolio and Nikki is working on her modeling portfolio, we decided to take a few photos before putting the lights up.

Saint Nikki 01

You can see the entire set at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21557832@N00/sets/72157625539084694/