Sunday, September 28, 2008

TOTW #10: Laptop Battery Life; Photo Composition; Bonus Tip!

Computer Tip: Laptop Battery Life

In a conversation I had earlier this week with a friend it became pretty evident that there are many misconceptions out there about the best ways to take care of the battery on a laptop to give it optimum life. So here's an attempt to clear some of that up.

Most laptop batteries today use a Lithium-Ion technology to store their charge. LiIon batteries require different care than older NiCd and NiMH batteries. NiCd and NiMH batteries would lose their ability to hold a charge more quickly if they were not drained fully before being recharged. LiIon don't have that limitation. Their life span is mostly related to the total number of times they are charged and discharged.

Most LiIon batteries have a life span of somewhere around 500 charge cycles before they won't accept a charge any longer. Fully discharging then fully recharging a battery would be one cycle. Likewise, discharging half way and recharging would be a half of a cycle. After around 500 total cycles the battery is done.

As batteries go through charge and discharge cycles, their capacity to hold a charge diminishes gradually until it just won't take any charge at all. You will see shorter and shorter times that you can run your computer on battery.

So basically the more you use your laptop running on battery, the more quickly that battery will wear out. If you discharge then recharge your battery every day, you'll probably get a little over a year out of your battery before it won't take a charge any longer. The moral of the story here is to plug in whenever you can to avoid going through the charge/discharge cycles.

With older laptops and batteries, it was best to remove the battery from the computer once they were fully charged to avoid overcharging. With newer laptops and battery chemistries this is no longer the case. The charging circuit always maintains the ideal charge on the batteries, so it is best to plug in the computer and leave the battery in the computer all the time.

After a battery is worn out, take it to any number of facilities that collect batteries for recycling. Two of the more common collectors are Radio Shack and Best Buy. The service is free.

Multimedia Tip: Photo Composition

I'm going to go with a cop-out this week and just direct your attention to my second photography class from about a year ago. The class was on techniques you can use to create visually appealing images. So when you have about 45 minutes, crawl up on your couch with a laptop and watch the class:

Bonus Tip: Synchronizing Files Between Computers

I came across a really cool free utility this week designed to synchronize and share files between computers. It's called FolderShare.

It works on both Mac and PC. On each computer you can select one or more folders that you wish to synchronize with other computers. Those computers don't even need to belong to you; you can setup shares to synchronize files with other people. And it all happens automatically. As soon as you create a file in, or copy a file into a shared folder, FolderShare begins synchronizing it with all of the other computers that are sharing that same folder, completely behind the scenes. There are no limits on the size or types of files. The data is also compressed and encrypted so it transfers quickly, and can't be viewed by third parties.

The other nifty thing that it does is that it can (optionally) make all of the files and folders on your computer available via the FolderShare web site. You log into the site and can see and download any of the files and folders on your computer at home. (The files are downloaded directly from your computer; they aren't stored on the FS site.) So you might not need to carry a USB flash drive any longer, as long as you have access to the Internet you have access to any of your files at home. The service even works if your computer is behind a firewall or router.

I have some file shares setup between me and some business contacts, and some friends. We can all access and share files without having to exchange the files via email or a web site. It all happens in the background. It's a great way to share pictures or video with friends and family.

I was thinking of writing a program like this and charging money for it. Then I discovered this service, and it's totally free, so it looks like I'll have to find another software idea. :)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Regional Personality Traits

The Wall Street Journal just published the results of study that correlates geography with personality traits.  The results are quite interesting:

Take a look.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Boredom & Hobbies

Warning: Random, probable nonsensical ramblings below.  I’m feeling too lazy to edit it into something cohesive and comprehensible.

While Brent and I were installing a stereo in his car yesterday our roommate Jordan came and went about four times in the space of about four hours.  He was bored and couldn’t find anything to do, so he kept hopping on his motorcycle driving around looking for something to do.  I don’t think he ever found anything.

I realize all of us get stir crazy and experience boredom from time to time, but it seems like it happens way too often.

How can we get bored so frequently when are so many things that we can do?  So many things to learn, so many hobbies we could take up.  I can’t find enough hours in a day to do everything I’d like to do yet some people can’t find enough things to do to fill in the hours of the day.

Conversely, I find it sad that most people these days get to a point where they are done with school and are starting their careers before they even know what they like to do.  It seems like nobody has hobbies any more!  And nobody is prepared to make decisions on what they’d like to do for their career.

Are we as a society trying to fit too many things we think are important into our time that we don’t have time to do things that may not seem important, but really might be in the long term?  Don’t we need to take some time and find something we enjoy doing instead of something we need to do?  Shouldn’t we cut down on the so-called important things that aren’t so important, and do more to make sure we enjoy life a little?  Isn’t life too short for us to spend it doing nothing more than school work and our jobs?

A hundred years ago everybody had to farm for their food, make anything that they needed around the house, even build their own homes.  Today we don’t have to fill our time with any of those activities, and as a result we should have more time on our hands, but it’s become filled with trivial activities.  Are those sporting events and television shows really as essential as we think they are?

An awful lot of the people I know spend/t so much time with school, homework, and the extracurricular activities that they felt had to be done in order to get into a good college that they haven’t taken the time to experiment with different activities to actually find out what they enjoy doing.  Then when it comes time to decide on a career they have no idea what to do because they haven’t experienced anything in life other than mindless busy work.  Then when they actually have down time they have no idea what to do with themselves… boredom.

I was lucky I guess.  I knew by the time I was 7 or 8 what I enjoyed doing, and what I wanted to do for a career.  And those are the things that I’m doing today… computers, photography, audio, video, electronics, and engineering and building different gadgets.  No matter how busy I am I always have something I could do that I enjoy doing. 

So, aside from work and school, what do you actually like to do?

TOTW #9: Portable Music; Blurred Backgrounds

Computer Tip: Portable Music

Most of us have portable music players (PMPs), usually iPods. But when I say “portable” here I’m actually referring to the ability to move music between different software ecosystems, not being able to take the player with you. In other words, not being tied down to just one particular program or player; being able to move music between say, and iPod, and a Zune, car stereo, etc. freely.

iTunes and the iPod like to use a file format called AAC. Devices and software outside of the Apple world, on the other hand, usually don’t recognize this format. Most other players in the world don’t play AAC but rather Microsoft’s format, WMA. All can play MP3 files, though, so if you want a type of file that can be played by anyone, MP3 is the only viable option. (I’m not a fan of the sound quality of MP3 files, but there is no other universal format that can be played everywhere.)

The vast majority of music purchased within iTunes is not only in AAC format, but it is also copy protected. So not only are you limited to playing within iTunes or on your iPod, it will only play on YOUR iTunes and iPod. You can’t even share a file with a friend or use it in a video if you want to. (On a side note, I strongly recommend against buying copy protected music, just so you know you’ll be able to play it on whatever computer or device you may have a few years down the road.)

So what is the solution? Buying music from sources that supply unprotected MP3 files. Or buying CDs and copying them to the computer in MP3 format instead of AAC or WMA.

Personally my favorite source for legal MP3 downloads is the MP3 Store. They have a huge selection, the prices are usually better than other sources, and all of their music is in unprotected MP3 format so it plays on anything. Their downloader utility even copies music into iTunes or Windows Media Player automatically. Walmart and others also offer MP3 downloads as well. iTunes has some “iTunes Plus” titles which are in an unprotected AAC format, but once again you are limited to whatever devices can support AAC files.

Multimedia Tip: Blurred Backgrounds

Some of the nicest photographs you ever see utilize a technique called ‘shallow depth of field’ to ensure that only the intended subject is in focus, with everything behind (and in front of) thrown out of focus. This naturally draws your eye to the most important part of the image by removing extraneous details.

To get this effect on a point & shoot camera, set it to its Portrait mode. Then stand comfortably close (5 feet?) and take the picture. It helps to be outdoors or in other well-lit conditions.

To get this effect on an SLR camera, set the mode dial to Av or A. Then turn the adjustment wheel to get the largest aperture possible, which means the lowest number possible. Stand at the same 5’ distance and snap away.

In either case you should also have the camera set to its fastest ISO (lowest number) possible. Adding a neutral density filter to your lens also enhances the effect.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Recent Goings On

You've probably noticed that the number of personal posts has been kind of low from me for some time now. Well, I've been kind of busy working. A typical day for me is 14-16 hours of programming, interspersed with a couple breaks for snacks, to run errands, then sleep for 6-7 hours per night to start it all over again the next day. Not exactly the most exciting thing to write about, so I've kind of kept my keyboard quiet.

But I haven't spent every waking minute in front of my computer; I flew up to Spokane last week to work up there for three days. The trip was a complete success, and I was able to add a feature to our POS system that a huge potential customer has been clamoring for for quite some time.

And prior to my trip to Spokane I spent several days prepping for last Sunday's regional stake conference broadcast by rebuilding the wireless network I setup between three local church buildings and rewiring the satellite room. Lots more time on the roof, with only a little bit of time in the attic. But this time I did got to play in the tunnels. Unfortunately I paid the price the next few days with jello legs from having to walk hunched over.

Speaking of conference, it was a pretty great meeting. And I actually got to watch almost all of it this time instead of running around between buildings fixing problems to make sure the video could be seen in all three.

TV Upgrade

One of the highlights of the last few weeks was the acquisition of a new TV for my living room. I have been using a 34" Sony CRT (tube) TV for the last two years, and it has been absolutely amazing (CRTs still have a MUCH better picture than LCDs), but I've been running into a compatibility issue between the TV and the projector I got in May. Plus I've been wanting something a little bigger anyway. While I was at Circuit City 10 days ago (looking for a projector for the regional conference, actually; not TV shopping) I noticed that the Sony 52" XBR4 LCD TV that I've been keeping my eye on for the last year was on sale, at the best price I've ever seen. It has typically been around $3500-$4000, but it was on sale for $2900. I asked the salesperson if they had any in stock, and they didn't, but they were willing to sell the floor model for $2540, which actually rang up at $2440. It was near closing and Brent and I went in his new So now I have an absolutely massive TV in my living room, and an amazing smaller 34" HDTV looking for a new home. So if you know someone who wants an amazing deal on an amazing High Definition TV, let me know.

For the techies reading this blog, the new model is Full 1080p resolution at 120Hz, and it supports true 24p, for an absolutely jawdropping picture for watching movies. If you're in the neighborhood drop by and I'll give you a demo.

Ike Hits Home

My sister Suzanne and friend Brian decided to evacuate Houston to get out of the way of Ike. Suzanne decided to visit my parents for a week to wait it out, while Brian threw his family in his RV and headed for northern Louisiana. From what I've heard, Suzanne's apartment survived unscathed, but I haven't heard the status of Brian's house yet. I can't say the same for Suzanne's employer's building; it had at least a few windows blown out by the storm. Because of the storm I'm also running some of the services that Brian provides for his customers on a computer here at my place to make sure that his customers continue to have access to their email.

Rock Band 2

Rock Band 2 is out now. Brent picked up a copy at midnight last night, and we played for a while before going to bed. It is essentially the same as Rock Band 1, with a few features added here and there. They didn't fix a couple issues I had with the first, though. You still have to play the same songs multiple times in order to get through the Tour, and it gets discouraging. Overall the guitar parts still just aren't hard enough. Brent and I 5-starred every song we played on Expert the first time through, and even had perfect scores on two songs. Shouldn't Expert be at least a little bit of a challenge?

The cool thing about RB2 though is that you can import/export almost all of the songs from RB1, and the songs you paid for with RB1 automatically show up in RB2 as well. Overall I think I like the songs that come with RB2 better than the first; but I'm still hoping that some day one of these games will focus on some of the bands I liked to listen to in high school, during the peak of the hair band era. Somehow I just don't think of Beck when I think of great guitar parts.

Nostalgia Lane

On Thursday Phyl came over and we were both hungry so we went to Pizza Factory in Provo. I had a Calzone, and it was yummy. But during dinner we were talking about TV shows coming out this fall, and I briefly mentioned that I was going to give the remake of Knight Rider a shot even though my expectations weren't that high. She gave me a blank stare, and I could tell that she hadn't ever heard of Knight Rider, not even when I mentioned David Hasselhoff. Anyway, so she would know what I was talking about we watched an episode of the show. It was the one where KITT's prototype, KARR, escapes from the laboratory. Now that's classic television. Do you know Knight Rider? And have you seen the show?

The Internet Has Changed the World

Two posts ago I ranted about a TV show I saw on Discovery Channel, and its pseudo-science being passed off as legit. Then Brad replied to my post and talked about another episode of the show that he saw on that same night. Then two posts later, someone who was actually involved in the episode that Brad saw posted a reply on my blog. If you had told me 15 years ago that someone involved in the creation of a TV show would contact me about my opinion (ok, it was Brad's opinion in this case, but that doesn't change the point) I would have never believed it. Back then you wouldn't even get a response if you asked for one, and here we got a response that we didn't even go looking for. The Internet has truly changed everything.

Excited For...

I'm excited that Heroes season 3 is starting up here in 10 days. I still think it's one of the best shows on television, even though they had to ruin season 2 because of the writer's strike.

I'm also excited for the new Zune software that is coming out on Tuesday. There are some pretty cool features coming with this update.

Don't Like Working on Sunday

I really don't enjoy having to work on Sunday; it is normally the only day I take off. But we had two Little Caesars stores with significant problems today that had to be addressed. So I had to spend three hours diagnosing problems with one store (their phone line had been cut, which caused problems with our system), then the next 3 hours fixing problems with the other store. That deserves 6 hours of not working sometime during this next week, right?

There is One More Thing

I almost forgot one of the biggest things that has happened recently. Brent bought a brand new Honda Civic a couple weeks ago. It's black, two door. But the black has a mild blue metalic flake to it that's really cool.

That's All, Folks!

I suppose I've rambled on long enough. But thanks for bearing with me through my techie posts to get to the good stuff.

TOTW #8: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back; What Do These Letters Mean?

Computer Tip: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Tired of moving your mouse to the Back and Forward buttons on your browser's title bar to navigate between recently visited pages?  Well, there is an easier way.

Different browsers have different supported ways of doing this, but here are a few variations; try them all in your favorite browser and pick one that works.

To go back a page, try: Alt+Left Arrow, Backspace, or hold Shift while rotating the mouse wheel toward you.

To go forward a page, try: Alt+Right Arrow, or hold Shift while rotating the mouse wheel away from you.

Some mice and/or keyboards have dedicated Back and Forward buttons too.

And while I'm at it, instead of using your mouse wheel to scroll a web page, tap the space bar to navigate down one screen at a time, or use the Page Up and Page Down keys.  And don't forget the F6, F8, Control+O and Control+L shortcuts from earlier tips to make browsing with the keyboard easier.

Multimedia Tip: What Do These Letters Mean?

Cameras often have letter designations for the different settings, and their meanings might not always be obvious.  So here are a few common settings and what they are:

P Program mode; the camera decides how to expose an image, but you can shift the program by rotating the dial under your finger.
Av or A Aperture Priority.  You tell the camera the size of aperture you want, and it decides the appropriate shutter speed to expose properly.
Tv or S Shutter Priority.  You tell the camera the shutter speed, and it figures out the appropriate aperture size.
M Manual Mode.  You select both the aperture size and the shutter speed.
Adep Aperture depth.  You select two objects at different distances that you would like to be in focus, press the shutter half way down for each, and the camera figures out the aperture size and shutter speed for the proper exposure.

If you're unsure what these terms mean, feel free to go back and watch the first episode of my Introduction to Photography classes, where I explain exposure in detail.

Monday, September 8, 2008

TOTW #7: What's My File? / Better Video

Computer Tip: What's My File?

One of the things that drives me nuts about Windows is that it makes it difficult for people to distinguish between legitimate files and malware (such as a virus). In its default configuration you can't tell for sure just by looking at a file whether it is a document, or an executable program. If you end up double-clicking on a file with a virus, thinking it's a picture or a letter from Aunt Margaret, your computer is suddenly infected and it might take hours to remove the infection.

The easiest way to prevent this is to make sure that Windows tells you what type of file you are actually looking at. So instead of it showing "Picture at IHOP" you'll see "Picture at IHOP.jpg" telling you that it really is a JPEG-formatted picture, or "Picture at IHOP.exe" letting you know that the file is an executable that will probably do bad things to your computer. Fortunately setting Windows to display file types in the form of file extensions is an easy thing to change.

Under Windows XP, click Start, Control Panel, and choose Folder Options. In Vista, click the Start button, start to type "Folder Options" and it should appear in the list of search results at the top of the Start Menu.

From there, go to the View tab, find the option named "Hide extensions for known file types" and turn it off. Then click OK to save the change.

From that time on, you can tell what type of file you are looking at by it's extension. A few (but not all) types to avoid are: .exe, .com, .bat, .pif, and .vbs. If you receive an unexpected file from someone with one of those extensions, delete the file immediately!

The setting of this option carries over into Outlook and Outlook Express, so it will be much easier to tell what type of file you received in your email as well.

Multimedia Tip: Better Video

Here are a few really quick tips for much better quality video.

1. Use multiple short shots instead of one long one. We've all been bored to death by somebody's vacation or school performance video. Why are they boring? Because there is too much video. A better video would be one that only shows the most important parts of an event, leaving out everything else that isn't absolutely essential. So when shooting, only record the parts that really need to be there, and ignore the rest. But don't forget to leave a second or two before and after to make the video flow more naturally.

2. Use my "one move per shot" rule. In this context, a move would be considered a pan (movement left or right), tilt (movement up or down), or zoom. Few things scream "amateur video" more than constant zooming in or out, or multiple pans back and forth. So with each shot (remember that shorter is better here), only perform one move. One zoom in, one pan left, one tilt up, etc. If you need to make another move to tell the story of what is going on, pause the camera, reposition, and restart the recording.

3. Keep your moves slow. So every pan, tilt, or zoom, should be slow. Give your audience time to take in the scene rather than giving them motion sickness.

4. Change your position. Each time you pause the camera to change your shot, change something about the positioning of your shot, whether it be your physical position, or the zoom position of your lens. This will avoid what are called "jump shots" where two shots next to one another are too similar, creating a jarring transition that is awkward to view.

5. Use a tripod. Nobody can hold a camera perfectly still, not even the professionals. And getting to the point where you can hold it "relatively still" is an art that takes years to perfect. So take the time to get out a tripod. Or invest in motion sickness pills for the people you intend to whom you show your video. And if you don't own a tripod, use my 50 Cent Tripod Substitute tip from a couple weeks ago until you get one.

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