Friday, December 26, 2008

Nihonjin Nibbles: Halloween KitKat

Fig. 1: Halloween Theme KitKat

The first item up for review is a Halloween Theme Kit-Kat. The first striking thing is the packaging. It is bright and colorful in a blue, orange and yellow themed wrapper and has some of the typical accoutrements that we Americans associate with Halloween…bats, witch’s hats, ghosts, the moon, stars and houses.

Halloween seems to be a relatively appropriate holiday for the Japanese. Not the candy beggars, ghouls and goblins mind you, but the innate spirituality. The Japanese seem to be a deeply spiritual people, as evidenced by the large number of temples and the regular visits of people offering prayers to their ancestors. Of course, I'm in it for the candy.

I was shocked upon opening the small package…the smell was overwhelmingly wonderful! As I sat at my desk jotting down my thoughts, the candy was sitting in front of me with the corner torn off. I could smell the candy in the next room. I cannot quite place the odor, kind of nutty and vanilla-ly, with a hint of oats. When you open a standard-issue American Kit-Kat, there is no smell. Well…either that, or I am just used to it.

Fig. 2: A Sharpie (top), a standard American two-bar
KitKat (middle), the Japanese KitKat (bottom).

In a size comparison, this Japanese Kit-Kat is smaller lengthwise, but the same width and thickness. (The aroma is still lingering and I am getting anxious to eat it already!!)

The flavor is unusual but pleasant, the wafers appear to be standard issue Kit-Kat, but the filling is a light tan color. The chocolate is creamy and smooth and has a good flavor in and of itself.

Fig. 3: The interior of the Japanese KitKat.

This KitKat was far and away more appealing than the standard-issue American KitKat. The aroma was intoxicating, the chocolate significantly creamier and it was more flavorful overall. I am still trying to place the flavor, though, as it is completely different than what I'm used to.

I figured that a Japanese KitKat would be different but not this significantly different. I certainly wish that our KitKats were like this.

The standard-issue American KitKat garners a 7/10 on the completely unscientific scale of tastiness. I give the Halloween edition Japanese KitKat a 9/10!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Care Package from the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan: the Land of the Rising Sun, home of Japanese people, ninjas, sushi, good cars, lasers, robots, five million varieties of KitKats and VCRs. I love Japan and the idea of Japan. It has this mystery and alien-ness to it that I find so appealing. I can't quite put my finger on why; I'm not particularly fond of anime, but I love me some sushi; I could never quite bring myself to buy a Japanese car, but I love all things Sony. Perhaps it is the capsule hotels, vending machines selling everything from beer to used ladies drawers or the fact that there are no actual street addresses.

I had (and probably still have, actually) a jaded view of Japan. You know, the view of someone on the outside looking in at the sanitized, all-good-things view that we gaijin get. My views started when I was young, back in the '80s they would run the James Clavell mini-series 'Shogun' on the telly. It completely absorbed me. The epicness and beauty of feudal Japan just sucked me in and never let go. I knew then that I had to learn all that I could about the place, so far away from me ... not only in terms of distance but also what I'm used to in general, everyday living activites.

Yes, my perspective was one that was typical for those that have never been to Japan. An ideal, utopian society with no crime, all high-tech, robots everywhere serving every need, friendly people, green grass, cherry trees that bloom on cue, samurai walking the streets, flying cars, etc.

Unfortunately, as I have learned over the years, the grass is not greener on the other side of the pond. Japan does indeed have its share of problems. I have long been a follower of the always lovely Orchid and her blog The Monster Flower, on which she has a unique perspective on Japan, having lived there for almost two decades. If you are at all interested in Japan, I implore you to visit her blog to get all the details on what it is really like for a foreigner in Japan.

Sure some of the things that go on to foreigners in Japan isn't nice. You're cool and an outcast all at the same time. Sometimes older people go out of their way to be supremely passive-aggressive towards you just because they can. The police are apathetic and nearly always assume the gaijin is at fault.

But for all the things that are part and parcel of the reality of Japan, both good and bad, I still want to visit there. I am hoping to make a trip in 2010 or 2011, and to that end I have purchased some Japanese language learning books and a number of travel guides. I hope to take a week, maybe two, to enjoy the sights, the temples, the nightlife (not the naughty nightlife, mind you!). I want to stay in a capsule hotel, sample an onsen, eat real ramen and weird sushi, visit all the Akihabara electronics stores, ride the shinkansen, and just take in how life operates in such an unusual culture.


The always lovely Orchid and her CH sent me a package of delectable delights from Japan. Orchid runs another wonderful blog, Japanese Snack Reviews, which she guinea pigs her American point-of-view on some of Japan's typically unusual junk food selections.

She gave me explicit instructions that I was to blog about my experiences with the goodies, and I will make good on that!

Fig. 1: The package on my cluttered dining room table.

I was very pleased and more than excited to see the box from Japan. How exciting it was to delve in to all the precious goodies waiting inside, so many alien wonders to behold!

Fig. 2: All the wonderful goodies from Japan!

As Orchid pointed out in one of her entries, the Japanese have a fondness for using English in their product naming. As you can see, many of the items have English names. The most amusing one is the "Crunky" candybars in the foreground. What immediately came to mind is the word, if you can call it that, 'crunk'. According to some of the definitions in "The Urban Dictionary", crunk is to 'get crazy and drunk' or a type of dirty southern rap. Bizarre.

What is particularly interesting about the state of Japanese junk food is the proliferation of variety in KitKats. According to Wikipedia, Japan has had no less than 25 special varieties of KitKats in flavors ranging from 'Caramel and Salt' to 'Green Tea' to 'Soy Sauce'!

As an extra special bonus, Orchid and the CH sent along a beautiful set of chopsticks...

Fig 3: Japanese chopsticks.

This was a great package of stuff, and I intend to review every one of the goodies that was tucked inside. I am going to get impressions, too, from family and friends on the goodies in order to share the adventure. I have already consumed one of the individual KitKats in the picture, so my review of that will be coming up soon.

To Orchid and the CH: thank you very kindly for the package! It made a wonderful early Christmas gift! I hope that my reviews of the goodies will be up to par with your in depth reviews on your JSR blog. I am intending on boxing up a few special, indigenous goodies from around where I live and send them off your way early in January, so be expecting them! :)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Another Math Joke

Here's a funny one from Neatorama, one of my favorite websites in the whole wide web...

There were three medieval kingdoms on the shores of a lake. There was an island in the middle of the lake, over which the kingdoms had been fighting for years. Finally, the three kings decided that they would send their knights out to do battle, and the winner would take the island.

The night before the battle, the knights and their squires pitched camp and readied themselves for the fight. The first kingdom had 12 knights, and each knight had five squires, all of whom were busily polishing armor, brushing horses, and cooking food. The second kingdom had twenty knights, and each knight had 10 squires. Everyone at that camp was also busy preparing for battle. At the camp of the third kingdom, there was only one knight, with his squire. This squire took a large pot and hung it from a looped rope in a tall tree. He busied himself preparing the meal, while the knight polished his own armor.

When the hour of the battle came, the three kingdoms sent their squires out to fight (this was too trivial a matter for the knights to join in).

The battle raged, and when the dust had cleared, the only person left was the lone squire from the third kingdom, having defeated the squires from the other two kingdoms, thus proving that the squire of the high pot and noose is equal to the sum of the squires of the other two sides.

LOL! Indeed, as stated by the caption on Neatorama, Pythagoras is rolling in his grave!

Saturday, October 25, 2008


There's a little nuthatch that keeps visiting the pine tree in my front yard for some of the many bird and squirrel goodies mother sets out for them. I managed to shoot a few pictures when it would stay still long enough, so here they are for your enjoyment.

Fig. 1: Closeup at 300mm, f5.6 @ 1/125.

Fig. 2: Closeup at 300mm, f5.6 @ 1/320.

Fig. 3: Closeup at 300mm, f5.6 @ 1/125.

I was able to get rather close to this beautiful little creature, but what you see is actually an illusion. It helps to have a decent high-megapixel camera and a long lens. The pictures, above, were taken with a Sony alpha 200, 10.2 megapixels in JPEG mode, with a Minolta Maxxum autofocus 75-300mm lens at 300mm. I then cropped them from there and did some color and contrast adjustments using Google's Picasa 3 software.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Power Outage

September is usually uneventful here in is pretty much every month. However, September of 2008 will go down in infamy as being the windiest on record. On Sunday, September 14, the remains of Hurricane Ike blew through our area and knocked out power to about 330,000 people in the Dayton area. In other words, everybody.

I have never, ever heard the wind howl like this. Ever. And it wasn't just one strong gust every now and then. I'm talking a constant wind of nearly 50 miles per hour, even gusting as high as 75. This went on for hours. The wind started about 10am that day, we lost power at 1pm and it finally stopped howling at about 6pm.

Thankfully, my house was spared any wind damage, save for my big satellite dish which was blown out of alignment. Mother and father's house was similarly undamaged.

Fig. 1: Misaligned Satellite Dish.

It is not that big of a deal because it wouldn't align properly where it was anyhow so I moved it back to the bird feeder post nearer the ground.

Lots of trees suffered in the storm, which was the major cause of the power outages.

Fig. 2: Tree limbs in my neighbor's yard.

The trees belonging to my backyard neighbor were the hardest hit. The wind stripped the tree nearly bare and tore off a number of limbs.

Fig. 3: A limb in my parent's backyard.

We were without power for nearly seven (7!) days. Most of the line crews from around here had been dispatched to the ravaged areas of Texas after the hurricane proper took out electric down there. No one expected such a savage windstorm to come through our area.

Fig. 4: The view between my parent's
house (left) and mine (right).

We didn't expect the power to be out for so long. Thankfully, we had some rather cool days after the storm blew through, so I left the windows open. Sleeping with the windows open all night was actually pretty terrific!

At the second day I had to clean out my fridge and freezer.

Fig. 5: My empty fridge.

All I had left was some mustard, pickles, microwave popcorn, bottled water, film, batteries and my stash of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I threw out some mayonnaise, frozen chicken pot pies, mini pizzas and hot pockets. Hey, I'm a expect me to have actual food? I used this time to actually do a good clean on the fridge, too, which was convenient.

Mother and father were hit harder in this regard. They ended up throwing out two new gallons of milk, lots of new frozen stuff, lunchmeat and bacon and more. They had just gone to the store that Saturday! Needless to say, we ate out nearly every night. Well, at the restaurants that had power. Most of the nearby joints were without power for the duration, too.

The phone company had set up a number of generators and power trucks at their central offices and tandems to keep the phone lines powered. There were so many traffic signals without power that the city did not have enough portable stop signs to go around. Luckily, people were doing right and treating them as four-way stops like they should.

I think I dealt with the situation pretty well. I didn't have internet, which was driving me crazy, but I took it in stride. I would take my iPod, laptop and cell phone to work to charge them and when I got home I would play solitaire or pinball until my battery died, then I would listen to music or watch videos on my iPod until time for bed. I had to use my cell phone as an alarm clock so I could get up on time. Taking showers by flashlight really isn't much different. At least I had hot water...behold the power and glory of natural gas!

Fig. 6: My house, before and after the power outage.

Fig. 7: My house, during the power outage.

Mother, however, was a different story. I thought that she was going to have a breakdown. I'm serious, she was getting worse every day; getting closer to that edge that once you cross you can never come back. She was getting mad at me because I was dealing with the situation in a calm, cool manner as if it was no big deal. She was unusually salty at work and would severely admonish people who called in because they had no power.

I saw no reason to get all worked up. Sure it was annoying and I would rather it not happen, but it did, so there. She did not see it that way. By day three, she was ready to do violence to anyone from the power company. By day five, she was ready to kill for a generator. More than once she was near tears. I can't say as I blame her, she is sensitive and when out of her comfortable element she doesn't know how to react. Afterward she said that she was not good in a personal crisis. She's right.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I will miss you, dearest Beverly...

I was planning on putting up a posting tonight about the hurricane and power outages here in Ohio, and some musings about some of the stupidity and interesting things that went on during the extended blackout. I swear I had it all ready in my head, complete with pictures!

That, of course, was in a perfect world where I could come home from an extremely annoying day at work and vegetate. This, alas, was not to be.

Mother called me over to her house tonight, as per usual. However, when I arrived, she started crying. This is a prime indicator of something extremely bad. And, well, it is. My mother's dearest best friend, Beverly, passed away suddenly last night. It may have been a stroke or a heart attack, no one if for sure yet. She was 50. Mother worked with her at the nursing home. Mother is the personnel director and Beverly was the Director of Nursing.

It was only a few months ago that we attended a surprise birthday party for her 50th. In more recent memories, she came over numerous times this summer to swim in mum and dad's pool and shoot the breeze.

I remember clearly the last time I saw her was this last Friday. I went to the nursing home to work on a faulty computer and she stopped to visit with me for a while. I was whining to her about how I still had no power and how mother was getting pretty close to her wit's end being in the same situation. She gave me a back rub. A good one. She gave great backrubs.

Beverly will forever be close to my heart for helping me deal with having cancer, since she had gone through chemo and radiation herself. She was also integral in helping my mother cope with my treatments and what understanding what I was going through. She was a great friend to mummy as well.

Going to the nursing home will not be the same without seeing her there, ransacking her office for candy, a backrub and the inevitable two-way street of venting about life, the universe and everything. I will miss her very much, as will a lot of people.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hurricane Ike

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The bits and pieces of Hurricane Ike blew through the Dayton area on Sunday afternoon knocking out power and throwing full-grown trees around like matchsticks. There were wind gusts of up to 75 mph throughout the area and this went on for hours and hours. About 225,000 people are still without power.

I have been powerless since Sunday at 1pm EDT. Other than that, I have come through unscathed. My house in fine, no damage to any of my trees. Mother and father's house, next door, is undamaged as well. There are, though, vast quantities of leaves in both our yards.

I have a few pictures which I will post as soon as power comes back on. They say it may be the weekend before that happens, though.

My relatively boring life has just increased its boredom factor by 10x. I've been turning in early every night. Sleeping with the windows open has been quite refreshing; thankfully the weather has been really nice and the evenings unusually cool.

No one in Ohio expects a hurricane.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

Fig. 1: The remains of Mailbox No. 2

When I moved in to my little house, one of the first things I did was replace the mailbox. The mailbox that was here was kinda funky and falling apart, so I decided to get a new one to start my house on its way to a non-amateur-pharmacy identity.

The post you see in figure 1, above, I purchased for it and bought a heavy duty mailbox made out of thick steel. I painted it in green and put it up and had many a month of mail deliveries in it. That is until a nice, older gentleman driving with his wife turned the corner a bit to shallow and struck the edge with the passenger side mirror.

The guy stopped and was quite woeful of my mailbox. The leading edge was bent such that the door would not open. He wanted to pay for it, but I told him to put that money towards a new mirror on his minivan, that I could bend out the damage on the mailbox with a plier and that it was no big deal. I was more impressed...well, shocked, really...that the gentleman even stopped. Where are classy people like that now-a-days? What followed was many more months of trouble-free postal mail.

As winter came and went, it started to get harder and harder to keep the mailbox closed. The piano-style hinge holding the door was beginning to rust, as were the welds holding the top to the bottom, and the area the I bent out to get the door to open and close. I decided to take action this spring. I bought a new mailbox, the one you see in figure 1, above, to replace it. This one was a bit flimsier, but bigger and painted in a nice shade of brown that would compliment my home.

That is until someone knocked it down in the night this last Friday night/Saturday morning. The results are what you see, above. Just what I needed.

So, I went to the local DIY store and bought a new post and mailbox and some nice numbers. This time I painted the box and numbers the same shade as I did my front storm door, a flat, textured forest green. I think it turned out pretty well. It was certainly a better paint job than the original mailbox, which I painted with a "hammered" finish bright green...and did a terrible job on it.

Fig. 2: The new mailbox, No. 3

The new mailbox makes the third mailbox I have had in as many years. I only hope that the bastard's car looks as bad as mailbox number 2.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Another Pointless Victory

Fig. 1: Screen capture of my record Solitaire score.

I play Solitaire way too much. It is pretty much a mindless game that can be easily worked in while waiting for something, to alleviate boredom or whatever. It is an interesting game because each deal results in a different combination of luck and skill required to complete the game. A lot of the time it works out that you can't place any of the cards you flip, like the one that I played right before the one shown, above.

In the one shown above, I got a bonus of 8,022 for completing the game in 84 seconds (the fastest I've ever played) for a total score of 9,029. This is the highest score I have ever achieved, handily beating my previous record being 8,222 in 93 seconds on Tuesday, August 26, 2008.

Just to be sure, the parameters of the game are standard scoring, three-card flip, and I right-click to move valid cards to the upper-right completion piles. I do not use the SHIFT-CTRL-ALT cheat, because that is cheating!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The "Griefer" Experience

The always lovely Orchid, in her blog entry titled Griefers, related experiences about how many people seem to get a charge out of causing pain, anguish and difficulty to others. This was in the context of an online game that her husband was playing.

This type of behavior seems to happen a lot in the online world. Unfortunately, some circumstances can cause it to get out of hand quickly, especially if those involved are in a relatively short distance of one another in the real world...and they have an easy way to find out where you are.

I have been a licensed amateur radio operator for quite some time now, relatively speaking. I was first licensed in 2000. A friend of mine, "GL", also got licensed at the time I did. One day I got a bug up my bum that I was going to finally test and get licensed. I thought that ham radio, as it is often called, would be an amusing hobby to pursue. (Albeit a very expensive one!)

For a number of years prior I did quite a bit of research on what was required to take the exam, where they were given, as well as what was going on in the local ham radio scene. I was aware of the number of radio clubs in the local area and which ones were the "good old boy" clubs filled with holier-than-thou thinking and douchebagguery. Because of this, I was not really thrilled about the prospects of meeting new people in this hobby but I thought that they could not all be bad.

To this end, I decided that it would be in my best interest to take the test far outside the local area, so I found a testing session in Columbus, some 70 miles away. This way I would be nearly guaranteed to not interface with anyone from the local crowd that might cause issues in the future. So, one Saturday morning, "GL" and I went east and took the test and passed.

Afterward, we had to wait for about two weeks to get the official paper license and our call signs before we could actually start talking on the radio. To pass the time we became active on IRC in some of the local radio chatrooms to see who was around and what they were up to. It was in here that I met a good friend "B", who had been licensed since the dawn of time. She, "GL" and I would talk often, usually about nothing in particular. Also in the chat rooms were a number of douchebags that were affiliated with some of the aforementioned clubs.

In ham radio, one of the things clubs often have is what is called a repeater. This is a radio who's sole purpose is to take incoming transmissions on one frequency and retransmit that over another frequency with significantly higher power. This is so users of small, handheld radios with low power can talk far and wide while still maintaining low power. This is quite useful, and will end up as a radio-based party line, if you will, where people over a large area can congregate and talk about nothing in particular. This, at least, is the way it is supposed to work. (More on this coming up...)

One of the clubs was having problems with its repeater. There was intermittent interference which they thought was being caused by someone. Jammers, as they are called, are an unfortunately common problem.

In the chat room, the douchebags were talking about the jammer when "GL" came in and joined the conversation. I do not remember what he said, since I was not there, but he made some innocent remark that the other people in the room, except for "B" took exception to. This, then, escalated into those people thinking that he was the source of the jamming. "B" took exception to this and started to defend "GL" and myself. Why was I all of the sudden involved? Because those in the room knew that "GL" and I were friends, and our call signs were one character different! I wasn't always around, so I must be lurking around jamming their repeater. (Never mind that I was working full time and had a part time job.)

This turned from online IRC chat into phone calls from the "leaders" of the club to "B". She was once affiliated with said club except she decided that the general attitude of the members, the embezzling and crookedness was too much to handle, so she left the club about 15 years prior. (She launched an investigation into an accouting scandal that caused a lot of aguish amongst the officers of the club that were embezzling funds.)

After essentially proving that myself and "GL" were indeed two separate people, and that neither of us had the need or desire to cause interference to the club's repeater, "B" told those in the chat room that were causing us problems to lay off or they would answer to her personally. One of the people was an ex-acquaintance of hers that tried to swindle her farm out from under her and hit her on one occasion.

"GL" offered to help track down the interference. So, one evening when the jamming was really bad, he and several others set out to find the problem. After hours of hunting they finally converged on an address in Enon, Ohio, not far from where I live. They traced it to an apartment in a block of flats. Much to the dismay of one of the people that caused "GL" and I grief on the air and in the chat room, it was found to be where they lived. It was discovered that there was an intermittent short in the microphone to the radio and that would cause the radio to transmit dead air when a nearby fan would blow on it. Talk about just desserts.

After finding out from the FCC's online records where "GL" lived, some of the members of the club actually went to his house and knocked over an antenna on his property. No one ever did anything to me, thankfully.

This series of incidents showed me that even something as interesting as ham radio, which is supposed to be the epitome of camaraderie and "help in the times of disaster" is not free of "griefers" and douchebagguery. It was this series of incidents, too, that nearly caused me to turn my license back into the FCC.

It was "B", though, that caused me to not do that. With her help, we overcame the trouble that the griefers started and we now are involved in the same small club, with our own repeater. The club that the griefers were affiliated with is no more and most of the irritants have faded into the distance.

Some clubs don't like for people to talk on their repeater. When you do talk, you are admonished if you make idle chit chat and not give weather and signal reports or talk about club business and functions. This is the exact opposite of one of the main ideals of our club. Anyone that wants to come on and talk on our repeater is free to do so, member or not. What is the point of having a repeater if all you can do is give a weather report? Just look outside! Ham radio is supposed to be about friendship, camaraderie and courtesy. Chit-chatting and having a good time is part of that, helping in emergencies and being available and prepared to disasters is another. Causing problems and hurting people is not.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stuck in Traffic

I had some errands to run today, so I left early. After completing them, before going home, I needed to go to the car dealer to get my oil changed, tires rotated and have some annoying rattles looked at.

I tried to get on the highway and was almost at the end of the ramp when I and numerous others were stopped by security escorts for the motorcade carrying presidential hopeful John McCain and his hitherto unannounced vice-president. They were appearing at a rally at the Nutter Center on the campus of Wright State University here in Fairborn. (Though they tell you it is in Dayton, Ohio, it isn't.)

I sat on the ramp to the highway for about 20 minutes ... waiting. A little voice inside me said that I should take the surface streets, but I didn't listen.

Whatever. They should have to fight traffic just like the rest of us!

Interesting fact: I can see the Nutter Center, a.k.a. "The Nut House", from my house as I live only about 1/4 mile from the campus. I can often pick up wireless microphone transmissions from concerts and such on a police scanner. I am sure that if I were home I could have picked up the live broadcast truck satellite transmissions on my big satellite dish, too. Not that I give a sh*t about politics though.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pointless Victories

I was aggravated today at work and decided to play a few hands of Solitaire on my computer rather than deal with dumb things and people. In one game I played, I beat it in 93 seconds for an end score of 8,222.

It is these pointless, stupid little victories that can make life kinda sweet and calm the nerves.

Monday, August 25, 2008

World According to Uncle Dan

Fig. 1: The Art of Dan, in his Black & White period.

The image above was sent to me by my friend, Chris, whom I work with. It was drawn by his son, Dan. It was sent along by his wife...Chris' wife, not Dan's...with the following (unedited) explanation as was dictated to her by the artist himself.
The attached illustration depicts how Daniel views his family lifestyle.

On the left, we notice that he has titled the work with his name using large capital letters, showing ownership for his viewpoint.

Beneath, he has drawn a remarkable likeness of his brother Jason (including ears of greatness and curly hair) holding a heart.

Underneath the image of Jason, Dan described the work as containing a picture of his own heart, which is shining like a star and to the right of that a sun, which represents his happiness.

Finally, along the right we must interact with the drawing by turning it around so that we can realize the full visual impact of the artist's viewpoint - the Famwee Hug.

When interviewed Monday morning, just minutes after the work was completed, Daniel said, "This is a Famwee Hug. It's where my mommy and daddy scoop me up and kiss all over me." As you will see, the famwee hug portrays family cohesion: with three happy face circles at the top (two facing the viewer and one drawn as an implied circle, i.e., back of head), a large body circle encompassing the group, and their feet entwined with love.

It is clear that Daniel is a lucky boy.
I have noticed that he has an unusual and unique insight of how the world works. Such is being a child. A lucky boy indeed!

Of note: he may already have a small grasp on Russian, noting the backwards "N"...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Leaf Creature

I believe that the image below is one of the few that could change history. Study it carefully, for this is a scout working for our future insect masters. He/she/it is obviously scoping out territory and gauging our expected response to their impending invasion.

Fig. 1: One of our future insect masters.
Sony alpha 200, Minolta Macro Zoom 300mm, f5.6 @ 1/200 sec., ISO 400.

Enclicken the image for a closer look.
Together we can fight for our futures!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thinking of Papaw

I was thinking of my dearly departed grandfather on my mother's side, or papaw as I always called him.

I remember a riddle that he would tell me all the time, and I was thinking of it just now for some odd reason.
On my way to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
The seven wives had seven sacks,
the seven sacks held seven cats,
each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives;
how many were going to St. Ives?
I am not great at math but I would often try to figure it out. I would never arrive at the proper solution, in his mind, because I was over thinking the problem. Conventional wisdom would assume that if the traveler going to St. Ives met someone on the way, then it would mean that the person they met would be traveling away from St. Ives. By this pattern of thinking the answer would be one. There would only be one person in the story going to St. Ives.

Nothing is said of that the group could have been traveling slower than the traveler and they all were headed in the same direction. If this is the case, then... (please bear with me as I am no good at math)
1 Traveler
1 Man (with 7 wives)
7 Wives (each with 7 sacks)
49 Sacks (each with 7 cats)
343 Cats (each with 7 kits)
2,401 Kits
There would be 2,802 items traveling to St. Ives. With this volume of feline objects, one could be certain as to why they would be traveling slower. And seven... SEVEN ...wives! Holy crap!

Papaw also used to tell me how to spell "Cincinnati"... C - I - N - "needle and pin" - "gnat and a fly" - cincinnati - I.

I miss mamaw and papaw both dearly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

First Anniversary

I had a Dr Appointment today with my radiation oncologist. He mentioned that it is my first anniversary. I officially started cancer treatments on August 15, 2007.

It doesn't seem like it has been a year. Time keeps on slipping...

Anyhow, I am still doing just fine. I have gained 10 lbs, so that means that I am about 90 lbs down from when I started the adventure a year ago. I find that this weight gain is weighing heavily on me...about 10 lbs to be I am making a conscious effort to try to lose a little bit. I liked hovering around 200 lbs!

Mum and dad will probably want to celebrate. The best way that I can think of is ordering a pizza and watching TV. I guess I have still retained the lazy streak that I had pre-cancer. Radiation and chemo can only do so much!

An image for your consideration:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Stars at Night...

...are big and bright in New Madison, Ohio.

Since I got my new digital camera, one thing that I had been itching to try is a bit of astrophotography. Nothing special, just pictures of the stars. I had seen numerous images of the stars flowing in circular arcs and thought those were just way cool and wanted to do it quite badly.

However, in my former life of having film cameras there was too much expense involved in purchasing decent film, taking the experimental pictures, developing to see if the images were worth anything, then doing it all over again. With a digital SLR, I get instant gratification. I can see instantly how sucky the picture is and deviate the camera settings from there.

I had taken long exposure pictures a number of times before, all while getting eaten by mosquitoes, to no avail. I would get maybe one bright star, or the entire picture would turn out as bright as daytime even though it was taken at midnight!

I perused a number of websites of people much more skilled in taking pictures than I and noted what kind of settings worked for them and plied them to my experimentation. Armed with this info, I decided that trying to take a decent night-sky picture in the city was futile and took the show on the road to the country. I had to take a repaired computer to my friend "B" who lives in the middle of nowhere, just outside the small town of New Madison, Ohio, not far from Richmond, Indiana.

It was dark.

Fig. 1: Treeline with Venus & Milky Way.
Sony alpha 200, Minolta fixed 28mm, f2.8 at 30 sec., ISO 800
, full manual.

This was my first exposure! Yay!

Fig. 2: Venus & Milky Way No. 2 (Higher Sensitivity)
Sony alpha 200, Minolta fixed 28mm, f2.8 at 30 sec., ISO1600
, full manual.

Fig. 3: Venus & Milky Way No. 2 ('Normal' Sensitivity)
Sony alpha 200, Minolta fixed 28mm, f2.8 at 30 sec., ISO800, full manual.

Figures 2 and 3 are the same sky location, just a different setting for the "film speed". This is essentially how sensitive the "film", or in this case the imaging sensor, is to light. This sensitivity allows the camera to pick up all the light coming in from the fainter objects, but as you can see the higher sensitivity causes a loss of contrast.

You can click the pictures for larger versions at 1280x857. If you would like (yeah, right!) the full 10 megapixel image, let me know and I will send them to you.

Fig. 4: Looking straight up.
Sony alpha 200, Minolta fixed 28mm, f2.8 at 30 sec., ISO 1600, full manual.

Fig. 5: The Big Dipper
Sony alpha 200, Minolta fixed 28mm, f2.8 at 30 sec., ISO 800, full manual.

I am definitely going to go back out and experiment some more. I like this instant gratification thing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The '80s

Since I am on vacation this week I managed to get caught up with all the programs that I had recorded on my DVR.

One of the programs is "Alf", one of the quintessential television programs of the 1980s, which is now shown regularly on WGN out of Chicago. I had seen is advertised and set it to record, but I had not watched it up until now.

Just hearing the theme music set off a series of brainfarts that threw me back in time. All I could think about during my time of watching the several episodes that I had recorded was all the good times that I had during the '80s. Don't get me wrong, though, I had more than my fair share of bad times in the '80s and some of that crap came back to the forefront of my memory, too.

Back then, mother was married to Douchebag number 2. Since he was a douchebag, she would send me nearly every weekend and practically all summer to live with my grandparents. My mamaw and I would spend lots of time together, mostly going to the grocery and garage sales or watching TV.

I vividly remember arriving Friday evenings and we'd plop down in front of the TV. Our favorite program to watch together was, of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Friday nights were also watch Dallas and Falcon Crest. I am almost ashamed to admit that guilty pleasure! Friday nights was also when I would watch some "late night" educational TV on Discovery channel. A program by the name of Beyond 2000, out of Australia was on, as well as a program from England which I can still find on occasionally The Secret Life of Machines. I know, I'm a nerd.

Saturdays we would watch copious amounts PBS programming. This Old House, The Frugal Gourmet, The Victory Garden, Hometime and of course we would watch Bob Ross paint a picture or two. There was also a great technology program on called The Computer Chronicles.

It was not only the weekend that I would watch some of this great '80s programming. Alf was on through the week, as well as other great shows like MacGyver, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, V, Webster, Benson and, of course, Mr. Belvedere.

One program that I remember vividly, yet not fondly, was Too Close for Comfort. This was a pretty good show, but it always seemed to be on when there was some sort of really bad weather out. I have my grandmother to thank for my fear of bad weather. I would have a panic attack whenever I heard thunder or saw lightning. So bad was my fear of storms that I would cover my eyes in bed and listen to a headset radio all night long to tune out the noise from the storm.

The local TV stations would often have a little graphic in a corner of the screen depicting the current bad weather. I remember channel 2 here in town would display a stylized "w" in the corner with either a little lightning bolt if there was a storm watch, or a little tornado if there was a tornado watch. The little "w" would turn bright red if there was a warning. I was so afraid of that tornado symbol, just thinking about it would send me in to a panic attack! (Thinking of it right now is making me a bit edgy!) I have, however, almost outgrown these irrational fears. Note that I said "almost".

I have often longed to go back to the '80s to relive some of the good times. Back when my mamaw was still alive, back when TV was actually pretty decent. But then I remember that you have to take the bad with the good and there was more bad for me, it seems, back then. But if I could go back knowing what I know now...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Follow up to "Please Stop...Fire...Neighborhood"

Fig. 1: Playing with Fire
Sony alpha 200, 300mm, f5.6 at 1/250".
Klicken für größeres Bild!

Fig. 2: Later that same evening...
Sony alpha 200, 105mm, f4.5 at 1/2".


I tried to think of a better title for this post than a simple follow up to my previous post "Please stop setting fire to my neighborhood" but I really couldn't. I thought of a few, such as:
  • - Please stop setting fire to my neighborhood, part two
  • - Please stop setting fire to my neighborhood, part deux
  • - Burning Children for Fun and Profit
  • - Pyromania
  • - Douchebags on Parade
...but none really seemed to fit.

The pastor and elders of the church across the way cleaned out the hedgerow around the parking lot and churchyard and now the conflagratory actions of the pyromaniacs living behind the church are out in the open for all to see.

Kinda strange that this "parent" would allow his/her children to get so close to an open flame. Of course it is kind of difficult to determine who is the parent and who is the child here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I better get this back!

I get a lot of email. As per usual, about 98% is crap that I can delete straight away. There are a select number of people that I get emails from that I automatically delete because they are forwards of some crap email that they got and just HAVE to send along.

You've probably gotten such emails (almost always, the subject is prefixed with "FWD:", which is a telltale of pseudo-spam) that have a cutesy picture or some new nugget of wisdom from the crabby card-lady Maxine or a flash animation saying how much of a valued friend that you are to the person that forwarded it to you.

If I was really your friend, you would not clog my inbox with crap like this.

The ones that really irritate me are the chain letter type. You know the ones. "You are a great friend! This email shows you are special to me! Show someone else you are special and pass this on to as many friends that you have. If you send this to 4.3 million people in the next 5 nanoseconds, the love of your life will appear and murder you with a piano-wire garrote."

Sometimes these have an addition, which makes it oh so much better! Sometimes this addition is even in the subject line! I better get this back! Oh, yeah, like I am really going to do that.

There is an elderly gent that I have known for a number of years, K. His wife and I used to work together years and years back. They are a very sweet couple. (They knew Elvis personally. True story.) K has nothing better to do all day than to surf the interwebs. He goes everywhere and picks up every piece of spyware and every virus out there, much to my chagrin since I have to fix it. The most aggravating part, however, is the mass of emails he forwards. Everything from these sappy emails to links to some inane piece of information that I have no need to know. But, I just click delete because there really is nothing that I can do about it. I get nearly twenty emails a day like this just from him. Sometimes they are exact duplicates!

Don't people have something more constructive to do than to put together a sappy email with angel pictures and roses with sparklies with some poem detailing how "special" someone is to you, and tells them they have to forward this email to everyone they know otherwise bad things will happen? To top it off, there is a demand that the receiver has to reciprocate and send the email back to the sender who had it originally to start the process over again? Does the sender really want it back? Would they have sent it off to begin with if they wanted it in the first place?

It really rings my chimes that these "I better get this back!" email usually have a statement to the effect that if I don't send this back, then I am not a real friend. Harumph, I say.

A friend would rather have a short, "Hey, how ya doin'? Just thinking about ya!" email than some horrible, long drawn out poem that could not normally get published in a journal or book so the author has to blast it across the interwebs for all to see email that makes unreasonable demands.

A real friend would not forward such things in the first place, thus allowing bandwidth savings for good uses of the interwebs like downloading pirated films, hard-core pr0n or the latest virus and spyware.

If you forward this to 10,629 people within the next 4 microseconds, something terrific will happen to someone you don't know somewhere. If you fail to do so, the fleas of a thousand camels will infest a thousand camels. And I had better not get this back. I didn't want it to begin with!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Do Not Disturb

I am anti-social. I hate crowds, meeting new people, meeting people that I already know. One of my biggest pet peeves is talking on the phone. If you call me, get to the point...don't just ramble on pointlessly keeping me tied up all night.

One of my dearest friends whom I love to spend time with is one of the worst offenders. She will often call and keep me on the phone for an hour or more. Last conversation that I had with her was to be short and sweet (as if I hadn't learned my lesson) so I called her back on my landline. This call cost me $11.20. She is "local long-distance" and my AT&T long distance is 10p per minute. If I called on my cell phone it would have been totally free. Next time I won't be so lazy.

Anyhow, I have had people enquire to me about Asterisk, the Linux-based phone system software. This is one piece of software that is probably worth its weight in gold.

Asterisk is a full-on software-based PBX; a phone system, if you will, just like those used in offices and businesses all around the globe. The difference here is that rather than be proprietary...Nortel Meridian phones only work on Nortel Meridian switches; they won't work on Avayas, NECs, Panasonics, Executones, etc. -- they aren't even interchangeable with Nortel's own Norstar PBXes...Asterisk can use standard analogue phones (with a proper adapter) or plain old IP phones from any manufacturer. I use Cisco 7900-series phones myself.

They system uses a powerful scripting language that lays out the call treatment. And believe you me, you can make they phone system do anything to a caller!

Here is a synopsis of what happens when a call comes in to my phone line...

First, the caller ID string is examined. If there is no caller ID string or if the string is "Private", "Unavailable" or something to that effect, the call is rejected with an announcement saying that we do not accept unidentified calls.

If there is a caller ID string, the call continues and the number is checked against a blacklist of numbers. If the number is on the list, the call is rejected with a rather rude announcement telling the caller they are blacklisted and to not bother calling back.

If that test is passed, then the number is checked against a graylist. The callers on this list may be mildly annoying and I may need to know what the call is in regards to, but not actually talk to anyone. These calls are shunted directly to voicemail.

In the final number test, the caller ID number is checked against a whitelist. These are calls of extreme importance and will bypass all further checking and start ringing the phones in the house for an extended period, up to one minute. This list is reserved for close friends, my parents and other non-annoying family members and people at work.

If the call goes through all these checks are is not rejected or shunted off to other places, then the call goes into what I call the generic tests.

First, the system checks the database to see if the "Systemwide Do-Not-Disturb" is turned on. If it is, then the call is shunted to voicemail. I can dial a number into any phone and turn this Systemwide DND on and off. This is especially useful if I am home from work early and want to take a nap.

Second, the system checks the database to see if the "Systemwide Time Restrictions" are turned on. If the time restrictions are NOT on, then the call proceeds through unhindered. If time restrictions are on, and there should be no reason for them to be off, the system checks the day and time...
  • Monday-Friday, 7am-6pm calls will be shunted directly to voicemail because I am probably not home.
  • Sunday-Saturday, 10pm-7am calls will be shunted directly to voicemail because I am probably asleep.
  • Otherwise, calls will continue unhindered.
If the call passes through all of this, only then will it ring the IP phones scattered throughout the house. It will, however, ring for only 30 seconds before going to voicemail.

During all this checking and ringing the phones, the caller will be treated to some pleasant music. If I do not answer, a pleasant voice will indicate that I am not available with a humourous reason why, before being sent off to voicemail.

Some of the funniest oneliners: Nobody is available to take your call...
  • they have been carried away by monkeys.
  • we're all busy with our hangovers.
  • we're off gambling and getting drunk.
  • Mike has been brutally murdered by the teletubbies.
  • all your base are belong to us.
  • abandon all hope ye who dial here.
It is a fun system to play with and surprisingly powerful. I have been able to do things with it that I could never do with my Nortel Meridian Option 11s at work. The best part is, all of the sound files for the annoucements are included and have been professionally recorded by a great voice.

If you would like more information about Asterisk, visit the project website at

Monday, June 23, 2008

New Blog Template

I was bored and started futzing around with the Blogger templates and created one based on one of my favorite artists, Piet Mondrian. I use this style on my personal webpage as well and I have grown to like it very much.

It is easier to make a Mondrian-esque webpage with tables than the way Blogger does its layout with DIVs, but it did not turn out too bad once I got used to what-does-what in the Blogger XML template.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Lilies of the Field

Here's some pics of the lilies from my front yard. They toil not, neither do they spin...but it would be nice if they would chip in on the house payment.

Fig. 1: 28mm Fixed (wide angle lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 2: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 3: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 3: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Whenever I hear that parable, I always envision a field of lilies actually spinning. It is supposed to mean "spinning" as in yarn to make clothing, but hey, seeing a field of flowers whizzing 'round would be infinitely amusing.

Note the hideous blue-patterned indoor/outdoor carpet on my porch visible in the pictures. Eeewww. Whoever thought of indoor/outdoor carpet should be brutally murdered.

All images were taken with my Sony alpha 200 Digital SLR.

Please stop setting fire to my neighborhood.

I live in a strange neighborhood. Well, really, all neighborhoods have their black sheep, outcasts, weirdos, but we seem to have more than we need.

Now, don't get me wrong...I am strange in and of myself. I have quite more than my fair share of antennas and satellite dishes on and around my house. Some have compared my homestead to SETI. I just tell everyone that I'm waiting for contact from the mothership.

There seems to be a phenomena in my neighborhood with people liking to set things on fire. Specifically, setting fires for communal enjoyment. What I mean by this is open burning. Several times this week and numerous times since spring began, several neighbors have had open fires going in their backyards.

The people across the back of the churchyard across the street from me have had an open pit fire going nearly every night this week, the college frat house behind me set one alight about twice a week and the neighbors to the east of my parents tore out and burned their entire privacy fence.

Within the city there is a law against open burning. One would think that with the gestapo in our town as active as they are that the pyromaniacs would be sanctioned for their crimes...especially since we live about 1/4 mile from the fire station. But, no, the fires continue.

It would not be so bad if the fires were done safely (as in not at all) in a fire pit. At our local home and garden shops they sell numerous varieties of fire containment vessels from large terra cotta vessels to small fire pit tables, all of which are available inexpensively and have provisions to prevent the fire from actually escaping and burning down a house or entire neighborhood.

The pyromaniacs in my neighborhood do not use such vessels. They only have short rings of bricks set up on their backyard lawns. I think this is so that once the inevitable drought sets in, any fires they set will surely spread.

Thankfully my homeowners insurance is paid up.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

R.I.P. Water Heater

It had to happen some time. My old water heater gave up the a rather violent way.

Some back story...
There was one particularly warm day, back on May 14th, when my air conditioner was running. The A/C makes a rather distinctive, though rather quiet, hissing sound. This is the compressed refrigerant coursing through the copper piping from the compressor to the coils in the furnace. Since there is little insulation between the basement and first floor, I can pretty much hear the distinctive sounds that emanate from the basement.

When the A/C turns off, there is a louder hissing sound as the refrigerant relaxes and turns back into a gas. This hissing, louder than when the compressor is running yet still relatively quiet and undisturbing, lasts only for a few seconds.

The event...
On this hot day, the A/C was running as per usual. When sufficiently cool, the A/C kicked off I heard the usual sound as the freon in the piping relaxed. This hissing sound, however, continued for longer than normal. This caused me instant concern and I strained to listen.

Sure enough, the hissing continued for 30 seconds, then a minute. I became quite concerned. Going into "Uh-Oh!" mode, I made a beeline for the basement stairway where I listened further.

Still there was the continuous hissing.

I thought the worst, that something had happened to the piping from the heat pump to the furnace and that I was leaking freon into the basement. For a split second I was worried that this freon would add to the hole in the ozone layer since the furnace and A/C unit are over 15 years old. Then I came to my senses...who cares about that!? This may cost me billions of dollars to fix! OMG! WTF?

I crept down the stairs preparing for the worst as the hissing continued. I arrived to a scene that I will not forget. (Why did I not have a camera available?) There was a geyser of hot water shooting out from around the top vent of the water heater as the water heater continued to heat!

I quickly shut off the water to the house, cut off the gas and pulled the pressure vent lever and the geyser subsided. I was certainly semi-relieved at this HVAC system was safe, but of course I now had no hot water.

That being said, I had not planned on buying a new hot water heater just now. I had hoped to eke a few more months out of the old heater before going ahead and replacing it. So much for hoping, I had to get everything in order now!

I keep my usual checking account as close to $0 as I possibly can, preferring to save most of my money (what little there is) in a high-yield money-market savings account. The unfortunate problem with this is that if I need the money, I have to transfer it (it is at a different, large multi-national banking institution) to my checking account (which is at a local credit union) to use it. This, unfortunately, takes a couple of days. And I sure as hell wasn't going to use any credit cards!

Not only did I have to wait for that, but I was certainly not going to tackle putting in a new water heater by myself. Why?

1) I have a car, not a truck. Dad has the truck, but he is gone all week.
2) Natural gas. I can do water plumbing quite well. Gas, uh, no thanks.

So my plan was thus: transfer the money, shower at mom-n-dad's until the weekend, get and install the new water heater, done.

This, thankfully, worked quite well. I went to Home Depot on the 21st with money in hand, bought a new 40 gallon gas water heater and all the requisite piecesparts to install it. All in all, the bill came to about $595, with tax, title and tires. Dad and I had it installed and working in about three hours.

While waiting for the transfer, the $600 "stimulus" check appeared in my savings account, so I'm not actually down any money. Thanks GW!

Fig. 1: The new water heater.
GE SmartWater 40 Gallon Natural Gas Water Heater (12-year Warranty)

The new heater should be significantly more efficient than the old, and I am waiting on my next few gas bills to see how it impacts my usage.

I replaced a great deal of plumbing from the mains to the water heater, too, as the existing valves were leaky inside. I had the water in and out shut off at the water heater and opened the pressure vent and drain to let the water tank drain out while waiting to get the new one...and it drained all week! The input valve was not shutting off properly (which I did not figure out until we got the old heater disconnected) which kept a small trickle running. There was also a great deal of strange sediment being drained out as well. I am sure it is fallout from the nasty city water that went through the old heater for years.

So, now I have a new water heater with all the trimmings in addition to the new water softener I installed to replace the old, decrepit one in place when I bought the house. Now I just need to replace the rest of the plumbing bits in the house and I'll be all set!

I guess the old heater had a good was nearly 25 years old!

There is still some worth to the old heater. A friend of mine from the amateur radio club I belong to had the bright idea of having members collect recyclables to cash in to build up our coffers so we can be more self-sufficient. In the past a select few of us (myself and three others) would band together to pay the club line to control the repeaters and yearly insurance premiums...which was getting expensive and tiresome.

He came by and got the old water heater and the old, decrepit washing machine that was in the house when I bought it to take away for recycling. I am not sure of how much he got for it, but if it helps the club and declutters my basement, I'm all for it!

From what I have gathered, the plan has been so successful that our next insurance premium is paid, as well as the next six months of phone bills. Hurrah!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I've a Picasa album now and uploadified some of my favorite images.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Hate BlackBerries

Yes, I hate BlackBerries. No, not blackberries as in the fruit...though they are not my favorite fruit and I could take them or leave is the handheld cellular telephonic device by the same name (with the exception of the capital "B"s) that is the focus of my ire.

Our CEO was having trouble with is cellphone, a Samsung Windows-based smartphone. Rather than have us get him a replacement, since we can get them cheap, he desired a, Black...Berry.

In order to facilitate this vilest of handheld devices, my boss suggested that I get one as well. Joy. In all fairness, my contract with Verizon Wireless is up and I had thought about getting a CrackBerry to play with when I reup just to see what they are all about. My getting one through work was just a happy coincidence...happy in that I now don't have to waste my money.

I'm not exactly sure about what my issue is with these evil devices. Perhaps it is that I am so used to having a Windows-based smartphone, which I have had several over the years, that I cannot possibly use anything else. Perhaps it is that all these yuppie-scum bluetooth-headset wearing douchebags (you know the self-important that they wear them like jewelry) that tend to have them. I don't know.

In order to get a BlackBerry or two, we had to buy two devices WITH completely new, separate contracts outside of our regular corporate contract. They are, obviously, more expensive now because we have voice AND data on them. The data portion of the service is an extra $30 per month! Add to that the $99 license fee to get it connected to our Exchange mail server...

Just for giggles, I decided to try setting up my current personal smartphone, a Samsung i760, to get email and calendar from our mail server. I already get email for my personal accounts from my linux mail server at home, but never tried to connect to my work server. While I use my personal phone for both myself and work purposes...rather than carry two phones and a pager...I never thought about syncing it to my work email.

I set about getting it configured, and after a short while and some minor configuration tweaks on the exchange server, I was getting my work email, calendar and contacts on my phone and keeping them in perfect sync. After setting mine up, I sent a little bit of info to my boss (who, likewise, has a Windows-based smartphone) and he got server synchronization to work instantly on his phone.

This would not normally seem like a big deal, however I was impressed with the Microsoft solution because it kept everything work-related separate from my personal emails!

With the BlackBerry, after setting it up to sync with my work email account through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, I also set it up to get my personal emails from a few accounts that I have on my servers at home. This was one of my biggest issues with lumped everything together in one big email jumble! How annoying is that? There were, as I discovered, a few ways to distinguish the various accounts like color coding and separate windows. However, to get the corporate email, you have to take everything together...color-coded emails, voicemails, all of it.

What is even more annoying is that in order to support this device, you have to run the BlackBerry Enterprise server software on top of the Exchange server. As if Microsoft software wasn't bloated enough on its own, now you have to have RIM's Java-based monstrosity running as well. Thankfully, the "professional" version of the software that supports up to 30 users can reside on the same server as Exchange with little impact in overhead. The full-blown BlackBerry Enterprise server requires its own if we had a couple of kilodollars to throw down for a server to support a handful of CrackBerry addicts...

This would not normally be a big issue, but I have been aggravated by this software for the past day. One seemingly simple issue...synchronizing calendar items...has turned into a nightmare of epic proportions. First, it is the CEO's CrackBerry that is affected so it immediately becomes a hot-button issue with my boss. Second, I have a million (quite literally) things that I should be doing rather than messing with this stupid thing. Third, I would really rather not mess with an already fragile Exchange server that is (was) working perfectly up to this point.

I swear if this CrackBerry software damages my Exchange server I will go up to the CEO's office with a hammer and destroy that phone. Kudos to Microsoft, for a change, for making smartphones and server software that function exactly the way you'd expect. My smartphone is, essentially, a BlackBerry that doesn't suck.

I think I need to up my meds.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Happy Fun Asterisk: Emulate Nortel Meridian LD95/CPND in Asterisk with SCCP

If you are asking yourself "WTF?" in reference to the title of this post, am I. LOL!

I run an Asterisk phone system at home. It is great for totally destroying telemarketers! If you don't know what Asterisk is, familiarize yourself here:

I run two Nortel Meridian Option 11c phone switches at work, each in a separate building about 1km apart. They are connected together via our LAN and a T-1 tie line, and both run Succession 3.0.

For those familiar with Nortel Meridian switches, there is a program load of "95" that handles what is called the CPND database. CPND stands for "Calling Party Name Display", and is a database of directory numbers (local to the switch) that have names attached to them. So you can assign extension 100 to Suzy Lu and 101 to Billy Rex, etc.

If you have Asterisk, you can do similar with its built-in database services if you are running Cisco phones with the SCCP firmware and are using chan_sccp on your Asterisk box. On my home network, I have three Cisco 7912s and two Cisco 7940s running SCCP 8.0.

In the Asterisk database, I created a table called CPND and loaded it with my extensions and their associated names, thus:

database put CPND 210 Office
database put CPND 220 Living Room

Using the application SetCalledParty() in the chan_sccp driver, you can then add a piece to your internal dialing DO have an internal dialing macro, don't you? force the display of the called party on the phone you are calling FROM. The phone you are calling TO gets the CPND information from the channel driver anyhow.

Here is my internal dialing macro with the database lookup information...

exten => s,1,NoOp(*** Internal Call to Ext ${MACRO_EXTEN} < ${CALLERID(all)})
exten => s,n,GotoIf($[ ${DB_EXISTS(cpnd/${MACRO_EXTEN})} ]?cpnd:nocpnd)
exten => s,n(cpnd),SetCalledParty("${DB(cpnd/${MACRO_EXTEN})}" <${MACRO_EXTEN}>)
exten => s,n,Goto(dial)
exten => s,n(nocpnd),SetCalledParty("Internal" <${MACRO_EXTEN}>)
exten => s,n,Goto(dial)
exten => s,n(dial),Dial(${ARG1}/${MACRO_EXTEN},30,Ttr)
exten => s,n,GotoIf($["${DIALSTATUS}" = "BUSY"]?busy:unavail)
exten => s,n(unavail),Voicemail(100,g(3))
exten => s,n,Hangup()
exten => s,n(busy),Voicemail(100,g(3))
exten => s,n,Hangup()

You don't explicitly need to use this feature. In fact, I didn't know about the application until I watched Asterisk load while debugging a dialplan issue. You can use the app to change the display to say whatever you want...

SetCalledParty("Mom's House" <2345678901>)
SetCalledParty("Joe's Crib" <8005551212>)
SetCalledParty("Jerks" <3178169336>)

This is a pretty useful app, but is only part of the chan_sccp driver and will probably only work on phones that use SCCP compatible firmware. I have not tried it on a SIP device, but I don't think it will do anything.

I hope to have more Happy Fun Blog Entries soon...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

HDR Photography

I just recently treated myself to a new digital camera. I was tired of my little point-and-shoot since I'm used to an SLR. I hesitated to get a digital SLR because they were so expensive and I wanted one that would be compatible with all the Minolta lenses I have for my Maxxum film SLR bodies. The one I chose, and found a good deal on, is the Sony alpha 200.

Sony purchased the digital camera business from KonicaMinolta a few years back, and turned the Maxxum 7D digital SLR into the alpha 100. KonicaMinolta is now concentrating on computer imagery like laser printers.

I've been a big fan of Minolta cameras for a long time, thanks to my Great Uncle Jimmy. He always had Minolta SLR cameras...probably 15 to 20 different ones...over the years. My dream camera for years was the Maxxum 7000. This was the first modern autofocus electronic control camera ever. I did not, however, get one of these $1,000+ cameras until the late 90's...which I bought used for $170. I've run copious amounts of film through this camera for everything from vacation snaps to the occasional wedding.

Minolta was never really the tops in pro cameras for reasons that I could never figure out. Sure Nikon and Canon are great cameras, but I've just always preferred the Minoltas. I like Nikons, they are just really expensive and Canon's (the affordable ones) bodies and lenses have always seemed too lightweight and flimsy. My pal Chris swears by Canons and he's a burnt-out pro...which is why he's in the IT industry now.

Anyhow, HDR is an area that has interested me for a while now. HDR is "High Dynamic Range" photography. It is essentially processing a set of pictures to get to an image that emulates what the human eye would see naturally.

Fig. 1: The original image.

The picture above is an image of the front window of my living room. I took it when the sun was up high around midday. The window is bright and the room dark. The actual image that my eye saw was a relatively bright interior and a bright but distinct exterior...the lighting was "even". To the camera, the bright area overrides the CCD and overexposes the light areas and underexposes the dark areas. This is, unfortunately, unavoidable. Why? The human eye has a high dynamic range and can determine and adjust your perception to even out the lighting of the image. The camera has a limited dynamic range. Basically, the eye is sensitive to a wider range of light than the CCD in a digital camera (or even film). But with HDR, this can be corrected to some extent.

To create an HDR image, you have to have an area that has wide variation of light intensity. You can work with images that don't, but I've not had real good luck with it...but I'm not a pro.

HDR requires three or more images. One, is your normal image...mine was the one above in figure 1. This was taken 28mm, f4 at 1/80 sec. Then you need one or more overexposed images, and one or more underexposed images. The overexposed image will brighten up the dark areas of the original, and the underexposed ones will darken the lighter areas. For the image above I took three under at 1, 2 and 3 stops and three over at 1, 2 and 3 stops. How you do this, however, can be important. Adjust the shutter speed and NOT the aperture. Adjusting the aperture will affect the focal length of the image and can cause areas to sharpen or blur as compared to the original.

The other images I took were at a shutter speed of 1/40, 1/20 and 1/10th of a second for the overexposed images, and 1/160, 1/320 and 1/500th of a second for the underexposed.

To combine the images, I used GIMP 2.4 (an open-source image editor). I opened the original as the background, then the other six images as layers in the same image. To create the HDR image, the idea is to remove the unnecessary parts of the over and underexposed images and include them in the original. To do this, you need to create a mask of the image. GIMP has the facility to create a mask from the layer automatically, and I created a grayscale mask for each layer. On the overexposed image, the grayscale layer needs to be inverted. This is because the mask's dark areas will become transparent, leaving the wanted details of the overexposed image (lighter versions of the dark areas of the image above) intact to be layered upon the original. Likewise, a non-inverted grayscale image is used as a mask for the underexposed areas. This leaves the wanted details of the underexposed areas (the light areas of the original) to be layered on the original.

This all sounds very complicated and can be for the first few times you do it. A great tutorial on how to do HDR with the GIMP can be found here on Instructables.

In the end, I think it came out pretty well, considering that it was not a very good selection of a subject. But, here is the final result.

Fig. 2: The resulting HDR of the image in Figure 1.

You can now see the detail of the furniture and plants in the living room, as well as the detail of that which is outside the window. No adjustments were made to the images, other than the application of the layer masks. I did not use the image taken at 1/40th of a second since it made the interior much to dark. Using GIMP, you can turn layers on and off indiscriminately to see how the image will look.

This is something that I am sure I will play with more in the future.