Saturday, August 12, 2006

Picas... whaaa?

I'm not a shutterbug. I'm shutterbugging, but it's something I'm training myself to do, it isn't in my veins. I didn't own a camera until after I graduated from college, other than occasional cheapie disposables I would pick up for a trip.

My purpose in taking pictures is really twofold. The first is to use as an aid for future memory. I get the feeling I'm currently in what I may one day recall as the best stage of my life, and I want to be able to recall as much of it as I can. I do some of that through my blog, and some of it through my journal, but I hope that the pictures I take will help me remember just how beautiful the land is here, and help me recall details about some of the activities I have participated in.

The second is more generous: to share some of my life with others. Now that I'm half a continent away from most of my friends, the Internet is one of the few ways I have to keep in touch with them and share my experiences. It's no substitute for people visiting (which you are all welcome to do), but hopefully is at least a taste of what the California experience means for me.

So, basically, I'm suddenly pretty motivated to take pictures, and now that I can carry my camera with me in my pocket everywhere I go, I'm taking way more pictures than ever. However, my skills are still embarrassingly amateurish. I don't use 90% of the features on my camera, and can't even hold the dang thing straight. When I post pictures on Timmy's House of Incandescent Sprinkles, the albums are usually filled with apologies and complaints about the mechanics of a shot. Add this to the fact that I am not a visual artist and have no real feel for composition or framing, and you're left with a bit of a mess: great content in an ugly package.

But wait, there's hope! Like so much in my life, technology can solve my problems, including those caused by technology. In this case, my knight on a shining horse is a program called Picasa.

Now, again, I'm very new to the whole photography thing. The stuff I'm going to describe may well have been out there for ages, and I could just be revealing my ignorance by writing about it. That said, I've just stumbled across some features in the last week, and so am very excited.

First some background. I love Google - they make great products. And so, when I bought my new digital camera, I didn't even try the preloaded software - I made a beeline for Picasa, Google's all-purpose photo software. It allows you to import photos, organize them, make basic edits, and share them. I have previously commented on my complaints regarding the last point; these have largely been resolved by Web Albums and I'm fairly well pleased with how that's working.

In the past, I've used their "Red Eye" correction tool. In a camera, this option keeps the red eye from occurring by strobing a light prior to the actual flash. In software, you're trying to remove what really is a red eye from the picture. I've had mixed results with this tool - about a third of the time it is perfect and restores the natural eye color, about a third of the time it just doesn't work and leaves the red, and about a third of the time it either lessens the red or replaces it with whites.

I was poking around this weekend while preparing my shots from the Bay path. I'd known about the options on the left - basic buttons for contrast, hue, Red Eye, and so on. There were two that I hadn't noticed before, either because I wasn't paying attention or because they're actually new. (As a beta user of Web Albums, I have a slightly different version of Picasa.) One is "Straighten," and in less than a minute it became an essential tool in my arsenal. You select this, then tilt and rotate the picture in either direction, and: poof! Your horizon is suddenly level, people aren't tipping over, and the picture looks like it was actually taken by an adult. I won't reveal how many shots I used this on, but it was plenty. I've been reluctant to post some pictures in the past because they looked so bad; I'm delighted that that will no longer be a problem.

The other, entirely unlooked-for feature, is a little button called "I'm Feeling Lucky." Sound familiar? Basically, what this does is... well, I'm not entirely clear on just what it does, other than make the picture look much, much nicer. It looks like it automatically adjusts the contrast and hues and darkness levels, using some insanely good Google-authored algorithm, and pops out a picture that looks much closer to what a professional photographer might have taken. On some shots the change wasn't too pronounced, but in others it was amazing. In particular, on the many shots I took of green grasses near water, the colors had bled into one another in the original. In the "Lucky" version, the water was much more blue and brilliant, and the grass more green and distinct. I hadn't thought anything was wrong with the original, but after seeing the improved version I was sold. I tried it out on almost all of the shots for that walk, and on all but one or two of them decided to go with the modified version. (I'm very curious about how that algorithm works - note that the two photos towards the end, of airplanes flying overhead, were both generated with "I'm Feeling Lucky" and have radically different tints of sky.)

I'm not going to go through the archives of old photos I had and modify them. Primarily this is because I'm lazy, but it's also because I'm so impressed by the difference, and would sort of like to preserve that for posterity... "Here are the pictures I took before I'm Feeling Lucky, and here are the ones I took after."

In other Google-related news: some of the features I raved about for the new Google Maps Mobile application have been moved to the main web-based version. Once again, the engineers display their masterful grasp of how to best marry features to different user interfaces... the mechanics of the new features are different on the web, as they well should be. If you haven't already, try spending a bit of time with Saved Locations (accessible from the upper-right of the screen, assuming you have a Google account). Just now, I was able to get directions to the library in just over a second: clicked on "Driving Directions," it automatically filled out my starting location and gave focus to the Destination field, I typed in "li", hit Tab to autocomplete, then enter to process. That's just four keystrokes for driving directions, and I didn't need to look up or remember the address for the library!

Also, if you haven't already done so, try using your mouse's scroll wheel to zoom in and out. I like this a lot more than the old slider, because this way you can adjust your screen and know roughly what area will be displaying.

Other odds and ends:

Hoping to squeeze out some more vanilla Civ IV goodness before Warlords arrives, I tried and won the Revolutionary War scenario, playing as Alexander Hamilton of the Colonials. It was decently fun. High points of the scenario: good map, authentic units, good strategic decisions necessary, interesting random and historical events. Low points: weak victory conditions (as far as I can tell, the Colonials can only win by having a high score), the Battle of Boston is too crucial (if I'd lost it the scenario would have been way harder; by winning, it was too easy), and combat can be a little dry (though it was awesome to be on a map that really rewarded the Guerilla and Woodsman promotions, and to have that feel historically accurate). Overall, Desert War was a much more solid scenario, but Revolutionary War was still fun.

I'm finally giving up on Gravity's Rainbow. It's taken me over a month to go 200 pages, and while I'm loving it, I just can't give it the attention it deserves. I will hang my head in shame and return it to the library tomorrow. Long-term, I'll probably buy my own copy and a reader's guide and tackle it like I did Ulysses. I'm also sending back Truman, which I didn't even start and which remains on my list. Next up on the list is What To Eat (thanks for the recommendation, Pat), a contemporary look at supermarkets, nutrition, and other topics that I've been really curious about lately.

Speaking of which, I'm still having fun cooking and eating stuff. I'm starting to look at expanding my kitchen arsenal, including some stuff that was never part of my experience growing up: baker's peel, ramekins, parchment paper, and more. The way this is working is pretty standard: I'll read something in Cook's Illustrated (great magazine, by the way), find out I'm missing a bunch of stuff they use in the recipe, decide whether I'd use it often enough to justify a purchase, and, if so, add it to the list. I should point out that I haven't actually BOUGHT these things yet, but it's coming.

It's sort of fun to think about bringing my kitchen up to the point where I can handle a wider variety of recipes, including more complex ones. At the same time, though, I struggle with the old question of how justified I am in doing this. Again, I'm just a bachelor, and can only eat a fraction of any given dish I prepare, meaning lots of leftovers, meaning I cook new stuff much less frequently than a family would. So how best to think about, say, spending $20 on a new size of pan that may only get used a few times a year? Right now I lean towards getting it because the thought of making the corresponding food excites me and I'm not skilled enough to be able to figure out how to adapt a recipe to fit my existing arsenal. Rationally, though, I know there's a ton of stuff I haven't made yet which I DO have all the supplies for. I ought to be restricting myself to those, at least for the time being, but I doubt that will happen.

I did my first successful bike repair last week, which was pretty fun. I'm very ignorant about what different pieces are called, but there was a bolt or something that holds the front gears to the pedal assembly which had gotten loose; it didn't fall out, but stuck out far enough that when I was in first gear, the chain would ride on top of the bolt instead of resting fully on the gear. It took me a while, but I figured out what was happening, poked around a bit, and eventually was able to use a hex key to screw the "bolt" back in to the gear assembly. It's been fine for the past week, so I'm pretty pleased with the outcome.

All right, that's all from me. Stay safe out there.

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