Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cardinal Damages Digits

Today I'm a guest blogger at Birdchick Blog. Stop by Sharon's excellent site to read my article about banding Northern Cardinals. (Read more ...)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Red-shouldered Hawk Eats Turtle

This may seem obvious, but when I go birding I like to see birds. Going places where the birds are really helps to achieve this goal. It is even better when the birds are somewhat used to having people around. Botanical gardens and parks are great places to bird (used here as a active verb). One of my recent discoveries is Aquarena Springs in San Marcos Texas. It is now known Aquarena Center, an educational facility managed by Texas State University.

I have gotten a number of wonderful images of songbirds, wading birds, and dragonflies here. On my most recent visits I was able to photograph a family of Red-shouldered Hawks.

Today, I heard the hawks calling as I parked, but it sounded like they were some distance away.

Entering the grounds, I walked past the glassbottom boat dock and the area where they used to perform an underwater mermaid show. Looking across the grass I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk eating a kill.

As I took some pictures, a young couple walked down the paved path, and the hawk took flight.

The hungry hawk carried its prey along as it flew over the water, passing within 25 feet of where I was standing.

I walked over where it had been eating. There wasn't any fur or feathers on the ground. This was unusual for a hawk kill, as they remove as much of the feathers and fur as they can. When I got home and checked the images on my computer, I saw that it was a turtle.

Not standard fare for a Red-shouldered Hawk, but plentiful at the springs and evidently easy prey. As long as you can get them open. (Read more ...)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Innovation and The Three Stages of a Business

In the classic view all companies go through three stages. Each stage is determined by who runs the enterprise: the entrepreneur, the accountants, and finally the lawyers. It is my contention that organizations are at their most nimble and innovative during their entrepreneurial stage, a dynamic and exciting time for everyone involved.

The bell curve shows the rise and fall of almost any non-traditional measure of a corporation. It does not generally represent the profitability or stock price, which rarely reflect the values we treasure as individuals and entrepreneurs.

Many entrepreneurs, and seasoned firms, fail to recognize or acknowledge this life-cycle to the detriment of their businesses. Making yourself appear to be a bigger operation can be good, as long as you don't also adopt the negative practices of a larger enterprise. This is doubly important in difficult economic times.

Examine the successful firms and look at what happens to them when the original visionary leaves, or the company grows into a market dominating force. Does anyone remember Netscape, AOL, or Lotus? What is their market presence today? Is Microsoft as nimble and innovative as it used to be?

Compare those companies to Google. It is the market dominant search platform. Its name is even a verb. And they are huge. From the outside looking in it appears to be nimble and innovative. Remember that perception is reality so how do they do it? If you are looking for a b-school dissertation topic this would be a good one. Here are a few things that I have observed:
  • They are always looking for ways to improve
  • When they goof they don't hide it but do learn from it
  • New product offerings and solutions are released regularly
  • Ideas and prototypes are made available publicly, and feedback is nurtured
  • They acquire innovative tech and ideas, both building and buying
These are great cultural philosophies from one of the biggest and best. And, all of them can be integrated into your business.
(Read more ...)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count

This weekend, Friday through Sunday, was the Great Backyard Bird Count. I counted at my condo that looks out over Shoal Creek in Austin on Friday, and two places in San Antonio on Sunday. We are in the middle of a multi-year drought here and the birds numbers and species counts are down.

Hermit Thrush, 2/2007, by Eric Brierley

Friday, 2/13/2009, Austin, TX

Turkey Vulture - 2
Killdeer - 1
Rock Pigeon - 6
White-winged Dove - 2
Blue Jay - 2
Carolina Chickadee - 2
Carolina Wren - 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1
Northern Cardinal - 2
Great-tailed Grackle - 3

Sunday, 2/15/2009, San Antonio, TX

White-winged Dove - 2
Carolina Wren - 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 1
Northern Mockingbird - 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1
Northern Cardinal - 2
Great-tailed Grackle - 5
House Finch - 1
House Sparrow - 4

Sunday, 2/15/2009, Comanche Lookout Park, San Antonio, TX

Black Vulture - 2
Turkey Vulture - 9
Red-shouldered Hawk - 1
Rock Pigeon - 5
White-eyed Vireo - 1
Blue Jay - 3
Carolina Chickadee - 2
Black-crested Titmouse - 1
Carolina Wren - 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 1
Hermit Thrush - 1
Northern Mockingbird - 1
Northern Cardinal - 3
Great-tailed Grackle - 2
(Read more ...)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Measuring is Better Than Not Measuring

Simply stated, Gilb's Law says:
"Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all."

This applies to building a house, learning to improve estimates, improving performance, and even monitoring the visitor and page statistics of your blog.

The old saw says "measure twice, cut once". I've found this to be an elemental truth. Imagine framing a house and cutting lumber to length based on what looks good, not measuring. Apply this same concept to your blog. It would be like making a decision about what to write and not knowing if similar articles get a good response or are visitor bounces.

This should not be the only factor you consider. Is your blog about business and building a market presence, or about your personal interests? Each has its place and you should feel free to write about your passions.

Collecting statistics about the visitors to your blog is easy. Choose one of the statistics sites listed, and follow the simple instructions to add the tracking tag to your blog. All of these have free offerings, a few have premium paid services, some are only hit counters or just statistics, and some offer both. As a matter of principle, you should know that I use Google Analytics. It took about 10 minutes to create an account and update my template.

Future posts will look at site statistics, what they tell you, and how to use them.
(Read more ...)

Friday, February 13, 2009

The First Law of Computer Programming

Recently I overheard someone complaining about their computer software. Oh wait, that was me. Why do we have so much poorly designed and implemented software?

At its most fundamental a computer, or the computer software, is nothing more than a very obedient machine. It always does exactly what it was told to do. The First Law of Computer Programming states:
A computer is only as smart as its programmer.
What many don't realize it that the First Corollary of the First Law is:
There are a lot of stupid computers.
Think about it. The basic "intelligence" of a computer is based on the skill and knowledge of the programmer. It is my contention that many programmers just don't know any better. Combine that with schedule and market pressures and it a formula for failure.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago I was coaching a team of programmers at a client site. One of the developers had been there for about 6 months. He was having problems with a troublesome piece of conditional logic. I suggested that he build a "truth table" to list out all of the permutations and expected results. "What's that?" he asked. This intelligent and articulate guy had an IT degree from a local university. He disclosed that in his entire time at college he had only had to write a total of 3 programs. Just three! None of them were in programming languages with wide commercial use.

Just what did they learn? Syntax, basic logic structures, history of computers, UML, and ... well you get the idea. Students could make a killer flowchart and entity relationship diagram, but could not decompose a problem into logical steps, or layout a usable and intuitive interface.

Years ago I was interviewing a candidate for a developer position. On his resume he listed "Familiar with the use of meaningful indentation" as one of his skills. He looked confused when I asked him about this so I requested that he tell me what that phrase meant to him. He replied, "I know how to hit the TAB key." Um, "Next!"

So what to do? I encourage all software developers to do three things:
  1. Watch people use your programs. It is amazing what you will learn about yourself and your code.
  2. Spend time working the help desk supporting code that you wrote. It will forever change how you write code.
  3. Sharpen your skills. You can never know it all and there will always be someone who knows more than you. Be humble. Learn from them. Read.
Enough said. At least for now.
(Read more ...)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Doe Snot, Spell Check and "Efficient" Word Processing

Don't you just love computer programs that profess to know what you want to do better than you do? Neither do I. Okay, I'll say it. I have a love-hate relationship with Microsoft Word.

When I'm writing I don't want my word processing application to do things for me. Don't assume that because I typed a hyphen at the beginning of a line that I want to start a bulleted list, or that I want change the style of an entire block of text just because I increase the font size and make a word bold. And just how does the "ribbon" make it easier for me to see all of the options when I can no longer hover over a menu bar and see the drop-down lists? Just because you can make it look cool doesn't mean you should.

Image source: GraphJam

On the other side of this equation are the things that it should do but doesn't. I would expect a program smart enough to analyze a sentence and warn you that it is written in passive voice, could figure out that you meant to say 'does not' instead of 'doe snot'. Both pass spell check but couldn't you warn me (when I ask to be warned) that something seems out of place. Evidently context is not king but someone who visits at inconvenient times. Honestly, when was the last time you read a computer programming book that mentioned the mucus discharge of friendly forest creatures.

When reviewing the galley proofs for my last computer book, I noticed a 'doe snot' in the text. Guessing it was not a solitary incident, I searched all of the chapters and found at least a dozen occurrences. Something must have been sneezing over my shoulder.

The root cause of this error is the most common typing mistake, a transposition.

I'm going to date myself now. The first word processor I ever used was not a program but a dedicated word processing computer called a DECmate with dual 8" floppy disks. And yes, they really were flexible and "floppy". It was a joy to use because it did one thing and did it very well.

The case in point is that someone did their homework, and had a way to deal with transposition typos. There was a dedicated key labeled "Swap". Place the cursor between the transposed characters, hit the swap button, and it ... well it swapped them. No more typo. One keystroke, not the three (delete, advance the cursor, retype the character just deleted) needed in all modern word processing programs.

We are not repeating history, we are ignoring its positive lessons. Hello? Microsoft? Are you listening? I know you didn't ask me, but could you please give us a way to easily turn off the stuff we don't want, and add something we can all use every day like "Swap"?

(Read more ...)

Computer History: The DEC PDP 11/70

Last week my friend Wesley Twittered about his first computer. It got me thinking about one of the first computers I used, so I replied to him about the DEC PDP 11/70. I also recalled a skill I developed at that time to convert octal (base 8) to binary in my head. More on that later. Here is what the control panel looked like for many PDP systems.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The PDP family of computers were known as mini-computers to distinguish them from mainframes that ran in the data center. The workhorse PDPs ran in offices, on factory floors, and a privileged few were coddled in data centers too.

Getting this computer running was not as easy as pushing a button on a modern PC. You had to use the switches on the front panel to load an address, deposit a value, and then hit the start switch on the far right. Once it was booted, you could also tell what operating system was running by looking at the motion of the data lights when the CPU was idle. It it was running RSTS/E the lights made a marquee from left to right, and for RSX the lights started at both ends and met in the middle.

The address and deposited value were 7 digit values in octal (base 8) that you would find taped up on the front of the computer. The switches are in color coded groups of three, and you had to set the value using the 21 digit binary equivalent of the octal numbers. You can see the switch array at the bottom of the picture, numbered 0 to 20 from right to left. Programmers and hardware designers count starting a zero. Go figure.

Now I'm sure you all know how to convert octal to binary. You don't? Alright, here is a hint; each octal value can be represented by three binary digits. The binary digits have positional values of 4, 2, and 1. So 5 octal is 101 in binary. Here is a quick coversion table:
0 = 000
1 = 001
2 = 010
3 = 011
4 = 100
5 = 101
6 = 110
7 = 111
Now that you are equipped, what is 7742036 octal as a binary value? Quick now! Got it? The answer is 111 111 100 000 011 110.

Anyone who can convert octal to binary in your head raise your hand. Or post a comment since we are a diminishing breed and should probably meet.

If you'd like to see and experience some computer history for yourself, you should visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. My personal experience of the museum was at its original location at Digital Equipment Corporation, where I worked at the time, and their facility on Museum Wharf in Boston. I'm looking forward to paying them a visit at their new West coast home.
(Read more ...)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thunderstorms in Austin and Stormchasing

I have always loved to watch thunderstorms. Being in the middle of a multi-year drought makes it even more enjoyable. This one was stunning. I could hear it coming from the west, sounding like an approaching train. Out of my east facing sliding window it was dead calm. The rain line passed right overhead. At one time it was pouring rain on the west side of the condo and not on the east. The temperature dropped 20 degrees, from 73 to 53, in 30 minutes

Radar as the storm hit - Source:

Looking the front door, the rain was intense, the lightning bright, and the thunder earsplitting. One thunder clap was from a lightning strike so close that the flash and sound were simultaneous.

Opening the aptly named storm door, I shot over the top of the door into the wind. The rain was so close and dense all I got was flash bounce from the drops.

So how is this stormchasing? It's not really since the storm came to me. Several years ago I was in a tornado, just over 1/4 mile from the funnel. It was an F1, the mildest strength if you can call a tornado mild, and it was raining so hard I couldn't see anything. I'll describe the whole experience in a future post. I'd still like to chase and see a tornado, but from a much safer distance.
(Read more ...)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Austin Singer/Songwritter Monte Montgomery

What can I say that others haven't said already? Monte Montgomery is amazing. Guitar Player Magazine listed him as one of "The Top 50 All-Time Greatest Guitarists". He also won the SXSW award for best acoustic guitarist 7 years in a row. If you don't know about Monte you need to "discover" him now.

Listen to the following YouTube post. That's right, don't watch it, just listen. You will hear what sounds like an electric guitar. It's not. It is an amplified acoustic.

Monte Montgomery plays Little Wing at the Austin Music Network studio

Now that you have listened play it again and watch. Focus on his fingers. Watch for the switches between using a pick and just his fingers. Monte also uses a slide on a finger, and then plays chords using just three fingers so he can hold the slide out of the way. It is mesmerizing and fascinating at the same time. I still can't believe the sounds he gets out of an acoustic guitar.

The video is impressive and his albums should be part of your music collection. However, you really need to go see Monte live. The interplay between a gifted performer like Monte, the captivating and engaging nature of his music, and the crowd dynamics in a club creates something unique that can't be experienced with a recording. I've seen him live several times, and will be going to see him again. The tour schedule is linked from Monte's site.

This is the first of what will be a regular Monday post about music.

Get involved in the arts. Create, participate, listen, watch, enjoy, and support.
(Read more ...)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Take Better Photographs in Three Easy Steps

Really, just three steps. Not as trivial as they may sound, they are:

1 - Take your camera
2 - Take pictures
3 - Learn from your good and bad pictures

Order is important here. If you don't do step 1, then you can't do step 2. Likewise step 3 depends on step 2. It is that simple. Well okay, not really. Let's take a closer look using "depth of field" as an example.

The first step may be obvious, but how often have you said to yourself, "Look at that. I wish I had my camera." Or the old standby, "That would make a great picture." No camera means no picture. So don't leave home without it. After all, you aren't slogging around a monster like the view camera in the illustration. Most modern digital SLR setups weigh less than 2 1/2 pounds.

Next, take pictures. Lots of them. I've got a 4GB card for my Nikon D100 and even at the highest resolution it will hold over 1,200 images. There is no additional cost if you shoot 1,000 frames or only just 100. Push that shutter release. Okay, taking 1,000 pictures doesn't mean they are all going to be good ones.

Before you go out to shoot, read. I guess this should really be step 0. Okay, so I'm a computer geek and we learned to count from zero not one. Anyway, get a good book on digital photography that uses your type of camera, either SLR or point-and-shoot. However, just reading won't make you a better photographer, you have to get out and take pictures. You can't skip step 2. This is not any different than learning to drive or cook. You have to do it to learn it. Reading alone is not enough.

Don't be too ambitious. Take it in small doses. For example read about depth of field. This is term for how much of what the camera sees will be in focus. Do this simple experiment; look across the room and hold a finger about six inches in front of your nose. Focus on your finger and the room gets fuzzy. Now focus on the wall on the other side of room and your finger gets fuzzy. This is depth of field. SLR cameras use the f-stop to control depth of field. The higher the f-stop number the greater the depth of field. This means that it is possible to take a picture where both your finger and the wall are in focus.

Got it? Good, now go take pictures that use depth of field. If you have an SLR put it into "aperture priority" mode so you can control the f-stop. Take close ups with a blurry background. Shoot some wide view landscapes with big depth of field where everything is in focus. Experiment.

Now for step 3 go back and look at the pictures on your computer. Don't just delete the ones that aren't what you expected. Study them. Did you get the effect you wanted or not? What worked for you and what didn't? Remember that your SLR will record the shutter speed, ISO setting, and (drum roll please) the f-stop in what is called the EXIF data for each image. This means you can easily see what you did, or the camera did for you, and will have learned how to create a specific depth of field look.
(Read more ...)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Seeing Water with a Camera

Water presents a number of challenges and creative opportunities for digital photography. It is a subject that yields images that you can't see with the unaided eye. I've been rediscovering how perceptions and captured images of water change based on the light conditions and shutter speed.

In search of inner balance, and some photographs, I visited the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin today. Just to the right of the visitor center there is a small grassy glen with a water fountain. So, looking for something different, I kneeled down behind the fountain to shoot up into the top of the spray against a gray cloudy sky.

The initial shots were over exposed even using automatic shutter speed with aperture priority. The metering was exposing for the sky not the water. So, I set the camera to f14 and turned on the flash to stop the motion of the water droplets, even at 1/180 exposure time. The water is seen by the camera is a way you can see with your eye; the droplets are suspended and round. Post processing used a dust filter and converted the image to black-and-white.

The Japanese section of the Gardens has a number of small detail features. This second image is of a bamboo water drip above a pool. Note the stop-action for the water with the rich warmth of the bamboo and the blurred background. The shutter speed was 1/60 of a second which normally blurs moving water. I used the flash to stop the water and an f9 aperture to blur the background.

The eye sees this falling water as a blurred stream. In contrast, the camera reveals what happens to the water as it falls; it becomes a series of disconnected droplets.

A future article will look at photographing reflections in water, and the patterns and colors you can capture in water ripples.
(Read more ...)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Intelligent Design or Bright Engineering?

Recently I witnessed the quintessential peak of efficient design. Lest you think otherwise, this is not about evolution and other competing theories of existence. This missive is about one of the most amazing machines I have had the pleasure to use. I am still a bit fuzzy on the matter of the 'intelligence' behind this modern marvel.

I was feeling a bit peckish and in need of some chemical stimulation. Come on, I'm talking about coffee, high-test, straight up. What did you think I meant? Anyway, I wandered out into the world looking for that elusive nectar, the perfect cup of something spectacular. A friend referred me to, of all things, a machine. He swore up and down that I would not be disappointed.

What I discovered was an engineering marvel. A machine that brews fresh coffee on demand at the strength and caffeine level you choose. The front of the machine is glass so you get to watch all of the exciting action. Make some selections, push "Brew", and it measures out some fresh beans and grinds away. The grounds are then pressed between two layers of pristine filter paper and piping hot water streams through. The hissing and bubbling were very impressive and the aroma of the developing infusion was intoxicating.

The final perfect and delightfully aromatic result is dispensed into . . . a cup that isn't there. One would assume that a machine as talented as this would include a sensor to detect the lack of a cup. It turns out that I misunderstood the intent of this device. As the coffee gurgles down the drain, the machine flashes the words "Thank You" in cheerful bright red letters. I replied, "You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed it." I was truly impressed. This very polite machine not only makes you a wonderful cup of coffee, it drinks it for you too.
(Read more ...)