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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Phase 1 complete

Tremendous feeling of satisfaction tonight as, at the end of a long day at the office (8 hours + 7.5 hours overtime) I finally completed phase one of my project to digitise / automate as much of the teaching jobs admin process as possible.

For the past two months or so I've been working on my first ever MS Access database. It's not especially complex - for someone who's created databases before it would probably be very easy - it simply keeps a record of all our current jobs, and produces multiple reports detailing the status of the jobs in different ways for different staff.

For me it was a huge challenge. There's been countless times when I've come up against a brick wall, unable to come up with the code that would make it do what I wanted it to do. In those situations I found the best thing to do was to think intensively about the different possibilities ...then let go and sleep on it. I can recall several occasions whereby when I went back into the work the following day the answer was there, hanging in the air, waiting for me - PING! and it worked!

The past couple of weeks have been a little frustrating at times as other work has started to pile up, and I've been unable to put any time aside for making final tweaks to the database to get it from a sort-of-working state to a fully functional bugless thing worthy of putting real data into. Thus the overtime. It's my own choosing - I could not do any overtime and continue along the gradual progression route, but it's reached the stage now where I really want to make the switch.

For one thing, as of this week I'm responsible for managing certain aspects of jobs in progress. Thus, there's a bit of self-imposed pressure to get this up and running asap so I don't have to use the existing analogue recording techniques (paper and whiteboard). The switch has also necessitated the reorganising and renaming of a complex web of files too, something I started last week but was only able to finish tonight after a few hours on the job. ooooh you should see my hierarchical archives now, boy are they sexy!

So yes, tonight I feel good. Following a fair bit of testing I started using the database - and it works perfectly! I'll continue to extend it over the next few months in order that it can help simplify tasks for more people in the office. The hope is that within a few months or so everyone is benefiting from it, being able to immediately obtain whatever data they need to get on with their jobs.

And now it's time for bed.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Why I love Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Lightroom Training

I've talked about this before, but I want to talk about it again
.

A few days back I was asked by a friend if I'd give them a bit of training in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the most wonderful photo-processing software ever to have created for people who work with RAW images, or find Photoshop a bit OTT for their purposes.

It was an interesting experience, as it really demonstrated to me just what a fundamental shift the move to the use of image processing software such as Lightroom can mark.

Lightroom is the modern-day darkroom (in case you hadn't guessed from the name!). Most people don't need darkrooms these days as their cameras can do the processing for them. If your camera gives you JPEG images, it has taken the raw data that hit its sensor through the lens, and then interpreted that as it saw fit, enhancing colours and setting the contrast (etc) before throwing away the 'unnecessary' data and compressing the remainder into a JPEG.

For me, when I do shoot in JPEG with my little Sony Cybershot, I feel it's a passive process (although one would not be able to tell this from looking at the images). All I do is chuck them straight into my photo library. There has been little by way of engagement with the images once they have been taken.

With my Nikon set to shoot in RAW, it just gives me the raw data (funny that), with no modifications. It's then up to me to decide how that image is developed (by putting it through Lightroom).

Thankfully modern cameras are very good at processing images and creating JPEGs. All of my photos up until last summer were taken as JPEGs (including all those on my Trans-Siberian adventure), and to look at them you'd find it hard to tell the difference between them and those I've since shot in RAW. In fact you can't.

I think for me though, photography is almost as much about the process as it is about the end result. I absolutely love processing my images, deciding for myself what the end result will look like. I also get great pleasure out of exporting these images direct from Lightroom to Flickr and into my iPhoto library for use in my projects, to share with other people.

You may have noticed that I have stopped watermarking my images. That was a conscious decision to not be so precious about them.

I've recently come to embrace keywording (tagging) too. I don't just do it for the satisfaction of 'being organised' - with over 21,000 photos in my library now it's vital that they have rich descriptions to enable me to find them at a later date. I tag them upon import, and these tags remain with the images all the way through to Flickr (or wherever else they go). If you are able to read the metadata attached to the image above, along with the details of what shutter speed I used / what lens I had on the camera, you'll find all my tags (Flickr displays these by default).

I feel that this kind of engagement with my photos helps me to improve my technique. It gives me the opportunity to study them in detail, to get a feel for what worked, and what didn't. It encourages me to take more photos, which will lead to more experiences, and a greater appreciation of what was in front of the lens.

If you would like to engage more with your images and are prepared to put in the few hours necessary to learn the Lightroom ropes, I would recommend you switch your camera to RAW (if it allows it), and download a free Beta version of Lightroom from www.adobe.com/products/photoshoplightroom/.

Next, grap yourself a free 7-day trial from the best software training company in the world, Lynda.com, and check out the Lightroom tutorial. You can get that by visiting www.lynda.com/deke (normally $25 per month).

Finally, enjoy. Oh, and consider subscribing to the (free) podcast from The Radiant Vista. (N.b. Anonymous: somehow I don't think that podcast will be your cup of tea).

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dissertation dilemmas

The experiment two nights ago worked.

I created a new user account on my Macbook with access only to my word-processor (Scrivener), then reset my admin password to something like 673hdhsa568fdje8sosjyr8jdhs7si which I wrote down on a piece of paper and put in my sock drawer. I then went to the library, and could do nothing but write.

I have a deadline of Monday to turn this thing around. I'll do it.




This morning I was listening to Macbreak weekly, when Andy Ihnatko gave his pick of the week: Freedom.

It is the most wonderful piece of Mac software in the whole world. Basically, you launch it, and then tell it how long you want it to block all Internet connections.

It then shuts down your wireless and Ethernet, and there's no way to turn it back on unless you do a restart. I really don't like restarts so this suits me very well.

I've spent about 11 hours in the library today. Just came home for beans on toast, then will go back to write another chapter.

A lot of my time has been spent reformulating my question, and then rewriting what I have already written to suit my new argument. I'd started off by seeking to show how wonderful the 1998 Non Profit Organisation Law was. After doing that for a bit, I discovered that actually, it had been a bit of a flop. So then I switched to showing why it had failed. But I didn't like that, it was negative, and I was getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of reliable data on which to base my argument (civil society is notoriously difficult to define, let along quantify).

Finally, in despair I emailed my tutor - and got the green light to change my title again. I'm now assessing the changes that have occurred since 1995 in Japan's third sector, including the effects of the NPO law, and many other factors that have brought civil society to where it is today. I'm happy with that.

The thing is, 3 new laws come into force in December, and the whole situation will be turned on its head, meaning that my dissertation will only be current for about 6 months! Well, at least I'll have graduated by then!

Ok,better heat up the beans.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tech Talk: the power of feeds (and an IC video)

The CILASS tech group had a really interesting meeting today. Started out with planning for Friday's technology session that we'll be filming for upload to the website, then went on to discuss the recent developments in web platforms / streaming services etc. I find this kind of thing very exciting as I see enormous potential in it.

I'm really looking forward to picking up my podcast again and producing something a lot more interesting. Despite being pretty crappy at the moment and my posting no new episodes, I'm getting about 500 new subscribers every month, sustained growth. Imagine if this was a business - how much would I be paying to attract this kind of attention? I don't see myself as making money out of listeners, but rather, I see it as a case of using the podcast to promote whatever other projects I'm involved in which people may be interested in.



Other services I'm using and recommend for people interested in building up a web presence

I forget if I've mentioned it before but I've also started experimenting with Live Video Streaming via uStream (www.tamegoeswild.com/live), something else I'd like to use professionally in the future. Then there's Twitter (http://twitter.com/tamegoeswild), which I have mentioned before - essentially it's micro blogging, up to 140 characters per post.  Really been enjoying using that. It has tremendous potential, as when used with something like Twitterific it can also notify Facebook and update your Skype Status, meaning that you can get something out in seconds to hundreds (or thousands) of people. It's also really interesting observing how other people are using it, and how it affects ones own attitude towards being open to the world.

I also use tumblr, which is more than micro-blogging, but less than standard blogging. I have that reserved for quotes and things to be thankful for - updated via a dashboard widget for ease of use.

Finally, I've recently started using Friendfeed, which brings together all of the above and my YouTube Channel, and Flickr posts, into one single feed that is displayed on my facebook profile page (or can itself be subscribed to via RSS).

What I've come to appreciate is that these tools can be used as key elements of a marketing strategy. Yes, they require sustained input, but they needn't be all that disruptive and they are ultra-low cost, and, based on my exposure to other users, they're pretty effective in creating a buzz.



Another thing we were discussing was the idea that university should really be introducing students to things like RSS feeds (what is RSS?). RSS feeds can be such powerful learning tools, yet if you ask the average student what an RSS feed is, they probably wouldn't be able to tell you, (and through no fault of their own). 

I think I'm a bit of an RSS junkie though. I currently have 61 feeds in my reader, although about 40 of those are friend's blogs and other sites that are updated about once a month. The remainder focus upon: news from Japan; digital photography (that's how I'm learning Adobe Lightroom); business, inspiration and Lifehacks.

The great thing with RSS is it's so simple to subscribe and unsubscribe. Unlike email subscriptions you don't have that fear of being spammed - you can trial something, and if you don't like it you just remove the feed from your reader. YOU are in control. It's also good for producers, as you get a good idea of what size your audience is.

Aside from RSS, I think it would be good if the university made more use of 3rd party technologies, rather than relying upon expensive in-house development. 

Take the Catsters for example - here YouTube is being used to teach some pretty complex mathematics. Just looking at the comments on their channel shows how welcome this is.




Hmm, YouTube excites me, even when it's a mathematics channel.

Anyway, I reckon all this stuff is going to play a big part in my future. Quite how I don't know.

To finish off then I bring you a great little video of the Information Commons. If you're a Sheffield student the first minute or so is well worth a watch! 



I reckon we need a song like that for the Arts Tower - not just a video of how to get on the roof!

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

A great week for photographers

[apologies for lack of links - written from train to Sheffield on which internet is not too reliable (i.e. non-existent.) Google is your friend]

It’s been a productive journey so far. I’ve removed the yellow testicle from my patchwork jeans, after it was pointed out to me that it could also be mistaken for a urine stain. I’ve replaced it with some elephants, sewn on whilst listening to the latest episode of This Week in Photography (TWIP). I’m loving it, and I can feel myself progressing up the same learning curve as I did when I started listening to MacBreak Weekly last year. Before I started listening to TWIP I didn’t fully appreciate the flexibility offered by RAW, I never thought about my camera’s ISO settings, I was lax in my use of tags, and also assumed that when it came to megapixels, more = better (not necessarily true. To get more megapixels, the original sensor is simply divided up into smaller pixels, thus increasing the number of them but actually decreasing the overall surface area available for actively sensing the light due to there being more space given over to necessary gaps between the individual pixels).

It’s been a great couple of weeks for digital photographers, first with the release of Apple’s Aperture 2, and then shortly afterwards Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom 2 (Beta). Personally, I’m a Lightroom user, and I tell you, this new version is just lovely, I am so excited by it. Finally, we have completely non-destructive local editing, a real breakthrough.

(Local editing carried out in Photoshop on Jpegs etc actually changes the original image, meaning that if at a later date you want to undo what you’ve done in the past, you can’t. Also, you will get progressive deterioration of the quality of your image with every edit carried out. The beauty of working with RAW files is that the original data as seen by the camera sensor is never touched; changes are simply recorded in the form of meta data that is bolted on to the image. When you subsequently open the image, the computer refers to that meta data to see how it should interpret and display the original image. Until now, when it came to editing RAW files in Lightroom it was only possible to make changes to an entire image, such as increase exposure or contrast. Now, with local editing, we can apply such changes to specific areas of an image, thus, for example, shots which have a well-exposed foreground but a blow-out sky are no longer necessarily write-offs).

Both Aperture and Lightroom are available as 30-day trials – if you enjoy photography and have a camera that can shoot in RAW, you may want to give them a try. (As for which one to go for, it’s a matter of personal taste. Note that the Lightroom 2 is a REAL Beta version, and you may not be able to use that library once the Beta expires in August, so it’s just for playing, so you may want to download Lightroom 1.3 instead).

People who shoot in Jpeg haven’t missed out either, as last week Adobe launched Photoshop Express – the online version of Photoshop. It’s pretty good, a great example of the kind of slick online apps we’re likely to see a lot more of in the next few years. It’s works beautifully with Facebook albums (it had mine loaded in seconds), and will shortly be able to interact with Flickr too.

And now you can take photos in the past! Earlier today I watched David Pogue’s video report on the new Casio digital camera: it can shoot up to 60 frames a second – and will even take photos in the past if you happen to press the shutter just a bit too late! It sounds like science fiction, but it ain’t.

With these developments, and other cameras like Nikon’s D3 being released, it really is a tremendously exciting time to be getting into digital photography. The best thing however is that even the cheapest digital cameras are now capable of capturing great shots, meaning that anyone who wants to partake, can.

Anyway, the train is now approaching Derby where I catch a bus for Sheffield. Time for me to gather my stuff, and make the final leg of my journey to university, the last time I do so as a student.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tagging and my Photo workflow

This year I've started keywording my photos. Until now, I've simply renamed them upon import, but you can't describe all that much with a filename alone. 

This month I finally broke through the 20,000 photo barrier - that's 20,000 photos that actually mean something to me and are not blurred / underexposed / of nothing in particular. With such a large collection I've grown increasingly aware of how important it is to label them as accurately as possible. For example, a shot of *twinkle* may be called 'twinkle_in_london-1243.jpg' - but it also fits into categories such as 'people' 'family' 'holidays' '2008'. Unless I assign those keywords to it I'll only ever be able to find it with 'twinkle' or 'London'.

Until now it's not really been an issue; I'd either search by filename or simply remember which directory it was in, but as I start to do more with my photos so finding what I'm looking for becomes more difficult - thus my adoption of photo libraries (Lightroom for RAW images, iPhoto for JPEGS) and the adoption of keywording / tagging. 

It was only last autumn that I switched from shooting in JPEG to shooting in RAW, and this of course necessitated a new workflow. It took quite a bit of fine-tuning but I've got it sorted now. It goes like this:

1) Download RAW files from camera using Image Capture. These are kept in their own directory separate from all JPEGS.
2) Rename all RAW files with the excellent Renamer4Mac: I use search and replace, replacing 'DSC' with a name that describes each batch (this means that every photo maintains its original unique number whilst having a descriptive name)
3) Import in batches into Adobe Lightroom. This is the stage at which I assign keywords.
4) Adjust levels etc in Lightroom
5) Export full size JPEGS to iPhoto library
6) Export small JPEGS with watermark for upload to website via FTP, and to Flickr using the amazing Photonic

I really enjoy this process. I love organising, and I love adjusting the levels in Lightroom, (something that any camera that shoots in JPEG does on your behalf).

I've also discovered that when uploading to Flickr, Photonic will automatically convert your keywords into Flickr tags - very handy (except when you inadvertently assign some cat photos the keyword catering). Not only that, but Coppermine (the photo-album database that I use for this website) can also read those tags ...and of course, iPhoto picks them up too. 

I then back up my photos to two external drives and an FTP server (talk about anal...), before formatting the memory card in the camera (not the computer); this helps prevent corruption of future photo files.

This evening when musing over photo tagging, I started to think about how I'm finding it increasingly difficult to find blog posts. With about 750 mumbles in the blogger database, the only tool I have is Google - and that's a bit hit-and-miss. Thus, I've finally decided to start using Blogger's built-in-labels. I've not used them before now as they are not so user friendly when you're publishing on your own FTP server (each label becomes a unique html file which has to be republished every time you use that label, thus one blog could result in (for example) 10 files being published).

So far I've only had time to label this month's mumbles, and I may not bother do the other 700. We'll see.

Oh, and I've re-admitted non-registered commenters to the fold - a review of past comments has showed that the vast majority of anonymous commenters have actually left a lot of very helpful comments, rather than just banging on about how boring the mumble is. 

:-p

Anyway, I'd best be off to bed. It's been a long day.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

MacBook AirCraft

I see apple have responded to the complaints...

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