Eleven and a Half Feet

Eleven and a Half Feet
Eleven and a Half Feet, originally uploaded by Thomas Gehrke.

Here is another view of the Kurtz' Mill Bridge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that was taken this past November (three years after this one was taken).  It is a dual exposure HDR image in order to be able to show the bridge from the outside as well as the internal structure.

Occasionally when I post a photo I will share the tools used. Something I have found interesting in frequenting Ron Martinsen's Blog and new forum is how he and others will also include details such as camera settings and screenshots of the Lightroom and Photoshop UIs. I thought I might try that here.

First things first, this is what one of the original shots looked like:

Definitely a little flat.

In Lightroom 3 I enabled the lens correction options, cropped and rotated the image and applied some noise reduction. Both files were then exported to Photomatix 4 for some HDR work.

When it comes to HDR, I prefer a more natural look. "Halos" usually turn me of as do most not-so-subtle results. I do like some of the more extreme interpretations, but I aim for something a little less obvious most of the time. Once I thought I had a good range of tones, I brought things into Photoshop CS5 for some final tweaking.

Here is a shot of my layers palette:

Starting from the bottom and working our way up, the breakdown is as follows:
  • A touch of Topaz Denoise 5. HDR processing seems to work a little noise back into things even with the light noise reduction I performed in Lightroom 3 and the noise reduction that Photomatix does.
  • Created a lens blur effect on the bottom and sides to add a little depth.
  • A curves adjustment to fix the white balance.
  • Another curves adjustment that was masked to brighten up the white/lightly painted areas around the bridge opening and roofline.
  • Topaz Adjust 4 to tweak the exposure and color.
  • Topaz Detail 2 for sharpening. This was masked to apply to just the bridge itself while excluding the internal crossbeams at the top and the side supports. These areas, when sharpened, generated some very obvious noise.
  • Added a vignette (which is no doubt overused, but that I still find attractive). 
  • There was a car parked on the road that could just be seen through the trees on the right. I used the burn tool to make it less obvious.
You would think that's enough, but then I noticed a touch of chromatic aberration in spots. Namely a blue halo around some of the tree branches. So...
  • The blues were desaturated by just a bit.
  • I applied a warming filter while masking out from the center.
  • I applied a cooling filter to just the center.
  • I boosted the shadows while masking out the center.
  • Then bumped up the exposure, ever so slightly, right in the middle.
If you are still awake after all of that, I congratulate you!

As always, I would love to hear from you. Find me on Twitter at @tomgehrke or on Flickr. And, of course, you are always free to leave comments here.

Remote Desktop Connection Manager Is A SysAdmin's Friend

If you work as a system administrator in an area with more than a handful of Microsoft Windows based machines (workstations or servers), you will no doubt spend some time establishing remote desktop sessions with them.  The more machines you have to manage, the crazier things get.  Several months back I came across a free Microsoft tool that really helps get things under control.

Remote Desktop Connection Manager is small and deceptively simple. If it were only good for organizing all of your remote desktops, it would come in handy, but it has a few more tricks up its sleeve.

Core to the interface are the concepts of grouping and inheritance. By targeting a group, you can do nifty things such as logging into all of the desktops in that group at once (assuming they accept the same credentials). This is great for managing server farms.

By selecting a group, you will be shown live and interactive thumbnails for each session. "Live" means that each window is being updated to reflect what is happening on a particular machine. "Interactive" means that mouse clicks and keypresses will be passed along to the selected sessions. This can be dangerous, but consider a situation where you are manually installing software on a large number of machines at once. Not only can you monitor the progress on each, but you can also deal with message dialogs, press "Next" buttons, etc.

And finally, you can apply properties to groups as well as individual connections. Pretty much all of your typical RDC options can be defined at various levels. They will be inherited down the tree, unless you opt to adjust them at a lower level.

Your mileage may vary, but as I said previously, it's simple, easy and free.

Grab it here


Harvestore, originally uploaded by Thomas Gehrke.

Another typical view in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania taken around Thanksgiving 2010. The sky is really what I enjoy about this one in addition to my usual fascination with silos and rural scenes.

Cataclysm LP Now Available on iTunes - World of Warcraft

Blizzard Entertainment announced today that the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm soundtrack is available on iTunes.

See the announcement here.

The music for WoW is generally pretty good, but they really kicked things up with the latest release. Killing boars was never done so epically. But seriously, the music is great and the way they weave it into the experience really makes the experience much more movie-like.

It's an iTunes LP with 17 musical tracks for about $10. Not a bad deal.

Snag it here.

Apple "Screws" iPhone 4 Owners And I Don't Care

I just cannot believe the amount of time people have spent complaining about Apple changing a couple of Philips head screws to "pentalobe" screws. This looked to be the big tech story of the day until Eric Schmidt stepped down as Google's CEO. Maybe I'm missing the big picture, but my initial reaction was simply, "Who cares?"

And I haven't changed my mind. 

I see all of the usual words applied to corporations nowadays. Diabolical. Evil. And so on. Ridiculous is what I say.

Of the tens of millions of iPhone 4s sold (one of them to me), I wonder what percentage of people have had the desire and nerve to open them up. I wonder what percentage of that group had any business attempting such a thing in the first place. Then I wonder how much time Apple employees and certified technicians have spent trying to resolve issues unnecessarily created by these people.

Yes, yes. We bought our phones so we own them and it's our right to destroy them if we want. It's also Apple's right to protect their interests. That line doesn't always get drawn where I would like, but if you follow tech blogs and pundits, you would think Apple had started selling leather cases made from the pelts of baby seals for these things.

Some quotes:
...they're replacing the iPhone 4's Philips screws with weird new ones for which no screwdriver exists.
Really? No screwdrivers exist? Or are they just hard to find and expensive to buy? Subtle difference.
Apple's effectively making it impossible for you to open up your iPhone.
Yet they follow that up with a video from iFixit where they talk about a "Liberation kit" that allows you to do just that.

Another sticking point is that Apple swaps these screws out when you've taken your phone in for a repair. Just how likely is it that someone both interested in, courageous enough to and knowledgable about opening up their phone will take it in to an Apple store to get it worked on?

Let's be reasonable. If you really want to get into your phone, you will find a way. And if you are particularly entrepreneurial, you will create a "liberation kit" to make a little money in the process. Although I hope nobody is making a profit from these things. Benefitting from what is being painted as some sort of rights violation would just be... evil.

Musings on Multitouch in iOS 4.3 Beta

In the first beta for iOS 4.3 that Apple released to developers they included some new multitouch gesture support.  For instance, swipe up with four fingers and the "task bar" is revealed or swiping left/right with four fingers to move between apps. This has even generated speculation that the next iPad will not have a home button. For Apple's sake, I hope that speculation is wrong.

For the record, I don't think there is any way that options in a relatively minor iOS update would have any bearing on what everyone seems to agree is an imminent hardware refresh. That sounds a bit like putting the cart in front of the horse and that just is not The Apple Way.

Regardless, the gestures themselves need some work. I'm perfectly fine with the four-finger swipe up to see the "task bar".  This can be done instead of the double-press on the home button and it does have a natural feel to it. It appears as if you are sliding the entire iOS interface up to reveal a hidden controls compartment.

The gesture that I'm having a hard time with is the left/right four-finger swipe to switch between apps. In concept, I really like the idea. In practice, it works well if you keep going back and forth between two (or at least a very small number of) apps. If you are writing an email and referencing things in Safari for instance, it's lovely. But here is the problem. It's a spatially based navigation system where there are no visual cues for where you are in that space.

Yeah, I know. That sounds like gibberish so let me explain what I mean.

The space that we are talking about is the "task bar" and the navigation that occurs is happening within that bar while that bar is not visible.  Right now you are probably asking me why that's a problem and I'll retort by asking you why it isn't.


Well, that didn't work out so well for either of us, so maybe I need to answer you instead. I will enumerate my issues:
  1. How do I know when the app I am using is the first app (or the left-most) app in the stack? If you haven't done any app switching yet, then the app you are currently using will always be the first app, but if you have been navigating the stack, you won't know until you swipe from left to right and nothing happens because there are no more apps. (That's not exactly true. Something does happen. You get this clever little "rubber-banding" of the app screen to show that your gesture registered.)
  2. The order of apps is not constant. It's based on the order that you have been using them. What this means is that you find yourself shuffling through app screens because you thought you used something 2 apps ago, but forgot that you checked the weather and the stock market somewhere between then and now. It would have made more sense to pull up the "task bar" to go directly to the app you knew you wanted.
  3. You may notice that I keep putting "task bar" in quotation marks. That's because this is really the "recently used apps" bar. Everything in this area are things that may not actually be running. In fact, most of the apps that show up in this area for me are not running. (I know this is a simplification based on how iOS implements multitasking.) You are, however, allowed to swipe into a non-running application, thus starting it up. Since, depending on the application, this usually takes a few seconds, the kind of page-flipping action bogs down.
Maybe I am expecting things to work a little more like Command/Alt+Tab does in OSX/Windows. The concept is very similar with a few important differences. First, on the desktops all you see are active documents/applications. Next, the stack navigation allows looping (if I'm sitting on the first app in the stack, I can "move" left one spot and end up on the last in the stack). And finally, even though the order of applications is based on what has been most recently used, the fact that you can see what the current order is as you move in the space is huge.

I like that Apple is experimenting in this area. I can see how this, with a bit more polish, would be an improvement on the whole iOS experience. But it's just not there yet.

Zero Chroma iPhone 4 Case Review

A strange as it sounds, one of the features on several of the new generation Android phones that I've been envious of, particularly those from HTC, is the kickstand. I know. It seems trivial. However, I watch a lot of video on my iPhone 4 and iPad and I spend an inordinate amount of time finding ways to prop it up. Seeing your phone or tablet slide off a window sill may do wonders for honing your reflexes, but won't do a thing for your pulse or blood pressure.

Enter the cases from Zero Chroma.

I cannot remember exactly where I heard about this case except to say it was probably while listening to one of the many podcasts I follow. Regardless, it sounded exactly what I had been looking for. I went ahead and ordered cases for both my iPhone and iPad. This review is specific to the phone and the tablet review will follow shortly.

The packaging is fairly simple and you get a case and a case strap (which is pretty unusual). The two holes you see near the bottom of the case are where you would attach the case loop. Personally, I am not really sure how useful this is for day to day activities. If you are using your phone as a point and shoot camera, it makes a little more sense. I opted to ignore the strap entirely.

I chose the black and gray model, but they also offer a white and gray combination as well as a pink version.

The case itself is made of several molded plastic parts. There is the main case body, the rotating circular stand mount, the stand itself and the slightly more rubbery outer edge. Everything seems to fit together very well.

Installation is extremely simple. Just place the phone within the case borders and press down at each corner. The fit is snug and you should feel a slight click as each corner snaps into place. I have been using the case for several weeks now and my phone has never once thought about escaping its confines.

Obviously, if you turn the case over and do not see your camera lens in the camera hole, you have put it on the wrong way around. And given the opening in the case for the volume and mute switch, you probably had to work way to hard to get a fit that must be less than perfect. My point is that unless you really try, you cannot mess this up.

Speaking of openings, both the top and bottom are completely open. This means that many accessories that are impacted by cases that only provide opening just large enough for headphones or the 30-pin connecter will have a much better chance at working here.  Also of note is the complete lack of obstruction for both the speaker and microphone ports.

Not pictured above but viewable in some of the pictures below is the area for volume and mute buttons. Shortly before this review was written, iPhone 4 availability on Verizon was announced and there have been some minor changes to the phone which resulted in the mute button having been moved higher up on the side of the phone. This renders some cases unusable if, once again, they provided openings specific to each port and control. While I cannot say for sure, it seems likely that this case will work with the Verizon iPhones. If I find out for sure one way or another, I will update this article. 1

This is also the perfect type of case for anyone out there who may still be concerned about "glassgate" issues allegedly caused by some slider-style cases.

Now we come to the best part of the case. The kickstand. Operation is simple, with the tip of a finger or a finger nail pry the stand away from the case. It moves fairly freely up until you hit the first position where it clicks into place. This is as it should be, in my opinion. If you have big fingers and very short nails, you may have some problems, but most people should be fine.

There are fourteen (14) lockable positions so the combination of those and the ability to also rotate the stand give you quite a bit of flexibility in positioning.

The plastic used for the bottom edge is a slightly more rubbery plastic which allows for some additional grip on harder, slippery surfaces. The foot of the stand is also tipped with a softer, rubbery plastic.

Initially, I was a little disappointed with how hard the rubbery edge was, but after a few weeks I have determined that it is plenty "grippy" and I've revised my opinion. I also suspect that the harder material is better for long-term durability.

But wait, there is more!

The case is molded with very slight depressions in the sides and a large dimple in the back. It's a very small thing, but they do seem to make holding the case a little more comfortable. At least that is how they are marketed and if they don't help, they certainly don't hurt.

And for those of you who use your cameras, it's worth noting that instead of a single opening for the camera and flash, the two are actually separate. Why does this matter? The fact is that many iPhone 4 cases, particularly those made of more reflective materials, create a glare when the flash reflects off the edge of the case opening for the lens.  I have not done any tests in this area with this particular case, but I also have not noticed any problems with the photographs I've taken since I started using it. Your mileage may vary, but I do not think that you will be disappointed.

At $44.95, it is on the more expensive side as far as cases go. I would make the argument that you get what you pay for and in this case, I believe that holds true. They do offer free shipping, so that helps mitigate the cost a bit.

Bottom line, I love this case and can recommend it without reservation.

Check out their site for a pretty slick rundown of features as well as ordering information.

cu4fun confirmed in the comments below that the Teatro case for the iPhone is compatible with the new Verizon iPhones. And a quick visit to the Zero Chroma website shows that they now explicitly list compatibility with both the AT&T and Verizon iPhones.

Good design or luck? Probably a little of both, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt because the case is just so darn good.