Why does Apple hate me?

Lately I’ve been considering restarting this blog.  I’d repurpose it a bit, getting back to what I had originally set it up for, years ago, namely photography related stuff, and not so much relating to ranting about Apple garbage.  Who knows, I might even go and hide some of the anti-Apple bitching. Or maybe not.

See, it’s hard, because Apple continues to get more and more retarded over time. I’m to the point now where I really need to upgrade my computer to something newer, and there is literally nothing in Apple’s lineup that meets my needs.  Maybe the closest would be a top of the line Mac Mini, since those don’t come preinstalled with some weirdo, non-standard wide gamut UHD display that all the larger iMacs have now.  (And a Mac Pro is simply not going to happen.  The so-called “trash can” may just be the most ridiculous computer Apple has come up with since their original seven pound laptop back in the 1990’s, and it costs a goddamn fortune!)

Well, there’s the Windows option.  That’s a big unknown in some respects.  I’ve used various Windows systems at work going back to the 1990’s, from Windows 3.2 up to Windows 7, although I never suffered through Vista.  A new computer would certainly come with Windows 10, which I am not familiar with. I haven’t heard a lot of positive comments about it, although people who have used it for a while do seem to quiet down after some initial complaining.  My father described Windows 10, “It’s as if they took everything that was useful about Windows 7 and hid it.”

(One of my big frustrations with Windows is that I like to move stuff around a lot, or rename stuff.  But Windows tends to make that very difficult.  Say you want to rename or move a folder full of images.  It’s likely that the system will generate an error and the process will fail due to one of the files within the folder being “in use.”  In the case of moving a folder, the easiest solution, assuming you have enough disk space to spare, is to simply copy the entire folder to the new location, then delete the old one. Hopefully you don’t use shortcuts, though, because that process will break them all!  As for how well that works with simply renaming a folder, you’d start out with a copy of the folder named “my folder copy” (or whatever), which would then need to be renamed, which is the same problem all over again.  I suspect that the copy could be renamed as long as you haven’t done something foolish like peek inside it with Windows Explorer or some application…heheh.  Anyway, this is getting pretty digressive. Are all of these problems solved in Windows 10? I have no idea!  However, I’ve used Microsoft products for over 20 years and have noticed that certain minor bugs simply never get fixed, ever.  So I’m not holding my breath.)

And, as for Linux…well, that’s an idea that has a certain appeal to it, but no.  Even though I’m probably going to ditch Adobe products too, since I am not interested in software rentals, the question of, “Is this application available for Linux” is usually going to lead to, “Nope.”

Anyway, all of this came to mind recently, especially after reading this article, and getting into the comments, at The Online Photographer:

Computer Update (OT)

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Test

Test post.

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Regarding the iTunes store…

Dear Apple:

Please FIX YOUR DAMN BUFFERING on audio samples.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Me.

P.S.  Or, maybe I can start buying all tracks from Amazon.com? Now there’s an idea.

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Yahoo.com is becoming more and more appropriately named

Lately I’ve been working on a plan for stepping up my creative activities, which includes making some adjustments to my online presence.  I’ll spare you the tedious details, and only mention that one step of the plan involved creating a new Yahoo Mail account that I could associate with an already existing Flickr account.

Well, my plan has been foiled, thanks to a new and very stupid Yahoo account creation policy:  It turns out that, as of recently, Yahoo will no  longer allow someone to set up a mail account without providing a mobile phone number.  I don’t have one of those damned things, nor do I want one.  Even if I could get one and keep it running for a reasonable price, having it would make it easier for people to bother me, which I don’t want.  And (seriously people) – text messages??!?!  No way.

I may be able to work around this problem some other way, involving using an existing, unused Yahoo Mail account instead of creating a new one.  That is assuming there is no further demand for cell phone information when I set up the association with the already-existing Flickr account—an assumption which, as of today, I no longer consider safe.

An additional, worrisome question is whether Yahoo plans to extend their Nazi-esque mobile phone policy to existing users in general.  As of today, they have not done that—I just successfully logged out of my primary Yahoo Mail account and then logged back in.  They do pester with the “what’s your mobile phone number” thing at every single login now, though.  If they make that mandatory, I’d be faced with the very unwelcome choice of abandoning my old accounts entirely, or shelling out the damn money to buy one of these goddamned phones.  (I notice WordPress is getting pretty pushy about mobile phone authentication as well, although I don’t believe they require a number just to create an account.)

It actually makes me wonder if Yahoo! is getting a kickback from the phone companies to do this.  It wouldn’t be at all surprising, would it?  I can certainly believe that the large phone companies, all of whom are scum, would stoop to this sort of strategy.

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Some new equipment…

As mentioned in previous posts I’ve been having recurring issues with Apple’s Time Machine backup software over the years.  The latest issue proved to be the final straw.  The internal drive in my iMac crashed, the local Apple dealer replaced it with a new drive and also did me the “favor” of installing Snow Leopard on it.  I then restored my previously saved files using Time Machine, when prompted to by Setup Assistant.

Time Machine never worked right after that.  It would typically try to back up tens of thousands of files every single time, often taking more than a half hour, which resulted in Time Machine being active more than 50% of the time, and that just doesn’t work.  There are too many things that can go wrong when Time Machine is running—having it run more than half of the time is just asking for trouble.  I tried and tried to get this fixed, going through every damned solution on pondini.org, including reinstalling Snow Leopard myself, and NOTHING worked.

So now I’m going to give up.  Arrived via FedEx today is a brand new Synology DS1513+, with four 4-terabyte hard drives loaded into it.  The setup routine recommends having a complete backup prior to proceeding, so I am doing one last Time Machine backup prior to formatting those four drives into a RAID array which will then be used to back up this system.  12 terabytes of space ought to be enough to last me for a while, but if I run short I can always add another drive to the array and bring it up to 16.  WΩΩt!

Getting the thing put together and hooked up was pretty easy.  My only complaint is that the little fastening bars on the side of each disk slider doohickey are made of plastic, which suggests a high likelihood of breakage over the long-term.  It also seems that the locking procedure for the individual slider doohickeys are not quite idiot-proof, although once you figure out what can go wrong it’s easy enough to avoid (i.e., it’s the sort of mistake that can only be made once).

Anyway.  Time Machine is about halfway through what’s recently been roughly a 20-minute process.  I’ve been keeping it turned off most of the time and just running one backup manually each evening.  Moving forward I’ll be using Carbon Copy Cloner to handle the backups onto the array.  Who knows if I’ll run into any issues.  Hopefully this will work out ok.

One question that pops into my mind…am I going to get to name the volume?  If so, I’m leaning towards “Utopia”.  Then again, that sort of optimism may be tempting fate.  Maybe I’d be better off with a nice, pessimistic name like “Purgatory.” ;)

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Annoyances.org apparently gone

It’s been a long time since I was there last, but when I attempted today to pull up the classic website annoyances.org, all I got was the message “Annoyances.org is temporarily down for maintainance [sic] and will return shortly.”   But, based on accounts posted here in early 2013, it appears that the temporariness of that maintenance is getting pretty non-temporary.

One poster at that Majorgeeks link very helpfully posted the link to the Annoyances website via the Internet Wayback Machine:  http://wayback.archive.org/web/*/annoyances.org

Using that, we can determine that the issue started right around the beginning of the year, 2013, and has been going on ever since.  To access an actual archive of the site, you’ll need to go back to late 2012 or earlier.

I wonder what other cool, 1990’s-era websites I always used to like have quietly disappeared like that.

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Datum

Back a few years ago, I idly wondered how long it would take to securely erase a 1 terabyte hard drive. I had no idea at the time.  More recently, I gained some real-world experience with something similar to this.

Due to having (surprise surprise) Time Machine problems, I at one point decided it was necessary to zero out my Time Machine drive.  Why?  Because I’d heard somewhere that zeroing a drive will “map out” any bad sectors on the drive, preventing them from being used once the format is complete.  An ordinary format supposedly won’t do that.

The drive in question was a four terabyte drive.  It took about four days for Disk Utility to zero that sucker.

A 7-pass wipe should take about 7 times as long, which would be about 28 days.  And the most secure option, which I believe uses a 35-pass wipe (don’t take my word for it, though), well…that would take about 140 days.  Dividing that by four, you’d end up with about 35 days for a most-secure wipe of a terabyte drive, or about a week for a less obsessive 7-pass wipe.  This is assuming that it always takes the same amount of time to do a single pass over any drive of a given volume.  I imagine that is not true in reality–some drives would go faster than others, due to inherent differences in drive performance and the amount of bad sectors encountered during the process.

This effectively disproves the, “Quick! The cops are here, wipe that drive before they grab the computer 5 seconds from now!” bulltweet that we used to see in the movies.

(As for that four terabyte drive that I zeroed out: Opinions differ as to whether that process will actually map out bad sectors on the drive. I was unable to tell if it had any significant effect at all, and suspect the entire exercise may have been a waste of time.  And I’m still having Time Machine problems.)

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Old versions of Firefox

Sick of the way Firefox updates itself every month or two?

A while ago, I gave in and decided to just let it do its thing—resisting the constant onslaught of  upgrades was getting to be a bit of  a pain.  And, for a while, it worked out ok.

Then this morning my work computer upgraded itself to Firefox 29, which…well.  I’m considering going back to 28.  I haven’t decided yet.  However, if I do, the following link will end up being useful:

http://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/

That contains downloadable copies of what appear to be ALL Firefox versions.  They are organized by version, then subdivided into platform, and subdivided further by language.  Myself, I’d be wanting the “en-US” version. The final folder contains either a DMG for Mac version, a couple of EXE files on the Windows versions, or a compressed TAR for Linux.

Happy downgrading! :)

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Irony

Something just occurred to me.

I have been an Apple user since…..well, maybe 1982? Something like that. It was before the Mac came out anyway–a computer math class in high school in the early 80’s, programming in AppleSoft on an Apple IIe. Not a bad computer, for that time, incidentally, even if it was possible for me to physically type enough text to fill up the entire RAM capacity of the computer. LOL

Anyway. The point is that I’ve been an Apple user for a long time. But something occurred to me, as I’ve been looking over my last few posts on this blog tonight. As a long-time Mac user, I’ve slung more than my fair share of criticism towards Microsoft, especially back in the DOS and Windows 95 days. Nevertheless, I have to admit that, possibly, my favorite application of all time is a Microsoft product: Microsoft Excel.

And, my most-loathed application of all time is Apple’s Time Machine.

What a dilemma. I, a long-time Mac user, have proclaimed my all-time favorite application to be a Microsoft product, and my all-time most-hated application to be an Apple product. WTF?

Hmm. Well, I have no particular insight into that question at the moment, but I do feel moved to traverse the garden path for a bit, as it were:

Every once and a while, my dentist, knowing me to be a computer geek, asks me for a recommendation or other pertaining to hardware or software if he’s got a big upgrade coming, or whatever. Over the years, I’ve found myself less and less sure of what to tell him. Gone are the days when I could brazenly brag about how I ran my iMac with no malware protection whatsoever. Granted, I still do that (depending on what you consider “malware protection”–for instance, is Adblock Plus considered “malware protection”? Or NoScript?). But long gone are the days when I would unconditionally recommend a Mac system.

At the same time, though, I have never gone so far as to actually recommend a Windows 7 system to anyone (with the exception of the odd Windows XP user wondering if it was a good idea to upgrade–short answer, “it ain’t bad, you’ll get used to it, and I don’t hate it myself, which is more than I can say about a lot of upgrades”).

Really, if someone came to me today, or during the past few years, and asked what sort of system they should buy, I’m honestly not sure what I would say. It’s my feeling that there is really no good choice out there, or that (really) the best choice is to simply stick with what you have. Out of Windows, OS X and Linux, each has their advantages and disadvantages. I stick with OS X because it would cost me too much to switch, given the gains I would realize. Maybe the correct answer to the question is, “it doesn’t really matter all that much.”

Then again, it can be said that desktop systems aren’t the main issue anymore. The real question these days is what sort of mobile device to get. Android? iPhone? Blackberry?!?! Hmmm.

[For me, the answer is “none of the above”, because 1) I detest the expense involved in any of those systems, 2) I don’t want people to be able to reach me that easily and 3) “the cloud” is a BAD idea in most cases. In the long run, I am guessing that this will spell my demise as a “tech” guy, due to the world’s moving into a realm of stupidity and me refusing to follow. Oh well. Ask me if I care. No. Why do you ask?]

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A slight update

I decided to add one item to my Steve Jobs memorial post, the item regarding Steve’s “Thoughts on Flash” article [link: http://www.apple.com/hotnews/thoughts-on-flash/%5D. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to include that originally.

Hopefully I won’t be sued for my comments in relation to that item. I do really like Adobe software, other than Flash, which is probably my #3 most hated software of all time, after Time Machine and Windows 95 (Java gets 4th place, LOL). I use licensed copies of Photoshop and Dreamweaver on a regular basis. :) :) :) I also personally own a copy of Photoshop Lightroom on my own iMac.

[Note to my fellow geeks: I use Dreamweaver because 1) my employer owns a licensed copy, and 2) it offers some useful shortcuts over editing HTML in Notepad, and 3) the project I work on is, honestly, not complicated enough to justify my spending the time to find something better. LOL.]

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Most annoying software OF! ALL! TIME!

I have to offer my congratulations to Apple Computer. Or, simply, “Apple” as they are now so pretentiously known.

As of today, Apple’s Time Machine backup software has become my #1 most all time hated software, exceeding even Microsoft’s oh-so-lovely Windows 95, the previous record holder, the primary feature of which was the need to completely reboot the computer at least once every three hours. Yes, friends and neighbors, Apple’s Time Machine has now managed to piss me off even more than Windows 95. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It has in fact been 12 YEARS since I last used a Windows 95 system on a regular basis, so this has been a long standing record. But it is now broken.

So, congratulations Apple. I bow down in honor to your achievement.

Why am I so pissed off?

Simply put:

“Waiting for index to be ready (100)”.
“Bulk setting Spotlight attributes failed.” [TWICE!]

Total time taken on this backup task so far: 2 hours and five minutes. HOWEVER, when I poke around in Console, I discover that, over the past 48 hours, this sort of shit has already happened twice before, sometimes resulting in a single backup task taking over four hours. This, when (normally) the time spent on a backup task is measured in seconds, or (perhaps) a minute or two, if there are multiple gigabytes to be backed up.

On October 10, for instance, on the backup task which started at 1:09:08 A.M., it took over FIVE HOURS to finally complete the backup at 6:19:03 A.M. And there wasn’t that much data copied, either. In fact, although it’s kind of hard to tell for sure from the logged messages in Console, it appears that this five-hour-long backup task succeeded in backing up the absolutely massive quantity of four gigabytes. Yep: four gigabytes. Wow. And, mind you, this was in the middle of the night, when the computer wasn’t even being used.

Today’s backup gives every indication of being as ridiculous as that.

Well, if I am still awake at the point when this turkey finally quits, I am going to do two things:

1) Fucking turn Time Machine OFF.
2) Follow the directions on this page: http://pondini.org/TM/D2.html. Actually, I might not get to that part until Sunday. I do, after all, have plans for this weekend, and I cannot even describe to you how sick and tired I am of having stuff preempted because of Time Machine errors.

If all of the troubleshooting steps on http://pondini.org/TM/D2.html turn out OK, then I will turn Time Machine back on, and count this as a lesson learned. Except that I will still be annoyed, because, frankly, who the hell’s idea was it to tie Time Machine and Spotlight together like that, anyway? They weren’t linked like that in Leopard, and, as far as I can tell, Time Machine did what it was supposed to do in Leopard, barring the problems previously mentioned on this blog (which would NOT have been solved with Spotlight integration).

Alternatively, I’m going to spend a good part of Sunday (or other future day) setting up an alternate backup system. Carbon Copy Cloner seems to be a good, reliable program overall (I really do need to pony up the well-deserved shareware fee and upgrade to the current version, though). Maybe that’s the way to go.

Signing off, for now. (Hopefully it won’t be another two years before I post again on this blog.)

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Steve Jobs – RIP

I’m just one of many whose life was utterly changed by this guy. It was 1987 when it happened for me. That was the first time I sat down in front of a Macintosh computer. Before then, I was just “a brain”, which is what they called smart kids in school in the 80’s. That first experience with a little old Mac Plus changed me from “a brain” to a “computer geek,” and that’s basically what I’ve been ever since. I had used computers before, but none of them made the impression on me that a simple little Macintosh Plus did. More recently, I’m sure I’ve spent more time bitching about Apple computers than most people spend bitching about anything at all, but even so, I wouldn’t use anything else. Steve Jobs taught us all what we have a right to expect from technology: It should just work, and it should be beautiful. It should enrich our lives.

So, thanks Steve. I’m quite saddened by your passing. The world needs more people like you.

– – –

Some links to things of relevance:

Apple’s Steve Jobs Remembrance Page

Steve’s 2005 talk at Stanford University commencement – 15 minutes long, but well worth the time. It’s not often in this day and age that we get to hear a wise man speak the unvarnished truth.

Discussion and remembrance at The Online Photographer (including a most excellent portrait).

Steve’s notorious and seminal “Thoughts on Flash” article. – Highly recommended, especially if you’ve ever had to waste days of your life fixing a computer infected by a rootkit that was most likely the result of some Flash vulnerability. (Oh boy, can I get sued for saying that? I hope not. I hasten to add that Adobe has expended quite a lot of effort in patching any unintended vulnerabilities in this software, and I certainly do not mean to imply any negligence or incompetence on their part.) More significantly, though, I believe that this article effectively demonstrates Steve’s status in the tech world. I don’t think any other CEO, with the possible exception of Bill Gates, could get away with posting something like that on his company’s website. (And Bill just would not do that, so that qualification is moot anyway.)

And, of course, his Wikipedia page.

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Lion set to maul PowerPC apps

If you want to get a new Mac that is capable of running PowerPC applications, ACT NOW. It won’t be much longer before all new Macs come with “Lion” preinstalled, meaning those PowerPC applications WILL NOT RUN. This is, in my opinion, a mistake on Apple’s part. They should have waited at least another couple of years to do this, but I suspect their rationale is that some large developers are dragging their feet and the only way to get them to fall in line was to force the issue. Unfortunately, this means that anyone who NEEDS an older, PowerPC-only application that is now out of development is out of luck. Got some cool old game or toy that’s fallen by hard times and hasn’t been updated in the last six years? Too bad. MAYBE someone will write an emulator. Frankly, I think Apple should just start including emulators as part of the system, maybe for an extra charge. I’d seriously consider paying extra for a set of Mac emulators that would allow me to run old 68000 and PowerPC applications.

Just taking a look at applications on my system that would be broken if I upgraded to Lion today:

iCab 3
Filemaker Pro 7.0
Creatures 1.1.1 (a neat artifical life simulator that I go nuts over from time to time)
AppleWorks 6
Quicken 2004
Ptah (a neat little image viewer that I really like)
Graphic Converter 5.9

I’m sure some of these would be upgradeable. Some I wouldn’t care about. But a couple I would really miss if I lost them. Nothing Apple has come up with in recent years compares to AppleWorks 6, for instance. I’ve tried iWork, and found the spreadsheet module, which is the part I use the most, to be so tedious and frustrating that I’ve taken to setting up tables in TextEdit using tabs instead of enduring the hell of “Numbers”! Creatures, I’m pretty sure, would be lost entirely. That would suck, as it’s fun to play around with on rainy November Saturdays. According to it’s website, it’s gone open source, but that was over five years ago, so who knows what the status of it is now. Ptah is one of the two most elegant JPG image viewers I’ve ever encountered (the other being JPEGView, a nifty little program released back in the Macintosh LC days). It operates on a very simple principle, and that is, if you press a single key on the keyboard, it will replace whatever image is currently being displayed with the NEXT ONE. You and double-click on the first pic in a folder, then just keep hitting the “n” key to view every single image in that folder, one by one, all conveniently resized to fit on the screen (another keystroke will zoom it up to 1:1 size), and with minimal distractions cluttering up the screen. Does Preview do this? Maybe–I actually couldn’t tell you. Preview, to my way of thinking, is a pain in the ass. Essentially, Preview is to Ptah as iWork is to AppleWorks: buried up to the neck in design, and generally insufficient in functional elegance. In any case, Ptah was $5 shareware that I paid for in 2002. It hasn’t been available for years, from what I know.

I have discovered some good news today, though. My all-time favorite Usenet news reader, Thoth, has received an upgrade making it Lion-compatible, provided I re-register it (meaning pay an additional shareware fee). Since this is one of the finest applications I’ve ever used, and since I’ve been using it for quite a long time now and have never had to pay for an upgrade at all, I consider an additional $25 to be well worth the money. Quite frankly, Thoth has never been equaled by any other newsreader I’ve ever tried. I was starting to resign myself to eventually switching to Unison, which is an ok program (and definitely improved over earlier versions), but frankly, I just like Thoth better. It’s a good app for control-freak power users like myself. ;)

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iMac or Mac Pro?

Out of curiousity, I was looking at specs on Apple’s website recently and noticed something interesting. When comparing features and prices between their current top of the line iMac and bottom of the line Mac Pro (default configurations for both), a person is better off buying the iMac, unless they already have a high-end monitor available for the Mac Pro, or (perhaps) have a specific need for some key feature that’s only available on the Mac Pro.

Why?

It’s actually pretty simple: The iMac is spec’d higher, it’s $500 cheaper, it includes a high-end monitor for no extra cost, and it’s power consumption is substantially less. This is just a ballpark figure, but I generally allow my Mac to run 24/7, idle most of the time with the screen dimmed, and, comparing the wattage figures for that usage between the two models, I estimate I’d burn through about 75 kilowatt-hours more per month with the Mac Pro.

Is a 3.1GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i5 (iMac) better or worse than a 2.8GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon “Nehalem” processor (Mac Pro)? Many people will simply not care–either one will be fast enough. The question is actually somewhat important to me, though, given my ownership of a Nikon D7000, which produces some rather large and slow-to-process RAW image files. Some extra speed would be helpful with that. I am too lazy to bother looking up the answer to the question right now, however (am I the world’s lamest blogger, or what?!?!).

Graphics cards: I admit I neither know, nor care, about the difference (if any) between them. (I suck at video games, and what else do you need that kind of hardware for, anyway? Generating Bitcoins? LOL Good luck with that.)

Firewire: The Mac Pro has two FW800 ports. The iMac only has one, but also has the new “Thunderbolt” ports. These are useless at this point, but will be quite nice once Thunderbolt peripherals are available. Those who, like me, have a lot of external hard drives, will perhaps be ambivalent about the prospect of upgrading lots of enclosures. I am also a bit concerned that I may actually have more drives than are allowable on a Thunderbolt bus. When you figure a 3 terabyte limit on drive size, multiplied by the small number of Thunderbolt devices allowed on one system, you end up with a limit on total system storage that’s substantially lower than you’d get using Firewire devices. It also gets more complicated when you realize, from a practical standpoint, that if you max out the drive size on all of the devices, you are going to run into backup issues, so the practical limit is even lower. Obviously it will be more than enough for all but the most dedicated hoarders (heheheh), but some of us may get a little cramped, especially once those 1080p video files start to pile up! (This is actually an interesting theoretical question. Let’s say, for instance, that for some crazy, insane reason I needed a petabyte of storage space on my iMac system, and, through some miracle, had the money to pay for it. Is that amount of storage even possible on an iMac system, and, if so, how could it be accomplished? Food for thought. Heheheh.)

On the whole, with the noted reservations, I suspect the specs are a win for the iMac, at least for now. Apple will get around to updating their Mac Pro line sooner or later, and at that point, the situation will presumably change.

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iTunes 8: RIP

When trying to access the iTunes store today with iTunes 8, it simply presented me with a single page, offering to upgrade to iTunes 10. Previously to this, usage of iTunes 8 on the iTunes store was a bit glitchy, but functional, overall. It allowed searches, browsing, purchasing. Even the old shopping cart still worked, which was the primary reason for staying with iTunes 8. The only catch was, you couldn’t get into the store simply by clicking on the iTunes Store link in the iTunes sidebar, you had to “sneak” in through one of the many little search arrows that show up throughout an iTunes library. As this was only slightly inconvenient, I never bothered to complain about it.

But now, there is nothing. Apple, in its typical, Nazi-like fashion, has decided that users are required to upgrade, or we’re shit out of luck.

(As a side effect of this, my old post about nuking iTunes 9 in favor of iTunes 8, a decidedly non-trivial process, is now totally obsolete. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it worked with iTunes 10 anyway, since I never bothered to upgrade.)

Apple is in dire need of new leadership. And, as of today, I am in need of somewhere else to obtain music online.

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Variable ISO – a useful exposure tool

Thom Hogan posted some interesting ideas on his site yesterday, pertaining to the question of how we, as photographers, deal with setting exposure. Basically, in the film days, we were stuck with one ISO rating for an entire roll of film (and some of us habitually used only one type of film), so at that time, ISO was essentially a fixed value. To adjust exposure, we then had to adjust shutter speed and aperture.

Today, ISO can be varied from frame to frame, and on some cameras, there is quite a wide degree of choices available. Hogan’s idea, then, is that having a selection of finely adjustable aperture settings may not really be necessary. We pick one of our two or three preferred apertures (wide open, optimal sharpness, or maximum depth-of-field prior to diffraction), then vary the shutter speed and ISO (if needed) to get the exposure we want. The point then is that we don’t really need a whole slew of apertures to choose from.

This talk of varying the ISO brought to mind something similar that I’d been considering writing about. I got a longer lens late last year, a 300mm, which on my reduced size sensor equates to a 450mm field of view. That’s long enough to make it a significantly different animal compared to other lenses I’ve used. Furthermore, it does not have vibration reduction. On the other hand, while it’s a somewhat hefty lens, it’s weight is well within reason for hand-held use. The problem then becomes ensuring that the shutter speed doesn’t go down far enough to result in problems. In practice, I discovered that I was most comfortable keeping it around 1/800 of a second or higher. That speed allows me some leeway, meaning I can get away with sloppier shot discipline, basically. If I went down to 1/500, I would have to be very careful to hold it steady as I released the shutter, and the overall percentage of blurred shots would be higher regardless. Another thing I ran into relates to a peculiarity of my camera (a Nikon D40): higher shutter speeds sometimes seem to result in weirdness. This is sort of hard to describe, and I’ve never really been sure what the hell is going on when it happens. I suspect it has something to do with the electronic shutter that this camera uses, in that it can sometimes create some weird artifacting effects at higher shutter speeds. The anti-aliasing filter may also be a factor, or possibly the lossy compression, even though it makes no sense at all that shutter speed would interact with either of those things. I don’t honestly know what it is. However, the practical implication of it was that I realized it would work very well if the shutter speed was at 1/800 all the time, at least for hand-held shooting with this lens. Well, there’s an obvious solution to that, isn’t there? Shoot in shutter-priority mode.

The one question was what would happen when the lens opened all the way up. It’s only an f/4 lens, which is not fast enough for shady conditions or heavy cloud cover at 1/800. So I turned on AutoISO, a feature I hadn’t used on my camera in a couple of years, and which I had never ever tried in shutter priority mode. I actually wasn’t even sure it would do what I needed it to, which was to keep the camera at the base ISO of 200 until the lens was wide open, then raise the ISO upward if there wasn’t enough light. Turns out, this is exactly what it does, and it works very well. I totally recommend it, at least for Nikon bodies with this type of AutoISO, and similar non-VR long lenses. It would work with VR lenses, too, if I had some particular reason for not wanting to use the VR, such as bokeh optimization.

On other camera bodies, such as the D7000 which I will have in the not too distant future, it wouldn’t be necessary to do it this way. The D7000 has more flexible AutoISO settings. On the D40, when using AutoISO in the more typical aperture priority mode, the highest setting allowed for “minimum shutter speed” is 1/250th of a second, which is not fast enough for a lens like this. On a D7000, I am not sure what the “maximum minimum” is, but I know it’s at least 1/1000th of a second. So on a D7000, I could just leave it in aperture priority mode, set up AutoISO to allow a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second, and viola!, I’d be set to go. That camera also does not have an electronic shutter, so that particular weirdness would presumably be gone, meaning I’d have no reason to avoid very high shutter speeds.

In the mean time, though, I have accumulated quite a collection of 1/800 second shots, many of them at f/4 and weird ISO values like 520 that result from the AutoISO setting. I’ve so far only run into one instance where the camera maxed out at ISO1600. The resulting shots were about one stop underexposed, but actually looked pretty good anyway.

That, of course, leads to the other big consideration with this, which is how high can you push the ISO? There was a time when I would not have been willing to use ISO1600 on a D40. However, more recently, I’ve come to realize that the noise inherent in that setting is really not all that bad. The amount of detail lost is pretty minimal, and the noise reduction in Lightroom 3 does a pretty good job at keeping the noise under control. As long as the photo isn’t extremely underexposed, the result is a somewhat grainy looking picture, sort of like Ektachrome 400, back in the day. (Although, frankly, a D40 RAW image at ISO1600 has better color than Ektachrome 400 ever did.)

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Is Nikon equipment *EVER* available?

Since the new D7000 camera body was announced last fall, availability has been a problem. The camera has great specs, and reviews have been very positive, so demand has outstripped supply from the begining.

But it’s been several months now, and this delay is starting to get pretty old. The problem seems to be mushrooming to other cameras, too. Just taking a look at all currently for-sale Nikon DSLR bodies (as well as body-lens kits) on a popular camera store website, we have the following:

D3x body – nope!
D3s body – nope!
D700 body – in stock
D700 kit – nope!
D300s body – in stock
D300s kit – nope!
D7000 body – nope!
D7000 kit – nope!
D90 body – in stock
D90 kit – in stock
D5000 body – nope!
D5000 kit – in stock
D3100 kit – nope!
D3000 kit – in stock

So, out of 14 choices, fully eight of them are currently not in stock. That’s more than half. Furthermore, three of the in stock items are the D90 body and kit, and the D3000 kit, all of which have already been replaced by other models, namely the D7000 and D3100. That means, really, there are only 11 “current” choices, and (still) eight of them are out of stock. Meaning, if you want a current Nikon camera body, your choice is either a D700 body, a D300s body, or a D5000 kit. Anything else, and you’re out of luck.

By comparison, I checked availability of Canon models on the same site, and, out of the 18 choices available, only three of them were not currently in stock (I am not aware of which Canon models are “current” or not, so I’ll skip that part). As for Pentax, of the 21 choices listed, two were out of stock, and two were new arrivals not yet available. So this isn’t just an after-Christmas inventory problem, it’s particular to Nikon.

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Manfrotto 055xprob and 488RC2

A good user review of the Manfrotto 055xprob tripod, with lots of detailed pictures. It basically answered every question that I had except for, “how is the center column secured when in the sideways position?” I haven’t yet seen a photo that covers that, and nobody ever mentions it, which I suppose means it maybe isn’t something to be concerned about. I am interested, though, due to wondering how sturdy that center column is while mounted sideways.

That review also covers the Manfrotto 488RC2 ball head, which I hadn’t been considering, but maybe will now, as a cheaper alternative to the Really Right Stuff ballhead/clamp setups I was looking at. Those are very nice (hell, I found one review of a Really Right Stuff ballhead that called it “perfection incarnate” and “so good you want to lick it”), but that level of quality doesn’t come cheap.

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Time Machine nightmare…but with a happy ending

It all started on Friday night when I was doing a secure erase of the Trash. My first mistake was in not realizing one of the folders I had trashed must have had a LOT more stuff in it than I realized. The secure erase was obviously going to take a while. OOOPS.

However, for some inane reason I decided to let it run, rather than clicking the stop button and trying to sort through the Trash and only secure-erase the few files I really wanted to wipe. That was mistake number two.

At some point during the wipe, Time Machine started up. I had previously noticed that my Time Machine drive was almost full, and, having just moved around a lot of stuff, I also knew that what little space was left was not going to be enough for the next backup. Time Machine was going to need to do a pre-backup “thinning” procedure in order to make room for all the stuff I had moved.

So, Time Machine was cranking away with its thinning process, while at the same time, the Finder was trying to do a secure delete on a whole mess of stuff. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be possible to do these two things at the same time. In practice, something went haywire. After Time Machine had been running for a ridiculously long time, I decided to stop it, turn it off, and allow the wipe operation to complete. I would then turn Time Machine back on so it could do its backup in peace. I suppose this was another mistake, although in retrospect I don’t know if stopping the wipe operation would have prevented the subsequent problems, given that it was already obvious that something was wrong.

My Time Machine drive is an external 1 terabyte Firewire 800 drive, which, as I said, was almost full. After the wipe was complete, I turned Time Machine on again and initiated a backup. It did the backup, and went into the thinning process again. It thinned and thinned and thinned, until it had deleted over 600 gigabytes of files.

Shit.

I could see no legitimate reason for why it would delete that many files. I also figured that, with 2/3 of my backups deleted, I was basically fucked and the only thing to do was reinitialize the Time Machine drive and start over. However, it was already very late that night, so I put that off until Saturday.

Saturday evening, I reinitialized the Time Machine volume (not the whole drive, just the volume, which is a subtle but, as it turns out, crucial distinction–i.e., mistake number four). I allowed Time Machine to start up again, telling it this time to ignore all but my internal drive and one small external with about 80 gigs of material for backing up. It did the external drive first, and everything worked just fine, apparently. Then it started copying files from the internal drive, and something seriously wrong started to happen, again. Progress slowed to a glacial pace. I would estimate it took two or three minutes to back up 100 megabytes of data, and since I had another 250 to 300 gigabytes to go, this was not acceptable. My only possible saving grace at that point might have been if the slowness was a result of it getting bogged down in the thousands of teensy little files in the depths of the System folder. I decided to let it run overnight.

On Sunday, however, after a lengthy night’s sleep (truthfully, I did not want to get out of bed and deal with this shit), only 40 additional gigabytes had been copied. The backup had been running for over 12 hours and wasn’t even half done. I soon decided that more waiting was pointless. I did a bit of Googling and found some tips that looked like they might help.

Here’s what worked: I stopped the backup again, and turned Time Machine off. I went into my Spotlight preferences and discovered that Spotlight had somehow not bothered to exclude the Time Machine drive from its indexing process the way it did the previous times I had set it up. That was undoubtedly a factor. However, it didn’t prove to be the primary factor. I also reinitialized the drive, and this time I told Disk Utility to redo the entire partition map, not just the partition itself. More importantly, I had it format the partition using a “GUID” partition map, which is the default for Leopard, and which Time Machine supposedly prefers. Previously, it had been formatted with an Apple Partition map, presumably left over from my previous Tiger system. I then sacrificed a chicken, prayed to all the gods in Valhalla (Loki in particular), and told Time Machine to make another go at it.

Well, the GUID partition map really seems to have been the magic bullet. Not only did the initial backup work perfectly, the remaining drives backed up without a hitch as well, at the point when I re-included them. What’s even more amazing to me, though, is that Time Machine is now performing at about six times the level of efficiency it was before all this started. It’s substantially faster, and it uses only about 1/6 the RAM it did before. Before this, backups were an irritating drag on the system, so annoying that I would often turn them off to alleviate the frustration. They would also hog close to 350 megabytes of RAM, meaning that every hour some idle application got shunted off into virtual memory. This was a severe annoyance with programs that utilize a lot of RAM. Now it uses a mere 55 megs, it’s backing up the same amount of data, and doing the whole shebang in about 30 seconds, unless there’s a bigger file that needs to be backed up. Note that it’s backing up four drives, totaling about 750 gigabytes of data, with what must be half a million files at least. In less than a minute. That, in my opinion, is how things ought to work. ;)

So, even though this whole experience was rather nightmarish, especially when I began to wonder if my internal hard drive was on the verge of failure, I ended up learning a thing or two about Time Machine optimization. If you’re having Time Machine problems, seriously check the format of that partition map and make sure it’s GUID. If it’s not, and if you find Time Machine backups to be an incessant bother, it will probably be worth your while to nuke that partition and replace it with a GUID partition. Also, double check to make sure Spotlight isn’t indexing your Time Machine drive. Normally, it will not index that drive, however if something gets messed up, it’s possible Spotlight will not “realize” it’s attempting to index a Time Machine drive at the same time that Time Machine itself is trying to do its initial backup.

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Support: A genuinely gnarly subject

I am in the midst of trying to figure out what in the world I really need in terms of a support upgrade for my camera. A while ago, I purchased a lovely 300mm AF-S f/4 Nikkor lens, and, although the lens isn’t heavy or long enough to mandate tripod/monopod use in all circumstances, I am definitely running into some common situations where it would be helpful. One in particular is shooting out the passenger side window of the car, when I’m in the driver’s seat. Doing that hand-held quickly proved to be totally impossible at any shutter speed, due to the need to cross my left arm all the way across my body, to the point where that shoulder has virtually no leverage at all, and that’s the hand that supports the lens, in Nikon’s decidedly non-ambidextrous design. My left arm just shakes too much in that position. If I twist in the other direction, though, to shoot out the driver’s window, that works fine because now the left arm has plenty of leverage, and I can even brace my elbow on the armrest on the door. Unfortunately, there are about ten times as many good shots out the passenger side as out the driver’s side. (And if I lived in the UK, Australia, or some other country where people drive on the left, then this would not be an issue at all, because the passenger window would be on the left, not the right!)

For lack of a better immediate solution, I’ve been using an old tripod as a makeshift support, in order to alleviate the problem. It’s not stable enough to qualify as a “real” tripod support, because it’s not sturdy enough for that, but it can function as a substitute “arm”, meaning I still need to keep shutter speeds above 1/500, as I would for hand-held shots. It’s better than nothing, but I am still having problems. I am unsure of the source of the problems, but I suspect engine vibrations being magnified through the car seat, and further through the flimsy, wobbly legs of the tripod. These vibrations then cause problems for getting the lens focused correctly in some circumstances, due to the image moving enough that the focusing sensor is unable to get a perfectly accurate reading. At least, that is my theory.

I’m not sure what to do about it, because I need to be able to shoot that way, and it’s also very useful to be able to creep along in the car without having to start and stop the engine multiple times. I question whether any amount of money spent on a tripod setup would solve the problem. It might, if I was able to set it up so that one leg wasn’t braced on the passenger seat. If the springs in the passenger seat really are acting as an amplifier for the engine vibrations, then yes, a different tripod, one with more configurable and sturdy legs might actually help, so I can brace all three of them on a solid part of the car. Such a tripod would be useful for other things as well. If it doesn’t do the trick in the car, though, then I don’t think any rigid solution would work. I would need something that would directly compensate for those vibrations, such as some kind of steady-cam gimbal setup, or other type of shock-absorbing device. Maybe a great big pillow would be the thing. :) I actually did see one person using something like that with a big-assed telephoto (looked like a 400mm f/2.8) several weeks ago, while shooting from his car. I’d have to prop the pillow on top of something. Hmm. Come to think of it, what I was initially doing was using the tripod as a brace for my elbow, rather than setting it up all the way. I’d extend one leg to rest on the floor or some solid surface, then angle the top end of the tripod so I could brace my left elbow against it, thus providing the support that I couldn’t get from overextended shoulder muscles. Maybe I should just go back to doing that! However, the problem was that it was extremely clumsy, and I would often spend so much time messing around with it that whatever bird I was seeing was long gone by the time I got the tripod/elbow combination situated correctly.

I probably need a more workable solution, so I have been thinking of acquiring some kind of fairly normal tripod that would be suitable for bird shots with the 300mm f/4. It’s not a huge lens, probably comparable in size and weight to a standard 70-200 f/2.8, meaning it’s actually somewhat small compared to the big telephotos. I may add a 1.5x or 1.7x teleconverter someday, for shooting either from inside the car or out. I’m also going to want to use it for closeup shots next spring, although not from the car. I am unsure at this point if a monopod would be better for use when I’m outside of the car. Luckily, from research I’ve done so far, the main expense appears to be the head, clamp and plates, which can be interchanged between a monopod and a tripod.

The head would have to be a fairly nice ball head. I’m considering the Wimberly Sidekick to go with the head, although for the time being I’ve decided to wait and see how well a regular ball head works. The main reason for this is that I found a demo video of the Sidekick, and the thing is larger than I expected, making me think it might be overkill for my lens. Another option would be a panning ball head as opposed to a simple ball head. The panning ball head allows panning on the top part of the head, right by the clamp, which means that the tripod legs don’t have to be level in order to pan horizontally. That seems like it would be extremely convenient, however a panning head is substantially more expensive. Also, I am unsure whether that feature would be necessary if I got the Sidekick, which means I need to go watch that video again. ;) I’d also need to get a lens plate and an L-plate for the camera, both for mounting onto the ball head (or the Sidekick). I’m only considering ball heads that feature an Arca-Swiss style clamp.

For the tripod itself, I am a bit torn. I was looking hard at the Manfrotto 055XPROB, which is definitely within my price range and seems to be a pretty nice piece of equipment. I do have some reservations about the sideways capability of the center post, though. Supposedly, this can create stability issues, and there’s also the question of whether I would even need that sideways leaning feature. Manfrotto has a similar tripod with just a traditional up-and-down center post, the 055XB, but, unfortunately, the retailer I was planning on using doesn’t carry that model! That would be a minor quibble, except there’s enough variation in prices between retailers that having to go elsewhere would (apparently) cost me an additional $20, even with the simpler design! I may also need a shorter center column. Those can be had for about $30, if I remember right.

For the ball head, I’m looking at the Really Right Stuff BH-40, either with the panning clamp, or with the substantially cheaper, but less convenient full-sized screw-knob clamp.

So, what’s that boil down to in terms of cost?

For the legs, if I manage to find the Manfrotto 055XB carried by someone who’s asking a good price, it should come to roughly $155. That’s about $20 cheaper than some places are asking. Then the ball head would be either $356 with the standard clamp or $515 (!) with the panning clamp. The plates could also be obtained from Really Right Stuff. An L-plate for the camera would come to $125, and a plate for the lens would be $55. If I wanted to skimp a bit, I could initially skip the L-plate and just get the one for the lens….actually, since I’m thinking about upgrading camera bodies, I could save some money and just wait to get the L-plate for the new body. In fact, I could skip all of this plate stuff for now and just get a ball head with a platform (no clamp), then add the panning clamp later. That’s one nice feature of the Really Right Stuff heads–the clamps and platforms are interchangeable.

However, assuming I go with the regular style clamp ball head, I’m looking at $566, including the tripod and a plate for the lens.

That’s pretty steep, considering just a few hours ago I blew more than that on car repairs. :(

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