Archive for March, 2008

My first HDR picture

I followed the tutorial here today and here you are, my first HDR picture below. It’s not a great pic, it’s just a test that I shot on my balcony today. After manipulating the image on Photomatix I loaded the picture on Paint Shop Pro for more specific manipulation (using just Photomatix is not enough to bring out the colors the way you want to).

Update: A better example that I just shot and processed.

The death of the mini-browsers

A few years ago I became infatuated with writing cHTML mobile sites. I saw it as a challenge. Develop a website that can render on a 120×120 screen and be considerably usable. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as it has to render correctly to over 25 browsers and their (buggy) iterations, and have an actual design (rather than being a bunch of text on a white background like most mobile sites are).

But these days are gone. There is no point doing that anymore for the future browsers and handsets. Most phone manufacturers these days use either the Safari engine, or license Opera or they try to fake it by licensing Netfront and not give it enough RAM to play well with big sites (Sony Ericsson, this was for you). Most manufacturers now want next-gen browsers. Teleca went out of the mini-browser game last year, while today Openwave, the most popular mini-browser company on the planet, laid off 200 employees today, and they put a stop to further development of their browser (they’ll only do maintenance now, I guess). Thank God my JBQ left this company in time.

This is not to say that mini-browsers won’t be encountered anymore. Nokia still has their own S40 browser, Motorola has their terrible little P2k browser, while LG/Samsung fluctuates between Openwave and Netfront these days. Truth is, no one uses these mini-browsers. The halt of Openwave’s browser today is a testament to that, as Openwave once had 52% of the mobile browser market, and right now are below 20% just a few short years later. Besides, if someone was unlucky enough to get such a low-end handset for free from their carrier, they are much better off by installing the impressive Opera Mini instead.

This is not to say that we should not be writing mobile sites anymore. There are BILLIONS of people still who don’t own a smartphone but they still use one of these micro or mini browsers. Heck, even the mobile IE/Opera/Safari-based browsers DO need a simpler desktop-version site layout with not too much CSS and Javascript to render fast/well-enough. But the point is, the world is going towards a mobile system that can’t be characterized as “limited mobile” anymore, but a mini version of anything desktop. The keywords here are “full-featured browsers”.

A few years ago I said that 2010 will be the time that I will start using CSS and XHTML for my mobile sites instead of cHTML. My estimation seems to be good. Thing is, I don’t have the enthusiasm to do that anymore. I am seriously thinking of giving away my mobile autodetection script, the one that powers OSNews and Gnomefiles.

Live 3D photos with Vegas

The idea is to get a still picture and animate it, make it look alive & interesting, through a 3D montage. This is a trick that’s used on many documentaries on History and Discovery TV channels when they show old pictures during narration. You probably have seen it if you like documentaries like I do. So, I took a picture and used Paint Shop Pro and Vegas to do the same effect, and you can see the result below. Here’s a cooler YouTube example.

I also created a .vf Vegas project for you to follow the tutorial. So download it to follow the guidelines (1.3 MB). Read the included Readme.txt for more info on how to make this Vegas project file work on your PC too. To create such an effect it requires some intermediate graphics application knowledge, not just video editing.

1. Select the picture you want to animate. Not all pictures are good for the job, as the picture needs to have some a composition that has things in front of other things, in addition to a pretty uniformed background. Like the picture I used below, which has the butterfly, the flower on the left, the flower at the center, and the green background, almost layered onto each other.

Original picture
Picture by Sashertootie, licensed under the CC-BY.

2. Make a copy of the picture you want to work with, and load that copy in the graphics application of your choice, be it Photoshop, Gimp or Paint Shop Pro. I personally used the latter. You have to “cut out” each element using the freehand tool in the “smart mode” (if your gfx app has that mode) with some feather and/or anti-aliasing. You must precisely select (it will take a lot of attention to make sure your selection is good) each element you want to animate in the picture (e.g. the butterfly, or the flowers), and you paste that selection as a new picture, with a transparent background.

3. Once you have cut-out all the elements , you use the equivalent of the “Clone Brush” on your gfx app to remove these elements from the original background image. For example, in my tutorial, check bg.png, and you will see that I have clone-painted above the flowers and the butterfly some green leaves. This way, the main background picture only shows the background element and not the rest of the objects that I cut out earlier.

4. If an element (now showing only in its own picture) was cut-off by another element in the picture (e.g. the left flower doesn’t show up completely in the original picture because the center flower is in front of it), you have to paint it out to make a complete picture. Same thing if a dog is in front of a human, you will have to fake (by painting it out) the parts of the human’s legs that the dog was covering in the original picture. You usually use clone-brush for this too rather than painting it pixel by pixel.

5. Then, change the canvas size for all the elements pictures (not the background picture) to the same size as the original picture. Remember, “canvas size” is not the same resize/rescale: it adds whitespace around your element to make the dimensions of the picture bigger, but it does not rescale the actual element. Then, you “resize/rescale” all the pictures (including the background image) to the right Vegas project size. For example, if you are going for an HD output, you might want to resize at 1440×1080 with aspect ratio 1.000. For the purposes of this tutorial I actually made the files 1024×768. Make sure though that no matter what you do to the element pictures, their backgrounds must remain transparent.

6. Bring all the pictures in to Vegas and set the project properties to “match” the picture sizes (as long as you only have pictures in that project, that is, otherwise always match your videos instead). Place the picture that serves as a background on the bottom video track, and each of its elements on the video tracks above it.

7. Then, you use the pan/crop tool for each picture to place it into its own place of the main screen and you use the keyframe timeline at the bottom of the pan/crop window to create a new keyframe at the end of the keyframe timeline. The first keyframe shows where the elements will show up on the first frame of the animation, and the last keyframe where they will “fly” towards at the last frame of the animation. You can also zoom in the background this way, so it gives the illusion of motion.

That’s it! Enjoy!

The look of the Kodak 3383

Stu “ProLost”, wrote a nice article about dynamic range and color correction last month. He posted a picture as captured from the RED ONE camera, and also posted his graded version, using a LUT that emulates the Kodak 3383 print film (that’s what you would usually use if you shot digitally but you want to transfer to film for a theatrical release). Naturally, I tried to reproduce the look by using only Vegas’ own tools (no Magic Bullet), but failed miserably. So I asked JBQ for a hand, and he spent almost an hour today working on it.

JBQ was able to get very close to the Kodak film look by using Vegas’ Curves, Color Corrector and the histogram as a guide (note: Vegas Platinum does not have a histogram, only Vegas Pro does). Please note though that Stu had the original 4k RAW frame to work with, while we only have a 720p rescaled JPEG. This means that the picture we had to work with had JPEG artifacts and far less visual information than the version Stu worked on, which is why we could recover far less information in the overexposed window. And yet, JBQ came very close to that look.

If you want the same film look on your films with a Canon consumer camera like the HV20 (you will have to slightly tweak the plugin values per scene, of course), you have to do the following:
1. Shoot in 24p with Cinemode. Cinemode’s look is dull for a reason.
2. Select “Neutral” on your camera’s color options. Remember, the more dull a picture is shot, the better it behaves when color graded. Over-saturated, sharpened, constrasty pictures (which is how consumer cameras shoot as by default) don’t color grade at all.
3. Get a good contrast filter. I would go for the Tiffen HDTV FX 52mm one, costs $200.
4. Lights, lights, lights and a light reflector. Buy some.
5. Use a gray card to set the custom white balance (never let the camera guess), and help the camera expose correctly.

That setup should give you a dull enough, bright enough, low-contrast enough, image to be able to work properly afterwards during color grading and get closer to the film look.

Update: And here’s the “Live Free or Die Hard” blue-green look:

Skin color in a blue world

ProLost, the author of the DV Rebel Guide, wrote After Effects and FCS tutorials on how to preserve natural skin tones when the rest of the scene has an extreme blue color grading. This blue tint color is what’s in fashion lately for movies. Yes, there is color fashion for films too, which is one of the reasons movies from 10 years ago look different than today’s films.

So, I am providing below a way to get the same look, using Sony Vegas. Because I like my tutorials to be accessible also to users that don’t have the Pro version of Vegas, I will not use the “Color Corrector Secondary” plugin, which is the normal way of doing these kinds of things. Another thing to remember is that each scene is different and it requires changes on the values of the plugins. You can’t just copy/paste the values throughout a film and expect to have a constantly good-looking image.

1. Download, install and load Aav6cc to your timeline clip (free download. On Vista you might have to install it as “Run as Administrator”).
On it put the saturations of Red, Blue, Cyan to 80. All other colors’ saturation to -90. Cyan’s Hue to -16. Lightness of Blue and Cyan on -64.

2. Load the “Color Corrector” plugin on your clip (not “Secondary”, comes with Vegas).
All three Angles to 315. All three Magnitudes to 0.330. Saturation 1.000, Gamma 0.900.

The above settings had the following results, but as I said, you need the right moody footage and the right modified settings each time to get this working for all your clips.

Picture by chaparral, licensed under the CC-BY.

Picture by romainguy, licensed under the CC-BY-SA.

Update: Wow, what a small world this is! So I made a search on FlickR for CC-BY pictures of “rainy days” for the purpose of this tutorial, and I decided to use the above one from “romainguy”. Ten minutes later my husband said “Romain takes nice pictures, I will have to talk to him about photography”. And I replied sarcastically “why, you know him? :P”. And he said “yes, he sits three cubes down from my desk at Google!”. Holy crap.

Update 2: If you have Magic Bullet installed, load the Aav6cc plugin and modify the saturation of Red to 90, Yellow to 50. And then use the Magic Bullet template “Berlin”, but change its “Do post: contrast” to 20.

My village

I’ve talked many times on my blog about the mountainous village I am coming from, Skiadas. A friend, who originates from the same village too (and currently lives in Athens), sent me a URL with a picture of the village. My parent’s home is not visible in the photo though, as it’s on the left side (only half of the village is shown in the pic). I lived less than 6 years there, ages 2-4 & 9-12, but it’s what I consider “home” (I was born in Athens, then moved to the nearby city Preveza, and later we stayed for good in Louros, a nearby town). When I close my eyes at night, that’s the only place I find myself into.

My favorite times there were during Easter. So many people would come back to the village from the surrounding cities, Athens or even Germany. For at least a week the village would be buzzing with 400 people who came back to their birthplace for the biggest celebration of Orthodoxy. Everyone knew everyone too, so there was not much you could do to escape the social requirements of being presentable and well groomed at all times.

And at the Easter night, at 12 AM, either at the Saint Paraskevi or Saint Christopher church, the mass would take place and the whole village would be there. All 400+ of them (not all fit inside the church). The lights would go off, and the priest would share his candle flame with someone, and the flame would spread among the crowd. Soon, the only light available would be candle light. Some people would use fireworks in the later times, but originally in my village some men would usually used their guns to shoot towards the sky (hehe…).

Then, we would go home and feast on either fried, or as a soup, lamb/goat intestines (the animal was given to us from my uncle, as in my own family we never herded big animals as my father is a house builder instead). I preferred them fried personally, with home-made fries (potatoes usually from our garden, stored from the previous year). And that felt as an amazing food, as we had to fast for at least a week before Easter (a strict vegan diet, while on Good Friday we were not allowed to eat anything oily either — some people would fast like this for 40 days, e.g. both my grandmothers).

And the next day, what a feast with our extended family! Greek easter lamb (or goat). Best. Food. Ever. Food coma for the rest of the day. And many bathroom visits too.

But the day after Easter, the village population would go down to about 100 people again, and today, only about 35 people live there. Since most inhabitants left the village at around 1990, the school was abandoned, and none of the six churches have a mass anymore as there is no priest to fill in. An abandoned village, just like so many others in the Epirus region. Mass migration to big cities to seek better employment and a better life. Life at these villages is hard in the winter…

I miss my hens though. 🙁

The failure of Motorola

Disclaimer: The following is just my personal opinion on my personal blog, based on the experience I have with their products and strategies both as a user but also as a tech reviewer for the past few years.

As you know, today Motorola announced a split in two, while an insider’s email tells all about the terrible situation in the company that even lead to deaths/suicides. The insider cites the no-interest and no-knowledge of the execs to runs such a company as the reason for the failure.

I will have to clarify one point though, which I believe was a catalyst in Motorola’s current failure in the cellphone market. And that point is the way they treated their Linux phones. They missed a huge opportunity.

I was one of the first reviewers in US to try their EZX Qt-embedded Linux-based phones back in the day. These phones were mainly developed and manufactured in Asia, with minimum support from their US offices. MontaVista provided the (poorly supported afterwards) modified kernel. The first such phone was released in 2003 and it wasn’t half bad for the time.

Between 2004’s version of the OS, and the newest one’s released in 2007, the changes in the OS were MINIMUM. Having tried most of these EZX touchscreen models over the years, it was more that obvious that no real engineering went on behind the scenes, just some bug fixes and some small modifications here and there. It felt like “ok, we got a UI that works now, you are all fired, we only keep a few guys to maintain the thing”.

The problem was that Motorola-US didn’t care about these phones. They saw them as something that was done in Asia, for Asian markets only. They didn’t have the insight to think that “hey, we have a next-gen platform that works, why don’t we fully invest in it and go beyond Symbian v2 and v3, or UIQ, or Windows Mobile or Palm?”. Instead, they were short sighted, and they kept rehashing hardware designs running the old Moto OS, which looks like it was sprang out of the ’80s. Motorola’s basic phone UI (the one found on the non-Linux phones) was the worst I have ever encountered on mainstream phones.

What Motorola failed to realize was that the cellphone market changed their buying decisions from “hardware”, to a “software decision”. People want to run real, native, apps on their phones. End of story. After the initial boom of cellphone designs in the early ’00s, people don’t care anymore if the new RAZR is 1mm thinner than the previous model. Phone form factors and battery life have become good-enough in the last 4 years for almost all manufacturers, and so the interest and market differentiation has shifted towards software solutions instead.

Motorola would be alive and well today if they had actively maintained their EZX line, if they had innovated on it (their UI is still not as great you see), if they had open sourced everything after getting a QT license from Trolltech (no matter the cost) to allow free development of apps, release an SDK etc etc. I mean, think about it. Motorola had at least a TWO year head start in EZX development compared to Symbian v3, UIQ v3, and the iPhone. THEY could have been the big market players today after all these years maturing their touchscreen product.

Instead, they shunned their EZX phones, they completely missed the importance of an SDK (old readers of this blog will remember my rants about it), they started about 2-3 different Linux international mobile groups that have seen ZERO lines of code (this is equivalent to what we make fun here in the Silicon Valley, that is, someone wants to start writing an application and he first starts by creating the web site for it…). Then, they said something about joining the Android group, leaving all their partners of the other mobility Linux groups in peril.

Obviously, Motorola is a company that doesn’t know what it wants. That’s why they can never do anything right. I hope the company dies or bought and assimilated. They deserve nothing better. I just hope their employees find new jobs soon and get the hell out of there.

Regarding polygamy

Atheist no-shit Pat Condell (who in my opinion kicks ass), talked in one of his recent videos about polygamy. I am personally against polygamy, as it’s a strip of self-dignity and a de-powering of women. It’s as bad as genital mutilation as far as I am concerned, it’s just that this is emotional mutilation. I would never, never, be able to be the No2, or the No3, or even the No1. I have to be the only one. Even if our time together is finite.

Having said that, I recognize that humans don’t necessarily mate for life. But this doesn’t give men the right to be married to 2+ women at the same time. No one can win out of such a “relationship”.

Polygamy can only be useful in the case where there would be many more women than men on the planet (like, 3x or more), in which case Darwin would have worked its magic and polygamy would make more (genetic) sense. Either that, or simply, the marriage institution would be collapsed in that case.

Update: Read the comments for more explanation on my position. But to make it clear: As long the women are educated (see: not intellectually retarded), know where they are putting themselves into when they agree to a polygamous marriage, and they are NOT forced to enter such a marriage, I am fine with it. Otherwise, I see the whole thing as a male power play that USES and makes women UNHAPPY. But as long nothing like that goes on, I am ok with it.

Save the rovers

It is such a shame having to leave behind the two true American heroes of the ’00s because of budget cuts: Spirit and Opportunity. These rovers survived the front battle for years now, while the Generals didn’t expect them to live more than 3 months. They sent back useful reckon information to the architects of the war. And yet, they will be left behind, casualties of another war back at home, instead of their own war, a war that they were winning.

On other news, the war in Iraq costs the public $5000 per second.

Update: NASA now plays the PR game: he said, she said…

Neck problem

Just came back from the doctor. I have this back of the neck problem for a while now, where my neck will do crackling noises when turning left and right in the area where it attaches to the head, while sometimes I will literally hear the blood going upstream with difficulty (like trying to drink a soda with a bad straw). He suggested an MRI. Not sure if I will do so yet, but I might have to. And all that because of the way I sit in front of my PCs in the past 10 years.