Friday, August 24, 2012

Chicago's CTA--Thumbs Up

The past few days I have used Chicago's subway and elevated train system extensively, and think it's one of the better systems around. Here are a few things of note:
  1. The elevated tracks, the "L," are very nice for newcomers since one can spot the tracks from some distance, and once the tracks are identified, finding a station becomes a simple process.
  2. The announcements are recorded, clearly recorded, as opposed to the garbled live announcements used by, for example, the DC Metro.
  3. I saw a status display today that showed all elevators in the system in operation. The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) web site today claimed all lines operating normally. The DC Metro hasn't been in such a state for a long while, unless maybe it was brief and I missed it.
  4. At one station, and really at just one exit to one station, upon exit there are compass points embedded in the sidewalk. I left the Grand Station's NW exit (also labeling exits by compass points is great) wanting to go west, looked down upon exit, and saw that west was straight ahead. This is such a great thing, and so simple, I think all subway systems should adopt it (the red line at Grand is underground, as is much of the system). [ Added 2012-08-25: the Chicago Avenue stop on the Brown line also has compass points of this sort at an exit. ]
I guess part of my pleasure at how nice the CTA is comes from recent DC Metro ridership, but DC comparisons aside, the CTA seems to be doing a good job. It's nice to see some part of the country's infrastructure that still works.

Yes, I know that the phrase Chicago's CTA is redundant.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Canon vs. Lumix

I found myself rather suddenly in need of a new camera and it came down to a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS8 and a Canon PowerShot SX150. I've had digital cameras of each make in the past, and so, needing it right away and being busy, I decided to quickly buy a known quantity. The Canon is a solid, inexpensive camera, a bit less expensive than the Lumix, but with similar features.

The Lumix has a Leica lens, which is a significant advantage. I took this with a Leica-equipped Lumix (a DMC-TZ1), and don't think it would have been as good with a Canon. Really. But there were two drawbacks to my old Lumix (three drawbacks, really, but more on that later):
(1) The Lumix was noisy in low light situations. Right or wrong, I think Canon has done a better job with the electronics. The newer Lumix might be better.
(2) The Lumix uses a proprietary battery. Multiple times on my last trip with the Lumix, I used both of my batteries' charges, and was stuck. The batteries were expensive and degraded over time. The current Lumix batteries are apparently 1100mAh 3.6V, or just under 0.4Wh, but after a couple years, who knows?

The batteries were the deciding factor. The Canon uses a pair of AA batteries. Sanyo Eneloop NiMH are cheap, under $2.50 each, have long lives (1500 charge/recharge cycles advertised), and are 2000mAh each. So two Eneloops are 2 * 0.2 * 1.2 = 0.48Wh. Advantage, Canon, plus the Sanyo Eneloops have a low self-discharge rate and are cheap, and I can carry as many with me as I want. In a pinch I can pick up alkalines just about anywhere.

The third drawback to the Lumix? A drawback shared with the Canon, no optical viewfinder. With just an LCD viewfinder, the camera is very difficult to use in full sunlight. With both my old Canon and my old Lumix, I often thought that rather than point-and-shoot, I had to shoot-and-hope, not knowing what was in the picture until later.

Monday, August 13, 2012

No Wonder Best Buy is In Trouble

There is no search box on Best Buy's front page. Unbelievable. How much advertising copy do they expect me to wade through before I get to something interesting? For the first time ever, I am visiting

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dia Epiphany

For years now I've used dia as a diagram-drawing tool, and it's a good example of what open-source software should be: usable and useful. But I've often wished I could add to the set of available objects to use within diagrams. Tonight, rather than just getting the job done, I decided to RTFM. Adding an object is easy.

One of the last gadgets looks vaguely like the moon over a mountain. I never clicked it before, or if I did, I didn't get the point. Besides, who wants to virtually moon mountains? The idea is to click the moon & mountain and place it on the drawing. The result is a red X over the text broken image. Double-click on the  X, and then click on browse. Pick an image. So far I've loaded a couple png images, and it works like a dream--perfect!

I don't remember when I started using dia; perhaps as recently as '06. I used idraw on SunOS systems in the late '80s and early '90s. The alternative was xfig which was overly complicated, and impossible to use without reading a manual (like, e.g., the GIMP). After leaving OSU, through '98, I was often stuck using NT machines (NT 4 was Microsoft's most usable OS, however). I don't remember what I was using--probably I just avoided doing anything that wasn't easy in whatever Microsoft's drawing program was. But around the turn of the century I went full-time Linux on the desktop (had been using it for servers since '95 or so--Slackware, then Red Hat, then Debian) and it was a good move, though I believe I'll soon flush Ubuntu & Mint down the toilet where they belong.

But I digress. Dia: great! Dia: easy to add images! Dia: highly recommended! Dia: apparently available for Windows. Wikipedia has a bare-bones dia overview.

Google Does Evil and then Lies About It

Today Google agreed to pay apple $22.5M for allegedly breaching Safari users' browser settings to set cookies. That's evil.  The payment is apparently a record high, but for Google is just a slap on the wrist

But then the above-linked Business Week article quotes Google to say "...[we have taken] steps to remove the ad cookies, which collected no personal information, from Apple’s browsers.” This strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. No, cookies gather no information. However, web servers accessing cookies left previously do gather information, so placing the cookies aided Google's gathering of information about users' browsing behavior. And a user's browsing behavior strikes me as private.