Category Archives: Photography

Playa Del Carmen – Dive Report

It’s been quite some time since I blogged anything substantial, so why not start the New Year off with a dive report? Two days after New Years, we packed up the family and headed back to the Mayan Riviera. We stayed at the same resort that we did last year, the Azul Sensatori just outside of Puerto Morelos. If you have children (or even if you don’t) it’s a fantastic place. I have to make a shout out to Miguel, who worked at the bell stand, and went out of his way to make our stay a good one.

My only complaint about the resort was that it was a bit far from Playa Del Carmen, and when in the area, I always dive with the Abyss Dive Center – I originally certified there, and have done all of my certifications there since. Also diving with me this time was my son John, and our good friends Allyson and Rich.

Around December-March every year, bull sharks can be found right off the beach in Playa Del Carmen, and last year, I had hoped to see a few of them. Alas, at the time, they had left the area for some inexplicable reason, only to return after I had come home. This year it was different. This time I got to dive with them twice, and each time there were between 10-20 checking us out. One morning we saw 5 at one of the regular dive sites. All of my diving pictures for the trip can be found here but just to highlight a few…

To celebrate my reconfirmation as MVP on Jan 1, I had my son take the shot of me below

Swimming with the sharks - literally

A few other shots of the attractions in question:

Bull Shark

Bull Shark

Bull Shark

In addition to the photos, I wanted to try out the video capabilities of my Canon T2i. From the footage, I was able to put this video together:

Swimming with the sharks

 

In addition to the sharks, on our last diving day, we headed inland to the cenotes. For those of you that don’t know, cenotes are underground rivers that only exist in the Yucatan peninsula, and you can dive in them. Since there are frequent openings into air, it’s not quite cave diving, but it’s close, and on a nice sunny day, like the one we had, the light show can be spectacular.

Ally and Rich - Ponderosa Cenote

Ponderosa Cenote - Looking Up

Ponderosa Cenote

Ponderosa Cenote

Guardian of the Ponderosa Cenote (driftwood)

Tajma Ha Cenote

That pretty much wraps up the fun for this year – now it’s back to work. I have a mountain in front of me and a lot of writing to do to!

Happy New Year

The White Pages are now Running on Windows and SQL Azure

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve hosted it internally on our premises. Part of the reason for this was that I wanted to have full control over what was going on with it, and I wanted to work in a familiar environment. For me, that was of course the Microsoft stack. While SharePoint has excellent blogging features, made even better by the Community Kit for SharePoint: Enhanced Blog Edition, my feeling is that its feature set is more applicable to an inside the firewall deployment. Also, if I were to use SharePoint for this purpose, I’d be constantly distracted by the desire to improve upon it.

What I needed was a platform that was focused on blogging, and that I wouldn’t wind up tinkering with too much. I settled on WordPress, which seemed to be very well supported, and quite good at what it did. WordPress had direct integration with Windows Live Writer, and had apps for the iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and now Windows Phone 7.

WordPress natively runs on PHP and MySQL, and typically runs in Linux environments. However, since IIS supports PHP and MySQL runs on Windows, it is possible to get it running in my “familiar environment”. Normally doing this sort of thing is a bear, but by using the Web Platform Installer from Microsoft, the installation was a breeze. All that was necessary was to run it, and select WordPress as a desired application. The installer then took care of downloading PHP, MySQL, WordPress, and integrating them all together. After answering a few account and password questions, I was up and running, and have been ever since.

The one drawback of this approach was that I was hosting it myself, and therefore always concerned with reliability and uptime. More importantly it has been sharing a server with other applications, and more than once has gone down because another system needed a reboot, crashed, or something. A hosted environment was obvious, and since I’ve been exploring the Azure platform lately, I thought I’d see what was involved.  One of the advantages of the MVP program, which I’m newly a part of is that you are allocated a certain amount of Azure computing hours, so off I went experimenting.

Happily, one weekend later, this blog has been transitioned to a high speed, and highly available platform, that most importantly, I don’t have to maintain. Not only that, but I’ve been able to take MySQL out of the picture completely, and I’m using a SQL Azure database as my data store. I had several false starts right away, and I’m going to document the approach  that I took and post it here shortly, but for now, I’m pretty happy with the results.

Hello Azure!

Windows Live Photo Gallery and Digital Frames–A Match Made In Heaven

This post may be a little late for the holiday season, but there’s always another one coming up. I’ve written before about Windows Live Photo Gallery and its promise when it was in Beta. It’s been out for several months now, and my opinion on it hasn’t changed – it’s an excellent photo organizing tool. It has some light editing capabilities, but I work frequently with RAW images, and I use Adobe Photoshop with Bridge for my picture processing tasks. However, once processing is complete, Live Photo Gallery takes over for tagging and organizing.

One of the things that I really like about the product is its integration with external applications and galleries. I store my photos in Windows Live and Facebook (for sharing with others) and in Flickr for both sharing and full size image storage. Live Photo Gallery makes this very easy. Once the pictures are tagged, you simply select the ones that you want to send (I also like to tag them with a destination/album name like “Flickr – 2009 General” so that I know what I’ve saved) and then click the relevant destination in the Share section on the tab.

image

Once configured, for each selection, you’ll get a dialog box prompting you for the album and other metadata, and in the case of Facebook, for people. Remember that Windows Live and Facebook are tightly integrated,so that people you tag with Photo Gallery will automatically be reflected on Facebook. In the case of Facebook,the dialog looks something like below:

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This makes sharing photos online really easy to do. However, I have always found that digital frames were much more difficult. Being in technology, I of course have given digital frames to my parents, grandparents and in-laws. It’s a great way to get photos to them, but managing the content can be a bit of a nightmare. I have run across two major stumbling blocks doing this.

The first problem is the limited storage capacity of the frame itself. With cameras boasting higher and higher megapixel counts, their file sizes are increasing exponentially. Many older frames have storage capacities below 256 MB, which just doesn’t cut it. Even modern frames have a typical capacity of 1 GB and while that can be increased through expansion cards, it’s really only prolonging the inevitable.

The solution to this is to convert the images. Most frames are relatively low resolution, most being in the 640×480 or 800×600 range. If you’re counting, that’s 0.3 and 0.5 megapixels respectively. Converting the images to the native resolution of the frame will result in drastically lower storage requirements without any loss in displayed quality. The problem with this approach is that conversion software is a little above the heads of most casual users users, and it generates yet another group of pictures to manage.

The other problem is randomization. Believe it or not, most frames that I’ve encountered do not automatically randomize image play, leaving you to watch the same sequence over and over again. Since they’re usually sorted on filename, you’re often stuck watching things in chronological order. The way around the order is to get some sort of file renaming utility and rename all of the files before copying them over.

Those are the problems. However, Windows Live Photo Gallery supports plug ins for its destinations (Flickr, SkyDrive, Facebook, YouTube are all out of the box), and there is an excellent plug in written for digital frames written by Leo Lie. Essentially, it treats the frame, or any SD drive as a source such as Flickr, etc. Once you select the photos you want, you simply press the button, select whether or not you want the files resizes, and to what degree, and if you wish, it will randomize your photos for you. This solves the two problems (almost) in one fell swoop. If I tag the photos with the name of the frame, and I continue to be religious about tagging, very time grandma comes over, she can bring her SD card, I can erase it, and reload it. Simple.

You can get the plug in by clicking on my link above, or from within photo gallery, you can check out all of the available plug ins. It’s not obvious how, so I’m including a screenshot below. There is a scrollbar to the right of the Share section on the Home tab of the ribbon. At the bottom of that scrollbar is a drop down. Click it, and click Add a plug in, and you’ll be taken to the plug in gallery. There are several good ones.

image

I should also mention that while I use this for all of my relatives. I recently purchased a Kodak Pulse wireless frame for my use at home. If you have wireless, it’s a very good way to go. With it, you can send pictures directly to it, you can use Kodak’s file share, and you can email pictures directly to it. However the real value here is that it integrates with Facebook so that any pictures you post to Facebook (configurable) will show up on the screen. Since Facebook stores low resolution pictures, this is perfect. I simply use the Windows Live Photo Gallery integration to send the pictures to Facebook, and I’m done. I’ll be going on a diving trip by myself (more on that later) in a few weeks, but the family will be able to see my pictures as I post them.

Now I just need to keep up with my tagging.

Nice to be Away, and Good to be Back

I’ve been a little quiet here of late. First was because we were uncharacteristically busy during the month of December, and recently because I was able to take a well needed rest with my family to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. Because in my banner header I threaten to blog about diving, I’m going to go ahead and do so now, and share out a few images.

My wife and I and our two kids stayed at the Sensatori Azul resort, between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. Frankly, I really don’t like the whole all inclusive resort thing, I much prefer to get a more local flavour, but when travelling with family, these things make too much sense. I was however very impressed with this resort – they have an excellent kids program, the food is fantastic, and you feel much less like cattle, as you do in most resorts. My only problem was the location,which was a $40 cab ride away from Playa Del Carmen,which is where my favourite dive shop is located.

The Abyss Dive Center, in Playa Del Carmen, is where I originally got my Open Water dive certification back in 2003. Since then I’ve done my Advanced, Navigation, Nitrox, and Rescue Diver certification with the Abyss. I really can’t say enough good things about these folks. Operated for 15 years by Dave Tomlinson, an expatriate Canadian, they have exactly the right mix of fun with a focus on safety. They manage to do this without cramping the style of advanced divers. While the staff at any dive shop turns over fairly quickly, I’ve always really liked everyone there, and have been friends with several after they have left. This time was no exception.

II was pretty excited to try out my new camera gear, a Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T2i) which shoots lovely stills and full 1080p HD video, along with a couple of lenses, a 60mm macros and a wide angle that was borrowed from a friend.  It’s bull shark season down there, but unfortunately they weren’t there when I was, and it wasn’t for a lack of looking. My first day we headed to Tiburon Flats and while we were skunked on sharks, I managed to see these two interesting guys:

Southern Stingray

 

They grow large remoras here. Given that these guys hang around sharks, we were hopeful, but no dice.

Both of these were shot with a wide angle lens at about 80 feet.

As for stills, I can’t really pick out one favourite picture from the trip. So I’m posting two:

IMG_1715

Lionfish are an invasive species, only appearing in the area in the past year. They’re a scourge, but they sure are pretty,

IMG_1813

On the other side of the attractive scale, scorpion fish are very adept at disguise, and pretty dangerous. You don’t want to touch one, or you’re off to the hospital. Actually both fish in these two pictures are poisonous, which is not the norm for the area.

These two were both shot on the same dive, at around 40 feet with a Canon 60mm macro lens. If you’re interested in seeing other shots from this trip, you can check out my Flickr Photo set.

I’m pretty happy with the way that the camera performed, but the real test will be next month when I dive at the Wakatobi Dive resort in Indonesia. I’m very much looking forward to it.

That’s enough fun stuff. I’ll be back to some technical posts shortly!