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:

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

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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!

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Henley2010Finish.MOV

Royal Canadian Henley 2010 Finish of the Mens Junior A Race. St. Catharines takes gold

Storing Data In The Cloud

Last week, my colleague Ed Senez posted a very good article about cloud computing, and it’s benefits.Our company has been making moves toward the cloud for a couple of years now, with both Microsoft’s BPOS offering, and our own SharePoint Extranet Accelerator. While companies struggle with the benefits and risks of moving pieces of their business to the cloud, I can see a huge role for the cloud in the consumer space, primarily because it is so cost effective. I have been moving a lot of my personal data to the cloud for the past little while, and I thought that I would share my current observations.

Photos and Videos

Almost any Facebook user is familiar with posting pictures. The social functionality is great – tagging people lets all their friends know that they are in a new picture (maybe not so great if you don’t like the picture, but I digress….). YouTube is of course great for uploading and sharing videos, but both of these services have one drawback – they convert the files on upload resulting in a loss of fidelity. If you care about the quality of your source content, you can’t rely on these services for backup.

This fact led me a few months back to Flickr. At first look, Flickr had a lot of limitations too – a maximum file size,and a maximum upload rate per month,which initially caused me to dismiss it. What I found out was that with the subscriber version there are no limits at all – you can upload to your hearts content, and it will store the images in their true source format. I have been doing just that when I could for the past few weeks, and currently have over 2000 pictures in my photostream. Just 8000 or so to go.

Flickr also allows you to share your pictures publicly, with family and friends, or just keep them private. However, Flickr doesn’t have Facebook’s ubiquity, so I use it for purely public pictures only, and continue to rely on Facebook primarily for sharing and people tagging. Flickr does allow for videos as well, but it does have some size limits, so I will be relying on YouTube for sharing my videos, along with a separate backup strategy (see below) as I get my videos organized.

So how much does this cost? For $25 per year, I know that all of my personal pictures are backed up. Pictures are quite literally irreplaceable. Documents can be recreated, but you’ll never have a chance to capture those precise moments again. The fact that I can use the services to share picture (in full source quality) is really just a bonus.

Simple Storage with SkyDrive

Did you know that you have 25 GB of storage in the cloud that you can use free of charge? If you have a Windows Live ID (also free..) then you do. It’s called Sky Drive, and it’s extremely handy. Simply upload the files you wish to private, shared, or public folders and they’re safely secured away and accessible from any machine with a web browser. Because SkyDrive also uses WebDAV, you can map your SkyDrive folders directly to folders on your computer.

When you are navigating through your SkyDrive, you also have access to the recently released Office Web Applications. These are light, browser only versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and One Note, and they’re completely free of charge. You can create a new document using these apps, or edit anything that you upload. These apps are very handy for occasional use, for viewing purposes, or just for accessing an Office document that may have been sent to you when you don’t have the Office applications readily available.

Sky drive should pretty much eliminate the need for FTP servers, certainly for personal use. Given the cost of the service ($0.00), I really don’t see why someone wouldn’t want to take advantage of it.

Backup

I think that everyone that has used a computer for any amount of time has at some point lost data. Afterwards, there is a mad rush to back up the systems, and then make sure that there is a system in place to back everything up. Corporations typically have solid backup strategies in place (that aren’t tested frequently enough, in my opinion), but personal users are often too busy to ensure that their data is backed up in a timely fashion. There are a ton of consumer backup product out there, but they all often have one fatal flaw. They require the user to actually do something to make it work.

This is where the cloud can be of great help. If we can assume that the machine will typically have a connection to the internet, then for all intents and purposes, our backup destination is always available. All that is needed is a good service to make this painless and automatic for the end user. There are a number of such providers out there, and I’m going to briefly discuss the one that I’ve settled on – Carbonite.

With Carbonite, you download a small application that runs in the background, and is constantly ensuring that your files are being backed up. For most users it is as simple as a next – next install, which will backup all standard data folders. If you want to back up a non standard folder, just right click on it and choose to add it to the backup. You can always see what the backup status is from the console, but carbonite also (optionally) places a small indicator over the icon for each file that you have to let you know its backup status. The backed up files are also browser accessible from any internet connected PC, allowing you to access your files in a pinch, and one of the nicest features is that it not only keeps a mirror image of your system off site, it maintains file versioning, so when you make a change to a file and later decide that it wasn’t such a good idea, you can retrieve a previous version.

Given most end users’ bandwidth constraints, the initial backup can take a little while. Mine took two weeks, but that’s me. After initial backup, it all goes very rapidly. So what’s the cost of all of this storage? You can back up as much as you want from a single machine for $55 US per year. To me, that’s a no-brainer.

 

I spend about 5-10% of my time inside my company firewall. Tools to help with remote connectivity are crucial, and I really see a place for cloud based services to provide a lot of these tools. They’re safe, they’re easy, they’re useful, and they’re highly cost effective. In storage alone, I now back up all of my important personal data (redundantly I might add) and enhance my convenience in accessing it. All for less than $100/year.

I’m sold.