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May 31, 2011

Property Assessment

Several years ago Dekalb County voters passed a freeze on property value assessments. So since that took effect, my house and land have had the same assessed value each year. Since the crash of 2008, however, property values have gone down, even in my snooty neighborhood and the freeze was only supposed to stop increases in assessments, not decreases. But this has never been reflected in my assessment, which has remained frozen . . . until this year. I got a notice last week that the value of my house and land has dropped 31.6%. The last time the assessment changed was back in 2006. The oldest form I could find was 2001, and the new value is 17.6% lower than that.

May 28, 2011


When I started the Flashlight Wiki (now getting 100-200 visits a day), one of the sites that would turn up when I searched for "flashlight wiki" was a flashlight wiki on wikia.com. I had read an article about Wikia that it was a for-profit version of Wikipedia with fewer rules about subject matter. It is a good place for fans of TV shows, video games, etc. to go into endless detail about a subject, which Wikipedia would not allow.

So lately I have been playing a pinball game on my iPod. It is actually 3 different games bundled into Pinball HD: Wild West, The Deep, and The Jungle. Gameprom wrote the apps separately, starting with Wild West, which is decent, then The Deep which is a big improvement, and finally The Jungle which is more complicated featuring complex goals that involve shooting targets with a pinball to open up other steps which must be solved in order to open up further steps. For instance, you have to hit these three lights on one wall in order to raise a set of six targets somewhere else. When you knock down those six targets, three tiki cylinders rise up out of the board that you must hit repeatedly until they recede back into the table. With the tikis out of the way you must shoot the ball into a hole that they were guarding and this somehow kills King Kong and you get a bunch of points.

So I like these games. When we used to go to Patsy's house they had a pinball game called OXO which had a tic-tac-toe theme. I liked being able to play pinball for free at their house. Later on Windows bundled a pinball game in with Windows ME and Windows XP called Space Cadet. I played that a lot and got really good at it. Also I was playing Duke Nukem 3D around that time and downloaded the trial version of a Duke Nukem themed pinball game called Balls of Steel which had way better graphics than Space Cadet. When I got the iPod touch I looked around for pinball games and found Pinball HD. Unfortunately it is hard to get information about these games, one reason being that if you search for any iPod app you will get tons of results from people trying to refer you back to iTunes to buy the app so they can get a commission. They offer very little in the way of information and all have basically the same info, which is stuff lifted from the description on iTunes. Gameprom has forums about their games on their website, but those don't seem active either and seem to be concerned mostly with bugs in past versions of the software that have been fixed by now.

So lately I've been playing The Deep more than the other two games and I got to a point where I got a mission that I didn't understand how to accomplish. I wanted help on how to do that, but I couldn't find anything. I thought there should be a Wiki for this game because the included help is pretty lame. The help doesn't say how to accomplish the mission (most are self-explanatory: a little arrow points at something and you have to hit that with the ball). The help doesn't even say how many points you get for certain things. And there are some multiplier that you can activate, but I don't know what the multipliers are actually being multiplied with.

I didn't want to start a new Wiki since I already have the Flashlight Wiki and another smaller one I did for work that I'm not doing anything with right now, I thought a Wikia would be better. So I went to wikia.com and clicked to start a new one, which I called The Deep Pinball Wiki. It really was pretty easy: you pick a theme for the look of the Wiki, a title, a description, and you are ready to go. A lot of the games for the iPod have "achievements" that are special awards you get for doing certain things in a game. For instance, I have a Euchre game that gives you an achievement for going alone and winning all 5 tricks for 4 points, and another for going alone and then getting Euchred. So Wikia has an Achievement for creating a Wiki. Then when you create a page, that's an Achievement. When you make 5 edits, that's an Achievement. So it's like a game.

So one thing that would be helpful is to upload what the pinball board looks like. Although Space Cadet pinball was just a 2D board, Balls of Steel and the Gameprom pinball games are "3D" and the camera zooms along behind the ball giving you a view of part of the board. So you are seeing the board from different angles, up close, zoomed out, and so forth depending on what is going on. When I was writing about iPod keyboard software, I found out you could do a screen capture of the iPod. It is one thing to do that with a keyboard app, but it is more challenging to do a screen capture while you are in the middle of playing a pinball game, but I was able to get some screen captures and upload those (got an Achievement for that too).

May 18, 2011


Today on one of the flashlight discussion areas, a guy had taken some macro photos of a flashlight he had taken apart. Someone said that if he used a Canon camera, he should use CHDK, which allows you to create RAW images and add a lot of features to your camera. Well, I have a Canon camera. And one of the things I would really like for it to do when I'm taking pictures of flashlight beams (shining them on a wall to see what tint, brightness, and beam pattern you get) is to turn off the automatic white balancing that the camera does. If I have a flashlight with a cool white, bluish beam, the camera will reduce the blue color and make it look more white. If the flashlight has a warmer, more orange, tint, the camera changes it to make it more white. So I end up with two pictures that look the same even though the tints are very different. I can shine both lights at the wall, which helps some, but often the camera will exaggerate the differences, especially if the tints are fairly close. So I'd like to be able to turn that off, but the only way I can figure to do that is some process where you take a picture of something that is totally white in order to set your own white balance. And I don't know if that is stored or if you have to do that every time you want to take a picture.

So I went the CHDK website, here. CHDK stands for Canon Hack Development Kit. These guys have developed this hack into the operating system that a Canon camera uses to offer these additional features. The program runs from the SD memory card that you put in the camera and it doesn't permanently change anything in the camera, it only runs when you turn the camera on and there is a memory card with this software on it. That's a pretty neat concept right there.

So I had to try it out. I downloaded a bunch of stuff. They try to make it easy, but at the same time they also seem to make everything harder to understand. For instance, it seems like you should just be able to put the files on the memory card, but instead they wrote another program that you run on your computer and it writes the files to your memory card.

I'm still having some trouble figuring out what is going on. The RAW files are just a dump of data from the camera eye, not compressed into jpeg format and not given any kind of processing apparently. So they don't look like much, if you can see them, which I can't, because I don't have any software that reads RAW files (yet). Then you use Photoshop or some kind of image software to balance everything the way you want. I'm not sure that even a RAW files isn't already white balanced, so this may not work at all for what I want.

One neat thing this software can do is take multiple images of the same thing with a variety of different settings on the camera. For instance, it could focus up close, a little further out, and in the distance. Then some other software (not sure what) takes the 3 pictures and gets only the parts of each that are in focus and now you have a picture that is totally in focus, whether stuff is up close or farther away. You can do the same thing with light levels, so that things in the shadows are adjusted separately from things that are in direct sunlight and get the best lighting for everything in the picture (supposedly).

A lot to learn and play around with . . .

May 14, 2011

Master Password

One nice feature of Firefox that I started using on my laptop (I had been using Sea Monkey as my browser on my desktop until this week when I finally switched to Firefox) is the master password which you enter once and then it will keep track of all the different usernames and passwords for most sites that have them. The problem with the master password is that a lot of times I leave the browser open and then the computer goes to sleep and I don't think about it anymore. Now if anyone were to break into the house, all they would need to do is open my computer (I don't have a Windows password) and they could get into all of those sites if I had left the browser open. Most of the really secure sites don't work with the master password, but it works on enough sites that I wouldn't want someone to be able to do that.

So I thought it would be good if the master password would expire or time out after some amount of time, but there doesn't seem to be an option for that in Firefox. A search found an extension that will do this, but just a little more digging found that Firefox can do this on its own through some config settings. I didn't even know about config settings, but you can get to them by typing "about:config" in the URL bar.

Once that page opens you have a long list of settings. There is one setting called "security:ask_for_password" that is the master setting. If you set it to a value of 2, then you enable the password timeout. Then you can go to another config setting called "security:password_lifetime" and change it to the number of minutes you want the master password to work. The default is 30 minutes, which I figured wasn't enough, so I changed it to 150 minutes. I don't usually use the laptop in the morning, so by the time I leave the house it has been 8 or more hours since the laptop was in use. With 150 minutes, I might only need to enter that once at night and it will stay good. It's easy enough to change later.

May 8, 2011

Solarforce L2i

Today Grant and Mom and got flashlights. These are not just any flashlights, but take a lot of great features from a number of different sources. The flashlight is a Solarforce L2i. People absolutely rave about how great a light the Solarforce L2i is, and I will explain more about them later, but one nice thing is that it is a P60 host meaning it takes a standard reflector and bulb combination that is easy to switch out if you want to upgrade the flashlight. And unlike most P60 hosts, this one uses standard AAA batteries. So Mom and Grant also got some of the best AAA rechargeable batteries available: Duracell precharged with white tops that are made in Japan. These batteries are thought to the be the same thing as Eneloop batteries which are the best. What makes them great is that, unlike normal rechargeable batteries, these don't lose their charge very quickly sitting around waiting to be used. While a typical battery might lose 50% of its charge in a couple of months, these batteries will only lost 15% of their charge in a year. So the flashlight will be ready to go whenever it is needed. But because the flashlight uses 3 batteries and most battery chargers only charge batteries in pairs, they also got a Sony Cycle Energy charger that charges the batteries individually. I have been very impressed with this simple and compact charger that does everything right. There are very few chargers out there that will properly charge batteries by using an acceptable current, cutting off when the battery is full, rejecting bad batteries, while charging batteries individually and without a trickle charge.


Back to the Solarforce. People really like this light because it is a convenient size and is very well made, milled from aluminum and made watertight with o-rings at the lens and all joints. This light can also stand on its end, so if the power goes off, it can be left on a table pointing at the ceiling and light up the whole room. It has been customized by carefully grinding down the stock pointy bezel that most people don't like and the head is now smooth so it won't tear pockets. Also the lens uses an anti-reflective coating that lets 99% of the light out instead of maybe 90% for regular glass.

The L2i doesn't necessarily come with a P60 bulb and reflector, so I built a special one using a hard-to-find neutral white LED. Most LED's come in cool white which is a little bluish, but these LED's are more of a neutral color like an incandescent light. This is preferred by flashlight enthusiasts because it makes things look more natural than with a bluish light. The LED is a Cree XP-G model with a R4 brightness bin. That's one of my favorite LED's because it gives a nice balance between light output and how far the light will shine. Soldered with care to the brass pill inside is a circuit board that provides just the right current for the XP-G LED to perform at its peak. This is a new circuit board that only recently became available and has been modified by me to run with 3 modes: Low, Medium, and High. The Low is very nice for indoor use or close up, Medium is good if you want the light to run for a couple of hours, and High is very bright when you need all the light you can get, but will run through a set of batteries in about 30 minutes.

Because the LED produces a lot of heat when running on High, it is important to get rid of the heat into the body of the flashlight. However the P60 module doesn't have that great contact with the light (this is a problem with all P60 lights, not just the Solarforce). Therefore I have cut out aluminum strips from a soda can to fill in the gap around the reflector and provide a better path for the heat. Unfortunately I didn't get everything I needed on time from China, so I will end up replacing the aluminum strips with copper ones that should do an even better job of transferring heat than the aluminum strips.

May 3, 2011

Battlestar Galactica

For the last couple of years, I have been watching episodes of Battlestar Galactica on my Palm and then iPod. This isn't the series from the 70's with Lorne Greene, but the newer version that started in 2004 on the SciFi channel (now just SyFy). But the basic plot was the same in that robot Cyclons wipe out the human race except for a few spaceships full of people, led by a military spaceship called, the Battlestar Galactica, who all go searching for Earth which many think might just be a myth. I finally finished it up this week (I won't tell you how it ends).

The series is a lot darker than the original. And they did make some significant changes, like some of the hotshot fighter pilots are now women and in addition to classic robotic cylons, there are humanoid versions that look like regular people (except better looking generally). The humans dismissively call the Cylons "toasters" or "skinjobs." One of the hooks is that even though the Cylons have this great technology to make robots that look exactly like people, they only have a limited number of molds, so a lot of the Cylons look just alike. This is good for the actors because they can get killed and one of their copies can still show up in the show. Speaking of copies, one of the actors from the original series (Richard Hatch, who played Lorne Greene's son, Apollo) got a minor, but recurring role in the new series.

Anyway, the original series only lasted one season, but the new one got a lot of acclaim for an original cable series and lasted four seasons. It is produced by a guy who worked on several of the Star Trek TV series sequels that started in the 90's. There are a lot of neat sci-fi twists and even religious storylines (the humans believe in multiple gods, and it turns out the Cyclons believe there is only one God).

Honestly, the series wasn't always that great. I thought they made some of the characters do kind of stupid things in order to make certain plotlines work. It was still worth watching though, all the way to the end when either the humans are wiped out by the Cylons, find Earth, or none of the above. But it certainly had a lot of neat ideas and concepts in it. And the cast was large enough, not even counting the duplicates, that there was always a lot going on. And the nice thing is it didn't overstay its welcome like some shows (Lost).