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2014/07/26
  • Moving from Apple's ...

2014/07/16
  • Moving from Apple's ...

2012/11/03
  • Mobile Platform Wars ...

2012/10/19
  • A New Domain for my ...

2012/05/21
  • Traveling Can Be Int ...

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Agile Software Development

Agile software development is a major methodology research area for me. Of particular importance is adapting it to the large, complex programs that I work with on a regular basis. These are just some generic links.

• Agile Alliance
• Patterns
• Test-driven development

Project Management

Although project management is not always thought of highly in the agile community, it is a necessity, in my opinion. Learning how to take the best of the project management world and apply it to more adaptive situations is of great interest. These are just some generic links.

• Project Management Institute
• SNEC Chapter PMI

Presidential Quotes

John Adams, 2nd President of the United States

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.

— John Adams, December 1770


Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.

— Abraham Lincoln

My Blog

This page lists the most latest entries from my blog. The blog itself is stored on blogger. The five most recent entries are always accessible via a link from the left navigator. The ten most recent entries are displayed on this page. I've found the services API from Google to be somewhat slow, so the information is actually gathered in batch (via cron) and then included here so that the page does not take so long to load. What this means is that there is the potential for this page to be different than the actual blog if the cron has not yet run.


Sat July 26, 2014 (6:25 am)

Moving from Apple's Aperture to Adobe's Lightroom (Part 2)

Ten days ago, I began a trial of Adobe's Lightroom after I learned that Apple would be retiring their pro photography software, Aperture, and their consumer photography software, iPhoto, in favor of a new product called Photos that will (supposedly) serve both constituencies (see MacWorld for the announcement).  In "Moving From Apple's Aperture to Adobe's Lightroom (Part 1?)," I noted some missing, "fixed" (from an Aperture perspective), and "new" features in Lightroom and concluded that things were promising thus far.  Before the end of last week, but after my last post, I had also installed a trial version of Photoshop as well, since that would come with the same subscription as Lightroom.  What follows is some of my additional thoughts.

Alignment, Cropping, and Color Correction (Lightroom)

The alignment, cropping, color correction, and all of the general development tools (sharpening, noise reduction, etc.) work quite well.  In many ways, I like the way Lightroom handles these tasks better than Aperture.  I have also come around a bit on the "auto" function, but I still think it does not estimate exposure correction anywhere near accurately.  It does provide a good starting point, though, for photos that need relatively little work.

For photos that were slightly crooked and needed color correction, I was able to re-align the photo plus match the colors to what I believe my eye saw.  (Note the richness of the wood doors with Samantha and Benjamin posing in front in the example below.)
Before and After:  Alignment and color corrected.
Before and After:  Alignment and colors corrected.
In addition, I have become rather fond of the "Before" and "After" functionality.  The example above shows the full picture, but you can also cut the picture horizontally and vertically with the before and after sitting as a piece of the entire picture, which is very convenient.

While most of the controls were pretty straight forward, I seems right to call out the usability of the alignment function:  It works well, but is less intuitive than in Aperture where you just have to move the photo within the grid (Lightroom relies mostly on a slider).

Where is the AF Point (Lightroom)?

Canon's Digital Photo Professional with AF Point(s) shown.
Canon's Digital Photo Professional with AF Point(s) shown.
One thing that perplexes me is that Lightroom cannot display the AF point from the camera as an overlay on a photo; the functionality does not even exist.  I read a bunch of forum posts that seemed to say this was a difficult thing to do, etc., yet Aperture does it (at least before the photo is developed).  Canon's own Digital Photo Professional software can also show the AF point, so that's what I used for those photos where I wanted to know.  I also still use Canon's software if I need to examine the original RAW file in a little more detail without even the basic processing done on import into something like Lightroom or Aperture.

One might think that the lack of AF Point overlay functionality is a nit, but that focus point comes in handy in low light situations.  Notice that the photo in the example is slightly blurry (more on that later) due to camera shake.  I was able to correct it in Photoshop, but needed to know where I had set the focus point to understand what parts were blurry due to the shallow depth of field I used (f/2.8) and what parts were blurry because of camera shake due to such a slow shutter speed being used (1/10 sec); this is small, but situationally important, function.

Visual Cues for Stacks (Lightroom Usability)

One of the things that I have had some difficulty figuring out is where a stack begins, ends, or if a frame is part of a stack or not in the filmstrip.  I tend to use stacks for two purposes:  to group bracketed photos or to group corrections or fundamental changes to a photo, yet I want to still keep the reference image.  My last outing was to Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY.  The day was both cloudy and bright (high contrast), so my outside pictures tended to be bracketed.  I put those in a stack:

Two stacks of bracketed photos.  Note that there are very few visual cues except for the [3] at the beginning of the stack and the very light break line at its end.
Two stacks of bracketed photos.  Note that there are very few visual cues excepting the "[3]" at the beginning of the stack and the very light line break at its end.
The problem is, there are no visual cues to show when the stack ends or that these photos are part of a stack with the exception of the number listed on the first photo and a very thin (almost imperceptible) line at its end.  If I hover over (or select, as in the example below) one of the members of the stack it does note that it is photo x of y (where x is the sequence of the photo selected and y is the total number in the stack):
Two stacks of bracketed photos.  Selecting a photo in the stack reveals its position in the stack relative to the beginning.
Two stacks of bracketed photos.  Selecting a photo reveals its position relative to the stack's beginning and end.
I eventually used the tagging feature to color code my stacks.  I primarily used red, but when stacks were next to each other I used purple to alternate.  It is an easy way around the problem I had seeing them, but some better visual cues would seem to be in order.  I should not be guessing whether something is in a stack or not.

Two stacks of bracketed photos.  Coloring the stacks made them stand out for me.
Camera Shake Correction (Lightroom -> Photoshop -> Lightroom)
Editing in Photoshop from Lightroom.
As I noted earlier, some of the photos I took at Vanderbilt Mansion were in low light.  Even at high ISO (2000 in one case), I had four photos that were slightly blurry due to camera shake at the slow shutter speed I was using (e.g. 1/10 sec).  Essentially, I moved slightly even though I had braced myself against the wall.  In general, depending on the amount of shake, the photo could just look like it is in soft focus or be completely unusable.  Since all four photos were not too bad (I could have gotten away with doing nothing at all for two of them), I thought I would see if I could correct the shake in Photoshop.

The process was pretty simple:  right click the photo and select "Edit In" and then "Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC 2014."  The photo is then exported and brought up in Photoshop for additional editing.  I will not go into the details of how I fixed the blur, but I will note that Photoshop has a handy set of tools to select the area of the photo that requires correction and then sampling the photo and progressively sharpening it; it can use its own selected area and/or one (or more) areas of your choosing.  Once the edits were complete, I merely saved the photo and it appeared back in Lightroom as a new version of the original already in a stack.  Once re-imported, I finished "developing" the photo (exposure, color, etc.).
For this particular photo, knowing the location of the focus point was important.  When I took the picture, I had the lens wide open at f/2.8, so the resulting photo had a very shallow depth of field.  It was not easy to tell where the natural focus was that had blurred due to camera shake versus naturally blurred areas because of the shallow depth of field used.  Interestingly, Photoshop seemed to know where the focus point was because it picked that same area for its initial auto correction.  I then selected a couple of manual areas.  I am happy with the result even though I did not post this particular picture when I was done—I had another version that did not suffer from camera shake.

Conclusion:  Still Happy
I am still happy with the way Lightroom has performed in this trial period.  Despite some of the "missing features" I have noted, the most important thing is that I can effectively and efficiently develop my photographs while having enough creative tools to made adjustments I feel are necessary (or just desired).  I have twenty days left, so I'll keep shooting.

My best,

   Jim

Wed July 16, 2014 (12:17 pm)

Moving from Apple's Aperture and Adobe's Lightroom (Part 1?)


Is now the time to move to Adobe Lightroom?
On June 27, 2014, MacWorld reported that Apple would be retiring their pro photography software, Aperture, and their consumer photography software, iPhoto, in favor of a new product called Photos that will (supposedly) serve both constituencies.  While Aperture development has now stopped with the exception of updates needed to make it compatible with the next OS X release, Photos will not ship until sometime next year (2015).  The last minor update to Aperture was last November (2013); the last major release was four years ago (in 2010).  Perhaps they stopped working on it a bit sooner than this announcement.

I have used Aperture since mid-2007 and have been generally happy with it.  With its up-and-coming demise, I decided to investigate Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom and see if it would be able to handle my rather simple workflow as capably as Aperture has for the last seven years (excepting some major bugs over time) and perhaps be the solution for some of that product's little annoyances.  If it seems to be able to handle what I can throw at it after a trial period (maybe the next month—heavy photo season for me), I will switch to it as my primary and use Aperture as a backup until I can figure out a way to migrate my libraries without too much pain.  One thing I am not too excited about is that Adobe is renting their software by subscription.  Nevertheless, if they keep it maintained and the price is not exorbitant (currently $9.99 per month for Lightroom and Photoshop) I will pony up at the end of my trial period.

As of today, I have been using Lightroom 5.5 for approximately forty-eight hours.  I processed three albums of photos and found the tool be quite usable once I got over educating myself on the interface.  I did not get a chance yet to see how the Photomatix plug-in works within the tool (no HDR-eligible photos, in my opinion) or the stacking feature for bracketed photos (all three albums had no bracketed photos); bracketing and stacking is an oft-used feature for me.  I also did not use some of the more powerful features of the tool; my goal was simple workflow:  can it do it or not?

Features and "Features"
As with any time I switch main products, my observations are bound by the fact that I know the original product pretty well.  In this case, I have been using Aperture for almost seven years.  With scant few upgrades in that time, it is safe to say I know my way around the product.  Nevertheless, I have tried to keep my mind open and not fault Lightroom (or Aperture, for that matter) when things are just different.  Below is my list of "new" and "missing" features in my forty-eight hour comparison.  None are showstoppers, but I did have to invent some workarounds in a couple cases.

"New" Features
These are features that either Aperture does not have or if it does it is cumbersome to use.
  • A way to easily upload a subset of my photos to Facebook.  Aperture does have this feature, but it stinks.  It always wanted to upload previews in such low resolution that the pictures were absolutely terrible.  Lightroom's Facebook publisher is better, but even better than the built-in one is Jeffrey Friedl's "Export to Facebook" Lightroom Plugin.  It allowed me to create albums, set things to private or just visible to friends, and I could enter any metadata I wanted into the caption field.  I like my captions to have my file identifier so that I can locate the original if need be.  This takes a ton of time off of my workflow because I do not have to export a slightly lower resolution version of my photos, upload them, and then edit the captions after I upload my photos.  Of course, if Facebook kept and showed select metadata I would not feel the need to do that.  (Note:  the photos did not seem to retain their location information, but I was initially using the plug-in with its default settings, which stripped location information).
  • A way to upload my photos to Google+ (via Picasa).  Okay, this is via a third-party plug-in (also by Jeffrey Friedl; see Jeffrey Friedl's "Export to Picasa" Lightroom Plugin).  While a third-party plug-in does exist for Aperture, like the imbedded Facebook plug-in it wanted to use the preview.  I always just exported the pictures as JPEGs and uploaded them to Google+.  This saves a very small amount of time in my workflow because I do not have to export my picture subset for Google+ at a slightly lower resolution and then upload, but it is convenient.
  •  Useful plug-ins.  Every Aperture plug-in I downloaded (excepting Photomatix, which is awesome for creating HDR composites) never lived up to its hype.  Lightroom's plug-ins (particularly the publish plug-ins) are quite robust.  Now if someone could just write a decent, simple metadata export plug-in (see "missing features") ...
  • More brushes.  I noticed a graduated filter brush, which greatly helped me adjust a photo where the sky was just a bit too bright and I did not use a polarizing filter or a ND filter over the lens (I had for some others in the batch I tested).  I also noticed a few nice presets that allowed me to easily modify a photo to monochrome through an orange filter.  (The B&W filter feature also exists in Aperture and is very easy to use, so perhaps I am giving Lightroom a little too much credit here).
  • A more accurate white balance eyedropper tool.  While Lightroom does not seem to have any sort of automatic white balance via algorithm like Aperture does, I found its eyedropper tool to adjust colors a little bit more accurately when the grey area is identified with it (at least in my eye—white balance can be as much about preference and style as accuracy).
  • Memory doesn't seem to leak as much and the CPU does not go insane after using the tool for a little while.  This is not a feature, of course, but it is much appreciated.  Aperture has been making me nuts lately and once the "beach ball" begins to appear regularly it is time to exit and re-start the program.
  • Mobile!  Lightroom's mobile app is not perfect, but it is pretty neat to see your pictures synch up and be able to sort, pick, and reject frames.  You can also do some light adjustments.
"Missing" Features
These are features that Aperture clearly has and I could not find in Lightroom.  I believe it is possible that third-party plug-ins may be able to resolve some of these or I just do not know where to find them yet, but it is too early to tell.
  • No built-in spell check for captions.  This was a relatively recent add for Aperture and was a welcome addition.  Sometimes, when I type comments fast I introduce minor type-os that are not easy to see.
  • No facial recognition.  I got into the habit of tagging who was in my photos.  I realize I can just add a tag in Lightroom, but the fact that Aperture shows all of the faces and could even recognize some of them make this an easy exercise.  I haven't figured out what I want to do here yet.  There are some workarounds that I found, but I am not happy with them.  For now, I'll either manually add the tags or just not bother until I find a better solution. 
  • No way to easily export metadata.  Aperture's metadata export is easy to use and comprehensive:  select the photos you want, right click, export metadata.  Lightroom does not have this function at all and the third party tools I found didn't just dump the information (and they wanted me to buy the plug-in to boot!).  The only reason I need the metadata is sort of stupid:  Shutterfly doesn't automatically load comments when you upload.  (I know, I know, I should switch services).  It adds a lot to my workflow, but it is a lot easier when I can cut and paste them from a spreadsheet.  An easy workaround was to just use Phil Harvey's ExifTool on my exported photos.  I seem to be using ExifTool for a lot of things anyway from fixing time shifts to pushing GPS coordinates and elevation into my pictures.  I am still surprised there is no built-in metadata export, though.
  • I always felt that Aperture's map function was sort of clunky.  Lightroom's is too.  I had hoped it would be better.
  • A real "auto" function.  I pressed "auto" to see what it would do.  A lot of times in Aperture, I would start with the auto and tweak from there (particularly white balance - I never liked the default white balance).  Lightroom's auto is just okay.  It can't set an auto exposure if its life depended on it, though.  If you enjoy blown out highlights, then this is the feature for you.
  • No auto white balance (without the eyedropper).  Aperture's auto white balance was hit and miss, but it usually gave me a good place to start when the lighting was not perfect.  You just have to sort of wing it in Lightroom.

Promising Results Thus Far 
My results thus far are promising and I have probably mentally made the decision to switch unless I find something even better.  I do not want to wait until the very end nor do I want to wait for Photos; I'll check that out when it is released.  I have been feeling that things have not been advancing in Aperture for some time, so I had already been considering a switch.  This is giving me the impetus to do it.

My Best,

   Jim

Sat November 3, 2012 (5:20 pm)

Mobile Platform Wars Redux

Image credit: gow27 / 123RF Stock Photo
In Phone Platform Wars - Wasting Time on Trivialities, I expressed befuddlement at the unnecessary vitriol that people had been directing at others who do not use the same mobile platform that they do.  I have noticed in the past two months that this vitriol has become even more pronounced.  In one case, a person that decided to try an iPhone 5 received death threats from her Android-using followers (see Ashley Esqueda's Google+ post from September 11, 2012) despite the fact that she was and is an avid Android user and wanted to try the other platform for a second phone line.  In another case just this past week, William Shatner's announcement of new app initially appearing on the iPhone platform got beat up because there was no Android version yet -- only 5% of the comments were about the app itself (called Shatoetry); the remainder devolved into Android fans bashing the "i" products from Apple (see here for an example).  While later posts tended to be from his own fan base versus fans of Android, it was jarring to see those comments vilifying a person for not having an application on their preferred platform first and ripping apart the competing platform.  Android users do not have a lock on such lunacy, despite the source for my two examples:  Apple users can be just as bad.

A survey by Business Insider from April 2011 had an interesting statistic (as of that date, of course):  55.7% of Android users would never buy an iPhone because they "hate Apple," while 23.8% of iPhone users would never switch to another platform.  The survey questions did not list Google or any other company as a reason to not switch off the iPhone (iOS) platform and the questions may have caused some bias in the responses.  Nevertheless, it is interesting that there are people that would never switch to an opposing platform even if they provided superior functionality and/or services.

All of this leads me to the following question:  What would make someone decide that they would never switch to a competing mobile platform?  "Never" is pretty absolute:

nev·er
adverb \'ne-vər\
1.  not ever : at no time < I never met her>
2.  not in any degree : not under any condition < never the wiser for his experience >
Source:  Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com, accessed November 3, 2012
What happens if the platform substantially deteriorates, like Blackberry's did?  Would they still not switch?  What psychological drivers are at work here?  Perhaps there is some sort of platform attachment psychosis in play or perhaps some of these individuals were personally burned when using the competing platform.  Maybe they are just surer of themselves than I am.  As an eight year Blackberry user that switched to an iPhone earlier this year, I can tell you that Apple does not have a lock on my business:  if I find something better when my contract is up, that will be the next smartphone for me.

Another question:  For someone that would never switch to a competing platform, why would a subset of these individuals also believe they need to evangelize the platform of their choice?  Perhaps this is the more interesting question of the two.  I presume the corporations involved with these mobile platforms are not paying these people.  Does the relative anonymity and ease of creating comments on any topic somehow circumvent a more moderated response?  I have seen this in other settings beyond the Internet and social media (for example, on the phone versus in person), but what drives a person to turn off their self-regulation is still a mystery to me.

Fri October 19, 2012 (9:47 pm)

A New Domain for my Blog

Earlier this evening, I took care of something that I have been wanting to do for quite some time:  redirect a sub-domain on my web site to my blog.  I do not think there was any specific reason for it except to begin to "unify" some of my content (a lot of which is out of date, I might add).  As it turns out, the set-up was relatively straight forward and my blog remained where it has always been (on blogger).  There were four rather simple steps I took to get this working:

1.  Create a sub-domain

My first step was to create a sub-domain on my web site that can redirect to my blog on Blogger.  Since I was not sure if I would want to add other blogs outside of the software domain in the future, I chose the somewhat cryptic "swblog" as my sub-domain.  The URL for my blog, therefore, became http://swblog.jimkile.com instead of http://jimkile.blogspot.com with that one decision.

Note:  A step like this is very much hosting service dependent.  My web site is hosted by Modwest (and has been since 2003), so I merely used ssh to access my account and create the appropriate directory.

2.  Verify my new sub-domain with Google's Webmaster Tools

I confess that I did not do this step in the order in which I have it here, but I found out that it was a necessary step to complete the process.  All I had to do was add the new blog URL, place a small HTML file in its root directory, and let the tool validate the address.  Not doing this caused an error when I updated the blog address in Blogger, so take my advice and do it first.

3.  Forward my sub-domain to Blogger

Once I had my new sub-domain, I had to tell the Internet's domain naming system (DNS) that one part of my web site would be hosted elsewhere (in this case, Blogger).  That required me to add two CNAME records to my web sites's DNS settings, but finding out what to add meant I had to start the process on the Blogger side first.  I did that by going into the basic settings for my blog and beginning the process of setting the new blog address using the advanced version of that option.  I added my new blogger URL (A) and then selected the settings instructions link (B) so that it would give me the information I would need to create the CNAME records.

Blogger's Advanced Blog Address Settings

Once I had the CNAME information, I added the two records to my web site's configuration.

Modwest's DNS Configuration Settings (Fragment)

3.  Save the Blog Address in Blogger

After I made my changes to my DNS settings, I merely saved the Blog Address I had started to get the CNAME information.  In theory, that should have been it except for the next step, which was the hardest ...

4.  Wait

I added this step because at first things did not quite work.  After about 20 minutes, though, the redirect seemed to be consistently working.  In fact, it should take about 24 hours before the name changes propagate throughout the Internet's DNS system, so 20 minutes was pretty good.

Other Changes at the Same Time?

Perhaps one thing that I changed that I probably should not have was the layout of my Blog.  In retrospect, had I known the results I probably would have left well enough alone for the time being.  While the blog is now using one of Google's new "dynamic" templates, the color scheme is currently rather bland.  When I had customized the background and colors, I found that they did not appear consistently across browsers and platforms.  For example, the background picture I selected was visible in Google's Chrome, but not Safari or Firefox (all of these on Mac OS X).  I will have to play with the settings and perhaps send some feedback to Google after some research to find out how to make their new templates play well with all browsers.

Mon May 21, 2012 (12:45 pm)

Traveling Can Be Interesting ...

While this does not follow my normal thread about software, it is interesting to me on a personal level (and I'll link it to software at the end). Those who know me well know that I have had my share of interesting travel experiences. From delayed flights to subsequent missed connections to natural disasters that have stranded me one place or another, I am never at a loss for a good travel story.

As I write this, I am experiencing something a little different from the past. As our plane was waiting in line to take off, it was called back to the gate to pick up a passenger whose bag made it on the plane, but they did not. Because of the return trip, they also need to refuel the plane. When the passenger came on board, air marshals accompanied the person.

We now await at least two things before we can push off from the gate again: first, the refueling needs to be completed (wonder if the late passenger gets to pay for that? Stranger things have happened); second, the person in my row that got up to go to the bathroom about 15-20 minutes ago needs to return. There are probably a couple other things, but those two would seem to be a must.

It will be interesting to see how long we will be waiting and how late we subsequently arrive at our destination. The flight is a long one already: 13+ hours from Newark, NJ to Beijing.

Getting back to software: The airline and/or airport knew they were missing someone whose baggage was loaded onto the plane, yet not soon enough prior to departure to do something about it and save a return trip to the gate. Enhancing their capability to detect this type of issue prior to departure could save them some money and possibly protect their on-time rating (not to mention keeping people at ease): a software enhancement worth thinking about.

Wed April 4, 2012 (11:14 pm)

Phone Platform Wars - Wasting Time on Trivialities


I have been reading with amusement as several people I follow and usually respect on G+ are bashing smart phone platforms that they did not choose for themselves.  I now have an iPhone, so apparently I have just become (overnight) an elitist snob after eight years of being neither hip nor trendy by using a Blackberry. Some don't like the closed platform of the iPhone.  Others think that Android is too buggy.  A lot of people think Blackberry must be going out of business (actually, that one could be close to the truth if they don't fix what's wrong with their technology and business model).

The underlying theme held by each person that commented was that the other platform -- the one they did not choose -- was not good enough or had some so-called critical flaw in it that should dissuade any normal person (read, like them) from even thinking about using it.

For me, I have used just about every computing platform out there at one point or another.  I have never been wedded to a single technology, though I do currently use a Mac and now all of a sudden have an iPhone.  Yet, I still use Windows too (2 machines in my house)...  and Linux, AIX, VM, zOS, etc.  I started with a Commodore 64, CP/M, and DOS.  I used VAX/VMS in college and had a Palm m515 that I used for a time near the turn of this century.  During the 1990s, I used OS/2 as my PC platform of choice.  Each one of these platforms had advantages and disadvantages and, yes, there are some platforms I like working in more than others.  But, my preferences are not everyone's preferences.

What I believe is key is that we have a choice, but can still communicate regardless of the choice we make.  This is one of the great things in IT that I have seen happen over my lifetime:  disparate computing environments that can communicate with each other pretty effortlessly.

So, for those that I follow and have fallen into this trap, please step back and think about what you are writing.  Are all those Android users you are bashing _really_ cheapskates (as I saw in one separate article)?  Are all those iPhone users so completed bought into the Apple hype that they can no longer think for themselves?  Have all those Blackberry users really made an inferior decision just to stay with a dying company with out of date technology?  You know the answers.

As I look to conclude, I realize that my title is tinged with irony, given the length of this article.  Humph.  Perhaps it is that new elitist snob attitude I just picked up ...

Wed July 20, 2011 (8:42 am)

Photography Software: Missing Features and Frustrations

Photography is one of my long-time hobbies.  It started in my youth with a camera given to me by my grandparents—a Vivitar 110 with a built in flash—and continues to this day with my current Canon 7D digital SLR.  I am not sure what attracts me to the craft, but I enjoy being able to record events and interpret the things that I see in the world.  I purchased my first SLR camera about a year after graduating high school (a Canon T70 35mm).  Up until the turn of the century (that's 2000 not 1900) the one thing that most cameras had in common was that they used some form of film.

Canon T70 35mm Camera
Since switching to digital photography in 2003, I have come to realize that film and limited online capability did have at least one advantage:  you did not have to deal with image processing and upload software on a regular basis.  Instead, you dropped your film off at (or mailed it to) a lab where it was processed on your behalf.  As the web became more popular, you even had the option of receiving a digital version of your pictures on 3.5" disks or, later, CD/DVD for an additional fee.

Working with image processing and upload software can be a frustrating endeavor despite the greater creative control it gives you over your photographs.  I think the way I work makes it even more difficult (perhaps I am the problem here).  Nevertheless, I use Apple's Aperture for processing and organizing my photos.  Once processed, I like to upload my master set (photos that I have not rejected, but are not only the best of the best) to Kodak Gallery and make any prints from there if I need something that looks professional or if I just want to create a book of the year's photos.  I also tend to share a sub-set of those photos on Facebook and, more recently, Google+ so that my friends and family are easily able to see the best of a photo shoot from the comfort of social networking account.

Canon 7D Digital SLR Camera
My current frustration is with exports and uploads for photo sharing.  The key phrase here is "lack of integration and features."  While I find Aperture to be generally easy to use and powerful with excellent general photo export features built into it, its integration with photo software sites leaves much to be desired.  Sadly, this seems to be the case with Adobe's Lightroom (a.k.a. "the competition") as well.  Both allow plug-ins, but none that I have tried do exactly what I would like them to do—some do things that do not seem to make any sense to a rational human being.  For example, Facebook integration within Aperture happily uses the version name of the photo as the caption (instead of the caption).  That means if you want to have a real caption you have to change it in Facebook itself.  If you do change it, though, it changes all of your version names to the new caption within Aperture.  Yes, you read that right and Apple has yet to address it.  In addition, none of the plug-ins I have tried seem to allow you to "build" your caption from metadata or file information (e.g. Caption + Version + date taken, etc.) and most of these services' upload software seems to have the same limitation.  Even third parties don't quite do the job.  Incidentally, one plug-in that that comes close for Google's Picasa is Übermind's Aperture to Picasa Web Albums:  it is fast, uses Aperture's export settings, but it does not allow a custom built caption, which is a shame.

What makes all of this worse is that the various photo sites also do not integrate well with the social networking sites.  For example, while I could share my photos to Facebook from Kodak Gallery, people would be redirected to the Kodak Gallery.  The result is that I cannot tag people and it becomes difficult to keep track of what I actually shared (e.g. my 'best of' versus the entire album).  While there are several plug-ins for the Chrome and Firefox browsers (like Move Your Photos for Chrome) that attempt to help, I found the ones that I tried to be feature poor and inconsistent with respect to maintaining captions, EXIF information, resolution, etc.

Unfortunately, I have wound up with a cobbled together and complex photo sharing workflow once I have made my adjustments and added metadata:
  • I export all of my adjusted photos as JPG files.  (I would do this anyway so I have the final version of the photo stored after adjustments).
  • I use Kodak Gallery's upload software to move my photos into Kodak Gallery.  It does not pull captions from the exported JPG files, so I have the pleasure of copying and pasting them.  To make my life easier, I export the metadata from Aperture and load it into Excel where I can manipulate the caption to also include the photo's version name.  I tried to use the automator, but let's just say that solution was less than successful.  (Note:  I used to use PictureSync, but that seems to have died forever now.  That was a nice program because it pulled in the captions and allowed me to append additional information like the version name.  I still weep its demise).  UPDATE:  It looks like there was an update to PictureSync that allows it to work with Kodak Gallery again.  
  • I have been using Bloom to upload photos to Facebook.  It allows tagging from the software and you can create/manipulate albums before uploading.  Bloom also allows you to pull in EXIF data as part of the caption.  Unfortunately, it also puts the EXIF tag before it (e.g. "Caption/Abstract" and then the caption) and it does not allow for additional information outside of the EXIF like the file name.  I wind up deleting the tag information and adding the version name to the caption manually.
  • I just started using Übermind's Aperture to Picasa Web Albums.  This is a plug-in.  It is smart enough to pull the caption from the photo, but it does not allow for caption manipulation.  One nice thing is that you can use a custom export that does not interfere with my normal exports.  Nevertheless, I have to edit all of the captions once it is uploaded to Picasa before sharing with Google+.
I could solve some manual manipulation by just putting the version name in with the caption, but that just doesn't seem like the right way to go:  it would just confuse things and cause me to type the version names into the caption instead of a sub-set into the upload software.

So, what do I want?  Perhaps the impossible, but here it is:
  • A plug-in or set of plug-ins in Aperture (or Lightroom) that allow me to select the photos I want to upload, export them at the selected resolution, create or update a photo site or social network album with the requisite fields that the social network supports (e.g. location, date, album description, etc.), include EXIF information in the upload, allow me to customize the caption with metadata and file information, and set permissions/shares.
AND/OR
  • An application that does the same after I have exported the data.
AND/OR
  • A way to do the upload to one sharing site and have the sharing features copy the photos into the others in tact (that is, with captions, EXIF, etc.).  I would be happy to do the tagging separately.

In the end, I think my desires may not be achievable for some time.  Who knows, maybe I'll write a plug-in or set of plug-ins myself that does this someday.  For now, though, I'll keep looking for new applications and products and hope that one (or more) will eventually fit my needs.

Fri October 22, 2010 (9:05 am)

Understanding What We've Learned

In my last blog entry, I wrote about an agile review that I was preparing to conduct with one of my teams.  This team began using the agile software development methodology in earnest in late July after receiving training.  At that time, several experienced agile scrum masters and independent coaches were inserted to help guide the transition.  I noted specifically that the team has some characteristics that make an agile implementation challenging and success uncertain:  the team's overall size is greater than 80 individuals and growing; there are inter-organizational and leadership dynamics in play that could derail the implementation; and the technical environment (SAP), with its functional orientation, poses a unique technical challenge.
 
The data-gathering portion of the review ended on October 8.  As hoped, the number and variety of input sources and forums for leaders, coaches, mentors, practitioners, and customers proved to be quite robust.  Indeed, this review approach yielded more data than one could hope to analyze in a short period of time—particularly when other responsibilities begin to intrude.  Despite my initial worries, gathering input is the easier part of the review.  What remains is much more difficult:  fully understanding the data that was gathered, deriving major themes, identifying recommendations, and implementing those recommendations, as appropriate.

Emerging Themes

While the review is still incomplete, some themes have begun to emerge that suggest the characteristics of this team's working and technical environment are not driving a significant number of unique challenges and problems.  That is, many of the concerns raised by the team and their leadership are reminiscent of earlier agile implementation experiences:  difficulty breaking down epic user stores, an initial inability to size in story points, general role confusion, problematic team communications, and getting good quality user stories and acceptance criteria.  Nonetheless, there are some themes that do appear to be unique or, perhaps, this team has a different spin on an otherwise generic theme.

Iteration planning is of particular concern in part due to the functional orientation of the team and the underlying product.  The functional orientation of the product makes planning an iteration challenging in that the stories selected need to match the team's composition or the work contour will be uneven.  This implies that a potentially higher priority story might have to take a back seat to a slightly lower one because resources may not be available to complete it during the iteration.  This is not wholly unique—other agile teams also run out of resources—but it is more acute because the functional breakdown of the team is so granular.  To smooth out the work contour means you need to know more than just the team's velocity.  As one colleague aptly put it:  you need to identify and understand the micro-velocity by functional orientation to be successful.  In addition, the team does not have a rigorous planning background to fall back on:  they are learning it as they learn agile.

The technical infrastructure surrounding the application and the functional orientation of the product presents unique challenges.  The inter-dependencies between modules (which also effect planning) are somewhat mind-boggling.  Too, the ability to keep various environments synchronized has become an issue, though not one due to the implementation of agile.  Regardless of the source, it is clear these items will need to be addressed as they are a systemic source for blockers during and after an iteration.

Meeting overload.  One of the things that came through loud and clear was that practitioners and leaders felt that they were attending too many meetings.  The team itself is distributed, so some "meeting creep" is expected, since in-person communications are not always possible.  But, the prevalence of the sentiment shows that it is a larger issue than just adding a 15-minute scrum and another 15-minute scrum-of-scrums call during the day.  While there are instances of people who do not need to attend certain meetings being expected to attend—much of which has already been rectified—we failed to consider the impact of these additional meetings on an apparently already busy meeting schedule.  In fact, existing meetings have grown to encompass much of the same material covered in the scrum of scrums meaning we now have some redundancy. 


More to Come

Preliminary insights are just that:  preliminary.  They only give a hint of the direction you may eventually need to follow.  Assuming I can wade through all the data with my review team in a timely manner I am sure we can figure this out.  I am also sure we will find a lot more.

Sun September 19, 2010 (10:25 pm)

Reviewing an Agile Implementation

In a couple of weeks, I am going to be performing a formal review of our progress implementing agile software development practices for one of our sub-teams.  While agile is a deeply ingrained methodology for most of our team, this one area has some unique characteristics that make adoption both interesting and challenging.  Indeed, the team's size (greater than 80 individuals and growing), the inter-organizational and leadership dynamics in play, and the technical environment (SAP) mean that success is not assured.  Nevertheless, there does not appear to be anything in this environment that would rule out the implementation of some form of agile software development.  While all environments are not created equal, higher productivity, higher quality, and increased developer and customer satisfaction have accrued from past implementations.

Selecting What to Review and How to Review It

Preparing for a review of this magnitude can be stressful.  Each decision made in preparation has the potential to expose useful information and provide a deeper understanding of the team and the environment in which they are now working.  Unfortunately, those same decisions may inadvertently suppress useful information, resulting in a faulty analysis that generates incorrect conclusions and follow-on actions.  A deep understanding is necessary to determine what is truly working well and what is just not working at all—it has ramifications on what happens next.

Multifaceted Approach.  Gathering the correct information is essential for any successful review.  Since information can be lurking in unexpected places, the best approach would seem to be a multifaceted one.  That is, using several different techniques may be the best way to reduce the possibility of missing something important.  To best understand what the team is experiencing on a daily basis, staying away from using the review period to question people about performance metrics would also seem prudent.  Those types of questions tend to make people uncomfortable and, more importantly, a team that has just begun using agile is not going to fully understand what those metrics mean or how they are influenced.  Instead, all of the review techniques selected thus far are intended to pull meaning from each of the interpersonal interactions.  They are also intended to help the team better understand their own performance and allow them to think through what they might need to do to make this successful:  a tall order.

The Mini Retrospective.  Those familiar with agile have most likely heard of the project retrospective.  Nevertheless, most have never actually participated in one—at least not along the lines proposed by Norm Kerth [1].  A full-blown review is time consuming, but rewarding.  On the other hand, this review is not about a single successful or troubled project (not yet, anyway).  Instead, its focus is on gathering enough information about the new methodology surrounding many the projects in this area and to understand where things are going well or poorly.  Variations of two exercises that Kerth proposes are well suited to enable the type of breakthrough thinking that will allow the team to explore what they are experiencing:  the "develop a time line" exercise  [1 pp. 121-126] and the "emotions seismograph" exercise [1 pp. 127-130].  For good or ill, this part of the review is being called a "mini retrospective."  While the name may be a bit generous, the goal of deeply understanding what the team is experiencing is the same.  Because only a couple of hours are allocated for each scrum team, there there will need to be some work done by the team prior to the discussion so that the entire time is not spent creating the time line.

Talk to the Individuals.  You can learn a lot from a conversation if you ask open-ended questions and listen carefully.  When your attention is on more than a person's words you become aware of their underlying mood, energy level, and attitude.  You can also develop a better understanding of the person you are listening to.  This is called Global Listening—it is sometimes also referred to as level three listening.  It seems reasonable to conclude that the ability to listen will determine whether these sessions are ultimately successful.  (As an aside, I learned about the three types of listening from a class I took earlier this year.  I found a pretty good summary of the three levels themselves, if you are interested [2]).

Getting the Team Together.  As important as individual conversations with selected team members are, it is just as important to schedule time with the various sub-teams within the wider team to gain insight into the entire group—insight that might not otherwise appear in a one-on-one setting.  This group has a complex matrix management structure.  That means that there are several different types of groups from which to gather information:  the scrums themselves, the management team, the functional leadership team, and the business team, to name a few.  These types of gatherings are often called round tables after the table used by King Arthur and his knights:  such a table does not inherently grant precedence to any one person.  That description seems appropriate for this part of the team review.  By maintaining equanimity, individuals are given a forum and the freedom to discuss collective matters of importance about the team, the methodology, or any other pertinent topic.

Let the Leader Present Their Findings.  It always seems best to have the people leading a team take responsibility and ownership for conveying the major themes discussed during the early part of the review with their local management team.  This may be somewhat counter-intuitive, but the theory is that by having the team's leader present the findings that they and their team worked so hard to identify will help ensure that the information is complete and accurate.  This has the added benefit of giving them visibility to their local management team and giving an overall insight into their dedication and competence.

Concluding Thoughts

The aforementioned techniques are intended to cover an array of individual and group meetings during the review.  Missing is how we intend to conduct an analysis of the information gathered and how conclusions will be drawn.  While these rather important topics remain partially open as of this writing, one thing seems clear:  a tentative summary of findings should be available to the team quickly -- before the on-site review period concludes.  This will give the review team additional feedback and serve as a further assurance that something important was not missed.

In a few weeks, I will know whether any of this was effective.  Either way, I am sure I will learn something. 

References

[1]    N. L. Kerth, Project Retrospectives:  A Handbook for Team Reviews. New York: Dorset House Publishing, 2001.

[2]    S. Smith, —The Three Levels of Listening—, http://careersintheory.wordpress.com/2009/09/08/three-levels-of-listening/, 2009, Accessed September 19, 2010.

Sat August 21, 2010 (10:44 am)

The Decline of Creativity?

Last month, I read an article in Newsweek that put into words a fear I have been having about creativity in America.  The article, "The Creativity Crisis" by Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman [2], appeared in the July 19, 2010 issue of Newsweek and can still be found online.

A little background:  The article refers to scores on a creativity test originally developed by Ellis Paul Torrance in the late 1950s and formalized in 1966 as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking [1].  The test is similar to an intelligence test in that a psychologist administers it and it requires the performance of discrete tasks over a fixed duration.  Instead of deriving an Intelligence Quotient (IQ), it derives a Creativity Quotient (CQ).  The article briefly explains the difference between the two tests noting that while the IQ test is subject to the Flynn effect [3]—"each generation, scores go up about ten points," which requires the test to be re-normalized periodically to maintain an average score of 100—while the CQ test, apparently, is not.  The implication is that scores on an IQ test may be inflated between re-normalizations.  It is unclear to me whether CQ tests can suffer from a similar phenomenon and whether any comparison to past results is truly valid:  the article assumes they are.  Nevertheless, up until 1990, CQ scores were steadily rising.  Since 1990, they have been consistently falling with the decrease in younger children between kindergarten and sixth grade being regarded as the most significant.

While it is unclear whether the premise of the problem presented within the article is completely factual—popular magazines tend to skew information to their audience, do not provide peer reviewed references, and are not themselves peer reviewed—I believe the issue itself is real.  The vast information we now have available to us via the Internet and the latest trend toward social networking and online communities would seem to be positive development.  Indeed, the recession-induced workplace of 2010 with its "always on, always available" philosophy would also seem to be a boon to businesses, albeit somewhat temporary.  The negative, in my opinion, is that these advancements in information availability, trends toward hyper-connectivity, and workplace expectations are systematically eliminating the time available to assimilate and process information:  to allow people to think through what they have seen and learned and come up with new ways of solving problems or doing things better.

The need for assimilation time does not mean I think that we should never have deadlines or that we should not attempt to complete our various projects (personal or professional) in a timely manner.  Indeed, I have found that in some cases these pressures can help me find new ways of doing things (out of necessity).  Yet, these solutions are often not of the same quality as when I have a chance to think them through.  While they tend to get the job done in the short-term they may be one-time solutions that cannot be easily repeated or transformed into longer-term success.  For me, those ideas that have lasted are those that I had the time to think through, try with some willing participants, and modify upon some reflection and with the input of those same participants.  The process is not linear and certainly not easily scheduled against an arbitrary time line.  I suspect this is also true of others.

Unfortunately, time is often seen as something that needs to be consumed efficiently and completely.  Thinking about new things or reflecting on your experiences does not give the appearance of being productive—at least in the short-term.  Nevertheless, I believe this is an essential part of living a full and complete life and is an integral part of determining whether a business ultimately survives or withers away.  Most disturbing to me is that I have also come to believe that this is equally applicable to a country that depends on its innovation and creativity.

We ignore creativity and its potential decline at our own peril.  As the cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote in 1952 and later modified and attributed to his Pogo Possum character for the first Earth Day in 1971:  "We have met the enemy and he is us."

What will we do to ensure we keep our creative and innovative edge?  Our future depends on how we answer this question.

References / Links

[1] "Ellis Paul Torrance", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellis_Paul_Torrance, Accessed August 21, 2010.

[2] P. Bronson and A. Merryman, —The Creativity Crisis—, Newsweek, vol. CLVI, no. 4, pp. 44-50, July 10, 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html.

[3] C. Graham and J. Plucker, —The Flynn Effect—, http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/flynneffect.shtml, 2001, Accessed August 21, 2010.



Last updated: August 21, 2010 11:05 AM
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