Light Modifier Comparison

In this post I will compare all of my speedlight light modifiers.  I plan to use it as a quick reference sheet available from any online device (I think being able to pull this up on my phone could be handy). You can find links to get specifications or purchase these modifiers on my photo gear page.

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How I Kicked Cable TV and cut the Cord in 2012: Part Three – Testing – Three Months In

You can see the plan we made to legally watch time-shifted TV without cable in this post.

We are about three months in to the new TV experience at our house and I thought I’d give you an update.  I can’t call it a final solution because there are still some rough edges to this plan but it is working for the most part.

Is this system as effortless, pleasurable, and reliable as cable + Tivo?  Nope.  I always liked Tivo before but in dealing with this new system I really see some stark contrasts.  Is the savings worth the hassle?  For us, I think it is.  I don’t see us going back to cable ever again.

Using the chart I made for the previous article, I’ll comment on each service:
Comcast
We have stuck with Comcast for our internet service and we continue to rent the modem from them.

Hulu Plus Haven’t used it. Haven’t wanted to.  We get Hulu through PlayOn which provides more content than Hulu Plus for no additional cost.

Roku 2 XS Use it all the time to watch TV shows.  A good little device for the price.  The remote works well.  The player does a good job.  About the only times we don’t use this are when we are playing a DVD or watching something directly on our computer.

Plex  Never could get it working.

PlayOn/PlayLater  Use it for 95+% of all TV shows we watch.  Unfortunately, this is the biggest glitch in the system.  We have access to TONS of content through the Roku but the stuff we *want* to watch is almost always only found through PlayOn.  The glitch is that this is the worst user experience on the Roku.  Some of it may be PlayOn’s fault but it is obvious that most/all of it is on the media providers end.  How can I tell?  Because any content that you pay extra for to directly access (such as Amazon on Demand for movies) works flawlessly.  It proves to me that it isn’t the hardware or my internet connection.  Also, any commercials that play during a show viewed through PlayOn look great and play without problems.  It is only the content itself that will sometimes stutter, show artifacting, fail to play, etc.  There is a noticeable picture quality difference between networks with CBS being the worst offender.  I have read that the media companies don’t make it easy for software like PlayOn because they don’t like their media being streamed.  I don’t understand this.  They now have people like me watching their commercials where before I never watched any.  They also get “free” views of old content that would have just been collecting dust or stuck on some obscure channel late at night.  Case in point:  More than once I’ve found Melanie watching an old Brady Bunch episode.  Overall, the software works and it seems to be getting better all the time (slowly) and without it our TV-watching solution would fall apart.

Redbox  Surprisingly (to me) we still use this option.  It only happens when they have something we want to see and we are going to be driving near a RB anyway.

Amazon Instant Video  This has been the most pleasant surprise of the entire process.  Anytime we watched videos through the Tivo, we always downloaded them and then watched.  With the Roku player we just pick a movie we want to see, press start, and within a few seconds the movie begins.  The picture quality is as good (probably much better) as our old CRT TV can provide.  Pausing, rewinding and even fast forwarding work well.  You are able to see what is going on in the movie while you do all this with a little thumbnail image so accuracy isn’t lost.  We even had a brief power outage once and the movie resumed exactly where we left off once it came back on.

Netflix Streaming  Never tried it.  The biggest problem is that none of their content is new enough for us.  We also don’t watch enough movies to make it cost effective.  Amazon Instant Video and Redbox  meet all of our needs and do so closer to the movie’s release date.

How has our day to day viewing changed?
With Tivo
  You pop on the TV and look at the menu of all the stuff Tivo has recorded for you (both things you tell it to record and things it thinks you’ll like) and pick what you want to watch.  You can pause rewind, FF very accurately so all commercials can quickly and easily be skipped.  There are almost never any problems and you don’t have to remember to record anything.  You will only have issues if you want to record more than two things at once (at least with our Tivo).

With Roku and PlayOn You pop on the TV and select PlayOn.  Then you hop through a series of menus to get to the show you want to watch.  It is up to you to find out when new episodes are posted.  Press play and wait from a few seconds to a minute for the show to start.  Occasionally it will fail to play in which case you can either watch it from a computer or select something else to watch.  The choices of shows are pretty overwhelming so you probably won’t browse stuff.  Rather you’ll know what you want to see before you sit down.  Fast forwarding and rewinding is a pain because you are doing it blind so you just end up watching the commercials instead.  This can be maddening as anyone who has watch TV online will tell you because commercial blocks online must be sold differently.  It is not uncommon to see the exact same commercial for every commercial break of a show.  Also, because all of the different network formats have to be transcoded through PlayOn the download rate is slowed enough that it is very easy to outrun the download if you do choose to fast forward.  Pause works just fine.  You will find that when you pause a show that it tends to lock up at whatever point it was downloading when you pressed the button.  This is easily remedied by going up one menu and selecting the show again and resuming right where you left off.  It only takes a second so it really isn’t even an annoyance, just a weird quirk.

Directly Through Roku (not PlayOn)  You pop on the TV and scroll through a series of menus to find what you want.  There is a lot of stuff, but most of it is junk or you have to pay extra to watch it.  However, most stuff that you watch directly through Roku’s service loads very quickly, has very good picture and audio fidelity and has little thumbnails when you fast forward and rewind.  Fast forwarding works well with some items that allow you to fast forward past the point that you have downloaded (like Amazon Instant Video).  I’ve even noticed with some channels like Crackle and Amazon it will remember exactly where you stopped watching a video even a month or more after you last watched it.

Summary  The Roku hardware is ready for primetime but the content providers are dragging their feet making this an imperfect solution.  With native Roku channels like Crackle and streaming services like Amazon On Demand, it is easy to see the potential of this system.  It just doesn’t live up to that potential yet.  For us, it is close enough for now.  Our estimated spending on TV and movies has dropped from about $95/mo to $85/mo and that includes a lifetime subscription to both PlayOn and PlayLater amortized over this year.  After this year it will drop to $74/mo.

If someone was looking for a way to ease into a video on demand set up and didn’t care as much about money or they just watched a lot of movies, I think the Roku player is a nice solution.  They could keep cable for current shows and use the Roku player to access VOD or a large catalog of old programming.

We have more content with our new set up at a lower price.  Paradoxically, we watch much less TV now.  When the content isn’t being pushed to us we’ve found that we are not willing to go seek it out.  I made a list of the shows we watched before we switched and now we are at exactly half as many.  We also are finding that we read a lot more, which is a very good thing.

We Delve into Puzzles

In an effort to find more things to do together, Melanie suggested we try putting together a puzzle.  She remembered fun times working on various puzzles with her grandmother whenever she’d visit.  I haven’t put together too many myself but it sounded like something worth trying.  I poked around online looking for a good one when I happened upon the Ravensburger 1665 World Map puzzle.  I love maps.  I really love old maps.  It was 3000 pieces so I knew it would be a challenge.  Too much of a challenge?  I didn’t really know, but I’d rather have it be too hard than too easy.

Jump forward a little more than a month and the puzzle is now complete.  We had fun putting it together but there were times when I had to drag Melanie along to maintain any forward progress. When the last piece was placed, Melanie was really glad we had done it but she also said, “I don’t think we should do another puzzle.”

Overall I was really impressed with the quality of this puzzle.  It is easily the nicest one I’ve assembled.  Pieces are cut very precisely so there is a certain feel when the right two pieces are interlocked.  This is important because the dastardly folks as Ravensburger have made many many pieces that are extremely similar in shape.  The image itself is vibrant, clean, and sharp.  You can read the tiny text, see the “island” of California, observe blue elephants in Africa, and spy frolicking sea monsters.

A word of warning though.  This puzzle is huge!  At 48″ x 32″, it required us to put the extra leaf in our dining room table to have enough room for assembly and piece sorting.

Not a Small Puzzle
Animated Time-Lapse Image

If you like puzzles or maps of the world, why not run over to Amazon and grab a copy for yourself?

Stargate Universe

I can count the number of people I know that have watched Stargate Universe on one hand and I don’t even need to use my thumb.  Just last night I finished re-watching the series with my wife and it reminded me how good that show was (she liked it too and she isn’t a huge sci-fi fan).  It is easily one of the five best shows I’ve ever watched and even as I write this review I am thinking back on key moments in the series.

Most conversations about SGU are quick and go one of two ways:  1.  “I’ve never heard of it.  I don’t like sci-fi.  No thanks.”  2.  “It has Stargate in the title.  That means a corny concept at least and a silly show most likely.”  If this describes you, I urge you to give SGU a try.  The entire tone of the show is very different from the movies and other TV series.  If you have never seen the movie Stargate or need a refresher on its basic premise, watch this little video and you’ll enjoy SGU more.

I’m sure I’m going to get negative feedback for saying it but the original movie was more than a little goofy.  It was well made and entertaining but it was hard to take seriously.  That tone followed into the TV shows SG-1 and Atlantis from what I’ve observed.  Admittedly, I’ve only seen an episode or two of each.  I couldn’t stand them.  Because of this I came to SGU late in the game.  The series had almost finished up and I had to catch late night reruns on Tivo.  As a matter of fact, I think it was Tivo that suggested that I give the show a try in the first place.  Thanks Tivo.

Anyway, SGU seems more grounded in reality to me.  Decisions have consequences and looming danger is effectively conveyed.  It reminds me of Battlestar Galactica (the newer series) in these ways.  Its focus is much more on the people and their relationships to one another and the act of surviving in a very desperate situation.  If you like Robinson Crusoe, you owe it to yourself to give this show a try.  Few and far between are the giant battles and crazy aliens that this franchise seems to be best known for.

I loved the overall story (which is always the most important thing to me).  It is full of surprises and cleverness.  Who is good and who is bad?  What is the “good” or “bad” decision? Can this person be trusted?  The dialog and character interactions are superb.  I have a feeling as the episodes started filming, the writers saw this strength and began to use the characters to drive the story. The acting is wonderful and you really believe that these actors are the people they are portraying.  The production values are high (which I imagine had to play heavily into the decision to cut the series). Even the soundtrack is great with songs from folks like Alexi Murdoch, Flogging Molly, and Mumford & Sons.

It only ran for two seasons on the then-named Sci Fi Network so it wouldn’t take you long to get through the entire series.  Now that it is summer break for most TV shows, this is the perfect time to give it a try.  I think if you watch the first two or three episodes you’ll be hooked.

You can find the most recent episodes on SyFy’s website but don’t watch them first.  This is one continuous story that would be easy to ruin by watching the series out of order.

You can buy the DVD’s or download episodes from Amazon, check them out from your local library, and many other ways.  Just give them a watch and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Fun or Fart?

If you are a child of the 80’s, if you are a nerd, or if you like videogames, you owe it to yourself to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  As usual, I don’t like to spoil anything about the story when I talk about books here on the blog.  I will tell you that it is set in the future and focuses on 80’s pop culture.  There is a mystery to solve and an adventure takes place.  There are thrilling moments and plenty of action to keep the plot moving, but by far the most interesting part of the book is the universe that the author creates.  This book is destined to be a movie and it has so many opportunities to be visually spectacular.  It reminds me very much of Star Wars in that I like the original trilogy but I love the universe that these movies inhabit.

Is it the best book I’ve read?  No.  The writing style is not my favorite or maybe it needs to be refined a little more.  This book relies heavily on nostalgia but I wish it could have done so a little more subtly with fewer lengthy lists of books, movies, and songs.

Overall, both Melanie and I enjoyed it very much and I recommend it highly.  If you choose to listen to it on audiobook then you get the added bonus of having it read to you by Wil Wheaton.

Using the rating system from waaaay back in this post, I give this book a “fun.”

A Faux Treatise on Doughnuts and The Donut Shoppe

DOUGHNUTS
While I try to eat healthy most of the time, I’m no stranger to junk food and I love doughnuts (or donuts – both deliciously acceptable spellings).  In high school it wasn’t unusual to tuck into a cruller or Bavarian creme at Krispy Kreme after everything else but Krystal had shut down for the night.  With the slowing of my metabolism, I have to be more intentional about how often I eat these treats and, therefore, more selective when I spend the calories in my doughnut bank.

I’ve never had a doughnut better than Krispy Kreme.  Of course, I’m only talking about those that you get directly from one of their stores.  The hideous hardboard franken-nuts available at gas stations and grocery stores only share the green box and name with the genuine article.  If you want to tell me that Dunkin’ Donuts are a viable alternative, get out of my blog you lightly-sweetened bread eater!  You might as well have a piece of frosted toast.

Generally a shop can be judged on their plain glazed doughnut because there is almost always a direct correlation between the plain and the fancies.  When hot, it should dissolve almost without chewing like angel’s breath, cotton candy or a dream.  When room temp, it should have some chew but still be delicious and never too bready or greasy.  These magical properties must surely come from a recipe that is both 100% fat and 100% sugar.

I’ve heard many times before about how this local doughnut place is better or that doughnut shop is best.  In every case, the statement has been a lie.  Recently, a trusted doughnuteer recommended a local place I’d never heard of –  The Donut Shoppe.  I was immediately skeptical, but he assured me that the doughnuts were great – “the best,” in fact.  “They aren’t like Dunkin’ are they?”  “Of course not.”  “They’re really the best?”  “They are great.”  “Better than Krispy Kreme?”  “Wellll… As good as.  You should try them.”

He had withstood my withering cross-examination.  Maybe, just maybe, I’d found a Krispy Kreme alternative.  Dare I dream?  Perhaps even a new doughnut king?  I had to give them a try.

THE DONUT SHOPPE

There it is in the Righthand Corner

The Donut Shoppe is located in Jacksonville, Florida in the Arlington neighborhood close to Jacksonville University.  As with almost all really great local one-off establishments there are Soup Nazi quirks and rules.  In the case of this place I’d been forewarned of two things:

1. Get there early.  These guys don’t play.  They make what they make and when they sell out they shut down for the day.  Arrive after 10 am and you won’t have much selection.  Arrive after noon and you’ll probably be greeted by a locked door.

2.  Know what you want by the time you get to the counter.  The line will probably be kinda long and the store is tiny so others can’t go around you and they don’t want to wait forever on you.  The staff will be polite but they keep things moving.

With the rules fresh in my mind, I pulled up to the shop one weekday morning around 9am.  I’d been told parking is a problem and that wasn’t a joke.  Every available legal and illegal spot had been filled at the shop and the connected gas station.  I ended up pulling around the corner and parking at a mini-park.

As I approached the front door I noticed the line of happy people extending out of it.  There was even a vacationing family getting a group photo in front of the building.  All signs were pointing to yum.  My wait was short lived as the line moved at a steady clip.  I got to the glass case and noticed a variety of old standards.  This would not be a crazy combo place like Voodoo Doughnut (another shop I’d desperately love to visit) but its lineup could certainly compete with Krispy – perhaps even topple it, I thought.

Soon it was my turn and I cracked off an order for a plain glazed, custard-filled, lemon-filled and an apple fritter (trail plop).  Confident that I had selected an excellent cross section of the available ‘nuts, I paid, returned to my car and headed home to test.

Look at the Size of that Fritter

I wish I could be more dramatic about the actual tasting but they were exactly what I expected them to be – deliciously predictable.  With my advanced planning, I had forgone breakfast so I was able to shovel all of them into my gut not wasting a single bite or saving any for a later snack.  It was the equivalent of five doughnuts in one sitting.  I’d be sorry later, but at the time I couldn’t have been happier.

The verdict:  As good as Krispy Kreme.  Please note, I was not able to compare any hot off the presses so they may fall a little flat there but this is the highest praise I’ve ever given a non-Krispy doughnut.  In addition, with this place you get the “in the know”/local-secret excitement when you visit.  I would definitely go back and would recommend it to anyone.  Well, not to a diabetic.

THE DONUT SHOPPE
1721 University Blvd N
Jacksonville, FL 32211
(904) 743-1844

Pro tip:  I’ve since learned that you can call in an order.  Do it.  That way you are assured you’ll get something before you drive over.

The Donut Shoppe on Yelp

The Donut Shoppe on Urban Spoon

Yosemite – Ovaltine Bonus Material

I know there are not that many pix from Half Dome. I was having a tough enough time just doing the hike without taking pix. I’ll get better at this the more I do it.

We were testing out some new equipment for this trip:
1. Gregory Z-30 daypacks – Awesome! Light, small, comfortable. The pack is held away from your back so you don’t get “pack sweat back” so easily. Lots of freedom of movement with these. Along with our tent, probably my favorite piece of outdoor equipment we own. Citron Yellow is a great color too. [Editor’s Note:  In the three years since this article was first published, we have continued using these packs and still love them.  The Z-30 in the link above is the newer version as our exact model is no longer available.  We really like the longer narrower profile of these packs.  They hold as much stuff as a standard day pack without limiting the range of motion of your arms. We still love the curved frame to hold the pack away from your back but have noticed it makes accessing smaller things in the bottom of the main compartment more difficult.  They are sized right holding as much water and other stuff as you’d comfortably want to carry for a day. The well-designed shoulder straps and waist belt allow you to distribute the load comfortably across your torso.  On the downside, these packs are expensive.  For us, being able to hike with the stuff we want to carry for a day without ending up with a sore back, shoulders or neck has been worth the price.]

2. Camelbak 2L water bladders – Highly recommended. The biggest size that would fit our packs. 3/4 of the people we saw hiking had these and with good reason. They make drinking water fun and easy. 🙂 The weight stays centered on your body and you are more likely to drink more often because of the convenient drinking tube. Nice large mouth that you can fit your hand in for cleaning. Con’s: Still a pain to clean. No locking “off” valve (although you can buy one for it). I read that you can just toss them in the freezer rather than cleaning in between uses on longer trips. This is what we did and it worked great. [Editor’s Note:  The link takes you to the newer version of this bladder.  You’ll see that these now come with a locking on/off valve standard.  We still love these bladders and have had no leaks with our bite-valve-only versions.  Part of the trick seems to be pushing the tubing far in to the bite valve.  This way the bite valve and the tubing must be compressed a little for water to flow (more resistance so more force is needed for a leak).  We’ve come up with a pretty easy cleaning routine:  1. Fill part way with soapy water, shake, drain through valve.  2.  Clean any dirty areas inside and out with remaining soap.  3.  Rinse thoroughly.  4.  Dry inside and out with a towel.  5.  Stuff interior with two paper towels to hold it open for drying. 6.  Remove bite valve and spin hose (like you are cowboy getting ready to rope a steer or a kid playing jump rope).  7.  Let everything completely dry.  8. Replace bite valve and store with lid unscrewed.  It sounds much more complicated than it is.  It takes about as long as washing and drying a dirty dish.]

3. Marmot PreCip rain jackets – More affordable that the Goretex alternatives but much more breathable than standard nylon or coated nylon. Available in lots of colors. Cut large enough to cover a couple layers of clothing. Pitzips are nice for ventilation and work well. Stuffs in on itself with one of the pockets forming a stuff sack (handy). Overall this product was a good match for us. I’ve read that the waterproofing doesn’t hold up a super long time. Didn’t break the wind all that well. The hood works well but the feature to roll it up into a collar is a joke. If you are a woman, skip the lady’s version. The men’s design is better and available in more colors. [Editor’s Note:  The link now takes you to a newer version of the same product.  We still really like these jackets.  The waterproofing has not failed, but that could easily be because we are intentionally babying them.  They stay stuffed in our day packs and are only used when we are hiking.  Since we try to hike when it isn’t raining, they see little use.  We’ve probably only used them 5 or 6 times total.  We’ve also added long rain pants to the ensemble.  We usually hike in cooler weather and having dry legs is nice (in the summer we just wear shorts and don’t care).  As noted in the Yosemite write up, nylon running or hiking pants don’t cut it.  They let the water right in.]