15
Dec

Switcher

   Posted by: Mark   in Tech

Dad started us out on a Commadore 64 around the time I was in seventh grade. I remember the awe of seeing that machine and what it could do with Logo and Basic. Dad set the standard for me with his direct assembly-level programming on that machine, and I began writing simple Basic programs. I think he let me take that machine for my first year of college, with a small monochrome green-screen display.

Later in college it was the old amber 8088 that the school provided, then the Amiga 500 Dad bought, and finally the powerful Intel-based 386 I had when I graduated with degree in hardware design. I don’t recall the machines we had after Tami and I got married, but I do know there has always been a computer in the house. I eventually changed my career focus from hardware to software, and even now continue as a software developer.

I built a number of machines over the years, with the latest being a Windows-based PC about four years ago. I have used that system ever since, upgrading drives, memory, and display over time. And I finally decided that upgrading piecemeal would no longer work. I needed a new system.

And resources and opportunity met, and I bought an iMac. I should preface that with the confession that I recently bought Tami her own iMac a few months ago. It’s an older iMac G4, but even in the poor condition from which I resurrected it, it appears to be an excellent machine. It needs some software updates, which are on the way (right, JS?), but allows her to easily peruse email, music, web sites, and photos.

So that planted the seed that maybe the dark side was not all that dark. And then I started really hearing from a couple of “swichers,” and started comparing PC and Mac. And the final straw was the fact that I could run Windows XP natively simultaneously with OS X on the new Intel-based Macs, allowing me to continue pursuing MS-based software development while jumping into the great features of OS X.

I’ve already rambled on long enough in this post, and will address some reasoning later on, but I have not regretted the decision. It hasn’t been a flawless conversion, and I’m not even fully converted yet, but I am not getting rid of this new machine any time soon.

(My new iMac is the aluminum G5, 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with a 20″ widescreen, 1G RAM with two more gigs arriving shortly.)

30
Nov

Slow progress

   Posted by: Mark   in Tech

I worked for a bit tonight on the blog, attempting to understand how the templates all fit together in Movable Type. My biggest stumbling block was that the templates in a default installation of Movable Type 4 completely ignore Widgets. I started tonight moving things around so that the templates can use Widget Sets while still maintaining the use of the variable switches at the top of each template.

For users of Movable Type, the obvious and immediate advantage to this is a graphical interface for moving content around on your pages via the Widget Manager. I still have not found any drawbacks, and am puzzled at SixApart’s decision to not take advantage of this.

Another accomplishment tonight involved the addition of a dynamic “latest images” from our Flickr feed, now displayed to the right on the main page. This involved both phpFlickr and help from Jesse. There is nothing fancy in this implementation, but one of the nice things is that the feed is set up as a Widget, and contains only six lines of functional code (plus five for variable declarations)! Jesse mentioned plans to outline his excellent implementation on Movable Tweak, and I do not want to steal his thunder (as if our readership looks at all alike). Once I figure some more things out in the templates, improve the Flickr integration on this site, and glean from Jesse’s upcoming post, I will post some details of how I put things together.

19
Nov

Houdini Starving Artist

   Posted by: Mark   in Tech

A year ago I spent countless hours in Houdini’s incredible Apprentice edition, learning the interface, concepts, and terminology. It was much different from the old RayDream 3D I had purchased years ago: RayDream was at best a toy and Houdini is a world-class studio-level application (thing Harry Potter, Spiderman 3, Meet the Robinsons, The Last Mimzy, Superman Returns, etc.), and Houdini handles objects and concepts completely differently than most 3D applications, using node-based hierarchies. Houdini was refreshing and a pleasure to work with, but I eventually abandoned it because I knew I could not afford or justify the full version of the program if I decided to move up from the watermarked Apprentice version.

Well I received an email today from Side Effects Software announcing the release of Houdini’s “Starving Artist” edition. Side Effects has taken their astounding Houdini application, pulled out the ability to render to 3rd-party renderers (you can still render to the excellent native Mantra renderer), and set a price of $99. Unbelievable.

Thank you, Side Effects!

3
Nov

Lite dinner

   Posted by: Mark   in General

My sister has this thing she does with her family on a rather regular basis that involves a dinner of popcorn. Yeah, that’s it, just popcorn. We do a similar dinner occasionally with popcorn and smoothies. And we make some of the best smoothies on the planet, since my parents got us a VitaMix many years ago. Oster and crowd can’t touch the VitaMix (though this guy may be able to). Our basic smoothies consist of a banana, an apple, an orange, some frozen fruit, a few scoops of plain or vanilla yogurt, and some ice. That’s it!

During the summers this is a great dinner, since the popcorn is light and the smoothies are cold and refreshing. But we have a rather significant problem, which was evidenced tonight in all its glory. We snack while we make the smoothies. So dinner tonight was not really just smoothies and popcorn. There were some fresh snap peas with ranch dressing. And some tortilla chips with ranch dressing. And a little of this and a little of that.

So this relatively healthy dinner turns into something worse than Beer Barrel Burger and a side of pork rinds.

But it sure is fun!

3
Nov

What’s the point of the MT Asset Manager?

   Posted by: Mark   in Tech

I have been installing the beta releases of Movable Type 4.x, and recently installed the final release of this great update to the Movable Type platform. The new interface is very clean, and easy to use once you have worked in it a little. The updated templates seem to be very usable and modularized, making customization easier than in previous versions. And there certainly are a lot of great features.

Today I finally took some time today to work in the system and see what I could learn. I got the Media Manager plugin working (in beta from Byrne), which was a nice accomplishment. (On a side note, this is a great foundation for some powerful integration with external systems, but seems to be lacking in “integratability,” probably because of the limitations mentioned next.) In the process of this I got to play a bit with the new Asset Manager. I added and removed Amazon and Flickr content, looked at the code, read a bit, edited some code, and really tried to bang on it for a little while.

I am still very much a newbie at it all, but I came away wondering what is the point of this super-special, sparky-new Asset Manager? Yeah, it does allow you to “Create a Flickr” asset, but for what purpose? It is a very handy file manager, but nothing more. You can’t add that asset to a post after creation (can you?). You can’t edit it. You can’t move it. You can’t to anything with it except view it.

I am hoping I am just missing some very basic information, and once I get that info, it will all snap into place in my head. I anxiously await insight from Jesse, since he is certainly the foremost non-Six Apart Movable Type guru on the planet. Well, maybe second, behind Arvind.

3
Nov

Relaxing, enjoyable evening

   Posted by: Mark   in General

This past Thursday we arranged for a babysitter and enjoyed an evening with Paul and Suzette. We joined them for dinner at the Fish Grotto in Portland, which is an intimate little restaurant that seats about 40 people. Our server was friendly and diligent, and the food was delicious. Tami and I have not been going out much lately, with her going to be early and not feeling well all the time, so this was not only a chance for us to invest some time together, but it was also a wonderful chance to invest some very enjoyable time with Paul and Suzette.

After dinner we decided to walk the cold, windy streets of Portland in search of a coffee shop. Finding an open one after 7:00p can be difficult in that part of town, so we wandered into the Wild Oats to see if they had some coffee. They were busy and in the middle of some dinner promotion, and it was too busy to find a place to sit and enjoy a cup, but on our way out to continue our search we ran into Matt and Sara and the boys! They had eaten just up the street from us, and were getting ready to find a coffee shop themselves. So our eight-strong party headed a few blocks away to a Starbuck’s we thought might be open. Indeed they were open, and we sat in the noisy warmth of the ubiquitous roasters, enjoying fellowship, pumpkin lattes, and sweets.

It was refreshing being able to talk to a couple of other guys for longer than the few minutes before and after church services, and humbling to hear that some of the struggles and dreams I have are not uncommon. Matt and Paul and good men, and two I greatly respect.

31
Oct

Making changes, adding pictures

   Posted by: Mark   in General

I am in the process of adding a full picture album to the site. This has been the most frustrating part about maintaining a web site, since I really like the platform I am using, but it has not supported a nice, simple, integrated photo album feature. So I was finally convinced to go with Flickr, since it has a very robust API and great upload and management tools. Getting it to work with Picasa is not as simple as it should be, but I have a workable solution for now using Flickr Uploadr.

I hope to get into serious photography in the near future, but have hoped to do so for years. We now have a cheap point-and-shoot, and it does what we need: it is small and can capture the moments that we want to capture without making a big deal of things. The pictures are not as nice as they would be with a Canon 20D, but they work for now in our current situation, and I have learned that even a bad picture is enough to provoke numerous memories years later.

So for now I am working toward a full integration of this blog with Flickr. And the first step in that is setting up Flickr with images, sets, and collections. I will work with this for a while, and get dynamic feeds into this blog as time permits.

Until then, enjoy the pictures that are posted so far.

31
Oct

Reformation Day

   Posted by: Mark   in The Church

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to voice protest against the Catholic doctrine of indulgences. This is considered the launching point of the Reformation, and is remembered by many as Reformation Day. (On a side note, I find it interesting that so many churches today hold “Harvest Festivals” with not even a mention of the greatest revival in church history. Dan Phillips of TeamPyro fame addresses this quite well.)

Tim Challies has assembled a very complete list of links to numerous blogs and sites with remembrances and thoughts on Reformation Day and related doctrines.

8
Oct

How serious am I about this thing?

   Posted by: Mark   in Pensiveness

I am a husband and a father of four. Things are busy, and the majority of the time that “busy-ness” really is self-inflicted, despite the fact that I continually try to rationalize that it is not self-inflicted. I often ask myself if I am being too selfish when I sequester myself in my office for a while. And I find that it is quite easy to answer with “not really; I need my time.” But is that true? This answer is the lazy way out. Why take 20 minutes to read to the kids when I have blogs to read? Why sit and play with Legos when I have a web site to design? Or more personally, why read Ephesians or Titus when I have the second season of Lost sitting here, and an extra disk full of special features?

I need my time.

I believe that I can justly pin a good portion of today’s problems in Christendom on the distractions of this modern life. We are surrounded with distractions. Hebrews 12:1 warns us not only about laying aside “sin which clings so closely,” but also, and perhaps less obviously we are implored to lay aside “every weight.” I do find it interesting that the writer of Hebrews lists these two things separately; they are two distinct things. Serving at church, running to the store, mowing the lawn, washing the car, watching another movie, reading Arthur C. Clarke, answering the phone, checking email, running to the store (again), learning a new programming language; any of these can be distractions, weights, things that get in the way of a more real and personal relationship with Christ.

I am certainly not suggesting that playing Legos with Timothy is a “weight” or distraction that needs to be set aside. Rather, so many of the other things that I think are important, things that reduce the time I might otherwise invest wisely, are unbelievable weights. And the remarkable thing is that I seldom see these weights because of my selfishness! In fact, I actually relish carrying them. And that is a huge problem.

Am I really in a battle? Are there daily struggles that I should be involved in more? Or are the clash of swords and the yell of war too far away? Have I forgotten? Have I ever truly realized that this issue of following after or pursuing Christ is serious business? How earnest am I about training my children, and about fortifying against the worldview that is pushed mercilessly in every children’s movie? How serious am I about doing everything in my power to instill in their young, open minds the glory of Christ and what he has done for them and what he continues to do?

And so far the only answer I can hear, to my shame, sheepishly and faintly in the back of my mind, is “Not serious enough. Yet.”

26
Sep

I finally did it

   Posted by: Mark   in General

I finally “modded” my XBox Classic so that it will run XBox Media Center. And I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of the software, and the great functionality available.

For those of you who may not have a clue what this means, here is a breakdown: The XBox is a console game system from Microsoft, released originally in 2001. It is essentially a 733Mhz computer with a super-fast bus and video card, internal hard drive, DVD/CD reader, up to 1080i video output, and networking capabilities. The games for it can be a lot of fun, but when I purchased it a year ago, the primary reason was to make this recent modification.

A standard XBox does little more than let you play games, though it will allow you to listen to CDs and watch DVDs. It ends up that a very creative and organized group maintains a set of code that can be installed on the XBox to make it much more useful than just a simple game machine. This “hacking” is slightly involved, requiring the box to be opened (for the cheapest route; for about $40 you can keep the box closed and do the same thing). It is probably not for someone unfamiliar with the inside of computers, but I did not find the process to be overly difficult. I followed the steps over here and here (and will be doing some of this here soon), did some additional reading and poking around, and ended up keeping my time to about three hours total. And the only reason it was that long was that I had to keep swapping my monitor and keyboard between two PCs and did not read everything as well as I should have the first time.

Anyway, the point is that I now have a game console that seconds as a top-notch media center in the living room, through the use of XBox Media Center (XBMC). This means, when connected to my home network (I have not run the permanent wires yet), I can, in the comfort of my living room, access and view pictures and videos from my main PC directly on the TV. I can listen to any of our music library, watch Apple.com movie trailers, check the local weather, and more. In other words, I have vastly simplified my life and made a couple of computers reasonably useful.

The video playback has already been great fun, since I recently recorded a bunch of Hi-8 videos to the PC for eventual DVD archival. With XBMC, I can browse to these using a graphical interface and a game controller, and then select and play the video, and navigate just like with a DVD player. This also works for any TV shows I may have recorded on the PC using the TV capture card.

The MP3 playback is amazing, too. Since the machine is built for graphics, it includes some really great-looking “visualizations” that can be displayed when music is playing. It allows for playlist setup, and lots of options around playback, crossfading, album art, album info, and so much more.

And because the new iMac is on the network, too (perhaps another post on that), I expect to be able to retrieve files from it through the XBox. I have not have the time to test this fully yet, though.

And I could not say enough about the XBMC software itself. It looks better than anything else out there, is easy to navigate, and feels crisp and fresh. And I only have a 27″ tube TV!

Yes, it is a toy, but it is one that reduces overall life complexity. Once I get more hard drive space, I will be ripping most of the kid’s favorite DVDs to the PC, allowing us to access them without swapping out DVDs, using a graphical menu system that includes cover art and full info for each of the videos. I just do not know how I made it this long without XBMC.

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