Why I take so many photos of herons

My fiancée has seen a lot of my photographs, and she has noticed that many of them involve birds that wade in shallow water and catch the fish that swim by.

More scientifically, she has noticed a lot of photos of birds in the genus Ardeawhich includes two species that I see a lot of here in Central Indiana.

Great blue heron
Ardea herodias, commonly known as the great blue heron
Great egret
Ardea alba, commonly known as the great egret or great white heron.

One time she asked me, “Is that your favorite animal?”

I don’t know that I have a favorite animal per se (with the possible exception of my pet cat Bandit). But here’s what I do know:

  • They’re beautiful, graceful birds. In a pond full of ducks and geese, a heron is the belle of the ball. If you see one in flight, it is a special treat.  Because they are skittish about humans, you might inadvertently cause it to take flight if you get too close.
Great egret water landing
The great egret comes in for a water landing.
  • They are nearby. Both of the photos above were taken at a park less than five miles from where we live. I usually find myself at this park at least once a week. So I expect to see either a great blue heron or a great egret when I go there…and I often bring my camera gear with me. My desk at work also overlooks a retention pond, and herons frequent that pond. So, I get lots of opportunities to photograph them.
Great blue heron
I shot this photo of a great blue heron through the window right behind my desk at work…on a Nexus 5 smartphone. As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you.”
  • They’re challenging to photograph well with my equipment. My “good” camera gear is more advanced than a typical point-and-shoot camera (and certainly more advanced than the camera on my smartphone), but it’s not the kind of camera or lens you would expect a professional wildlife photographer to use. I simply don’t have the budget for that since no one is paying me for these photos. So there are inevitably some compromises. Most significantly, I have a telephoto lens but not a supertelephoto lens, so my reach is limited. That makes it harder to extract fine feather details when the bird is out in the water, even after a lot of cropping. The other challenge is tracking them while in flight, as my camera and lens do not excel with autofocus tracking for fast-moving subjects. So, I can always see room for improvement in my photos…and since I’m photographing basically the same subject matter, I can easily see the impact of each setting I change or any other photographic decisions I make.

Disclaimer: Photos are copyrighted. Do not use without permission from the author.


TV manufacturers need to throw a lifeline to PC users

Dear TV manufacturers:

It’s time we talked about overscan.

Yes, I know why you do it. Yes, I even know why it’s necessary. But I need to be able to turn it off sometimes.

One of the early promises of HDTVs was the ability to connect a PC and use the TV just like you would use a monitor for your computer. If you bought a really big TV, you could use it as a really big monitor too.

All you had to do was connect your PC to the TV via a VGA/D-Sub input, and voilà! Your PC’s screen appeared on your TV. (You also needed an audio cable.)

But VGA is an analog signal, and it does not carry HDCP (high-definition copy protection) the way digital signals like HDMI and DVI do. And, of course, the picture quality from HDMI and DVI tends to be vastly superior to VGA. Many laptops today — including the one I own — don’t even have VGA ports anymore.

So if we’re connecting our PCs to TVs, we’re doing it via HDMI. We want to send 1080p or even 4K video output from our PCs to our televisions, but our televisions betray us with overscan. And most TV manufacturers won’t let us do anything about it.

So we’re stuck tweaking our PC settings to slightly lower resolutions to fit on the TV screen, and that often means text gets a little distorted…and thus a little hard to read.

There are a few exceptions. Sharp has a “Dot-by-Dot” mode on its TVs, and Samsung has a “Screen Fit” mode as well. But most manufacturers don’t have anything like this built into their TV sets, and it’s difficult to understand why that’s not standard on every TV manufactured today.

For the rest of you, please get on with it. And, for good measure, a firmware update for your existing sets wouldn’t hurt either.




Can 4K TVs help bring back family time?

Although I don’t have one myself, I’m pretty excited about the explosion of 4K / Ultra HD televisions in the market.

Why am I excited? There’s almost no programming available in 4K right now, and for what little programming you can find in 4K, it’s difficult for the human eye to detect the difference between Full HD/1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4K / Ultra HD (3840 x 2160 pixels) from across the room unless the TV is really big…like 80″ or more. And there’s no way my fiancée and I will be getting a TV that big for our townhome apartment.

But I’m still excited about 4K, because a 4K screen can be divided up into four smaller screens, each of them at 1080p.

Because TV sizes are measured diagonally, that means a 50″ 4K TV (like this one, currently $498 at Amazon) can be divided into four sections, each of them equivalent to a 25″ 1080p TV…just slightly larger than the 24″ 1080p TV I have in the office upstairs.

Love, marriage and separate screens

Aside from using the 24″ TV as a PC monitor, I often find myself using it to watch something different from what my better half is watching downstairs. As much as I enjoy her company, the Venn Diagram of our tastes in TV and movies does not overlap much. (She recently introduced me to Happy Valley, a rare show we can enjoy together as soon as I catch up to her.)

We’re not alone either: about 1 in 4 couples spends at least three evenings per week in separate rooms because they want to watch different things on television.

Sometimes we do take turns for the sake of togetherness. I’ve seen enough episodes of Switched at Birth to be familiar with the characters and plot, and she has sat through some CSI: Miami and House of Cards episodes with me. (This is all on Netflix.) But research shows this might not be the best solution for our relationship in the long run either.

But what if we could both watch what we wanted to on the same screen at the same time from the same couch? That’s what 4K can offer.

What about audio?

In the 1989 movie Back to the Future: Part II, Marty McFly, Jr. used voice commands to tell his 2015 TV to display six different channels on the screen at once. (See the section of this clip starting at the 2:10 mark.)

One thing that struck me about this was that the McFlys’ TV set was also playing audio from all six channels at the same time, leading to incoherent noise. I don’t know how Marty Jr. understood anything he was watching!

Presumably, if my bride and I were sharing a screen and a sofa while watching different shows, one thing that wouldn’t make sense to share is the audio from our disparate programs. Of course, one or both of us could wear headphones, but that would at least make it hard for our time together to be all that much of an improvement over our time apart.

Monaural Bluetooth headsets would be an improvement so we’d each at least have one ear free, but I’m not sure if the new 4K sets are sophisticated enough to split the audio from each screen to different sources. Closed captioning could work, depending on the program. Switched at Birth would be a prime candidate for this since so much of it is in subtitled American Sign Language anyway. News and sporting events could be shown with closed captioning too without much sacrifice on my part — after all, if you walk into a sports bar, most if not all of the TVs are on mute.

And then there’s this:

Use the tech you already have

Since we don’t have a 4K TV, and all of our extra money is going into our wedding fund right now, we can use the technology we already have to achieve a similar goal. Each of us has a laptop with Netflix access. So, rather than splitting up a big 4K TV screen, one of us could use our living room TV while the other one watches from the same sofa on a laptop screen with a headset or on mute with closed captioning. Tablets and even smart phones can work for this purpose as well, although you might find yourself squinting at the smaller screens.

Unless a show or movie is about to be dropped, Netflix is not particularly time-sensitive. I can watch my reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit whenever I choose. But last fall, her Downton Abbey episodes conflicted with my Sunday Night Football games. Sporting events are meant to be watched live, and Downton Abbey was one of those shows that could be considered water-cooler television the next day, so we both wanted to watch our shows live, over the air. And this meant being in separate rooms.

Downton Abbey is now over, of course, and there’s nothing scheduled to be on the air on Sunday evenings this fall that has piqued her interest. In hindsight, I have a USB TV tuner that has been sitting in a drawer for a while…I could have plugged this into my laptop along with a little antenna to watch football on mute while she watched Downton Abbey. If such a situation resurfaces, I may have to try that.

Although I have precious little space remaining on my laptop’s SSD, I could even use a little of that space for a free download of MythTV to turn my laptop into a DVR and send the actual recordings to the larger hard drive attached to my Pogoplug.

We’ll have to do a little experimenting to make this work, but I think it can be done. I don’t want television to keep us apart, but I certainly don’t long for 1955, when the entire family had to gather around a single TV with three channels to choose from…and no reruns.

Just turn it off sometimes

Of course, I don’t want to overlook an even lower-tech solution to our problem: turning the TV off altogether and doing something else for real quality time. And we certainly do this sometimes as well…we might go for a walk in the park (weather permitting), play a game, or just go out on a date. Watching too much television — with or without your partner — is obviously not a good thing. But watching TV with your partner by your side is usually better than watching TV alone. And that’s where 4K televisions could make a real difference.









Pope Francis gets it (mostly) wrong on families

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

Pope Francis, address to Congress, 9/24/2015

Many liberals adore Pope Francis. I can certainly describe him as a significant improvement over some of his predecessors.

But that’s faint praise considering what some of his predecessors did. Gregory IX started the Inquisition, and Sixtus IV instituted the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Leo X’s sale of indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation, which led to decades of extremely bloody wars. Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, whose silence on the Holocaust enabled Hitler to go unchecked.  John Paul II sought to contain much of the progress the church achieved with Vatican II.  His doctrinaire enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded him as Benedict XVI. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (to say nothing of popes before them) looked the other way on pedophile priests at the same time they staunchly condemned homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”

Returning to Pope Francis, while his statements about immigration, climate change, and economic inequality are music to my progressive ears, I cringed when he started talking about the family. Because he sounded an awful lot like his immediate predecessors.

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.

Pope John Paul II, 2003

Education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

Now, perhaps Francis, with his “Who am I to judge?” attitude has gone about as far to the left as he can realistically go on this issue, but to imply that same-sex marriage is a threat to “the very basis of marriage and family” makes him part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A little bit right

When Francis said, “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” I was right there with him.

In agrarian societies, procreation was a means to wealth. The more children, the more laborers available for the farm. But today, a large family is typically a financial liability rather than an asset. Kids are expensive, and they go to school when kids from generations before them were out working in the fields. Industrialization, child labor laws, and free, mandatory public education changed the equation dramatically.

There are, of course, people who desire to have families — even large families — but they cannot do so because they cannot afford it. Francis was sensitive to their concerns, and so am I. The cry “If you can’t afford kids, don’t have them” seems like it could be a real problem for conservatives who claim to be so interested in protecting families.

Wrong again

You might say that my less-than-ideal financial situation has dissuaded me from starting a family, and that would certainly be one reason. But it’s not even the primary reason. I just don’t want the responsibility of being a parent.

Francis’s reasoning here suggests that it’s ideal for everyone to start a family (that is, marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate with that person), and other “options” are somehow a negative thing.

Considering the pope’s views on climate change, how can he also say that these other options (like contraception) are a negative thing? The more people we make, the more energy we use and the more damage we do to the planet. If Pope Francis is really concerned about climate change, perhaps he should revisit the church’s position on contraception and recognize that being childless is a legitimate option.

An olive branch — and some stern advice — to religious moderates

Moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists.

Sam Harris

Are all or even most religious people wacky and dangerous fundamentalists? No. I have never thought this to be the case. Some people have assumed that I thought this, but they assumed incorrectly. So let me set the record straight on that.

But, like Sam Harris said, religious moderates can be dangerous in a subtler and probably unintended way.

For example, I posted a news article about Pat Robertson blaming the recent downturn in the stock market on God’s judgment for same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. This is obviously a dangerous notion, particularly for a man with a TV audience of about 1 million people each day. Here’s the actual footage from his program, The 700 Club.

This was the first comment on my post (edited for grammar only).

Yeah. Crazy. I get it. But people in this world abuse anything. Sex. Drugs. Marriage. You name it. But I think you want to transpose Pat Roberts, Creflo Dollar, et al to your own disdain for God and religion. Look around you. See the wonder of this world. The complexity of life wasn’t accidentally contained in the “Big Bang.” Yes, I don’t know why we are in a world w/such atrocities and inequality, but I also know the vast, vast majority of the people in this world are good. My wish for you is that you’ll stop celebrating the “fringe” and realize there ‘s a God who loves us.

And it’s an understandable response. Religious moderates tend to be peacemakers, and that’s a quality that I admire. But what responses like that do is insulate the real extremists like Pat Robertson from any kind of criticism. They say, “You shouldn’t talk about this.”

But, for you religious moderates out there, I think that’s a misguided approach. These people are making your entire faith look very bad…and if anyone should be calling them out loudly, it’s you. Because when you fail to do this, you’re leaving it up to outsiders like me who don’t really have a vested interest in drawing such fine distinctions.

In the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell has made a point about the importance of “protecting the shield” (the NFL logo). You can decide for yourself if he has lived up to that standard, but that idea was an excellent justification for stronger policing of the league that he runs. When he comes down hard on players and even owners within the league for bad behavior, he sends a signal to the world that this behavior doesn’t represent the NFL shield. (And when he fails to do so adequately, as he did with the Ray Rice situation, he sends the opposite message to the world.)

To make matters worse for you, it’s the fundamentalists who are the most visible ambassadors for your faith. They’re the ones who make the news or have television shows. (Pope Francis is a notable exception to this, but even he is still somewhat homophobic.) If you want others to see that you’re “not all like that,” get out there forcefully and declare it. Isolate the fundamentalists. There’s nothing wrong with being vocal and forceful, even though moderates are probably less naturally inclined to do so.

This is not just true of Christianity…the image much of the world sees of Islam is ISIS, which is an unfortunate representation of a religion covering approximately 1 billion people in virtually every nation on earth.

It’s just human nature to paint groups of people with a broad brush, especially when we don’t regularly interact with them on an individual basis. I’m certainly not immune from this tendency, but I do consciously work on it. Police officers profile African-Americans, and now African-Americans are profiling police officers.

Should you really buy a Christmas gift for your second cousin twice removed?

When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.

When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.

But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.

Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)

We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.

It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.

What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.

Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).

It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.

As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.

Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?

AirDroid, Continuity and PushBullet might just change your life

Chances are, you’ve never heard of AirDroid, Continuity, or PushBullet. But one of them might just change your life for the better.

Battery life blues

Just about every smartphone owner knows the pain of always looking for an outlet; trying to avoid running out of juice for their all-important devices. I know I have a major problem with this; always fighting with the battery indicator on my LG/Google Nexus 5 and often watching helplessly as the device shuts down at the worst possible time. Just last night I was walking on the indoor track at a nearby park’s fitness center, and I needed some music to keep me going. Unfortunately, due to a dead battery, my phone was not in the mood to work out with me.

Surfing on a sofa with a smartphone seems silly

One of the reasons I struggle is that I use my smartphone a lot at home when there are other devices (my Lenovo Yoga 11S hybrid laptop and my first-generation iPad Mini) that are far better suited to the tasks of web browsing, reading and watching videos at home than my smartphone would ever be. The screens are substantially larger (which better for my eyesight), and I get very good battery life from them.

Yet I often lie back on my sofa and hold my smartphone up to surf, read, etc. But why? Because I didn’t want to miss an incoming text message while my phone was plugged in. As great as my Lenovo Yoga and iPad Mini are as devices, I could neither send nor receive my phone’s text messages on them.

Enter AirDroid

Although you don't have to use this feature to see notifications from your phone, AirDroid's AirMirror feature enables you to mirror your smartphone's screen to your PC or Mac. Image courtesy of AirDroid / Sand Studio.
Although you don’t have to use this feature to see notifications from your phone, AirDroid’s AirMirror feature enables you to mirror your smartphone’s entire screen to your PC or Mac…and you can control your phone with your computer keyboard and mouse.
Image courtesy of AirDroid / Sand Studio.

There are two parts to AirDroid: a free app for your Android smartphone and a free companion app for your computer (Windows or Mac) or a web-based client. I even used it on my iPad Mini.

Not only can you see these notifications on your computer, you can respond to them on your computer. You can have entire text message conversations without ever touching your phone.

You can even mirror your phone’s screen with a feature called AirMirror. This is quite useful when you want to see an entire text message thread or if you need to operate a specific app on your phone that doesn’t have an equivalent on your PC. Because I have a Nexus 5, which is always kept up to date with the very latest version of Android, the AirMirror feature is still catching up to my phone. So I haven’t really gotten to test that out yet.

I don’t see myself using it much, but AirDroid also offers convenient wireless file transfers from your computer to your phone.

If you have more Android smartphone users than computers in your household, you might want to pony up $19.99 per year for the premium version of AirDroid, which can support up to six smartphones on a single computer along with some other nifty features that I will probably never use.

Don’t feel left out if you don’t use Android

AirDroid, as it names suggests, is only for Android smartphones. That means no support for iPhones, BlackBerry phones, or Windows phones.

If you have any two of the following: iPhone, iPad or Mac computer, you may be able to use Continuity, a new feature that integrates iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite so you can send text messages, make iPhone calls, and mirror your screen right from your Mac or iPad. It’s essentially the same as AirDroid but for the Apple-centric crowd.

For other users, I’d like to recommend PushBullet instead. PushBullet is like a scaled down version of AirDroid, but it does the most important thing equally well: sending and receiving text messages. PushBullet is compatible with Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Phone.

PushBullet can also work as a browser extension for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and (coming soon) Safari. The Chrome browser support is indispensable for people who use Chromebooks instead of traditional Windows or Mac computers.

The Big A-Ha

Since you’re not touching your phone while you use one of these apps, you can charge it even in another room and leave the screen off. For me, the screen is always my #1 battery life culprit, and even using the screen while your phone is plugged in prevents it from charging as quickly as it otherwise could.

I can operate my laptop while plugged in even if the battery is totally dead. Some people even operate their laptops plugged in with the battery removed. My smartphone provides me with no such luxury; it won’t even power on while plugged in unless there is enough power in the battery to run it.

Better yet, since my phone is free to charge with the screen off, it’s far more likely to be fully charged when I really need it: away from home and away from power outlets. And that’s a very big deal.

Glad you're here but a little concerned that you haven't found a better use of your time than this