Sunday, January 03, 2016

Tech Wedding Lessons

I got married in February 2012 (this post was originally written 6 Feb 2012 but only just published in Jan 2016), and it was an international wedding. Being a software developer computer geek, I wanted to try and involve some technology along the way and thought that judicious use of some apps/software, whether homegrown or 3rd-party, would make some things easier.
But first, what else did I learn about organising a wedding? The sort of things you'd learn from doing any large event really, but these stood out for me (not in order though):
  1. I knew this already, but to any event you'll ALWAYS (95% of times) have people who say yes and for whatever (good or poor) reason, can't make it on the day. You can't control them, but if you don't value their reason it will affect your view of them/willingness to invite them to the next event. Hopefully it won't be the bride or groom!
  2. You'll also sometimes get people who reply without identifying themselves, or without completing the reply properly. We didn't write on our generic invitations, only address them manually. So each invitation and reply card looked like the next one - much simpler unless you can automate it (and also for those last minute people you remember about or suddenly have to invite). We decided to call the last-minute additions to the guest list 'Mystery Guests' and numbered them, and let them figure out which of them was which when they got there - we didn't have time to do the full guest set up for them by name; but if I redid it I'd try and get more time to pre-number/name each invitation by the id we already had for them in our database (actually two places: a spreadsheet and a mysql database), or write a name/household on it already.
  3. I bought a domain and developed a site for info/rsvp online; but this ended up taking up too much of my time really, to get all the functionality I wanted. Ok, so I started off with an overly complicated plan, and was really keen to do something amazing but in the end it just had to cover the basics. Not a huge number of people saw it, I password protected it to avoid every man and his dog knowing when we were going to be away from the house for a while.

Linux default/non-default web browser link opening

Anyone annoyed in running non-default browser; click link elsewhere, starts default app w/ lots restored tabs (slow), new window etc.

'course, instead I could keep browsers slim, close down tabs lots more often or start a new session afresh each time.  Not happening.

So back in May 2015, I wrote a script to be my new default www browser. When I click on links now in any app (that opens them in the system default browser), it runs this script instead which looks for the most-preferred web browser currently running and opens the link in that. Solved!

I also shared this code on my github, and while it has a bug or two still, it does its job the majority of the time (for me at least). I'd be happy if you or anyone else took a look and tried it out, reported bugs, suggested/offered improvements etc. There is a little bit of file editing to install it at present (indicating its fairly immature status), but once installed you just have to select it as the default browser in your settings, and can easily switch back to your previous one if you haven't done anything non-standard beforehand. There's a configuration file for it to tell it how to order your browsers and even (probably a bit buggy) ways to always use a certain browser for certain sites.

I could do with a gui to configure it so non-sysadmins can use it easily.

Lens Renting

I bought a new DSLR (back in late 2008), so I finally have a decent digital camera. I had a digital compact for a few years back around 2001, but it was of the old style - annoying delay between button-pushing and shutter-firing, only 2Mb or so, and being a compact I had almost no real control over the exposure or focus (and what exposure control there was via +/- half-stops took about 5 seconds to change each time through a submenu). But I loved my Canon EOS 300 (film SLR) and for any kind of real photography, thats what I always took with me along with whatever lenses/flash/tripod I felt worth carrying. I have a fair range of Canon EF lenses. But it got stolen in 2007 and for quite a while I was without a nice camera - although the newer smartphone Nokia's have ok (for a phone) cameras and I was ok using them for snapshots. But I lusted after a nice camera again that would give me real power over my pictures. I more recently obtained an old film SLR again through a friend who had a 300 and a 600 and decided he didn't need two EOSs (so I have a 600). I wanted to get a nice digital one and I was waiting to save up and for one that fit my wants - the newer in-built sensor cleaning sounded a great idea, I wanted a few things my 300 had lacked (2nd-curtain/higher-speed flash sync, for one).
I also wanted to go see some family in Canada last year, which I finally planned for October and that was the impetus to really decide which camera I wanted so I had the advantage of digital while out there and a new toy to play with too, something to really satiate my built-up desire to take good photos again with a great, usable tool. One I could predict the results of given certain settings and light levels.
So, I chose my EOS - and compatibility with existing lenses and accessories (down to the wired remote), and then wondered if I had suitable lenses for the trip. I have a 75-300 that doesn't get a huge amount of use, good for wildlife at a distance, but its slow (f3.5/4.0, I forget) and not particularly fast to focus unless there's lots of light - it hunts around a bit even though it's USM (ultrasonic motor) is quick when it knows where to go. So I rather wished I had a faster long lens, similar focal length(s), although anything of the sort was going to cost me somewhere near a thousand quid new. Even second hand they don't lose a lot of value, so I considered renting or selling it again after. My credit card could stomach it (despite the new camera+flight tickets), but with an uncertain return on the lens, I didn't quite feel happy.
I looked into renting. It would be hard to collect it outside of the area I was flying to, and I only considered I needed it for one weekend so a rental for the full trip length would be outside of the budget (therefore not a valid option to pick it up before I flew/drop back on return). To widen the choice I looked into companies that would do postal renting. You'd be surprised how many companies won't let you take it outside the country, or won't ship to Canada. Just about everyone in the US I tried wouldn't do it, despite finding a lot of companies advertising rentals.
In the end, I found two companies in Canada that would ship it to me and that I could send it back after the weekend. Speaking to them on the phone, one sounded great but they only had one worthwhile lens not booked out for the required dates, and that was in repair and the logistics just weren't workable. So I went with the other,, who would provide it in a Pelican toughened case (they'd never had any problems in shipping with it), courier-shipped, to the door where I was staying, and prepaid postage back afterwards.
So I hired a 75-300 f2.8 IS L lens for the weekend. It arrived on time, in good-as-new condition, with the lens hood and manual and tripod-mount ring. It was heavier than I'd even expected for, but took some really nice pictures and I felt like a serious photographer wielding it around.

Binocular/camera 'pod support

Tripod. Makes I've been looking at: Manfrotto / 3 Legged Thing / Vanguard / Giottos

Head: joystick style grip ball head - Manfrotto 2 is perfectly suitable but no longer made. There's a cheap chinese copy without the tension adjustment (even if it says it has one, thats an out of date description; ignore it) and the trigger is hinged the other way round for ~£40 by the time you add p&p. Or Calumet have a proper copy (including tension wheel), coded 7033 (or just called trigger grip ball head), for £50 currently. Manfrotto 222's sell for £30-40 on ebay so if you can find a good one on there that might be worth it (as the original and best) if you don't care about a warranty (Calumet has 3yrs limited parts & labour on theirs).

Tripod wise, I am not going with Velbon (low reputation and they tend to cover the cheap end, I almost never see their larger more expensive ones around so not any reason to think people love to sell/warranty them). Also heard a few disparaging things about Giottos quality control over the last year on various web reviews/comments and they only barely make it into the list with one or two models with my requirements anyway.

For the times even a light tripod is too much weight/bulk (mostly about the bulk for my work bag, getting round on a busy tube train in London with a bigger tripod at rush hour is not so much fun, trying to avoid stabbing folk or banging it on things), I have used a monopod for the last couple of years. Until recently it was the 170cm aluminium monopod with.

So I chose the Giottos MML3290B - great deal on it at Wex this last couple of weeks, and there's a 5% code currently valid if you go hunting on the typical voucher websites (or via google for the sites with it). It still needs a head to attach but if I have one for the tripod anyway (and of course most heads fit most tripods without problem as they're usually 3/8" standard screw thread, the 1/4" ones can be adapted).

UPDATE:  one day while extending it (still well inside warranty period), an inside "stop" made a cracking noise and failed, so now whenever I extend it, I can lock it in place and it'll stay; but if I'm not careful, one part will just fall out of the others as there's nothing to stop it sliding all the way out.