Marvels of the Human Eye

Being creatures limited by our instruments of perception, the behavior of the human eye and related processing systems never ceases to amaze me. Last year was particularly enlightening, as I hadn’t previously realized we effectively cannot see color in low light situations. I honestly never noticed until I woke up one morning and realized that I’d used the blue towel instead of the red towel after the previous evenings midnight shower.

Getting more heavily into photography has helped me understand the vast exposure corrections we make involuntarily and without consciously noticing. It’s simply not plausible to correctly determine proper exposure settings using the human eye alone. We adapt dynamically to different lighting situations, so your halogen lit living room at night–which seems like it’ll show well without a flash–will end up tragically underexposed if you “eyeball” the settings.

300px-same_color_illusion.pngPerhaps my most interesting discovery of late is the checker shadow illusion: a great image demonstrating we often see what we’re expecting, rather than what actually exists. But then, “what actually exists” is a different issue entirely.

For Geeks w/Allergies: The Air Purifier To Buy

I am deathly allergic to the blooms of the Sweet Acacia tree, which happens to be a popular choice of landscapers in Phoenix. I can physical sense the presence of Sweet Acacia from a good 20 meters, and the mere thought gives me a Pavlovian response. The blooms are my kryptonite.

My allergies hit so hard this year that I decided to invest in a quality air purification unit. I’ve had several inexpensive HEPA-type units over the years, but none that have made a significant difference to my nose. I am very attracted to the filterless design of the Sharper Image Ionic Breeze, but various accounts show that not enough air moves through it, and it’s measured effectiveness at removing allergens is comparatively small. The nicest, hospital-quality units still use filters, so you’re likely to have to live with paying for filter replacements if you want a nicer air cleaner.

I purchased the Friedrich C-90B (click for picture). It’s a combination of a powerful fan, reusable pre-filter, replaceable activated carbon filter, and a large washable ionizing section. While not cheap (mine was $425 USD here, though the price has since increased), it moves a significant amount of air for a household model, does both electrostatic precipitation and conventional filtering, and produces relatively little ozone. It’s also large, hideously ugly and must be placed unobstructed on both ends for optimal air flow, but I’m more than willing to pay that price to be able to breath again. Now why the heck didn’t I buy a decent model years ago? If you have bad allergies, seriously consider ordering one. I’ve found it well worth it.

The $1K Home Recording Studio Mac Add-on

Update 1: Check out “Making Friends With Some Guy Named Mike” on this band page of mine for an awesome example of this studio in action.

20 years ago digital home recording wasn’t plausible. 10 years ago we started to see its potential, but most hobbyists (read: very cash-limited people) were limited to using still-primitive versions of multi-trackers such as Cakewalk, Cool Edit Pro or Cubase with either COTS Sound Blaster PCI cards or ridiculously over-priced, high-noise, high-latency specialty cards with break-out boxes such as the Lexicon Core 2. Running on Windows 95 or 98, we regularly struggled with the stability of the platform and device drivers. Today, you can have your own personal studio capable of producing DVD-quality recordings by adding a thousand dollars of equipment to your existing computer and music rig. Here’s my living room/home theater/recording studio/Mac haven, all driven by a single Mac Mini..
home-studio-thumb.jpg
Here’s are the core components..

  • Mac Mini (Intel).
  • Big 1080p LCD television/monitor. The Mac Mini drives this beast with a DVI-to-HDMI converter cable.
  • Logic Pro (Apple’s recording software). For my needs, it’s really either Logic Pro or Pro Tools. For various reasons I’ve stuck with Logic Pro run in a distributed manner with other Macs in the house using built-in Xgrid functionality over gigabit ethernet.
  • Headphone amp w/studio headphones. You need at least one good headphone set to properly lay down track on top of track, but when you have people over you can usually get by with three or four. This is too much load to be powered directly by the computer, so the dedicated headphone amp is necessary. I have a Behringer HA4700. (I didn’t want to add my Event 20/20 references monitors to the already cluttered layout, so I have them in another room.)
  • PreSonus FirePod. This is a truly outstanding input device for recording the entire band simultaneously. The unit is rack-mountable, connects via FireWire and optical cables, and has pristine noise-free pre-amps.
  • Microphones and stands.
  • Instruments. I have a full-size Yamaha keyboard (pictured), a bunch of vocal mics and guitars, and a rack of mediocre analog schwag. BYOI, whatever ‘I’ happens to be.

If you’ve already got a Mac setup and some music equipment, grabbing Logic Express, PreSonus FirePod, decent vocal mic and a bunch of cables for $1K will turn your system into an audio powerhouse which your friends will envy.

Tips For CS/CSE/MIS Seniors

As the Spring semester approaches, seniors start attending job fairs and submitting resumes to the Word-parsing, keyword-detecting machines of industry HR giants. In the seemingly few years since I completed my bachelors, I’ve been through the motions enough to have learned a great deal in the process. Here’s some advice for seniors trying to land sweet engineering or IT gigs.

Schmooze

The “it’s who you know, not what you know” principle is not bullshit. For better or worse, many things just work this way, and the tech industry is no exception. Almost every job I’ve had has been landed in part because of inside connections. Building these contacts is difficult for someone without industry experience, but can be overcome by involvement in student clubs, professional organizations, and other social activities. In my experience, involvement in mailing lists and local geek clubs has been the easiest and most beneficial means of networking. All the jobs fairs I’ve been to were a waste of time; most of the big companies just put your resume in a stack and direct you their HR website for further information.

Infiltrate

One of the best things you can have when approaching a company is a pre-existing positive relationship with an inside contact. The better your relationship with your contact, the more they’ll sell you up before introductions are done or resumes passed. They will build good vibes for your interview, and generate internal momentum to push the process forward from the inside. A simple, “Hey, Jim, I just wanted to give you a heads-up that there’s a really bright guy named Bob that’ll be submitting a resume today” can build a valuable pre-conception with the evaluator that gives you an advantage over other applicants, if not land you the job before the interview even starts.

Anthropomorphize

When submitting cover letters and conversing with potential employers, don’t send form letters. Show them you’re genuinely pumped about the job and company, and that you’re human by using real names instead of “To Whom It May Concern”. Know your audience and write to their tastes. If you know senior industry people, kindly ask them to review your writing before submission.

Familiarize

Do your research on a companies projects before talking to representatives, and be sure to come up with things you’ve done that could directly bring value to them. They don’t care that you have three dogs and that your cat’s name is Mittens, but they’ll find it intriguing that you’ve completed projects using Spring, Hibernate etc. If you’re talking to a non-tech person, just point out that you’re already familiar with what they’re doing and you’d love to talk to the project manager to see if you’d be a good fit. Also remember that what you what now and what you can know by your interview are two different sets of knowledge.

Honesty & Confidence

If you’re speaking to a technical interviewer, be honest about what you know. They’ll easily see through dodged answers and weak responses. With practice, however, you can easily turn many negatives into positives. For example, if asked “[a]re you familiar with Plajax: the AJAX for plague victims”, don’t say “No.” Instead, say “I’m familiar with Blajax: the AJAX for blind people, and have lots of experience handling server-side requests.” Always emphasise the positive. Practice in your next team meeting by using the word “and” instead of “however” and “but”. Speaking this way is an extremely valuable general-purpose skill, especially when you’re in discussions with people you don’t agree with.

Preston Joins The 21st Century

After an eternity of posting my thoughts, project information and other digital potpourri in a scatter manner across the wire, I’ve finally begun putting the pieces for my personal website. Apparently this is now a requirement for Software Engineers to age past 25, so I have some serious catching up to do. Hooray me.