29 July 2006

'Vintage' California Panoramic

View thusly the first in a hopefully long series of panoramic shots taken by my humble Canon PowerShot A75:


(Half-size version here)


This shot (ok, technically these shots) were taken just outside the store/wine tasting building on the grounds of the Viansa Winery in Sonoma, CA. Presumably the vineyard area in the foreground belongs to Viansa; once you get further out, I have no idea who the land belongs to. Regardless, this was one of three wineries that I visited with Megan Fox whilst wine tasting around Sonoma on 2-July-06. (Incidentally, the other two we visited were Cline Cellars and the Schug Carneros Estate. Also incidentally, the wine tasting excursion was part of my broader summer '06 trip to CA—look for pictures of the trip showing up soon....) I have to say, literally every wine that we tried was excellent... some were better than others, of course, but a couple were outright fantastic! Despite most of them being >$20/bottle, I was still quite sorry that I was flying home, and thus would've had a very hard time lugging a couple of cases back with me. :-p The good(?) news is, apparently Trader Joe's might be a distributor for all of them (I know they are for Cline, at least), and so I could possibly find it here! Probably at a painful markup, but hey... at least I have a good starting point when I'm looking for a really excellent wine!

In terms of the origins of the panorama itself, the A75 has a specific mode on it for taking such panoramic pictures—it actually shows you part of the previous picture to better enable you to line up the current chunk of scenery you're shooting. Then, once all of the pictures are taken, you pull 'em down to the computer (where they're very conveniently named in sequence) and assemble them with an application called, appropriately, "PhotoStitch".

Within PhotoStitch, there are two ways of assembling the images: one is called 'Normal,' which is how this panorama was constructed, which actually 'bends' the pictures slightly to make as horizontal a picture as possible. (You'll notice that the vines running horizontally across the foreground of the image, which in reality fall in a straight line, appear curved in the image.) While this isn't too distracting in a scenery shot like this, if there were objects in view that obviously are supposed to be straight (say, buildings) it would be pretty goofy looking (or possibly very cool looking, dunno). So, there's also a 'Wide' mode, which tries to maintain straight lines in the final panorama. This'll only work if you have only a couple of pictures (~three or fewer), otherwise the distortion on the sides of the final image becomes too nasty to make it worthwhile.

So. <shrug> I think that this is a really sweet feature, now that I've used it properly (I've tried using it before, but dumbly never used the PhotoStitch app... might have to revisit some of the old panorama attempts), and will be seizing every opportunity to use it. 'Cause I mean, really... how cool is it to see a wide expanse of awesomely beautiful countryside like that, huh? :-)

("H/T": Canon)

28 July 2006

Dude! Star Dude! 'Sup!

You will now check out Dude Studios and subsequently be entertained (click 'Cartoons' in the menu bar).

That is all.

24 July 2006

Lebanon

I think this pretty effectively sums up my mindset as to how I think the current conflict in Lebanon and Israel needs to play out. Obviously, the injury, death, and destruction are awful, and it would be better if it weren't happening (or weren't necessary), but if we (the nations of the West) don't put our collective foot down somewhere to stop Islamist aggression, we'll just fold underneath it and be overrun. Not today, not tomorrow... but eventually.... Diplomacy is ineffective as a persuasive tool—unambiguous displays of force and/or power are ultimately the only effective means of deterrence.

(H/T: Big Lizards)

09 July 2006

Etching Far More Than A Sketch

Observe. (Click 'Enter', then 'Gallery.') This is truly amazing artwork... I can't even imagine the precision involved in retracing curved lines 3+ times in order to get sharp, dark lines. I suppose Etch from Toy Story puts this guy to shame in terms of speed, but I think that Etch has nothing on this guy in terms of detail. Guess the guys at Pixar just weren't ambitious enough... ;-)

Incidentally, something of interest to Firefly fans out there: Joss Whedon was one of four writers on the original Toy Story... no wonder it was so freakin' good, eh?

(H/T: By the Way...)

03 July 2006

Traceable Political Money Is A Good Thing

Captain Ed points out an early initiative in Congress that would create a database of a significant portion of total government spending and make that information available online for all to peruse:

WASHINGTON, July 2 — Exasperated by his party's failure to cut government spending, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, is seeking cyberhelp.

Mr. Coburn wants to create a public database, searchable over the Internet, that would list most government contracts and grants — exposing hundreds of billions in annual spending to instant desktop view.

Type in "Halliburton," the military contractor, or "Sierra Club," the environmental group, for example, and a search engine would show all the federal money they receive. A search for the terms "Alaska" and "bridges" would expose a certain $223 million span to Gravina Island (population 50) that critics call the "Bridge to Nowhere."

While advocating for openness, Mr. Coburn is also placing a philosophical bet that the more the public learns about federal spending, the less it will want.


Personally, I think this is a fantastic idea. While I probably wouldn't use such a tool all that much myself, I expect that those blogs that I read whose proprietors have far more time to dedicate than I would frequently reference information from that database. I would think that both sides of the political aisle would agree that spending is out of control, and I feel that Coburn's contention that "[s]unshine's the best thing we've got to control waste, fraud and abuse" is right on target. The NY Times would be spending their time much more fruitfully if they dug into the way that money is being spent domestically—what programs it's going towards, how much is being wasted in the process, etc.—than exposing efforts to trace terrorism financing, for example.

As Captain Ed describes, there's support for this proposition on both sides of the aisle:

[NY Times writer Jason] DeParle notes the differing motivations of the Right and Left in supporting this initiative. Conservatives see this as a shaming mechanism that will shrink government through public outrage. Liberals see it as a way to demonstrate the good works that government programs perform and to get more funding for them. Both of these are honorable motivations and both represent excellent reasons to have this data at the fingertips of every taxpayer in America. After all, we want to know which dollars work for us and which don't. If we have a program that actually does more good than harm, then we can have those facts established when we debate its funding level. If we see the money disappearing with little or no return on the investment, we can either halt the program or get everyone responsible for it replaced with people who will perform better.


Bipartisan agreement is fairly rare, so hopefully this idea will go far in Congress. I suppose the only problem is that it has to go far in Congress in order to get implemented... :-P Dunno how keen a lot of them are going to be on voting for something that will put a lot of scrutiny on their pet pork projects.

Regardless, I'd also like to see this idea expanded to include donations and other contributions to political campaigns. I'm thoroughly fed up with all of the goofy campaign finance laws that have come on the books in the last however many years, as no matter how many holes Congress tries to plug with laws like McCain-Feingold, candidates and donors will still find ways to work around the system. Modifying Coburn's quote a bit, "[s]unshine's the best thing we've got" to keep campaign financing on the up-and-up. In my mind, rather than trying to strictly limit what kinds of money can be given to a campaign, there should be practically no limits whatsoever on campaign donations, but every campaign should be required to keep and publish a detailed statement of every penny received from every donor, as well as a detailed budget of expenditures. Internal costs like overhead and wages/salaries wouldn't need to be itemized, but anything that goes towards informing the public (TV/radio advertising, trail campaigning, and the like) should be itemized in exquisite detail. One clause I would want to include in the law, though, would be to require that every "informing the public" item would be required to provide, say, the top two or three contributors to that candidate's (or proposition's) campaign, so that those who might not have ready access to (or interest in) the detailed financing information would still be informed as to the source of the funding for the advertising.

This approach obviously has limitations that need to be worked out, and I've not thought everything through carefully. One problem that presents itself immediately is that it would be easy to give money in the guise of a cover corporation or organization, and thus camouflaging the ultimate source. The solution to this would be for each political organization to be required to publish a report describing the contributions and contributors. I guess now that I think about it, perhaps this sort of information already exists and is being collected, but I just don't know about it. <shrug> Still, I think the most effective way of keeping campaign financing honest is to make the sources and destinations of the money as transparent as possible... wrangling around with who can and can't give to what candidate/cause is ultimately useless in trying to control political money.

01 July 2006

Strikes Me As Awfully 'Regional'...

Iranian fighters captured after fighting Iraqi forces near Baghdad (via Reuters):

Iraqi and U.S. troops battled Shi'ite militiamen in a village northeast of Baghdad on Thursday, and witnesses and police said U.S. helicopters bombed orchards to flush out gunmen hiding there.

Iraqi security officials said Iranian fighters had been captured in the fighting, in which a sniper shot dead the commander of an Iraqi quick reaction force and two of his men. They did not say how the Iranians had been identified.


Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but this rather seems to indicate that the Iraqi insurgency isn't so much a purely domestic concern, notwithstanding the fact that the recently-neutralized Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hailed from Jordan, which is, as far as I'm aware, outside Iraq. Pardon me for saying so, but anybody that tries to claim that other powers in the region aren't meddling within Iraq should really yank their heads back out of the sand... As Sachi at Big Lizards points out:

[T]he Iranian deception is coming unraveled. With every passing month, it becomes clearer that Iran is directly trying to seize control of the Shiite areas of Iraq... and harder for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei to pretend otherwise, even to "impartial" European observers.


Sachi also points out a hole in the Reuters story as pertains to the method(s) used to identify the Iranian fighers:

Uh... perhaps because they spoke Arabic with a Persian accent and were carrying Iranian identification cards? Really, doesn't Reuters suspect that Iraqi Arabs can identify Persians in their midst? They really are very different in language, culture, and even food.


The burgeoning democracy in Iraq poses one of the greatest possible threats to the autocratic/mullahcratic governments (the latter term having been invented, I believe by Michael Ledeen at National Review—dunno if this link is the first instance or not) in the region: a first-hand example to the populations of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia that it's possible to go from being under the oppressive thumb of a totalitarian government to having the purple thumbs of a democratic vote. Thus, these nations have a huge stake in seeing the Iraqi people fail and are putting (what I presume to be) a huge amount of effort into attempts to destabilize Iraq. In the end, I don't believe they will succeed—I expect Iraq will settle over time into a functional (inasmuch as democracy actually seems to "get things done") nation, making significant material contributions to the world stage, both ideologically and economically.

I don't know that the Iraqi example alone will ultimately result in the exchange of surrounding governments for democracies, but it certainly will have some effect, ostensibly positive (from our perspective). And, whatever the actual consequences and repercussions, a more democratic Middle East, while perhaps never being on swimmingly good terms with us or with Israel, is (I suspect) far less likely to be a breeding ground for violence directed our way.

And that, AFAIC (as far as I'm concerned), is a good thing.

(H/T: Captain's Quarters)