Dec 27, 2010

TaxCaster 2010: Estimate Your 2010 Federal Taxes

TurboTax has provided a free application, TaxCaster, to help you estimate your taxes before preparing a full return. This is useful for running what-if scenarios as part of your last minute tax planning. For example, you can see the effect of things like whether to double up on your property taxes or charitable giving in 2010 or recognizing capital gains (losses).

This screenshot shows the unfortunate case of a single filer with $1M of income and no withholding (oops!).

Dec 23, 2010

Review: Kingston SSDNow V Series 128GB SSD Solid State Drive

I had previously upgraded my Dell Latitude D630 (Core 2 Duo T7500 with 2GB of ram) to a 500GB 7200rpm SATA hard drive, but when I saw that I could get a 128GB SSD for $200 after rebate at Amazon, I took the solid state plunge. There is a newer version of this drive (the V100) but I decided to save a few dollars and stay off the bleeding edge. I bought the "notebook upgrade kit" which comes with a 2.5” (notebook) sized external USB enclosure.

Installation was straightforward Рremove the drive sled, take out two screws, attach̩ the drive, put the screws in, and slide it back into the laptop. 5 minutes.

I had decided to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 in order to get a clean install and to take advantage of Window 7’s optimized SSD performance (XP has some quirks that need to be worked around if you’re using an SSD). No issues with the Windows 7 install. I moved the old hard drive into the USB enclosure so I could copy my files off later. The enclosure also gives you a place to store data files since the SSD’s size is probably smaller than you’re used to. It's powered by the USB port (no external power supply) and comes with a 12 inch USB cable, but note that not all of my USB ports were powerful enough to operate my old hard drive once I had moved it to the enclosure (presumably a SSD takes less power).

Once it was up and running, I found that the formatted capacity is 119GB. The drive is totally silent. The most immediate difference is the startup and shutdown times. A cold boot takes less than 30 seconds where it used to take more like a minute, and shutdown is in under 15 seconds. The system also feels much more responsive during general usage, things like web browsing and photo editing. Even though this computer is over 2 years old, the addition of an SSD makes it feel like a new machine. Overall, the upgrade was well worth the $200 cost and I’ll definitely look for an SSD in my next computer.

Nov 16, 2010

Photos from the Ft. Worth Alliance Air Show 2010

All photos taken with a Nikon D700 and 16-35mm f/4 or 70-200mm f/2.8 VR at the Alliance airport in Fort Worth, Texas. Full gallery available here.







Nov 11, 2010

Cleaning dust from your DSLR sensor

I never had a problem with dust on my D90’s sensor, but the D700 seems to be a dust magnet. Dust will show up as dark spots on light, even colored areas of your photos taken at small apertures. The blue sky in a landscape is a prime example of where you’ll spot dust. To see exactly how bad your dust is, stop down all the way (f/22 or smaller), set your ISO to 200, and take a picture of a light colored object such that it fills the frame. Something like a well lit piece of paper or a wall will work. It doesn’t need to be in focus and it doesn’t matter if the shutter is slow. Now open this file on your computer and you’ll see all the dust that’s sitting on your sensor. Technically, the dust isn’t on your sensor, it’s on the anti-aliasing filter that sits in front of your sensor.

The easiest cleaning option is to use your camera’s auto cleaning feature, if it has one. Unfortunately, on my D700 this does a poor job of removing most of the dust. Don’t bother trying to use a q-tip or lens brush to clean it off – best case, you’ll just end up smearing dust all over your sensor, worst case, you’ll scratch it and need to send it back to Nikon for a costly repair.

The next step is to use air to blow the dust off. Set your mirror to lock up and then use a Rocketblower from Giotto’s (get the large one) to blast it off. Be careful not to contact the sensor with the blower. Avoid using “canned air” or air from a compressor – the former can contain bitterants and propellants that will condense on your sensor, the latter may be too powerful and could cause misalignment. Make sure you have a full battery before you start this – if it dies while you’re cleaning, the mirror will spring back into place and you can easily scratch the sensor or the mirror (this also applies to the swab cleaning).

There may be some dust that resists your first two attempts to remove it, in which case you need to use a wet cleaning. I recommend the cleaning swabs and solution from Photographic Solutions. Make sure to get the swabs that fit your sensor size (full frame or DX). You apply a couple of drops to the swab and then work it across the sensor. Don't be afraid to put some pressure on the swab - the sensor can take it - and you'll need it to get stubborn particles off. After the first attempt, take a test shot and check the results. Don't use a swab for more than 2 minutes after you apply the solution as it starts to break the fibers down, and never re-use a swab once you've set it down somewhere as it will pick up debris. It may take a couple of tries to get all the dust off - be careful not to pick up new dust from the edge of the camera housing as you use the swab.

Overall, this can be a nerve wracking experience the first time you do it, but it's really not that bad once you get the hang of it and follow the instructions. If you’re in Dallas or Ft. Worth, head over to Arlington Camera and they’ll clean your sensor for $60 plus the cost of swabs ($5/each). They’ll also show you what they’re doing so you can do it yourself next time.

Sep 20, 2010

Plano Balloon Festival 2010

Here's a couple of nighttime photos from the Plano Balloon Festival in Texas. This is a great event - I didn't get up early enough for the morning launch, but I did catch the evening one. However, the best photo opportunities were during the "glow" after the sun went down. They let spectators walk amongst the balloons before clearing them out for fireworks. More shots at my Flickr set.

These were all taken with a Nikon D700 plus 24-70mm and 70-200mm VR lenses.







Mar 21, 2010

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and VRII: Old Versus New

Nikon reinvented a classic when it developed the 70-200mm VRII. But how does it compare to the original?

The VRII is slightly heaver, and feels it since the barrel is wider. I appreciate the fact that the VRII is half an inch shorter as it fits better in my Lowepro Fastpack 250; the VRI was pushing the length dimension of my bag's capacity. Neither will fit with the hood installed but you can leave it reversed. By virtue of being shorter and wider, the VRII has less of a "baseball bat" feel to it when installed on a smaller dSLR like the D90.

On my DX camera (Nikon D90) it's hard to say that the VRII has improved image quality. They're both extremely sharp, contrasty lenses. Other reports are that the difference on FX is noticeable - the corners are supposed to be much better on the VRII.

However, autofocus and vibration reduction are noticeably improved on the VRII. These are features that you'll appreciate even even if you're shooting on DX. Plus, the VRII paves the way for a future upgrade to FX.

Overall, there's no question that the VRII is the lens to get if you have a full frame camera, and it's probably justified on a crop sensor camera as well. The picture below shows them side by side.

Mar 12, 2010

The best tailor in Dallas: Cantu Tailors

If you need a tailor who knows what he's doing, Cantu is the place. This is a great family run business that's been around for decades. Robert is always helpful and the prices are fair (yes, there are cheaper tailors, but you get what you pay for). Located in an unassuming strip mall, the storefront isn't much to look at but the work is always first rate.

(214) 739-3190
6064 Sherry Ln
Dallas, TX 75225

Mar 7, 2010

The rare light grey (white) Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR

Traditionally white lenses have been associated with Canon, but Nikon has made a few "light grey" models over the years. One of the most recent was the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, pictured below with lens hood and mounted to my D90.

It was an interesting novelty, but short-lived for me as a screaming deal on the new 70-200mm VRII came along. No word if they will produce a white 70-200mm VRII but I'm sticking with black. Although I certainly couldn't fault the image quality on DX:

Feb 25, 2010

Review: Tei-An restaurant in Dallas

We took a friend to Tei-An in the One Arts Plaza building for dinner a few weeks ago. It was truly an exception meal. We ordered the omakase (Japanese for "it's up to you") which they offer at $50 and $80 per person. The more expensive version (the one we had) includes more courses with additional ingredients. Started off with a bottle of unfiltered sake ("Nigori"). I can't describe every course in detail but this is what we had:
  • White seaweed salad
  • Sashimi - tuna, halibut, sea urchin with organic wasabi
  • Wagyu beef and duck on a hot rock
  • Baked halibut with pickled ginger and lotus root
  • Tempura shrimp and dragonfish
  • Pressed eel sushi
  • Curry soba
  • Tiramisu with green tea powder
  • Sesame mousse
  • Angel food cake with green tea ice cream
The courses progressed logically, from light to heavy. Don't order a 10 course meal if you're in a hurry - I think we were there about 3 hours. The service was excellent, attentive without being bothersome. Ambiance in the restaurant is low key but appropriate. There aren't many seats in the relatively small venue so reservations are critical. My only (admittedly minor) complaint is that the omakase didn't include even a small dessert course.

If you like Japanese food, Tei-An is the total package. Nearly flawless from start to finish (and for the price, it ought to be). And of course, any review of Tei-An would be incomplete without a mention of the heated toilet seats in the bathroom. Just be careful with the buttons you press on the control panel.

Feb 11, 2010

Review: The Bliptronic 5000

The Bliptronic 5000 is a cool gadget based on Yamaha's Tenori-On, a hybrid electronic musical instrument. Sure, less features than the Tenori-On but the Bliptronic costs only $50 instead of $1,000. Easy to learn but difficult to master. It's tactile, auditory, and visual. Plus, it has the potential to drive anyone around you crazy with its repetitive electronic bleeps. I recently gave one to a friend as a gift. I think it will help him achieve his lifelong dream of becoming Philip Glass and/or Steve Reich. Just make sure you include batteries.

Feb 3, 2010

Review: The Eco Cup Mug by DCI

I recently received the Eco Cup mug from DCI. Unlike the similar I Am Not A Paper Cup mug by the same company, the Eco Mug is single walled (no insulation) and holds 16 ounces instead of 10. Since it's solid porcelain, the Eco Cup comes with a silicone sleeve to keep from burning your hands - the mug gets hot, especially if you put it in the microwave. The sleeve does a fine job of protecting your digits. Overall I think the capacity of the Eco Cup makes it superior to the I Am Not A Paper Cup.

I bought this mug because the vast majority of travel mugs on the market are made of plastic or metal, and I haven't had good luck putting either of those in the microwave. I like my coffee hot, so by the time I drive to work, I'm ready to zap it for 30 seconds and bring it back up to operating temperature. The Eco Cup lets me do that. I've had several co-workers confuse the Eco Cup for a Starbucks paper cup until I thunked it on their desks - even empty, it's heavy.

Downsides: The white silicone lid can pick up coffee stains over time. You're not supposed to put the lid through the dishwasher, rather, you soak it in boiling water with lemon. That works okay but doesn't quite get all the coffee color out. The mug's capacity is listed at 16 ounces (in reality it holds closer to 14 unless you fill it to the brim) which is a decent amount but I wish it were a little larger. The mug is not insulated, so it won't keep your drink as hot for as long as a thermos if you're traveling away from civilization. However, since there's no metal or plastic in the mug, you can easily microwave it once you get to the office. The lid is not airtight so if it tips over, it will spill.

I like the Eco Mug and would recommend it to anyone who wants to be able to get their coffee extra hot in the microwave. Be careful to buy the mug made by DCI, and not one of the cheaper knockoffs that Amazon also sells.

Photo: Nikon D90 with 17-55mm f/2.8

Jan 30, 2010

Review: Lowepro Fastpack 250 camera backpack with photos

I returned the Kata 3n1-10 bag because it was just a little too small. I also realized that having the option to carry a laptop with me (without carrying a separate laptop bag) was valuable. So this led me to the Lowepro Fastpack 250, shown here behind a Nikon D90 with 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. Hopefully this brief review with pictures will give you a sense of the bag's size and layout in comparison to some common camera equipment.

This bag is a bit larger (mostly in width) and noticeably heaver than the Kata 3n1, given that it holds a lot more. The back has mesh padding which helps if you're sweating - this was a one nice feature that wasn't included on the Kata. Straps are thick and well padded.

Unlike the Kata, the Fastpack only has a quick access flap on the left hand side of the bag (from the perspective of someone wearing it). This makes sense if you're right-handed: slide off the right hand strap, pull the bag around with your left arm and pull the camera out with your right hand. Those wanting a flap on the right may prefer the Kata, since it gives you an option.

There's a flap with two quick release clips over the main camera/lens compartment, and a mesh pocket for water bottle on the right side. Underneath the flap, there's a slim zippered pocket which could hold filters or something else that's fairly flat.

Inside the main compartment, you can see the D90 with 17-55mm attached (no hood) and immediately to the right of it, the Nikon 12-24mm f/4. If I took the 12-24mm out, I could fit the 17-55mm with its hood attached. The D90 doesn't fill up the space for the camera body - I wish it were a little more snug but they've allowed room for larger FX bodies as well as DX bodies with a grip attached. Above that there's a narrow compartment that could hold a couple flashes, but for now I just have the battery charger and AC cord on the left and the lens hood for the 12-24mm on the right. Below, I've setup a divider between my 35mm f/1.8 on the left and the 18-105mm VR on the right (with lens hood attached). The dividers are sturdy and the compartment is well padded on the outside - equipment would be well protected here.

This photo shows my Dell Latitude D630 sliding in to the laptop pocket. This laptop only has a 14" LCD so there's a fair amount of extra room (the bag is rated for a 15" LCD). Even without a computer, you could throw some books or magazines in there.

The top section has a small zippered pouch on the outside. Not a whole lot of room in there.

The flap on the top section is not very well padded compared to the bottom section; I wouldn't put any optics or sensitive electronics in here. But there is plenty of room for other accessories, maps, lunch, etc. I've shown it with the 17-55mm for a sense of scale.

Overall, I like this bag. I could see that I was going to outgrow the Kata 3n1-10 very quickly, so this is a better solution for storing and carrying my gear. The 3n1-20 is probably closer in size to the Fastpack 250 (Kata also makes a model with a laptop compartment the 3n1-22) but I don't see the utility in having a sling bag option for a bag of that size (that much weight on one shoulder is not going to be comfortable for any length of time). Also, I felt that the clips and zippers on the Kata were not as easy to use as I expected, so I opted for the Fastpack instead. The only downside is that once you get it loaded up with gear (especially a laptop), it gets really heavy - not the sort of thing I would want to take an all day walking tour with. However, it'll get all your gear on the plane, and you can leave what you don't need for that day in the hotel.

Jan 28, 2010

Complaint: Progressive Homesite Homeowners Insurance

Summary: avoid Homesite Insurance like the plague.

For the last three years, our house in Dallas, TX was insured for about $200k. First with Amica, and more recently with Progressive's affiliated homeowners insurance company: Homesite Insurance. Everything was fine until we got our renewal bill for 2010 and Homesite had increased our premium about 50%. We've never had a claim. I looked at the premium detail and it turns out they had increased our home's replacement cost from $200k to $300k, and this increased the overall premium.

I called Homesite for an explanation as to how a home's replacement cost could increase by 50% in a single year. They said they had switched to new software and this is the estimate that it had generated. I told them that the market value for this house is around $200k and there is no way you could build a house on this lot for $300k. Their software put our home's replacement cost at about $150/sq. ft. when in fact, new homes are being built in our area for $100/sq. ft. Our house hasn't had any renovations or upgrades that would increase its value by 50% in the last few years. I told Homesite that we didn't want to purchase $300k of insurance for a house that could be replaced for $200k. They said we had no choice but to accept their appraisal.

I then called the Texas Department of Insurance to file a complaint against Homesite. I wanted to see a report from a licensed appraiser or builder who would sign his name to a report stating that our house would cost $300k to rebuild. The TDI said they would investigate and contacted Homesite. A few weeks later we received a letter from Homesite that repeated what we were told on the phone. They provided the detail of the $300k replacement cost, but the largest single line item was "Other/Misc" which was $70k. That was the level of detail they provided. This kind of "estimate" borders on fraudulent to my mind.

TDI later sent us a letter stating that Homesite can use any replacement cost they want. Who am I to argue with the Texas Department of Insurance? So we cancelled the policy and went to another insurer who gave us a $200k replacement cost estimate and a much lower premium. The new insurer suggested that Homesite may not have been able to get a rate increase past the regulators, so instead they're just jacking up everyone's insured value to increase their premium revenue.

Now, I fully understand that my homeowners' insurance premium will probably increase from year to year. I also understand that my home's replacement cost will also increase over time due to inflation. But for Homesite to think that any homeowner should accept a 50% increase in replacement cost in one of the worst housing markets in decades is ludicrous. I guess they haven't noticed that demand for home building services isn't exactly in high demand right now.

We still have our auto insurance with Progressive from when we switched to Homesite, but I'm going to look around for a better rate on that as well. If Progressive wants to associate with Homesite, neither company deserves my business.

Homesite Home Insurance: the worst homeowners insurance company in Texas.

Jan 23, 2010

Review: AF-S DX Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

This lens is considered by many to be a potential upgrade from the 18-105mm VR that comes in the Nikon D90 kit. On paper, it has several advantages:
  • Better build quality with metal lens mount (18-105 has a plastic mount)
  • Second generation VR technology
  • Slightly wider field of view (2mm doesn't sound like much, but it's actually 7 more degrees in your field of view)

However, you give up some reach on the tele end, and the 16-85 costs almost twice as much as the 18-105 (the incremental cost is even more if you consider that the 18-105 costs about $200 in the D90 kit, and if you already have the 18-105 you'll have to sell it on eBay or Craigslist). Expectations for image quality from the 16-85 run high given its price, and the lens is generally well reviewed. However, I did an informal test of the 16-85 against the 18-105 over their common range and found that the 16-85 was sharper from edge to edge at close focus distances (less than 30 feet) on the wide end. However, for shots at 85mm with focus distances greater than 30 feet, the 18-105 was noticeably sharper. My informal test shots were taken at the same aperture and shutter speed in outdoor lighting conditions. At 100% crop, it was easy to identify the 18-105's shots based on the center of the frame, and things worsened at the edges. This was really surprising to me and not at all what I expected, but I ended up returning the 16-85. The relatively high price of this lens could've been justified based on its features, but I was unwilling to spend more money for lesser image quality. Ultimately, if the wider angle is what you're after, you'd be better served by buying the Nikon 12-24 f/4, which can be had for about $500 on the used market.

Jan 9, 2010

Review: Kata KT D-3N1-10 sling/backpack camera bag with photos

I recently purchased the Kata 3n1-10 camera bag to hold my burgeoning collection of camera equipment. I originally started looking at the Lowepro Slingshot but came to realize that a sling bag with a body plus multiple lenses puts a lot of weight on a single shoulder. Okay for short periods but not all day walking. The Kata converts between a two-strap backpack and a single strap over-the-shoulder sling bag but I expected to use it in backpack mode most of the time. Here's the 3n1-10 next to the D90 and some lenses. Hopefully this brief review with pictures will give you a sense of the bag's size and layout in comparison to some common camera equipment.

Back of the 3n1-10. For sling use, you connect the red strap to the red hook. It can be reversed for left handed individuals as well.

Inside, there's a fair amount of room, but it's the smallest of the 3n1 series, so even with my gear the fit is tight. From left to right in the photo, you can see the 35mm f/1.8, D90 with 12-24 f/4 and lens hood, and the 18-105VR with lens hood. One improvement would be to extend the zippers an inch to the left as it can be difficult to reach lenses stored on the left hand side of the bag - this is a real annoyance. The bag came with a couple more foam dividers but I've taken them out for the time being as it was just too cramped. The quick draw feature works well although I'm not sure yet if it would fit the D90 with the 17-55mm or 70-300mm VR mounted. Probably possible but a close fit.

There's two side pockets next to the top compartment. They might barely hold the 35mm f/1.8 but clearly they're designed for smaller accessories.

The top compartment is as well padded as the rest of the bag and I have no reservations about storing a lens in that section. You can see it here with the 18-105VR for scale.

Overall the bag is well designed, solidly built, and comfortable. The bright yellow interior is a nice touch. As you can tell from the photos, it's a relatively small bag so if you have more than a couple lenses, you'd be better served by the 3n1-20. Don't even think that you could get a lens like the 80-200 f/2.8 into the 3n1-10. However, for a light travel bag, it's not bad. Ultimately I ended up returning the 3n1 because the single-strap mode just wasn't practical for a bag of this size. It's caught in the middle - too big to be a good sling bag, too small to be a useful backpack. Another issue was that the zippers didn't feel as smooth as I expected for a bag of this price, and was concerned that they would jam over time. Plus, there's no reason this bag needs to have 4 quick release clips on it - they almost defeat the purpose of having a quickdraw flap in the first place. I thought about trying the 3n1-20, but instead I ordered a Lowepro Fastpack 250. We'll see how it works out.