Browsing all posts tagged observations

Malls Are Doomed

Sep 3, 2022

My wife and I had a date night tonight without the kids. In need of some new clothes, we ventured out to The Streets at Southpoint, our area's largest shopping mall. We were shocked, shocked, at how much of a ghost town it was on a Friday night. Some of the stores were already closed we we arrived after dinner (around 7:00 pm), and in those which were opened, we were often the only shoppers in sight.

I know that the pandemic has done a number on retail stores in general, but it was truly surprising how deserted the whole place felt. Prior to Covid, the mall would have been a wall-to-wall sea of people on a Friday night. I can't help but imagine that places like this are on borrowed time. My wife and I wondered aloud what would happen if it goes under; do you bulldoze the building and sell the land? What could you possibly do with a building that gigantic, and in that odd of a configuration? I guess time will tell. It's crazy to think that my kids will grow up in a world where going to the mall is likely never a thing that you do.

Musical Output

Dec 12, 2021

I haven't yet seen the Get Back documentary about The Beatles, but I've been watching various clips of it online. One of the surprising things about what I've seen so far is the rejection of some of George Harrison's songs: specifically All Things Must Pass, which is one of George's best all-time compositions. Like many of his other songs, however, John and Paul dismiss it.

I genuinely don't understand this mindset. My best guess is that there's a lot of ego going into these decisions (and likely jealousy). As a member of a band, whose very existence relies on making music, shouldn't the group welcome every single song or idea a member comes up with? If I were in a band, I feel like I'd want to embrace every idea that came along. More ideas lead to more songs; that, in turn, leads to more albums, more sales, and more touring possibilities. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Think of all the great music the world has been denied because of petty squabbles between people in a musical group. What a shame.

On Working From Home

Feb 3, 2021

We're closing in on a full year since the COVID-19 lock down took effect here in North Carolina. I've been working from home every week since the beginning of that lock down (mid-March 2020), and so far I really like it! In fact, once my employer opens its campus back up (whenever that may be), I'll likely continue to work from home for the majority of the week. Here are a few of the pros and cons that I see, in no particular order:


  • Terrific Commute: I love not having to fight traffic or traffic lights twice a day, and I'm saving about 40 minutes total per day sitting in my car.
  • Saving Money: I'm driving less, which means I put way less gas in my car (I've filled up exactly 3 times since last March). I also eat out way less, which has reduced my lunch costs considerably.
  • Home Cooked Meals: Speaking of lunch, I get to eat home cooked meals every day. I rarely took in a lunch of my own to work, so this is a nice perk.
  • Spending Time with Family: Having lunch with my wife and daughter every day is a real treat, and is time I otherwise wouldn't have with them.
  • Fewer Distractions: Distractions in my employer's open work office environment were a real nuisance, as were the interruptions from co-workers who would stop by to ask a question.


  • Home Cooked Meals: Although I love eating home cooked meals for lunch, I'm also missing a few of the places I used to visit (I haven't had a Bojangles biscuit in nearly a year; the humanity!).
  • Spending Time with Family: I miss interacting with humans other than my wife and child.
  • Separating Work from Play: When your work lives where you live, it can be difficult to separate yourself from the work world. I occasionally find myself doing work during hours of the day I would normally be doing something for pleasure. I suppose this comes down to discipline, for the most part.

During these COVID-19 lockdown times of ours, I've been thinking about the interesting research opportunities this strange occurrence must be affording scientists around the globe. For example, in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, weather scientists had a unique chance to study the skies without the influence of aircraft contrails. Certainly those kinds of studies can be done now, since air travel has been greatly reduced. I wonder what other branches of science this shutdown is helping. Are air-pollution studies easier to conduct? Can certain types of infrastructure examinations be completed more easily, without the burden of traffic and congestion? How is electricity use being affected? It's an interesting line of thought to ponder.

This line of thinking, however, goes in a darker direction as well. How many more cases of depression will result from these upcoming months of isolation? Will suicides increase? What about divorce rates? How will children in school be impacted in terms of what they learn? What about their social development?

My daughter, who is younger than 2 years of age, is reaching a critical point in her development as a child. Her isolation from both family members and other children will certainly have a negative impact, at least in the short term. What kind of long term effects will it have? I guess only time will tell.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned two photography lessons on my recent trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Today, I will be covering the second lesson I learned. In short, never fully trust your camera's automatic white balance setting. While shooting under cloudy conditions, I found that the automatic setting resulted in photos that were way too cool in color, resulting in inaccurate representations of what my eye saw. Here's a great example from my visit to Mount Mitchell State Park (a wonderful place, I might add):

Photograph taken with automatic white balance

Compare the automatic white balance photo with the following one, which was taken with manual white balance (on the "Cloudy" setting):

Photograph taken with manual (Cloudy) white balance

Note how this second image is warmer in color, with richer greens and reds. This second image is much closer to what I really saw, and the color difference was enough to be apparent in the little LCD display on my camera. The morning I visited the park, weather conditions were definitely cloudy. It's interesting then that the automatic white balance didn't pick up on those conditions better than it did.

One obvious solution to this problem is to shoot in RAW mode (assuming your camera supports it). My camera does not support RAW, and I'm not entirely sure that the additional post-processing work necessary with RAW photos is worth it (though I'm sure plenty of pros would disagree). As I have learned, you're probably better off manually setting your white balance for a given scene. Just don't forget to change it each time you go on a shoot. You wouldn't want to shoot in "Cloudy" mode on a bright, sunny day.

I learned two very important photography lessons during my recent vacation to the southwestern mountains of North Carolina. Today I will cover one of those lessons, and I'll get to the other one in a future post. As you might have guessed from this post's title, the first lesson involves a tripod.

In my previous outings to the various state parks here in North Carolina, I've never carried a tripod with me. On a bright sunny day, it's typically a tool I feel that I don't need; lots of light, a steady hand, and my camera's image stabilization feature help me out. On cloudy days, however, I inevitably end up with a load of blurred shots, especially when in a heavily forested area. On this particular trip to the mountains, I knew I would be shooting a number of waterfalls, so I was willing to haul my tripod down the trail with me.

Since I already had the tripod with me, I found that I used it for way more than the waterfall shots I had intended. Wow, what a difference it made! Instead of lots of blurred shots, the vast majority of my photos are keepers this time around, thanks to this handy tool. I've also learned a few things about the type of tripod I want in the future:

  1. It should be light
  2. It should have a ball head
  3. The adjustable leg locks should be sturdy

My current tripod is a tad bulky, and the multiple controls are a bother to work with. A multidimensional bubble level for my camera's hot shoe connector would also be useful.

In short, if you're planning a photo shoot in a forested area, or you're shooting on a cloudy day, make an effort to carry a tripod along with you. Your end results will justify the extra effort of lugging extra gear down the trail. As an added bonus, carrying a tripod will pique people's curiosity. I struck up more conversations with random people about photography on this trip than I've ever done previously. It's a lesson I'll remember for a long time.

Smart Games

Feb 2, 2011

Over the Christmas holiday, I purchased Dead Space on Steam (happily, for only $7). The game was a major letdown on a number of levels, but there's one nit in particular that I'd like to pick. I was really struck by how dumb the game assumed I was. Often, direct audio cues (i.e. the spaceship's computer) would tell you exactly what to do. Here's a typical example:

The player enters a room filled with radioactive debris. Upon entering said room, the ship's computer announces, out loud, that the room is locked down due to these dangerous conditions. In order to lift this lock down, all radioactive debris must be removed. To further complicate matters, the debris can only be removed when an airlock to outer space is opened (again, all of this is announced by the computer). A monitor in one corner of the room displays, in what would realistically be a 200-point font, the text "open airlock." Using this computer opens the airlock, and the player is then free to remove the debris.

Sadly, a number of other games make this same assumption; namely, that I as the player am generally unable to figure out how to proceed on my own. I think this is what draws me to the games that Valve develops. Every Half-Life title ever released assumes from the outset that the player is smart. Clues are always provided as to how to proceed, but precious few hints are explicitly stated. Portal is another perfect example of this. The user is instructed (via the narrative itself) how the portal gun works. It's then up to the player to figure out how to use it to proceed through the game.

As a gamer, I would much rather developers assume my intelligence, rather than my stupidity. It simply makes a game that much more fun to play.

Hess Race Cars

Dec 7, 2009

Every year around this time, the Hess Corporation, an independent energy company, advertises their "Hess Racing Cars" for Christmas. Apparently, they've been doing this for 45 years now, a fact I find quite surprising. According to their advertising, the cars are available at local Hess gas stations. They clearly must sell these cars to someone; otherwise they wouldn't advertise year after year. But who buys these? I never think of a gas station as a place to go to buy stuff like this. As a kid, I never said "hey, let's go toy shopping at our local gas station!" And I don't know who would do that today. Maybe truck drivers pick this kind of thing up for their kids?

According to the Wikipedia article, these cars (especially the older ones) are considered collectibles and can fetch into the thousands of dollars, depending on the rarity and condition. Pretty amazing! Does anyone here have (or previously had) a Hess car? If so, what did you think about it?

Female Operator

Before I get to the actual point of this post, allow me to rant just a little. What's up with the increasing number, and more importantly the duration, of public radio/television pledge drives? Our local public television station, UNC-TV, will be starting their Festival drive in February, and it will last for more than a month (February 21 to March 29)! If this kind of thing happened just once a year, I wouldn't care so much. However, two months ago, the station had its Winterfest drive (November 30 to December 14). Occasionally, they'll even have a drive in August! Public television clearly needs commercials. I would suggest having commercials between the television shows they offer, so as to keep the 'commercial-free' feel of today. Just my 2 cents.

Back to the real topic. Driving home yesterday, I listened to a little bit of our local public radio station. They are currently in the midst of their pledge drive, so programming is light and begging for pledges is heavy. In the midst of their asking for donations, you often hear the sound of telephones in the background. And I'm talking old school telephones. Let's take a quick walk down memory lane and have a history lesson.

Back before the digital revolution, telephones had bells in them. Yes, physical bells. When someone called you, a small hammer oscillated between two of these bells, causing the telephone to 'ring' (hence the term 'ringing' someone). I haven't seen one of these telephones in probably 20 years or more. Yet, during these public entertainment pledge drives, you hear them ringing constantly.

The funniest circumstance of this is found during the public television pledge drive. Volunteers can be seen in the background sitting at computers with their operator-style headsets. No telephones can be seen during this time. And, occasionally, none of the operators are talking. Yet the ringing goes on. So where are those ringing sounds coming from? Are the computers synthesizing the sound? Or is it a gimmick being pulled from the control booth?

I like to think it's the latter. On my way home yesterday, while listening to the radio, I got thinking about this phenomenon. There must be a point at which this ringing trickery yields the greatest ROI, right? And someone must have figured this out. I'm no statistician, and I'm no psychologist, so the following logic is simply me thinking aloud. If the 'phones' were constantly ringing off the hook, with no breaks in between, it seems to me that listeners would be less likely to call in and pledge (why pledge, when everyone else is doing it for me?). Likewise, if the phones were too silent, listeners again might be less inclined to call (silence won't prompt the listener into action). So the answer certainly lies somewhere in between. I'm guessing that, if the ringing is indeed a trick, the frequency of said ringing is somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum. As a radio station, you want to sound needy, but not too needy. Others are supporting us; why won't you?

I'd love to know where the middle ground really is. Maybe an influential politician will happen upon this post and decide to funnel some of our country's economic stimulus package into a research program on this topic. Our nation's public media outlets might depend on it. ;-)

The Ultimate Apple Ad

Jan 23, 2009

Twenty five years ago today, the oh-so-epic 1984 ad from Apple debuted during the super bowl. This ad is as powerful today as it was back then. If there's one thing Apple can certainly do well, it's marketing. They have perfected the art of making their products cooler than the rest, something lots of other companies would love to learn how to do. If Microsoft had learned how to market as well as Apple, perhaps there would be no Apple at all. But alas, that was not to be (and we're all the better for it).

Here's to one of the best advertisements in the history of advertising!

Human Sign Posts

Nov 23, 2008

Last month, I blogged about the strange trend of sign twirling. Stranger still is a new twist that I'm seeing introduced by Linens 'n Things, which just happens to be going out of business. Around their various stores in our area, they have apparently hired people to hold up a going out of business sign. The people doing this job don't twirl the sign or anything fancy. They just stand there, holding the sign up for people to read. Are metal sign posts too good to do this job? I have to believe the company could save some money by investing in a few of them. has announced a new plan to begin converting products to a new line of frustration free packaging. This means that Amazon customers can begin to say goodbye to those horrible clam-shell packages that you need a chain-saw to get into. Another giant plus is the fact that the new packaging is recyclable, making things way greener than before. As Jeff Bezos mentioned, this transition will take years to fully implement. But I think it's a giant step in the right direction.

Sign Twirling

Oct 18, 2008

I was doing some furniture shopping this afternoon, and on my way back from the store, noticed two guys twirling signs out on the highway. Kinda like this guy:

So I got to thinking, how horrible a job must this be? You stand out on the street for who knows how long, looking like an idiot. No one can read the sign because it's spinning around so fast, and even worse, no one knows in which direction to go if they could read it (again, because it's spinning around). Talk about your dead-end jobs. I can't imagine there's much of a career opportunity in this line of work.

Has anyone ever done this? If so, what did you think? Were you as embarrassed and lonely as I suspect?

Visual Studio 2005 introduced support for doing parallel builds in solutions that contain more than one project. This is a great idea, especially on systems equipped with multi-core processors. Unfortunately, the developers at Microsoft apparently don't know how to program a multi-threaded application.

Suppose we're building two projects within one solution, call them Project A and Project B. If A and B exist in completely different folders, and are mutually exclusive in every way possible, the parallel build option is quite handy (improved build performance). However, if projects A and B share any code, any code at all, you run the risk of build failures. It seems as though Visual Studio doesn't lock files appropriately during the build process. So, if each instance of the compiler tries to build the same file at the same time, one of them will fall over and die, complaining that "no class instances were found."

It's shocking to me that something so seemingly simple could be broken in an application of this caliber.

Digg on the Way Down?

Dec 30, 2007

Is on the way down? I personally find myself visiting the site less and less, turning instead to Slashdot and Gizmodo for my news and entertainment. When I do visit Digg, there's little that I find appealing enough to digg. In fact, looking at my profile, I find that the last story I dugg was on December 12, quite some time ago. The majority of stories seem to be very uninteresting, or (more likely) stories that are already covered on other websites.

Even the Diggnation podcast seems to be degrading in quality. The show used to be solidly funny, but I find myself laughing only a few times per episode these days. I'd much rather have the higher grade content as found in The Totally Rad Show. Neither Alex nor Kevin seem to put as much effort into Diggnation as they once did, which isn't too surprising. Like the saying goes, 'All good things must come to an end.'

The State of NASCAR

May 15, 2007

Having been born and raised in The South (the southern United States for any international readers), I'm a fan of NASCAR. In fact, it's the only sport that I follow regularly. I know that the sport doesn't appeal to many people, but I have enjoyed it greatly since I was little. There are a few things I've had on my mind recently about the sport, so I'll present them here.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and DEI I'm not an Earnhardt fan (I prefer the Hendrick Motorsports stables of Gordon and Johnson), but I think it's great that Junior is leaving DEI. His step-mother Teresa really screwed Junior by refusing to give him a controlling share in his dad's business. So Junior has decided to turn the tables on his step-mom and walk away from the team. Once he leaves, DEI will no longer have any "star" drivers. I predict that DEI will die out in another season or two as a result.

Leadership I hate Mike Helton. Under his dictatorial leadership, NASCAR has lost several historic tracks, including Rockingham speedway. It has seen idiotic rules changes, such as no driving below the yellow line on certain tracks and no finishing under caution (attempting a green-white-checker finish instead). And it has become increasingly contradictory, throwing debris cautions in some cases and not others. Being family controlled is such a shame; the sport needs a commission like most other sports, made up of people who don't solely profit on the direction of the sport.

The Car of Tomorrow NASCAR introduced the "car of tomorrow" this year in an attempt to level the playing field for all drivers. So far, only Hendrick Motorsports seems to have figured out the new package (something I'm not complaining about). But it seems more like a move towards the IROC style of racing, where everyone drives the exact same car. There is less room today for teams to tweak the car itself, which is a shame. NASCAR is clearly losing its roots, but that's apparently what they want.

One "feature" of Windows XP is the built-in support of what Microsoft likes to call "compressed folders." But nothing new was introduced here; the zip file format is all that's being used. When I first learned of this feature, I was fairly excited to see that Microsoft was actually trying to make life easier. No longer would I need a zip tool like WinZip to do my extractions. Instead, I would just use the features in Windows Explorer to do my compressing and uncompressing as needed.

That was an idealistic view if there ever was one, and I'm not too surprised to say that it was grossly mistaken. The zip support offered in Windows XP is utterly horrible. My work place is fairly strict about not having shareware applications installed on our personal workstations, so WinZip isn't an option for me. As a result, I'm relegated to using the native support offered by Windows. What I'd like to know is this: what the heck are they doing when unzipping a file? We package stuff up in zip files all the time around here (since we often have tons of source code files to deal with), and unextracting them through Windows literally takes 5 to 7 minutes. Literally! WinZip could chew through these files in less than 30 seconds (I know, because I've tried it at home). Is the Windows stuff just horribly inefficient? Are they doing more complex file system stuff than WinZip? Whatever it is, it makes file extraction very slow.

I use the Cygwin package all the time at work, and so I occasionally use their command line zip utility. It's way faster than what Windows provides, but it has the occasional problems with file ownership, which is why I use it sparingly. For instance, I've encountered the case where I extracted a zip file using the Cygwin tools, then tried to open a subsequent file for viewing. Windows then tells me that "I don't have the authority to open that file." I'm the freaking administrator of the machine! I should be able to do whatever I want, right?

If anyone has tips on how to improve things in the "compressed folder" world, I'd be glad to hear them.

It seems that Papa John's has "outsourced" the pizza ordering process. The past two times that I have called our local Papa John's establishment, I was connected with an operator at who knows where. She took my order like the local folks normally do, but she clearly submits the order via her computer ("let me key in your order here on my computer," she says). What clearly gives it away as a call center is the fact that the operator gives the actual address of the local establishment: "Do you want to pick up your pizza at [insert address here]?" The local folks never asked that in the past; it was simply "is this for pick-up or delivery?"

I'm not exactly sure why Papa John's would want to send the ordering process to a call center. Is it simply to hire fewer people? Was our local establishment doing such a poor job that the corporation stepped in to help?

Has anyone else seen this behavior when ordering pizza? I'm not sure if this is just something at our local establishment or if this is a wider spread change. Either way, it's very strange.

My family took a trip to the North Carolina State Fair today (as we do every year), and we had a great time. While there, I had some interesting thoughts on the types of people one sees at the fair. And, to some level, these groups also apply at amusement parks (though I'm not sure why). Here are the major people groups that I came up with:

Teenagers This demographic makes up a large portion of those actually at the fair. Many teens apparently mistake the fair for some sort of mass orgy; the girls dress scantily and the guys hang all over the girls they are with. Some teen "couples" can be seen walking around as if in some sort of mental haze. These particular teens "hold hands" (rather loosely, mind you) and seem stare into the distance at all times. Is this a result of a drug induced stupor? Quite possibly. Many of the teens smoke, and curse like sailors. I enjoy avoiding this group as much as possible.

Pre-teens Trying to Be Teenagers There are fewer people in this group, but enough to be categorical. The kids who aren't quite teenagers do their best to mimic their older counterparts, albeit in a much more immature way. I mostly feel sorry for those included in this group, since they just seem so pathetic.

Parents with Small Children Small children drive me crazy, and this year's fair seemed to be packed with them. There were strollers everywhere, and whiny, snot-nosed kids populated those strollers. And, through all the whining and tantrum throwing, mom and dad do nothing. Could they too be in a drug induced stupor? This group makes up (in my estimation) roughly a third of the people at the fair, if not more.

The Elderly Lots of older people can be seen at the fair, which isn't too surprising seeing that people 65 or older can get in free. The only main problem I have with this group is that they always walk slowly, and I inevitably get caught behind them. Come on grandma; get a move on!

Thugs Black, White, Hispanic, it apparently doesn't matter what color you are; "gangstas" can be seen all over the place. Baggy jeans, gold chains, over-sized clothing, threatening looks, this group has it all. The end result is so pathetic, I can't help but shake my head in disappointment.

Ugly People The fact is that there are a lot of butt-ugly people out there. And they seem to flock to the fair. Why must ugly, overweight women wear clothes that reveal more of themselves than anyone wants to see?

Can you think of a group I've omitted? If so, feel free to discuss.

Super Bull

Feb 5, 2006

Every year, I forget how cheesy and how over-produced the Super Bowl really is. It's not until the pre-game show really gets going that I sadly remember. This year's tragedy with the legendary Stevie Wonder is a testament to how cheesy things have gotten. Let's let Stevie play two of his songs: all the way through. Playing 10 second interludes of 50 songs, while rotating musical "stars" on and off the stage, is an insult to Mr. Wonder's incredible talent. It cheapens what he's done for the music world. Can't we save the embarassment?

Sadly, the Super Bowl isn't the only thing that's this cheesy in the sports world. The Daytona 500 is just as over-produced. All the "pre-game" hype is just that: hype. I can't believe that there are sports fans out there that want to see touchy-feely stuff before the game. Who exactly are they trying to market this stuff to? I'm clearly not the intended audience. Or perhaps I'm just too high brow.

Update: Well, there appears to be some hope. The half-time show with The Rolling Stones was done exactly as it should be. A few songs were played all the way through ... and a good time was had by all.