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Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Week's Worth Of Thoughts

As is becoming usual nowadays, my days are so packed with various activities, errands, and what not that they blend into each other with no time left for reflection or contemplation. I run a sleep deficit throughout the work-week and then try to make up for it over the weekend by sleeping late. It has become a pretty regular pattern.

So, what was different about last week? Last weekend, I had to spend a whole day at a music competition in which my daughters were participating. This was one of those badly organized events in which my daughters sang at 9 in the morning, but the prize-winners were announced only at 4 in the evening, and the actual prizes were handed out only at 8 in the night. It was total chaos all around. At least the organizers provided us lunch, but sitting in the auditorium not knowing what was going to happen at any given time and listening to talentless singers assaulting my ears with cacophonous renderings of lovely songs was almost more than what I could stand! At least my daughters won the first prize in their category, so it wasn't an entirely wasted day, but came pretty close. It was a good thing I had also taken a book with me, and pretty much finished it from cover to cover during the 10 hours I was at this event.

Since I started blogging, I have used some of my free time to write up articles for my blog. This last week, I had no free time even to do my usual news roundups because of the whole-day event, and my Java training. We had only intermittent access to the internet from the training venue and the breaks were too short to do any news-gathering. I knew I would have very little time to continue my blogging, so I went to a new format for my roundups just before I started the training. This involved providing more links, but less information in the roundup itself. Obviously, I was not a big fan of this new format, but I thought it saved me some time, so I decided to try it out. I have a feeling the links will probably stop working after a month or two and the articles will become completely useless. In any case, my Java training precluded me from doing even that shortened format of news roundups for the entire week.

Every evening after the training class, I was swamped with various family activities that I could not get out of. One day was devoted to going shopping for Halloween costumes for my daughters. Another day, I had to take one of my daughters for an eye exam (it turns out she is quite short-sighted in her right eye, but has perfect eye sight out of her left eye. So, only a professional eye checkup could actually turn up the problem since the left eye compensated fully for the right eye and she had no clue one of her eyes was not seeing properly). Yet another day was my regular karate class, and so on.

In short, I got no time even to catch up on the news, leave alone write anything about it. I am now seriously reconsidering whether to restart the news roundups. I felt bad giving up on the technology news roundups due to lack of time. It looks like I might have to give up on the interesting/weird news roundups also.

I had also slackened up quite a bit in entering my ebook collection into my database for cataloging. I used my limited access to the internet to focus more on activities that did not require access to the internet, including organizing my ebook collection. I am coming up on my self-imposed deadline for completing this task this month, so I thought it was a good time to focus more attention to it now. I still have about 500 or so books to enter into my database, so it will probably keep me busy all the way until the deadline.

In my karate class I started teaching the younger students their self-defense drills. As part of their next belt-test, they have to know how to defend and counter-attack against 5 basic punches and kicks and 6 basic weapon attacks. The hand-techniques they have to defend against are a straight punch to the chest, straight punch to the face and a haymaker-type swing of the hand towards the side of their head. They have to be able to defend themselves against these hand-techniques regardless of which hand the opponent uses to deliver the attack. After defending against the attack, they then have to counter-attack the opponent with a quick flurry of powerful kicks and punches (essentially, this is how you would defend against an attacker who is not a trained martial artist - stop the proximate attack and subdue the opponent immediately).

The foot techniques to defend against are a straight kick to the groin, and a round house kick to the ribs or head. Once again, the attack may be delivered using either foot and the defender's task is to block and counter-attack.

The weapons they have to learn to defend against are a knife and a gun. The 3 knife attacks to defend against are a straight stab to the midsection, an overhead stab to the head/neck and a slash from the side. The usual techniques against a knife attack usually involve some kind of wrist-lock or arm-bar to cause serious damage to the attacker's hand, and then a counter-attack. The basic idea is at least to avoid the weapon first, control the weapon-hand so that the weapon can not be reused against you, and then counter-attack to cause the attacker to lose control of the weapon completely (break the wrist or arm, or batter them so thoroughly while holding on to their weapon hand that they can not continue the attack).

Similarly, the gun attacks simulate situations one may face when encountering an opponent who tries to force you to do something at gun point. In the first attack, the attacker holds the gun to your chest. In the second, the gun is held to either of your temples. The third attack is when the opponent holds the gun to your back. The defense against these attacks is once again to be quick to control the weapon while at the same time moving out of the line of gun-fire, then either cause the opponent to give the weapon by damaging their hand or arm, or cause damage to other parts of their body while controlling their weapon-hand securely so that they are subdued and are no longer a threat.

The younger students in the class are quick and are very interested in learning these techniques and tactics. But they have never trained in karate for power. So, my sensei and I are also training them for delivering optimal power by making them work on bags. We go over a regular half-hour training session with them each class and have them practice their front punches, kicks, back-fists, etc. for power. They are now working on the mechanics of delivering these techniques so that they are capable of inflicting damage on any opponent who runs into one of these techniques. As my sensei says, all punches are punches, but some only make an opponent angry. A true karate punch or kick stops the opponent in his/her tracks and ends the confrontation.

On Friday, our department had a halloween party. I was one of only 10 or so people to wear a costume to the party. As you can tell, my department-mates are not big on creativity and poking fun at themselves. They are brainiacs who would prefer to interact with computers rather than celebrate halloween with costumes! Anyways, I went dressed up as a doctor with a broomstick in my hand, and nobody could guess what I was. It has nothing to do with sweeping up or cleaning up after myself, if you need a hint. If you can't guess, the answer is at the bottom of this post. A good time was had by all at the party though, with lots of good food. I did not win the costume contest (probably because so many people had trouble figuring out what I was), but I did not attend the party to win a $5 starbucks giftcard anyways (and I can't stand the horrible, yucky goop that passes for coffee at starbucks anyways)!

This weekend was also a blur of activity. My first and most important activity was to transfer all the video I had recorded over the past couple of weeks to my computer. I am a primitive when it comes to my video camera. It is a tape model that came out almost 11 years back. It is not one of these new-fangled flash-memory camcorders. I know I have to move to one of the new ones eventually, but I am waiting for HD-camcorder technology to mature and be standardized (this is important because each manufacturer right now uses a different standard of HD-technology and you need software from the manufacturer to do anything with the video recorded by their equipment. I don't like that level of dependence on a manufacturer's software, and prefer the day when things are standardized enough for there to be third-party software to deal with video from all HD camcorders). But my camcorder still works, and pretty well too, so I can take my time researching its replacement.

In the meantime, I am stuck with this tape-based camcorder for now. When I initially got the camcorder, I used to record on the tapes, then take them out and put them in my entertainment center for later watching. Pretty soon, as you can imagine, I lost track of what footage was on which tape, and I never got around to watching the tapes after they were recorded. I transferred some of the tapes (these were 8mm tapes) to regular VCR tapes, but those didn't get watched either.

Starting around 5 years back, I got my first laptop with a firewire connection. And that opened up a whole world of possibilities for all the footage left trapped on these 8mm tapes. My camcorder had a 4-pin firewire port and my laptop had a similar port too. I bought a 4-pin to 4-pin firewire cable off ebay and hooked up my camcorder to my laptop. Lo and behold, my laptop instantly recognized the laptop and Windows Movie Maker (which is a standard part of Windows XP) came up and offered to import the footage off my camcorder.

Over the years I have experimented with various options, but now, I have settled into a comfortable (though long and tedious) process for getting the footage transferred to my computer very soon after I finish using my camcorder. All the footage I have ever shot with my camcorder is now on my computer as video clips so that I can actually watch them whenever I choose instead of hunting among dozens of tapes to locate the one with the footage I am searching for. The advantage is that when people visit, I can show them clips of whatever they want to see instead of hunting around for it. I can also burn the footage on DVD (either as data files if they just want a copy of a clip for their computer, or as a playable DVD if they want something they can watch on their TV) whenever I want and give it to people who want it.

Before a video transfer session, I prepare my laptop for it by cleaning up the hard disk of junk and then defragmenting the files so that disk access is faster and smoother. This is important because video footage is very bulky and if your hard disk is fragmented, it is likely that putting the footage in fragmented locations on the disk would produce enough overhead to cause dropped frames and other problems. Then I reboot the computer to make sure all the junk accumulated in memory is cleaned up.

As I mentioned earlier, Windows Movie Maker comes up automatically as soon as I hook my camcorder up to my laptop using the firewire cord. I then choose to import video and choose "High Quality Video - Large" as the input format. I choose to manually import the video, which means I control what parts of the tape I import. This is important because a tape typically lasts at least 2 to 3 months in my camcorder and over that time, I might import video 2 or 3 times. I don't want to import the entire tape every time (which is what automatic import would do).

After I stop the capture, I set the option to create clips from the imported video and let Windows Movie Maker do its magic. The software automatically cuts the video footage into clips based on the timestamps on the tape. I then collect related clips together on the storyboard and hit save to my computer (either as "High Quality Video - Large" or as "Best Quality For My Computer"). I give the clips in the storyboard a good name (Daugher's 8th birthday cake cutting.wmv, for instance) and I am done with those clips. Repeat for all the clips worth saving for the future and you have a good video library that is easy to use and share. Editing the video footage in the storyboard is intuitive and easy, so you can throw out what you don't like, save only what you like. If you are creative, you can also add various effects and transitions to the video also, all from within the easy-to-use interface of Movie Maker.

I have tried other video capture software to do this same thing at various times in the past. One of my laptops came with part of the Nero suite of software pre-installed. Nero has a video capture utility and I used that once. The main problem was that except for Windows Movie Maker, most of the other video capture software out there captures video footage in raw format. This occupies huge amounts of disk space (up to 14 or 15 GB per hour). Movie Maker, on the other hand processes the video in memory and uses as little as 300 MB per hour (depending on what format you choose to import video in). For the most common settings I use, Movie Maker typically uses less than 1 GB per hour, which is a huge savings over these other video capture utilities.

Obviously, Windows Movie Maker has some quirks that you have to get used to (it does not, for instance, tell you if the video capture dropped any frames. I usually make sure the time stamps on the captured video and the camcorder are the same to make sure that frames were not dropped during the capture). It will only save clips in WMV format, but I find the format very convenient to use and quite compact too. I can always use some video converter to get other formats if I really need to (look in my earlier post on free software for such utilities). Overall, I find the whole procedure such an easy and painless way to do things. I am not a sycophantic fan of Microsoft, but you have to give credit where credit is due!

I had somehow accumulated 2 full hours of footage since my last video capture, so most of Saturday was spent in transferring this footage to my computer, organizing the clips and saving it all in the proper places. I also had to share some of the footage with others (these were some people who had come to the music competition that my daughters participated in, but had not brought their own camcorders for some reason). So, the next task was to put these clips into a collection and burn it onto DVD for them. I decided I would create a stand-alone DVD for them rather than a data DVD with clips burnt onto it.

To author a DVD, Windows XP does not come with its own built-in utility. Time for more free software. This time it is DVDFlick. Once again, an easy and intuitive interface that allows me to create titles, chapters, etc., and add my own video in any format. It takes a while for DVDFlick to process the video into the form that an authored DVD requires, but once you let it go off and do its magic, you have a professional quality DVD that will play in any standalone DVD player.

Once all that was done, it was time to take my daughters trick-or-treating. They collected a lot of candy (which I have to figure out how to steal. I am used to doing it every year, obviously for their own good, but in recent years they have become more and more resistant to giving up their candy stash that easily!) and had a good time overall. And the time-change provided me with the opportunity to catch an extra hour of sleep today morning.

Today was spent putting together some blog posts, and preparing for more posts in the coming days. I also have to hit my Vedic Mathematics books to learn new things to teach my children and write about. I taught them how to solve quadratic equations using the Vedic method, but it is too basic to write a whole blog post about. In fact, I am still struggling with my entire blogging stragegy without a clear answer coming up yet. I have always wanted to be an author of fiction, but I have never written before. I am toying with the idea of writing some stories for my blog to see what audience reaction to my idea of fiction is! I might also move my roundups to a more selective process and make it a weekly post instead of daily. I am also thinking I should stick with the basic idea of a blog by posting a daily summary of what happened in life each day (the problem is that most of these posts might start looking like each other over time, and some of the summaries could get really short!). All ideas floating around with no clear winners and losers . . .

Anyways, time to sign off and get ready to start another week of work!

By the way, I was a witch-doctor! Congratulations if you guessed it. Better luck next time if you did not!!

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