Rediscovering A Passion

Setting up the D7100 for the evening.
Setting up the D7100 for the evening.
I bought my first SLR, the Nikon D80, in 2007 not long after my daughter Amanda was born.

Like any new parent, I was eager to get the best possible photos of my child and I always liked photography but never actually spent money to get a good camera. I had always used point and shoot cameras and never understood or cared to learn about the underlying principles of photography.

With the D80 and armed with knowledge from reading Bryan Peterson’s fantastic book, Understanding Exposure, I set out to see the world through the lens of my camera.

It had become quite a fun hobby – a creative outlet that I was lacking and needed.

Flash forward a few years and I was hardly shooting. It was getting harder to find time to go out and shoot. I was preoccupied with other stuff in life. Worst of all I was lacking inspiration.

This year, I have made the time to get behind the camera and enjoy it once again. I re-read Understanding Exposure, cleaned up all my glass, and headed outdoors.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building

I am now pushing my comfort zone more than ever with higher ISO settings, shutter speed priority, etc. Rediscovering the fun in finding that one really good shot that you’d be proud to frame on your wall.

One big change I have made is that instead of just going out with my camera to find things to shoot, now I figure out what I’d like to shoot before I go out. This way I can plan on a time of day, what gear to bring, etc. Planning has made my trips out with the camera much more satisfying, and a much better yield of “keepers” from the day’s shoot.

I have no illusion about being a professional. I know the limits of my skill and I like doing it on my terms and not under pressure for a paid job. But I have taken quite a few shots I am proud of and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Find that thing you enjoy and get back at it!


734 Days

High ISO fun
High ISO fun
Yet again I have managed to neglect my blog for far too long while consumed with various other activities. 734 days of neglect to be exact.

These days outside of work and family my free time has been spent improving my photography skills, learning new technology, and quite a bit of reading.

Perhaps the biggest change over the past couple of years has been my purchase of a Nikon D7100 to replace my old Nikon D80.

The D80 was great for my first SLR and is still a fine camera but just as we see with anything else in technology, things constantly improve.

The one factor that stands out to me as the biggest difference between the two cameras is the high ISO capability of the D7100. While the D80 could theoretically shoot at up to ISO 3200, the quality was unacceptable without a lot of post-production work. Even then the photos were quite noisy. Best bet was to stay below ISO 800 which basically handicaps one third of the exposure triangle.

With the D7100, I have gotten usable, quality shots at as high as ISO 6400 such as the photo above in this post. This has unlocked a great deal of potential I did not have before, especially in low light settings.

I will be posting more detailed examples when time permits.

Aside from photography I’ve made it my mission to master Ruby on Rails this year. It has matured a LOT since I first looked at it some years ago. The way I see it, it never hurts to broaden your skill set.

The thing about Rails that impresses me most is how quick I can go from idea to prototype codebase just sitting down and dabbling. Some of my PHP friends might not want to hear it, but Rails is a better framework than most of the comparable PHP options.

Until next time – hopefully not another 700+ days away!


Plainsboro Preserve

McCormack LakeThe New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve is a real gem and one of my favorite local places for a quick escape from the daily grind. At one time this land was an active quarry, but now it is about 1,000 acres of protected natural habitat teeming with wildlife located in the suburban community of Plainsboro, New Jersey. If you live in central New Jersey and are looking for a nice place to spend an afternoon reconnecting with nature, the preserve is a great choice.

At the center of the Plainsboro Preserve is McCormack Lake. Several of the preserve’s trails provide views of the lake from different vantage points, including the popular Maggie’s Trail which is only about a quarter mile long but leads out onto a peninsula and provides nice views of the lake from all sides.

Plainsboro Preserve - Blue TrailWhile it is not a challenging place to hike with its relatively mild terrain, the hiking is quite enjoyable nonetheless and if you are lucky you will see a variety of wildlife. There are multiple trails of varying lengths and most of them can be done as a circuit around the preserve. I have used RunKeeper to measure my hikes in the preserve and found that if I do all of the trails available it works out to about five miles.

The thing I enjoy most about the trails here is that they are all different lengths so I can customize my hike based on how much time I have. If I have a lot of time I will do them all but if I have only an hour or so to kill I might just stick to one or two of them.

Another nice thing is that all of the trails have their own distinctive feel. Some of the trails like red and green go through woods that are mostly old growth beech trees while the blue trail goes through a mixed growth forest with a lot of ferns and skunk cabbage covering the forest floor.

The Plainsboro Preserve is definitely a place to bring a camera. You never know what kind of wildlife you will encounter. I have been fortunate to see all sorts of animals though I am still holding out for the elusive river otters! You can see some of the photos I have taken at the preserve in my Plainsboro Preserve photo set at Flickr.


Mt. Tammany And Sunfish Pond

Mt. Tammany - view from summit.
Mt. Tammany – view from summit.

If you live in New Jersey and have not done the Mt. Tammany hike you have been missing out. This hike has it all – spectacular views, beautiful scenery, cascades (waterfalls), and is very easy to get to.

Simply put, this is one of the more enjoyable hikes in New Jersey.

To get there you want to take route 80 west- the parking area is less than a quarter mile from the Delaware river crossing. You will want to look for signs that say Dunnfield Creek Natural Area. The parking lots are literally right off the side of route 80 and hard to miss. If you park in the first lot the trail head starts with some stairs at the far end of the lot. In the second lot the trail head starts with stairs right near where you pull in.

The blaze for this part of the trail that ascends Mt. Tammany is a red dot which is typically painted on a white square. The ascent can be pretty rough if you are out of shape as you ascend pretty rapidly and there are a few rocky parts early on that can be a little steep.

Mt. Tammany and Sunfish Pond -  trails I followed
The red lines on this map show the trails I took.

I unfortunately did not keep track of distances to key points on the trail but ultimately that information is not too important as it will become obvious when you get to certain points of the trail.

There are two really amazing views on the red dot portion of this hike – one you will get to about half way up or so which looks out over the Delaware River and route 80 below and then the summit which has a beautiful view of the whole Delaware Water Gap.

The summit is a great place to stop for a bit, relax, eat and drink and just enjoy. Don’t expect to have it all to yourself. There is a chance you might but this spot is very popular and on the day I went there were five of us enjoying the summit.

Once you are ready to move on you will see the blue blazes. This is the trail that descends the mountain. There are parts where the descent is quite rocky and it can sometimes be wet so make sure you pay attention to your footing.

Forest along the blue trail

While not as spectacular as the views from the summit, the scenery along the blue trail is not too shabby either. There are some clearings that on a nice sunny day make for good break spots just to take it all in and enjoy the clean air. I found the diversity of foliage and the contour of the land on the descent to be enjoyable.

You will keep following this trail and as you get closer to the end of the blue trail you will hear water from one of the small cascades in the area. At this point the blue trail ends and you are now on the green trail where you will be in a beautiful location with cascades that makes for some nice photos.

Dunnfield Creek cascades.

This is another spot that I spent a bit of time in. Rested up, drank some, and just took it all in. This area around the cascades is absolutely gorgeous. I imagine on a really hot day that the ice cold water might be nice to take a dip in.

Once you leave this spot and go down the green trail a little bit you will come to the bridge that crosses Dunnfield Creek. Once you cross the bridge, here is where you decide if you want to go on a longer hike or not.

If you have had your fill of hiking, you will want to turn left and follow the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail all the way back to the parking area.

Should you choose to go on make a right and follow the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail as you ascend the Kittatinny Ridge. This part of the Appalachian Trail is deceptive because when you first get on it from the green trail it is a clear, flat dirt path with few rocks but once you ascend a bit there are a couple of switchbacks and it gets quite rocky in parts.

Appalachian Trail

This part of the hike is long but pleasant. The terrain changes around a lot, and the foliage is quite varied. Unfortunately again I did not measure specific distance per segment of the hike but I believe this part was the longest. Probably a few miles.

I followed the Appalachian Trail all the way until I got to Sunfish Pond – you will know when you get there since it is a pretty large body of water. Once I got to the pond I chose to go around the east side. It is not the Appalachian Trail on that side but there is some distance you can do on a fire road. I chose to stay near the shoreline. There can be some snakes around here so be careful of where you step as they do not appreciate you stepping on them. Nothing to really worry about – just need to be aware that they are there.

I hugged the shoreline until I met back up with the Appalachian Trail on the other side and continued on a bit until I decided to play it safe and turn around for the hike back as I wanted to make sure I got back to the parking lot while there was still adequate light in the woods.

My total hike ended up at a little over 12 miles and took me a good portion of the day but it was worth every minute.

Here are a few of the links I used as my guide when plotting out this hike:

Mt. Tammany – Delaware Water Gap
Sunfish Pond

Just remember to use your head. Don’t take on more than you are capable of and make sure you don’t take on an all-day hike like this without having some food and water with you. Most of all, enjoy!


20 Years Of World Wide Web

WWW logo -Robert Cail
WWW logo -Robert Cail

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the very first web site. It is hard for me to believe it has been twenty years since I have been working with the web for nineteen of them and it still seems like just yesterday I was learning HTML for the first time. To say that the invention of the World Wide Web changed humanity forever would not be a stretch by any means.

The web went from being a curiosity to an essential piece of our global infrastructure just like the electric grid and telephone network before it. Some countries use it for elections. Communities use the web to notify their residents of emergencies. Families and friends use it to keep in touch. Ecommerce has grown into a trillion dollar a year business. In some cases the web has even been used as a form of revolution to topple a government.

With all the ways the World Wide Web has changed the world in just twenty years one has to wonder what type of changes we will see over the next twenty years from being a more connected society.

To the next twenty!


Busy, Busy, Busy

I am quite aware I have not been keeping up to date with my blog. It is unfortunate, but I have been so busy it is almost an afterthought these days.

Sometimes I really do wish there were more hours in the day. Between my family, my job at Princeton, the gym, hockey, creative writing and throwing down code for an application for my new business I am stretched pretty thin.

Hopefully soon I will be able to show off some of the stuff I have been working on!

I will be back to updating my blog once again very soon as things will be settling down soon.


RIP Aries (October 2007-April 2012)


My 2007 17″ Macbook Pro has been a workhorse for me since the moment I bought it in October 2007. It has been my companion on visits to clients, late-night coding sessions on the couch, debugging code, and an occasional game of StarCraft 2 or Civ 5.

I don’t give a shit what people say about Apple’s pricing – for the amount of beating this thing took and the amount of work I did on it I probably would have gone through four or five PC laptops in the same time frame.

The only upgrade I ever made was installing an OWC Mercury Extreme SSD which literally made this thing fly like a brand new machine.

Unfortunately it finally succumbed to the dreaded logic board failure that this model was prone to due to the manufacturing issues with the nvidia 8600GT boards.

Oh well it was a great machine but time to shop for a new one, and to get a USB to SATA cable to get all my data off since I have not done a backup since March.


Three Simple Guiding Principles For Startups

Bootstrapping a startupFor the past year or so I have slowly been getting my new business off the ground. This time I am taking my time with it doing it solo on the side while maintaining my full-time position at Princeton University. I spend some time every week throwing down code for a couple of clients and in between working on a couple of apps that I plan on releasing eventually.

Entrepreneurship is like a chronic infection – once you get the bug you usually have it for life. I definitely have the bug and have always enjoyed the fun and challenge of growing a business.

Recently while reflecting on past startups I had been involved in I caught myself in one of those would have, could have, should have moments. Fleeting thoughts about all the things we did right or wrong, things I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight etc.

Even though every startup I was involved in was different, I came up with three simple guiding principles that should apply to every startup. While I can’t guarantee success, these values are some pretty basic cornerstones for an entrepreneur.

Control Your Burn Rate
A common theme at the startups I have worked for is that those that get funded tend to not be as conservative with spending as they should be. Spending too much on things like furniture, computers, phones, etc. Ancillary items that increase your burn rate without necessarily benefiting the core objectives.

When I first started at Inforocket back in 1999 we actually did everything as cheap as we could. Our chairs were simple cheapo chairs – some of them even metal folding chairs. Our development team worked at a big shared table (pictured above) that was made with saw horses and wooden doors bolted to the top. Our office PC’s were assembled by our team from components we bought in bulk. Everything was done as cost efficiently as we could.

As the company grew we eventually closed a second round of funding which we used to bring in some new hires. These folks came from more established businesses and were accustomed to deep pockets and nicer digs. With this we lost our discipline. In came the Herman Miller Aeron chairs, fancier desks etc.

Sure these things are nice to have but when you are an early-stage startup focused on getting the most out of your initial investment capital these things are not worth it as they do not directly benefit the goals of the business.

Save the money for the essentials.

Managing Expectations
You’d think most people would understand the concept of not over-selling themselves but sometimes the zeal of bringing in the business clouds better judgment.

Want to kill your young business fast? Promise something you can’t deliver to a customer and then string them along with excuses. Watch what happens. In the era of social media you’ll be dead in a matter of days.

This is yet another lesson I have unfortunately learned firsthand. Back in 1998 I was a co-founder for a small web development company called Fourth Degree Media Group. We were four friends with a small startup and we landed our first big client – a business that published continuing medical education (CME) materials for doctors.

We promised the client this full-blown ecommerce site where doctors could order materials, do online quizes, and get CME credits, etc. Problem was none of us had ever implemented an ecommerce site before. While we had a substantial amount of web development experience, we did mostly B2B or product marketing sites. We did not know the nuances of shopping carts, SSL certificates, security, etc.

Needless to say this was a huge failure. We wasted months of the client’s time, months of our time, and in the end we ended up giving them the money back and dissolving the business.

In retrospect the better way to handle the situation would have been to bring in help to meet the client’s needs or to ask the client initially to split the project with another shop who might be more well versed at the ecommerce implementation details.

Simply put, don’t promise the moon unless you can deliver it.

Stay Passionate
Last but definitely not least, you will probably not be successful in business if you are not passionate about what you are doing. I am sure there are some exceptions but in general your passion for what you do has a great deal of influence over your work.

I find that people with a passion for what they do will work harder at it, produce higher quality work, and don’t burnout as easily.

This is something I have really seen a lot of while working at Princeton University. Some of the scholars I work with love what they do so much that they do work from home on their days off and sometimes work on the weekends despite no pressing deadlines or pressure. They simply love what they do.

This passion for what we do also makes us better at what we do. As a developer I am constantly on blogs, mailing lists, etc. I enjoy reading about what others do, discussing with my peers the best (and worst) practices and sharing our “war stories” – this is all part of bettering myself. And there is an element of competition to in that you don’t want to be the guy among your peers producing the poorest quality work.

The moment you no longer enjoy what you are doing, it’s time to find something new.


Google+ First Impressions

Google+Now that I have spent a few days exploring and experimenting with the Google+ pre-launch beta test, I figured I would share my thoughts on it. This is Google’s most ambitious project to date and so far even in this early test phase what I have seen has impressed me.

I am going to make a bold statement here: Google+ is the social network many of us have been waiting for.

A good way to think of Google+ is not simply as a site, but as a meta-layer that lays over top of many of Google’s different properties and glues them together to form a really nice social platform with a nice selection of tools to control visibility of content and privacy.

Google Plus

At first glance Google+ seems to be similar to Facebook. The layout will be familiar and intuitive to you, utilizing a standard three-column layout. The main content area has Google+’s stream which functions largely the same as Facebook’s news feed. Here you will see posts by people you have in your circles, photos, videos, etc.

The only negative thing I have to say so far about the stream is that in this early pre-release test phase a user does not have a lot of control over sorting and display of content within the stream but I am pretty sure from stuff I have been reading more changes and features are coming to the stream before the service goes officially live. For the time being the best control I have over the stream is viewing it by circle.

As for circles, this is one of the core features of Google+ that differs it from other social platforms out there. Circles is what allows a lot of the magic to happen.

Google Plus Circles

Circles are groupings of people we add and follow. Anytime you add a contact you can add them to one or more circles. The people you have in your circles have no idea what circles you have them in at all – it is invisible to everyone but yourself. This gives you the ability to group friends from different parts of your life that you may or may not want to come in contact with one another.

While we may not consider it so, our real, non-digital lives exist within a real life social network. The difference between our real life social network and our digital one is that in the real life social network we live within is comprised of many different circles of people that may never interact, but on a site like Facebook they do and sometimes this may not be desired.

A good, basic example would be work vs friends. What if you play hooky from work to go to the beach with some friends and one of your friends innocently tags a photo with you from the beach or checks you in to the bar the day you were supposedly out sick? Oops! Your boss who you added as a friend will be none too pleased.

How about that conservative brother and your liberal friends? Sometimes even something seemingly innocent you post could end up setting off a firestorm of drama.

Google Plus Post Options

With circles those awkward, inconvenient moments can be mitigated quite a bit. Google+ won’t save you from the idiotic late-night drunken post or the mis-fired angry missive but every piece of content you post on Google+ gives you control over visibility and sharing.

When you post something, you select which circle(s) you want it to be visible to. You can also control if you want people to be able to comment on it or if they are allowed to share it on their own stream. You can even set an item to be public for whole web visibility or name specific recipients of a message by plussing them, ie ‘+Jon Niola’ to make a post into a private message ONLY visible to those people. And all of this is very easy and user friendly to figure out.

I think it is very easy to see how this platform can be a direct challenge to Facebook, especially once the SDK and API’s are out and developers can integrate apps, games, and pages as with Facebook. Even in this early stage of the product lifecycle it does most of what Facebook does but with more focus on user control of their data and privacy. Hell, if it does not work out for you, Google even has a tool to take all of your data with you to a competing site if you choose.

Google+ is a threat to Twitter as well. The ability for you to post content to the public for anyone to view or to specific circles of followers but without the limit of 140 characters is pretty nice. As a user you can choose if you want to make the given post read-only or allow comments and make it an actual conversation.

Your location-based social services such as Foursquare and Gowalla etc are on the line too. With the Android app for Google+ users can check in to places (with photos, video etc) and geotagged just like these other services, only with the granular privacy controls of Google+’s circles.

Another cool feature are the hangouts. Fire up your webcam and join folks in your various circles in a video chat right in your browser window. Quality and functionality are similar if not a little better than Skype.

What about LinkedIn? Well, nothing stops you from using Google+ for your professional networking now either. Create circles for various jobs you have worked at or your current job and isolate your posts between friends, family, work etc.

Google has a lot of web properties people use daily without much thought. Google Maps is so ubiquitous it is easy to take it for granted as yet another piece of web infrastructure. But integrate Google Search, Gmail, Maps, Places, Youtube, Picassa, Blogger, the Chrome browser, Google Docs, etc with the Google+ platform and you have THE social web.

Despite all these highly successful properties there has been so little connecting them until now. Right now we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with what Google will be able to do with this platform as it evolves.

Am I saying that Google+ is going to crush everything and take over the world? I don’t think that will be the case. I believe all the various social services will continue to co-exist in some form. What will happen though is some will either innovate and evolve to better compete, or some may integrate themselves with Google+ via API’s as Foursquare, Twitter, and others do now with Facebook.

It is hard for me as a tech geek to write about Google+ without getting excited. I have been a fan of Google’s various offerings for years and now they are finally coming together. It does not take Nostradamus to see the enormous potential in the Google+ platform to take the Internet to the next level. What we are witnessing is yet another incremental evolution of the web. I think the next year is going to be quite exciting.



Samsung Galaxy Tab – Yes, It’s Awesome

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
After some time enjoying my Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, I have to say it is an awesome device. I absolutely love the direction Google is taking Android with Honeycomb and the various user interface changes. Having spent the last year or so using Android phones, the changes did take a little adjustment but once you understand the paradigm it works. It would be a lie if I said I was not enjoying the Tab a lot.

Now here’s the thing I am still hung up on – as awesome as the Tab is, and as much as I enjoy playing around with it, I fail to see where a tablet is a must have device. There is nothing that jumps out at me that says “THIS is why you need a tablet” and no real killer app that is a unique enough of an experience on the tablet to make me give up my laptop.

Honeycomb Home Screen

So far it has found a niche for me as a luxury, fun device. I use it to check email when lounging on the couch and surf the web occasionally. I read my Nook or Kindle books when my reader is not charged and play a few games on it as well. Pretty much anything I was already doing on my phone, but now on a bigger screen. That’s not to say it is bad – far from it. It’s just that everything I do on my tablet I can do on my phone, just without the awesome screen.

The difference for me between a tablet and a phone is that I personally consider a phone a must-have device. If you are out on the town what will you check to see show times or find directions? The phone. You sure ain’t going to carry around a 10-inch tablet without people thinking you are a bit odd.

Tablet Gmail Interface

I’d really like to use the Tab for more productive endeavors, but other than email and web I am still chained to the Macbook Pro for any serious work.

There are a couple of apps on the Tab though that do stand out above the rest in my opinion. – Gmail and TweetCaster HD (currently in beta). Both of these apps are optimized for the tablet screen and make excellent use of the the new user interface fragments introduced in the Android 3.0 software development kit.

Gmail on the Tab is an example of an excellent user experience. I’d even go as far to say it is a better Gmail experience than on the web or any other device. The layout, the flow of the interface, the simple design. It just works and is really well thought out.

TweetCaster HD Interface

TweetCaster HD has become my favorite Twitter app on the Tab. This of course is very subjective. You could ask five people with tablets which app is their favorite and you might get five different answers. But for me, TweetCaster HD is what I use on the Tab. The interface is very simple, it loads tweets quickly, and for any tweets that contain links it has a little preview box so you can get an idea if it is worth clicking through or not. A close second would be TweetComb which uses a different approach to the interface using multiple columns for tweets, mentions, lists etc. I used it for a bit but found I preferred TweetCaster HD.

Grave Defense HD

One area I find the Tab shines is games. Not sure I’d personally ever want to play a hardcore arcade game on it due to the controls being weird, but for puzzle and strategy games it is great.

Plants vs Zombies (via Amazon’s app store) and Angry Birds have both eaten a lot of time and battery.

The game I been enjoying the hell out of the last few days is Grave Defense HD. It is your typical tower defense style game, with awesome graphics and sound, and a fun story. Some of the levels are pretty damn tough even on a low difficulty setting so it is addictive.

So do people need a tablet? Not really. Should they get one? If they have the means, then sure why not. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is awesome and it really raises the bar for Android tablets in the big battle with Apple which up until now have been getting smacked around pretty bad by the iPad and iPad 2.

Consider this a big escalation of the tablet wars. When it comes to hardware, the newest Android tablets are on par or exceed Apple’s offerings. But Apple has a huge leg up with not just quantity of tablet-specific apps, but the quality. Some of their iPad apps are polished to desktop-quality and unfortunately most Android apps are not there yet. It’s all about the apps. Give it time though.

What a great time to be a consumer and have so many great choices!