Archive for January 2008

Completing the Cycle of News

I gave a talk today at an all-company meeting over at MSNBC on the subject of “news ecosystems” — the main point being that in order to produce the best news experiences in the world, you need to think of your audience as much more than just a passive sponge for your content. Passive news consumers can turn into active news participants if you give them the right environment.

This month, we launched a feature on Newsvine called “The NBC Nightly News Discussion Club” (available at nightly.newsvine.com). In concert with MSNBC’s new video player, the Discussion Club is the first and only example of a network news agency making every single segment of their 6pm national news broadcast available for instant viewing and discussion online. So if you’re watching the news and you see a segment you want to talk about with other people, you’re no longer limited to whoever else happens to be on the couch. There’s now a universe of people to discuss it with online.

It would be interesting enough if that was the end of it. However, we’ve also included the ability for users to submit questions to Brian Williams and have them answered in video form, right on the site. The first example is below:

So what we have so far is:

News agency broadcasts the news -> audience discusses the content -> audience shoots back questions to the anchor -> anchor answers (select) questions right on the site

Maybe I’m biased because this is partly my baby, but I just think that is super cool, and super significant.

I also think it’s great that Brian — probably the most recognized face in U.S. National news — answers all questions off the cuff, with no teleprompter, and with a level of frankness you don’t often see on national news broadcasts. In responding to one of the questions, he even mentions his political affiliation (independent), which is rare for news personalities to do.

There's Not Enough In The Air

A lot has been made about how MacWorld 2008 was a disappointment. Uninformed reporters and analysts who look only to wall street as an indicator of the show’s success were quick to point out the decline in Apple stock following the show, but let’s not be stupid here. Not only is the old axiom “buy on the rumor, sell on the news” almost always true, but of the approximately 30 tech stocks I personally follow, almost all of them are down sharply in January, especially on the day of the MacWorld announcements. Google is down almost 18% in January on general market sentiment alone. Furthermore, anybody who uses 2007’s MacWorld as a measuring stick for what Apple should announce every year is a fool. The iPhone is in many ways, a once-in-a-lifetime product announcement, not to be expected again for a long, long time. The only other announcement Apple has ever made of such instant magnitude was the original Macintosh in 1984 (the original announcement of the iPod was actually met with widespread apathy).

That said, I think the show this year was a success (and mostly in line with my predictions), with the surprising exception of the one product I was most excited about: The MacBook Air.

I’ve waited for a new Apple subnotebook since ditching my beloved Duo in 1997. That’s ten long years, having mostly leaned on the 12 inch Powerbook until it was snatched out of the lineup a couple of years ago without any notice. In order to move into the Intel Mac world, I was essentially forced into a 13 inch MacBook, which I have to say, I don’t particularly care for. It’s a fine machine, for the most part, but it’s bulkier than my 12 inch Powerbook was, and more importantly, it gets greasier than a KFC dinner bucket when you touch it. The “SmudgeBook” as people call it, annoys me more than I thought it would. So much so that I have to give it a rubbing alcohol sponge bath almost every week.

So by all measures, I am the absolutely ideal customer for an Apple subnotebook. If they can’t sell one to me, they have a problem.

And unfortunately, I’m not buying one.

Even more unfortunately, it’s only one and a half specs that completely kill the proposition for me: the 80 gig hard drive (huge deal) and the 2 gigs of RAM (somewhat huge deal). I don’t care about the slower processor, the lack of swappable battery, the minimal connectivity options, or the absence of removable media. These are all things you give up for the incredibly sexy shell. But can anyone comfortably get by on 80 gigs these days? My MacBook holds 230 gigs. And what about the 64 gig “high end” MacBook Air for a thousand bucks more!??! Who the hell is going to buy that model? I bet the lower end model outsells the higher end one at least 10-1.

Steve Jobs said on stage that they know micro hard drives very well, due to all of the iPods they sell, so why couldn’t they have thrown a 160 gig drive in there? It’s already in the high-end iPod Classic. Maybe it’s a heat issue, I don’t know. But what I do know is that at least in my case, it’s the difference between a sale and a non-sale. Between reading The MacBook Air Austerity Program and thinking about moving media storage completely over to something like TimeCapsule, it’s just more hard drive management than I’m willing to take on. And you know it’s going to be a monthly worry.

Memory is the second spec that I think Apple flubbed. If you’re going to offer a slower processor, you need to at least make up for that with ample RAM and ample hard drive space. Free memory and HD space can often mean a lot more to performance than processor speed. I mention the RAM thing as a “half spec” that I don’t like, because if the hard drive issue was addressed, I’d overlook the RAM shortcomings and buy a machine.

So in the end, we have a product line that a lot of people are really clamoring for, but a single spec that is going to turn a good portion of that consumer base away. To make matters worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), we *know* that the MacBook Air will sport at least a 160 gig hard drive probably before the year is over, so there is essentially a zero percent chance people like me will suck it up and buy one now.

The pessimists will say Apple has produced another Cube… a smaller, less functional machine that nobody has much of a reason to go out and buy. The optimists, on the other hand, see the footprint for what will one day be one of the most popular computers around… just as soon as its brains catch up with its body.

Me, I’m an optimist, but it’s going to be a tough several months waiting for revision two.

How to Create Professional HDR Images

I really need to get hip to this whole HDR thing.

A Rookie Guide to Digital SLR Cameras

There comes a time in every point-and-shooter’s life when he or she wonders if there is more to photography than a palm-sized block of aluminum stowed away in one’s pocket. The ultracompact point-and-shoot has come so far in the last ten years that it’s tempting to write off DSLRs as largely irrelevant to most people’s lives, not offering enough utility to offset their bulky presence and hefty price tag. As soon as I bought my first truly great ultracompact a few years ago, the Casio EX-Z750, I was in this boat. 7.2 megapixels in your pocket… what more could one possibly need? After eventually moving up to the excellent 7x zoom Casio EX-V8, I told myself I would never need a DSLR.

But then I tried one for the first one, on loan from the fine folks at Nikon. A Nikon D80. Seemingly the “it” camera for the last couple of years. This article will not so much be a review of the D80, but rather a guide for DSLR virgins considering purchasing their first full sized digital camera.

First and foremost, will you use it?

We all love toys. We all love expensive toys. But nobody loves an expensive toy they never use. If you think you’re going to buy a DSLR and carry it around everywhere with you, you’re probably wrong. It’s heavy around your neck, it’s easily lost or stolen if you put it down in a public place, and it will never blend into the fabric of your life like a pocket camera will. In other words, be prepared to take it with you when you know you will be using it (e.g. sightseeing, stormwatching, portrait-taking, etc), but at all other times, it will probably stay at home. For this reason, even after you buy a DSLR, it’s probably good to keep your ultracompact point-and-shoot as your standard carry-along camera. Even on vacations, there will be plenty of times when the smaller camera is the only one on you at any given time. Again, I recommend the Casio EX-V8 as a fantastic ultracompact choice here. For the last few years, Casio has made the best all-around point-and-shoots, in my opinion.

Sunset at the top of Mauna Kea, 13,796 feet above sea-level. The highest peak above the ocean floor in the world. Definitely DSLR territory.

Nikon vs. Canon vs. everyone else

Most serious photographers will tell you there are only two real choices in the DSLR market: Nikon and Canon. Although companies like Olympus and Sony also make DSLRs, Nikon and Canon have such strong legacies in SLR photography that they’ve earned an unshakable amount of trust among professional photographers. Being an amateur, I am not one to question the conventional wisdom of professionals, so as far as I’m concerned, either Nikon or Canon should be your choice (for now, at least). The Nikon/Canon religious wars are less like the Mac/PC wars and more like BMW/Mercedes wars. With Macs and PCs, your Mac people think that PCs are horrendous piles of garbage and your PC people think Macs are overpriced, niche devices. BMW and Mercedes, on the other hand, really only differ in style… much like Nikons and Canons. They are equally priced, equally equipped, and even take cues off each other in the feature department.

For a good overview of the differences between Canons and Nikons, check out this article. My favorite quote:

“Canons are the best cameras available designed by engineers, and Nikons are the best cameras one can buy designed by photographers.”

That probably explains why I like this Nikon so much.

It’s the lens, stupid

Bodies come and go, but lenses are forever. So goes the saying. It may surprise you to know that some photographers are using the exact same lenses they were using 40 years ago. Even a brand new $5000 Nikon D3 can use a lens from the 1960s, if the photographer so chooses. These days, camera bodies and image sensors are evolving a lot faster than lenses, so to a large extent, it makes sense to invest more heavily in your lens(es) than in your cameras. Any photographer will tell you that they’d rather shoot with a cheap body and a great lens than the opposite.

There are essentially three things to consider when looking at lenses: speed, versatility, and stabilization.

Speed

Speed refers to how much light a lens lets in. If you’re like me, you hate flash photography and what it does to faces and objects, so you prefer to use natural light at all times. The only lenses that will let you achieve this are very fast lenses, usually with f-stops of 1.8 or lower. You can take a lens like this to a party at night and shoot beautiful naturally-lit shots even in the dimmest of corners (where you will probably be hanging out, since no one wants to stand with the dork carrying an SLR).

As a beginning photographer, your best option here is something John Gruber and Jim Ray (and millions of others) call “the best deal in photography”: the 1.8f 50mm prime lens. It’s small, light, fast, and just a little over $100. It is probably the only lens you will ever use after the sun goes down, and it also has an incredible narrow depth of field which is great keeping subjects in focus and backgrounds soft.

Tintin’s dog Snowy. This figurine is only a couple of inches long, and while his face is in focus, even his front paws are not. Narrow depth of field is a huge selling point of the 50mm prime lens.

Versatility

Although the 50mm prime has great light versatility, its fixed focal length won’t let you do any zooming, and thus, you may find yourself too far away at times to capture your ideal shot. Stalkers are well aware of this conundrum. In order to adequately frame subjects which are far away, you’ll need to pick yourself up a quality zoom lens. Even among zoom lenses, there is a wide range of versatility. There are 12-24mm (very wide angle), 70-300mm (very magnified), everything in-between, and even some further down and further out.

The first aftermarket lens I bought for my D80 was a Sigma 70-300mm, thinking it would come in handy for general use. More zooming would equal less walking and greater detail, or so I thought. In reality, it was a lens I found very little use for. Its inability to take “normal” wide angle shots, combined with the fact that at 300mm it takes a tripod to keep it from shaking, made it almost useless to me. I ended up trading it straight across for a Nikon 1.4f 50mm prime lens on Craigslist, which is much more useful to me (see above section on “speed”).

The most versatile lens in the world — and the one I eventually purchased — appears to be the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens. I bought this lens on recommendation from the great Ken Rockwell, and I couldn’t be happier with it. It does wide-angle shots at 18mm. It does telephoto shots at 200mm. Its focal length essentially covers you in 99% of the situations you’ll ever find yourself in. And it has VR, which I’ll discuss in the next subsection.

A lot of people have called the Nikon 18-200mm VR the most useful lens ever designed, and it’s not hard to see why. While professional photographers are used to carrying around a bag full of lenses, prosumers and weekenders would rather never have to change a lens. With the 18-200mm VR, you just pop the thing on and then forget about it. It’s a bit steep at $700, but worth it, in my opinion.

This picture was also taken atop Mauna Kea but under only the light of the moon. This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 1600.

Image stabilization

Both Nikon and Canon have image stabilization built into some of their best lenses now. I haven’t tested Canon’s out but it’s widely believed to be on par with Nikon’s VR (vibration reduction) technology. In a nutshell, VR is exactly what you probably think it is: a mechanism inside the lens detects camera shake and moves lens parts around in order to neutralize it. Does it work? It absolutely does. Is it noticeable? It absolutely is. I took some test shots around dusk, in low light, both with VR on and off and the difference is dramatic. The shots with VR off are blurry and unusable. Everybody’s hands have a different amount of shake to them, but most people report the ability to shoot about 4 stops faster when using VR. That is to say, if you can normally shoot handheld at 1/100, you should now be able to shoot at 1/15 (in much darker conditions).

As of today, Canon doesn’t appear to have an answer to the 18-200mm VR lens, but perhaps the closest thing they have is the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM, but it’s about $2300. It goes up to 300mm which is nice, but the Nikon goes down to 18mm, which is more useful in my mind.

This photo was taken at 1/8 exposure and *no* VR. Blurry.

This photo was taken at 1/8 exposure *with* VR. Sharp!

Storage

The D80 uses an SD slot for storage, which I like, but some people prefer Compact Flash instead. Other models offer the use of either storage technology, sometimes in tandem. Pick whichever format suits you best, but with the cost of both Compact Flash and SD cards halving every several months, this may not be a huge factor in your purchasing decision. As of today, an 8 gig SD card can be had for $33.99 while an 8 gig CF card is about $39 so price per gig is roughly equivalent.

The megapixel myth

Image data is only as good as the source that captured it. In a DSLR camera, that includes both the lens and the image sensor. We’ve already covered the importance of the lens, but what about the sensor? Is a 6 megapixel sensor going to produce better photos than a 10 megapixel sensor? Currently, in most cases the answer is no. For most consumer/prosumer level DSLRs, the compact size of the sensor is such that megapixel levels above 6 do not increase the quality of the resulting image whatsoever. Edit (thanks Patrick): The answer is, “not always”. The size and sensitivity of the sensor is more important than the raw number of megapixels it produces so beware of judging cameras, even DSLRs, on their megapixel counts.

If you’re really interested in fully maximizing resolution and clarity, your only real choices are the new Nikon or Canon “full-frame” DSLRs. These cameras are all between $2000 and $8000 for the body only and have sensors which are much larger than any prosumer/consumer cameras. If you’re in the market for one, you’re probably way overqualified for this article.

High-resolution fire.

Interface and usability

Both Nikon and Canon have spent years refining their user interfaces, and users of each tend to prefer their own brand. My experience with Nikon was that I spent about 45 minutes reading the manual front-to-back (a rarity for me), then spent a couple of hours pushing buttons and turning dials, and I quickly felt pretty comfortable with the D80. Moving from the one-dial-one-button world of a Casio ultracompact to a 100-control DSLR still takes some adjusting, but as with most Apple products, the dials and buttons on the D80 seem to be designed very thoughtfully and generally serve their purpose while staying out of your way.

Filters

Most the time, the only filter you’ll ever need is a circular polarizer. Polarizers bend light as they enter the lens to either reduce or enhance reflections in the scene. They are particularly useful for reducing reflections off of water, snow, and buildings, and for creating more dramatic looking skies. Polarizers range from about 10 bucks to several hundred bucks, but most of the reading I’ve done suggests that a $40 polarizer is imperceptibly equivalent to the much more expensive ones. I use a Hoya that I bought for about $40 at Tall’s Camera.

What’s missing

In my mind, there are only three things missing from most cameras today, all of which I think will become standard equipment within a couple of years: GPS, wifi, and native HDR handling. GPS seems like a no-brainer and frankly I’m surprised it’s not more widespread already, considering how small GPS chips have gotten and the fact that a lot of phones have this capability already. Once all of my photos are automatically geotagged, it will become more interesting to collect and view them, and thus, I will take more of them. Wifi support is important to me because I’m often too lazy to transfer my photos to my hard drive or upload them online. Thankfully, a few months ago, the EyeFi was released, so that’s probably good enough, but it would be even nicer if it was built into the camera itself. HDR, or “high dynamic range” photography, is a method of photography whereby multiple shots at different exposures are composited together to produce dramatic, often surreal imagery. Some examples are here, in the Flickr HDR pool. It seems to me that a camera should theoretically be able to open the shutter once and take multiple shots from that, each during different points in the exposure, thus producing the layers necessary for the compositing.

Final analysis

So before you go out and buy a DSLR, here are some recommendations:

  1. Make sure you want one and have reasonable expectations for its usage
  2. Keep your ultracompact for everyday use, or buy a new Casio EX-V8
  3. When looking at DSLRs, trust what the pros use: Nikons and Canons
  4. Invest more in lenses than in bodies, disregarding any “resolution advantages” that aren’t also accompanied by larger sensors
  5. Purchase both a zoom lens for versatility and a fast prime lens for low light and narrow depth of field

If I was starting from scratch, here’s what I’d buy (List updated, from reader input):

  • Nikon D80/D40x camera: $760/$545 (Go with the D40x if you’re price conscious, but know that it will not autofocus with some older lenses or even some inexpensive ones like the must-have 50mm 1.8f prime below)
  • Nikon 50mm 1.8f lens: $105
  • Nikon 18-200mm VR lens: $700
  • Hoya Circular Polarizer: $30
  • Total cost: About $1595 (D80) or $1380 (D40x)

If you’re just getting started with DSLRs, hopefully you’ve found this useful.

UPDATE: It’s now a few years later, and I’ve written an updated guide to Micro 4/3rds cameras — which I believe to be a better alternative to most DSLRS.

iPhone Development Code Samples

A nice set of buttons, styles, etc for developing on the iPhone

VectorMagic: The most accurate bitmap-to-vector conversion tool

Very nice online tool from Stanford.

Am watching the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, 20 feet from Brian Williams. :|

Roger Clemens: Bad Liar or Just Bad Truth Teller?

Either Roger Clemens is lying about his alleged steroid abuse, or he’s just a really bad truth teller.

One of my favorite blog posts to write was one I published about Jose Canseco’s 60 Minutes interview two years ago, asking readers to try and analyze his microexpressions as he told Mike Wallace how many players in Major League Baseball used steroids. The claim — at the time — was largely dismissed by the public, and I’ll admit to not believing a word Canseco said, based on his mannerisms alone. It seemed like an easy call. It turned out not to be.

Thinking back on that Canseco interview makes watching this whole Roger Clemens drama all the more mystifying to try and figure out. Whether it’s Clemens’ own 60 Minutes interview two nights ago or this incredible press conference video below, it’s just so hard to tell how much of anything is the truth:

One the one hand, he shows telltale signs of lying:

  1. His mouth wells up with saliva frequently and he swigs water to mask this fact.
  2. He nods his head “yes” while saying “no”.
  3. He doesn’t seem natural, completely forthcoming, or at-ease when answering questions.
  4. He surreptitiously taped a phone call (legal in Texas and New York apparently) to manipulate public opinion.

But on the other hand:

  1. If he *really* ends up voluntarily testifying in front of Congress and/or a jury at this point, he’d have to be a complete fool to lie about it… which suggests he’s not lying at all (provided he actually goes through with it). But then again, many people think Barry Bonds lied to his grand jury.
  2. As was proven with Canseco, just because your mannerisms make you “appear” untruthful, it doesn’t mean you are.
  3. Roger Clemens has no prior offenses before this and it’s essentially only one person who is pointing the finger at him… a guilty person in his own right at that.

It should be fascinating, albeit somewhat pathetic and depressing, to see how this whole thing pans out. Above anything else, I suppose, it’s nice to hear the guy getting out there and talking instead of hiding behind lawyers. That alone suggests we owe him the benefit of some more investigation before thinking our opinions are even halfway correct or mildly educated, for that matter.

UPDATE: Kottke points to a New York Times article that has now been published which asks the same sorts of body language questions. Interesting that body language experts are apparently only right about “half of the time”… which would imply the profession is essentially useless!
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Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away:

A great essay about how toxic everyday distractions can be.

Humanity's deep future:

A group of researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute talk about where our race may be going and how artificial intelligence could save or kill us all.

Steve Jobs speaks about the future at the International Design Conference in 1983:

31 years later, it’s safe to say this is one of the most prescient speeches about technology ever delivered. Jobs covers wireless networking, tablets, Google StreetView, Siri, and the App Store (among other things) many years before their proliferation. A fantastic listen.

How to travel around the world for a year:

Great advice for when you finally find the time.

LiveSurface:

A fantastic app for prototyping your design work onto real world objects like billboards, book covers, and coffee cups. This seems like just as great of a tool for people learning design as it does for experts.

50 problems in 50 days:

One man’s attempt to solve 50 problems in 50 days using only great design. Some good startup ideas in here…

How to Do Philosophy:

If you’ve ever suspected that most classical philosophy is a colossal waste of time, Paul Graham tells you why you’re probably right.

TIME: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us:

Stephen Brill follows the money to uncover the pinnacle of corruption that is the U.S. Health Care system. A must-read article if there ever was one.

DIY Dot Org:

A beautifully designed site full of fun and challenging DIY projects. I could spend months on here.

The Steve Jobs Video Archive:

A collection of over 250 Steve Jobs videos in biographical order

Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.

Water Wigs are pretty amazing.

David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.

Jonah Peretti's letter to BuzzFeed’s employees:

If you’re wondering what a excellent blueprint for a modern media company looks like, look no further than Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti’s latest email to his employees. In it, Peretti explains a lot of his company’s virtues, the most important being a relentless focus on always providing what’s best for the user. Vox Media (operators of The Verge) is the only other company I can think of which approaches this level of reform and execution.

The Covers Project:

I love this so much: a cross-referenceable database of cover songs, searchable by song or artist. Slowed down, acoustic covers — no matter the song — are so enjoyable to me that I wish it was a requirement to play one at every show. If you like them as much as I do, make sure to check out M. Ward’s Let’s Dance or Sun Kil Moon’s entire album of Modest Mouse covers.