Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

We Are Expanding the Design Team at Twitter

First things first: we are expanding the Design Studio at Twitter! A few days ago, I opened 8 new positions, which can be viewed here. If you have fantastic design, production, or research chops and you love Twitter, we’d love to talk to you.

Secondly, below is a not-so-brief update on how things have gone in my first month here.

The City

So far, San Francisco has outperformed my already high expectations. It’s an even more enjoyable city to live in than I imagined. The only thing that’s been a bummer is housing selection and pricing. For a 1300 square foot place, I am paying about 2.5-3x what the same place would go for in a nice neighborhood in Seattle; and Seattle isn’t exactly cheap either. I thought I would just have to overpay a little down here in order to get into a decent place, but the reality is that the city is littered with apartments as expensive as $6000 a month that you wouldn’t even want to live in. Thankfully, we got a place on a great block in Noe Valley so at least the neighborhood is perfect for us, but man is it pricey for what it is.

The food in San Francisco has been predictably terrific, and I will just come out and say it: the coffee is better than it is in Seattle. Between Ritual, Philz, Martha’s, and Blue Bottle, just about the only place in Seattle which can compete is Uptown Espresso. That has surprised me a bit. It’s also nice being this close to In-N-Out Burger, which helps (almost) make up for the lack of Skillet down here.

People keep telling me the weather is supposed to turn to shit any day now, but it’s the middle of December and it’s been sunny and mid 60s for most of my time here. I could really get used to this, although I’m sure the summers won’t be nearly as nice as they are in Seattle. I still plan to fly up every couple of weeks during the summer and throughout Husky football season.

The People

It seems like Seattle underindexes just a bit on the “outgoing” scale, while San Francisco overindexes. My theory on this is that since so many people in Seattle are from the region, went to school there, and have such comfortable living situations, they are less likely to seek interactions with strangers. San Francisco, however, much like New York, is more of a melting pot. People come here from all over, don’t have high school and college friends to congregate with all the time, and live in tiny matchboxes, so they are more likely to go out and meet new people.

The effect isn’t dramatic, but I notice it almost daily. More people make eye contact, more people say hello, and more people go out at night. It’s a nice change of pace.

The Design Community

I never really felt like part of the Seattle design or tech community, despite having been a de-facto member of it since about 1997. Perhaps it’s for the reasons listed above. People in Seattle generally seem more content to just do great work as part of their jobs, and then spend nights and weekends doing other things entirely, with other people entirely. The parties I usually attend in Seattle have very little to do with my profession or my colleagues.

In San Francisco, it seems like there’s a much tighter social relationship with one’s contemporaries. Some people don’t like to talk about work outside of work, but I’m not one of those people, so I quite like this dynamic. A lot of what I’m noticing could be self-fulfilling, however, as I’m new here and I may be subconsciously seeking out more community interaction than I did at home.

The Twitters

Where do I start!?

This place is amazing in so many ways, and perplexing in plenty of others.

Let’s start with the really good stuff: I’ve never worked around this many supremely talented people in my life. If you have a great idea here, not only can you find people willing to build it, but you can often find people who have already built parts of it. I feel like I have to preface each sentence I say with “Someone’s probably already thought of this, but…”. It’s a really great feeling knowing there is enough intellectual horsepower and willpower in this organization to envision and create the previously impossible.

The Design team in particular is one of my favorite things about my job so far. We are a diverse group, all having arrived here by wildly different means, and often with wildly different skillsets and perspectives on design. Since the company is so young and the team has exploded from a small handful of people to almost 40 in such a short period of time, most of us have been here for only a few years at most. Having been at Newsvine/NBC for almost seven years and ESPN for 5 years before that, I’m still getting used to the concept of a two-year employee being a “veteran”. In any case, I love my team and we’re about to go through a really great stretch.

Twitter’s new building is pretty amazeballs too. The space is beautifully designed, the food — complete with round-the-clock unlimited bacon — is fantastic, and it’s very conveniently located as far as public transportation goes. The only bummer is there is this annoying air horn at the construction site across the street that goes off incessantly.

On the perplexing side, I am amazed at how much happens here every day that I am completely unaware of. Perhaps it’s just the combination of me being new and the company being so big, but I feel like I know about 1% of everything that goes on every day. It feels like getting dropped blindfolded into downtown Tokyo. I fear that at any moment, someone could ask me a very basic question about something going on in the company and I would have no idea what they were talking about. I’ve been spending much of my first month learning everything I possibly can about all corners of the company in order to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The other interesting thing is the reshaping that’s going on right now as a result of how quickly the company has grown over the last two years. Increasing your staff 20% every year for five years is a growth plan most companies can easily manage, but increasing it something like 700% in only a couple of years creates all sorts of entropy. In the face of this sort of hyper-expansion, it can take awhile for people and even entire departments to find their sea legs. With such a dramatic influx of talent, however, also comes the opportunity to extend the product and the business into new areas, and that seems like what’s happening right now.

The other thing, of course, is managing technical and design debt effectively. If you’re like me, there is no shortage of things you wish Twitter would change, eliminate, add, or improve, and all I can say is: your lists are probably very similar to ours. I know this because I talk to critics all the time, and I was one before joining. Still am, actually:

The great news is that we’re on the same page, and we’re excited about moving Twitter forward as quickly as the universe allows.

#Onward

If you want to be part of the team and you’re interested in working on a product that, on any given day, has the potential to save actual lives, we’d love to meet you. We don’t care where you went to school or how big your previous gigs were. All we care about is how talented you are and how fun you are to be around. If you fit those two qualifications, please join us in helping shape the future of Twitter.

Make Your Twitter Stream More Interesting with the Stellar Tweetbot

If you’re like me, you’re both particular about who you follow on Twitter and perpetually in search of more entertainment in your feed. The problem with following everyone who belches out a random good tweet is that you then have ten more ho-dum tweets a day from them in your feed. The disincentive to follow people on Twitter has never been higher than it is now, despite the fact that the service hosts more great content than it ever has.

I have a few ideas for fixing this problem, but one of them came to me a few months ago as I was using Jason Kottke’s excellent Stellar.io service (pronounced “Ste-LAH-ree-oh” by everyone except Jason). Stellar.io is a fantastic web-based service that lets you follow interesting people and receive a feed of all the tweets, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and other content they have faved on other services. In Twitter terms, imagine a feed that doesn’t contain your friends’ tweets, but rather the tweets that your friends have faved. In other words, one degree of separation away from your current Twitter stream.

Stellar is a great way to assemble this sort of feed, but if you’re like me, you’d rather see its output merged into your existing Twitter stream. To put it differently, when I open up my Twitter client, I want to see tweets from the few people I follow (as I do currently) and tweets from people I don’t follow which have been marked as favorites from people I do follow. Have I lost you yet?

To create this experience, I wrote a PHP script I call Stellar Tweetbot which runs every 5 minutes via a cronjob that checks my Stellar account for new faved tweets, and then retweets any new tweets to my zombie Twitter account @mike_stellar. Then, I follow @mike_stellar from my normal Twitter account @mikeindustries and I magically have a more interesting Twitter stream.

To see what sorts of things now appear in my Twitter feed, without having to follow any new people, peep the image below (or just follow @mike_stellar):

The first tweet is Rob Delaney making sure a can of Pepsi gets home safe. I don’t follow Rob so I would have normally missed this tweet. However, since I follow some people who faved it, I now see it in my Twitter stream.

The second tweet is to a really interesting article tweeted by Rob Pegoraro. I don’t follow Rob, but I do follow the person who faved it: Tim Carmody (not to be confused with Tom Carmony, who I also follow, but let’s not even get into that).

The third tweet is by the funniest person on Twitter, Ken Jennings. Since I already follow him, I won’t see this as a dupe in my feed. Magic.

So that’s it. The Stellar Tweetbot. I’ve opened sourced it on GitHub, and it’s the ugliest designer-written PHP code you’ve likely ever seen, but it works, yo! If you’re one of those propeller heads who writes much better PHP, feel free to rewrite it, and merge it into the GitHub Branch Repository Chamber Fork Commitment Thingamajigger.

Otherwise, feel free to do what I do and just use it. It will make your Twitter feed more interesting.

The Continuous Partial Attention Generation

Via Cory comes this photo from Scott Macklin of his son and friends watching the Super Bowl last month:

There are several interesting things about this photo (spelled out in Cory’s post), and I now suspect the kid in the back may be the only one actually facing the television, but compare what “watching” looks like for this generation to what it looked like a few generations ago:

Stark.

They are barely even related activities anymore. One is focused, intense audio/visual consumption, while the other is almost incidental exposure. Cinematic professionals must hate this.

I still try to keep digital distractions to a minimum when I’m watching a favorite show or sporting event, but I feel like that is rapidly becoming an attitude of the past. How short will our attention spans get before we realize that this may be a problem? Or is the problem imaginary and our brains will adjust or even thrive under these new circumstances?

How to Permanently Prevent OS X 10.7 Lion from ever Re-Opening Apps After a Restart

While the latest version of Mac OS X, Lion, is generally wonderful, there is one “feature” that annoys thousands of people to no end: whenever your machine is restarted, every single application you happen to have open at the time is also relaunched and restored to the state it was in before you restarted. If you restart manually via the “Restart…” menu item, there is a checkbox you can uncheck which is supposed to shut off this behavior but it doesn’t always work. Additionally, if your computer restarts for any other reason — e.g. a power failure or a crash — you don’t even have the option of trying to prevent this behavior.

The downside of the behavior is obvious: it increases the time it takes to start up your machine into a steady state and it re-opens apps you may not be using anymore.

If you want to prevent this behavior entirely, there is now a foolproof, fully reversible way to do it. Simply:

  1. Quit all of your apps.
  2. Navigate to here: ~/Library/Preferences/ByHost/com.apple.loginwindow.*.plist (whereby * is a bunch of characters)
  3. Click the file, do a File > Get Info (or command-I if you’re a pro), and lock it using the Locked checkbox.

Voila. You’ve now prevented Lion from saving what apps and windows are open. To reverse this setting, simply unlock the file!

Another helpful hint as well: Lion, by default, hides your ~/Library/ folder. To make it visible again without showing all of your other invisible files, simply open up Terminal and type:

chflags nohidden ~/Library/

Twitter Buys Summify, Gives Everyone a Reason to Use It

Today, it was announced that Twitter has acquired an awesome little Pacific Northwest company called Summify. If you haven’t heard of Summify, they provide what I consider to be the best next-generation news delivery platform in the world right now.

Isn’t Twitter itself a news delivery platform though? Not really. Twitter is an information delivery platform, of which news is a small but extremely important subset. In other words, when you read a joke on Twitter, that’s not news. When you ask someone a question about a restaurant on Twitter, that’s not news. When you receive a response from an expertly crafted bot on Twitter, that’s not news. In short, the great majority of what Twitter traffics is non-news information.

It’s long been a complaint of Twitter users, however, that when they do want to use Twitter as a news source — perhaps even their only news source — it’s a less than ideal experience. People keep their excellent Twitter clients open all day hoping they’ll stay abreast on what’s going on in the world, but often they miss important events because the firehose of chatter drowns out critical links.

What Summify does is essentially stand in front of your firehose, collect the drops of water that are news-related, and then fill up a nice, tidy cup for you containing only (or mostly) news. You can tell Summify you want a tall, a grande, or a venti and the platform delivers the right sized cup to you at whatever interval you choose.

And oh by the way, Summify can analyze your Facebook account and your Google Reader account as well as your Twitter account if you’d like.

And oh by the way, your news summary is available via web, via RSS, via tablet, and via phone.

And oh by the way, Summify was created by a team of about under 10 people. Mircea, Cristian, and crew are extremely smart and very nice people, but still, what a great product from such a small team.

So why is this such a smart acquisition for Twitter? In my mind, there are two reasons.

First, although the Twitter design staff has gone to great pains to craft the interface and sign-up process such that people know how to use Twitter immediately, I feel like they’ve now solved that problem. Do a Twitter search for a trending hashtag and you’ll see all sorts of people of “various knowledge levels” getting around just fine.

I feel like the new problem to solve is not “how do I use Twitter” but “why should I use Twitter”. This problem doesn’t apply to everyone that is currently using it, obviously, but it applies to my mom, my fiance, and all of the other millions of the people in the world who just don’t see a value proposition yet. Basically the “I don’t have anything to say to strangers” crowd, the “I don’t care what celebrities are saying” crowd, and the “I already have Facebook” crowd.

With Summify folded into Twitter, there will now be one activity that almost everyone in the world can get obvious value from: a simple summary of what news stories you should know about every day, based on who influences you.

The second reason this is a great acquisition is that it helps hedge against a phenomenon that I think is coming over the next few years: information overload followed by consumption retreat. It’s only a matter of time before people look at all of the distractions they expose themselves to every day and realize it is keeping them from living productive lives. Twitter, Facebook, and RSS before them have hastened this effect, and while it’s still only a problem at the edges, it will get more pronounced each year.

Summify offers a simple antidote; one that Twitter can weave into their UI such that users can dial up or dial down their desired consumption level as they see fit. Right now there is actually a disincentive to follow people on Twitter, in many cases. Summify potentially eliminates that problem entirely by promising to send you better stories, not more stories for each new account you follow.

As a closing thought, I’ve had this idea in my head for the last few years of what a perfect news site looks like, and it’s quite simple: a white screen with a list of 5 or 10 links that changes once a day. That’s it. Here’s the tricky part though: the 5 or 10 links need to be THE 5 or 10 links that are most useful to me on any given day. In other words, let’s say there are 10,000 new stories every day. This site needs to be smart enough to pick the top 5 or 10 for me with almost 100% certainty. You will know it works when it’s creepy. I liken it to Barack Obama’s daily briefing he gets from his advisors. He doesn’t have time to scour news sites all day so his advisors tell him what he absolutely needs to see every morning and then, here’s the key part: he gets on with his life.

I want that.

I feel like Twitter — with Summify in tow — can eventually provide that.

Sign me up!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there is another great service worth trying called Percolate that is a slightly different take on curation than what Summify provides. Give it a shot.

SOPA and The New Gatekeepers

I’ll admit that on a scale of 1-10, my following of the SOPA/PIPA escapades is only about a 6. This may seem low for someone who runs a platform that hosts 50 million unique visitors a month; all of whom are able to post user-generated content which potentially violates SOPA/PIPA principles.

Having been acquired by msnbc.com, a company 50% owned by Microsoft (who opposes SOPA as drafted) and 50% owned by NBC (who is one of the most visible proponents of the bill) our little organization is powerless to do much about the situation and frankly to even express much of an opinion about it. Note: I have not been told to shut up about anything. I just feel like there are enough smart people working this out right now that the world doesn’t really need my opinion on it.

What I do want to talk about, however, is a truth about the new world of legislation that this SOPA/PIPA fracas has made extraordinarily clear:

If you want to pass any sort of bill that affects the internet, you better vet it with the people who control the internet.

By “control the internet”, I of course don’t mean the people manning the tubes. I mean the people who run the most important destinations on the internet and the people who back those people. This includes the heads of for-profit destinations like Twitter and Facebook, the caretakers of non-profit destinations like Wikipedia, the investors who back all of the great online companies of tomorrow, and the government officials who are sympathetic to their cause.

From this anything-but-exhaustive list, we have Dick Costolo, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Paul Graham (and cohorts), and none other than Barry O. himself. None of these people support SOPA as it has been drafted. Not only do they oppose it, but many have gone out of their way to publicly denounce it. Jimmy Wales has gone so far as to shut down the world’s most important collection of knowledge for a day to demonstrate what shutdowns actually look like.

It seems incredible to me that these gatekeepers of the modern internet were seemingly not even polled as to what they thought of this bill before it was floated. It would be like the EPA trying to sneak through a law that automobiles get 100mpg by year’s end without even talking to the car companies first. In some ways it’s even worse than that.

The truth is that the most powerful and influential people today look very different from the most powerful and influential people of the last century. The 20th century was all about industrialization. The game was to take a natural resource (like oil or cotton) process it until something useful (like gasoline or clothing) and then sell it for as much of a profit as you could. Since many congressmen came from industrial professions before they took office, or at the very least could easily wrap their heads around fairly straightforward concepts like oil drilling or cotton ginning, they had little difficulty a) maintaining relationships with important people in industrial fields, and b) drafting laws which made sense for consumers and producers at the time.

This new world, however, in which probably less than 10% of our elected officials can even tell us what a DNS server is, is a disconnected one. How are congressmen supposed to write bills that are palatable to the public if they don’t understand the ramifications of how the bills are to be technologically enforced? If you listen to the various SOPA debates like this one on PBS with Ben Huh and Rick Cotton, you don’t hear the anti-SOPA people disagreeing with the spirit of the bill. You hear them disagreeing with the letter of it; and to Rick Cotton’s credit, he even asks Ben if Ben would support the bill if it were written differently.

The people at media companies who helped write this bill are lawyers. It is usually a lawyer’s job to write up documents that are most favorable to their client. It is then, however, the other side’s job to modify that language into something equitable. “The other side” in this case is our elected representatives. What seems to have failed in this case was not that the initial draft was written as it was written, but that Congress did a terrible job of analyzing it, shopping it to important technologists, and then presenting something that actually made sense. As a result, this bill will fail, and that’s about the worst outcome private sector SOPA supporters could ever imagine. So in a sense, Congress failed both SOPA supporters and SOPA opponents. Amazing but true.

We either need a world where our elected officials know more about how technology works or a world where they at least consult a more heterogenous group of gatekeepers before proposing laws that affect technology, IP, and free speech.

It seems like it will be at least another generation until we get the former, so it is imperative that we immediately get the latter.

Note: I am speaking on behalf of myself here and not on behalf of any of the organizations who employ me (who I love equally :) ).

You Aren't Who You Hang Out With

Every new app you try these days wants to know who your friends are. It’s easy to understand why. On the marketing side, it’s to encourage users to evangelize the app amongst their friends. On the user experience side, however, it’s to help users consume more relevant content.

Here’s are a few examples:

  • Upon signing up for Rdio and connecting your Facebook account, you are shown music your friends are listening to.
  • Upon installing Oink and connecting your Twitter account, you are shown food and other items your friends have sampled.
  • Upon checking your Facebook news feed, you are shown status updates from friends reacting to movies they’ve just seen.

While this sort of content tailoring provides value, I often find myself uninterested in it. The reason is that although in many cases my friends are similar to me, my taste in things like music, movies, and food do not map to my friends’. The taste correlation between friends may be greater than between two random strangers, but it’s still not very high in most cases.

There’s a better way to expose people to new experiences and I think we’ll start to see more of it in the future. It may already have a name, but I’ll call it “phantom friending”.

To illustrate phantom friending, imagine you want to watch a movie tonight and you need a recommendation. Now imagine you have these two options:

  1. Calling your best friend, asking them what good movies they’ve seen recently, and picking one of them.
  2. Consulting a list of preferred, recent movies put together by someone across the country who you don’t know but who has in the past indicated that they hate a lot of the same movies you hate and love a lot of the same movies you love.

I hold that in almost every case, the second option will provide a better result. Even if you were able to poll 5, 10, or 20 friends, a well-picked phantom friend would produce a better result. That is because the phantom friend doesn’t represent someone you like to socialize with — as your real friends do — but rather someone who watches movies the same way you do. They have your same tolerance for violence, same appreciation for special effects, and same patience for heavy dialogue. In other words, they may be unlike you in every other way, but their brain consumes movies the same way yours does.

The phantom friend concept works better for some subjects than others. It would seem to work well for movies, food, and music. It may work less well for TV shows, because a big part of TV shows is discussing them week after week with our friends. The same goes for clothing. We often wear similar clothing as our friends in order to fit in better.

For the many situations where phantom friends are better influencers on us, I’d love to see more apps and services geared towards this type of discovery. One example I’ve always wanted is a “Movie Critic Dating Game”. I rarely read movie reviews because I haven’t identified a movie critic who is a lot like me. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I am presented with a list of 20 movies.
  2. I rate each movie with a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.
  3. The app finds me the national movie critic who has rated the 20 films most similarly to how I have rated them.
  4. I then begin reading the critic’s reviews each week and choose new movies to watch accordingly.

Interestingly, the above scenario works almost as well if the system can find someone with the exact opposite tastes as me. If I can find the person who I disagree with the most, I can just always do the opposite of what they suggest (the “Costanza strategy”). Furthermore, even if you extended the questionnaire to 200 movies, there is someone in the world (although perhaps not a professional movie critic) who answered all 200 the same way you did.

Undoubtedly I am not the first to think of this concept, but given that it doesn’t seem computationally ferocious to do, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of it. Hunch seemed like it was after a similar result, but it always seemed too impersonal to me. I don’t want a computer telling me what people similar to me like. I want a computer matching me up with someone and then letting me know what else they like. There is a difference there.

I can imagine a world in which I have a movie sensei, a restaurant sensei, a music sensei, and a bunch of other senseis. I may eventually know them by name or I may not, but it would be a fun set of relationships to have.

Never Be Another

When someone dies, the phrase “there will never be another” gets used quite frequently. It’s one of those phrases that is both always true and yet almost always not true. It’s true that, yes, no other person will ever be exactly like any other person, but it’s usually false in the compliment it’s actually trying to pay.

In almost every case, when a public figure dies, there are plenty of his or her contemporaries ready to fill the void. A great guitarist died? Well we at least have hundreds of other world class guitarists to listen to. A basketball star died? Luckily we have plenty of those too.

The truth of the matter is that even best of the best in most fields, at any given time, is only a little better than the rest.

Counterexamples to this seem to happen only a handful of times per century. The number of times we lose someone whose impact was so dramatic and whose substitute seems so unfathomable is vanishingly small.

We lost that person yesterday in Steve Jobs, and we are only beginning to feel the impact of his absence.

What gets lost in all of these Steve Jobs tributes you read online is just how dark things were for personal technology only ten years ago. People forget that until the iPhone came out, “The Apple Way” was still largely on the sidelines. Windows PCs were unavoidable. Cell phones were unapproachable. There were even a few years around the turn of the century when many websites didn’t even work on Macs because developers only coded to PC Internet Explorer “standards” (airiest of air quotes there, of course).

It was just dark as hell out there; especially for those of us who wanted so badly for the story to end differently. The lesson that idealism and attention to detail could lose out to “good enough and a little cheaper” was not something we wanted to learn.

The long, but impeccably planned, turnaround that Steve Jobs has led over the last 14 years is impressive for thousands of reasons. None is more astounding to me than this one though: he was quite literally the one person on the face of the earth capable of pulling it off.

One. Out of 6,800,000,000 people.

He wasn’t just the best choice. He was the only choice. And that’s why we’ll miss him so much.

When people die after suffering from prolonged illness or pain, my thoughts are almost always positive. Death is not something I fear, and when it’s ultimately the relief method for someone’s pain and suffering, I feel happy for their newfound peace. I felt this way when Kurt Cobain died, for instance.

With Steve Jobs, however, I don’t get the feeling death was any sort of relief at all. Yes he was obviously at peace with the concept, as he expressed beautifully in his Stanford commencement speech, but SJ put the pedal to the metal until his final breath.

What would you do if you knew you had a short time to live? Most of us would quit our jobs. Many of us would travel. Some of us would relax and keep our stress levels down. What did Steve do? He hit the gas. He released the iPhone, unveiled the iPad, and led Apple to its current and still unfathomable status as the most valuable company in the world.

Just as incredibly, he was able to lift his body out of Apple without also removing his soul; on a day when many once feared AAPL stock would dive precipitously, it’s comfortably unchanged from the day before.

He had his flaws and he may not be the greatest person to ever live, but no one has ever left this world more on top than Steve Jobs has just left it.

Thanks for everything.

Moving to Micro Four-Thirds

Micro four-thirds cameras aren’t exactly new, but in the three years since their release, they’ve grown incredibly popular. A couple of months ago, I passed the confidence threshold myself and ditched all of my Nikon camera gear in favor of “M43″.

The M43 system, to me, is the prosumer system for the next decade. It essentially eliminates the need for two other genres of camera: the standard APS-C DSLR system (e.g. Nikon D90, Canon 60D) and the compact point-and-shoot. By eliminating the camera’s mirror, micro four-thirds offers near the quality of the former and near the tininess of the latter. If you’re buying a camera today, the three smart choices, in my opinion are:

  • A full-frame camera. If you want the very best photos and size/cost is not an issue, a full-frame camera like the Canon 5D (or 1D) will give you the greatest resolution, the best low-light performance, and the most granular control. The cost of entry for a full-frame camera is at least $2500, however, and the ongoing cost is a gigantic piece of lead around your neck.
  • A micro four-thirds camera. If you want a camera capable of taking professional quality shots that is small and light enough to take on vacations and day trips without noticing the extra weight and bulk, this is your best choice. Fitted with a pancake lens, these cameras are just small enough to fit in your pants pockets, if you wear loose pants, and often times, you don’t even notice you’re carrying one.
  • A smartphone camera. Smartphone cameras today are in many ways better than point-and-shoots of only a few years ago. There are many occasions when you just can’t carry more hardware on you, and in times like these, your phone is more than capable of getting you what you need.

With the above three options all widely available now, the need for the point-and-shoot and the APS-C stopgaps just isn’t there anymore. With a point-and-shoot, you get bad low-light performance and no lens flexibility, and with an APS-C system, you get unnecessary bulk.

If you’re looking to move to micro four-thirds, here are some considerations to keep in mind:

Bodies

Whereas Nikon and Canon rule the full sized camera world, the giants are nowhere to be found in M43. The M43 system demands that camera bodies and lenses are interchangeable, even across brands, and Nikon and Canon aren’t used to working this way. In fact, Nikon has just announced a new camera that will compete with M43 cameras, but disappointingly, it will only work with Nikon lenses.

When you are stressing out about what body and what lenses to buy (e.g. Olympus, Panasonic Lumix) just remember that every body works with every lens. You can buy an Olympus body and a Lumix lens if you want. There is no “lock-in” and that’s a key advantage. Right now, Olympus and Panasonic are the only players in the market, but this could expand in the future.

To get my feet wet in M43, I forewent all of the new models and bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 on eBay. I got the body, a Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, and a Lumix 45-200mm zoom lens for $781 on eBay; all in mint condition. The GF1 appears to be a instant classic in the M43 world, with a lot of people claiming it’s still the most fun-to-shoot M43 camera in the world.

If I was buying a new camera today, it would be the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3. Both have better low-light performance than the GF1 and both have on-body image stabilization (Panasonic puts their stabilization technology in their lenses instead).

Lenses

As is the case in the SLR and DSLR worlds, prime lenses will always provide sharper images than zoom lenses. You’re going to want at least one prime in your bag, and I whole-heartedly recommend the aforementioned Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. It’s only about an inch deep and weighs 3.5 ounces. The key to this lens isn’t just its compactness but it’s maximum aperture. Although it still can’t touch my beloved (and now departed) Nikon 50mm f/1.4 in low light conditions, it will allow you to shoot bright photos in dim conditions without using the flash.

As far as zoom lenses go, there are a lot of them to choose from, but I went with a Lumix 45-200mm in order to match my previous Nikon 18-200mm VR as closely as possible. In my testing, I would say this lens produces almost the same quality images as the Nikon and it weighs a few ounces shy of a pound. The Nikon is about 50% heavier.

I can’t stress enough how much lighter a M43 camera and lens feels when compared to its DSLR counterparts. When people obsess about the weights of different cell phone models, it strikes me as hollow because they are all trivially light, but when you’re talking about M43 vs. DSLR, you’re talking about pounds of weight off of your neck.

Viewfinders

Some of the bigger M43 cameras have built-in electronic viewfinders, but the ultra-compact cameras all require you to snap one on if you want one. I haven’t needed one yet, but it’s nice to know they are available if you need them.

Interfaces

As with all cameras, try to pick a model that has the right balance of physical knobs and electronic controls for your taste. The GF1 is skewed more towards physical knobs, which I love, but some may prefer things like touch-screens and soft buttons. If you can’t physically try out a camera’s interface before you buy it, try reading what others think instead. I was originally going to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF3 until I read enough reports from people complaining about how hard it is to hold.

New or used?

If you aren’t sure you’ll love the jump to M43, buying used is a good option. A little searching and patience on eBay might get you a nice model to get your feet wet while you wait for the next great innovation. For me, the innovation I’m waiting for is better high ISO performance. While my setup is good in low light, it still can’t match a Nikon D80 (or better) with that 50mm Nikon f/1.4 on it. My feeling is that within a year or so, that won’t be true anymore, and since I’m only $300 or so into this GF1 body, I won’t feel bad replacing it when the time is right.

If you’re going to buy new, as I mentioned earlier, I would probably go with the Olympus E-PL3 or E-P3.

Cognition Comments Considered Harmful

I was looking forward to writing a post this weekend about Happy Cog’s new commenting system on their otherwise excellent new blog, but the sage minds at Full Stop interactive beat me to it. You should read Nate’s whole post. It’s spot-on.

It’s interesting to me that Happy Cog is trying to eliminate the negative things associated with commenting by encouraging brevity, while for several years, the secret sauce I’ve cooked up to prevent comment spam has involved just the opposite: measuring the amount of time you spend typing and only entering your comment into the database if you spend more than a few seconds on it. It works like a charm and eliminates 99.9% of comment spam before it even gets in the front door.

In my opinion, what Happy Cog has created is useful. Let’s just not confuse it with a commenting system for a blog.

It doesn’t encourage community, it doesn’t encourage conversation, and for the most part, it’s not accretive in any way. What it does do is create a lot of linkbacks to your blog on Twitter. Is this valuable? Sure. But is it as valuable as free-flowing, insightful, conversations which elevate ordinary posts into conversation pieces?

Not for me it’s not.

For all the great things about Twitter — and there are many — one of the worst things about it is that it’s making us lazy ambassadors of our thoughts. Why spend an hour on a blog post when we can tweet out our main thesis in ten seconds? Why allow conversations on our blogs when we can just hear the first 140 characters of our readers’ opinions?

We know short attention spans are bad for our intellectual development. We should be creating solutions that fight against this threat… not feed into it.

Shared
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.