Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Crowdsourcing Bureaucracy:

Most people in the United States agree: Taxes are too high.

Some people wish to see spending cut from social services, some wish to see it cut from the military, some from the salaries of government officials, etc. The one area we can all agree is a waste of money is bureaucracy. In our current economy, no one likes knowing that a substantial amount of their earnings go toward cutting through red tape and taking forever to get what should be simple and inexpensive tasks, done.

The problem is, we can’t live without bureaucracy. It is the backbone of our government. While politics deal in the creation of laws and regulations, bureaucracy deals with actually taking care of public tasks.

Bureaucracy is not in and of itself a bad thing. However, the word has taken on a negative meaning. Mostly because the handling of bureaucracy by our government is wasteful, convoluted, and inept.

So the question is, how do we make bureaucracy work better?

At a recent TED TALKS, Jennifer Pahlka gave a talk titled 'Coding a Better Government' (watch it HERE) which describes the efforts of the organization ‘Code for America’ to answer that very question.

The idea is to basically crowdsource bureaucratic tasks. One of the examples that Jennifer gives is an app that was used to coordinate the adoption of fire hydrants in Boston.

After a snowstorm, someone has to dig out all of the fire hydrants so that they are accessible if there is a fire. As a Boston resident, I can tell you that those hydrants never get shoveled out. And I am certain that someone does get paid to take care of that very task.

Through the app, citizens are able to adopt a hydrant near their house or apartment, and voluntarily go out and shovel. By taking five minutes out of their day a few times a year, these Bostonians could save thousands of dollars in unnecessary public funding, have their hydrants cleared in a timely fashion, and will ACTUALLY have access to them if there is an emergency.

Many of the public tasks that have fallen to the local, state, and even federal governments have done so because in decades past, the government was the only group with the resources to coordinate these simple, yet wide spread tasks. Can you imagine trying to organize a group of volunteer citizens to handle animal control for a whole city back in the 1920’s before even half of the households in America had telephones?

This is no longer an issue. With the advent of smartphones and feature-phones, the ability of citizens to coordinate with each other anywhere via mobile apps is as simple as getting a few app developers to donate their time and skills.

Just think of how much time, money, and aggravation average citizens could save every year by simply signing on and volunteering to take responsibility for the basic upkeep of our communities.

For all of us out there that spend WAY too much time complaining about how poorly our government is run, this could be our chance to put our money where our mouths are and prove that there is a better way to run our bureaucracy and that we are willing to be the ones to help do it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Best New Camera To Buy: The Nikon D300...wait, what?

Since mainstream photographic culture made the switch from the complicated and expensive world of film to the cheap and (arguably*) easy world of digital, the number of people interested in buying a camera and trying their hand at being an amateur photographer has skyrocketed. Now although taking digital photographs is (arguably) easy, understanding the differences between the variety of cameras and camera systems is not.

As I am a photographer by trade, I’m asked for advice about cameras constantly. Friends, family, and social network acquaintances, regularly ask me what kind of camera they should buy. My advice is almost always not to buy a brand new camera. Buying a used camera tends to save a fair bit of money and, since used cameras have been out for a while, there are a ton of consumer and professional reviews to tell you tell you all about the camera in detail.

For those of you out there that are in the market for your first Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, I am going to recommend the Nikon D300. This tried and true piece of machinery has everything a brand new photographer could want, none of the crazy extras that, while seductive, can ruin your foray into the photographic arts, and can now be purchased at a very reasonable price.

At around $1,000.00 used, the D300 has a 12.3 mpx sensor. This is more than enough for any entry level shooters, or even most serious amateurs. While a 36 mpx D800 may sound exciting, an amateur using this camera would be like putting a 16 year old in a Ferrari. They are more likely to hurt themselves than anything else. Unless you intend to have your photos printed on a billboard, 12.3 is more than enough.

The D300 also has the best ISO capabilities for new photographers. It takes excellent photos up to ISO 800, very good photos up to 1000-1600, and fairly ok ones up to 3200. This is the highest that you will want to go when you are first starting out. While some of the new Canon and Nikon pro level cameras can go up to ISO 250,000 almost taking pictures in the dark, this is not something that you are going to want at your disposal when you first start out.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making when they start to use their cameras seriously is not learning about how lighting is supposed to work. If you want to be able to take aesthetically pleasing photographs, you have to be able to work in a variety of lighting situations and learn how to make all of them work for you. If you are in a dark room and want to take a photograph, the worst thing you can do is simply crank up the ISO. Chances are, you are just going to get a crappy picture with flat light. No light equals bad light.

Lighting options are why speedlights (aka flashes) were invented. Long before you start using super high ISOs, you want to learn how to use speedlights. What’s the best possible camera for a beginner learning to use speedlights? That’s right, the Nikon D300. Nikon speedlight technology is unrivaled by any other company*. The Nikon system allows the photographer to control off camera speedlights right from the back of the camera. I personally have controlled as many as 12 speedlights simultaneously from distances up to 25 ft. Awesome. It is like having an entire photography studio that fits in a backpack. If you want to get into creative photography, this is an excellent place to invest your time and money.

The reason that the D300 is the best camera for new photographers in regards to speedlight technology is the cost. Consumer level cameras don’t have the built-in technology to operate speedlights. You have to go to the pro levels to get those features. Which means spending at least $3K if you want to buy a new one. This doesn’t leave much money to buy the speedlights with. However, since there is no generational disconnect between speedlights and cameras, the D300 will work with the oldest and the newest speedlights. This means that you can buy old used speedlights, new snazzy speedlights, or a combination of both. And if you decided in a year that you want to buy a new camera, all of the speedlights that you bought will still work with the newer camera.

The same is true for Nikon lenses. One of the best features about Nikon cameras are that when the company switched to digital, they kept the same lens mount system. This means that any autofocus lens made since 1982 will work on the D300. One of the best lenses that I own, an 85mm 1.8 that retailed for a thousand bucks in the late 80’s, I picked up at a fleamarket for $15 from some guy who had no idea what it was. And when I buy my new camera, it will work just fine on that one too.

There are a few limitations with the D300 however. It does not shoot video. I usually tell people that this doesn’t matter. If you are just looking to shoot home videos of your kids, a DSLR is over kill. Buy a $50 flip cam and spend the money you save on an excellent still camera. Besides, if you are just starting out in photography, chances are you are nowhere near ready to take on video. Having the option to shoot video is likely to be a major distraction that will hinder your learning. But if you really want video in your DSLR, spend a couple of hundred extra and buy the D300S. It is the same camera, except it shoots video. They might be a bit harder to find secondhand however, as fewer people have sold their D300S specifically because it shoots video.

Other specs on the D300 include a cropped sensor. If you know the difference between a cropped and full frame sensor, all I can say is to look deep inside of yourself and ask if this really matters. If you don’t know the difference then don’t worry about it. You don’t need a full frame sensor.

The D300 also only has one memory card slot and it is for a compact flash card (CF). Most newer pro level cameras have either dual CF slots or a CF and SD slot. I don’t think this matters much, especially at the amateur level. Outside of studio work and advanced sports/wildlife photography, I have never seen any sizable value to having multiple card slots.

So the D300 has all of the pro level features, none of the crazy new features that will hold you back from learning what you are doing with the camera, and costs about as much as a brand new soccer mom camera. Combine that with the fact mine saw 6 years of hard service in the field, never needed servicing, is still in a condition to sell at top dollar, and I am left with no ethical choice other than to recommend this camera wholeheartedly to any and all beginner photographers.

*What I mean: Taking a “good” photograph is difficult no matter what kind of camera you use. However, in the film days, there was a large knowledge base needed even to take a crappy photograph (e.g. film asa/iso, film color temperature, etc). With new digital cameras, almost all of those aspects of the photography can be automated. So, if you don’t care or know whether a photograph is any good, then all you have to be able to do is press the shutter release.

*If anyone ever tries to tell you that Canon’s speedlight system is just as good, immediately begin ignoring everything that person says. This is not a matter of personal belief. 100% of the pro photographers that I know that use Canon openly admit that Nikon is far superior. Anyone who says different, does not have any idea what they are talking about.

Friday, May 4, 2012


For several years now, street style photographers who work to capture those “slice of life” moments have been waiting desperately for a digital camera to fill the role of the Leica series from the film days. A camera that takes beautiful quality pictures, is versatile enough to handle a variety of situations, and is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. While modern DSLRs are amazing, they are also large, heavy, and fairly conspicuous. They are not the type of thing that is comfortable or convenient to be carrying around city streets for several hours while trying not to draw attention to one’s self. They don’t allow for what I call, the Winogrand experience.

When the newest generation of the Canon G series, the G1X was announced, I got my hopes way up. A pocket sized camera with a full frame 14.3 megapixel sensor and all of the Canon G-Series usual controls plus more might just be the camera that we have been waiting for.

Here is how the G1X held up in my first two weeks with it.

Exterior handling:

The first thing I noticed when I held the G1X was that it felt like a real camera. The body is made of metal instead of the usual cheap plastic that most point and shoot cameras are now made with. This makes it heavier than most other cameras of its size, but in a good way. It is just heavy enough to feel substantial in the hand without being a pain to carry. It is well balanced and doesn’t feel like it is going to break if you breath on it wrong. Canon also equipped the G1X with a front facing control dial, which is a standard on most DSLRs, but rare in a point and shoot. This index finger dial helps to create a much more fluid and professional shooting experience by allowing you to change aperture and shutter setting more quickly than in the past G-series cameras when there was only a rear facing dial.

New to the G series, the G1X’s built in flash is a pop-up flash on the top left of the camera body instead of being directly in the frame right above the lens.
The new positioning makes for noticeably better flash photographs, but to be honest, it is still an on camera flash. So don’t expect any miracles when it comes to on camera lighting.

For the most part, the button and control setup on the G1X is quite good. There is no physical ISO dial on the top of the camera because of the new positioning of the flash. I thought this was going to be a major annoyance, but even though I had to use the digital menu to change the ISO, it is just a two click process, so it hasn’t really bothered me at all.

Canon was nice enough to add a little red-dot-button on the upper right hand side of the body that when pressed, immediately starts video capture. This allows the user to move from image to video capture and back again on the fly with ease.

The one major problem with the camera’s external design is the “view-finder”. I use the term loosely, because like all of its G-series predecessors, the G1X’s eye piece is nothing more than a crappy hole at the top of the body that has some crappy glass in it. Canon obviously intends for photographers to use the LCD screen on the back of the camera to compose their shots and check their aperture/shutter settings. However, since I am not a tourist and I am not using the G1X to take bar photos of my friends, I don’t think this system works.

I completely understand Canon’s decision to forgo a real and usable viewfinder on the G-series thus far. The shape and design of the cameras would make it very difficult (and likely very expensive) to try to fit a usable viewfinder into the camera. However, I think Canon needs to understand its customers a little bit better. Not many casual shooters are going to fork over the $800 to buy the G1X for everyday shooting. The main market for the G1X is going to be professionals and very serious amateurs. Two groups that would perfer (if not require) a solid working viewfinder and would be willing to pay the extra $50-$100 to have it. If we wanted to take photos composed on an LCD screen, we would use our iPhones. Since this is hands-down the biggest problem with the G1X, I would really love to see Canon spend a bit more time and effort trying to get a decent viewfinder into the next generation of the G-series.

Interior handling:

The start up time for the G1X is lightning fast. It takes between 2 and 3 seconds after pressing the power button for it to be ready to start snapping photos. That being said, once it is on, the G1X is a pretty slow moving camera. There is a significant delay between the time the shutter release is pressed, and when the shutter is actually released. The longest I’ve seen up to this point, is almost a full second delay. When trying to capture photographs of life on fast moving city streets, even a fraction of a second delay can make a huge difference.

This delay is made even worse by the fact that the autofocus is pretty slow too. I will note that the autofocus is very accurate and is faster than previous generations of the G-series, but it is still way too slow to capture fast moving subjects. And heaven forbid you have to change the zoom of the lens. That adds at least another 2 full seconds before you can get the shot off.

The digital menu of the G1X is just as easy to understand as the menus of its forbearers were. All of the display, shooting, and system options and controls are well marked, easy to find, and easy to understand. Only the most inexperienced novice would require an instruction manual to find their way around. Canon has done an excellent job setting up the user interface so that it never takes more than 3-4 clicks to change any of the important shooting settings, making it quick and easy to make setting changes on the fly. As a devote Nikon user in my professional life, I will admit to getting confused on how things like the display settings work from time to time. But I’m pretty sure that has more to do with me being accustomed to a different system than any lack of quality user interface design on Canon’s part.

The auto bracketing in the G1X is a noteworthy feature. For anyone that has a fancy for working with HDR, the auto bracketing options are easy to get to through the digital menu in 3 quick clicks and once the shutter release is pressed once, it auto fires however many exposures you set the bracketing too. If you are trying to capture for HDR without a tripod, this can be a lifesaver.

Canon also added the ability to set up 3 different custom shooting displays for the LCD screen that can be toggled between. I have found that when you have to use the LCD to compose the photograph, it is a BIG help to be able to split up the information display to save on screen real estate. I set up one display to only show my histogram, another that only has the auto balancer, and another that only displays the memory card data. That way I can get at all of that information quickly and easily, but I am never using more than about 15% of the screen on data displays.

The Final Images:

Excellent. Done.

Ok, in a little more detail. The fact that the 14.3 mpx full frame sensor is inside of a tiny point and shoot body makes absolutely no difference. The RAW images that come out of the G1X are on par with ones that come out of the Nikon D700 in terms of both quality and malleability (which, at an almost $2000 cost difference, is a pretty big deal).

The biggest difference I saw between the giant sensor of the G1X and the smaller cropped sensors of the G11 and G12 was the size of its dynamic range. While the 11 and 12 could both capture RAW images, unless it was a cloudy day, you were almost guaranteed to clip your highlights and shadows. My first day out with the G1X, I overexposed a number of captures by 2 stops to see how they would hold up in post production. With quick flick of the exposure slider in Camera Raw, all of the details of the images were there.

And as you can see, the color density and accuracy of the G1X is absolutely stunning for a point and shoot camera.

Canon continues to impress with their high ISO quality. I was able to take excellent quality pictures up to 1600 ISO, good to very good quality pictures up to 3,200 ISO, and then things got dicey after that. I’ve read other reviews that say that the G1X can take high quality images up to 6,400, but I don’t buy it. Any time I took it up that high, I got noticeable color shift and color noise. Still, usable photographs up to 3200 ISO from a pocket sized camera was previously unheard of.
A pretty significant disadvantage to the G1X is that the lens is not interchangeable. You are stuck (at least for now) with the one that Canon threw on there. It is a fairly ok lens for most situations. But it is very difficult to get a shallow depth of field. The lowest aperture that the lens can go down to is 2.8 (which, because of the distance between the lens and the sensor on such a small body, actually looks more like 4-5.6 to me). Meaning that the G1X is much better suited for landscapes than for macro work.

Now for the kicker. The CR2 RAW images that come out of the G1X are next to impossible to process at the moment. To be able to get the images from the camera and into photoshop, I had to download the beta (tester) version of PS6, Bridge 6, Camera Raw 7, and Adobe DNG converter 6.7. The Canon Software that comes with the camera can only export the CR2s as jpegs and tifs, completely killing the point of shooting in RAW and none of the other major softwares out there have worked in the G1X’s coding. Supposedly Lightroom 4 can read them, but I have heard mixed reviews on this matter. Some people say it works, others say it works for a couple of minutes but then crashes LR, and still others say that it doesn’t work at all. Since I am a Camera Raw/Bridge kinda guy, I was not willing to spend $100 on a program that I didn’t want, just so that I could convert the CR2s to DNGs for the next month or two until the final rollout of CS6. I’m sure that this will be a non issue within the next few weeks, but until then, it is extremely annoying.


The G1X is one hell of a camera. The quality of the images that come out of it are of a prosumer, if not fully professional level. Its high resolution, beautiful color capture, and small size make it perfect for travel and landscape photography. The days of having to carry 40 lbs. of camera gear up the side of a mountain just to get a crystal clear shot from the top are over.

All that being said however, the G1X is not the digital street photographer’s dream that I had hoped for. Although it is fairly versatile, it does take high quality pictures, and it does fit into the palm of the hand, it is just too slow for street work. Between the shutter release delay, the slow lens zoom, and needing to compose with the LCD from lack of a reasonable viewfinder, there is just no way to move quickly enough to capture those slice of life images before they are gone.

Even though I won’t really be able to use it for the purpose that I had hoped, the G1X is still well worth the money I paid for it. If you usually have at least 15 seconds or more to compose your photographs and you don’t like carrying your DSLR everywhere you go, the G1X is the camera for you.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to digitally follow in the footsteps of the street photography greats:

Garry Winogrand

Robert Frank

Walker Evans

*Note: Someone out there is going to try to tell me that Evans was a portrait photographer and not a street photographer. Well you know what, he took those portraits on the streets. So don’t bother complaining about it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt.3: Possibilities

Over the past couple of posts, I have discussed how people with cognitive/developmental disabilities have had trouble entering into the digital world. I have talked about the dangers of leaving them behind and how mobile/app based technologies in their present form could help them overcome the barriers in entering this world. But what about the future?

Let’s say, hypothetically, we were able to get tablet computers into the hands of this population and teach them how to interact with the technology. They would be able to use the applications that are available to everyone to keep pace with the new world.

“But dude, wouldn’t it also be possible to create applications specifically for these people that would help them overcome obstacles in their everyday lives that have been standing in their way for years? You know, not just help them keep up with the status quo, but make their lives even better than they were before?”

You’re damn right we can.

Much the same way mobile technology allows most of us to use less of our brain power on the mundane mechanics of our lives, this technology could help to assist the cognitively impaired to keep track of the daily necessities that would otherwise require outside help. And much in the same way that these technologies are being utilized and developed to help teach children in schools, they could also be used to help teach the cognitively impaired to be more efficient in the mechanics of their lives.

Take for example Taskaid. This application allows one to create a todo list attached to a notification alarm that is set off by either location or time. So if you need to remember to pick up bread, you put it in your todo list and set it to go off the next time you go to the store. Through use of the GPS tracker in most phones and tablets, the app knows when you are at the store and it sets off the alarm.

In its present form, this technology could do wonders for helping the cognitively impaired keep track of their daily necessities, allowing them a greater degree of independence from professional caregivers. However, with a bit of development, it could be taken a step further.

If combined with tutorial apps, the educational value of location reminders could be huge. For example, let’s say Tom goes down stairs in the morning and goes into the kitchen. Instead of simply having an alarm sound to remind Tom to eat breakfast, what if his app could remind him to eat breakfast, list all of the different types of food that make a healthy breakfast, and instructed Tom on how to prepare these healthy breakfast items by himself? Now Tom is eating a full and healthy breakfast every morning without needing assistance.

What if we applied these type of apps to a professional situation? How many more jobs would the cognitively impaired be able to do if this technology were able to help keep them from forgetting important aspects of a job and could offer quick and easy reminders or instructions if they become confused by or forget how to complete a task?

The professional possibilities grow even more when you consider how many jobs now include the use of mobile technologies. Many restaurants now have their hosts use iPads to conduct their business. The iPads are used for keeping track of seating, wait times, and phone numbers for giving callbacks to people when their tables are ready. Many department stores have their stock boys and girls use tablets to keep track of inventory. If the tool required to do a job is the same one that offers professional assistance to the impaired in helping them be able to do the job, then with a little work, the job training and maintaining could be paired with the actual functions of the job seamlessly.

These advances could greatly increase the amount of financial independence of this population. However, money management is often a big problem for people with cognitive disabilities. Budgeting can be difficult for them. Apps such as Google Wallet are being developed by several different companies, which allow payments to be made directly through mobile devices. Simply swipe your phone past a sensor in the store and it takes money out of an account just like a debit card would.

If advances were made in the field of parental style controls over the accounts attached to the app, budgeting could be made much simpler. Imagine what it would be like if you could set your credit card to only allow you to buy $10 a month in candy. Or $20 a month in fast food. Or $30 a month on Amazon. Or if you could program your account to know how much money it has to maintain for you to pay your bills at the end of the month. And once you reach your limit, the account declines any charges you try to make. It would be a heck of a lot easier to monitor your spending without thinking about it. Create a budget once, program it in, and then curse at yourself violently when you realize you can’t buy a Snickers bar because you used up your candy budget for the month in the first two days.

By using technology such as this, many people with cognitive disabilities would be able to gain independence from their guardians and/or caregivers who at present have to maintain a high level of control over their finances.

An even greater amount of independence could be achieved if mobile technologies were utilized for medical purposes. Already, things like the Nike Fuel Band exist that monitor number of steps, heart rate, and calories burned and then through syncing with a phone, transmit the data to an online server. If products became commercially available that could monitor blood pressure, insulin levels, and an array of other medical information, and then automatically through a synced phone, notify an ambulance, emergency contact, and PCP the minute something was wrong, the need for this population to be physically monitored around the clock would drop substantially.

Besides simply improving on the independence of the individuals, putting mobile technologies into the hands of the mentally disabled could benefit society as a whole by allowing them access to people around the world who could help to inspire them, and be inspired by them. A large percent of people with cognitive disabilities find themselves stuck in a microcosm of other people with similar disabilities and the people providing them with care. On a day-to-day basis, this might not be an issue. But pretend you lived in a group home with 8 other people and whatever staff worked there and you realized that you love classical music. What are the chances that anyone else in that house is going to love classical music too? Or be able to help you develop that passion? The stats aren’t good.

But what if you could get yourself on Google Plus and converse with classical music lovers from all around the world? Share in discussions with people from France, use Hangouts to take music lessons from a volunteer teacher in Spain, or get help recording your own music from an audio tech in Germany. Now your love of classical music can flourish and you can share your own creativity with the world.

Picture how much the world could gain by bringing this population into the fold and encouraging them to use their own knowledge and creativity to add to global collective.

Here's the best part. I’m not even very smart and these are just the ideas I could come up with in a day. Image what could be done if real designers, programmers, and engineers, got together with social workers, educators, and personal care providers and put their imaginations to work. Think of the difference it could make for this population, society, and people as a whole. Mobile technologies are revolutionizing the world and with just the smallest amount of effort and support, they could change the lives of the mentally disabled forever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt. 2: Impact on the Future

During our discussion about how the iPad has helped her client Tom enter into the digital age, the woman telling me Tom’s story brought up the fact that in Maine kindergarteners are being given iPads that have been paid for with taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t understand it. If they can give them to little kids, why not my guys?”

My response was that, in theory, the iPads would help the children learn faster, more efficiently, and more independently. And since schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, getting things to work more efficiently means getting them to work more cost-effectively. So there is a theoretical benefit for society as a whole to getting these children iPads. The same can not be said for the mentally disabled.

However, this is not true. Not even a little. I knew that I was wrong the moment that I suggested it.

In truth, leaving this population behind and not assisting them into the digital age by supplying them with the hardware they need to do so is not only detrimental to their quality of life, but also to the society that pays to support them.

Like all people with handicaps that severely limit their ability to work and therefore support themselves independently, the mentally disabled are supported by taxpayer funded disability benefits. There is a direct correlation then, between the level of independence achieved in this population and how much assistance ($$$) they require from the government. Since it is now indisputable that we live in a digital world, the inability of a large number of people to interact with this digital world will heavily increase their need for living assistance.

One of the first places that this becomes apparent is in the professional sector. Many jobs previously filled by the mentally handicapped population are vanishing into the virtual domain. In the same way online retail is beginning to limit the number of physical retail locations with positions available to the mentally disabled, digital technology is helping to decrease the number of remedial positions the mentally disabled were once able to fill in all industries.Take for example the preparation of mailers. This consists of folding, collating, and packing things like newsletters for mass distribution. It was previously an excellent source of income for this population. The work was simple, abundant, and lent itself well to socialization since it could be done in an assembly line manner. However, due to the emergence of email, the need for this work is quickly disappearing.

By limiting the amount of paid work that this population can do, society limits the amount of independent funds they are able to procure for themselves. Increasing their dependence on social assistance.

And while their dependence on society increases, their opportunities to interact with society decrease. Since things like local newsletters are becoming digitized, their ability to find out about local news, events, and volunteer activities without use of the internet is disappearing. Without being able to interact with society, how will they be able to contribute to it? How will they be able to be a part of it?

This is exacerbated by the vanishing of physical media. Without things like CDs, DVDs, and covered books being produced, the only way for this population to keep current on social trends will be through use of the internet. Which requires a computer. A tool which, as previously discussed, can be difficult if not impossible for many of these people to use. There are even questions surrounding how much longer, or in what form, TV will be available to them. With television moving more and more into the realm of Hulu and Netflix style streaming, even this oasis may be lost. That is, unless we as a society invest time and money into equipping and acclimating this population with the hardware they need to be able to become “connected”.

Even something as basic as language could present future difficulties for a group of people if they are not “connected”. How often now do we hear people say “OMG” or “LOL” out loud? If this social trend continues to move away from complete, grammatically correct, adult sentences to what is essentially internet/texting originated baby talk, how will people who don’t use digital technologies be able to communicate? If one doesn’t use social media, how would they be able conceptually understand the idea of a meme or having something go viral? In this age of social media, the conceptual understanding of something going viral is integral to how we communicate. Living outside of this world could mean the inability to communicate meaningfully with those inside of it.

And this trend is only going to accelerate. Since these issues affect an entire population, demographic statistics are essential in developing ways to help them. And since most demographic statistics are now collected digitally, taxpayers will have to pay professionals to collect the data from this population manually. How much time and energy could be saved if we were able to collect demographic data on this population through their Google searches and online surveys just as we do every other population?

When working with the disabled, increasing independence is the name of the game. It improves the quality of life for the individual and lowers the financial burden on society. We are now at a crossroads. If we are able to get digital technology into the hands of the mentally disabled, we could increase their level of independence to a point that past generations could never have imagined. However, if we don’t do it, and do it fast, we run the risk of leaving them helpless and picking up the tab for our lack of action.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mobile Tech and the Mentally Disabled Pt 1: A Case Study in Awesomeness

Recently, I was told a story about a man named Tom (not his real name) who was given an iPad for Christmas this year. It was a story about how Tom was using his iPad to show Youtube videos to a friend at the dinner table. What makes this story interesting?

Tom is mentally retarded.

Due to this handicap, Tom has never been able to use the personal computing hardware necessary to access digital content such as Youtube. Tom’s condition makes using a classic PC or laptop difficult for him on both a cognitive and physical level. However, his iPad has allowed him to overcome many of the obstacles on both of these levels. And through the use of it, has improved his life in a number of ways.


It isn’t that Tom hasn’t used computers in the past. It is just that until now his history with them has been less than auspicious. In the past, whenever Tom has attempted to use a PC, he has become confused and aggravated quickly, and lost any interest he had in using it. The main problem for Tom was trying to conceptualize the process of how a windows based operating system worked.

Most of us understand this process well. We save files (i.e. jpegs, docs, PDFs) in folders. We then open those files with programs/applications that allow us to view the files (i.e. Microsoft Word lets you read and edit docs, iTunes lets you listen to MP3s). The folders containing the files can be stored in a number of places on the hard drive and the programs/applications are installed and saved in folders separate the folders that contain the files.

While this may seem simple to those who have been utilizing this technology for several years, the cognitive mapping that is involved in understanding and operating this digital structure is actually not that easy to develop. So whenever Tom wanted to look at some family photos in the past, he had to have one of the employees of his group home sit at the computer with him and open and browse all of the images for him because he was unable to do it for himself.

Touch based computers such as the iPad however, use a different setup. On the iPad, files live inside of the applications or apps. When an app is opened, all of the files are already there. So now, when Tom wants to see his collection of images, all he has to do is remember that the little picture of the sunflower marks the “Photos” app, touch it, and browse away.

While this operating system is much simpler for Tom to understand and use, there are still times in which the interface of individual applications become confusing and aggravating for him. One of the wonderful things Tom has realized about the iPad is that with a simple touch of the home button (easily identifiable as it is the only physical button on the front of the tablet) he is instantly returned to square one and is free to continue on with a different app. In the past, if Tom became irritated with a PC, he would simply give up and walk away. With his iPad however, Tom has developed the habit of moving on to something different whenever he begins to lose patience with what he is doing. This has allowed him to spend more time engaging with his iPad, which has in turn made him more comfortable using the iPad and decreasing the number of times he gets irritated with it.


Like many people with his condition, Tom also suffers from physical limitations that make using a PC difficult. The biggest barrier for Tom is his eyesight. Tom is legally blind and only retains about 30% of his vision.

While the quality of many newer computer monitors is quite good, few can match the quality and intensity of the iPad’s HD screen. And since it is a hand-held device, Tom can adjust how close it is to his eyes with an ease impossible to achieve with a desktop or even a laptop computer. Not to mention the fact that most monitors capable of matching the quality of an iPad cost almost as much money as an iPad themselves, without the rest of the computer components. And Tom is not a rich man.

Tom also suffers from limited dexterity and hand/eye coordination. This makes it very difficult for him to use the classic mouse/trackpad and keyboard combo. He has found that the touch screen interface is much easier and more natural for him to use. Being able to put his finger directly onto whatever he wants to access, he has been able to use the iPad to access digital information with speed and ease.

The wireless capabilities of the iPad has also come in handy for Tom. Due to his poor eyesight and motor functions, it is dangerous for Tom to be walking around an area with loose wires. It is also very difficult for him to plug-in cables attached to USB, Firewire, and headphone jacks. His Bluetooth headphones allow him to listen to music on his iPad and have done wonders compensating for his quickly degenerating hearing.

In addition it is also very important for Tom that his computing experience be portable. Due to his physical handicaps (and short attention span), Tom finds it difficult to sit in one place for too long. Being able to move around without having to disengage has allowed him to spend long periods of time with his iPad, increasing his level of comfort with it. It has also allowed him to share the things that he finds on the internet with his housemates who are bound by their wheelchairs. Since most computer desks are not very accessible or comfortable for people in the large electric wheelchairs that some of Tom’s housemates have, being able to hand them the iPad wherever they are in their chairs has given Tom the ability to share his experiences with others that have their own problems with classic PCs.


Armed with his iPad, Tom has been able to increase his quality of life in several meaningful ways. It has given him a greater degree of independence. Since Tom can not drive or take public transportation without supervision, small things like going to the post office to send letters or going to the DMV to update his photo ID have always been a time consuming and aggravating process. Now that he has personalized internet access and email, he is able to do these everyday tasks with ease from home. Saving him time, effort, and reliance on others.

It has also helped him to discover interests in new hobbies. In the past, Tom has never shown any interesting in cooking. However, because of a daily recipe app that he was able to get on his iPad, Tom has begun to spend a substantial amount of time in the kitchen. I’m told he still needs to be supervised while cooking (a restriction that my girlfriend has also placed on me), but he is improving. In this way he is finding things to make his day to day life happier while at the same time learning life skills.

The iPad has also helped him to expand his horizons with interests that he had previously. Since his ability to discover new music prior to getting his iPad was limited, Tom would listen to his one Miley Ray Cirus CD over and over again. Now, with Pandora, he has been able to discover a number of similar artist that he can enjoy. Which is something that I’m told not only betters Tom’s life, but the lives of all of the people that have to go on long car rides with him.

Tom, like many people with his condition, is a very disengaged and passive person who tends to make very little effort to change the environment around him. It was not uncommon in the past to find Tom spending most of his free time sitting on the couch watching TV. While one could argue that surfing Youtube isn’t much better, the fact that he is actively searching for content that he wants to view and then taking the time to share it with the people around him instead of simply tuning out and ignoring the world is very encouraging.

The thing that I find the most exciting about Tom’s story, is that the challenges that he faces in engaging with the digital world are not at all uncommon to adults with developmental disabilities. Many of the difficulties that Tom faces when trying to use personal computing technology to gain access to the digital world are the same difficulties that affect many of his peers. This makes it a logical assumption that his success with the iPad could be easily replicated.

Now, it is true that no two people are alike and that just because Tom has been so successful with mobile touch technology doesn’t mean that others will take to it with as much ease. However, the fact that he has has made so much progress, in such a short span of time, with such a readily available piece of equipment, in an almost entirely self motivated way is very encouraging. Me personally... I think Tom’s story is just plain excellent.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Danger of the Blindfold

When I started to try my hand at writing a blog, everyone gave me the same advice: “Figure out what your subject is going to be. You can’t just post about anything. You have to have a consistent subject matter so that people know what to expect when they follow your blog.” This is of course sound advice.

So I figured I would try to tackle the ways in which current technologies are affecting our culture, society, and individual lives. As I am fairly new to the world of nerdiness, most of the people that I know and interact with, know next to nothing about technology and don’t have any interest in learning about it. A good friend of mine left this comment for me:

"I'm definitely not your target blog-reading audience (I care nothing about techy stuff and I use apple products for the exact reason you pointed out- they just work and I don't have to think about it) so I'm no good for feedback, but I wanted to let you know that I read your blog as a show of support, friend :)"

While I do appreciate the support very much, something about this message left me feeling uneasy. If the average American doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, and doesn’t care about technology, then they aren’t going to be able to know the truth about it either.

I believe this is extremely dangerous.

I am going to try in this article to not browbeat anyone into feeling like they have to pay attention to every new event in world of blossoming technologies. Instead, I am going to try to illustrate why it could be dangerous for people to be disconnected from the realities of the tech world. I don’t ask that everyone pay attention, just that everyone know what could happen if they don’t.

Rupert Murdoch The most important thing that I have learned about tech culture is that it is sickeningly similar to government politics. Bending the truth, flat out lying, starting smear campaigns, and throwing around the weight of one's wallet are all standard practices.

Let us take for example the recent media circus surrounding Google’s changes to their privacy policies. I’ve been following this issue closely and have come to one simple conclusion: Google did an extremely good thing.

Google, like most companies that have several separate services, previously had multiple privacy policies, one for Gmail, one for Reader, one for Youtube, etc. Now that the number of services has grown, Google decided to chuck out the 60+ privacy policies that all essentially said the same thing and make one all-encompassing policy. And as a service to their customers, they decided to write this new policy in as simple a language as they could so that everyone could understand it. And now they are having their name dragged through the mud for their trouble.

If one were to take the time to actually read through every single privacy policy that Google formally had (I myself could only stomach a couple that were very redundant) they would realize that almost nothing has changed. Their new privacy policy says all the same things, only in layman's terms. The crux of which, in regards to this topic, is that by agreeing to the policy you give Google permission to share your information between their services.

Now that everyone understands what Google is saying, they are getting upset. Some even to the point of calling Google evil. To those people I have to ask: How did you think it worked? How did you think your Gmail contacts got onto your Android phone? How did you think you were able to share a Google Doc with someone else via their email address? All of those services that you have been praising and thanking Google for over the past several years, how could they work, if not by sharing?

These are not questions that require technology know how to answer. This is just plain common sense. However, because most people have been convinced that they don’t understand technology, they don’t take the time to apply common sense to the situations. People appear to feel that technology exists outside the realm of common sense, much the same way they feel that government and law do.

I minored in political science during my undergraduate studies. Still, most of the time, when I try to follow what is going on in our government, I am completely lost. This is a feeling I know that I share with most of the people that surround me. And because we don’t understand what is going on, we ignore it and become disengaged with it, leaving the people inside of the system free to do as they please as long as they can put a convincing media spin on it.

Tech companies work in much the same way. If one company is competing with another, all they have to do is create a convincing story about how terrible their competition is, and watch as the uninformed masses denounce their competitor and their products. This is a truth that most people probably already know. Most big business work this way. How is the tech industries like our government and different than any other major capitalist competition? The difference is impact.

If you decided to choose Coke over Pepsi, the world keeps spinning. If you buy a Snickers instead of a Milkyway, you might take in a few extra calories. If you choose Tide over Downy... I actually have no idea what happens. I don’t know anything about doing laundry. But if you choose between a tech company that supports open source and a company that builds proprietary software, you are making a choice on par with choosing between capitalism and socialism or Democrat and Republican. And if you don’t know the difference between open source and proprietary (or even what they each are) you are blindly choosing who you want to have the capital and market shares to decide your future.

Technology has seeped into almost every aspect of our daily lives. So the tech companies that create these products have a huge sway in how we live our lives. By choosing one company’s products over another, consumers are also choosing to follow the philosophies of of one company over another. Imagine what personal computing would look like today if Steve Jobs ideas had failed to catch on with consumers and Microsoft still held a virtual monopoly over the industry. Given no alternative to Windows Vista, I’m sure the number of violent crimes and suicides in this country would have skyrocketed.

I’ll be the first to admit, this sucks. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Not more complicated. And it often does. But it also brings with it politics. And politics are never easy.

So what to do? I’m not silly enough to believe that the average American citizen is going to start taking an hour and a half or more out of their day to stay current and aware of the politics that surround these companies and the products that they are bringing into our lives. My suggestion: just don’t believe everything you hear.

The same way most people know to ignore any sort of statistic quoted by Fox News in regards to Barack Obama, people should learn to take it with a grain of salt when the Wall Street Journal or NY Post tells you about what Google is doing. Rupert Murdoch hates Google just as much as Fox News hates Obama. Is Google a perfect company? No. They screw up sometimes. They take the sleazy cooperate road from time to time. Just like Obama makes poor decisions or says stupid things once in awhile. But whether you support our president or not, it is completely obvious to anyone who is paying even a little bit of attention, that Fox News stretches the truth for their own ends.

It is increasingly important as we pioneer the future that people learn to recognize these relationships. Learn to see when they are being told objective fact and when they are being fed a bowl full of crap.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to be completely aware of who is inventing what, why they are inventing it, how will they use it, where do their loyalties lie, what are the philosophies that govern their decision making, etc. But what is possible, is to pay attention the the subtext of major media coverage. Reading between the lines is something that most of us have already learned to do with the media’s coverage of government. Translating those skills to the politics that surround scientific development and engineering could help all of us from losing our grip on how these industries are affecting our lives and our futures.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ubuntu on Android: The most AMAZING thing no one has heard about

It was announced that a version of Ubuntu was going to be released to run alongside Android utilizing the same Linux kernel for smart phones that have enough power to run it.

“Wait. What the hell does that mean!?”

It means good things. I promise.

I know that most people don’t know what Ubuntu is or why they would want it on their smart phone. However, since this is a sincerely wonderful development and one that I personally believe will be the start of an extremely important trend in the all of our technological futures, I’m going to try to explain it as best I can and then comment on all the wonderful things I think it could bring to our lives. So please, just bare with me.

Since most people know what an iPhone is, let me start with a hypothetical. Let’s say you have an iPhone. It runs on an operating system called iOS. This is the basic touch screen operating system found on all iPhones, iPads, and iTouches. You also have a Macbook or iMac at your home. It runs on OSX, the basic desktop operating system that we all know and love.

Now let’s say you have a new imaginary iPhone that has a special feature. When you plug this iPhone into a tv or any other type of stand-alone screen, instead of simply seeing a large version of your phone’s screen, you see the OSX desktop. What this would mean is when you plug this iPhone into an external monitor (like a TV) and a keyboard/mouse, it automatically becomes a fully fledged desktop computer. How amazing would that be?

That is exactly what Ubuntu on Android means. Turning your Android phone into an all-in-one, multiple system device. You will no longer need a spearate home computer or laptop, just a screen and keyboard.

Ubuntu is a Linux based operating system. If you don’t know what Linux is, don’t worry. In the simplest terms, it is an operating system for nerds. Businessmen have Microsoft Windows, artists have Apple OSX, nerds have Linux **. Ubuntu is one of the most popular and user friendly versions of Linux currently available. Think: the opposite of Windows Vista (note: this is a good link).

So the basic process will go like this: You will download this free Ubuntu software onto your Android phone. As long as you are using the phone as a phone, nothing changes. You won’t be able to tell that anything is different. The magic only happens when you plug your phone into a screen. Then, automatically, your phone will switch over to a full desktop version of Ubuntu with all of the same apps and files and memory as your phone. Meaning that you wont have to copy your files onto multiple hard-drives, you wont have to download the same apps on multiple machines, and all of your history will live in one place.

And for the laptop lovers, there will most likely be laptop docks that are just an empty laptop screen and keyboard that you can plug the phone into. And based on other technology that is currently hitting the market, we may even end up with empty tablet screens where phones can be docked and turned into full-sized tablets.

“Wait a second. You said Ubuntu is Linux. And Linux is for nerds. I’m not a nerd. So why would I want an operating system that I can’t use?”

This is a fair question. Linux has customarily been considered something for the very computer savvy people only. Linux allows for an unimaginable amount of freedom and versatility compared to Windows and OSX, but this freedom also makes it much more complicated to use.

That is why, about 10 years ago, a bunch of guys got together and made it their mission to create a version of Linux that a lay person could understand that still allowed advanced users the freedom they love. And so Ubuntu was born.

I, like most people in my age range, began my digital life on a Windows PC. Then around 2005, I switched to a Mac. Then about 8 months ago, some friends convinced me to give Ubuntu a try. I thought, “What the hell. I’ll struggle with it for a couple of weeks and then give up on it. Whatever.” Twenty minutes after turning it on for the first time, I was able to do almost everything that I could on my Mac with almost no effort at all. It was that easy to learn. It was way easier to understand than Windows and way more customizable then OSX.

At this point I should probably point out an important aspect of Ubuntu. It is open source. Which means that it is free. FREE. No money, no licensing nonsense, nothing. Free.

“Ok, but I’m an Apple user. I have an iPhone. Why should any of this matter to me?”

Simple. If this technology takes off, Apple is more likely to consider building this design structure into their devices. Which, in my humble opinion, would be much better than what it appears that they are planning now, which is slowly doing away with desktop style computing all together and just pushing everyone onto mobile devices. Which is quickly turning into a major kick in the privates to anyone who needs their desktop Apple hardware for professional use.

So now the question becomes, why is this important? What does it really do for us, the users of this technology?

For the private user, this means saving a lot of money. Instead of having to own several expensive devices, you can own one device and several cheaper skins. And since smart phones tend to be less expensive than desktops, laptops, tablets, and cable boxes, the potential savings are substantial. Instead of getting a $1,000.00 laptop, you can buy a $100 dollar laptop skin. Instead of buying a $1400.00 iMac, you can buy a $150 screen. You see where I’m going with this?

This also increases mobility. Being able to place your entire digital life, not just your standard mobile stuff, but everything, into your pocket is a big advantage. Especially at the airport.

At the cooperate level, this system could save millions in time, resource, and man power for IT departments. Instead of having to take care of 2 or 3 devices for every employee, you have one item to take care of per person. And the increased mobility means increased efficiency. Since everyone has their computers in their pockets, moving to different offices for travel, renovations, or whatever else keeps people away from their offices becomes much simpler.

This mobility could also come in handy for artists as well. As more and more of the artistic mediums move into the digital realm, artist are regaining a considerable amount of flexibility in where they can be when creating their art. If they aren’t chained to their studios, then they are free to travel far and wide to gain inspiration. However, most artists still need the power and versatility of a complete desktop operating system to create their work. Armed with this technology, all they would need to do is plug into the TV at their hotel.

If you are a small business owner, you get all of the benefits listed above, as well as being able to save money in other important ways. You won’t need as much space to accommodate the storage of excessive hardware, you’ll be likely to save a great deal on your energy cost (note: this is an educated guess on my part based on what I know of hardware energy use), and you can save a bunch of money on purchasing software/hardware for your employees. Ubuntu is free, and if you are using a cloud system, your employees might be able to simply use their own personal phones (though this would probably depend on how secure your company information is).

The point is, this is a major step towards creating a modular version of a personal computing culture in which people can carry their entire digital lives in there pockets without having to be limited by the constraints of said pocket hardware. A culture of less necessity, less waste, less economic separation, and more freedom. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds pretty sweet.

**If there are any nerds reading this, please don’t get angry with me. I know that Linux is not an operating system in and of itself, but I’m trying not to confuse people, so cut me some slack.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Save money: Understand The Camera In Your Phone

The general public has a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about a fair number of the technologies that are in popular use today. As a photographer by trade, the most concerning issue for me, is digital photography. Ever since the photography industry moved away from expensive film processes and over to cheap digital ones, more and more novices have begun to pick up cameras. This is both good and bad.

Good, in the sense that there is now a plethora of creative work being spread throughout the world. Bad, in that the majority of people taking photos to share with the world, don’t take the time to find out what the heck it is that they are doing. Since the majority of consumers don’t understand the process of digital photography, they can’t understand the hardware that they are using. They simply press a button, and get excited about their new photo.

But who cares, right? What does it matter as long as people are doing something they love? Here’s the problem: Consumers are flushing money down the toilet buying technology that they don’t use, need, or understand. A lot of money. And in a good number of cases, it is also decreasing the quality of their pictures.

This has gotten even worse since they started putting cameras into cell phones and smart phones. Now that apps such as Instagram have become popular, people are clamoring for the best camera possible in their phones. Even to the point of spending hundreds of dollars extra for the phone with the most megapixels (mpx). Except that in most phone cases, more mpx, is actually A BAD THING.

Just for emphasis, let me say it again. In most cases, MORE MPX IS A BAD THING.

In an effort to save people time, money, and unnecessary confusion when buying their gadgets, I am going to quickly (I promise to keep this as brief and simple as possible) run through some key concepts that people should understand before purchasing a new camera and/or camera phone.

All digital cameras have a sensor in them that records whatever is in front of the camera when the button is pressed. These sensors have pixels on them, which allow the to sensors to create the image. These pixels capture small amounts of light, as well as red, blue, and green colors. When the pixels are combined and viewed as a whole, they form a picture in much the same way old-timey newspaper comic strips did. The more pixels, the more detailed or dense the image looks.
Having more mpx does not make an image sharper, it does not make the colors clearer or more vibrant, and it does not make the camera take better low light pictures. All it does is make the image denser.

Most sensors that are located in phones are about the size of your thumbnail. So, if you want to make, for example, an 8x10” print of a picture taken with your phone, you will have to take a thumbnail sized image and stretch it out to the size of a print. The more mpx, the further you can stretch it before you start to see the individual pixels (dots).

For professional photographers whose work will be on billboards that are 30 feet wide, this is important. For iPhone 4s users, whoes 8 mpx camera produces images that are 3264 pixels wide and then post them to Facebook which doesn’t allow photographs that are bigger than 2048 pixels wide, this is just plan pointless. If a person only posts their photos to the web, the largest mpx count that could ever be necessary would be about 3-4 mpx. Any more than that are just getting thrown away by the website that they are being loaded to.

Having an 8 mpx camera for pictures going to Instagram is a lot like filling a swimming pool with water to give a kitten a bath. Except that excessive amount of water wont hurt the kitten any more than a bucket full would. More mpx could hurt your photograph.

If we are not talking about image density or resolution (the number of rows and columns of pixels on a sensor), it is not the number of pixels that matters. When talking about quality of color and accuracy of luminosity (brightness), size of the pixels is what matters. Remember that pixels capture light/RGB color. The bigger the pixel is, the more light/RGB it can absorb. And the more light it can absorb, the more accurately it can record light and color.

If the pixels are smaller, they capture less accurate light and color. The 8 mpx sensor that is in the iPhone 4s is about the same size as the 5 mpx sensor that was in the iPhone 4. To get the extra pixels onto the same size sensor, they simply made the pixels smaller. This in fact, can hurt the quality of the picture and create what is known as “noise”.

Noise is commonly known to occur in low light situations. However, the smaller the pixels are, the more susceptible the picture is to noise. (Noise is actually much more complicated then I am explaining it here, but most people probably don’t need/want to hear about the details, as this is the major bullet point)

But then why are the pictures taken with the iPhone 4s much sharper and nicer than the ones with other camera phones? This is because of the incredible lens that Apple made for the 4s. How sharp or crisp an image is, is due almost entirely on the lens. The better the lens, the sharper the focus of the image.

Have you ever seen a professional photographer using a lens that is 2 feet long and looks like it ways 25lbs? These are not mini telescopes. The reason that these lenses are so big is that they have several pieces of glass in them. These pieces of glass focus the light coming through the lens before it hits the sensor. It is by moving these pieces of glass closer and further apart that allows the a photographer to pick what they are focused on.

The more glass there is in a lens and the better that glass is made, the sharper and more accurate the focus of the image is. What this means is that if a camera has a 35 mpx sensor and the pixels are huge, but it is using a cheap lens, then the very dense, color accurate, high quality image that comes out, is still likely to be blurry. So unless a consumer is going to spend the time, and money to make sure that the lens that they are using with their camera, or that is built into their camera phone, is of a high quality, then there is really no point in worrying about the pixel count. Cause the image isn’t going to be very good anyway.

I will note here that no matter how good a lens is, if you try to stretch out an image past what the pixel count will allow, the image will get blurry. But again, if your images are going straight to the web, this is a none issue.

You may be wondering: if all of this is true, why do my photographs look so nice on my camera/phones display? This is because the screen is optimized to match the camera. When camera and phone makers design the screens on the back of a device, they make sure that the resolution (# of columns and rows of pixels) on the sensor is in a specific ratio to the ones on the display. That way, the images look their very best.

Just because an image looks good on the small screen attached to the camera, does not mean it will look good on the larger computer screen of someone else looking at it on the Internet. This is why you will often hear people say, “Oh! It looked so much nicer on the back of the camera!”.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a high quality camera/camera phone. However, it is important for one to know what it is they will be doing with their camera and therefore, what they need in terms of hardware. Otherwise, consumers will simply continue to get caught up in the mpx propaganda and end up spending way to much money on features that they will never actually use. Such as a 40 mpx camera phone that really doesn’t take pictures that look any better than a 4 mpx one does.

image of noisey dog procured here

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Piracy: The Crime of Revolution

When I was a kid in the early to mid 90's, I remember learning how to plug two VCRs together and record rented VHS tapes onto blank VHS tapes so that I could own a movie for the cost of a rental. At the time, the first thing that would appear on the screen when watching a VHS was an FBI notice letting you know that it was illegal to “steal” movies in this or any other manner.

By the late 90's/early 2000's, we had moved on to DVDs, where the very first thing to hit the screen after putting in the disc was those old Anti-piracy commercials that everyone used to hate. I remember at the time that I first started seeing these ad, I thought it was strange that DVDs had a much more elaborate anti-theft warning, when it was actually harder to pirate a DVD then it was a VHS.

Now it’s 2012 and through the file sharing that has been going on for the past several years, people are able to pirate digital movies by simply sharing them with others over the Internet. And instead of anti-theft commercials or FBI warnings, we have the entertainment industries trying to push bills like SOPA and PIPA through congress while ACTA is being pushed at the global level.

When news first started to break about these “anti-piracy” bills/treaties, I began to wonder what had changed. I know for my own part, I stole far more intellectual property in the cassette days then I do now. And I knew far more people that also pirated media back then. How many of us remember holding our boom-box’s mic up to the stereo speakers to record songs off of the radio? Yeah, that was pirating too. If one were to think about it, making someone else a mix-tape was in fact, file sharing. It was not as advanced as using bit torrents, but it was essentially the same thing. Most people that I know now wont pirate music, films, or anything else for fear of being arrested and/or fined. But I can’t name one person that I have ever met that has never made a mix-tape.

So how did we go from a quick FBI warning at the start of a movie, to legislation that threatens our constitutional rights? Although I have heard of or thought of a few different ideas for why pirating is so much greater of a threat now then it ever was before, the only one that I feel really hits the nail on the head is this: major media companies have begun to realize that they are quickly becoming superfluous in our society.

Think about what a company like Warner Brothers does. At it’s most basic, it fronts the money for major movie titles to be made. Movies that are far too expensive to be made independently. Then it pays for the movies to be advertised so that movie goers will know about it and get excited to see it.

Now think about how far we have come in terms of personal ability to create movies. Many basic and affordable DSLRs now have the ability to shoot HD video. All of the major operating systems that control our computers have video editing software on them at no extra cost. And there is a variety of home software that allows for the creation of CGI and other special effects. And through the use of social media sites such as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, getting one’s content to go viral is virtually free (as long as your content is likable enough to actually go viral). Now I’m not suggesting that Joe Shmoe has the ability to create the next Titanic or Avatar in his/her back yard. But that is certainly the direction that we are headed in.

This trend is even more obvious in the music industry. With just a little bit of practice and any standard Apple device with the latest iOS or OS X operating system, a musician armed with Garage Band can record their music at a level that is more than adequate for sale. And distribution of said music has become incredibly simple with applications such as Google Music, which allows artist to sell their music in MP3 format through their Google account. Will music quality be higher if it is recorded in a studio with a full production team? Of course. But at approximately (and by approximately, I mean wild guess) 1/10,000th of the cost, the music files exported from one’s home computer or tablet sound pretty darn good.

Besides the fact that artists’ need for finical backing to create and publicize their art is waning, the major media companies have another problem: complete technological irrelevance. It is no secret that movie and music companies are far behind the times in terms of meeting consumer demands. The era of CDs and DVDs is dead. Why would a consumer drive to the mall and pay $20+ for a DVD or CD when they could download the MP3 from iTunes or stream the film from Netflix. Or better yet, download both for free at an incredibly high speed from a bit torrent site. If the media giants are unable or unwilling to meet the needs and expectations of their customers in the digital age, why would the customers feel any need to be loyal? This issue is perfectly illustrated by The Oatmeal in this comic strip.

There is of course the whole “you shouldn’t steal” line of thinking when it comes to pirating. But the question then has to be asked, who are you stealing from? Most people who feel that piracy is wrong often site stealing from the artist. However, most artist who’s work is produced by major labels make next to nothing from their studio produced art. The majority of their income is derived from shows, endorsements, or other direct contact with their fans. Sure, Lady Gaga and Brad Pitt may have gotten rich through working with the big time studios, but they are the minority. Most artist are not worth millions. The people who make money off of the major labels are the major labels.

Evidence for the possible success of artists without any backing by a major label was given to us by Louis CK late last year. Mr. CK recorded his own comedy special and released it to the web at a heavily discounted price. With no large company to take chunks out of the profit and extremely easy online access for the customers, Mr. CK’s experiment was a major success. It was so successful in fact, that Jim Gaffigan has decided to do the same thing later this year. This experiment showed that the new forms of media available to artists make it possible to connect directly to the public with out the assistance of a major studio as well as offering their work at a much cheaper price to the customers.

At the end of the day, the large media companies are really nothing more than middle men. They allow art to be created and then distributed in mass. But in this modern age of mobile technology, social media, and high speed data consumption, middle men simply aren’t as necessary as they once were. And they are only getting more unnecessary as time passes. Their outdated modes of thinking actually slow down the process of culture consumption by the public. It makes perfect sense then that the major players of these industries would attempt to fight back against the technological trends that are slowly destroying them. The problem is, the trends that they are attempting to fight, and the means by which they are fighting, have the potential to destroy all of the opportunities for a better world that the digital age creates.

The same tools that allow for the pirating content, also allow for an unprecedented amount of sharing and communicating throughout the world. The technology that lets one person download a copyrighted movie from another, also allows independent artists to self-publish their work to a world that would have no idea who they are otherwise. It allows for the rapid dissemination of information and ideas throughout the world. It allows kids in countries that have no access to educational materials to find books, films, and knowledge that can give them opportunities to learn that they would never have otherwise. Should we be willing to sacrifice all of this, just to protect the outdated institutions that are the major production studios? And if not, should we stop pirating content? It may not be a popular point of view, but I believe that the only way to get away from the influence of these companies, is to refuse to play by their rules.

Post Note:
Some of the people reading this may ask, “What about pirated books, video games, and software? Are you going to just ignore those in this discussion?” Unfortunately yes. For two reasons. First, the two industries that are putting up major money, time, and effort to fight piracy are the music and movie industries. While the other industries may not like piracy of their content, they are not fighting it with the same tenacity. And second, the pirating of each of these other industries content comes with a variety of other technical, moral, and philosophical quandaries that would have extended this post into a small book. While I am more than happy to discuss said quandaries, it will have to be over the course of several more posts.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Next Holy War

I am sure that a fair number of people in America have already read this article, or one like it, explaining that MRI scans of Apple enthusiasts showed that the parts of the brain that are stimulated by religion are also stimulated by Apple related imagery.

The anti-Apple folks were quick to use this as evidence that Apple had become a cult and that the mega tech company was brainwashing its customers. To which, most Apple customers seemed to respond with some variation of “You are just jealous cause Macs are better.”

If you are an Apple customer, take a second and ponder this: Could you go a full week without your iphone? Your ipad? Could you be happy using a desktop/laptop that was not a Mac? Be honest with yourself. Of all of the Apple users I know (which is a lot) I don’t think I could name 3 people that could answer “yes” to any of these questions.

Does this mean that Apple is creating a society of pod people? A new branded religion? How about this; how long could you go without using any sort of Google product? No docs, no calender, no Android, no searching, etc. My guess is that most people under the age of 65, Apple or no, would not be able to go a full week.

Like it or not, we live in the digital age. The tools created by tech companies are the means by which we interact with each other, inform ourselves about the world, and solve problems. Once upon a time, people gathered in churches to socialize with one another. Now we have Facebook. People used to look to the church for education and guidance. Now we have iPads full of text books. People used to pray for miracles for insurmountable problems. Now Google has created Solve For X.

Please allow me to clarify. I do not believe that anyone thinks that Steve Jobs was sincerely divine. Or that Larry Page is a prophet. I don’t believe that technology is taking the place of the higher powers. What I’m talking about is faith. In the past, when people needed somewhere to turn when things got difficult, they put their faith in religion. Today, people can and do put their faith in technology to get them through. To guide them and make their world a better place. Not necessarily instead of religion, but definitely in addition to it.

I’m not saying whether peoples’ faith in technology is a good thing or a bad thing. To be honest, I don’t know which I believe. But that isn’t the point. Like it or hate it, it is a reality. People do, very sincerely, have faith that the brands that they are loyal to will create products that will make their lives better. Not just easier. But better. More enlightened. And in the same vain as religion, people can become a bit fanatical in their support of their chosen brand. Just as with religion, faith can often turn to blind faith. And as with religion, the effects of this has the potential to become dangerous. Making it important for people to understand the core of what they are putting their faith in.

While Apple is clearly the most influential brand in this country, I would argue that Google is a close second. I don’t think Google inspires quite the same dedication and loyalty that Apple does. But its products have become so important in most people’s lives that it would be very difficult to ever completely remove Google from one’s life. The weight of its influence pretty much guarantees that its philosophies will work their way into consumers mentalities. And Google does, in the nerdier circles, command an extreme loyalty of its own.

The fact that these two technology behemoths are at the top of the world at the moment is not simply due to adoring fans with deep pockets or a plethora of personal data to mine. If one were to study the software, hardware, and services provided by both companies, one might notice that the two are strikingly similar in one regard: they are both attempting to take umbrella control of our entire technology based lives. They both have their hands in phones, email, cloud storage, music, social networking, calenders, etc. They have both worked to make it seamless to share information between these services and devices, IF you use their brand’s products for everything.

Consider Google first: when you sign in to your Gmail account, a bar across the top of the screen shows that you now have access to your Google Calender, Documents, photos, social network, Youtube for video, RSS feeder for news, and so on, until they have covered almost every aspect of one’s daily life. Every professional or personal communication that you have in almost any medium can be controlled and stored from one of Google’s mega server farms. And with the advent of Android, all of these controls can be utilized from home, on the go, or both. And Google intends to go even further. Google Wallets will soon be able to cover all of your finical transactions while Android powered on-board computers are now helping people operate their cars, refridgerators, and most likely a variety of other tools in the future.

And then there is Apple: with an iTunes account, people can now gain access to almost any digital product that they can imagine. Music, movies, books, photos, and an ever growing army of apps. If you can think of a service that you want added to your life, “there’s an app for that.” And since your iTunes account can be accessed from any Apple product, your entire digital life can be with you on your iPhone, iPad, iMac, Macbook iPod, or (if you are still awesome) Mac Pro.

And both of these companies have their own philosophies about how the digital world should be handled. These philosophies seep into their products. And through their products, into consumers’ brains. Most average Americans seem to either not notice, not believe, or not care about the level of influence these companies have in shaping our beliefs. But just as Christians have “ do on to others as you would have them do onto you”, Apple and Google have their own universe shaping ideas.

This next part is not hard fact (though to be fair, nothing that I have said so far is). It is simply what my experiences have lead me to believe.

As far as I can see, Apple subscribes to the “ trust us, give us your money, we will take care of the rest” mentality. Apple jealously controls every aspect of their user experience. Apple builds its own hardware, software, and services. With the core of their build strategy being “it just works.” Apple builds products that are easy to use, rarely break down, and connect to every other product that they offer, leaving the consumer with no need to ever worry about how or why the products work. The consumer is allowed(and in many cases encouraged) go about their day completely ignorant of the reality of the technology that is shaping their life, so that there is more time for them to get on with whatever is important to them personally. All the while, never needing to fear any of the horrors that have evolved in the digital age. Hackers, identity thieves, and virus writers are all blocked from harming the Apple customers because Apple can control and/or block anything and everything that comes in contact with their products. All you have to do to enjoy this charmed, worry free digital existence? Trust Apple.

Google on the other hand, appears to go in the opposite direction, with a sort of “trust yourself and society, give us your personal info, and we will take care of creating cool stuff” way of thinking. Google gives away many of its products for free (save for the right to push advertising on you) and open sources most of its other products, with the core of their building strategy being, “If you learn to use it, it can make your life better.” Google builds products that are versatile, open, and connect to every other product that they offer, leaving the consumer with the opportunity to learn, expand on, and creatively utilize how and why the products work. The consumer is allowed to (and in many cases encouraged) think about and actively engage with the technology that is shaping their life, so that there is more freedom to help design the future of whatever is important to them personally, as long as you can deal with the fear of the horrors that have evolved in the digital age. Google products are much more vulnerable to these issues because of the openness with which they release their products. All you have to do to enjoy this free, customizable digital existence? Trust the rest of the world.

I can’t help but notice the similarity between these two technology based philosophies, and the two economic philosophies that dominated the global conflict of the previous century. Apple’s desire to see everyone using the same utilities, whose operation is governed by one supremely intelligent body, and Google’s desire to have everyone engage in creating a variety of different utilities, whose operation is governed by the will of the masses, strike me as being fairly similar to the ideals of Communism(or Facism) and Capitalism. Since I don’t want to be stoned to death by fans of either company, I won’t elaborate on this analogy.

So what is the take away of all of this? For me, it comes down to the question of whether history will repeat itself. From what I understand about the past, every time two opposing philosophies that hold the faith of their subjects (e.g. religion, economics) come into contact with each other, violence ensues. Two forces backed by large populations always seem to try to dominate each other. Often, without the understand of the populations that give them power.

Will Apple and Google attempt to rip each other apart? I’m pretty sure that they have already started to try. However, only time will tell if this is in fact a burgeoning conflict will amount to anything more than corporate and legal battles.

I’m sure that most of the nerds reading this will be quick to point out that this whole essay is only wild speculation, that many of my points are based on extreme generalizations and personal interpretation, and that I have failed to take into account the intricacies of both companies cultures and practices. These are all valid points. But this is my blog and I’ll write what I want.

And I’m sure that many of the every day citizens out there think that I’m a bit crazy, that technology is a set of tools people use and not the source of our deeper held beliefs. Well, you may be right. However, I would like to leave you with this. File sharing has recently become recognized as an official religion. After only a decade or two of life on with the Internet, some people have already entrusted their spiritual well being to it. Who’s to say what the next 20 years could bring?

First Blog Post

Hello everyone. My name is Alec Chvirko and I am an average American. Which means I have an opinion on everything. Even things that I’m not entirely well informed about. So, I am doing what any person of my generation with too much to say and no one to listen would do. I’m starting a blog.

To be completely honest, I have no idea at the moment what this blog will be about. It might be about photography (my chosen profession). It might be about politics (a subject I can’t seem to shut up about even though I know I should). It might be about tech news (my unhealthy obsession). Or it might just be about random thoughts that I have. I figure, since chances are no one is going to be reading this anyway, I’ll just type whatever the heck I fell like and figure out what the point is later.

If, however, you have stumbled across this blog and you do decided to read some of my posts, I would like to give you fair warning. I do not take my self very seriously. I plan to comment on topics and subjects that I am probably no where near learned enough to be discussing. And, if confronted, I will concede that because of my lack of knowledge on any given topic, that I am probably wrong in my claims and should not continue to argue my point. And then I will continue to argue my point, right or wrong, until I am blue in the face. This is not meant to be arrogant or insulting to anyone. I just really like argue/converse. So please, if you read anything on this blog that upsets you in any way, try to remember that I’m probably not being entirely serious, I’m not taking my self or my opinions very seriously, and I don’t really know what I’m talking about anyway. So relax and ignore me.

Now that that is out of the way, on with the opinions.

Note: That counts as my disclaimer.