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.