The iPhone camera comes of age

One of my first jobs was working as a professional photographer for the city of Albany documenting the city and its people. While that never morphed into a career, I have always had a love for photography. That is why I was intrigued when I heard that this month’s issue of Bon Appetit magazine comes with an interesting twist: all of its feature stories were shot with iPhone cameras by its professional food photographers.

The edict came from its editorial staff, and it was a smart move. For one thing, it shows just how far the iPhone camera has come: the latest models sport a 12 megapixel rear-facing camera, which is certainly closing in on what the best digital SLR cameras used by today’s pros normally tote around. (You can see below as one example.) And not to be outdone, but some of the Samsung Android phones have 16 megapixel cameras. One thing still lacking from the iPhone is having better control over depth of field, although there are rudimentary finger swipe gestures to help.

Cheese fries never looked as good. (from Bon Appetit)

But this isn’t just how many pixels you can put into a camera, but the fact that an iPhone camera is so ubiquitous that it can function for magazine work.

I started out in my teens with a Pentax SLR that used 35mm film and eventually graduated to first a 120-sized twin lens and then eventually to a 4×5 view camera. This latter beast required cut sheet film and a strong back to carry all the gear around, not to mention corresponding darkroom equipment that could handle the larger-sized film. I still have many of the negatives that I shot with this camera, but I haven’t had a darkroom for decades so I had to take some of them to the lab to get digital scans made.

The editors interview the photographers for the iPhone issue, who have some interesting things to say and recommIMG_1866endations for budding food photographers. First, shoot from above or the side but never at an angle. That makes for more dramatic photos and better compositions. Indeed, composition is key. I realize that many of my own food photos suffer from this issue, such as the one here taken at the Ikea cafeteria.

Second, the camera is just a tool. As one of the magazine’s photographers said,

In the past, the bigger and scarier-looking the camera you pulled out, the more intense and professional you looked. Now, you have to let go of the ego you attach to the tool, and the iPhone is the ultimate expression of that.

Understanding light and exposure helps to make for better pictures. Seems like a truism, but this becomes more important given the limited controls you have from the iPhone.

When in doubt, use a tripod. The pros came with adapters that could fit their phones accordingly, which is always a good idea to get just the shot you want.

Finally, that much-maligned selfie-stick can come in handy, especially for those overhead shots of what is served on the dinner table. One photographer didn’t come with one at their shoot, and had to go buy one to get the right shot. (For the rest of us, please put them away on the street!)

Bitcoin is more than just about the coins

bitcoinI have written a series of stories for the IBM site While many of us think about alternative currencies (like this photo of a rental agency in NYC that will rent you an apartment in Bitcoin), banks are leveraging the blockchain technologies to produce more efficient funds transfer mechanisms, and others are getting involved in blockchain for more mundane and non-financial reasons. And there are even some companies who are paying their employees in Bitcoin because it could be a more stable currency.

Finally, here is a post summarizing some of my beginner mistakes with getting involved in Bitcoin experiments, should you want to avoid them yourself.

Understanding how to better exercise your brain

We all know that we should exercise more to stay fit and maintain muscle mass, but when it comes to exercising our brains we ironically are somewhat stupid about what this means. For this column, I want to describe my own personal journey towards maintaining my brain’s health. It is still ongoing, and still a struggle.

For close to two decades, I have been bothered by a variable ringing in my ears, what the doctors call tinnitus. Actually, I should say, in one of my ears, since I am deaf (and have been so since birth) in my left ear. The sound varies in loudness, and varies by how much it bothers me: early morning and late evening is more noticeable. It is usually with me 24×7.

This ringing in my ear isn’t the only kind of illness that people have where they imagine odd things about themselves or their environment. For example, there are people who suffer from Morgellon’s disease, where subjects literally think their skin is crawling with something, or think that their tongue or other parts of their mouth is burning or experience phantom pain in amputated limbs. The only common elements are that you can’t make these things stop, and  there is no known single cure and the physiological causes are mostly unknown. One school of thought is that all of these afflictions are in the subjects’ heads and not in the ears or mouth or whatnot. If you can figure out how to harness control of these issues with your brain, a subject can  control how much awareness about the malady and ultimately could be trained to ignore it.

This field of study is called neuro-plasticity and refers to research that has found that you can teach an old brain to do new tricks, in some cases actually reorganize its neural pathways. While this sounds like something out of the SyFy channel, it is very real stuff. There is an interesting blog post on Scientific American that is very readable that goes into more detail if you are interested. One area is using mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation techniques to build up more control over your environment and perceptions. Another is in developing better brain exercises.

Like some of you, for many years I have been doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles daily. I like doing them and it is a way for me to relax and get started with the day’s activities. But these aren’t really exercising my brain: think of them as doing arm curls with one pound weights. It might look like “exercising” but it is just movement and not building any real muscles. Or think about just being able to complete the Monday New York Times crossword — the easiest of the week’s puzzles — and not trying to do the Saturday or Sunday puzzles. You are short-changing your brain exercise routine.

To really work out your brain, you need a stronger set of exercises that can build the neural equivalent of muscle mass. A few years ago, I took part in a research study with my ENT doctor. I was part of a group of his patients that were using an early version of a software program that was designed to do these brain exercises. For 30 or 40 minutes every day, I had to use this tool to try to make my brain stronger. It was a frustrating experience for me, largely because it was the equivalent of trying to immediately bench press 400 pounds. Like I said, it was an early version.

Since then, the company has created a SaaS version called Brain HQ and has a freemium model where you can try out a few of the exercises online or using an iOS app here.  I haven’t tried out either yet and will document my experience at a later date. In the meantime, I still struggle with the ringing sounds. Some days are better than others.

When I was first diagnosed with tinnitus I went online and did a lot of my own research. I was lucky enough to find my way to the American Tinnitus Association and a load of help, including local meetups with fellow sufferers. Since then I have gotten more or less used to the ringing.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.

Do the math

Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Relativity Theory and I am happy to contribute the following anecdote from my past. Einstein was a big deal for getting my early nerd on. Now I can finally tell the tale without fear of being shamed: nerds are also celebrated these days.

My very last class as an undergrad was working through the math for Einstein’s field emathpequation, that link gravity and mass and space time. For those of you interested, it looks like this:

Now, reading this explanation doesn’t really help me much, and I am sure most of you are just as lost as I am now in trying to get deeper into the actual variables that are part of this calculation. It actually depresses me somewhat, knowing that I spent weeks studying tensor calculus and differential geometry to decode this thing. At the time, I remember thinking that I actually understood what was going on. Remember it took Einstein several years to come up with his theories of relatively.

This actually is the second time in about a month where I realized that I have forgotten more mathematics than I have learned, which I guess is part and parcel to growing old. Earlier, I spent some time with my daughter and her fiance, who is taking a class in mathematical economics. As he showed me some of the equations that he is trying to figure out, I realized that I took several classes as an undergrad and at one time actually knew what they meant. Now they were just as impenetrable as Einstein’s equations. It was a frustrating experience for both of us. But then, it isn’t like I have had to use this stuff in any capacity in my daily life for decades.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I didn’t have a very good education — quite the contrary. It was an important experience that shaped so much of what I ended up doing, even if I can’t do the math any longer. I was a very lucky undergraduate at Union College, a small school in upstate New York. First, I had some terrific professors who guided my learning and put up with me in general. Second, the school at the time had a very liberal independent study policy that I was able to take advantage of. Eventually, I would take an entire year’s worth of independent classes, which taught me self-study and research that would serve me well as a tech journalist. And being a small school I was able to mix and mingle and dabble in non-mathematical classes and meet non-nerds too. Finally, I even had a very geeky part-time job, rebuilding a series of antique geometric string models that the college owned: that taught me a love of mathematical modeling before we had PCs, built-in pivot tables in Excel, or ways to write math in print, such as with TeX and MathML.

But anyway, it is nice to see all the posts (including a very nice NYTimes article) on the topic. And for those of you that can do the above math, kudos to you!

Tips on staying connected when traveling internationally

I am on a two week visit with my daughter in Israel, and so far the connectivity experience has been difficult, to say the least.

Usually, my MO is to purchase a SIM card when I land at one of the airport gift shops: while that won’t be the least cost method, it is the easiest. I had a SIM card from my last visit, and could easily recharge the pre-paid account while my plane was still taxing up to my gate. However, I made my first mistake: I purchased the wrong plan, one that included unlimited Israeli minutes, but had no USA minutes.

There is nothing wrong with using pre-paid plans, but be sure to ask for all the details: in addition to voice minutes, you should ask if the plan includes texting and data and calls to back home. And it helps if there are fluent English speakers who work for the pre-paid company too.

Then, a day after my arrival, my daughter’s home DSL access died and was out for several days. Despite repeated calls to both her phone provider and her ISP, we got nowhere. A day after it came back out some thunderstorms knocked out our power for several hours. (Normally both are more reliable.) All these disruptions brought home exactly how important Internet connectivity is in our lives, especially when we travel.

If you have decent connectivity, you can make use of Skype and Facetime for your calls back home. Skype has several plans that bring the cost of calling down to pennies a minute, much less than what you’d buy if you have the right pre-paid cell voice plan. And Facetime is free, provided that the folks you are calling have iPhones or newer Macs running Yosemite or better Mac OS X.

As a backup, I was also carrying a Webbing Spot, which is a small device (smaller than most cellphones now) that costs $130. The Spot has the equivalent of a series of data SIM cards that cover most countries’ providers, so you don’t have to be fumbling with your phone. You just turn it on and it connects to the cellular broadband, then outputs a Wi-Fi signal so your computer and up to nine other devices can be connected. You need to purchase a data plan from the company: they start at 400 MB per day for $9.90 and range up to 2 GB for $80 per month. That could be less than your pre-paid or any American international plan.

Webbing has more than just connectivity: it has an entire web-based management platform where you can set policy rules for how your staff uses the device. For example, I had inadvertently turned off support for file sharing services such as Dropbox and forgotten to enable this, much to my dismay when I was trying to sync up my files.

One final piece of advice: if you make use of two-factor authentication for your various online accounts, remember that they may not work when you are overseas if they are sending your USA phone text messages with a one-time password. You might have to make alternative arrangements.

How to waste time upgrading your Macs

For the past week I have not been a happy camper with my computers. An attempted upgrade of my main Mac desktop has caused a lot of heartache and pain. It all started when my daughter was visiting and was running into problems with her own Mac, which was running slowly. I suggested she upgrade to Yosemite, the latest production Mac OS. She eventually dd, and while she had to restart it from an unexpected crash, eventually her machine is now operating faster and more reliably.

So I thought I should practice what I preach and upgrade my own systems. Big mistake. In hindsight, it was my own Windows bias that was my downfall. Let me explain. When I initially setup my machine, I split the hard drive into two partitions: one for booting the system, and one for my data. That is how I have setup various Windows machines over the years, making it easier to upgrade the OS when the inevitable time comes to clean up my PC.

But Macs don’t need and as I found out don’t like to have partitioned system drives. Time Machine doesn’t back up the second partition (as I later found out), and the online OS upgrade service doesn’t know what to do with them. I went from a functioning PC to a brick in about an hour. After several phone calls and hours spent down at the local Apple store, I had my explanation, and a new system running Yosemite, with the chore of restoring my data and apps. I wasn’t entirely successful. Some of this wasn’t my fault: Apple has updated its photo app and my iPhoto libraries are stuck in limbo.

I will spare you the details and jump to some lessons learned. First, don’t partition your Mac boot drives. Use external or multiple disks if you want more redundancy.

Second, you can’t have enough backups. In addition to Time Machine, I also use SuperDuper, which makes a complete and bootable copy of my drives. That is what saved my bacon when it came to restoring my data partition.

And test your backups with some regularity to make sure they contain what you expect. I did this with the SuperDuper-created ones but not with Time Machine. Oops.

Finally, make sure you understand the progression of software tools that you will need to migrate your iPhoto library before you move into Yosemite. If you want to examine the cloud-based photo organizing alternatives, read this article that compares what Apple offers with Google, Microsoft and Amazon. My experience with using the Google Photo Backup tool, which transfers photos from iPhoto to their own service, has been abysmal: the app has crashed multiple times and still hasn’t finished copying my 7,000 or so photos from an older Mac. Now I realize that bulk uploading all these files isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t be this difficult either.

By the way, my Windows PCs upgraded to Windows 10 just fine. No show-stoppers, no grief. Of course, I can’t run any of my browser plug-ins on Edge now, but that is a feature, not a bug. Some times I miss those simpler times when we had an OS that I could actually understand on my own.

Making ride sharing legal is akin to the DSL battles of yore

When new technology enters the marketplace, there can be major disruptions to the way that our existing legal system was constructed with the older incumbent technologies in mind. Such is the case with Uber, Lyft and the other ride sharing services. The legal battle is with the metropolitan taxi commissions that want to protect the incumbent taxi companies.

I am reminded of the events of the late 1990s, when competitive DSL carriers wanted to enter the Internet access market and were blocked by the local phone companies. The first order of business for these DSL carriers back then was to deploy lawyers at the various state capitals and argue before the public utilities commissions that their services were legal and worthy. Many of these new carriers had to fight tooth and nail to get their gear allowed inside the local central phone offices. Often, the incumbent phone companies would say they ran out of room to house the new guy’s equipment. Yeah, right.

Fast forward to today, and companies such as Covad and Rhythms – the ones with all the lawyers running around the countryside — are long forgotten. We now get our DSL service mostly from Ma Bell. Ironic, isn’t it?

aa1The same thing is happening with the ride sharing services. Sue now; figure out how to implement later. Here in St. Louis these services are still illegal, and while things aren’t as bad as in Paris, it is still very messy. Last week we had in the span of a day an offer by Uber to provide free ride-shares for the holiday weekend. This offer was quickly withdrawn when the taxi commission said whether they are free or not, the drivers still need permits issued by the commission.

Last week in Paris, the taxi drivers staged a protest stopping traffic and burning tires over the UberPop service, which is about half the cost of the more typical UberX service that is its most popular service and uses registered drivers. The French are always good for labor strikes, and have taken things a step further by indicting the two local Uber managers for breaking their laws. Uber is available in more than 100 cities in the USA and in 57 countries, Lyft in more than 50 US cities. Some of these cities only have the Uber Black (akin to a private limo) while others have the cheaper UberX. It is confusing because Uber refers differently to its various services depending where they are offered, in an attempt to game the legal system. Maybe it is time to hire some of those DSL telecom lawyers that haven’t had much to do over the past several years.

I have not yet used any of the ride sharing services, but know many friends who have and are quite upbeat on them. They have their advantages in that you can see how far away your ride is on your phone, and in some countries the taxi commission has added a 15-minute wait time no matter how close they might be to level the playing field. Even so, it is like have a private driver without having to pay through the nose for one.

The sharing services get around the driver registration system with a two-way rating system: drivers rate passengers, and passengers rate drivers. This is a key element of their service: while there is some log-rolling (you rate me highly and I will do the same for you), it does tend to weed out the worse elements of both. Imagine if the incumbent taxi companies had something similar, our cabs would end up looking like Japan’s that are spotless.

The sharing services also have their disadvantages. They make use of surge pricing, so popular times, such as holiday evenings, cost more. You also don’t know the final cost of your ride until you leave the car, unlike a traditional taxi where you know while you are still in the car. And if you want to use multiple services, you need to download an app for each one to your phone.

Back when DSL was first founded, we had 17 different varieties and speeds and feeds of the service. No two were compatible, and consumer confusion was significant. (Here is an article that I wrote back in 1999 that describes the situation.) Now I just call AT&T and order U-Verse and tell them how much I want to pay a month.

The same thing is happening with the ride sharing services. The early days (say in 2012/2013) saw many cities initially ban them, then eventually allow them. The taxi commissions around the world will continue to block these new technologies under the mistaken mandate of protecting their citizens. But eventually things will change: we will have multiple ride sharing vendors, all offering some confusing array of services, and eventually they will be incorporated into the incumbent taxi companies, if they can see the future properly. Or maybe Google will end up owning all of them and substitute driverless cars instead. Their Waze subsidiary is already planning to roll out ride sharing in Tel Aviv later this year.