Saturday, July 30, 2005

Web brings amazingly useful info about digital camera choices

Back in the Seventies I was hooked on photography. My friend Mark Riordan and I had a secret darkroom in a closet in the Computer Center, set up with the assistance of our colleague Dean Franklin. Justin Kestenbaum, an MSU professor and one of the finest photographers I ever met, encouraged us.

Back then, I religiously read magazines such as Modern Photography and Popular Photography. It was sometimes suspicious how a favorable review of a camera or lens would appear next to an advertisement for same, but I read their words closely nonetheless. A couple of years ago when in the market for a digital camera, I stumbled on a Web site called Digital Photography Review. It blew me away. The site appeared to be a labor of love by a U.K. camera aficionado named Phil Askey.

Askey's reviews of digital cameras are in depth. A review in a magazine might be a few pages long. Askey isn't limited by the cost of print, so he reviews every aspect of a camera and its lenses in deep detail.

Askey is an example of a "subject matter expert" who's managed to parlay his expertise into a highly successful Web site. His site now features banner ads and ways to buy a camera after you read a review. He's affiliated with a number of retailers and I bet he is making money hand over fist through sales referrals.

I can't overstate how much deeper Askey's work is than what the magazines used to offer. And he's been doing this for years. Eventually his work will become an important history of digital photography technology. Of course, he's not alone; others try to emulate his success.

Another example of such an expert is John Beale, who covered in minute detail the features of a wonderful Sony camcorder, the TRV900. Before and after I bought that camcorder several years ago, I turned to Beale's Corner for his expertise and wisdom. Here's how he describes his site:

The Sony TRV900 is a high-end consumer MiniDV camera. Sold from 1998-2002, it has demonstrated a lasting value rare in electronics, remaining popular with both hobbyists and professionals, for its compact size and good performance. This page represents my collected knowledge about the TRV900, some other cameras, the test models, and digital video in general.
The Web enables a single person with very deep expertise in a niche topic, e.g. the Sony TRV900 -- or a particular domain, e.g. digital cameras -- to set up shop and outstrip anything a conventional publisher could offer. The end result is far better information for the disorienting consumer -- and, one hopes, monetary reward for one-man-band experts.

In the late 90s a term came into vogue: "microcontent." Recently a new term has come into fashion: "the long tail." It's plus ca change: offer unique value to your audience, whether small or large, and you win.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Withering assessment of Windows Vista (nee Longhorn)

Ouch! A Chicago Sun-Times reporter offers some delicious cynicism about the delays and de-featuring of Windows Vista:

Just read that announcement again. Look closely. See? This is the very
first official Longh ... sorry, "Vista" news that didn't include another
six-month delay or the cutting of another previously announced feature.

Later he writes:

...while system-wide integrated RSS support might be one of those transformative infrastructures that helps to change how we define an operating system, it could easily become just another way to put a weather icon on your desktop.

That made me laugh. I'm a huge proponent of RSS but I agree with the author's notion that perhaps it isn't a panacea.

They say the Space Shuttle, already freshly grounded even while it's still in space, is the most complicated machine ever built, with a million components. I bet Windows is now at the same level of complexity.

See Microsoft stops backpedaling about Vista release

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Strange New York Times headline in Google News

Checking Google News, especially interested in the story of how the London police killed an innocent man, I found this odd headline from The New York Times:

Why does this page look this way? New York Times - 57 minutes ago It appears that your Web browser can not find this page's style and presentation information. You are welcome to use the page as is or, for the best experience, upgrade your browser to its latest version by ...

More detailed info from The Times:

Gosh, I use Internet Explorer and Firefox as my browsers. Exactly what browser does The New York Times propose that I use instead?
Hmmm. Maybe The Times should just present the news, instead of worrying about presentation style and browsers? Just publish W3C acceptable HTML, and forget browser detection?

Lost in Art - and it isn't Fair

On Thursday we went to the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Locals say "It isn't art, and it isn't fair" but it was probably my twentieth trip. Saw some nice art and some nice sights:

We also heard some lovely music:

Click the image to hear the music (taken with a Sony DSC-F717, OK audio, poor video.)

At one point I spied an Asian family with some fun hats. I asked if I could take their picture, and they consented:

Too clever by half, I said "domo arigato." The gentleman replied with a smile "You are quite welcome, but we are Chinese." Ooops!

Now here's the fun part, where we were even goofier. For some reason I consider it a matter of sport to avoid paying to park at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. So for years we've usually ended up on Olivia Street, a bit of a hike from South U, which is not the cool art fair it used to be. This year we turned off at "the rock" and found a spot in a nearby neighborhood.

At the end of our 10 mile hike of art fairing, we could not remember where the car was. We wandered into the general neighborhood, but we could not for the life of us find the street and spot where we'd left the car.

We asked a local "We parked near a sorority near here with a pretty ratty lawn; do you know which it might be?"

He replied "That's every sorority or frat in town."

I then remembered that I'd taken a photo of that sorority. My camera's battery was nearly dead, but I fired it up, zoomed in on the little screen, and took note of the name.

Ahh, Alpha Sigma Phi. I called Verizon's 411 service, asked for the address, and got it. Then I asked a homeowner who'd just arrived from work where Baldwin Street was; it was just a few blocks away.

Whew. End of a long day and a long hike.

For complete photos, please see:

Monday, July 18, 2005

Google News algorithm falls in love with satire site

In order to tell this tale, I will have to admit that I did a Google News search to see how the press was covering developments in the Natalee Holloway case. I discovered something odd (click to see full-size screen shot):

I count 21 links out of the top 100 to a site called They have the top two hits, ahead of sites such as CNN, Fox, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, etc.

Now here's the strange part: is a satire site. What the heck did these guys do to index spam the Google News ranking algorithm so effectively?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The end of the Ipod era

Sony invented the concept: carry your music with you and listen on headphones. The breakthrough concept was a simple device: portable, personal stereo. Rio and others took it to the Internet era, with portable MP3 players. But Apple stole the show with the Ipod, and the Ipod Mini. Apple is enjoying record revenues, thanks largely to the Ipod.

But those days will end.

Everyone I know who has an Ipod loves it to pieces. My wife played DJ on a road trip this weekend, using a gizmo that attaches to the Ipod Mini and broadcasts low-power FM to your car stereo. It didn't work quite as well as I expected; I'd say it was about Dolby cassette quality.

Still, even if the quality wasn't quite up to snuff, when you think about the raison d'etre of the Ipod -- carrying your entire music collection in a tiny package -- it's a pretty compelling phenomenon. When you get to west Meechigan the radio pickings get pretty slim, and it's really nice to have the music you like at your beck and call.

I think the Ipod Mini is one of the best engineered electronic devices ever -- highly functional, highly portable, sleek user interface. When I was in Toronto recently, I noticed a lot of folks listening to Minis. (Interestingly, I observed males with a variety of audio devices, but every female listening to music was using a Mini.) Apple hit a huge home run with the Ipod -- and especially with the Mini.

That said, I predict it will be totally obsolete within a year.

I think the form factor that will prevail will be that of the Ipod Shuffle. It will not have a hard drive, and it will be the size of a USB flash drive. In fact there are already USB flash drives on the market that double as MP3 players. Flash memory capacities are climbing as fast as prices are falling. Within a year or so, we'll have 2 or 4 gig flash drives at low prices.

Sony has a device that's close, but no cigar. It's the Sony NW-E507 Network Walkman 1 GB Digital Music Player with FM Tuner. You can see how tiny this puppy is -- just like a USB thumb drive. Unlike the crippled Shuffle design, it has an Organic Electroluminescence Display so you can choose what to play. Reviewers praise its sleek design. It plays more formats than the Ipod does. And it has an amazing battery technology: a three minute charge gives you three hours of playback time.

You've got to believe that whoever engineered the Walkman is apoplectic over the Ipod phenomenon. Sony invented the friggin' concept, and in the Internet era, Apple, of all people, expropriates it.

And yet, in reaction, even the mighty Sony can't slay the Ipod. Sony, which is famous for fabulous engineering that includes a fabulous gaffe, didn't make it work like a USB flash drive. You can't just plug it into your USB port. You've got to haul a Sony mini-USB adapter cable around with you. Why, Sony, why?

Sometime within the next several months, Sony, or one of its competitors, will get their act together. They'll come out with a device that does all that the Ipod does, and all that the NW-E507 does, and it'll plug straight into a USB port. They'll offer software that's at least as functional as Itunes, only open to more than one music store.

And then, the Ipod bubble will burst.

Monday, July 11, 2005

CNN hurricane coverage descends into utter banality

The Weather Channel pioneered the idea: send a video crew and a personality out into the middle of a hurricane to report in real time. The reporter stands in front of surging waters and tilting palm trees, and tells you it's mighty windy out here. Hurricane Dennis gave CNN an opportunity to compete head-to-head, with multiple crews reporting from the path of the storm.

CNN's Anderson Cooper took this to a new extreme when he and colleagues stood by to watch a large Ramada Inn sign fall down in real time. He and a colleague excitedly uttered such Pulitzer-winning observations as "Wow, that sign is really twisting in the wind!"

Cooper and company ducked behind the building in anticipation that -- gasp -- the sign might blow over. Then -- surprise of surprises! -- the sign blew over.

You would've thought Cooper and company had witnessed the Battle of the Bulge, the assassination of JFK, or the marines storming Baghdad. "I've never seen anything like this before!" they exclaimed to each other.

What possible purpose does it serve to put these people in harm's way to watch a sign blow over in hurricane winds? TV lives for eye candy, and hurricanes causing damage is good eye candy, but it makes no sense to have the talent stand upwind of a giant falling object.

Oh, wait: it does make sense: in this world of personality journalism, CNN seeks to build the Anderson Cooper brand. So CNN replays this banal footage over and over again, showing us what a courageous guy Anderson Cooper is.

Even worse, they've got seasoned, professional reporters like Miles O'Brien seriously intoning after each report from the stormy field "Be careful out there." How can any intelligent reporter watch a colleague put himself in harm's way for no real purpose and then urge caution?

There is a distinction between being brave and being foolish. And surely there are more important stories, involving human beings with real losses -- not motel signs -- that should be reported. But CNN doesn't have that footage in the can yet -- and since no one died in this storm, human stories don't make good eye candy.

One of these days a chunk of flying debris will kill one of these intepid reporters, or one of their unknown crew members. Since the hurricane dance is such a common practice now, I think OSHA should step in and set standards. They should declare hurricane zones a workplace for idiotic TV reporters. They should require protective headgear. They should require that the crew take cover when the wind speed exceeds a certain level.

By the way, what happened to the Natalee Holloway story?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Maybe it's time for a career change...

So I'm driving down the road and I spy a semi with a sign that caught my eye:

So I'm thinking maybe if this computer gig doesn't work out, maybe there are other lines of work... Unfortunately I think I unnerved the truck driver a bit by following him into the subdivision where they were hauling the load to...

Monday, July 04, 2005

Outstanding interview with four soldiers back from Iraq

The NewsHour on PBS just presented the most informative and thoughtful interviews on Iraq that anyone has aired. The format was simple: Margaret Warner asked each of four young Iraq war veterans about what they had personally observed and experienced while on duty in various stations during the current Iraq war. None of the men ranked higher than sergeant. The conversation was highly illuminating, better than hours of "final throes" talk from Bush officials or retired brass.

These young men articulately explained the real difficulties they encountered dealing with insurgents, equipment and supply problems, inexplicable orders from on high, and so much more. You could tell that different ideologies were represented, but when their views varied, they treated each other with respect.

Want to see a rock concert? Tune to AOL, not MTV

Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times spills some serious vitriol over MTV's non-coverage of the Live 8 concerts:

Everyone knows MTV has long lost interest in pop music, so why doesn't the cable channel just admit it and leave the coverage of historic events, such as the humanitarian Live 8 concerts, to someone with respect for the music and its audience?

And he's right; MTV should change its name to Formerly Music Television. But Hilburn's larger point is more compelling: that AOL covered the concerts completely, and offers up complete archives as well. MTV in contrast ran numerous commercials, and frequently cut away to its "personalities" yammering about the events -- instead of showing the concerts themselves.

Mitch Kapor wrote years ago that the metaphor of cable television offering "500 channels but nothing's on" is the wrong formulation -- instead, we will have an unlimited number of channels, and you just pick the URL for the one you want. Maybe we're getting closer.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Times conveys O'Connor's career with a clever graphic

The New York Times devoted almost all the top half of page 1 on Saturday to Justice O'Connor's resignation. Everyone has written about how pivotal her role is, how often she has been the swing vote in a 5-4 decision. In a way, that means she was the most powerful justice on the court during her tenure. Given that you know how a Clarence Thomas will vote, he has no power, unless he can persuade someone else on the court who actually thinks.

But The Times did more than just write about O'Connor: they spent 1/4 of the front page on a clever graphic that used photos of justices, with O'Connor's portrait always in the center, depicting her central role in major decisions during her tenure.

A good graphic is worth a 1000 words, maybe much more. This graphic says "pivotal" and "swing" better than many words of grey lady prose. (Please click for enlarged version.)

Replace Rehnquist with a right-winger, and you haven't changed things much. Replace O'Connor with a right-winger, and 5-4 takes a sudden shift to the right. This graphic makes that clear, and the person at The Times who conceived of it should be proud.

Note that only O'Connor appears in color in the photo montage. Also a clever touch.

My only quibbles: Should they have used contemporary photos for the earlier decisions? The Times is pretty good about trying to use photos of people in their primes in obituaries. They show contemporary photos of others in the 1980s; why not her? And might there be a less dowdy file photo for the main image they chose?