Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Gadgets (page 1 of 39)

My new camera and Last Great Things

Yesterday I bought a new camera, a Fujifilm X-E1. I've been coveting it since it was announced: it looks like the rangefinder cameras my dad had when we lived in Brazil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the specs are fabulous, and the reviews have been pretty ecstatic. My wife and I went to the camera store, checked out a couple different models, and after some deliberation, we took the plunge.

via flickr

We thought about a Nikon D7000, because we already have a D5000 and are quite happy with it. But while the D7000 gets great reviews, I felt that the X-E1 would be better for the kinds of professional uses I expect to put a camera to in the coming years– lots of street photography and observations of people using devices– and it'll be very easy to travel with. The D7000 is fabulous, and feels equally professional, but it's a much heavier camera, both physically and visually. This one will be less obtrusive.

Though I've had it for about 18 hours (8 of which I've been asleep), and have mainly taken pictures of the dog (who I don't photograph enough) and my son and his friend (who are having a sleepover), I think it's going to be a camera I can spend years working with.

via flickr

As you can see, it's got a very retro, Leica rangefinder aesthetic, though it has an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one (or the cool hybrid that the X-Pro1 has). Of course, you can set everything to adjust itself automatically; but exposure speed, aperture, and focus all have dedicated manual controls on the camera or lens, and the ISO can be accessed from the Fn button just beside the shutter button.

Dive into the options menus, and there are tons of other things you can adjust, custom profiles you can create (that'll be next on my to-do list), and special effects– simulators that mimic the distinctive color profiles of different Fuji films, a couple black-and-white films, and so on.

via flickr

The other two things about it that I think I'm going to love are that it's very light, and it's surprisingly small.

The pictures don't really give you a good sense of how small the camera is. The body is about a quarter inch longer than an iPhone, and perhaps a quarter inch taller, so it's Not Large At All. And the body weighs about 12 ounces (350 g), which is Really Light.

So while it's mean to be a two-handed camera, you can comfortably carry it in one hand.

via flickr

My talks feature all my own pictures, and so having good a good camera is a professional necessity; it's an important part of the Brand of Me, and helps me get my ideas across to my audiences.

More than that, though, I feel like this is the kind of device I could spend a decade working with. These days, as specs constantly improve and costs drop, it's easy to convince yourself that the Next Cool Thing will make you a better photographer, or writer, or golfer, or guitarist. Of course, there is a marginal truth to that, but it's a lot more important to learn how to use a device to improve your own ability to see, or your voice.

That doesn't mean NOT taking advantage of technology. It not relying on its improvement alone, and being thoughtful about how you can both exploit it and improve yourself. (There are things I've almost completely outsourced to devices. In the last ten years I've memorized the phone numbers of my wife and kids, but entrust all the others to my iPhone.)

There's one other calculation for me. As I get older and more reflective, I think less about how many more turns of Moore's Law I can consume, and how many cool devices I can acquire. The challenge isn't to get the Next Great Thing, but the Last Great Thing: as much as possible, to choose things that, whether I live another five years or another fifty, will last; serve me well; constantly give me pleasure; and help me consciously extend or augment my own abilities. This requires a level of thoughtfulness and self-understanding, and frankly a certain amount of money: a $1400 camera is a lot more likely to fall into this category than a $300 one.

So we'll see if I made the right choice.

Rockin’ it old school: Atari Battlezone on the iPad

My brother, who's an acupuncturist in New York City, sent my kids an Atari game console for the iPad for Christmas. It's essentially a dock with a joystick and four buttons. Like many iPad games, the basic setup is free, and extra games are available as in-app purchases (i.e., not through the iTunes store, but through the app itself).

I downloaded Battlezone, and the kids spent some time playing it. I then gave them a little masterclass in how to play; put another way, I blew away all their high scores. Though I spent more of my college hours in front of one of those machines than I really want to recall.

Rocking' it old (and new) school: Atari Battlezone for the iPad
via flickr

It's impressive how well the game plays on a completely different platform.

Using the iPad

I've had my pIad for a couple days now, and the most interesting thing is how much it's like using a laptop. Mainly it's a matter of size, the fact that I'm using a keyboard with it, and I'm doing more laptop/work-y things. Safari also functions differently on the iPad than the iPhone: you can actually use Facebook and Typepad through the browser, for example, rather than using the dedicated apps. (And unfortunately the Typepad app doesn't seem to have a landscape mode.)

Oddly, the Typepad page doesn't have a WYSIWYG mode on the iPad, but it's just a chance to remember HTML tags.

Interestingly, I need to be a little more attentive to ergonomics and posture when I'm using the iPad + keyboard combination: it's easier to put the iPad slightly to one side and have to crane my neck to see it, or set the keyboard in what turns out to be an inconvenient place.

But for some things, I'm already starting to favor the iPad over my beloved laptop. The fact that it starts up instantly makes like it a little more appealing. We'll soon see if I can travel and write with it without losing any important functionality….

New toy

This afternoon I finally gave in and bought an iPad 2. Perhaps "gave in" is not quite the right term for my feelings about the purchase, but still…. It's my gift to myself for winning a contract for the contemplative computing book, so I partly justify it on the grounds that I'll be able to write with it.

I have high hopes that I can leave my laptop at home more often, and take this and a Bluetooth keyboard when I go travelling, to the library, etc.. That won't always be the case; in fact, I suspect that the relationship between my MacBook and the iPad will be like the relationship between my car and bike. I need the car for certain kinds of tasks, but I can substitute the bike for shorter trips and if I think out my day completely enough; a large technology is really a hedge against having to think too much.

Anyway, the Bluetooth keyboard works like a charm, and I have high hopes that I'll be able to make this relationship work.

Annals of overdone, wonderful product design: Milspec iPad case

This milspec iPad case would be tempting if I had an iPad.

It’s like something Anderson Cooper would read his field notes from.

My favorite detail is that “The interior… [is] quilted and colored like the padded interior walls of heavy transport aircraft.” That puts it over the top.

[To the tune of Dredg, “Zebraskin,” from the album Catch Without Arms (a 2-star song, imo).]

Dan Ariely on the paradox of productivity tools

Dan Ariely has a good post about why our current “productivity tools” generate time-wasting or addictive behavior: he looks to B. F. Skinner’s work on “schedules of reinforcement” that found that random rewards inspired more work than predictable rewards. (It got more work out of rats, anyway. Come to think of it, it also works for graduate students.)

Ariely comments that Skinner’s work

gives me a better understanding of my own e-mail addiction, and more important, it might suggest a few means of escape from this Skinner box and its variable schedule of reinforcement. One helpful approach I’ve discovered is to turn off the automatic e-mail-checking feature. This action doesn’t eliminate my checking email too often, but it reduces the frequency with which my computer notifies me that I have new e-mail waiting (some of it, I would think to myself, must be interesting, urgent, or relevant). Another way I am trying to wean myself from continuously checking email (a tendency that only got worse for me when I got an iPhone), is by only checking email during specific blocks of time. If we understand the hold that a random schedule of reinforcement has on our email behavior, maybe, just maybe we can outsmart our own nature.

There’s also this observation of Skinner’s own work habits.

Skinner had a trick to counterbalance daily distractions: As soon as he arrived at his office, he would write 800 words on whatever research project he happened to be working on—and he did this before doing anything else. Granted, 800 words is not a lot in the scheme of things but if you think about writing 800 words each day you would realize how this small output can add up over time.

This is something I try to do, but I need to be more disciplined about it. There aren’t THAT many e-mails waiting for me in the morning that require my immediate attention, and I suspect that I’m actually more likely to lose track of tasks or not reply to a message if I read it, think to myself “I’ll deal with this later,” then set it aside. For me, the in-box is not nearly as effective a place to stack tasks than, say, a physical pile (or even better, a written list in my little Moleskine notebook).

[To the tune of The Fixx, “Secret Separation,” from the album The Best of the Fixx (a 3-star song, imo).]

My Hipstamatic obsession

A friend introduced me to Hipstamatic a few days ago, and I’ve been hooked on it. I’ve created a Flickr set of Hipstamatic pictures.

via flickr

I’m not sure what’s so compelling about the program. I think the ability to play with combinations of lenses and film and flahses (or rather “lenses” and “film” and “flashes”) and the clever fake history that they’ve created around the technology has a lot to do with it.

Cafe Zoë
via flickr

The fact that it’s also kind of hard to use at times makes it more interesting. It’s not clear what you’re going to get when you take a picture.

The world is flat
via flickr

Anyway, I recommend it.

[To the tune of Genesis, “Turn It On Again,” from the album Duke (a 3-star song, imo).]

Scale, orientation, simplication, and ruthless editing: the keys to great homemade maps

Julia Turner has an excellent article in Slate about hand-drawn maps:

Homemade maps also play with scale in fascinating ways. Paul Stiff, a professor of information design who’s been collecting hand-drawn maps for decades, reviewed all the submitted maps for Slate, and he was intrigued by the one below, which was drawn by an Australian architect to direct his daughter from Brisbane to his farm. Stiff notes: “If you compare this with a topographical map, you’ll see that he’s compressed the scale astonishingly.” There’s less detail closer to home, where roads are familiar, Stiff says, “but the scale expands the nearer we get to the destination because we need more information in places that are new to us.”

Good hand-drawn maps do more than edit out useless details. They often ignore the mapmaking convention that puts north at the top.

Handmade maps also tend toward straight lines and right angles, a phenomenon spatial psychologists refer to as “rectilinear normalization.” The world is full of squiggly roads that intersect at oblique angles. When we envision space, though, we tend to reduce such complexities to relatively simple geometric forms.

[H]omemade maps can be better than professional ones at eliminating extraneous detail, playing with scale, simplifying complex forms, and mapping remote terrain or interiors. Indeed, some computer scientists have examined whether professional route-mapping algorithms could produce maps more like the ones we draw. MacArthur grant winner Maneesh Agrawala developed software called Line Drive that works along these lines, making computer maps more legible by distorting scale and straightening out bendy roads. Like Paul Stiff, Agrawala studies information display, and he became interested in Web-based driving directions when he noticed the limitations of their maps: “They almost never produce a map that I can actually use to get to the destination,” Agrawala told me. “Really the text directions are what I end up using.”

[To the tune of Alanis Morissette, “Uninvited,” from the album City of Angels (a 4-star song, imo).]

What’s an auction without a flaming robot?

image from

Standage on GTA for DS

Tom Standage has the best line about a video game… ever:

“Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars”, the latest instalment of the most notorious of video games, is available on the DS. It’s like putting vodka in a baby’s bottle….

The action, set in the murky underworld of Liberty City, a stylised version of New York, is rendered in a cartoonish graphic style which cleverly remains true to previous versions of the game without overtaxing the processing power of the DS. And it’s great fun. Better still, you can play it on the train—there’s an extra illicit thrill in doing all this on the 8.39 to Charing Cross.

The player takes the role of Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss, who heads to Liberty City to deliver a family heirloom to his uncle and finds himself drawn into the conflict between rival gangs. The script, as usual with “GTA”, is cynical, witty and well written. The game world manages to be large and immersive even when squeezed into the tiny DS. As unlikely as it sounds, given the sorts of game usually found on the DS, this is the genuine, controversial, ultra-violent article, with no corners cut.

[To the tune of Radiohead, “Videotape,” from the album In Rainbows (I give it 2 stars).]
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