AnalogSenses

By ÁLVARO SERRANO

Images of Earth from a year in space →

March 02, 2016 |

This is remarkable. Alan Taylor compiled a fantastic selection of images taken from the International Space Station by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko over the past year. Via Kottke.

We live in a beautiful world, indeed.

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February 28, 2016

Hello there, welcome to another issue of Morning Coffee.

Before we begin this issue, I want to let you know I’ve decided to limit the Star Wars talk to once a month. I love Star Wars as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to overdo it, and I do believe some things are best enjoyed in infrequent doses.

Don’t worry, we will cover the rest of The Force Awakens, but for now, it’s time for a change of pace. This week I want to talk to you about my favorite sport.

Issue #35: The one-handed backhand, and the future of tennis

Earlier this week I read this article by Richard Mills for Sports Illustrated.

It’s a great article on the reasons why, sadly, my favorite tennis stroke is becoming rarer and rarer with each passing generation. One-handed backhands used to be a lot more common in the past, but ever since the courts started getting slower and the game became more physical, it’s been slowly but surely fading away, and these days it’s almost considered a relic from a different era.

I can only think of a handful of active players with great one-handed backhands in the ATP circuit, and of those, there are only two players whose backhands could arguably be considered their stronger wing: Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet.

As for the rest of the players who currently wield a one-hander — Federer included — the backhand is clearly their weaker side. Whenever they have a chance, they use their naturally stronger forehand to dictate play from the baseline, or to finish off rallies. When their opponents are on the offensive, it is usually the backhand side that they attack, and rightly so.

The one-handed backhand is a very difficult stroke to master, requiring exceptional timing and coordination to be executed well. Aesthetically, it has no equal, and when done properly, it can be a devastating weapon. It also teaches players to be more in tune with the ball, and helps them naturally improve the slice and the volley, two strokes where using only one hand is a must. Clearly, there are plenty of reasons to persevere in the learning and mastering of this beautiful shot.

However, due to its narrow margin of error, the one-handed backhand is prone to faltering under pressure. By contrast, the more popular two-handed backhand offers far more consistency and power, while allowing the players to defend and recover without giving up much of the initiative in the process. And since the game today is much more about power and speed than it is about finesse and technique, it’s no wonder the one-hander is becoming and endangered shot.

But there’s reason to hope. There have been players in the past for whom the backhand was not a weakness, but a fearsome weapon. Players like Alex Corretja, Cédric Pioline or Gustavo Kuerten — my favorite player of all time — who won three French Opens by effortlessly gliding over the clay courts of Roland Garros firing winner after winner off his backhand side with surgical precision.

Even Federer’s backhand, the shot that’s long been considered the Swiss’s weakness, was awe-inspiring in his prime. Despite struggling against Nadal’s high-bouncing balls on the clay, Federer was capable of creating winners out of nowhere from virtually any court position with it. In Federer’s case, it really needs to be said that his backhand could only be considered weak because of his comparatively monstrous forehand, perhaps the most decisive stroke in tennis history. In the hands of any other player, Federer’s backhand would probably have been considered a fantastic weapon, quite simply because it was — and still is, most of the time.

All that may not be enough to save the one-hander from extinction, though. Unless the game evolves once again into a more technical sport, its days in the pro circuit appear numbered. The volley will probably go down the same path, too, which would be a shame. Variety is tennis’s greatest asset, and if the sport’s decision-makers don’t get their act together, it may soon be gone for good.

In order to preserve variety in tennis, some courts need to get faster once again — grass is the most glaring example — while others need to remain slow. Only that way we’ll see variety return to the professional game, and only that way we’ll be able to ensure its survival.

The reason why tennis evolved this way over the past couple of decades is because TV sponsors and tournament organizers wanted matches to be longer, and more spectacular. They wanted sponsors and spectators to feel that their money had been well spent. And slowing the courts down is one way to achieve that, because with slower courts, offensive strokes don’t hurt rivals nearly as much, and rallies become longer, and more intense. And people love a good fight, don’t they?

The problem with that approach is that, if certain shots become irrelevant — or, rather, useless — why would players bother learning them in the first place? Especially shots that are naturally difficult to learn and require tons of practice, like the one-handed backhand, or the volley. And if players don’t learn to master those shots, pretty soon everybody is playing from the baseline in the exact same way, and it all becomes a matter of seeing who’s stronger, or who can keep going the longest.

In their quest for longer matches and a better ROI, the sport’s organizers may have killed the very thing that made tennis an interesting sport to watch in the first place.

Indeed, the sad consequence of their short-sightedness is that today’s tennis has evolved into a gladiatorial-like sport, where matches are often decided by sheer physical endurance, rather than actual tennis skills. Personally, I think that trend is making the sport incredibly tedious to watch. A 6-hour-long battle between two evenly matched opponents is a great spectacle, but it needs to be a rarity for it to be considered interesting, or even noteworthy. If there’s one of these every month, people are bound to get bored eventually, and I’d say we’re getting dangerously close to that scenario. I know I am.

All this doesn’t even take into account the fact that these longer matches will eventually take a toll on the players. There’s a very good chance that, as players push their bodies to their limit, we may start seeing more and more career-ending injuries, and that’s something nobody wants.

There’s still time to rectify the situation, but it will require some difficult and profound changes to be made at the sport’s highest levels of influence. I do hope the pendulum swings back in time, but make no mistake, the clock is ticking.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the week’s most interesting pieces of writing.

Top Five: Donald Trump, Apple vs the FBI, the iPad as a Mac replacement, lessons from Deadpool, and a Canon 35mm lens shootout

Lots of cool stuff among this week’s links. Grab’em while they’re hot.

How America made Donald Trump unstoppable | Matt Taibbi →

Chilling article over at Rolling Stone:

A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events – an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc. – this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised.

It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.

And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average.

I do hope America reacts before it’s too late. Trump in the White House is a future I don’t even want to imagine.

Apple, the FBI, and security | Ben Thompson →

Ben Thompson had a thorough overview of the recent legal dispute between Apple and the FBI. There’s a lot at stake here, and we can’t afford to lose this one.

Working on the iPad: one year later, still my favorite computer | Federico Viticci →

Federico Viticci is still happy using his iPad as his main computing device. Good for him, but I find myself in staunch opposition here. I mean, whatever works for you personally is great, and I’m all for choice, but I reject the narrative that the iPad is the better computer for most people, or that it is just a matter of time before we all ditch our Macs and go all-in on iOS.

To be clear, I’m not saying the iPad isn’t a great device, I’m just questioning if it’s good to replace a computer for most people, to take care of 100% of their computing needs. That’s a tall order, and one I’m not convinced the iPad is ready to fulfill yet.

This bit is particularly troubling:

In some corners of the Apple community, too, the iPad has suffered from faltering evangelism due to an unwillingness to recognize iOS as a valid productivity environment. Across multiple blogs and publications, the “you can’t get work done on an iPad” argument morphed from intriguing criticism to inconclusive meme that failed to understand the improvements of iOS 8 and iOS 9. For example, a common take on using the iPad as a primary computer I’ve seen is to dismiss it as “jumping through hoops” or, more amusingly, as “masochism”. Some of these opinions stem from a one-sided (and often patronizing) perspective: they usually come from programmers who have to use Macs – and only Macs – for a living.

There’s so much wrong with this paragraph that I don’t even know where to start. Assuming people dismiss the iPad because they don’t get it or are unwilling to open their eyes is an untenable position, and the very definition of patronizing if you ask me. The truth is, many people tried it, weren’t convinced, and moved on. It really is that simple, and that’s OK. The iPad doesn’t have to be all things to all people.

And it’s not just programmers, either. Anybody with non-mainstream computational needs — which is not to say, uncommon needs, mind you — will be better served by a traditional computer in most cases.

Clearly many people can get by on an iPad, and even prefer it. But Federico is not your typical user, either, as he seems to imply. He’s an advanced user by any reasonable criteria, and he’s proficient in his use of technology in a way that the vast majority of people simply aren’t.

For many people, working on the iPad is certainly possible, but I would still argue that it is far from being better than doing it on a Mac. And let’s not forget that just as iPads are becoming more capable, Macs are becoming more portable, too, so some of his stated reasons for preferring the iPad in the first place are becoming irrelevant:

OS X is a fantastic desktop operating system, but it runs on machines that increasingly don’t fit the lifestyle of users who, like me, can’t sit down at a desk every day. I can’t (and I don’t want to) depend on Macs anymore because I want a computer that can always be with me. The majority of the world’s population doesn’t care about Xcode. I want to use an OS without (what I see as) cruft of decades of desktop conventions. I want powerful, innovative apps that I can touch. An iPad is the embodiment of all this.

Other than the touch part, the new MacBook checks every one of those boxes, too. My point is, it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

But the thing that bothers me the most about this piece is perhaps the next paragraph:

The tide, however, is turning. Over the past year, it’s been fascinating to observe how, gradually, using an iPad as the primary or only computer has turned from a nerd chimera into an acceptable narrative. Contrary to two years ago (before the changes of iOS 8), I’ve read dozens of stories from Mac users who have started using an iPad as their main computer – in some cases, going as far as not using MacBooks anymore. Students, doctors, educators, artists, photographers who prefer iPads to Macs, designers, independent writers. I’m missing hundreds of other stories.

To say that the tide is turning based on such anecdotal evidence is, to put it mildly, greatly optimistic. I can’t help but feel a bit frustrated that this narrative — that the iPad is finally ready to replace Macs for the general population — continues to be pushed from certain people in the tech community. I honestly don’t see it in the real world, and iPad sales numbers certainly point towards a very different story.

These people, as well-intentioned as I take them to be, are not average users, and creating the perception that regular users not only can get by with an iPad, but that it will actually be better for them than a traditional computer, strikes me as a dangerous trend.

Again, if it works for Federico and the rest of them, who am I to judge? I’m happy that more people are finding ways to get more stuff done on the iPad. I just don’t think that will become the norm anytime soon, and suggesting otherwise seems premature at best.

Hi-Ho silver lining! 6 lessons Hollywood can (hopefully) learn from the success of Deadpool | Adam X. Smith →

This was interesting to read. When a different movie breaks new ground and finds success, it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply copying the same formula and hoping for the same results, but the truth is usually more complicated than that. I hope studio executives everywhere are paying attention.

Shootout: The Canon FD 35mm lenses | Jannik Peters →

And to finish this week’s issue, here’s a great comparison between three of the classic 35mm lenses for the Canon FD system. If you shoot film, or enjoy using vintage lenses on your digital camera with an adapter, you probably know that Canon FD lenses are some of the best bargains you can find on the Internet.

These pieces of glass were remarkably popular in the 70’s and early 80’s, and can usually be found in pretty good condition for pennies on the original dollar. And the good news is, many of them are pretty good optically, even by today’s standards. What’s not to love?

Afterword

I’ve been recovering from a nasty stomach bug for the past few days, which is why the site has been a bit quieter than usual lately. I’m almost fully recovered by now, so things should return to normal soon.

I’m still trying to rest as much as possible and get my energy back, though, so I plan on spending the rest of my Sunday lazing on the couch and filling up on movies. If it’s cold where you live, I humbly suggest you do the same.

Thank you for reading, and have a lovely Sunday.

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Warning signs that you are a side character in a movie →

February 24, 2016 |

Hilarious piece by Nick and Hallie Bateman for The New Yorker:

If your best friend is an average guy who just goes to work, has a pet fish, and spends a lot of time on the Internet, you’re fine. But if he’s insanely attractive, has a high-­profile job that he never seems to go to, and enjoys an excessively eventful personal life, you might be playing his best friend in a movie. When was the last time you went home? Do you even have a home, or do you just sleep in the bar booth where you and Matthew McConaughey always chat?

So great.

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Candid, Episode 2: “Film & Fuji” →

February 24, 2016 |

The second episode of Candid, the new photography podcast that Marius Masalar, Josh Ginter and myself are hosting every week, was published earlier today.

This week we dig into the appeal of the “film look”, and try to figure out why these days people tend to apply all kinds of filters to their digital pictures to make them look more film-like. We also explore the differences between film grain and digital noise, and we go all-in on Fuji’s X-Series system with an in-depth look at their new X-Pro 2 and X70 cameras.

I really like how this episode turned out. It has a bit of everything: some good old-fashioned photography talk, a healthy dose of gear nerdery, and plenty of interesting discussion to boot.

As usual, if you enjoy the show, please help us get it out there by spreading the word on Twitter and rating/reviewing the show on iTunes). It really helps a lot.

Thanks, and enjoy!

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February 20, 2016

Hello there, welcome to another issue of Morning Coffee.

This week we’re going to take a break from Star Wars, and focus on the latest family-friendly movie to arrive at theaters worldwide: Deadpool.1

Deadpool is a fun movie. A really, really fun movie. However, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s full of bad language, sex, violence, blood, and generally speaking, everything that’s wrong with humans as a species. As fun as it is to watch, this is not a nice movie.

Beyond that, though, what interests me most about the film is the story behind its production, and what its commercial success could mean for the filmmaking industry as a whole.

Don’t worry, this entire issue is spoiler-free, so you can keep reading even if you still haven’t watched the movie. But seriously, what are you waiting for? It’s really good.

Issue #34: A different kind of superhero movie

Deadpool is not your typical superhero. He’s a foul-mouthed, amoral character that is not beyond killing to get what he needs — or just for the fun of it, really. He is definitely not your typical Marvel superhero, and couldn’t be farther from the watered-down depictions of Marvel characters that we’ve seen in movie adaptations so far.

The problem is, those decaffeinated adaptations have been breaking box office records year after year after year, so who’s ever going to dare argue that they’re doing it wrong?

Conventional movie-making wisdom says that PG-13 movies are much more likely to be a hit at the box office than R-rated movies. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that big Hollywood studios like Disney — the rights owner for most Marvel characters — would be adamant in their use of PG-13 ratings for these types of films.

There’s a very good case to be made that superhero movies need to be family-friendly. I get that, but the problems it presents as far as storytelling and consistency go are significant. While it’s technically possible to depict a hostile alien invasion that destroys half of Manhattan and crushes entire buildings without showing so much as one innocent person dying in the process, it’s hard to argue that it is a very realistic approach.

I’m not saying they need to show dead bodies and blood just for the sake of it, mind you. On the contrary. There are plenty of great storylines in Marvel’s rich history that would allow screenwriters to come up with interesting plots without having to rely on apocalyptic scenarios for dramatic effect.

However, for better or worse, it looks like the recent trend towards darker, more mature superheroes in comic movie adaptations that began with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is here to stay. And Marvel has been trying — however mildly — to give their own heroes the same gritty vibe, all while refusing to give up their prized PG-13 rating.

In my opinion, something has to give. There are only so many alien or robot armies you can conjure up for the good guys to fight without making it look like they’re killing people. As long as they continue to pursue those darker storylines but refuse to own up to their consequences, Marvel movies will continue to exist in that weird, undefined space that the PG-13 rating represents. Creatively speaking, it’s the worst of both worlds.

The biggest problem, however, is not that a movie refuses to embrace darkness when it is not a driving part of the plot. Disney and Marvel have every right to keep telling superhero stories in a way that is accessible for younger audiences, and those movies will keep being made. Maybe they’ll get over that gritty phase and return to more normal storylines, or maybe they won’t, but that’s not a huge deal in and of itself.

The real problem is when a movie that clearly needs to be R-rated gets watered down in such a way that its essence gets compromised, just for the sake of having a better shot at the box office. That’s what happens when bureaucrats and accountants take control of film studios, and it’s a very serious problem that’s been going on for decades in Hollywood. When these businessmen have so much power and influence that they can effectively exert creative control over a film’s production, you have a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes, a movie calls for an R rating. For example, the original Terminator film was a dark, terrifying story about a nearly indestructible killing machine, and fit the R rating like a glove. Its much-lauded sequel, Terminator 2, was another masterpiece in horror moviemaking, and once again, made extremely good use of its R rating.

However, by the time Terminator 3 rolled around, with its newly-revised PG-13 rating, things started taking a turn for the worse, as the story became more about chases, explosions and robot fights than about the sheer psychological horror of knowing an unstoppable machine is trying to squeeze the life out of you with its cold metal hands. And with just a brief look at the latest mess in the franchise’s troubled history, it’s easy to understand why sometimes, a PG-13 rating just won’t do.

To sum things up: the two R-rated Terminator films are classics, while every other film in the franchise has been mostly forgettable. Coincidence? I think not.

Enter Deadpool, perhaps the one Marvel character that could put this ratings assumption to the test.2 Clearly, Deadpool as a character can only work in an R-rated movie. He needs to do all sorts of grossly inappropriate things on screen that are not only there for the audience’s amusement, but because they are the essence of the character. That’s who Deadpool is, and showing him in a different light would make no sense whatsoever. I know that because we’ve already seen it, and we’re all still trying very, very hard to forget about it.

It’s no surprise, then, that Deadpool is a movie that almost didn’t get made.

Ryan Reynolds, the actor who plays the title character, had been trying to get Fox to greenlight the film for over a decade, only to be given vague promises and uncertain propositions. His only non-negotiable request was that the movie would be R-rated, which turned out to be a significant hurdle in the negotiations. Unsurprisingly, the project was put on ice several times over the years, until Reynolds took matters into his own hands.

Once he had a script, he convinced Fox to let him shoot some test footage, which was then “accidentally” leaked online, prompting many Deadpool fans all over the world to flood Fox with requests to get the film made. Eventually the studio caved and greenlit the movie, albeit with a rather conservative $58 million budget, no doubt as a result of the studio’s doubts on whether the movie could be a commercial success.

How ironic, then, that Deadpool has turned in the biggest opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie — beating 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded — and also the biggest opening weekend ever for Fox as a whole — beating 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III, and all films in the X-Men franchise, including 2014’s Days of Future Past. If this doesn’t prove that an R-rated movie can still be a commercial success, nothing will.

There’s nothing wrong with PG-13 movies, but sometimes, an R rating is necessary to tell a story. If Deadpool’s biggest accomplishment is to be the film that convinces studios to once again give these stories a chance to be properly told, it will have been well worth it.

In the meantime, we can all find some comfort in watching the merc with a mouth on the big screen, just like we always wanted: irresponsible, irreverent, violent, and lots and lots of fun.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the week’s most interesting pieces of writing.

Top Five: The Jedi Council and the Supreme Court, a visit to the end of the world, and the history of malt liquor

Some really interesting pieces in this week’s roundup. And now without further ado, let’s get to it.

Lessons for the Supreme Court from the Jedi Council | Adam Gopnik →

Terrific essay over at The New Yorker:

In the “Star Wars” realm, various reasons have been produced for this weird amnesia, though the actual reason is obviously that George Lucas hadn’t entirely figured out the backstory when he wrote that first movie, or known that he’d ever be held so tightly accountable for its details. And then, when he did work that Jedi Council into the prequels, some twenty years after the first movie was released, it turned out to be the most grossly inept rubber-masked gang in the history of high-minded quangos. You could practically be wearing a T-shirt that says, “Hello, I am a Sith Lord,” and they wouldn’t sniff the dark force coming from your armpits. A rational person would conclude that, despite their own relentless self-promotion of their extra-rational, hyper-reasoning, instinctive sense—their communion with the Force!—this was not in fact a council into which you should put a lot of confidence. That distant galaxy seems to have an undue cultural investment in the wisdom of the Jedi Council, even in the face of its ineptitude.

It looks silly and humorous at first, but there’s quite a bit of depth to it, too.

A brief visit to the end of the world | David Cain →

David Cain does it again:

I realize this sounds morbid. We don’t like to think about the end of the world. But that’s why we probably should, occasionally but deliberately. We are so attached to civilization, stability, and freedom that we don’t want to even imagine life without them. For that reason, we stop noticing these huge, essential pieces of our happiness, and we fill our heads with worries about the state of the smallest pieces—missed appointments, insensitive comments, and other day-to-day ephemera that probably won’t matter a month from now.

The Peacetime Dream is the holy grail of backdrops for a human life, and it is a peculiar tragedy that we still aren’t great at finding happiness in it. Ironically, what would perhaps help us most is to look out at our neighborhoods and picture what they might be like as ruins.

The sleazy and spectacular history of malt liquor | Dave Infante →

Fascinating story:

And it all started with malt liquor. To Vultaggio, malt liquor was a good business proposition. Serving the underserved. Getting product to market. In the years that followed, malt liquor came to represent a lot more, to a lot more people, in a hell of a lot more places. Since its creation, malt liquor’s fortunes have been entangled with America’s sorest social bugbears, from race, to class, to poverty, to whether or not capitalism ought to give a shit about any of those things.

Maybe you’re familiar with its baggage. Maybe not. As Kihm Winship (who wrote one of the few good histories of malt liquor) put it, it is “a story without heroes.” But what a story. Thanks to the people who made it, sold it, protested against it, rapped about it, and of course drank it, the history of malt liquor is a spectacular and uniquely American shitshow. And here it is, in all its glory.

Finding good content | Ben Brooks →

Ben Brooks wrote a thought-provoking piece on why we continue to support sites that clearly have no respect for our time, and wonders if there’s a way out:

That’s what we used to do. We used to vote with our attention and then at some point we stopped caring and decided it wasn’t the job of the media to determine what matters, it’s our job to wade through it. So instead of media outlets hiring smart people who can distill complicated subjects, they just started hiring people who could write somewhat passable sentences and a lot of barely passable sentences in a day.

We have a name for this: we call it 24/7 cable news — but it applies to everything, even blogs. Especially blogs.

I agree with Ben about the importance of changing this dynamic. He proposes AI as a likely way forward, and though I’m not so sure about that — I believe human curation and great editorial teams are must-haves for any serious publication — I would be willing to give it a try and see where it leads us. It can’t be any worse than the current situation, so there’s that.

Review: Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* | Jordan Steele →

Jordan Steele delivers high praise for the latest lens in the Loxia family:

However, if you are fine shooting with primes for ultra-wide work (and especially if you love the 21mm focal length), then there’s no need to look any further. The Loxia 21mm is truly exceptional, and supplants the Fuji 14mm as the finest wide-angle lens I’ve had the pleasure to use.

I’m not really comfortable shooting at the ultra-wide angle end, but even I have to admit this is clearly the most interesting Loxia lens so far.

Afterword

What a week.

In case you missed it, my in-depth review of the Sony FE 70-200mm F4 lens was published on Tuesday over at Tools and Toys.

If that wasn’t enough, on Wednesday I made my podcasting debut, alongside Marius Masalar and Josh Ginter. Candid is a weekly photography show that explores the skills and technology we contend with on the road from hobbyist to professional. Each episode is roughly an hour, and it has a casual, relaxed tone that I really enjoy.

Working on the show with Marius and Josh has been a treat so far, and we’re all having tons of fun with it. Hopefully you will, too. And if you decide to listen and like what you hear, please take a minute of your time to spread the word, and review the show on iTunes. It really helps us a lot. Thanks!

We’re now working hard on the second episode of the show, and we’d love to have you along for the ride. And of course, if you have any feedback, we’d love to know about it.

Have a great weekend, and as always, thank you for reading.


  1. Note: Not actually a family-friendly movie.

  2. With the exception of The Punisher.

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Introducing Candid

February 17, 2016

Today is a big day.

I’m incredibly excited to announce Candid, a new weekly podcast about the craft of photography, covering the skills and technology we contend with on the road from hobbyist to professional.

Once a week, Marius Masalar, Josh Ginter and yours truly will be getting together to talk about every little thing that piques our interest in the vast world of photography. That includes everything from creative advice, inspirational topics, the struggle of being a professional, and of course, gear talk. Lots and lots of gear talk.

We’re thrilled to show you what we’ve been working on, and we really hope you join us for the ride. Check out our first episode and, if you like what you hear, please take a moment to help spread the word and rate the show on iTunes. It only takes a minute, and it helps a ton. Thanks!

Love,
Álvaro.

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Tim Cook challenges US government’s request to build iPhone backdoor in public letter to customers →

February 17, 2016 |

Yesterday Tim Cook published a public letter to customers on Apple’s website, wherein he explains why Apple is challenging a request by the US government to build a backdoor into the iPhone:

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

Opposing this order is not something we take lightly. We feel we must speak up in the face of what we see as an overreach by the U.S. government.

I have the utmost respect for Cook for standing up to the US government’s unreasonable and outrageous request. This is a hugely important issue: he’s fighting to protect our right to privacy, and he seems to be the only one with power in the tech industry who cares enough to do it.

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My review of the Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS lens was published yesterday on Tools & Toys.

This lens is a bit of an odd creature. On paper, being an f/4 lens, one would expect it to be a great-but-not-quite-outstanding optical instrument. After all, the standard in the industry for professional-grade zooms is f/2.8, so that would position this lens more towards the enthusiast and amateur segments of the market.

However, once you start taking pictures with it, such narrow definitions immediately prove to be short-sighted. This lens is, simply put, a stunner. It’s super sharp, renders colors beautifully, and handles like a dream. It truly is a professional-grade lens in every way, despite what conventional wisdom dictates.

If you want to learn more about it, head on over to Tools & Toys for the full review.

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February 13, 2016

Hello there, welcome to another issue of Morning Coffee.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been taking an extended look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Last week we talked about the unlikely friendship that develops between Finn and Poe in just a few short minutes of onscreen interaction. Friendships like that usually take years to form, and yet the film’s creative team managed to sell it impressively well.

We also analyzed the role that friendship as a general concept plays in the Star Wars universe, and how it is actually central to the entire story.

This week I want to talk to you about how The Force Awakens makes a refreshing effort to subvert some of the most damning tropes we’ve come to expect from big Hollywood movies, and why that is great news for Star Wars fans, and the industry as a whole.

Of course, before we begin, a fair spoiler warning is due.

WARNING, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Issue #33: Stop taking my hand

Last we saw of him, Finn had gotten stranded in the Jakku desert following his more-or-less successful escape from the First Order. Dehydrated and exhausted, he eventually walks into Rey’s village, and soon after he meets both her and BB-8, although not in the most graceful way.

As soon as Finn is able to find some water to quench his thirst, he sees Rey being assaulted by two very unsavory characters in an attempt to steal the droid for themselves. Without giving it a second thought, Finn immediately springs into action and comes rushing to Rey’s rescue.

However, in a delightfully surprising move and before Finn can do anything about it, Rey swiftly dispatches her two assailants, deftly kicking their asses with her staff and freeing BB-8 once again.

This is such a funny moment, but also an incredibly refreshing scene for us, the audience: here we have, finally, a non-sexualized female character in a huge Hollywood movie who can not only hold her own in a dangerous world, she can actually kick as much ass out there as the best of them.

Still trying to assimilate what he’s just witnessed, Finn can’t do anything but stare at her in disbelief. In another brilliant directing move, Finn’s incredulity is supposed to represent the traditional filmmaking trope that a lady shouldn’t be able to do those things. Furthermore, Finn’s education as the film goes on — how his incredulity turns into respect and eventually admiration for Rey — is also ours.

But Finn still has a ways to go before he’s ready to learn those things, as are we. In the meantime, he’s about to experience Rey’s fighting prowess first-hand.

Indeed, just after the assailants are dispatched, Finn immediately recognizes BB-8 as the droid Poe was talking about — orange and white, one of a kind, he said. However, BB-8 also spots Finn, and for some reason it immediately goes into a high-pitched frenzy, prompting Rey to kick his ass with her staff, much to his surprise.

It all has a logical explanation, of course. Finn is, after all, wearing Poe’s jacket, the one he recovered from the sinking TIE Fighter ship they both used to escape. Now, if you’ve seen the previous movies in the franchise, you know it’s very likely that Poe somehow managed to get out of the wreckage alive, but as far as Finn’s concerned, he is surely dead and gone.

At this point, Finn makes what can only be described as an apparently foolish choice: when Rey assumes him to be with the Resistance, he plays along with the idea, trying to act tough in the process.

This is an incredibly stupid lie to tell, but probably his best choice, all things considered: it’s definitely better to say you’re one of the good guys, than to explain you used to be a soldier for the bad guys — you know, those who slaughtered an entire village yesterday — and you’ve just had a change of heart. The way I read that scene, it’s not so much that Finn wants to play the hero to impress Rey, it is that he’s afraid to admit who he really is for fear of getting his ass kicked once again, or worse.

In any case, Rey is thoroughly amused and unimpressed by his tough-boy act, but she believes him, and is totally fascinated after learning BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker, who she believed to be a myth.

These little droplets of knowledge are important, because they tell us more about the status of the Force in this new society. Once the keepers of the peace and perhaps the most powerful and influential group in the galaxy, it appears the Jedi have now been relegated to lore status.

However, before Finn can explain anymore about Skywalker and the map, BB-8 bursts in, warning them of an impending attack: the First Order is there, looking for the droid, Finn, or both, and it’s time to run.

Still foolish and still underestimating Rey, Finn tries to hold her hand while they run, to which she responds in the only reasonable way: by telling him, “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” Not the subtlest of ways, but it’ll certainly do. At this point Finn is acting out of pure survival instinct, so Rey’s words don’t really register, and he tries to hold her hand again, only to be scolded by her again.

“I know how to run without you holding my hand!” Yes she does.

When a blast from a TIE Fighter sends them both flying, Finn is briefly knocked out. Suddenly the tables are turned, and it is now Rey who offers her hand to him and helps him up. The shot of Finn’s face that follows only lasts a split second, but it’s all we need to realize he’s a stubborn one: even after she’s the one helping him, he still asks “are you ok?”

If this was a typical Hollywood film, Finn’s actions would be interpreted as chivalrous, and would be a way for him to become the hero and win the girl’s heart. Here’s the man worrying about the lady even after being knocked out, what a darling, isn’t he? Surely she must come to appreciate his selflessness and fall for him eventually.

Instead, we get a Rey that is almost annoyed by this guy who continues to underestimate her, and just decides to humor him because it’s the easiest and, crucially, fastest way to get the hell out of there. This is such a great way to subvert the typical “damsel in distress” trope that I really hope directors and screenwriters everywhere are paying attention.

“Are you ok?” Pretty much, dude.

These instances keep repeating themselves throughout the rest of the movie. Finn keeps believing Rey needs his help, and Rey keeps proving him — and by association, us — wrong. Every time Finn goes to her rescue, he not only finds she has already rescued herself, but she actually helps save him, too. Even in the final climactic battle, when Finn gets into a fight where he’s hopelessly outmatched, he still does so with the hope of protecting Rey, despite her being a much more skilled fighter herself.

What makes Rey so awesome as a character, however, is that despite being incredibly skilled at pretty much everything, she’s still gracious enough to genuinely appreciate Finn’s efforts. She’s moved when she learns that it was Finn’s idea to go to Starkiller base to rescue her, and she’s even considerate enough to protect his fragile ego when she saves him from the Rathtars. She’s a complex, nuanced character, and the most exciting thing to happen to the Star Wars universe in a long, long time.

Finn, on the other hand, has much to grow and learn, but he’s getting there. He does have two key traits that redeem him, despite his stubbornness: his selflessness, and his willingness to keep an open mind about anything. The good guys are not always who they seem to be, and there’s always more to people than meets the eye. Finn knows that, perhaps better than any other character in the film, so there’s definitely hope for him, and maybe for us, too.

Now let’s take a look at some of the week’s most interesting pieces of writing.

Top Five: Detecting gravitational waves, figuring out time travel, and the Leica Q

In case you haven’t heard, gravitational waves were detected for the first time ever. We then try to make sense of how time travel works in the Star Trek universe. We also learn what it is like to spend a year talking to strangers, and witness the fall of the biggest polygamist cult in America. And finally, we take a look at an incredibly gorgeous review of the Leica Q six months in the making.

Enjoy.

Gravitational waves exist: the inside story of how scientists finally found them | Nicola Twilley →

Fascinating article on what is arguably science’s biggest discovery of the decade:

The collaborators began the arduous process of double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking their data. “We’re saying that we made a measurement that is about a thousandth the diameter of a proton, that tells us about two black holes that merged over a billion years ago,” Reitze said. “That is a pretty extraordinary claim and it needs extraordinary evidence.”

No kidding.

Trek at 50: The quest for a unifying theory of time travel in Star Trek | Xaq Rzetelny →

I’m a sucker for time travel theories, and there’s enough of those here to keep you entertained until you really need to pee or your sanity goes, whichever comes first.

I spent a year listening to strangers tell stories they can’t share with anyone else | Helena Bala →

Great piece. Via Jorge Quinteros:

For a little over a year now, I’ve listened to strangers I meet on Craigslist tell me stories they’ve never told anyone before. I’ve interviewed someone who went through gender reassignment surgery and was falling in love for the very first time, as his true self. I’ve spoken with a man who had lost his wife to alcoholism and was struggling to rebuild his life without her. I cried when I spoke to a veteran who had lost both of his legs after serving two tours of combat abroad. My body shook with anger as I heard the confession of a father who had sexually abused his two daughters when they were young girls. I’ve heard stories about sexual abuse and mental illness, divorce and death, addiction and disability—stories that have left me in awe at the breadth and depth of humanity.

Read this one through to the end.

A polygamist cult’s last stand: the rise and fall of Warren Jeffs | Jesse Hyde →

This whole story is so surreal I can’t even begin to describe it:

But the FLDS isn’t expected to go without a fight. Once a fringe religious community seemingly stuck in time, Short Creek has fallen into a spell under its prophet, Warren Jeffs – a spindly, hollow-eyed man who allegedly runs the town despite serving a life sentence in Texas for multiple convictions of child rape. Jeffs has banned all TV and the Internet in Short Creek. His private security force roams the streets in SUVs with blacked-out windows, enforcing church discipline and tailing anyone who passes through town. FLDS members who disobey his word are banished.

The Leica Q: a six month field test | Craig Mod →

To end things on a decidedly happier mood, check out this beautifully photographed and incredibly well-written review of the Leica Q:

I believe that in hindsight — and I realize this sounds kind of crazy, as if I’ve binge-inhaled all of the Leica Kool-Aid at once — the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.

Fire up the percolator, pour over another single-origin, steep some English Breakfast, or just grab a flask of rye and your pitchforks and let’s deconstruct this beautiful thing.

Let’s indeed.

Now, I’m not a fan of the Q, by any means, but even I have to admit it is one good-looking camera indeed. If only it had a 35mm lens and I had a few thousand dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I might even be tempted to buy it.

Actually, nope, probably not even then. But damn, is it beautiful.

Afterword

Another week has gone by, one that was mostly spent taking care of things outside this Internet realm of ours.

Besides that, my next review for Tools & Toys is already in the final stage, so I’ll probably spend the remainder of the weekend tweaking the last few details. I honestly can’t say enough good things about the Sony FE 70-200mm F4 lens. No matter how you slice it, it’s an incredibly impressive piece of glass.

I’ve also been working on a special project I’m really excited about, and I do hope to have some more news for you very soon. I do apologize for being so cryptic, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

Until then, have a fantastic weekend, and thank you for reading.

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