The elephant and the mouse

October 20, 2015

Over the past week I witnessed one of the most uncomfortable and unpleasant controversies of the past few months unfold before my very eyes, and it’s left me feeling uneasy ever since.

On October 13th, precisely one week ago to the day, Marco Arment published an explanatory piece, titled “Pragmatic app pricing”, on the reasons behind his change of business model for Overcast 2.0. You should go read it now if you still haven’t, because the rest of this article largely hinges on what you make of Marco’s words from that piece. Here’s a relevant fragment:

Similar reasoning as last year guided me on this year’s model:

  • I’m not doing anything that other developers can’t do.

  • Nobody is entitled to keep their market share, including me. It’s a constant battle to get and keep customers in a crowded market, and I need to ensure that I don’t fall behind.

  • My previous headlining features are being implemented by more competitors, and this will only increase over time.

Some might say those are the words of a smart businessman doing what he needs to do in order to give his app the best possible chance at long term success. There’s a bit of nuance to that argument, but in my opinion those people would be mostly right. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Other people, however, might argue that Marco’s piece is uncharacteristically defensive and somehow feels off right from the start. They would be right, too.

Both groups have a point, but admittedly I’m leaning more towards the latter. I can’t help but feel that Marco’s second post was unnecessary, mostly because he had already explained his reasons for the change when he announced Overcast 2.0, back on October 9th. This is what he wrote then (emphasis his):

80% of my customers were using an inferior app. The limited, locked version of Overcast without the purchase sure wasn’t the version I used, it wasn’t a great experience, and it wasn’t my best work.

With Overcast 2.0, I’ve changed that by unlocking everything, for everyone, for free. I’d rather have you using Overcast for free than not using it at all, and I want everyone to be using the good version of Overcast.

That right there is all the explanation anyone needed. Of course, many were left wanting to know more, but here’s the thing: we’re not entitled to know any more than Marco feels comfortable sharing with us at any given time. All good businessmen keep a few cards close to their chest because, guess what, that’s how the game is played.

As Elbert Hubbard once said:

Never explain — your friends do not need it and you enemies will not believe you anyway.

What, then, compelled Marco to write and publish his explanatory piece? He’s a smart man, surely he must have known he stood to gain very little from elaborating any further than he already had, right?

I don’t think Marco had a problem with people judging his business decisions, it’s the implied character judgement that goes with it that got to him. The notion that, even if it made sense from a business standpoint, his actions were somehow ethically wrong, and what that says about him as a person.

When you’re attacked on a personal level, defending yourself is an instinctive reaction. And so he did.

However, the more you explain yourself, the more opportunities you give people to poke holes in your narrative. And when someone does so successfully and others seem to agree, the feeling of being under attack only intensifies, as does the instinct to respond in kind.

Samantha Bielefeld was one of those people. On October 14th, she published a piece on her blog, titled The Elephant in the Room, where she thoroughly dissected Marco’s argument from the day before. Again, if you haven’t read her piece, you definitely should.

Samantha made the perfectly valid point that no, what Marco is doing is not something any developer could successfully do, and is instead made possible by the privileged position — totally earned, but privileged nonetheless — he occupies in the iOS development scene.

That’s a fair point, even if it was made somewhat harshly. There was one particular section in her piece that many considered in poor taste, where she discussed Marco’s finances. This was unfortunate, mostly because it wasn’t really necessary to make her point, and all it achieved was polarizing many people against her. You see, for all the talk about transparency and honesty on the web, nobody likes to talk about actual money.

It may have been an unfortunate move — and she admitted as much — but it shouldn’t detract from the validity of her point. Marco does, in fact, enjoy a position most iOS developers can only dream of and as such, the opportunities available to him and the impact of his actions in the community cannot in good faith be compared to those of the vast majority of indie developers out there.

The legitimacy of Marco’s position was never in doubt, mind you: Samantha explicitly acknowledged that he has earned every bit of his success, and I have enjoyed and admired his work for years, ever since I first installed Instapaper on my iPhone 3G.

It’s been a long road, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that Marco’s stature as an indie developer has grown dramatically since the early days of the App Store. Whenever he does or even says something these days, there’s a ripple effect that can be felt throughout the entire community. With many thousands of well-deserved customers, followers, readers, and listeners, he is very much the elephant in the room now, as Phil Schiller so adequately put it.

And yet, even something as big as an elephant can feel threatened by a mouse.

Perhaps that explains why Marco felt the need to respond to Samantha, instead of merely ignoring her. We’ll never know what would have happened if Marco had just gone on with his day instead of engaging her, but count me in with Ben Brooks: if past Internet history is any indication, I believe the whole thing would have probably died out without causing much trouble for him.

But he did engage her, and so the storm began. What followed was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and, frankly, appalling public exchanges I’ve seen in a long time.

Samantha initially held her ground, no doubt emboldened by conviction in her argument. She may have felt strong against Marco, but at the end of the day she remained a mouse, and Marco an elephant. Their relative strengths were never equal, and so when Marco’s followers joined in the fight, it was all over for Samantha. Any hopes she may have had that her point would be fairly considered went out the window the minute the @-replies and emails started coming in, and every minute Marco and the rest of his high-profile Twitter friends stood there and watched — if not actively encouraged it — made matters much worse.

Of course, the aforementioned passage where Samantha discussed Marco’s income didn’t do her any favors, and soon the whole conversation centered exclusively around that, ignoring her greater point and giving everyone an excuse to have a bit of fun at her expense. Then it became a matter of joking about Marco’s money and/or popularity, something I’m afraid I’m also guilty of.1

But it wasn’t all fun, certainly not for Samantha. Soon after the jokes, the threats started coming in. And that’s just something you don’t let happen, whether you’re responsible for it or not. If you have an inkling at all that something like this is going on around you, it is your obligation — your responsibility even, as Matt Gemmell put it — to try and put an end to it any way you can. Which is why Marco’s silence during all this was, and continues to be, so deafening.2

I know none of this will probably make a difference — I am, after all, just another little mouse in a world filled with elephants with much louder voices — but I do want to make my position clear to my readers. I don’t want to remain silent or ambiguous on this; I think it’s the very least I can do.

If you’re harassing Samantha over something as petty and inconsequential as this, you seriously need to stop. It’s not something any civilized person should ever do, and there’s no scenario where such actions could possibly be justified. So, please, just stop.

I love Marco’s work, and have the utmost respect for him as a developer. In my opinion, he is in the wrong here, and though I could perhaps understand the reasons behind his actions, that doesn’t justify them in any way. I do hope he reconsiders and publicly calls upon his followers to stop such a horrible behavior immediately.

As for Samantha, I’m sorry my unfortunate tweet contributed to the misdirection that was going on, even if it was unwittingly. I hope she continues to write and speak her mind, because I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading her words. Great, honest writing is too scarce a resource these days, and I definitely hope she sticks around.

This was all deeply regrettable, and it should have been handled much better by everyone involved, myself included. There’s still time to make things right, though, but now the ball is in Marco’s court. I just hope he picks it up before it’s too late.

  1. 1) Yes, that typo will haunt me forever. 2) In my defense, I have to say I had no idea what was going on then, which should tell you just how effectively the noise created by Marco’s followers managed to drown out Samantha’s initial point.

  2. Much to his credit, John Siracusa did publicly ask his followers to stop harassing Samantha.

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Leica announces new SL Full Frame mirrorless camera →

October 20, 2015 |

This is interesting. Leica just unveiled the Leica SL, a new mirrorless camera designed with professionals in mind, along with three new SL lenses, including a new 50mm f/1.4 Summilux that they’re labeling as “the new reference lens of this focal length”, and that looks absolutely amazing.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that Leica somehow managed to make the new SL camera compatible with all existing T-mount lenses without the need for an adapter. Considering the Leica T has an APS-C sensor, I wonder how they’ve managed to cover the entire Full Frame sensor of the Leica SL with those lenses without suffering from severe vignetting.

My best guess is that they may have recessed the sensor of the SL deeper into the body, but I’m not sure that would work, since the focusing plane would be off with T lenses. Another alternative is that T lenses may have been designed with Full Frame coverage right from the start, which would show impressive foresight on Leica’s part. Whatever the case, I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.

However, it needs to be said: with nearly identical specs and features, the new SL clearly seems to be Leica’s answer to the Sony A7-series. If you wanted a Leica-branded Sony A7 — and many people sure looked like they did — I suspect this is as close as it gets.

We still need to see how well it performs, but for now, the Leica SL looks like an interesting product, if one clearly aimed at photographers with several thousand dollars to spare.

The new Leica SL is available for preorder at B&H for $7,450. It will begin shipping on November 21st.

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Shawn Blanc and Mike Vardy announce The Awareness Building Class →

October 20, 2015 |

Exciting new project by Shawn Blanc and Mike Vardy:

The Awareness Building Class is a 5-part series of audio teachings filled with real-life stories and actionable advice to help you stop guessing and start going.

Perfect description, although of course there’s much more to it than that. Follow the title link to check out everything that’s built into the class. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.

Plus, as a nice added bonus, if you’ve already done The Focus Course or sign up for it before October 26 (next Monday), you get the class for free.

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My review of Peak Design’s Capture camera clip was published today at Tools & Toys. This small accessory was something I purchased a few months ago, mostly out of curiosity, but it has grown to become essential in my kit. These days I can’t imagine going out for a shoot without having it attached to my bag.

It’s surprising just how often you need to use your hands on any given shoot. The Capture is a fantastic way to quickly and securely set your camera aside for a moment, and do whatever it is you need to do without being worried about dropping it. It provides essential peace of mind, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.

If you’re interested in something like that — and you probably should be — head on over to Tools & Toys for the full review.

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October 17, 2015

How many ways are there to start a weekly linkage piece? It turns out, more than I thought, but not nearly as many as I hoped.

Every week I try to find an original, kind-of-witty introduction to ease the reader into the piece. This week, alas, I’m fresh out of ideas, so there will be no remarks about the quietness of summer, the busyness of autumn, or the closeness of the holiday season. Nope.

Instead, I propose we simply dive into the week’s most interesting pieces of writing right away. Imagine that.

Issue #19: More iPhone reviews, Marco’s Controversy of the Week, the troubled state of the web, and blowing up the Universe

This issue starts off with some more iPhone reviews, followed by a couple pieces on Apple as a company. Then it’s time for the controversy of the week: Marco Arment and his new business strategy for Overcast. This segues nicely into two more pieces on the reality of abuse on Twitter and the problems that arise when companies and products cater exclusively to male audiences. Finally, we explore some more personal topics, and we finish on a lighter note by drinking our whisky neat and destroying the Universe.

Wait, what?


The iPhone 6S | Josh Ginter →

Great review by Josh, as usual. I find it particularly interesting that this is the first piece I’ve come across where someone who last year went with the iPhone 6 Plus decided to switch to the smaller iPhone 6S this time.

Everybody else who jumped to the bigger iPhone last year, like Relay FM’s Stephen Hackett and, famously, Myke Hurley, seem to still be absolutely convinced that the Plus is the better device. That’s all well and good, but I suspect that for some of those people, at least on a subconscious level, there may be a bit of post-purchase rationalization going on.

The Plus is an awesome device, but its tradeoffs in terms of size are significant. That so many people are dismissing it as a mere inconvenience you can get used to reeks of cognitive bias to me.

For that reason, it is refreshing to see a different take on this. Josh is a person who isn’t afraid to question his own assumptions, which is why his reviews are always so insightful. Here’s what he has to say about his choice this time around:

So I’ll take the next year to decide if the 6s is the superior of the two iPhones. When it’s time to write a review of the iPhone 7, I’m sure I’ll be left with the same conclusion as today: Apple’s continual improvements have made the iPhone the most widely loved smartphone on the planet, and having to choose between the two sizes is more a lesson in knowing who you are and what you like than defining which is technically superior.

A level deeper | M.G. Siegler →

M.G. Siegler also shared his thoughts on the iPhone 6S/6S Plus earlier in the week. Good read:

But I know I’m an extreme case and not everyone is willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone each year (though the new-style subsidies probably make it even more attractive). To those folks, I normally wouldn’t recommend an “s” upgrade if you just bought the last version of the iPhone. But this year, thanks solely to 3D Touch, things may be different. This is the future of not only this device, but all devices.

The inside story of Apple’s new iMacs | Stephen Levi →

Great piece by Stephen Levi over at Backchannel:

There are many reasons why Apple is the world’s most valuable company. Tim Cook is celebrated as a supply chain Maester who has internalized the focus on innovation that his predecessor inculcated in the culture. Jony Ive has drawn global raves for making Apple a design icon. Its marketing and branding practices set industry standards. But a visit to the lab where its legacy products — computers — are made suggests another reason.

Sweating the details.

On Apple’s insurmountable platform advantage | Steve Cheney →

Great piece by Steve Cheney:

In 2007, when Steve Ballmer famously declared “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance”, Jobs was off creating a chip design team. If you study unit economics of semiconductors, it doesn’t really make sense to design chips and compete with companies like Intel unless you can make it up in volume. Consider the audacity back in 2007 for Apple to believe it could pull this off. How would they ever make back the R&D to build out a team and pay for expensive silicon designs over the long run, never mind design comparative performing chips? Well today we know. Apple makes nearly 100% of the profit in the entire smartphone space.

It is – in fact – these chip making capabilities, which Jobs brought in-house shortly after the launch of the original iPhone, that have helped Apple create a massive moat between itself and an entire industry.

Apple’s in-house chip design expertise was and continues to be instrumental to Apple’s success, and yet most people seem to be oblivious to this fact. If you want to compete in the smartphone business with Apple, using off-the-shelf components isn’t going to cut it. The problem is, building your own chip design team takes years. That’s why Apple continues to be well ahead of the curve in terms of performance: this expertise is something their competitors simply can’t copy.

Pragmatic app pricing | Marco Arment →

Marco stoked quite the fire the other day when he announced his new business model for Overcast, which is based on the idea of patronage. In an attempt to clear things up, he wrote this follow-up piece explaining his reasoning:

I’m trying not to repeat my mistakes, and one of the biggest mistakes I made was putting short-term gain from paid-app sales above long-term growth. I watched my biggest competitor clone all of my features, raise VC money, and hire a staff. I knew he’d go completely free months before he did. He wasn’t doing anything I couldn’t do, but I wasn’t doing it. I knew I was vastly outgunned, but I just sat back and let it happen.

Ah, the inevitable race to the bottom. There’s a lot more nuance to this issue than Marco would have you believe here, but I trust his motivation to be genuine. Still, that doesn’t take away from the uncomfortable fact that one of the most influential iOS app developers just told the world that he believes apps should be free if they want to have a shot at long-term success.

That’s a very, very dangerous statement and, although I know Marco isn’t suggesting his idea applies to every indie app out there, the reality is his words carry far more weight than even he seems to realize.

The elephant in the room | Samantha Bielefeld →

Samantha Bielefeld had a problem with Marco’s narrative in the above piece, and the consequences his actions may have on his competitors and the podcasting app market in general.

This article earned Samantha tons of criticism, most of it pretty nasty, from Marco’s followers. It’s unfortunate that these things continue to happen whenever someone — particularly a smart woman — dares share her opinion online. As a community, we really need to put and end to this shameful behavior, and the sooner the better.

Enraged Internet people aside, be sure to also read Samantha’s follow up post, where she clears a few things up, restates her point, and lays out her theory for the future of Overcast. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest, which is more than I can say about those attacking her.

Why Twitter’s dying (and what you can learn from it) | Umair Haque →

Fantastic piece:

Here’s my tiny theory, in a word. Abuse. And further, I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates.

To explain, let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web… and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.

Many people lead a pleasant everyday existence on Twitter, but for many others, Twitter is a cesspool of abuse, filled with threats, fear, and violence. And this is a problem that won’t go away on its own.

When things you love stop being yours | Chris Brosnahan →

Another great article by Chris, on the recent shift that we’re starting to see — even if just barely — in comics, video games, and even wrestling, from a focus on a male-first or male-only audience in order to be more inclusive:

I have never seen anything like this in wrestling before.

Nor in comics.

And this is my complaint.

What the hell took so long?

There’s nothing to gain by limiting your audience. Nothing. When you look at anything – be it movies, books, horror, wrestling, comics, or (and yes, this is a big one) videogames – the longer that it’s purely aimed at young (and, in my case, not so young) men, the longer it becomes a defensive monoculture.


An open letter to my daughters | Erin Brooks →

What a beautiful letter:

The truth is, for your whole life at times, you will feel uncertain. You will battle your body. You will see images plastered everywhere of women who you don’t, and can’t, look like, because even they don’t and can’t, and are a product of photoshop, and an industry that provides them with an entire team of people to keep them at an almost-starving body weight. They risk losing their careers if they don’t maintain that weight. Isn’t that terrible? I would hate to live with so much pressure and fear.

Break | Matt Gemmell →

Deeply personal — and moving — article from Matt. This is one of those pieces that don’t deserve to be spoiled, so go ahead and read it in full.

The nonsense of “smooth” whisky | Mark Bylok →

Now, let’s go for a more light-hearted topic. Mark Bylok’s recently revamped site has been wonderful to read these past few months. Take this piece, for example, on how the popular trend towards smooth, flavored whiskies is deeply misguided:

When I run whisky tastings, there’s often a group of people that are new to the whisky world. I encourage them to drink their whisky straight, without water or ice, to get a flavour for what whisky tastes like on its own.

An interesting thing happens when new whisky drinkers have their whisky straight. Those cheaper products taste about the same as they remember them—one note, not entirely fun to drink. The more expensive sipping whiskies are not without harshness, they often contain even more alcohol by volume, but there’s flavour there to reward the tastebuds.

Palates are adjusting. With the enjoyment of higher proof and flavour-forward whiskies comes the appreciation of what’s inside the glass.

I couldn’t agree more. Over the summer, particularly on those unbearable tropical nights, I drifted towards drinking my whisky with ice. That had nothing to do with me wanting the drink to be smoother, though, I just wanted it to be slightly cooler to better cope with the heat.

Now that the nights are getting chillier once again, I’m back to drinking my whisky neat, as one should, and I’m finding I very rarely need to add water anymore, something I also used to do quite often when I first started my whisky journey.

I’ve always enjoyed pure flavors, and drinks that stay true to their original character. In that sense, I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s take.

Proton Earth, electron Moon | Randall Munroe →

This week’s What If? set a new record for the most destructive scenario to date. So great.

Revisiting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in Moldova | Jordan Steele →

Great reminder that we don’t need the latest and greatest equipment to capture great photos.


Today I want to talk to you about something important: empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That’s a very succinct definition, but it perfectly encapsulates the reasons behind the incidents we’re seeing time and time again on the web, particularly on Twitter.

You see, Twitter makes it awfully easy to not empathize with a person. The whole system is designed with bluntness in mind: you only get 140 characters to make your point, so there’s hardly any room for subtlety or nuance. Instead, all that is left are raw, elemental ideas, the very essence of what would otherwise be a several-paragraph-long argument.

That’s precisely what made Twitter so incredibly popular to begin with, and why it continues to be the Internet’s preferred medium for exchanging ideas and broadcasting unfiltered thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason Twitter has become the preferred medium for harassing, attacking and abusing people.

When you don’t have to see the real person in front of you, it’s so much easier to be hurtful, and aggressive. When the system, by design, allows you to insult someone and then blissfully move on with your day with zero repercussions, it’s hardly a surprise to find out that some people actually do so.

I believe the vast majority of individuals who insult and harass other people online wouldn’t have the courage to say and do those things to the other person’s face. That would require a much greater effort on their part to suppress their empathy. It would require them to be willfully, consciously inhumane and cruel to a fellow human being, which is something that, luckily, very few people in this world can stomach. At least, that’s what I choose to believe. Then again, I was always an optimist.

I was tempted to use the expression “in real life” before, but I immediately realized it was the wrong thing to say. Saying Twitter is different from “real life” is giving ammunition to those who enjoy making fun of others, as if the impact of their actions is somehow lessened by the fact that they were only done jokingly on an irrelevant forum.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is 2015, and Twitter is very much real life. For many of us, it’s actually the primary way we interact with many of our colleagues, friends, and even family members every day. The times when you could brush aside what happened on the Internet as irrelevant and negate the impact it had on your very real life are long gone, I suspect never to return.

We need to start acknowledging that fact, and we need to start now. If a person’s actions could land them in jail — or, at the very least, in front of a judge — in real life, then our reaction should be exactly the same when it happens online. There’s just no discernible difference between the two anymore, and it doesn’t make any sense to continue pretending there is.

Impunity needs to stop, and as soon as it does, many of those instances of harassment will probably disappear with it.

Online harassers are real people, and I’m sure the majority of them don’t see themselves as particularly bad persons, either. But they’re taking advantage — consciously or not — of the fact that the system makes it incredibly easy for them to just not care. To have a few laughs at other people’s expense and just move on with their day.

It is a deeply flawed system that allows that to happen, and breaking that dynamic won’t be easy. Twitter the company bears some responsibility here, but the bigger battle will be fought by us, the people at large, every day. And if we hope to preserve what makes Twitter great, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.

That was intense. To finish the issue in better spirits, allow me to share a couple pictures from my last portrait session with you.

On Wednesday, I arranged a meeting with my friend Sabina and we headed to a nearby park. I took all my lenses with me, as well as, for the first time, a flash. I recently purchased a Sony HVL-F43M flash unit, and I have to say it adds a whole new dimension to the shooting experience.

By being able to actually manipulate the light in the scene, I’m finding I can create some images that were previously outside of my reach. I love the possibilities this has opened up for me, and I’m having so much fun with it in my shoots.

However, what I still can’t do is position the flash off-axis — that is, away from the camera and at an angle — because I would need something to trigger it with. Unfortunately, Sony flashes aren’t compatible with radio triggers, so it appears the only way forward is to buy a second flash unit to act as an optical trigger. And that’s where we have a problem.

I could buy an inexpensive flash like the Sony HVL-F20M, but that model won’t allow me to control the remote flashes’ power ratio in a multiple-light scene. I’m thinking my money would be better spent on another HVL-F43M, or perhaps on the slightly smaller Sony HVL-F32M. This model offers a better compromise between features and price, and is also smaller to boot, so it may not be a bad choice, after all. We’ll see.

Lighting in photography is a deep, deep rabbit’s hole, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it. For now, I’m content with what I already have, but the journey is only just beginning.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a peaceful weekend.

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Sigma announces new 20mm f/1.4 Art lens →

October 16, 2015 |

The excellent Art series of lenses from Sigma keeps growing. Today the company announced the latest addition to the lineup, the upcoming 20mm f/1.4 Art lens. This is the world’s first f/1.4 ultra-wide-angle lens for Full Frame DSLRs, which scores Sigma another nice win in the bragging rights department.

It’s still soon to tell if this new lens will be any good, but if the rest of Art lenses is anything to go by, it’s probably going to be a stunner.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is Sigma’s Mount Conversion Service, for which the new 20mm Art lens is eligible, along with the rest of the Art lenses and many others. This service means that, should you decide to change camera systems in the future, you’ll be able get your existing Sigma lenses converted from one mount to another by Sigma, enabling you to carry them over to your new camera system.

As of today, you can only get conversions to and from mounts that Sigma has already released in the market, meaning you can get a 35mm f/1.4 Art lens converted from Canon to Nikon mount, for example, but not to Sony’s E-mount, because that lens isn’t available for the E-mount yet. These limitations aside, that’s still a fantastic service, and one that only 3rd-party manufacturers can offer.

The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens will be available for Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts in mid-to-late November for $899, which will surely make it a red-hot holiday item among all super-wide-angle lovers out there. It is already available for preorder at B&H.

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Scientists at Stanford University present Real-time Expression Transfer for Facial Reenactment technique →

October 15, 2015 |

The futuristic news just keep piling on. Last month, Matthias Nießner of Standford University and several colleagues presented a mind-bending technique for copying facial expressions in real time from one actor to another:

We present a method for the real-time transfer of facial expressions from an actor in a source video to an actor in a target video, thus enabling the ad-hoc control of the facial expressions of the target actor. The novelty of our approach lies in the transfer and photo-realistic re-rendering of facial deformations and detail into the target video in a way that the newly-synthesized expressions are virtually indistinguishable from a real video.

If that sounds like science-fiction to you, you’re not alone. Take a look at this video showing the technique in action:

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Michael Ballaban test drives a Tesla with the new autopilot system →

October 15, 2015 |

Michael Ballaban reviews Tesla’s new autopilot system:

And it really is eerie at first, to be sitting in the driver’s seat and see the wheel moving itself. You see massive trucks to the left, and suicidal taxis to the right, and you know, you just know, that you’re going to smash into one of them and face a very apologetic Tesla representative in the passenger seat.

But you don’t. In the dash in front of you, the car actually gives you a display of what its onboard computer is seeing. You see displays of ultrasonic sensors firing off to the left and right of you, you see a generic illustration of the car in front of you halfway out of its own lane, and the car essentially reassures you – “it’s alright, I’ve got it, I see the chaotic trash soup surrounding us, and you’re not going to hit anything.”

Just crazy. Check out the accompanying video to get a better idea of how the system works:

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Alex Kantrowitz takes a look at “M”, Facebook Messenger’s new Virtual Assistant →

October 15, 2015 |

Speaking of the future, this exchange between BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz and M, the new Virtual Assistant in Facebook Messenger, is so good it’s actually spooky. Its context awareness is extremely impressive, and its natural language parsing appears to be flawless.

The fact that you can explicitly tell M not to save your personal information is another nice touch, especially considering this is Facebook we’re talking about. Of course, it would have been even better had it been the other way around — if M didn’t save your data unless you explicitly told it to.

That said, I don’t think we should expect things to be this smooth during uncontrolled exchanges in real life, but if Kantrowitz’s experience is anything to go by, I’d say M is off to an excellent start.

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