Bob Dylan’s Sinatra album →

February 04, 2015 |

Ben Greenman, The New Yorker:

Bob Dylan’s new album, “Shadows in the Night,” which comes out today, has been called his Frank Sinatra record. The album does includes (sic) ten songs all originally recorded by Sinatra, but it’s maybe more accurate to think of it as a conscious return to the compositions of the pre-rock era (or, if you prefer, the pre-Dylan era), much in the way that Dylan’s two early-nineties records, “Good As I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong,” were callbacks to country blues. The ten songs on the record are drawn from the mid-century songbook, giving Dylan an opportunity to demonstrate his kinship with that era, and to illustrate that these songs have always been part of his inheritance. While most of them, in their day, were recorded with orchestration, for this record he uses only his regular five-piece band and an occasional horn section. The over-all effect is both ephemeral and powerful.

I still can’t quite believe this album exists. Dylan and Sinatra are two of my all-time favorite artists, but they’re actually pretty different in terms of vocal quality and usual repertoire. I’m not sure how well this album will work — I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet — but I hope it’s more than just Dylan eviscerating some classic Sinatra songs.

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Jason Snell on Apple’s ‘product distortion field’ →

February 04, 2015 |

Jason Snell wrote a brilliant analysis on the effect that the overwhelming popularity of the iPhone could have in Apple’s corporate strategy going forward:

For the last two years, the iPhone has provided more than half of Apple’s corporate revenue, and in the most recent quarter it was more than two-thirds of the revenue. Apple is rapidly becoming iPhone Inc., maker of smartphones and… various other devices.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that the sheer gravity of the iPhone might perturb Apple’s business priorities, at least somewhat. The Mac and iPad are strong businesses on their own, but companies with one huge profit center and other smaller profit centers tend to prioritize the biggest item. I’m not saying that Apple is ignoring the Mac and iPad—I really do believe that Apple is very good at seeing the forest for the trees. But I do think that the iPhone’s phenomenal success has to have some effect in company strategy.

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How not to respond to a job rejection email →

February 04, 2015 |

Jolene Creighton, editor of the wonderful science-themed website From Quarks to Quasars, sent a polite rejection letter to a freelance job applicant and things quickly took a turn for the worse:

I am posting this because I want people to see how women are treated online. The number of times that I have received gender based insults from people on the internet is horrifying. Receiving even one is horrifying. But it’s not just the gender based insults, because the sexism would be there even without the insults. It’s in the tone that he adopts — the arrogant, authoritative, “king of all he surveys” attitude. And I don’t think that we can separate this individual’s response from his gender. While, in my own experiences with my peers, I feel accepted and respected, I still feel that this is an issue that needs some addressing and should be acknowledged.

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Erin Brooks reviews the Nikon FE film camera →

February 03, 2015 |

Erin Brooks published a fantastic article about her 1970’s Nikon FE film camera:

When a film image comes out right, it’s like I can feel it. It escorts me back to the moment I snapped that thoughtful shot. I can almost feel my baby’s chubby, softer-than-velvet cheeks, see the twinkle in her wide eyes as she experiences life with a newness only a baby can, hear her sweet baby coos as she learns to use her voice, and it takes my breath away. And I get to keep that moment, and live it again and again, forever.

Because so much of photography is in the eye of the photographer, and because film takes so much thought, I feel like not only do film photos have soul, they capture a bit of the photographer’s soul, too. They allow an outsider to see with the same eyes as the photographer, to live in her shoes, feel what she feels, for just a snippet of time. It’s romantic. It’s pure. Film photos have a life, realness, grittiness, and emotion to them.

I couldn’t agree more. Erin’s article mirrors my own feelings on the matter of film photography pretty closely. Also, don’t miss the incredibly emotional images of her beautiful children.

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Riding Light →

February 03, 2015 |

“Riding Light” is a mesmerizing video by Alphonse Swinehart depicting the journey of light across the Solar System in real time, from the Sun’s core until it passes Jupiter’s orbit. Such an incredible journey takes an impressive 45 minutes and it doesn’t even come close to reaching Saturn. It kind of puts the speed of light in perspective when pitted against the vast scale of the Universe. Via Kottke:

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How Jason Snell edits his podcasts →

February 03, 2015 |

Jason’s next article in his series on podcasting is a very detailed review of his editing process, and it’s awesome. Before you rush to open your editing app of choice though, be sure to keep this in mind:

Not to get all philosophical on you, but editing audio is a lot of work, and depending on what kind of a podcast you’re producing, most of it is probably not necessary. Just because you can edit a podcast within an inch of its life—clearing out pauses, removing every um and uh and awkward pause and spoken digression—doesn’t mean you must.

People speak with pauses and ums, with tangents and elliptical phraseology. Our brains are really, really good at taking all of that input and smoothing it out into something understandable. You could even argue that with too much editing, speaking starts to sound artificial and alien, because it no longer sounds like what we hear coming out of people’s mouths every day.

Agreed. The main differentiating feature of Overcast, my podcast player of choice for iOS, is Smart Speed. This feature is supposed to automatically trim these small pauses and do some editing on-the-fly to reduce the time it takes to play a given episode.

Smart Speed in Overcast works great and yet, I hardly ever use it. I actually enjoy listening to those little pauses, ums and uhs, because they reveal a lot about the person who’s talking. It’s like getting a little bit closer to that person’s train of thought, and I find it very interesting.

So yeah, I’m very much in favor of minimal editing in podcasting. Podcasts are not scripted shows, and there’s no compelling reason to make them sound like they are.

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The GORUCK GR1 review on Tools & Toys →

February 03, 2015 |

Speaking of gorgeous reviews, Ben Brooks did a great take on the GORUCK GR1 for Tools & Toys:

What makes the GR1 great is its versatility. I have no qualms about doing anything with this bag. I’ve taken it hiking and traveling, to on job interviews, and to the park where my kid saw fit to drag it through the mud. It still looks the same as it did when it was new. It still functions the same.

Every little thing works. I can just as easily use this bag for clothes as I can bricks, as I can a laptop, or as I can with other delicate and expensive gadgets. The GR1 became my only bag, not because it was the perfect bag, but because it can be any kind of bag I need it to be.

This is exactly right. I don’t personally own the GR1, because I needed a smaller bag and I went for the GR Echo instead. Since I already own a GR2 and a GR Echo, buying the GR1 always seemed a bit excessive. However, it’s true that the GR2 is too big for everyday use and the Echo is too small for travel, and I do miss having a bag that is just the right size for almost everything. After reading Ben’s excellent review, I may have to reconsider my position.

As a side note, I’m really loving the Tools & Toys reviews lately. The thought and care that go into every article really shine through, and the standards are incredibly high. This is why I’m so proud to be a contributor to the site.

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Analog Life reviews the Jawbone UP24 activity tracker →

February 03, 2015 |

Analog Life is a brand-new website about the “analog divide,” the spaces where our virtual and real worlds diverge and meet. It’s barely a week old, but Chris is already doing an amazing job with it, and his review of the Jawbone UP24 is a perfect example.

This is a great review on so many levels. The photography is downright gorgeous, and it provides plenty of useful information about the product without sugarcoating it. Here’s an excerpt I found particularly interesting:

Unfortunately, the food entry process is arduous. While the catalog of ingredients is extensive and includes a surprising number of brand-specific nutritional data, I have found many cases where the default serving information is incorrect. You must also be online to enter food, and then you must manually enter each ingredient unless you are entering a very well known dish, or a popular meal from a well-established franchise restaurant. Further, once you’ve added all of the ingredients, then you must separately go in and tweak the quantities involved. On top of all of this, there is no way to group commonly eaten ingredients into a “meal.” For example, I routinely have whey protein powder, milk, peanut butter and a banana blended into a morning smoothie. I would love to be able to group these ingredients into an object titled, “Breakfast Smoothie,” and have the application remember its ingredients. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This part of the application is a bit messy, time-consuming, and frankly a deterrent to using this otherwise remarkably useful feature.

I’ve never been terribly interested in activity-tracking devices for this particular reason. Many of the features they promise assume users are accurately logging their meals in the system, but I have never found this to be the case.

Back when I worked at the university, one of the first research projects I was involved in was PREDIRCAM, a health-tracking platform designed to provide tele-medical assistance for people at risk of developing type-2 diabetes. I was in charge of developing the fitness-tracking module, and back then we used Polar RS400 heart-rate monitors to log the amount of exercise users did every day.1

Development of the fitness-tracking module was relatively straightforward, but the diet-logging module turned out to be a nightmare for all the reasons Chris mentions in the above excerpt. Our test users, all of them technically-savvy young people, needed between 4 and 7 minutes to log each meal in the system. When you need to go through such an incredibly cumbersome process just to log a meal, user engagement drops dramatically and in fact, most users are very likely to simply stop logging meals altogether after a few days. At this point the activity tracking itself becomes less useful and starts losing appeal, in some cases even compromising the entire experience.

For what it’s worth, this is clearly what we saw in the pilot study: it all starts and ends with the diet. The reality is that this is a very, very difficult problem to solve and in fact, all major manufacturers of activity-tracking devices are still struggling big-time in this area. While tracking technology has improved dramatically, lifestyle and dietary logging are still very much in their infancy. Until somebody manages to come up with a simple, intuitive and effective way for users to log their meals, these platforms will be unable to realize their full potential.

  1. Keep in mind that development started back in early 2008, when there was still no Fitbit, no Nike Fuelband and no Jawbone Up, and the fitness-tracking capabilities of most phones were laughably limited.

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Lucid Mediocrity

February 02, 2015

Over the weekend, Kevin Wammer posted a great inspirational video based on a famous series of comments made by American radio and television presenter Ira Glass a few years ago. The video is very reminiscent of Apple’s own “Designed by Apple” video and though I liked it a lot, I prefer this one where you can see Ira Glass himself, making the same observations in their original context.

It’s hard to argue with the message being conveyed here by Mr. Glass, and I definitely recommend watching the entire session (it’s a 4-part video) for even more context on the whole thing.

The gist of it though, is that beginners in any creative discipline usually lack the ability to produce great output, but not the taste to recognize it. This is a great point and I’d like to elaborate on it a bit more using my own creative struggles as an example.

It’s true that people who do creative work usually have great taste, and that can lead them to be too hard on themselves. When all we see are our own shortcomings it’s pretty difficult to get anything done, and that’s a recipe for disaster. In those cases, as Mr. Glass so deftly put it, the only way to close the gap between our creative ambition and our current skill is to do a lot of work and just push through that stage.

However, our taste also evolves as we grow, shifting our perspective and inching the finish line ever so slightly farther away from our reach. How then, can we ever feel creatively satisfied with our own work?

It’s all about putting things in perspective.

Boldly mediocre

Whenever I look back on my own work, I invariably get a sense of profound discontent, quickly followed by a splash of shame and a stern conversation with myself along the lines of “wait a second, how in the world did I publish this terrible piece? What the hell was I thinking?” If you do creative work of any kind, this will be a very familiar conversation.

In that moment it’s easy to be discouraged from ever publishing anything again, but the key thing to remember is that this is a good thing, a sign of healthy progress. We should always feel embarrassed of our previous work, because it means we’ve moved on since then. It means we’re capable of greater things now. Looking back, we should get a very clear sense of improvement which ought to be a source of encouragement, not shame.

John Siracusa made a very similar observation during episode 95 of ATP (about one hour and 14 minutes in), when they were talking about Casey Liss removing Fast Text from the App Store because he didn’t want people to associate his name with something he isn’t proud of anymore:

I’ve always considered it a badge of honor, a desirable trait. If you’re a programmer you should always look back at the code you wrote in the past and think it’s bad because if you don’t, that means you’re not getting any better. So if you look at the code you wrote last year, you should find problems with it now that you didn’t find then. If you look at the code you wrote five years ago, it should look disgusting. If you look at the code you wrote ten years ago, it should look like nonsense and you can’t even believe you’re the same person who wrote it. That should be true for the life of a working programmer.

Exactly. Programming is very much a creative field, after all, and the same rules apply just as well.

Another such field is photography. It’s been an area of intense interest to me over the past few months, and a good chunk of my personal time every day is invested in trying to learn new things. Every time I go out with a camera, I try to experiment and force myself out of my comfort zone. I keep questioning what I think I already know and trying to find different ways to do things. It’s fascinating, and also a ton of fun.

Lately I’ve been really getting into film photography, and the other day I published the first part of what I hope will be a long series of articles called Adventures in Film Photography. Now, I’m reasonably happy with how the article and the pictures turned out, but I can definitely see there’s room for improvement. All those pictures will probably look like crap to me in just a few months, but that’s ok. I’m giving myself permission to suck here because it’s the only way I’m ever going to learn.1 And I’m forcing myself to publish my efforts because it’s a great way to keep me honest and reliably measure my progress.

To further prove my point, yesterday I scanned another roll of Kodak Tri-X film and among other things, this came out:

Vespa and the Sol Apple Store

It’s a seemingly simple, almost mundane image of a Vespa motorcycle in Sol Square, Madrid. In the background you can see the brand-new Sol Apple Store, and that’s pretty much it.

It may not be much, but for some reason I really like that picture. A couple months ago I never would have though I could take an image like this with an all-mechanical film camera, but here it is. Sadly, when I look back on it six months from now I’ll probably think it looks terrible and I will regret publishing these words but so what? They’re true today and it’s important I acknowledge that.

I know I’m not a good photographer yet, but I hope to be one some day, and this is how I’ll get there. That’s why the picture is going to stay on this website: to remind me where I’m coming from, and to get me where I want to go.

Still, even though deep down I know all of this, it’s sometimes easy to miss the positive aspect and get stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-doubt. That’s when community becomes important.

Give it to me straight

Creative people rarely thrive in isolation, because our sense of taste is nurtured by our continued exposure to other people’s work. It is through them that we get inspired to do better, and we often rely on them to keep us honest about the work we do. Truly great creative work can’t be done in a vacuum.

As you’ve seen, I routinely post some of my pictures here, often accompanying articles that have little to do with photography themselves. Some other times though, photography is deeply embedded in the fabric of the article as well, which is when everything needs to work together seamlessly.

One such article was “Building a lightweight photography kit for the urban professional”, and it was one of the first serious articles I published after I started working full-time on Analog Senses. I put quite a bit of effort into it, and I distinctly remember feeling proud of it, even going as far as to cold-email Ben Brooks about it. Ben is, in my book, the one person to go to for 100% honest, no-bullshit feedback and I was genuinely curious — and downright terrified — to see what he thought about it.

It turned out, Ben liked the article enough to link to it on The Brooks Review, which was a massive confidence boost for me at a time when I really needed it. Of course, looking back at that same article now, I’m definitely happy I published it and still think it has merit, but there are also a million things I would do differently.

For example, I now cringe a little bit when I look at some of the photos. The framing, the colors, the post-processing… Everything seems slightly off, as if it wasn’t really me who took them. I suppose that’s great, because it means I’ve grown as a photographer since then. I certainly have no intention of going back to “fix it”, as I believe in letting my work be true to itself and more importantly, be a reflection of who I was at the time. Plus, if I had to fix everything I don’t like about my past work I would never get anything done.

Building a lightweight photography kit for the urban professional

I don’t know what I like better, if the cord plugged into the wall socket, the fact that the chair is not straight, the overly saturated red color of the chair which looks nothing like real life (it’s actually orange), or the sunlight entering through the window to add absolutely nothing to the overall picture.

I’m well aware of my own shortcomings, both current and past, which is why I sometimes don’t handle praise very well. Similarly, it’s sometimes hard for me to handle criticism and I tend to get defensive about things, even if I don’t always say it out loud. Both of these are boneheaded moves that actually hurt my growth as a creative person instead of helping it. They come from a place of insecurity and they’re debilitating character traits that I’m always trying to overcome.

The reality is, we could all use some more honesty on the Internet, even if it means getting our feelings hurt every now and then. It’s only through honest, constructive feedback that we get to improve upon our efforts and eventually, close the gap between our creative ambition and our creative output. Likewise, it’s only through community feedback that we get to experience the delight that comes with putting something of value out there, and we need to learn to simply enjoy those moments without second-guessing everything.

Permission to suck

There’s no question every creative discipline presents a learning curve. Whenever we set out to do something new, there’s a fairly high probability we’re not going to be able to just wing it and suddenly become masters in our field of choice. Chances are, our first published article won’t earn us a Pulizter prize, and our first Flickr upload won’t be featured on the cover of National Geographic. In the beginning, our work is way more likely to suck than to be awesome, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s also no question we all have the potential to get better at any given skill through tenacity and practice. It’s sometimes easy to attribute our current inability to produce great creative output to a lack of talent or capacity on our part, but that’s usually not the case at all. We see our work with its million imperfections and we mistakenly assume that’s the best we can do so what’s the point in even trying. This is an absolutely toxic way of looking at things, and it will lead to failure every time.

Finally, it’s true that our sense of taste is often our own worst enemy. The more insightful and discerning we are, the more unforgiving our taste is towards our own work. We really are our own worst critics. However, no matter how great or how awful our current and past efforts may seem to us, the truth is we’re probably only at the beginning of the learning curve, and we still have miles to go before hitting our talent ceiling.

Actually, I don’t even believe in such a thing as a talent ceiling. Creative disciplines are ever-changing, and the day we stop trying to get better at something is the day the ceiling is set for us, with only ourselves to blame.

The creative life is a constant quest for improvement, and if we persevere, the quest can last a lifetime. We simply need to give ourselves permission to suck along the way.

  1. The same also goes for whisky, by the way.

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Why Apple selling fewer iPads is actually a huge achievement →

January 31, 2015 |

Mark Wilson from Fast Company does a great job of articulating an idea I very much agree with: that the reason iPad sales are slowing down is because Apple has made the iPad so good that people don’t feel the need to replace them as often as they do their smartphones. He goes even further and adds that this should be cause for celebration, not criticism:

But please, don’t take the tone of Wall Street when critiquing iPad sales. The platform’s waning sales are a testament to the design’s longevity—a longevity that sits in some unknown expanse between the disposable iPhone and the immortal television, refrigerator, or trusty old pair of jeans. Apple will still sell tens of millions of iPads in 2015. Its competitors will sell tons of tablets, too. Forrester analyst James McQuivey says the iPad is plateauing—and investors be damned, there’s no shame in a product reaching market saturation, so long as the customer is happy.

Well said.

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