AnalogSenses

By ÁLVARO SERRANO

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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Ben Brooks goes to the library →

January 30, 2015 |

Ben Brooks, on working out of the library:

That’s perhaps what I love the most. I can go and pick a chair, or move between chairs, as my mood dictates. I can work in complete isolation, and without distraction. Or I can look up and be sucked into people watching — some very interesting people.

If I am writing, it’s where I want to be for sure.

I’m a huge fan of working out of libraries, and I can definitely identify with that. I used to do it all the time when I was in college, and I still do it sometimes, when I need a quite place to concentrate and get some research for my writing done. There’s something about public libraries I’ve always found inspiring, and it has much to do with what Ben outlines here. I love watching the kind of people that usually go to libraries. It may be some kind of voyeuristic fascination of mine, but I’ve found a good 15-20 minutes of people-watching in the library never fail to inspire me to write.

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Jenson and Fernando: Back to the Racetrack →

January 30, 2015 |

This has got to be one of the geekiest Formula One ads ever. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso make a time machine out of a McLaren:

Jenson Button:

“Roads? We don’t need roads where we’re going. But we do need a racetrack…”

So awesome.

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Adventures in Film Photography

January 29, 2015

There’s no denying the advent of digital photography forever changed the way we take pictures. For all its advantages though, there’s one aspect where it still hasn’t managed to eclipse traditional film photography. I’m referring to that organic quality of film that’s instantly recognizable and sets it apart from any other medium. It’s something that’s just as hard to quantify as it is to miss. We usually describe it as “the film look”.

Indeed, there have been many attempts at replicating the film look digitally, some of which have grown to become tremendously popular. Apps like Hipstamatic first and then Instagram were born with the promise of allowing you to emulate the film look right in your smartphone. Even at the professional end of the spectrum we have things like VSCO Film, a set of Lightroom and Photoshop presets devoted to emulating the look and feel of some of the most iconic film emulsions of the past 50 years.

Those are all great ways to produce images that kind of look like film, but they’re far from being your only option, much less your best option.

Do you know what else looks like film? Film.

Adopt a Dog | Callao Square, Madrid

Kodak Ektar 100 is the 35mm film with the world’s finest grain

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

You may think that shooting film in 2015 is a fool’s errand, but you’d be sorely mistaken. There are still plenty of legitimate reasons to do it, far beyond the obvious pursuit of the film look. In some very important aspects, film still vastly outperforms digital.

These are far from trivial things. Take highlight detail, for instance. Digital sensors are notoriously bad at capturing details in the highlights, which is why photographers need to be super careful not to blow them. Once you’ve blown your highlights, there’s no way to bring them back in post production, and that sucks. Features like High Dynamic Range (HDR) sound like incredible digital innovations designed to help ensure you don’t blow your highlights, but the reality is that HDR was invented on film, as early as the 19th century. So much for innovation.

Vegetable Stand

With film it’s easy to shoot a properly exposed scene in the shade without blowing your highlights.

With film, you’re very unlikely to blow your highlights anyway, so features like HDR are a lot less important. Film has so much latitude that in most cases you can overexpose by as much as 6 stops (!) and still be able to bring the highlights back to usable levels. That’s like having professional-caliber HDR built right in, for free. Actually, the difference in highlight behavior is so important it’s one of the very first things you need to learn when you start shooting film, especially if you’re coming from digital: instead of having to balance your exposure parameters to preserve the highlights, you expose for the shadows and let the highlights fall where they will. In 99 times out of 100, you’ll be fine.1

Adopt a Dog | Fuencarral, Madrid

Film gives an extra bit of character to your images that is ideally suited for street photography.

Another frequent myth about shooting film is that it’s somehow incredibly difficult. I suppose the idea comes from not being able to see the result right after taking a picture but the truth is, it’s really not. As long as you know what you’re doing, shooting film is surprisingly easy. You just need to slow down a bit more than with digital, and get used to composing your images in your head and anticipating the results. This is good, as it makes you a more deliberate photographer.

Oskar Bar

Moreover, film is way more efficient. With digital, it’s easy to let yourself go crazy and take a few extra pictures each time, just for peace of mind. That sounds like a good idea but in practice it’s a very short way from there to becoming sloppy.

That extra peace of mind is way overrated, and often translates into doing more work in the post-processing stage than you really need. Let me give you a concrete example. For my review of the GORUCK GR2 for Tools & Toys I shot well over 1,000 pictures and 13 GB of photos. I then had to narrow that down to about 75 candidates, of which only 43 made it into the published article. This represented many hours of post-processing work that would have been better put towards a more productive end.

Obviously, when you’re working in a web-based environment, digital has many essential advantages, and shooting those images on film was never an option. However, had I approached the situation with a more film-like mindset, the entire process would have been a lot more efficient.

Urban Cyclist

Black and white are the colors of photography

Another huge area where film remains unmatched is black and white. The amount of fine texture detail captured on traditional silver-based film is much greater than anything a digital sensor can do. The difference is not readily apparent in 35mm film, but it becomes immediately obvious for medium format and larger film sizes. Until you’ve seen a black and white picture optically printed from a medium format negative, you don’t know what black and white photography is supposed to look like. It’s not even close.

Pedro

This is Kodak Tri-X 400, one of the most popular B&W films because of the beautiful texture of its triangular-shaped grain.

Current DSLR sensors have been getting better at black and white for a while now, to the point where their performance is roughly on par with 35mm film. If you work primarily on digital and your main output is to the computer, a modern DSLR can certainly offer you more than you need. However, you still won’t be able to get optically printed copies from your digital files, and that’s a shame. All film photographs, but particularly black and white ones, are meant to be seen on actual paper, not on a computer screen.

Isel

Optical printing is, of course, the marquee feature of film. This procedure allows you to print large and still get incredible detail and texture because you’re not limited by DPI and pixel resolution in the same way that digital images are. There are some limits to optical printing, of course, but it gives you a lot more room to play with, and the end result is always gorgeous.

Cines Ideal

Black and white film also lends itself beautifully to street photography.

An individual choice

One thing to keep in mind is that the advantages of film photography do come at a steep price, mainly in terms of convenience. There’s no argument there. Shooting film is a much more involved process, and it takes time and effort to be done properly.

I’m not advocating for a return to shooting film exclusively, far from it. You would have to pry my Olympus digital camera from my cold, dead hands before I willingly give it up. However, shooting film on occasion is a perfectly acceptable choice, and it’s a lot more accessible than people think. I’d argue the lessons you get from it far outweigh any inconveniences, and every photographer should at least experiment with it for a while, because if nothing else, it’s still a phenomenal formative experience.

Miriam

I’m definitely glad I decided to pick up my father’s old Canon AE-1 Program and started playing with it. In just a few months I’ve learned many things, and I can see how my style and compositional skills are growing. It’s all very encouraging, which is why I’ve recently purchased a Canon EOS 3 film SLR and the original Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens on eBay.

Focus

The AE-1 Program is a fantastic camera. In fact, all images in this article were shot with it, but I’m finding the manual focus to be a bit limiting in certain circumstances. There have been a few times when I wanted to capture a street scene but didn’t manage to nail focus in time, for example. I know I’ll get better at focusing manually with practice, but it’s in these situations that I wish I had a more advanced camera.

Luckily for me, you can pick up any professional-grade SLR these days on eBay for a tiny fraction of its original cost, so if you really want to try shooting film with an awesome professional camera, nothing’s stopping you.

The adventure continues

There’s nothing wrong with preferring digital but to me, not even getting to know film is a shame, because you’d be missing out on one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences photography can offer. Personally, I’m determined to continue exploring this creative outlet, and I intend to savor every minute of it.

Going forward, it’s my intention to turn “Adventures in Film Photography” into a running series of articles on Analog Senses, much like my Geek’s Introduction to Whisky series. I’m very much looking forward to exploring the many subtleties of this topic over the coming weeks and months, and sharing the results with you.

Miriam, Orient Square


  1. This doesn’t apply to slide film, which is far more strict, offering virtually no latitude on the exposure. If you’re shooting with slide film, you need to nail the exposure every time. In exchange you’re rewarded with incredible color reproduction, so it’s easy to understand why many photographers vastly prefer it over color negative film.

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