MP3 and Me

Good Things (by StarbuckGuy)

Although MP3’s are a small part of the computing spectrum of things that have changed my life, they’ve had a strong impact. I love ’em and use ’em. My iPod (child of MP3) is full of them, representing the things I listen to regularly: music, audiobooks, and podcasts.

To fully appreciate MP3’s I only have to think back to the late 50’s and early 60’s. Transistor radios were in the early stages of becoming a consumer product, thanks to the US space program and the subsequent development of solid-state technology.

1959 and my beloved Chicago White Sox were in the World Series. Back then they played ballgames during the day which, unfortunately, also corresponded with being at school. I was in grade 9 in Lyndon, Illinois, and one of kids in my class had a new, white transistor radio with an earphone stuck in one ear.

Periodically he would call out the score. That he was rooting for the recently-moved LA Dodgers made it worse as my Sox slowly went down to defeat. He was the rich kid in the class and I wanted to sock his smug face.

That year, the new high-fidelity sound systems, dubbed hi-fi, were beginning to expand into stereophonic recordings. The music aficionados, with their Heathkit amps and preamps and AR-3 speaker (singular) considered ‘stereo’ a fad, an unnecessary complication, and a detriment to the hi-fi sound.

By the time I went to university, four years later, stereo had supplanted mono completely. Four years after that, I acquired my first stereo system — a Lafayette receiver, turntable, and speakers. It was low end, but it was all I could afford on a student budget.

But try as I might, I never liked LP’s. They were fussy to keep clean and after very few plays they got scratchy. The big dust jackets had great artwork and I loved the liner notes, but the medium itself never appealed to me.

In the 70’s I upgraded to some nice Marantz stereo gear with a good turntable and a quality Shure cartridge, but I still didn’t like LP’s. In the 80’s when relatively high-quality cassette tapes appeared, I moved to tape and with the aid of a higher-end Sony tape player, got reasonable sound from them. But tape, while convenient, always sounded a bit muffled, even when played with all the Dolby enhancements.

I was slow to embrace CD’s in the early 90’s until I discovered that Vanguard and Elektra were issuing material from the 60’s folk era. I really liked 60’s folk and soon started accumulating CD’s.

I loved CD’s. I know audiophiles gripe about them, but to my non-audiophile ears they sounded clean and they were really convenient. Except for storage. Those damned plastic cases were thick and slippery. Environmentally unfriendly too, as we later came to appreciate. But if you took reasonable care of them, they didn’t get scratchy and lose their freshness.

Because I was a writer about things computerish during the 80’s and 90’s I watched the development of digital video and audio formats with interest. The advent of the DVD was terrific. Great quality video and sound, plus convenience that blew away VHS tapes.

But the dark horse in the mix was the lowly MP3 music format. Despised by audiophiles, they sparked a raging prairie fire of popularity, and all kinds of rippers appeared to convert CD’s into MP3 recordings, and players for the desktop computer became a hot item.

Portable players began to appear — some, like the high-end models from Creative Labs, had hard disks that could hold your entire music library. Soon that previous darling of the masses, the Sony Walkman, faded into technological extinction.

Apple both capitalized on the MP3 and boosted it into the stratosphere when it introduced the iPod and iTunes. Cracking through the reserve of the music industry, they offered music singles for 99 cents. And it became easy to sync podcasts with your iPod,  creating growing audience support for podcasting.

The rest, as they say, is history. History that is still unfolding. Recently there have been changes in the pricing structure of music from the iTunes store, and DRM (Digital Rights Management) has been removed., and other online stores, also sell MP3’s online.

This morning, before leaving the house for my daily walk, I slid a CD-R of MP3 jazz albums into my Bose Wave. The CD-R plays for hours. I’ve put my entire MP3 collection on my netbook so I can listen to anything that grabs my fancy wherever I am.

My little iPod — a 4GB Nano — slips in my back pocket and I listen to podcasts while I’m cooking or cleaning around the house. The MP3 has changed how I listen to audio — all for the better.

Yet I can’t help but note the similarity of my little Nano to the tiny transistor radio my classmate sported in 1959. Gadgets may change, but the love of gadgets endures.


Waiting for Godot (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s “Mysteries of the Mind Week” on TVO (TVOntario — the province’s educational television station). I’ve been interested in brain science and neurology for a couple of years, reading books and articles on the subject, watching TV specials when they appear, and following the excellent Brain Science Podcast, an impressive series of interviews with brain scientists and related book discussions by host Dr. Ginger Campbell.

Every evening, TVO is presenting two to three hours of programming devoted to the brain. The specials have been weak — mainly BBC-produced documentaries focusing on individuals whose brains are failing to alzheimers or dementia, and on other unusual types of individuals, such as an autistic artist with amazing abilities to accurately recreate cityscapes he’s seen once. One of the specials is a time series on precocious children who have “genius” level IQ scores, following them through their development. It was easily the most interesting of the specials.

The problem with the specials is that there was very little science in them. As human interest stories they are interesting, but I was hoping to learn new things this week and I don’t get much from the features.

In contrast, TVO’s daily topic show, The Agenda with Steve Paiken, delivered. A varying group of panelist covered many topics and issues, providing current understandings of brain science based on their research, clinical experience, and in the scientific literature.

Last night’s topics included debate on whether or not the bombardment of media, including things like iPods, Facebook, instant messaging, cell-phone texting, and video games, has produced a generation of young people who are fundamentally different from previous generations. Does this activity create a different neuronal structure in the brain itself?

Of course no solid conclusions could be reached, but all the panelists, most of whom were neuroscientists, agreed that it was highly likely. The discussion then proceeded along the lines of “is this affecting their ability to concentrate and succeed in the world and the workforce, or does it leave them fragmented?”

The most interesting panelists in this part of the discussion were science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and media consultant Don Tapscott, whose newest book is Grown Up Digital — a followup to his earlier Growing Up Digital.

Rob made the salient point that humans evolved on the African Savannah where multitasking was essential to survival. While searching for food, or hunting, you also had to be alert to sounds and motions, such as poisonous snakes, hunting eagles, and lions, all of whom may be hunting you. His thesis is that humans evolved to be multitasking, and that the past fifty years or so, with people glued to the boob tube, have been an aberration rather than the norm.

Don Tapscott recently funded a study that indicated that young people who have grown up in a multitasking, wired environment, are succeeding very well indeed, and that the activities they engage in occur in place of the TV time that absorbed earlier generations.

All the panelists agreed that there is no such thing as multitasking per se, but that what young people do is very rapid task switching. And that they are much better at it than older generations.

It was a fascinating discussion, and may help me to understand the rivetting attraction of texting I see in many of the younger folk I know. Perhaps I will eventually even get Twitter.

Understanding Netbooks

Marion & Sibyl (by StarbuckGuy)

Sibyl, my Acer Aspire One netbook, is one of the niftiest bits of technology I’ve acquired in some time, and I’m good at acquiring technologies.

But, lately, Marion has been casting her eye at Sibyl, which has kinda worried me. The last time she did something like that, my Canon SD700 IS digicam disappeared into her purse, permanently. With a trip to Salt Lake City coming up to do some serious genealogical research, she’s been commenting on how a small, light computer like that might make an ideal travel companion.

Bracing myself for the worst, I help her load her genealogy software and data so she can try it out.  ‘Only for a week,’ she promises. Not counting her using it until March to get it down pat.

Today we go to Starbucks together so she can take Sibyl for a test drive. I show her how to log in to the Bell Hotspot to get online, then resign myself to the thought that this could be the last I see Sibyl. I take out my AlphaSmart Neo to write on. I’ve always liked the Neo and its outstanding keyboard, but today it looks so last century.

I don’t get very far into my writing before the comments start flying from across the table. “My Windows isn’t working right!” I look and don’t see anything wrong. “The file won’t open.” I watch and notice her touch on the keypad isn’t quite right, so I suggest she use the button to the left of the touchpad.

Soon it’s ‘This stupid machine won’t let me drag this window over to this side of the screen!’ I watch again and suggest she hold down the left button while moving the window. The window slides around like an elastic band, then snaps back to where it started. Marion responds, “Shit!”

Marion’s normally very calm but within the hour she’s convinced the machine is out to get her. I’m careful not to say something stupid, like ‘Sibyl’s my girl you know.’ The muttering continues and the tension mounts. I’m unable to write a word with all the distractions.

I suggest she give up on trying to use the touchpad and bring a mouse with her next time. That doesn’t mollify her at all. It makes her even more determined not to be intimidated by a mere netbook.

It doesn’t work out. After more trying, and much muttering, Marion concludes that even if she could use the ‘stupid touchpad’, the data on the screen is too small to read and that she can’t get enough data open to do her research.

Genealogy, unlike essay writing, is a multi-app, multi-windowed kind of activity. If you were doing it manually you’d be sitting at a table with books, papers, documents, pens and pencils, and other related stuff spread all over a big study table and you’d be sifting back and forth looking for clues and evidence. You have to recreate this environment on a computer.

Eventually Marion decides that Sibyl is not for her. A netbook is great for casual surfing, doing some email, or working in an editor or word processor while listening to some MP3’s, but it was not designed for heavy lifting. The weight and size are attractive for carrying around, but it’s more than a literal lightweight. It doesn’t have enough screen real estate, or CPU and RAM oomph, for intensive apps. I’d dread the thought of editing photos on a netbook.

Leaving Starbucks, starting our walk home, we look at each other and say at the same time, ‘Want to go to The Harp?’ Smiling, and relieved, we walk down the street and have a lovely pub lunch.

Snowfall & Certainty

Winter Swans (by StarbuckGuy)

Once again I had a good overnight sleep, but I didn’t feel very spry this morning. All the sneezing and coughing has tired me. I thought of staying in, but two days inside without any fresh air and exercise is more than I like. I miss my routine when I’m unable to get out. I miss my Starbucks cuppa too.

So this morning I stuffed myself with nostrums and palliatives — two Dristans and a glug of Benylin cough syrup — and headed into the falling snow. It was a slushy, stick-to-everything kind of snow. Pretty to look at and not bad for walking, but difficult for photography.

I took my Panasonic LX3 with a UV filter on to protect the lens, and carried the camera in my coat pocket. I tried, when possible, to find a protected overhang before hauling out the camera to take a shot, but sometimes I had to shoot in the open to get the image I wanted. I returned the camera to my pocket as soon as possible after the shot, and it appears to have weathered the storm.

I felt sorry for drivers today. The snowfall started last night and continued into this morning’s rush hour. The roads are slushy and at times visibility is low.

I followed my usual route to the harbour, passing behind the local library to the Credit River, then down river, under the bridges to the pier. The trumpeter swans are back and they, along with the mute swans, swam towards me hoping for a handout. “Spare bread for out-of-work wildfowl?” The ducks were in on it too. I could see a few pigeons giving me the eye.

Not many moms and nannies around today to toss bread their way while their toddlers giggle and thrill to the ensuing dash. I didn’t see any other pedestrians. Some people use common sense in weather like this and stay indoors.

At Starbucks I keyed in most of this blog, then did a little email and surfing. I had along Sibyl, my new Acer Aspire One netbook. I’ve had it about three weeks now and have come to love it. You can see from the following photo how compact it is in relation to a Starbucks cup and a standard-size ball pen.

Sibyl (by StarbuckGuy)

It took me awhile to adjust to the keyboard, but it’s actually improved my typing, which had become sloppy. I’m a touch typist, having learned to type in high school on manual upright Royals, Underwoods, and Smith Coronas with blank keytops and a large keyboard layout chart on the far classroom wall. You learned to make precise keystrokes on those machines, and over the years my technique had lost some precision. It’s needed again when I type on Sibyl.

The library had some holds that I picked up on the way home, the most interesting of which is the book On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not by Robert Burton.

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton shows that feeling certain—feeling that we know something— is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. An increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. In other words, the feeling of knowing happens to us; we cannot make it happen. [Description on]

I first heard about this book on the excellent Brain Science podcast where podcaster Dr. Ginger Campbell reviewed the book in one episode then interviewed Robert Burton in the next. Worthwhile listening. I suspect On Being Certain will be a good read, and a consideration for my permanent book collection.

Fixing Things That Ain’t Broke: How Flickr and Facebook Screwed Their Members

I Hate the New Homepage (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s sad when web-based entities, especially the ones you like, betray you so fundamentally that you can never recover the warm feeling you might once have had for them. The two most flagrant examples of this recently are Facebook and Flickr.

In both cases these F-sites forced a new homepage interface on their members. In both cases they first offered a preview of the coming new design and supposedly were open to feedback. And in both cases, from what I can judge reading the comments, the majority of members hated the new design. This appeared not to have been the kind of feedback that the F-sites wanted or paid any attention to.

Not all members of course. Some liked the new design, or said they’d got used to it, but however you cut it, loyal users have been subjected to one of the worst sins a website can commit: forcing regulars to change how they use the site, with no recourse and no option to bring back the old look or use it as an alternative.

Facebook always baffled me anyway. A lot of it never made sense but I learned how to quickly get to what I wanted to see and I wasn’t forced to look at all the stuff that held no interest for me. After the ‘Facelift’ nothing made sense. And a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t interest me was all over my home page. Perhaps it could be customized away, I don’t know, because I made a decision to leave. I had some acquaintances I really like on Facebook, but no close friends so it was easy for me to pull the plug and lose a time-sucking site in the bargain. I deactivated my account.

The Flickr change bothered me far more. In fact, the Flickr change incensed me. The overwhelming consensus of the comments I’ve read — and I’ve read many — is that the new homepage sucks. And there’s no customizing it to work like the old page. The biggest source of grief was the decision made by someone to combine comments on your photos with the comments you made on the photos of others. Previously these were two independent functions.

Flickr did add a lot of filter options that you can tweak to regain somewhat the previous functionality, but it’s not a toggle. You have to select a bunch of things each time you want to do look at comments one way or the other.

The homepage, like that of Facebook, is now cluttered. The net result, as I said on Flickr, is that it makes me no longer want to visit the site. And I was a seriously active Flickr user — posting frequently on groups (some of which I created), adding photos almost daily, and commenting on those of my friends and contacts almost daily. I loved the exchange and sense of community.

So, what do I do? Acquiesce? Accept the new interface and simply get over it? Indeed that’s what Flickr management counts on — your friends are there, your photos are there, a large part of your Internet social dynamic is there. You won’t leave. They count on it. They’ve got you by the proverbials. I don’t want to leave my friends and contacts, but damned if I’ll just acquiesce.

Not that Flickr is going to care, but my decision, for now, is that I will participate far less frequently. I will post the occasional photo, but I’ve just taken out a Smugmug account and will post most of my new work there, with a link to Smugmug on each of my occasional Flickr postings. I will comment very little on the work of others because following the comment stream has become too painful. And I will no longer reward Flickr financially. I intend to delete most of my Flickr photos, move them to Smugmug, then revert to a free account, rather than the paid Pro account I currently have.

This is what a badly designed, forced new interface can do to a loyal user. How do these interfaces come about? We will never know for sure. There are some expensive and persuasive industry consultants who are skilled at convincing the brass that unless their site now has x, y, and z Web 2.0 features (which they can help with), they will fall hopeless behind and will lose membership. I suspect there is some of that going on. Have you noticed how much the new interfaces of the social networks have started to resemble one another? I think it’s more than coincidence at work.

Another possible scenario that pains me to think about, at least at Flickr, is sheer design incompetence. I’ve read that the lead programmers and founders of the site have moved on. Perhaps their former juniors are now in charge and have been itching for a long time to put their stamp on things. Except, if this is what happened, they don’t fully understand the original vision or how the site should work.

Whatever the reason, we’ll never know. One thing is certain though. I will hit on them for this change at every opportunity and to any ear willing to listen. It will have no effect on them, but it will make me feel better. I hate corporate stupidity and I’ll go down fighting and resisting it to the best of my ability. I refuse to reward them with sheep-like acquiescence.

Technology Boondoggle

Palm IIIc & Keyboard

I enjoy technology as much as the next techie, but there are times when it can conspire against all known logic.

Last week my Palm TX decided to call it quits, just after its warranty expired. These things happen so I wasn’t too upset. I suspected the problem was nothing more than a dead battery. I’ll get a new one from eBay or an online battery store, I thought, until I read up on what replacing the battery entailed.

The TX battery is soldered onto the TX system board. I could get a replacement battery from eBay for $15, but I’m not very good with small objects and I was nervous about the task of taking the TX apart. But soldering on top of it? I’m an absolute klutz with a soldering iron. When I was a boy scout I attempted to put together a small shortwave receiver from a kit. When I plugged it in, it spit, sparked, and splatted before imploding. The smell of charred, melted resistors and capacitors permeated my bedroom for days. I’ve experienced soldering-iron avoidance ever since.

Okay, says I, I’ll maybe send it to Palm and let them fix it. A little research showed that they would indeed fix it, for $150. Hmmm, that’s halfway to the price of one of the new ultracompact portables running Linux or XP. It didn’t seem like a winning strategy.

Keeping my equanimity very nicely, I decided to relegate the TX to my ‘history’ bin, and start using the Dell Axim X50v I used before I had the TX. It had much better battery life, the battery was user replaceable from the outside, and it had some nice features, such as Word and Excel built in. I wasn’t as fond of the ThinkOutside Stowaway BlueTooth portable keyboard though, mainly because it only has three rows of typing keys. To type numbers and symbols requires holding a blue or  green function key down first.

I’d used it before and assumed I could get used to it again so I charged the unit, reconnected the Windows cradle and attempted to install the  required driver for the keyboard. Every time I tried to install it, the keyboard control program would install but the critical driver itself would not. The error message said try again, so I did, about a dozen times, with no joy.

Because the unit had lost all its loaded software when the battery died from non-use, I thought maybe I’d applied an upgrade patch at some point. I roamed the Dell site and found two upgrades I duly installed. Then experienced another half dozen failed attempts to install the keyboard driver.

ThinkOutside, the company that made the Stowaway keyboard had in the intervening time been bought by another company, and that company no longer lists either ThinkOutside products or support. No knowledgebase to tap into. The keyboard has been orphaned.

At this point I actually thought about purchasing one of those nifty ultracompacts, like the Acer Aspire One, but I already have a 2-lb Neo that is fine for writing. Its only drawback, which is shared by ultracompacts, is that toting it around requires either a shoulder bag or backpack. In order to keep my photo walks light on weight, I prefer using a PDA with keyboard that will slip easily into a belt pack.

Unwilling to admit defeat, I dug deeper into my history bin, where I pitch bits of electronics and other things I can’t quite bear to throw away. There in the drawer was my old Palm IIIc with original Palm Portable Keyboard. The cradle was there too. I looked in my software archive CD folder and found the keyboard driver. I even had a copy of Palm Desktop 4.1, the version that always worked flawlessly with the IIIc.

Okay, I knew I was retrogressing but I needed a portable writing machine and didn’t want to buy a new one if I could get by with an old one. Besides, I recalled the Palm IIIc as not being all that bad.

I deleted the more recent Palm Desktop that came with the TX and installed the old 4.1. No problem. Then I installed the keyboard driver. No problem. It went right into the Palm Desktop which said it would stuff it into the Palm IIIc next time I synchronized.

The IIIc was finally charged and ready to go so I pushed it onto its cradle and looked for the serial port on my Dell portable. Right. No serial port. Old technology I guess. I looked at my Dell desktop. No serial port there either — just a honeycomb of USB ports. That rang a bell, so I went back to the history bin and found it: a USB-to-Serial converter. By gum, the driver for this was in my CD archives.

It worked. Everything sync’d and I had a working Palm IIIc with folding keyboard. Looking through my software archives I found the PalmOS text editor I once bought, called QED. Then I found the  registration key. It registered and I had an excellent little editor ready to use.

I grabbed a copy of eReader for the Palm and downloaded a few interesting eBook titles from — a great site for reformatted Gutenberg Project texts. I was feeling grumpy so I downloaded some H.L. Mencken.

Yesterday I used the combo for the first time and at first I thought I wasn’t going to be able to see the screen. To call it as dim as George Bush might be an understatement. Then I remembered to set the default font to bold. Voila! Suddenly I could see it as well as I see my Neo. And the keyboard? Mon ami, le keyboard, c’est douce. It’s the best full-size keyboard of any folding keyboard I’ve used. I’d forgot how fine it was.

The adventure of getting a PDA with keyboard working for me again generated enough tension and swearing for one week, I thought. I wasn’t prepared for the boomerang headed my way from HP.

We bought one of those little HP PhotoSmart inkjet printers. A wireless one that connects to my wireless router and can be parked anywhere in the house. Nice little unit. I installed the HP software on my Dell Portable. It seemed sluggish but not bad — providing a kind of photo kiosk experience. Useful, I thought, for those times I don’t want to do serious editing before generating a print.

When I rebooted my laptop it took so long to boot up and connect I thought my wireless connection had failed. I rebooted again before waiting more patiently. Eventually it connected and I was back on the net. Neat. I tested the printer using the HP software and got a nice 4×6 colour print.

Then I tried Photoshop CS3. I have Photoshop set so that in addition to RAW files, ACR opens jpegs as well. I find it a nice front end for making basic editing adjustments before the image goes to Photoshop for fine tuning. Every time I was done with ACR and clicked Open, Photoshop would hang. Totally unresponsive to clicks or profanity. Crikey. I live in Photoshop — this was seriously discomforting.

I next tried Photoshop Elements 6 so I could edit an image and send it to the new printer. Same thing. When it went from ACR to Elements, it hung as utterly as Tom Dooley. I suspected the HP software. The time-honoured First Rule of Troubleshooting says “what was the last thing that was changed? Look there first.”

I opened the HP software again and saw it was now sucking copies of all the images from my hard disk into its internal database. Without my asking it to. Well shit. Last night I deinstalled all the HP software. As soon as it was gone and I rebooted, both versions of Photoshop worked again. Nice work, HP.

Today I re-installed the print driver only, despite the installation software’s insistence that I needed the other packages to get the most from it.  I rebooted and the startup times were normal again. Best of all, Photoshop worked.

It could have been worse. Instead of XP I could have been using VISTA.

Goodbye (Mostly) to Film

Back to Film (by StarbuckGuy)

No stranger to film, I’ve continued to use film cameras alongside my digital cameras for several years. Since 2002, specifically, when I purchased a Canon G2 digicam — a purchase that changed my views of photography as profoundly as Galileo’s telescope altered mankind’s view of the heavens. There has never been as fundamental shift in the technology of photography since the invention of the craft. Even so, I didn’t entirely abandon the old ways.

Digital, for all its convenience and WOW! factor, has some drawbacks. Its ability to record images with a large dynamic range is limited compared to C-41 films, and not even close to the range B&W film can capture. Until very recently even DSLR’s suffered from excessive noise at higher ISO settings. This is still a serious problem for small-sensor digicams. Films have a grain structure that gets more pronounced in higher-ISO films, but grain is aesthetically prettier than digital noise.

These are known facts endlessly debated on Internet forums so I’ll not pursue them here except to say I love digital photography despite its costs and its problems. And I continued to love film, despite its inefficiencies, lack of convenience, and the often annoying physicalness of the medium. But my love of film has been waning.

The main factor pulling me back from film is my health. Cardiac problems have left me with less stamina and energy. This, in turn, limits the amount of time I have to devote to photography if I want to balance out photography with my other interests.

Less time to spend means more of that time gets spent on digital. There’s a big difference between going for a photo walk, coming home and transferring the results directly into my computer than in coming home and popping a roll or two of film into a drawer until I have time to develop it, scan it, or take it to a store to be developed and scanned, then getting it into my computer.

Another factor drawing me away from film is that since 2002 digital cameras have improved dramatically, with great improvements still to come. When faced with choosing a B&W or colour film for my Nikon F3HP, then deciding which ISO film is best for the day, or simply grabbing my Nikon D300 that can shoot colour and B&W, automatically set a good white balance and even automatically change ISO values based on ambient lighting, there’s not much incentive to take the F3HP.

When I do take the F3HP it’s simply because I enjoy using classic film camera bodies. I grew up with them, love their heft and feel, and enjoy their comfortable old-school aesthetic. The shots I get with B&W film can, at times, be better than the B&W’s I can get with digital. But not better 100% of the time and not better by a quantum leap. Increasingly B&W film is only marginally better than digital B&W and is often inferior.

Part of the reason for this is the improved sensor technology in today’s digital SLR’s. My D300 at ISO 1600 is smoother, with better resolution, than any ISO 1600 film I’ve tried. There is no 35mm ISO 400 film I’ve tried that produces images as clean as the ISO 400 images from my D300, and my D300 is not even state of the art when it comes to sensors.

Another key factor is that six years of Photoshop experience and learning have taught me how to make very good B&W images. Good enough to please me at least, and I’m the one paying my bills.

You can no doubt see where this is headed. The bottom line is that I’ve now shifted to digital for 90% or more of my picture taking. My film cameras have become little more than nostalgia toys to play with the odd time I want a change of pace from digital.

So with a considerable amount of psychic pain I’ve decided to sell most of my film gear, including my wonderful Bessa R3A rangefinder and lenses. As much as I admire them, they no longer serve a meaningful purpose in my work.

I won’t, however, sell all of it. I’ll probably keep my Nikon EM, Nikon FM2n, and a set of lightweight E series prime lenses. And a Minolta Autocord TLR. I started photography with a TLR and want to keep one around to use occasionally to revisit my roots. Hopefully the rest of my gear will go to younger, or at least fitter, photographers who will enjoy it as much as I once did.

Phew! I’m glad to have finally got that off my chest. Now I’ll grab one of my digital cameras and head out for a pleasant photo walk. See ya later!

Distraction vs Concentration

Lost in a Maze of Reflections (by StarbuckGuy)

When is the last time you memorized a poem or a speech? Even something modest like Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” or e.e. cummings’ “Buffalo Bill”? If you’re like me, it’s been a long, long time. The last time I was required to memorize something for school was in the seventh grade, when each student in the class had to memorize and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As an undergraduate at university I would sometimes memorize poems simply because it was fun.

That was a different age. I wonder what a modern student would think if you were to suggest they memorize a poem. I suspect you’d just get one of those funny looks that says more eloquently than words how out of touch you are. Why memorize anything when you can look it up on Google in seconds?

Forget memorization then. When was the last time you read a long, important novel, say like Joyce’s Ulysses? If recently, good for you! Or how about a lengthy essay on a subject of interest. These are things I used to do but find I can’t do anymore. Memorization, lengthy reading of serious material — I find it too difficult to concentrate on anything for that long. I thought it was old age creeping up on me until I read the Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr. When he described what was happening to him, I felt I’d met a kinsman:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

After referring to some anecdotes about others who have confessed to similar states, including a blogger who admitted he had quit reading books altogether, Carr then cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf says “We are how we read.” Worried about the style of reading promoted by the Net, she says that when we read online we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. (see Carr above for additional material on Wolf)

This theme was highlighted again a couple of days ago in a Times Online article by Bryan Appleyard, “Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks:
The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate”
, that begins with a caution from David Meyer.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

The article then lists a chorus of writers who are articulating concerns and fears about what is happening to our brains and our culture through widespread chronic distraction.

Some of this is likely hyperbole or outright fear mongering. Whenever a topic like this starts to become a swell, my skepticism kicks in. Nonetheless, there’s something in this I feel inside myself and that I don’t dismiss outright. I’m particularly concerned when neuroscientists can demonstrate the effects of distraction in the brain. Using a cell phone while driving, they’ve observed in lab tests, is on a par with driving impaired with alcohol.

Fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom. The brain is malleable. Just as it can be conditioned to be distracted, it can be trained to pay attention. We can be taught how to focus and concentrate. We can even learn to ignore the ring of a cell phone.

I don’t know about reading Ulysses, but I think I’m going to go off and memorize a short poem, or a favourite song lyric.

Further Reading:

Jennifer Anderson. “Neurology Study: Brain Too Slow For Cell Phone Use While Driving”, Ergonomics Today.

Mark Bauerlein. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Tarcher, 2008.

Maggie Jackson. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Prometheus, 2008.

Sharon O’Brien. “Improve Your Concentration with Brain Fitness Activities”, Senior Living.

What’s Going on with Gmail?

Writing a Blog Entry (by StarbuckGuy)

Upgrades can be annoying. Some are smooth and well tested while others are more of a setback than an upgrade. Some, like Microsoft VISTA, are an outright disaster. We brought in VISTA on Marion’s new laptop with lots of CPU horsepower and 3GB of RAM and gave it a three-day workout. Drivers broke. Some software didn’t behave well. Worse, we didn’t like the new interface at all and the OS was highly intrusive, as in “Do you really want to do that?” messages popping up frequently. It wouldn’t do wireless at all with my home setup of WEP 128-bit encryption, something that’s never bothered Boingo. Of course Boingo (at the time we tested) wouldn’t run in VISTA.

So, we “upgraded” to XP. Windows XP may not be sexy like Mac OS X, or cool like Linux, but in recent times it’s become very stable and driver support for third-party products has been excellent. It also runs faster with fewer demands on resources. Do we require 64-bit computing for a home PC? I think not.

With XP and Boingo Marion was back on our home wireless net and we managed to replace all the Dell drivers with XP versions. Things were good again.

Good, that is, until Google decided to “upgrade” Gmail. This one really hurts. I’m a big Gmail fan and converted years worth of Unix mbox-format email that I uploaded to Gmail. Now I have my entire email archives online, as well as all my mailing addresses. I like Gmail’s workstation independence and the ability to access anything from any terminal or workstation with Internet access. This has proven highly useful on trips, not to mention just moving from machine to machine in the house.

But lately what I get mostly is a progress bar saying “Loading”. I’m not sure what Gmail is attempting to do during this interlude, but most of the time it fails, starts over, fails, starts over, repeating this cycle until it either works (perhaps 20% of the time) or I get fed up and click on HTML Version. The HTML version works of course, but is missing many of the niceties of the full version.

There’s an option for setting HTML as the default and I’ve used it several times. Missing the extended features though, I pop back to the advanced version once in awhile, and once in awhile it works. When it works, there’s an option of using the “Previous version” of the advanced interface, but no way of setting it as the default.

Despite looking around the Gmail website and the Help sections, there is no acknowledge of this problem or any fixes offered that I could find. A Google search (how ironic) took me to a post that suggested nuking all the current cookies in your browser. My browser is the excellent Firefox browser from Mozilla. I don’t know if this “Loading …” problem exists in Microsoft Internet Explorer because I don’t use it.

So, on my desktop machine I nuked all my existing cookies and, sure enough, Gmail loaded and worked. For a day or two. Then it went right back to being unable to load. By nuking all my cookies I lost all the auto-logins to my discussion forums which was a serious annoyance given that the suggested solution didn’t work.

Up to that point the new interface software had worked fine on my Dell portable, but soon it too stopped being able to load. No way was I going to nuke my cookies again.

So, what’s up with Gmail? I’m not running anything unusual on any of my systems and all my Gmail use has been in Windows XP, a stable, known commodity. I can only surmise that the new interface got pushed out the door with inadequate testing. Perhaps with some serious programming flaws.

It’s things like this that can make the word “upgrade” a dreaded word among computer users. I hope Google fixes its problem or simply admits the problem is widespread and offers an option to make the “Earlier version” of the Gmail interface a default setting while they work on fixing the new one.


A Ramble

Bleeding Hearts (by StarbuckGuy)

I’m sitting on the front deck, sipping green tea, on the warmest day we’ve had so far (around 18C or 65F). It’s a delightful temperature for walking, sitting, and, I suppose, photography, though I’m not doing much of that. It’s been two and a half weeks since my surgery (double-bypass), and I couldn’t have picked a nicer time of year to recover, even though it wasn’t planned.

The sky has changed. Until today, the sky had an April look to it with its deep blue and not quite fluffy clouds. Today the sky is a little paler and fluffy cumulus clouds predominate, looking very Mayish. The trees are pushing out leaves and our bleeding hearts are in bloom. I’ve seen quite a few migrating warblers, kinglets, thrushes, sparrows, a pair of towhees, and yesterday, a Baltimore oriole. The robins are already nesting with the male robins singing to mark territory and, I suspect, for the sheer joy of singing. What a lovely time of year.

My recovery is going well. My ribcage is healing and I’ve had minimal soreness and pain from it. My walklets have now extended to 8-9 minutes each, 3 or 4 times a day. I put my back out today and had to call the cardiac ward to find out if I could take any muscle relaxants. The nurse on duty reviewed my meds and didn’t see any problems so I’ve taken a couple. Bad timing, but it hasn’t prevented me from walking, even if I walk with a pronounced stoop.

My friend Marty stopped by for a visit today, and I’ve had visits in the past few days from Richard and Dave as well. It’s fun to see them and catch up on their news. I tire a little, but not as much as I thought I would. I think that’s a good sign.

Marion has been doing a super job of looking after me. She makes all the meals and does all the cleanup, except for the little bits I can now do. I dislike it that she has all the responsibilities, but our roles were reversed when she had her hip replacement a bit over a year ago now. Perhaps it evens out.

Our son Trevor, who decided to learn to ride a bike just a few weeks back, at age 23, is now taking healthy bike rides almost daily. He bought a bike that we intended to share, but when I tried riding before my op, I had strong angina pains whenever I rode up any grades, even gentle ones. My goal is to be riding a bike by mid summer and taking longer bike rides along the lakeshore by autumn. With luck, the angina will no longer be with me.

I’ve not done as much reading as I thought I might but I’ve been watching some new lectures. We purchased two more courses from the Teaching Company: The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology, by Professor John Renton, and Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes and Their Real-World Applications, by Professor David Sadava. I’ve started with the geology course, to help fill some gaps in my understanding and appreciation of that side of natural history. It’s very interesting, though I doubt I’ll be very good at remembering many of the mineral names. The reintroduction to chemistry is a stretch as well. Good brain food, this.

I have Skype working fine on my Dell portable, using my new headset, on the Windows partition anyway. I’ve been unable so far to get the mic working in Ubuntu Linux. I’m not up for a challenging troubleshoot right now, so I’m booting into Windows more often than I like. Yesterday I had a 30-minute conversation with my friend Tim in the UK, using Skype. My brother Jim and I use it regularly. He lives in Russellville, Arkansas.

As always I’m enjoying my technologies. The iPod remains a favourite, especially for podcasts. We finally upgraded our TV to a digital LCD and we’ve enjoyed some movies and TV shows on it, though we find little to watch on live TV. My Dell portable in wireless mode allows me to avoid climbing the stairs to my office where my desktop computer resides. For photography I’ve installed the Windows version of The GIMP to match the version I use in Linux. I’m not certain whether or not my Photoshop CS3 license allows me to use it on two machines. Fortunately I’d already taken the time to learn The GIMP fairly well and I enjoy using it.

And of course there’s my little lightweight Alphasmart Neo, the little text machine I’m using to type this. It runs something like 700 hours on a set of AA batteries. It’s not fancy, but it has a great keyboard and is a writer’s dream.

I’m a lucky person. My health will be restored and modern medicines will keep me operative for a number of years to come, barring accidents and other complications. A century ago I’d probably be dead by now from my cardiac problems. I never take life for granted.

This has become a ramble but sitting out on the deck in this lovely weather as I’m healing has made me want to write. I hope you don’t mind.