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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lynne McTaggart

Sitting through 18 minutes of Lynne McTaggart's inane drivel was only a minor annoyance. However, now that an unnamed TEDxBrussels organizer went out of his (or her) way to defend their decision to invite her, I think I'm genuinely pissed. This avowed non-scientist's post (the only one published on TEDxBrussels blog since the event) is wrong in every possible way, completely misunderstands the criticism it purports to answer, and is frankly insulting to those of us who voiced said criticism.

Firstly, if your honest goal is to "join and extend the conversation" in an adult way, you really, really shouldn't open by drawing a parallel between the audience reaction to Mrs. McTaggart's talk and the campaign against WikiLeaks. No-one suggested Lynne McTaggart be silenced. You're welcome to "defiantly reserve the right" to invite her, if mindless posturing happens to be your thing that's entirely fine with me, but no-one's attempting to deny you that right. I and others have said that inviting her was a mistake, but we all agree it's a mistake you're fully entitled to make. Anyway, exposing and denouncing quackery is not an assault on free speech. On the contrary, it is one of the main reasons we need free speech.

By the way, I resent your assumption that I merely "disagree" with Mrs. McTaggart. I'm calling her a fraud. Big difference. I disagree with Republicans who say lower taxes are needed to stimulate the economy. I think they're wrong, but I'll admit that their theory is not a fully disprovable one. On the other hand, Birthers, who maintain the lunacy that Obama wasn't born in the United States, are simply paranoid and delusional, and I won't dignify their position by saying I'm just disagreeing with them.

So what's my beef with Lynne McTaggart? You assert "The charge is that her brand of science is not valid[…]", but no, that's not the charge at all. There are no "brands" in science. There is science, and there is pseudo-science. Spotting the difference between the two is not always easy, especially if, like most people, you only have a vague and second-hand understanding of what science is. It's not just a collection of disciplines, and it certainly has nothing to do with the person practicing it or the institution he belongs to. (After all, the most acclaimed scientist of all time changed our understanding of the universe while working as an obscure patent clerk.)

Science is a set of practices and techniques that enables mere humans to infer objective knowledge about the universe. To me, it is mind-boggling that this is even possible. Our brain evolved to help us evade lions on the plains of East Africa. Whenever it's used to ponder the fabric of the universe it unsurprisingly betrays severe shortcomings. All humans are prone to emotional outbursts, confirmation bias, and a flurry of logical fallacies. The scientific method is the best way we've found yet to avoid these trappings.

Contrary to popular belief, science isn't all that complicated to learn. Humanity's body of scientific knowledge is, of course, huge and always expanding, but the basic method is simple enough. You certainly don't need to go to college to learn it, although that is one popular option. What you definitely need, however, is to want to learn and practice it. You need the willingness to constantly put your beliefs and worldview to the test, and risk seeing the evidence expose them as fraudulent. You need the discipline to, whenever you get a new idea about anything, immediately assume the role of Devil's Advocate, and attack the idea from all possible sides to see if it survives the pummeling. You need, in the words of Richard Feynman, to always be ready to "bend over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong".

Lynne McTaggart is unwilling to even glance back over her shoulder. She throws around anecdotes about jars of water and peas sitting in laboratories and rambles about how they "noticed an effect". What effect ? How about all the experiments where they didn't notice an effect ? What controls were used to make sure the "effect" couldn't be explained without positing a parapsychological "field" ? By the way, I haven't read Mrs. McTaggart's book, and I don't intend to. (I'm busy.) Nor do I need to to know she's not interested in real knowledge. She proved that at TEDx, by closing her talk with a faith-healing session for a woman with a bacterial infection. This was not an experiment, although that's what she called it. Real experiments are designed to provide evidence that put theories to the test. Whatever happens to that women, it won't be evidence of anything. Bacterial infections have widely diverging effects and remission patterns. They occur all the time and usually go away within a few days. Sometimes they linger and no-one really knows why, and sometimes they go away unexpectedly fast, simply because that's what sometimes happen. (Judging by the throbbing in my throat, I've got a bacterial infection right now. I'm not overly worried.)

I bet Lynne McTaggart performs that same "experiment" every time she gives a talk. Actually, I know she does, she even bragged about it. But she could do it thousands of times and compile testimonies from all her subjects and they could all be ecstatic about how well the chanting worked and it still wouldn't be evidence of anything. The scientific method is simple enough, but the human body is complicated, thus evaluating the efficacy of a treatment is notoriously hard. Lynne's "experiment" doesn't even attempt to control for cognitive bias nor the placebo effect. These effects are so well-known that she can't possibly be unaware of them. Since she obviously decides to ignore them, I conclude she's not really interested in finding anything out. It's just show-biz. And there's nothing wrong with show-biz, until it starts masquerading as scientific inquiry. (By the way, I again find exception in your claim that "[scientists] present at TEDx Brussels, […] all participated in the experiment, all closed their eyes and linked hands with their neighbours. They were relaxed and enjoyed the moment. It was entertaining." — I didn't and it wasn't.)

You end your post saying TED should be about presenting challenging ideas. I fully agree, and this is my one reason why Lynne McTaggart shouldn't have been there. Never mind that her scientific posturing might fool some people and actually hurt public understanding of science. Never mind that her mere presence at TEDx is an insult to the brilliant scientists who also took the stage that day. Never mind that her books and websites are transparent fronts to tempt the sick into buying shiny baubles that at best won't do them any good. Never mind that, as part of the anti-vaccine movement, she can be said to have blood on her hands. The real case against her speaking at TEDx is that her ideas are not new, and certainly not challenging. For decades people have been saying we're all in a mystical field that interconnects all things and our thoughts can act on it and it's all because of quantum. It is entirely unsurprising that someone foolish enough to believe she understood quantum theory, and who didn't know (or didn't care) about confirmation bias and the placebo effect, would promote such theories and try to make money doing so. I like nothing more than being challenged, but you'll have to try harder.

Monday, December 6, 2010


When I heard that Brussels was hosting the largest TEDx event ever I signed up immediately. Now it's over, and I'm very happy I did. I'd certainly love to attend the real thing in Monterey, but until that becomes even faintly possible Brussels will do very nicely.

Organization was spot-on. Talks were scheduled to start at 15:43 and end at 15:53, and they did. Pacing felt just right: long breaks and longish sessions meant you didn't lose time shuffling in and out of the room, never felt overwhelmed and had time for meeting people and meaningful discussions. Every word could be heard clearly from everywhere. Whatever it is they're using for projectors, I want one for my home cinema, although I'd need a much bigger flat; the only thing comparable I've ever seen was at a Jean-Michel Jarre concert. WiFi didn't work, but, well, WiFi never works at conferences. (Good news is: I won't feel too bad if we screw this up for ER2011.) And obviously these are not normal people: there were 1000 attendees and 2000 WiFi devices in the room. At one point I wanted to download iMovie for iPhone so I could quickly edit and upload a clip I'd shot, and in that crowd there is nothing even remotely exceptional about this. Of the many iPhone 4 users I must have been one of the few who didn't have iMovie already. Anyway, I couldn't: as everyone with Belgium cell-phones or international roaming (i.e. everyone) switched to 3G the cell towers around the stately Palace of Fine Arts were hit with the kinds of bandwidth demands rarely seen outside the Bay area, and more or less gave up.

Talks were many and varied, about robotic cars, interstellar space flight, commoditized EEG as a human-interface device, how the digital doubles in Lord of the Rings were made, the internet of Things… My favorites were probably the ones about economics. Dambisa Moyo's talk on How the West was Lost, delivered with no slides while sitting on a couch, especially resonated with me. I don't think it's lost yet, and nor does she, but I've felt for a while that Europe and the US have some tough choices ahead and that they're not discussed nearly enough. Even though I'd be the first to say that you can be a nerd yet not socially awkward, seeing someone with a PhD in economics being that charismatic felt a little uncanny.

Although overall quality was staggeringly high, there were a couple duds. You'd think watching the founder of Doctors Without Borders talk about how innovative finance will save the world can't be anything less than good, but everyone I talked to agreed that Bernard Kouchner's talk was a huge waste of everybody's time. Not only was he late and slow and inarticulate and had lousy slides which he actually turned away from the public to read from the screen, (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not) no matter any of that, the real problem was his entire talk boiled down to: "getting a few countries to implement a Tobin tax is a good idea". You know, I actually agree with that. And I'm immensely grateful that someone as obviously gifted and influential as Mr. Kouchner is trying very hard to get it done. (Especially since, living in Belgium, I'm constitutionally unable to vote for anyone who even bothers having any opinion on anything other than language borders.) However, when I pay for the privilege of spending 18 minutes of my time listening to a world-class speaker, I expect to get a little more information out of it than can be found in the average tweet.

But that's not even the talk that really pissed me off. That would be Lynne McTaggart's, acclaimed author of "What Doctors Don't Tell You", who spoke about the Intention Experiment, i.e. the idea that "the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field" and can be influenced by thought, and her experiments to prove it. The talk was quite polished and competently executed, and even featured a complimentary hands-on faith-healing session at the end, but the problem is this is not actually an idea worth spreading. It's an idea that, in a perfect world, would have long ago been gagged, garroted, thrown out the window, shot, cremated, dispersed out at sea and never mentioned again.

By the way, I do understand that a conference that tries to be at the leading edge of both technology and art will have a few, for lack of a better word, "edge cases". People who are controversial but may possibly be right. Sometimes the difference between the brilliant out-of-the-box thinker and the nutjob is only visible in hindsight. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Lynne McTaggart is not a pseudoscientific hack, but rather a visionary who's starting a revolution in how we perceive the fabric of the universe. It's possible. But I would bet a lot of money against it.

Anyway, if I'm spending a lot of time on the two talks I didn't like, it's only because I enjoy bashing people vastly more successful than I. They really didn't matter. After Lynne McTaggart came Paul Collier, who started by asking a trick question that tripped the entire audience (not 90%, not 99%, but literally everyone) and went on to give the most amazing talk about natural resources in developing countries, how they can help the poor improve their quality of life, and what he's doing to ensure they're used for this purpose. And after Bernard Kouchner came Stromae, who got the entire audience to stand up and sing and dance. Picture that: an audience of nerds, dancing in the fanciest classical concert hall in Brussels.

As enjoyable as the event was, from the start I felt somewhat weird about it. Only standing in the bus back home did I figure out what it was: it's not, actually, a conference. Both academic conferences and trade conventions are gatherings of people who come together to discuss their work. Yes, this involves a lot of people talking in front of slides, but this is only a means to an end. The end is to get people in a given field to discuss what they do. That's not at all what TED(x) is.

At TEDx, you don't meet the speakers. To be honest, I didn't really try to, but even if I had, the odds were severely stacked against me: there are 20 speakers for 1000 attendees. Add all the breaks together, and even under the ridiculous assumptions that speakers don't talk with each other, you only talk to speakers, never go to the bathroom and are comfortable talking to Nicholas Negroponte while sampling the cheese platter, statistically you can only hope for four minutes of face time with speakers in the entire day.

So you don't even try to. What you do is talk to random attendees, about nothing in particular. During the coffee breaks of a normal conference, you meet people who closely share your interests and discuss these. TEDx feels more like a speed-dating/networking session targeted at the kind of crowd that attends TEDx. It's a great crowd. Mostly young technophiles with a creative bend, yet diversified. I chatted with a retired English professor about underwater photography. I learned how the Yugoslav wars were perceived by Croats who were six-year-olds at the time. (Apparently it was kinda fun if you were lucky enough to be a child and not get killed.) The place is chock full of amazing people: scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers… and not the kind of engineer who's a lifelong employee at a major utility company, but the kind who taught himself graphic design and understands the music business and wants to use that combination of skills in a unique way. Everybody reads Malcolm Gladwell. Many want to be Tim Ferriss.

The "conference" part, with the speakers and the slides and the introductions, is actually a sort of day-long entertainment that simply happens to be co-located with the networking session. Nerdy entertainment certainly, and great entertainment. If I were to list the five best talks I've ever attended, four of these would be from today. (The fifth would be the EuroPython keynote by Hans Rosling, who also spoke at TED in Monterey.) At TEDxBrussels, you get to see Nicholas Negroponte throw his laptop on the ground and tell how he dares intel or other competitors to do the same with their prototypes when he faces them. You get to see a fashion show by Bibi Russell, a former top model who gave up her modeling career to create a fashion house that employs 35,000 workers in rural Bangladesh who make fashionable clothes you really want to wear. You get to see truly amazing people make passionate statements about the world and wild predictions about the future. As Rik Torfs said in closing, they're unlikely to all be right. "Maybe we're just telling jokes. But they're good jokes, by brilliant people." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty good day to me. It's a surprising event, unlike anything I've ever been to and not quite what I expected. But one thing's for sure: I'll definitely go again.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Stupidest Political Statement Ever

If you've been following the US midterm campaign at all, you know that 2010 is an extremely good year for stupid, ignorant, or even certifiably insane candidates. Which begs the question: who's the craziest? That's probably too hard to answer, so let's try something simpler: what's the craziest thing that was said?

Until today I would have found it preposterous that amid the frenzy of inane statements made by hopeful politicians in the last few months there could be a "winner", an argument or position so outrageously wrong that it clearly stands on "top" of the pile. Now however, I think I might have found exactly that.

Asked about immigration at a town hall meeting two weeks ago, congressional candidate Joe Miller replied:
The first thing that has to be done is secure the border. . . East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow. Now, obviously, other things were involved. We have the capacity to, as a great nation, secure the border. If East Germany could, we could.

Have you read that? Read it again. Ponder the implications. A guy who's running to oppose Obama's oppressive socialist government thinks the US should look towards a Soviet puppet state for inspiration. He also seems unaware that the Berlin wall and the iron curtain were built to keep East Germans in, not to prevent people in Paris and Copenhagen from taking advantage of the freedoms and opportunities offered by a life under the Warsaw Pact. Unless, that is, Mr. Miller's immigration strategy is to screw America so bad that it becomes desirable to prevent Californians from fleeing to Mexico. (Actually most of his economic program makes a lot more sense in that light.)

Bill Maher once said that Bush's stupidity made him an easier target for comedy than Obama. He should be afraid: if Joe Miller is at all representative of the next crop of politicians, comedians will soon become redundant.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Facebook's Meta-Likes

Since facebook came up with the idea that you can like not only things but also "actions", (e.g. while you've been able to like one person's status for a while, it only recently became possible to Like another person's commenting on that status.) the site has moved one step closer to the realm of simple-yet-impossible-to-understand webapps so recently left empty by the demise of Google Wave.

See if you can make sense of the following screencap:

What the hell is going on here ? The first line is clear enough: Cécile, Julie and Sophie like Laureline's status. (Of course they do. She's in Thailand.) The "unlike" link implies that I too apparently like her status. This begs the question of why this shows up in my news feed when I've reacted to it before and thus am obviously aware of it. But never mind: the thing that really bugs me is the last line. Apparently eight people like "this". What the hell is "this"? Are they liking Laureline's status, or Cécile's liking of Laureline's status ? (If the latter is true, Cécile has apparently gone to the trouble of liking her own liking of Laureline's status.)

At some point I thought both lists referred to the same thing, (Laureline's status) and the "4 others" were just people I wasn't friends with. But that isn't the case : clicking on "4 others" reveal a friend and 3 people I don't know. It follows that either the first and last lines are lists of people liking different things, or there is a weird reason (or bug) in facebook that explains why one of those friends is counted in the last line but not in the first.

This kind of thing has been happening all the time for the last few days. Am I the only one who is confused by this? Is there a simple and obvious explanation that I'm simply too stupid to figure out? If facebook really wants to complicate its user interface, why on Earth doesn't it provide a "dislike" button? I've been hating Florent Pagny for years, yet it's 2010 and I still have no easy way to share that feeling with the people in my life…

By publishing this, I'm taking a risk that someone might come along with a perfectly sane and simple explanation, and prove me an idiot in the comments. It's a risk I'm willing to take for three reasons: first, even in the worst case I'll actually learn something. Second, I strongly doubt that any explanation can undermine my fundamental point, which is that facebook's "like" mechanism is fucked up. Just to make the point, I'm pretty sure this is a bug :

Last but not least, as a researcher working in knowledge representation, I can't help but see a silver lining in all this: in an incredibly roundabout and unexpected way, facebook is teaching the masses one thing: reification is bloody hard.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Has America become Too European?

Yesterday I read Richard Feynman's Caltech 1974 commencement address, where he said that scientists had a responsibility to be more than just honest, i.e. to go beyond simply telling the truth, and make a point of mentioning everything that might make their results or argumentation wrong. While better scientific papers often have a "threats to validity" section doing exactly that, Feynman insisted that scientists should exert this strenuous form of integrity not only in academic circles, but also while addressing laypeople.

Thomas Straubhaar's latest op-ed is a perfect example of a piece with not even a hint of Feynman's "scientific integrity." Mr. Straubhaar, professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, presents an argument that goes something like this: "During the 20th century, the US favored small government, individual freedom and market forces. It rose swiftly to superpower status. Today, it has a bigger government that uses more interventionist policies, but its growth is anemic and some fear its greatness is fading. To remain powerful, it needs to shrink government and return to laissez-faire economic policies."

Sounds like a good argument, right? What kind of hesitant, unconfident chump bothers with "threats to validity?" Well, I do:
  • Were the laissez-faire policies of the early 20th century really the main reason for America's success? Weren't, say, low population density and immense reserves of oil and other natural resources at least as important?

  • How laissez-faire were those policies really? Isn't FDR's 1933 New Deal, widely credited with helping the economy recover from the great depression, just as interventionist as what Obama's doing now?

  • Even assuming America's greatness is really due to the free market policies of the industrial revolution, is it so obvious that they still represent the best option now, a hundred years later, with the world increasingly multipolar and domestic oil pretty much gone?

I'll stop at three things, but the attentive reader will easily find more.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cargo Cult Science

Richard Feynman talks about pseudo-science, honesty, scientific integrity, and how Millikan set a bad precedent for measuring the charge of an electron.
I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

You should read it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Swedish Lapland – What's in the bag?

Today is packing day for my next trip: a weeklong walk along Kungsleden in Swedish Lapland with my friend Rolando. We're both out there to take serious pictures, and of course we need to carry clothes, shelter and food, for ten days away from electricity and cell towers. Getting enough gear for serious pictures to fit inside a backpack along with all the things one needs in the wild just to stay dry, warm and fed is always a challenge. Here's what we'll end up carrying.

Rolando's photo gear:
  • Canon EOS7D
  • 2 Batteries
  • 40GB of CF cards
  • Tamron 11-18
  • Sigma 30/1.4
  • Canon SD860IS pocket camera

My photo gear:
  • 5DMk2 w/ RRS L-Plate
  • 4 Batteries
  • 44GB of CF cards
  • 24/1.4 (stand-in for my 16-35 which is getting repaired)
  • 50/1.4
  • 70-300 DO
  • Gitzo 1530 (center column removed)
  • Canon SD3500IS pocket camera

While we're both self-sufficient as far as photo gear is concerned, it's nice that we're both using Canon gear and can thus exchange batteries, memory cards and lenses if the need arises.

  • Tent
  • Stove, pot, two gas canisters
  • First aid kit
  • Sleeping bag, liner, sleeping pad
  • Water bottles (cheap plastic disposable ones — they're lighter than Nalgene)
  • Three-season hiking clothes (sun, rain and cold all expected)
  • Towel, knife, spork, headlamp, compass, cell-phone, iPod

This comes to a 13kg pack before food and water. Certainly not lightweight hiking territory, but we've carried much worse. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Göteborg by night

No matter how many times you've heard that Scandinavia is an expensive place, there is no dampening the shock that comes while ordering lunch at Copenhagen airport, when a smiling Bjorn Borg-lookalike asks you for 27 euros and 45 cents in return for white wine in a plastic glass and a very small cardboard box of Thai red curry.

Then you fly on to Göteborg, gather your luggage, take a bus to the city, then a tram to your hostel. The cool evening air would be a warm and soft caress on your skin if it wasn't eclipsed by punishingly cold rain. By the time you reach your hostel you're drenched to the bone and seriously questioning your lifestyle. The door is locked, so you need to call the owner, but the only thing on your mind is shelter from the rain. Beyond the window you see a warm corridor, a dark and empty front desk, and a lobby with two guests sitting in front of shiny computers. You rap quietly on the window. Nothing happens. You rap a little louder. Nothing continues to happen. The rain continues pouring. You knock as hard as you can. One of the guests, a fat guy in a sports jersey, shuffles in his chair, seems to consider turning away from facebook for a second, then obviously decides against it. You knock again, hard enough to bruise your knuckles. He shuffles once more. The girl next to him is obviously deaf. You're now shaking the entire door, mildly hoping that the hinges will snap free even if it gets you in jail. It doesn't rain in jail. The guy finally turns around and looks at you with a vague "What?" on his face. You gesture for him to get off his fat ass and walk three meters and open the fucking door. He holds your gaze for two seconds, his face a picture of immense stupidity. Then he swivels his chair back to his facebook profile. You question his morals, values and membership in the human species, curse him to the seventh generation and call on god to strike him with a severe coronary leading to slow and painful death, then whip out your cell phone to call the owner under the pouring rain. He'll be there in twenty minutes. You select a nice puddle to sit in while you wait.

At no point during any of this does it escape you that the amount of money you're spending on this memorable experience would, almost anywhere else in the world, buy you a night in a full-service hotel with a 24h reception that promises to move you from rain-drenched street to sweet linen and fluffy pillows in as little as four minutes, five tops on a busy day. But as much as you'd wish to be, you're not anywhere else: you're in Göteborg, watching continuous strings of water falling from the heavens and onto your head, meters from a warm room that is technically yours if only you can get to it.

When he eventually arrives, the owner isn't sure you really are the same two Belgian guys who booked a room at his hostel tonight. You manage to convince him. When you reach your room, the door is closed. This makes him surprisingly angry. He needs to fetch the key at his girlfriend's place or something, which should take him about thirty minutes, so he shows you to "the pool room", a combination kitchen and basement construction site with a slanted scratched broken-down excuse for a pool table. Scattered around the room lie twelve balls and two halves of a broken cue. An hour later the owner comes back and finally opens the door. He's not a bad guy really, but slow enough to be startled by continental drift. When he leaves with your travel companion to settle the bill, you take the luggage inside, unpack, remove your contacts, do a bit of reading, then, vaguely worried, go out to join them. Payment has just been delivered and he's just beginning to suggest places where you could enjoy a beer if only he'd stop talking. You've been thirsty since landing at Landvetter airport in the early evening, so you go there and get a drink. It's one in the morning.

Olympic – What worked, what didn't.

Sometimes I start writing something, and then lose interest. Luckily, I never throw anything out, so if for any reason I ever regain interest I just finish it and publish it. That's what just happened for the followup to my article about packing for Olympic National Park, which I give to you now.

As you can probably guess, I ended up making it out of the woods ok, and onto Vancouver where my talk went over very well, at least partly because I gave it in a brand new shirt after taking a couple of extended showers. All the camping and photo gear worked out fine, so there's not that much to say about that, but I did learn a few things along the way.

First, before the actual trip to Olympic, I ended up buying a couple more things in Seattle:
  • Lowepro CF card holders. I don't really need those for protection, but they help a lot with keeping cards in sequence and I got really tired of shuffling through all the cards in my pocket looking for the right one. Heartily recommended if you carry more than four cards.

  • Canon EF 100/2.8 Macro. I bought this after seeing all the wild flowers in Mount Rainier National Park. It proved really useful for the rest of the trip, but three (big) lenses is definitely my upper limit for backpacking. I'm not sure which of these I'd leave at home if I had to do the same trip again but I doubt I'd be carrying all three.

  • Bear can. This is mandatory for wilderness camping in bear country. It adds a little weight and makes packing a bit harder, but all in all it's not too much trouble. Lashed on the bottom of the backpack while hiking it's actually a very convenient place to hold all your food.

  • A third water bottle. Always useful.

While I didn't discuss food in the previous article, it has now become obvious that I'm terrible at estimating quantities for backpacking trips. I ended up buying way too much and carrying several totally unnecessary pounds on my back for four days. Definitely something to watch for in the future.

It didn't rain at all, which was pleasantly surprising. So obviously my rain jacket, rain pants, and tarp went entirely unused. If I was to do it again, I'd take only the rain jacket, so if it (unexpectedly) started raining I might be uncomfortable, but not in any danger.

I completely forgot to pack a fire starter (I usually carry a magnesium bar) so I felt very stupid when I pitched my tent right next to a perfect fire circle, surrounded by an ample supply of firewood, with no way to make any kind of flame. I briefly tried setting a few tufts of dry moss on fire by catching the sun with the 100/2.8, and, you know, it might even have worked if I had spent a lot more time at it, or if I hadn't tried it near dusk in the middle of a rather dense forest. Oh well.

Instead of packing DEET, I trusted a rather ambitious sunscreen-cum-bug-repellent thing because it came in a very convenient small tube. This is easily the biggest traveling mistake I ever made… The thing turned out ridiculously useless: I sprayed it right on mosquitoes and they didn't even flinch. I ended the trip with more than a hundred mosquito bites, making the skin over my whole body look like an obstacle course on Mars.

Regarding photography, in four days I took about 26GB of pictures, so my 30GB of CF cards proved just enough. The limiting factor was actually battery life: I ended up with barely 20% remaining in the second battery despite trying really hard to preserve power on the last day. While live view is the best way of ensuring sharp photos, it really eats up batteries like there's no tomorrow. On longer trips I'll obviously have to live without it.

Last but not least: Olympic is beautiful. Go there. Go there now. You'll love it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Google Approach to Internationalization

I live in Brussels, Belgium, and thus every time I access any webpage, the server has a hard time guessing what language I want that page to be in. If you were the server, here are a couple of sane ways you could make up your mind:
  • Trust the HTTP Accept-Language request header and serve the page in English.
  • Notice that the request was originally sent to and serve the page in English.
  • Notice that the originating IP address is from Brussels, where 85% of residents are French-speakers, and serve the page in French.
  • If request is made during working hours, acknowledge that the user isn't especially likely to live in Brussels proper, and pick at random between Dutch, English or French.

Alternatively, you could ignore the fact that good solutions even exist, rest on the fact that 59% of Belgians speak Dutch, and use this as an opportunity to plug your browser's translation service.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Photo or Video ?

About twelve years ago, Philip Greenspun wrote this in an article about "old" cameras:

If you have or inherit an extensive manual-focus system, you should get the bodies professionally cleaned and adjusted and then enjoy the system for another decade or two. After that, we'll all probably just be using high-resolution video cameras and picking out interesting still frames.

Freeze frames good enough to pass as photos? I was doubtful at the time, but look at this picture from my second New York post:

It isn't really a photograph in the usual sense, but indeed a still from a movie. Could you tell? Even in the low light of Washington Square at dusk, a 5DmkII movie freeze frame is good enough to pass as a photo on the Web.

But that's the Web. Surely this doesn't apply to serious photographs… or does it? Actually it does. A year ago, Esquire's cover was a still from a movie filmed expressly for the purpose of making a magazine cover. Arguably the Red One video camera used for this is too expensive for most photographers, but we're getting there.

So was Philip right? I'm still doubtful… For me, 99.9% of the time, filming and making stills are completely different processes. I just focus on different aspects of a scene when I'm capturing motion pictures. I think I'm far from alone in this: since the momentous Esquire cover, photographers have not exactly stampeded to video cameras, even those with the budget to do so. I'd guess they still believe that still cameras are still the best tools for taking still pictures. (No pun intended.) But maybe that's only their prejudice. We'll see. The quality certainly is there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The iPad Review

I'm not entirely sure the world needs another iPad review, but since everybody who knows I have one apparently cares about my opinion, here it is.

Short Version

It's a fun device that very few people need but many will want. It has a few annoying quirks, some of which should be fixed in the next version, and it will not do everything a laptop does, but it does some things way better than any other device on the market today.


Given how intense the hype is, it's worth stating the fact that, as a piece of hardware, the iPad is almost entirely unremarkable. Yes it's a beautiful thing, and the screen is possibly the best-looking non-OLED display on the market, but all that is also true of the iPod touch. Because that's all the iPad is: a 10-inch iPod touch. Technically it would have made more sense to call it iPodXL, and a less marketing-savvy company would have done exactly that. Apple, however, knows marketing even better than it knows single-digit market share. So it named its new gadget "iPad" and introduced it as a completely different device: not an iPod, not a laptop, not a NetBook, but a solid slab of magic that will change your life, how people consume media, and the entire computing industry. As if a new name cold possibly turn an old horse into a young racing stallion.

Funny thing: apparently, it can. For the moment, it seems Apple has convinced just about everyone that its new iPodXL is a "game changer" and a "whole new category of mobile device" and "the future of computing", and every developer on earth is trampling his own mother to make it as one of the big fishes in a pond that didn't even exist until last week. This seems insane: people are investing enormous amounts of effort to "make it" in a platform that might itself be a total failure. Well, yes, it is insane, but it is happening, and judging from the apps that are available on day one, it is bound to make the device a success. Apple might have achieved a first in the entire industry: solving the chicken-and-egg problem before the device even came out.

So what can you do with a big iPod? When the iPad was announced, the first use I thought of was as a stylish way to present my portfolio. It is indeed absolutely awesome for that purpose. Photos look crisp and shiny, with great colors and shadow detail. They look better than on any magazine, any fine art paper, any iPhone or laptop or PSP, or in fact anything but a HDR reference monitor, and those aren't cheap nor pocketable. Downside is that the screen is also super-shiny, enough to be used as a mirror when it's turned off, and to make reflections distracting in some (reasonably rare) lighting conditions.

The touchscreen is also super responsive, even better than an iPhone 3GS. Battery life is excellent as reported elsewhere. All in all it's a big next-generation iPod, upgraded in just about every way.

I don't like the on-screen keyboard in portrait mode, but in landscape it is quite good. I took a typing test and scored 46 words per minute, which isn't too bad, but I can type twice as fast on a physical keyboard. Hopefully I'll get better at it with time, but I think there will always be a gap. The tactile feedback of a touch screen keyboard simply isn't as good as that of physical keys.


The most important thing about any hardware platform, however, is the apps it runs. Nobody buys Windows 7 for Windows Mail. They want to run Office, or SoftImage, or XMLSpy. Gamers bought Playstations because they were the only platform to run Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid. People buy Mac OS X for iLife and Motion and Aperture. What do apps look like on a big iPod?

I started this review saying the iPad was the ideal digital portfolio. It's true. If you're a photographer whose business depends on convincing people on the spot that you know what you're doing, you need an iPad – or one of the alternatives that, sadly, you can't buy yet. For the rest of the world, the big thing appears to be news.

The NYT Editor's Choice app is awesome. Not just slightly better than the web version, but miles better, even better than the dead trees edition. It combines the tactile pleasure of actually holding a newspaper with the vibrancy of photos on a backlit screen and adds the appeal of video content. It makes the Daily Prophet seem bland and unappealing. Many apps in that vein are also great: AP news, Reuters, BBC News, The Guardian's Eyewitness…

Games are probably a big deal. I don't play casual games much, but the ones I tried were nice. Scrabble is just perfect. So is Air Hockey. Simple, entertaining, fun. Fieldrunners and Plants vs Zombies are excellent ports from the iPod and gain quite a bit from the larger screen. I've also tried Red Alert, and I'm with gizmodo: if I don't see Starcraft for iPad soon, I'm going to bomb Blizzard HQ.

Google maps seems as much of a killer app as it was on the iPhone. There it was a nifty trick, a somewhat convenient way of finding the nearest Starbucks. The larger screen real estate, plus the higher specs and probably quite a bit of optimization work – the iPad version is so fast it feels like SeaDragon – makes you wonder why anyone would ever use a paper map again. It also appears to cache up more data than the iPhone version. While away from WiFi I was pleased to notice that I still had access to most of southern Manhattan.

Mail, iCal, Netnewswire, Twitteriffic all work well and are a significant step up from the iPhone versions. While I almost never read long passages on the iPhone, reading on the iPad is even better than on a desktop PC, so I find myself staying inside the apps a lot more.

I haven't tested iWork much, but I've read about the horrible syncing experience. Obviously Apple needs to do something about this, although it won't be trivial. The main reason iPhone OS is so easy to use is that it completely hides the hierarchical file system – a complex data type that only computer scientists and software developers really ever understood. Users don't forget to save their work because apps don't even bother with "saving" when they can simply bring you back where you were when you relaunch them. Users don't forget where they put their documents because they only have a single place to put them in – the app's "library". It's going to be tough to reconcile this no-filesystem model with multi-app multi-device syncing. However, it's clear that Apple's current model is an awful ugly evil kludge and that it needs to be replaced before people actually start syncing. Personally, I have a lot of experience with hierarchical file systems, so I wholeheartedly vote for a Documents folder on the device and Dropbox support, so that my iPad can automagically access the shared folders all my computers work on. Sadly, something tells me I'm not gonna win this one.

OmniGraffle is a gem. As long as there isn't too much text, diagramming is easier with multi-touch than on a traditional computer. I hope OmniFocus comes out soon, because I use it all the time and running iPhone apps on the iPad is completely unsatisfying. Drawing apps like SketchBook and Adobe Ideas in general are a real joy, even for someone like me, who can't draw a sheep to save his life. I can't wait for some version of Aperture to come along.

Many reviewers see this as only a content-consumption device. At the moment I would almost agree – all the "creative" apps are flawed or incomplete – but I think that's mostly because designing an interface for something like a twitter client is much easier than for a Photoshop clone, and most developers still don't have access to the physical device, nor any experience designing apps for anything remotely similar to it. I'm pretty sure in the medium term we'll see great creative apps appear on the iPad.

Oh, and of course the big iPod happen to be a really good iPod. I watched the Daily Show while eating on the plane back. In comparison, the inflight entertainment system looked like something out of the 1950's.

Little Gripes

While it's a very good device overall, a few annoyances really scream "Version 1". There's the aforementioned file syncing. There's the lousy iBooks application, full of useless kitschy fake-wooden-bookshelves and gratuitous, time-consuming animations. The Kindle app is way better. There's the useless requirement that you sync the iPad with iTunes before ever using it.

The stupid dock is especially infuriating. It doesn't fit the iPad unless you remove the cover, which is difficult because of the really snug fit. Since the cover is so good that I never use the iPad without it, this makes the dock utterly useless. Even taking that aside, the Dock only has one 30-pin connector, so you have to choose between the AC adapter and the USB cable for iTunes sync. Since on USB the iPad only charges very slowly (on a MacBookPro) or not at all (everywhere else I tried), and it can't sync wirelessly, you can't simply dump the iPad on the dock and forget about it until the next morning, like you'd do with any other iPod. You have to wait for the sync to finish and then switch cables.

None of these are deal-breakers, but they could be solved with only a little thought, for example by using a special cord on the AC adapter with a USB plug at the end for syncing while you recharge. It is aggravating that the device was allowed to reach the market with such obvious quirks, especially for a product whose only selling point is superlative user experience.

But… it's a closed platform!

Isn't the iPad a closed platform? Isn't buying it condoning proprietary software and locked down hardware even though open alternatives exist? Isn't Apple an evil corporation bent on taking over the world?

YES! Of course it is. Apple wants its revenge from the battle it lost in the 90's, it wants to become the Microsoft of mobile computing and the Google of mobile advertising. It will do anything it can, within the confines of the law and what its users will tolerate, to dominate the markets in which it participates. There is nothing unusual or surprising about this: corporations usually grow or die, especially in highly competitive fields. The only unusual thing about Apple's Plan for World Domination is how surprisingly successful it's been over the last few years.

So Apple is locking out Adobe, patent-trolling Android, and screwing developers who use compatibility frameworks. Big deal. Google's "Don't be evil" statement is nothing more than a saying, and Adobe's revenue model isn't built on open standards. I don't always like Apple's policies, but I really can't get too worked up about them either.

As long as developers continue to work on the platform (and with nearly 200,000 applications on the iTunes Store that certainly seems to be the case) this closed approach has almost no downside for the end user. (Apple's claim that it has significant upside is debatable.) The iPad, anyway, isn't any more closed than a PSP or a Nintendo DS, and nobody's complaining about them.

Is this the future of computing?

Many fans say that, and I always wonder what they actually mean by "this".

All the world's computers are not going to be replaced by iPads overnight. If anything, you'd then lack a copy of iTunes to initialize the next iPad sold. So if "this" is the future of computing, "this" can't possibly be "this particular device as it is now."

Clearly multitouch interfaces will play a big role in the future. When Aperture came out, I thought the Light Table feature would be really great if only it didn't suck so bad – and indeed, like most Aperture users, I've barely ever created a Light Table album. The problem is that it's a great photo organizing concept that sadly doesn't work at all with a keyboard and mouse interface. When full-sized Macs get multitouch screens it'll likely become a lot more popular.

If "this" means intermediate devices between smartphones and full-fledged computers, then, well, yeah, I think such devices will become more popular in the future, but they've always been used to some extent – PocketPCs, Palm Pilots, Psions EPOC devices, and lately Netbooks have their shares of fans. Many things in the iPad remind me of the Psion Series 5, one of the best designs ever in my opinion. This thirteen-year old device had an app-centric UI, a well-hidden filesystem, did mostly without Load/Saves and allowed working for 15h on text documents away from AC power. Nearly ten years ago I did all my note-taking in college on a 5mx, the only device at that time, and for a good long while afterwards, with the combination of ergonomy and battery life to make this possible. Now I would likely use an iPad. I am sure many people will.

Should I buy an iPad?

I don't care. Luckily, there are a couple flowcharts online to help you.

Seriously though, it's a tough question, because unlike with the iPod or the iPhone, there is no clear narrative of what this thing is actually for. It's not a laptop replacement, or at least, it can't replace my laptop, although this guy seems happy. It's kind of a kindle replacement, although a kindle might be better if you do most of your reading in bright sunlight or away from AC power for days on end. Some people will buy it as a gaming machine. Others as a news reader. Others as a digital portfolio.

It really is a blank canvas, which is its main strength. It's entirely plausible that popular apps six months from now will be unlike anything we've ever seen. Right now, the iPad is not perfect, and nobody really needs it. Many will like it, though, and in the near future innovative applications will undoubtedly come out for it and similar devices. For computing, these are very interesting times indeed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New York City, 2

I was amazed by the first 24 hours of this New York trip. Now that I'm back in Belgium, I might as well mention a couple of the moderately interesting events of the next three days.

On the subway I sat next to a perfect John Kerry-look wearing a kippah. At Brooklyn's Prospect park, a smaller version of Saddam Hussein was playing soccer against two girls. He looked about 7 years old so hopefully his mustache was fake. A few minutes later an elderly Hassidic Jew came towards me and asked, "Are you Jewish?". I said I wasn't. He had the vacant expression of those who devote their life to events that reportedly happened five thousand years ago, and his grasp on 21st century reality was obviously tenuous. Three minutes later he came back to me and asked, as if for the first time, "Are you Jewish?" I confirmed I wasn't and he walked away. Not five minutes later I noticed him edging back towards me and ran for cover. I wonder what he'd said had I said yes.

After about an hour working inside a Starbucks in Brooklyn, I got up and started packing. As I made my way for the door, one of the waitresses waved at me: "Bye Serge! Have an nice evening!" I had never been there before. Even though that was a Starbucks, no one had asked my name when I ordered. She got it off my credit card when I paid, remembered it for the next 50 minutes, and pronounced it right, just to be friendly to a client.

As I was sitting in the metro, a young woman, obviously not a tourist, sat next to me to study the system map on the train wall. During the next five minutes she asked me where we were, what stop that just was, what was the next one and what train we were on. She wouldn't tell me where she wanted to go, but her face turned increasingly confused and uncertain. At the third stop she muttered a small "damn" and crossed the platform to the train headed the other way.

As I left the subway, the guy next to me walked straight for the wall, lavishly vomited, then walked on as if he was perfectly fine and just going through his usual morning routine.

Later in the day I drifted towards Washington Square, where a rag-tag band of musicians were playing. They were maybe six acoustic guitars, four djembes and four singers, one of them with a stentorian voice and heaps of charisma. They just finished "On the road again" and launched into "Hotel California". Well I'll be damned if that wasn't the best cover of Hotel California I've ever heard. And they weren't even a band. Just a couple people with instruments who gravitated towards the Square because that's the kind of thing they do on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

As awesome as the show was, I was famished so I repaired to a Pakistani restaurant on a side street. As I emerged an hour later, the impromptu band was gone, but a bit farther down the square was a trio playing what I can only describe as atonal jazz fusion. Let me repeat that: atonal jazz fusion. On a city square. And people were watching, often with interest. (The band was good. Of course.) At some point they took a break and started talking about interesting prog-electronica bands with a couple of passersby.

I can't get it into my head that, in New York, there is nothing at all remarkable about any of these stories. That this is a city where there are plenty of bands playing everywhere, nearly all of them really good, some happening to be into atonal jazz. Bill Bryson says about the beautiful Flemish city of Bruges that he can barely believe actual people live there, see those buildings and walk those streets everyday. I feel something like that about New York. There's something unreal about this place, which makes it hard to picture people merely living there, having breakfast and then walking these streets, every single day. I wonder how long it takes for them to get used to it and stop being excited about taking a walk. I have to say that after ten years in Brussels, my excitement factor there is running pretty low. And Brussels is still a far more exciting place than, say, Bloomington, Indiana. Only last decade I saw a good street band in the Sacred Isle.

And I guess that's the main reason I love New York: things happen there. Everybody knows why New York is a great global city: most populous urban centre outside Asia, setting for Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock, birthplace of hip hop, punk, disco, home to the most respected journal in the world, the biggest financial hub on earth and the siege of the United Nations… you know, those little things. New York also has a number of perks that make it especially appealing to me personally. A great subway system, cheap Japanese food, polite waiters who can pronounce my name and the ability to purchase a MacBook at four in the morning are only the first that come to mind.

And yet you could remove all of that, take away all the cultural grandeur and global influence, and then turn the convenience dial all the way down to, well, "France" I guess, and New York would still be an unbelievably awesome city. Because, well, lots of interesting things happen there. And for my money's worth, that's the highest ideal a city should aim for.

More photos here.

The iPad Launch

On Saturday morning, Apple launched the iPad, which in Europe would be quite a small thing, only important to techies and geeks. Not so in New York.

It made the cover of Newsweek, TIME magazine, and the New York Times every single day that I was there. At quarter past eight, forty minutes before opening time and official launch, the whole plaza in front of Apple's Fifth Avenue store was already crowded. A dozen news vans were parked in front. About two hundred people were standing in line, which made absolutely no sense because Apple had taken reservations, so the only benefit you got from being among the first people inside the store was the ability to brag that you were among the first people inside the store. I had breakfast and came back at five to nine. The line had more than doubled and was overflowing onto the sidewalk. Apple employees were being scolded by other shops' security guards because they were about to open and the fanboys were blocking their door.

Shortly after I joined the line, the shop opened with a sonorous countdown started by Apple employees and quickly joined by everyone else. The first hundred people or so walked in under the applause of all employees, as if they had just won the World Cup or something. It must be Apple's way of thanking those who do their marketing and evangelizing and beta testing pro bono. Apple employees did a wonderful job of handling the crowd and it only took about half an hour before I walked in, and three minutes more before I had my iPad in hand. I stayed inside the shop for a while taking advantage of the free WiFi to set the iPad up and sync it. People were everywhere, testing the demo iPads, buying and unboxing their own. A couple video crews were making the rounds and interviewing people. I got asked seven times if the iPad in my hand was actually mine and whether I liked it…

This was something I would eventually get used to: for the next three days, I couldn't use the iPad anywhere without someone joining me, asking me how I liked it, and telling me they were thinking of getting one. And I mean everywhere, not just the Starbucks facing the Apple Store, but the sushi bar in Greenwich and the burger joint and the pakistani deli and the coffee place in Brooklyn.

I read in USA Today that on Fifth Avenue a few people started queuing up Friday at 4PM and waited there for seventeen hours just to be among the first to enter the store. That's not too surprising: in a city of 20 million there's bound to be a few nuts. What startled me was that everybody knew about the launch, and most actually cared. Apparently all New Yorkers are gadget freaks, and mostly Apple freaks at that. From what I can tell, there are more iPhones and Droids and NexusOnes on the streets of New York than in a European web entrepreneurs' meeting. I bet the iPhone has a bigger market share in NY right now than Nokia ever had anywhere.

At noon on easter sunday, 28 hours after the iPad launch, there was still a sizable queue at the entrance of the Apple store. It had long since ran out of iPads, but apparently there still wasn't enough room inside for all the people whose only desire on this glorious, absolutely perfect, sunny holiday was to bury themselves underground and try out a device they could not even buy for the next few weeks. People are weird sometimes.

More photos here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

New York City

‘The intern said he had never lived in New York City, and asked me what it was like. I didn’t really have a good answer, but I said, “New York is the kind of place where ten things happen to you every day on the way to the subway that would have qualified as interesting dinner conversation in Bloomington, Indiana, and you don’t pay them any notice.”’

From Joel Spolsky's Introduction to Best Software Writing I

You can always expect people to rave nonsensically about their hometown. Usually they're just ignorant bigots. Sad, but that's life. Sometimes however, they're actually right, and that's when it becomes really irritating.

I'm in New York for the week-end. Around lunchtime, while looking for a good Deli, I saw a priest wearing a $2000 Armani jacket over his frock. He was more than ridiculous, he was a walking insult to good taste, and very probably christianity – although I wouldn't know much about that.

Earlier in the morning I saw a rundown hippie trip and fall upon the dogs he was walking– the biggest, meanest great danes I'd ever seen. I was sure the dogs would panic and drag the poor guy into incoming traffic, but they only looked at him with haughty condescension – not an expression that comes easily to a breed of dog with misshapen ears and overactive salivary glands.

As the evening fell, I passed the Versace store on fifth avenue, where two grossly overweight women were gazing at the predictably anorexic mannequin and arguing on which dress would look best on them.

Had dinner in an Irish pub which proudly welcomes UN workers from the neighborhood. Heard conversations in languages I didn't even recognize. Four different languages I didn't recognize. Oh, I also shook hands with Homer Simpson. And I haven't been here 24 hours.

What's amazing about all these little stories happening around me is that I am not even remotely trying to have an interesting time. I am proofreading a big project proposal and thus spend most of my time in front of a computer, working. But for the facts that I'm doing this in various Starbucks instead of at home, and that I'm sharing a dorm with 11 men I have never met, this could be just another day at the office.

At one point I came across an alternative-looking clothing shop and went for a quick look inside. It was full of rock-and-roll paraphernalia. Old amps. Posters. Alice Cooper's gold and platinum records.

The shop belongs to John Varvatos, a designer from Detroit who recently made it big selling rock-and-roll-inspired quality clothes. He apparently designed many of Cooper's stage outfits and hired him to showcase his current line – in return he got the trophy records as a gift.

As I chatted with the saleswoman, she told me the shop's whole story: it was formerly known as the CGBG club, and the birth place of Punk Rock. The Ramones played there before they were famous. A couple years ago though it was only a shadow of its former glory, and tenants wanted to close it down. Enter John (Varvatos), who walked by it in broad daylight, gazed inside, and thought he could turn it into an underground-looking fashion store with very little work. So he did. It looks awesome. It even has a stage where live concerts happen from time to time.

I was fascinated. And rather shocked that I was only discovering the guy then and there. An award-winning fashion designer who buys run-down Punk Rock clubs and hires Alice Cooper as a model strikes me as someone I should have heard of. But I had not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a platinum record up close either. But now I have. Just because I took a random walk in the east village looking for AC power and a latte.

I love this place.

More photos here.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

iPad EULA leaked

This device is provided without warranty of any kind as to reliability, accuracy, existence or otherwise or fitness for any particular purpose and Apple Inc. specifically does not warrant, guarantee, imply or make any representations as to its merchantability for any particular purpose and furthermore shall have no liability for or responsibility to you or any other person, entity or deity with respect of any loss or damage whatsoever caused by this device or object or by any attemps to destroy it by hammering it against a wall or dropping it into a deep well or any other means whatsoever and moreover asserts that you indicate your acceptance of this agreement or any other agreement that may be substituted at any time by coming within five miles of the product or observing it through large telescopes or by any other means because you are such an easily cowed moron who will happily accept arrogant and unilateral conditions on a piece of highly priced garbage that you would not dream of accepting on a bag of dog biscuits and is used solely at your own risk.

Admittedly this is not the iPad's end-user license agreement but that of a fictitious personal organizer from Terry Pratchett's The Truth, and the real EULA might not even have been written yet, but I'm guessing this is pretty close.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Concert Photography

Nifty piece by Jeff Spirer about Photographing Bands and Musicians on It's full of really good tips and tricks that you can find out by yourself by shooting a few dozen shows, but if you're just starting out it might save you quite a bit of time.

I was (pleasantly) surprised at how close his gear list recommendation matches my own:

  • DSLR (either a Canon EOS 1DMkIII or Canon EOS 40D)

  • 35/2

  • 50/1.4

  • either a 20/2.8 or 85/1.8

  • 580EXII flash

  • spare camera battery

  • extra rechargeable batteries for the flash

  • memory cards (at least 8GB)

  • business cards

  • earplugs

  • clear lens filter and lens hood on every lens

I have the "old" 1DMkII, and I substitute 24/1.4 and 100/2 for his 20/2.8 and 85/1.8, but apart from that this is pretty much my list. Except I really need to get some business cards.