The future of photography at events

There’s nothing more annoying to me than flash photography at concerts and theaters.

Venues do their bit to announce that “Flash photography is forbidden” but it’s as if this just reminds all the douches in the audience that they have cameras, which they should immediately pull out and set to “Flash Auto”.

What these inconsiderate fools don’t realize is that the flash on their iPhone or Cybershot has a range of maybe 5-10 meters tops, and it is not going to illuminate the stage of Madison Square Garden from the back of the mezzanine, no matter how many times they try. The best chance of them getting a decent picture is if they turn off the flash, bump up the ISO, and stop bothering everyone around them. Perhaps the venue announcement could say “The secret to good photos is to turn off your flash.”

You just know that for every good photo you see on Flickr, there are thousands of terrible ones, completely black with a few overexposed heads, and possible a few people who were given epileptic fits without even a good photo to show for it.

Event organizers know they can’t realistically ask everyone to leave their cellphone cameras at home, but heaven help anyone who brings a DSLR to an event. You’d have better luck bringing a concealed weapon into a theater than a telephoto lens. Yet what people fail to realize is that DSLRs are hardly annoying anyone. People using DSLRs generally know how to turn off their flashes and beeps, and they look through a dark viewfinder instead of a bright LCD screen.

Event organizers are a funny lot really, because their attempts to stop photography at events are completely futile. They just can’t stop huge crowds. And it’s about to get worse.

At this week’s CES 2011, Lady Gaga and Polaroid showed the GL20 glasses – glasses which can take photos. They’re not exactly subtle, but imagine where this technology will be in a year or two. Normal looking glasses that record everything you see? Cameras in your earrings?

Want to film the crazy person on the sidewalk, but don’t want them to see you reaching for your camera? No longer a concern in the future. Just look at them, then walk around the corner, pull out your mobile phone, use Bluetooth to grab the last 30 seconds of video, crop out the funny part and tap “Upload to Facebook.”

Once it’s impossible to tell who is using a camera, event organizers may as well embrace the fact that people will be recording all the time. Use the free publicity, and realize that their market has been, and always will be, those people who actually value being there even if they can see a video of last night’s event on the Internet.

But if organizers want to stop people using their flashes, the answer to me is simple. The announcement when you arrive should be, “We have a professional photographer here, and you can download her photos and videos for free afterwards if you want to remember the show.” I’d certainly pack my camera away if I knew that.

I look forward to the day that everything we see is automatically recorded, so that we always have the truth in case of a dispute, and the ability to share interesting experiences we would’ve otherwise missed capturing. But most of all, if we knew everything could be seen later anyway, we’d actually sit back and enjoy the experience, and not be constantly fiddling with our cameras.

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In search of a better steak

Is Kobe Beef any good? I have yet to taste the real thing because I have yet to travel to Japan. As a fan of good steak, Eat Real Kobe Beef is high up on my bucket list.

I have however, eaten Kobe Style beef, a pretty loosely used term in the US. It was delicious, but I’m not entirely sure its worth $100 per serving. It’s typically claimed the beef was fed beer and hand-massaged with sake. Wikipedia points out that this is not true Kobe beef.

It seems like US Kobe Style Beef is mostly a case of good marketing.

Good for them though if they can get away with it. I’d like to get in on the name too. I’ll call mine “Kobe A+” and charge $200 per serving. I’ll start by tagging a thousand cows bred from Kobe ancestry, and serve their steaks randomly to the country’s top food critics. Scientists will take those cows that consistently produced steaks with 10/10 ratings, and isolate their genetic differences from the rest.

Cows will then be bred only from the winning genetic line, and each calf will be DNA tested at birth. If it has mutated, it will be shot and sold as B-grade veal.

Instead of daily massages, each cow will have an electronic massaging device permanently tenderizing it 24 hours a day, saving on manual labor costs at the same time.

The cows would be fitted with noise-cancelling headphones and high-resolution virtual reality goggles so that they’d always believe they’re in a tranquil spring meadow, no matter the environment and time of year they’re really in.

Using the power of technology that simply didn’t exist in ancient Kobe Japan, these steaks would surely have to be the best in the world. Sound convinced? I know I am practically watering at the mouth right now. The wealthy would surely pay $300, no, make that $500, for a prime cut.

Of course, once you order one of these steaks, the restaurant will most certainly under-cook it, and you’ll have to send it back 3 times, by which stage it will be a tough, dried up grey slab and you’ll never be able to tell the difference.

* No cows were harmed during the writing of this post.

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Why you need multiple online personalities

Children of today may need to change their names upon reaching adulthood to clear their reputations, due to the lack of privacy on the Internet. That is what Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, recently said.

I believe the problem is worse than he makes out. With the amount of websites monopolizing our content and tracking us everywhere we go, we’re not immune even as adults. The only solution in my opinion, is to register multiple online personalities. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:

  1. Ever wondered what your Facebook profile looks like to someone outside your friend network? You’d think you could just log out and type in your Profile URL, right? Wrong. That only shows you what Facebook allows search engines to index. If you’re not logged into the Facebook world, you simply can’t see what other Facebook users can see. This is why you absolutely must sign up for a second Facebook account – so that you can verify that your primary account doesn’t expose too much sensitive information to strangers.
  2. What about when you need to e-mail a public mailing list to ask an embarrassing question about, say, that mysterious rash you’ve just come out with? Do you really want that coming up when your next recruiter Googles your name? Best you come up with a pseudonym for that question!
  3. Disqus runs the comments on nearly every blog and news site I frequent, and they happily show anyone who clicks on your name which other websites you’ve ever visited and every comment you’ve ever made. There is no way to turn off this gross violation of privacy. The only way to separate your public and private life here is to have multiple accounts.
  4. It can be beneficial to blog about lessons learned at a previous job – as long as there are no trade secrets or names imparted. However, if the identity of the blogger is public, it can create all sorts of problems because it’s pretty easy to guess who the people involved are. Writing under a pen name solves this problem.

One really has to start right at the beginning with a brand new alias and e-mail address. Hey, at least you get to choose your name this time!

Of course, with so many sites now being reliant on one-another – e.g. Facebook Connect to authenticate, which in turn uses an e-mail address to sign in – it’s best to keep the multiple personalities fenced off into completely separate environments, or you’ll never know whether you’re half-logged into both accounts at once with third party cookies, or about to somehow post on your other Facebook wall through an API.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I find the easiest way to accomplish this is to use Chrome for my public identity and Firefox for my dark side.

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Uniqlo versus other clothing stores

Today I had the pleasure of shopping for clothes at Uniqlo for the first time. Yeah, I know, they’ve been in New York for a while, I’m a late adopter, forgive me. But this place is just so different I had to get my thoughts out.

At a conventional store, you’re lured in by crazy specials permanently plastered on the window. Every item has crossed-out prices telling you the equivalent at a “regular store.” Where exactly are these regular stores anyway? Can anyone actually name one? Last time I checked, even Bloomingdales and Bergdorf Goodman use this tactic. You have to be a celebrity or a banker to shop there, but they still have 60%-off specials to make the millionaires feel like they’re getting a good deal.

Of course, once you’re inside most stores, they’ll manipulate your mind with pricing to get you to buy more. Buy 3 get 1 free? Wow, I was only going to buy 1, but that seems like a good deal? Wow, offer valid today only? Err, umm, crap, I guess we only live once, I may never have another chance!

Every time I’ve come home from a regular shopping trip, I’ve been completely exhausted, with a bag full of things I figure I’m probably going to return in a few days time, but in reality I never do. Which is the point of course.

Uniqlo seems to be different. They make no big deal of being cheap. There are no specials listed on their website. They sell quality first and foremost. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is a $90 cashmere sweater. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s just another expensive SoHo fashion store like Banana Republic next door.

But if you explore for a while, you’ll be properly rewarded with good prices. I picked up a $7.50 fleece sweater and $9 dress gloves, among other things – all just about the best quality I’ve ever seen. These cheap prices are sustainable, the byproduct of Japanese efficiency, much like when Japan re-invented the motor industry a few decades ago.

Strategically placing the cheap stuff as rewards for exploring the entire shop is a much more honest way of enticing customers to walk past the expensive items than old-fashioned bait and switch tactic of “use a special to get them inside, then milk them for all they’re worth.” This may have worked on the public for a while, but we’re a smarter public now. At no point inside Uniqlo did I have to try to figure out whether I was being conned.

Maybe their strategy is more complicated than this, but whatever they’re doing, it’s working:

In 2009, during one of the worst periods in the history of retailing, Uniqlo reported over $7 billion in sales of more than 400 million items. Existing-store sales were up by more than 30 percent.

Uniqlo has somehow managed to design their store so that you can shop for the product and not the price tag. It’s a refreshing experience.

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Inventing a Better Wheel

As programmers, there are two types of problems we solve: those that have been solved before and those that haven’t.

Generally it makes business sense to concentrate on what we’re primarily selling and not get distracted by non-core functions. From a programmer’s perspective, that means we should avoid reinventing the wheel – we should use existing libraries and services where possible, then spend our quality time on code that makes our product new and unique.

But at what point should we not bother checking whether something has been coded before?

Did we really sign up as programmers so that all we’d be doing is trawling the web, evaluating libraries, copying and pasting boilerplate code, then logging bug reports with other developers when things break? Are there ever business cases for saying “Screw it, I’m going to just write this myself, because I can do it quickly and it will work exactly how I want it to”?

The fact is that if you search hard enough, you can find code of varying quality for just about everything. No? Are you sure you tried searching in Japanese? What about 80’s usenet groups? Where should one draw the line?

I think reinventing the wheel is a pretty awful analogy for a software anti-pattern. It implies that the original solution can never be improved upon. That is nonsense. The so-called wheel can become obsolete overnight, or its owners could stop maintaining it. The wheel has a different value at each system where it’s used. It’s entirely possible to invent a better wheel.

As a rule of thumb, if I estimate that I can create a library that I’ll be using a lot in 2-3 days, I’ll probably code it myself. Here are some reasons:

  1. I’ll know my code. I don’t have to spend time adapting to someone else’s naming conventions and way of thinking.
  2. No scouring of badly written FAQs or knowledge bases. No posting on Q&A sites about obscure problems. Certainly none of my pet peeve of working with open source frameworks: “This documentation is under construction.”
  3. My code is tailored to my system. My interface is not bloated with things I’ll never use, and its performance will not suffer due to it trying to be a one-size-fits all solution.
  4. Most importantly, I won’t have to take responsibility for someone else’s bug. Think of it this way: which of these is better to tell a customer? –
    1. “Our website broke. It was someone else’s fault, and we’ve logged a bug with them. There is nothing we can do about it except wait. We’ll keep you updated.”
    2. “Our website broke, and we were able to fix it immediately.”

Just so we’re clear: I am a big advocate of using tried & trusted frameworks and API’s when possible. But sometimes what is out there doesn’t cut it for everyone’s needs, and I don’t believe we should necessarily discourage ourselves from building our own version.

 

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Financial brokers are broken

In November 2000, I saw my first financial advisor. Like every other financial advisor I’ve seen, he advised me to do things with my money that were good for his finances.

He persuaded me to invest a chunk of my income each month with the large company he represented. One fund was set to mature in November 2010 and the other when I retire. His parting words: “Forget these funds even exist. One day I’ll call you and tell you its payday.” He then said goodbye and climbed into his fancy car, no doubt paid for by the fees I’d be coughing up for the rest of my working life.

Last month I got that call from him. It’s November 2010, my first fund has matured! Actually, it was an e-mail and it was mostly about meeting to get more business out of me. He conveniently avoided the topic I’d obviously want to discuss, which is that my fucking fund is worth 60% less than if I’d just kept my money in the bank! Yeah, what a great investment that was.

We’re not just talking about the recession here. At no point in the last ten years was this investment ever profitable even in nominal terms. This is at a multinational listed company that does nothing but specialize in savings. They sent me letters each year with excuses about the inflation rate, or tough times, or 9/11, or the recession or whatever was trending at the time, but I’d kept pressing on out of faith, thinking about my broker’s parting words – that I should leave it up to the experts and somehow the investment would sort itself out in time.

Yet I heard from him once at the beginning and once at the end. And while I lost 60% of my cash, he earned commission on every payment I contributed. Brokers earn their cut regardless. They have very little incentive to ensure their customers turn a profit. This is where the system begins to fall apart.

When I phoned the investment company to complain, they told me that if I wasn’t happy with the investment I should have taken it up with my broker. Well, if I had done that he’d have just told me I shouldn’t have signed in the first place, or that I was welcome to change my portfolio at any time.

The fault ultimately ends up being with me, the customer. I can’t rely on my broker to choose the best product, and let’s be honest, most of us have no idea whether our broker is actually any good until it’s too late. The customer is always where the responsibility lies and where the informed decisions have to be made.

Unfortunately, so many institutions still give the public no choice but to go through brokers. When I took out life insurance, I knew I wanted to go with Discovery Life because I’d already done the research and I knew they were the best fit for my needs. But they wouldn’t let me sign up directly. I had to find a broker, and I had to give that broker a huge chunk of my monthly premiums. For what exactly? I’m not sure. Each year I get a Christmas card. That could be it.

The irony is that the broker they recommended lugged a laptop along to the meeting, then just asked me each question that came up on the website on his screen, and punched each answer back into the website (making a number of transcription errors along the way, I might add.) This website did all the thinking and generated an application form, which I signed. Why couldn’t I just have access to this website?

I just cannot imagine how any institution that doesn’t cater directly to the public is going to survive a few years from now. Brokers were essential 20 years ago because there was no other way for the public to research specialized information or communicate efficiently with big companies, but today it’s grossly inefficient to have everything go through a human proxy when it can be done over the web at negligible cost.

It’s often the same companies who only deal through brokers who also require Internet Explorer 5.5+ to access their websites. They seem to not have realized what year we are in. I’m a little scared that I have savings invested with some of these companies, because their clunky and outdated businesses will be left behind very soon to more modern, lower overhead competitors.

Much the same can be said for travel agents, recruitment agents, and to a certain extent estate agents. The broker model no longer fits in with an Internet society and it is inevitable in my mind that it has a bleak future.

Posted in personal, predictions, rants, south africa | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A small idea for airport security

As an ex- single-engine aircraft pilot, I certainly never had to step through an x-ray machine or have my crotch groped before climbing into a Cessna 172. There are a few good reasons for this:

Firstly, the chances of 1 out of my 3 passengers being a terrorist were quite negligible compared to, say, the chances in a fully loaded Airbus A380.

Secondly, if someone tried to fly a Cessna into a building, it would probably do less damage than if they just drove their car into the building.

Thirdly, there’s just no point in any terrorist targeting anything that only has a handful of people in it. It would be a lot easier and more effective for them to just blow up a car or an elevator. So why go to the effort? There’s just no reason for it to happen.

Is this not the fundamental problem we have with air travel today? All the long lines, delays and costs spent on security checks are there purely because of the chance of terrorist attacks, and terrorist attacks only happen when there’s a large enough group of people present for it to be newsworthy. That’s the business terrorists are in after all – striking terror into the masses. When a car bomb goes off and kills 5 people, it’s a tragedy and it might make the news, but it certainly doesn’t make international headlines for more than a day.

So the solution to today’s airport security nightmares is simple: Airports needs to relax the security checks for passengers flying on small aircraft of under about 20 seats, and reduce the airport taxes on those tickets.

When passengers realize they can travel with less hassle and with their dignity and liquids intact, they’ll start flying on these aircraft. Airlines would quickly pick up on the increased demand and start replacing their large airplanes with smaller ones. Manufacturers might even get in on the act and start investing in new technology in the small economical jet category.

I know there would be backlash. Smaller aircraft means more air traffic and potentially more pollution. But the air-traffic would be countered by the fact that small aircraft can take-off and land closer together and on shorter runways. Pollution could be countered by the fact that there’d never be a 737 flying half-empty.

Unfortunately, all of this is just wishful thinking because it will never work.

When we’re booking tickets, we’ll see the prices. Big plane $300, small plane $1000. We’ll see that price difference and we’ll completely forget about the porno scans and cavity checks for a minute while we’re handing over our credit cards.

The very reason the wide-body aircraft was invented was the economies of scale it provides. That one cockpit and set of wings being shared by 400 people instead of 20, and the fact that it only takes one radio call to the control tower to land all of those people is what makes the ticket price so much cheaper.

Until the day that airport security becomes so bad that all the people who keep threatening to stop flying actually stop flying, we’ll all slowly be conditioned into accepting worse norms, and we’ll keep comparing air tickets based on cost alone.

Posted in aviation, ideas, security | Tagged , | 2 Comments