Bless you

October 17th, 2013

I was telling Rose about a small photographic accessory that plugged into the hotshoe.

“The what?”

“The hotshoe.”

“That’s what it’s called? I thought you sneezed.”

Fuji Fascination

October 10th, 2013

A few days ago I became the proud owner of a Fujifilm X-Pro1, which is one of the most interesting cameras I’ve owned for a while.

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It has a pleasingly retro look, is very nicely put together, and follows the old range-finder style, with an optical viewfinder offset from the lens. This design has a whole host of usability challenges to do with parallax and focussing, but it hasn’t stopped, say, Leica, from being rather successful with it – and in the past it was the only option if you didn’t want the bulk of an SLR.

But today we have digital mirrorless cameras for this – you can see through the lens using the digital sensor and a screen – so it is somewhat eccentric still to use a viewfinder in which, quite often, part of the image is actually obscured by the lens itself. But the separate viewfinder also has advantages of clarity and frame rate, and of giving you a field of view larger than the image you’re about to capture, so you can see, for example, whether someone is about to walk into the frame.

The clever thing about the X-Pro1, though, is that it does both. The optical viewfinder has some digital overlays on it showing extra information (framing, focus points and histograms, for example) but can also switch into a fully-digital mode, where you’re seeing exactly what the lens sees. And there’s the screen on the back if you prefer that. Plenty of choice, and exceedingly cunning. It even has some unexpected tricks up its sleeve: if you’re in optical viewfinder mode and focusing manually, you can click a button and it switches to a dramatically zoomed-in digital view, with focus peaking if wanted. Press again and you’re back to optical.

There are much easier cameras out there to use: the autofocus is not particularly sophisticated by modern standards, for example, even when you aren’t trying to do it through a separate viewfinder. Not only is this not just a point-and-shoot, if you pick it up expecting to use it as one, you’re likely to be disappointed. It keeps you thinking all the time, which is partly why I bought it: I thought I could learn a lot from this camera.

But the other reason was the image quality. The Fuji lenses are superb, and the sensor, which is an APS-C size, such as you’d find in most consumer-level DSLRs, is larger than in most cameras of this size and is generally agreed to be superior even to most other APS-C sensors thanks to some Fuji innovations. But the camera has been out for nearly a year and a half, so there are plenty of reviews out there you can read if you want to know more.

I’m still learning and making lots of mistakes, but I’m also loving it. For something that I can sling over my shoulder, and not notice when it’s in my bag, I’ve got a few very pleasing images even in my first couple of days. A few samples below – you can click through to Flickr and find ‘View all sizes’ in the bottom-right menu if you want to get a feel for the clarity.

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The Cambridge University Computer Lab

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Dr Richard Clayton

Bridge planks

Bridge planks

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The Roger Needham Building

Toq of the town

October 2nd, 2013

I was fortunate enough to get to play with one if these today – a Qualcomm Toq – one of the first to be publicly shown.

It’s very nicely put together, slightly bigger than my Pebble, with a colour e-ink touch screen, and wireless charging. But Qualcomm have created this more, they say, to seed the market and demonstrate their technology than because they intend to sell it directly; though the idea of making some available (at around $300) is being discussed.

I hope they do. That’s quite a lot for a watch, but it has a quality feel to it. The key question will be whether they can get good SDKs to developers early on, and whether they can make it play nicely with non-jailbroken iPhones… It’s not very easy to get past the restrictions that Apple (for some good reasons) imposes on developers, but at that price, they would probably be targeting the Apple-buying market.

From Falls to Autumn

September 16th, 2013

Well, one quick transatlantic flight, and I’ve lost even more degrees of centigrade than I have hours of sleep!

For my more geeky readers, I can report that I return with a Scottevest Transformer jacket, and a Google Chromecast.

But the highlight of the trip was definitely the hikes we did in Yellowstone and in Glacier National Park. I leave you with my favourite picture from the Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

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(Click for a larger version.)

Emailing while on the road

June 30th, 2013

My brother Simon, briefly homeless between moving out of his old house and moving into his new one, borrowed my iPad Mini to check some email while waiting in the street outside. (Recommendation: I manage most of our family’s email now through Fastmail, who have a very nice webmail system as well as standard IMAP – very useful if borrowing someone else’s machine.)

Simon emailing

Anyway, I use one of those Logitech Bluetooth keyboards that form a cover for the iPad when closed and a stand while in use. But when Simon had finished, we discovered another previously-unknown feature: the magnets in the hinges which attach it to the iPad, also attach it nice and firmly to the roof of a VW Golf! Actually quite handy…

Harmonious Control

May 27th, 2013

Logitech Harmony oneHere’s a quick and simple recommendation. About three years ago I decided I needed a new all-in-one remote control, since my (splendid and extravagant) old Marantz RC2000 mk II was struggling to keep up with the latest innovations in infrared.

So, after some pondering, I looked at the Logitech Harmony series – which I’d first seen at a CES show long ago, before they were even part of Logitech. The basic idea is that you use a special website and utility to put in details of the hardware you’ve got – which models of TV, Amp, DVD, etc – and how they’re connected together. It asks questions like “When you want to turn up the volume on the TV, do you use the TV or the amplifier?” Then you plug your remote in to a USB port and it gets programmed with all the appropriate codes and configuration. I went for a middle-of-the-range one, the Harmony One, and started thinking of all the ways I’d be able to customise it to make it do what I wanted.

And… I didn’t need to. After I’d set it up with something pretty close to the default configuration, it just did what I wanted out of the box. And has done so ever since. I haven’t gone back and fiddled with it once, which, knowing my propensity for such activities, is quite a recommendation.

iOS tip of the day

May 11th, 2013

In most places in iOS where you can edit text, you can tap with two fingers to select a whole line. This works, for example, in text editors like Notesy, Drafts and Byword, and can be quite a time saver. In fact, it selects the line up to the next line break; if you’re typing code, that’s probably one line, but if you’re writing prose, it’ll select the current paragraph. Very handy if you want to move paragraphs around using cut and paste.

Another place you can use it is in the URL field of a browser, where it will select the entire URL with fewer clicks than the usual tap-tap-select-all.

I use this, for example, if I’m looking at a page in Safari and want to open it in 1Password. As you probably know, apps can register particular URL schemes for their own use, and 1Password’s browser will recognise ophttp and ophttps, so you can just go to the beginning of the URL in Safari, insert an ‘op’, and you’ll be taken to the same page in 1Password (or ‘g’ for GoodReader, etc.)

The problem is that just ‘going to the beginning and inserting something’ can be a pain if the URL is long. You probably have to scroll slowly left, tap the correct insertion point, and so forth. Much easier is a two-finger tap, select ‘Cut’, type ‘op’ and then tap ‘Paste’.

If you’re doing this kind of thing regularly, you may want to set up a bookmarklet to make it even easier, but the two-finger tap is a handy thing to know in general.

Poster child

May 11th, 2013

I’m just testing Poster, an iOS app for posting to WordPress blogs. I’ve used Blogsy for some time, which is capable, but not beautiful, and at times decidedly quirky.

Poster is elegant, has Markdown support, and a URL scheme which means you can send posts to it from apps such as Drafts.

Time’s Wingèd Chariot

May 5th, 2013

The best chat-up line ever invented has to be the poem To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell, where, in 46 lines of glorious verse, he explains to his girl that they really do need to get down to some hanky-panky, because they won’t always be able to do so, and time is running out. Extended courtship and foreplay is all very well, he argues,

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…

I was thinking of this as I created my first app for my Pebble watch today, inspired by a combination of a 17th-century poet and my friend Richard, a 21st-century technologist. He held a party a little while ago to celebrate being one gigasecond old, and has a nice web page where you can check your age, too.

So, since part of the idea of the Pebble is that you can personalise it to a great degree, I thought that a watch face that showed my age in seconds would be a good project. I named it ‘Tempus Fugit’.

But then it occurred to me that one could also do the opposite – a countdown. How long I’ve been around is an interesting topic, at least for me. But how long I’ve got – well, that’s even more compelling!

Of course, life expectancy is a highly personal thing (and one wishes to avoid the estimation errors made by the Rich Fool in the parable) but it’s interesting to speculate. Life expectancy, in statistical tables, tends to be quoted as ‘expectancy at birth’, based on an assumption that mortality rates will continue through your life at the same kind of level as they were at your birth. When I was born, in 1967, it was about 69 years in the UK. It’s now 78, according to Wikipedia, and will no doubt continue to rise. So on the one hand, one might expect that the inferior healthcare, nutrition advice etc in my youth would mean that I probably come somewhere between the two. On the other hand, today’s figure doesn’t take into account the improvements in healthcare that are inevitable in the future, which may mean that my allotted span may be more that the expectancy of those born today (as will theirs).

So, as a rough estimate, averaging these two factors, I decided to use the present life expectancy for the UK, currently around 78 for men and 82 for women. (It’s slightly more in Canada and Australia, and a couple of years less in the U.S.).

And so, with a minor variation in the software, I now have two new watchfaces for my Pebble. The first, Tempus Fugit shows how many seconds I’ve been alive. The other shows my best estimate of how many I’ve got left, a number which is already distressingly lower than the first, and, of course, counting down…

Some may think this morbid. But I prefer to think of it as an inspiration… a call to action.

Oh, and in case I should be short of ideas about what to do with the time that remains, I named this second one Time’s Wingèd Chariot. I think Marvell would approve.

Time's Winged Chariot

I may be celebrating a rather different kind of gigasecond soon!

Any colour, so long as…

May 5th, 2013

Looking at the collection of gadgets on my bedside table makes me wonder whether I’m dull and unimaginative, or stylishly coordinated…

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(For the curious, the three similar-looking devices on the right are my Kindle, iPad, and iPad mini. I don’t normally need them all in the same place at once! The thing on the left is my GPS logger and the watch is, of course, a pebble.)

Digital Doppelganger

April 20th, 2013

double

I’ve always liked the idea of a telepresence robot — a video-conferencing device that you can move around a remote location to give you a more tangible presence there — but suspected the number of really practical uses of these very expensive devices was somewhat limited.

So I was struck by the great story of Grady Hofmann featured in the latest BBC Click episode. Grady, an eight-year-old, was able to chat to his siblings in their bedroom, go to his school, and take his place at the family dinner table, all while he was confined to a hospital bed for 2 months during a bone-marrow transplant. OK, I thought – this stuff is worthwhile after all!

Double Robotics are creating a neat low-cost telepresence robot which uses an iPad as the face, eyes, ears and speaker, and Segway-type mobility. All for under $2000 (plus iPad) which means these are starting to be affordable. (The whole device would cost about the same as 4 months’ rail commute from Cambridge to London.)

There are two issues I think these devices still need to tackle, though. The first is that they need the ability to connect themselves to a charging device, to reduce their dependence on other people. The Roomba can do this, so it should be manageable.

But the second is something that may be rather more tricky. I know this because it took the Daleks fifty years to come up with a solution.

Recherche du temps

April 17th, 2013

wpid-Photo-17-Apr-2013-0745.jpgAbout a year ago, like many thousands of others, I backed the Pebble Kickstarter project. Yesterday, after forking over another 25 quid to the Queen (a combination of the Royal Mail and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs), I received my new toy.

My first impression was that it looks and feels much nicer than I expected. It’s hard to convey this in pictures: I don’t think it looks as cheap in reality as the black shiny plasticness of many photos would suggest, and after years of a fine but heavy stainless–steel–and–titanium Citizen, this feels light and comfortable.

At present, there’s a limited amount you can do with it. Incoming texts and iMessages are forwarded to it, incoming calls can be accepted or rejected from your wrist, and you can stop or start music and skip backwards and forwards. But there’s a buzz of activity on the forums around the newly–released SDK. In just a couple of days, people have contributed range of new watch faces, and, of course, there’s already a Tetris and a Pong clone!

wpid-Photo-17-Apr-2013-0822.jpg The really interesting apps, though, will depend on the watch’s connectivity with your phone, and thence with the outside world. I must have a play with the SDK soon, but I suspect the facilities offered by the phone’s Bluetooth APIs will be the limiting factor there, especially on my iPhone.

In the meantime, the ability to stop and start playback of my audiobooks and podcasts is very handy. I tend to put my phone in my breast pocket while walking the dog, so I can listen to things without the need for headphones, but this can make me look a little eccentric to passers-by. Appearances can be deceptive. So being able to stop the audio as someone approaches, simply by pressing a watch button, helps preserve my dignity.

wpid-Photo-17-Apr-2013-0733.jpgAt present, I’m listening to a splendid version of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdus. It seems somehow appropriate.

But I think it’s time for a new translation. The title is typically rendered in English as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or — and this is perhaps poignant for those exploring their watch’s user interface — ‘In Search of Lost Time’.

But my upcoming version will be a whole new translation of À la Recherche du Temps Perdus for the modern age, entitled, “In Research, Much Time is Wasted”…