Where is the Flip of digicams?

Last week, I helped an aunt of my wife pick a digital camera. She is a community activist, and used a wonderful Olympus OM-1 until it gave up the ghost, then a not-so-wonderful Kodak Advantix APS camera, but it is becoming hard to find film processing labs in India. The mere act of taking a photo tends to deter the kind of misbehavior she fights against. You would think she would be afraid of being assaulted for taking a photo, but this is a person who discusses death threats made against her as matter of fact.

I ended up recommending a Panasonic Lumix LZ8 as that was the model DPReview recommended in its budget camera group test and fit within her 5,000 to 6,000 rupees budget. It is a decent camera, if not particularly sexy, but it has far too many buttons and options, and I can see how a digital photography novice like her might be overwhelmed.

Pure Digital took 13% of the camcorder market with the Flip, a radically minimalist device that is simple to use. There doesn’t seem to be a similar equivalent for still cameras. Such a camera should really have auto-everything, only four buttons (on/off, shoot, play and delete) and a zoom rocker. Interestingly, digital SLRs come closer to this than most compact digicams because they do not have a record/play modal interface, and use shooting priority instead (the better compacts also offer this).

The second most important digital photography purchase

Is a monitor color calibrator…

I can’t understand people who spend thousands of dollars on expensive lenses, tripods, memory cards and other accessories but neglect to calibrate their monitors so the colors they are seeing in screen are what the digital values actually stand for. Calibrators can be had for under $100 nowadays, and combination monitor/printer calibrators like the ColorMunki or the PrintFIX Pro go for under $500, there is no reason for any serious photographer not to have one.

My bank owns my notebook

It has come to my attention today that Société Générale, my bank in France (yes, they of the €5B rogue trader loss), acquired the makers of Moleskine notebooks in 2006 for the not inconsiderable sum of €60M.

Not-so-heavy baggage

Frequent travellers know the right piece of luggage can make or break a trip. Tumi and Hartmann have their rabid fans, as do Travelpro, but the brand I recommend is Briggs & Riley. Their designs may not be the absolute most stylish, but their warranty is by far the best – they will repair any damage, even if it is caused by the airline, no questions asked. Even Tumi does not offer such a warranty, despite the princely prices they charge for their wares.

I just bought a second Baseline 28″ Superlight from Michael Bruno on Market Street near Castro. That hole-in-the-wall shop is the absolute go-to place for Briggs & Riley, and they offer significant discounts over list prices. Most quality luggage is seldom ever discounted, so it is refreshing to get quality service from proprietor Lou Briasco as well as a very nice price (too low to advertise without incurring the wrath of the manufacturer).

To consumer electronics makers

When you design remote controls, make them rubberized. The extra revenue you make from selling replacements (when the hard brittle plastic kind inevitably break) does not come close to compensating for the loss of goodwill and the sheer inventory management costs of keeping all those back models in stock.

Whither IP-based home automation?

Home automation units based on X10/Insteon or proprietary systems like Control4 or Savant start at $100-200. At a time when you can buy a fully functional WiFi router with a 200+MHz processor, a minimum 8M of RAM, 16MB of flash for under $50, why is there not a home automation system that costs $50 and uses standard TCP/IP and WiFi for connectivity?

Snatching usability defeat from the jaws of victory

I moved this week-end, and took the opportunity to upgrade from my 32″ 720p Sharp LCD HDTV to a 46″ 1080p 120Hz Toshiba LCD HDTV. As I did basic hookups on Sunday and put in a Blu-Ray disc to test it, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my Toshiba TV’s remote control could drive my Panasonic Blu-Ray player without any programming. This is because the HDMI standard includes, in addition to video and audio, a control channel called CEC.

This is potentially a big win as HDMI should become ubiquitous. CEC is a mandatory part of HDMI 1.3 (but actually having a CEC implementation that does something useful isn’t). As HDMI becomes ubiquitous and consigns analog interconnects to the dustbin of history, we will finally have a control solution that can tie in all the disparate electronics in the typical home theater into a single seamless setup, at least on paper.

Unfortunately, the consumer electronics is doing all it can to muddy the waters. For starters, each vendor insists on maximizing consumer confusion by branding this technology with inconsistent terminology – Toshiba call this Regza Link, Panasonic calls it EZ-Sync. The user interface is also quite inconsistent from device to device. Compare this with how the computer and networking industries managed to create strong unified branding around USB and Wi-Fi. There is yet another digital video standard called DisplayPort, which will presumably be incompatible.

The Toshiba has only 3 HDMI ports and a passel of obsolete analog ports like component video or SVGA. Three HDMI ports are inadequate – I already have 5 HDMI devices waiting to be hooked up:

  • Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-Ray player
  • AppleTV
  • Canon HV20 HDV camcorder
  • Canon 5DmkII DSLR (awaiting delivery)
  • Nintendo Wii (soon)

Toshiba would have been well advised to reduce the number of legacy analog ports instead, specially since they are more expensive than pure digital ports like HDMI, DVI or DisplayPort.

Any color so long it’s white

The Ford model T was available in any color, so long it’s black. Surprisingly for a land that is passionate about automobiles and requires 31 flavors of ice cream, Americans are very conservative about car colors, the most popular being white, silver and black.

My own is a dark metallic green, a color apparently favored by only 2% according to the DuPont color survey. Car makers like Audi or BMW offer a fraction of the color choices in the US that they do in Europe. I just don’t get it.

No iPhone 3G for you

Well, for me actually.

I went to the San Francisco Apple Store on Stockton Street a month or two ago, and even in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the phones would keep switching to EDGE. This confirmed rumors that AT&T’s 3G network is abysmal.

There’s no point in paying $200 for a new phone that’s plastic instead of metal, extending my contract by another year, paying an extra $10 per month for 3G service that doesn’t work and $5 per month for SMS that are included in my current plan.

Hipster PDA – metric by design

I used to carry a small moleskine notebook with me (I still use one of the larger A5 versions for taking notes at work) until I switched to 3″x5″ jotter cards, as featured in the hipster PDA. I went as far as having Crane make personalized jotter cards in a square grid pattern (Levenger’s are quite nice as well).

Interestingly, 3″x5″ index cards are actually 75mm x 125mm cards, as Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal classification and of the library card catalog system, was an advocate for the metric system.

Amazon wishlist optimizer

I wrote a script several months ago to go through an Amazon wish list and find the combination of items that will best fit within a given budget. Given that the Christmas holiday shopping season seems to have started before Thanksgiving, it seemed topical to release it.

It used the Amazon Web Services API, which is a complete crock (among other failings, it will consistently not return the price for an item, even when explicitly instructed to do so). It does not look like Amazon pays any particular attention to the bug reports I filed. I just gave up on the API and re-implemented it the old-fashioned way, by “scraping” Amazon’s regular (and most definitely not XML-compliant) HTML pages.

It is still very much work in progress, but already somewhat useful. You can use it directly by stuffing your wish list ID in the URL (or using the form below):

Wish list IDAmount

A better way is to drag and drop the highlighted Amazon optimizer bookmarklet link (version 6 as of 2007-05-08) to your browser’s toolbar. You can then browse through Amazon, and once you have found the wish list you are looking for, click on the bookmarklet to open the optimizer in a new window (or tab). By default, it will try and fit a budget of $100 (my decadent tastes are showing, are they not?), but you can change that amount and experiment with different budgets. Surprisingly often, it will find an exact fit. Otherwise, it will try to find the closest match under the budget with as little left over as possible.

There are many caveats. The wishlist optimizer only works for public (US) wish lists. There does not seem to be an easy way to buy multiple items for somebody else’s wish list in one step, although I am working on it, so you will have to go through the wish list and add the items by hand. Shipping costs and wish list priorities are currently not taken into account. Sometimes Amazon will not show a price straight away but instead require you to click on a link, the optimizer will decline to play these marketer’s games and just skip those products.

Be patient – is rather slow right now — it seems they did not learn the lessons of their poor performance towards the end of last year. One of my coworkers ran the optimizer through an acid test with his wife’s 13-page wish list, and it took well over a minute and half to fetch the list, let alone optimize it. One can only imagine how bad it will get when the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest. To mitigate this somewhat, I have added caching – the script will only hit Amazon once per hour for any given wish list. As it works by scraping the web site rather than using the buggy and unreliable Amazon Web Services API, there is a real risk it will stop working if Amazon blocks my server’s IP or if they radically change their wish list UI (they would do better to add additional machines and load-balancers, but that would be too logical).

Update (2005-12-02):

Predictably, Amazon changed their form (they changed the form name from edit-items to editItems) and broke not only the wishlist optimizer, but also the bookmarklet. I fixed this and upgraded to the scraping module BeautifulSoup, but you will need to use the revised bookmarklet above to make it work again.

Update (2010-04-27):

The script has been broken for quite a while, but I fixed it and it should work again.

Head-Fi meet in San Jose

What’s in my gadget bag?

Since Gizmodo isn’t going to ask me that question anytime soon, and since I haven’t written a blog entry in all of September yet, I have decided to take matters in my own hands.

I carry the following in the pockets of my jacket:

  • PalmOne Zire 72: far better ergonomics in practice than my previous Sony Clié UX50
  • A pair of Maui Jim sunglasses (changed recently from a pair of Serengeti driver’s). The shades are polarized and mirrored to minimize glare, and have an incredibly flexible and lightweight “Flexon” nitinol memory-alloy frame. I got mine in bronze tinted glasses — they are also availabe in a darker neutral gray, but the warmer tint was more comfortable.
  • A Sony-Ericsson T68i cell phone, somewhat dated but perfectly functional (this means a synchronized phone book thanks to iSync). It alsod provides my Zire 72 with Internet access via Bluetooth and GPRS.
  • A PQI Intelligent Stick 256MB USB flash drive, small enough to fit in my wallet
  • Three fountain pens in a leather case, a Montblanc Meisterstück (Aurora black ink), a Waterman Edson (Herbin Vert Pré green) and a S.T. Dupont (Private Reserve Naples blue).

My gadget bag is a Tumi expandable messenger bag. It holds:

  • Contax T3: This diminutive 35mm film camera has a superlative Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar lens. Compact digital cameras are based on small sensors with high levels of electronic noise, and are totally unsuited to low-light shooting in available light.
  • A Pedco Ultrapod mini folding tripod with a built-in ball head. Small and light, but quite versatile.
  • Leica Trinovid BC 8×20 binoculars: these ultra-compact folding binoculars have excellent optics and can be used by eyeglass wearers thanks to their innovative fold-out eyecup design.
  • A Moleskine pocket notebook
  • An Edmund Optics Hastings triplet 10x folding magnifier, with high resolution and excellent achromatic correction.
  • An Alumicolor pocket architect’s scale, metric, of course, and a self-winding tape measure.
  • A Faber-Castell e-motion mechanical pencil: its thick 1.4mm lead makes it glide across paper and its cigar shape is very ergonomic.
  • Surefire L1 LumaMax LED flashlight: I used to have mini Mag-Lites, but these flashlights, derived from military and law enforcement versions, have much more power (two beam intensities) and an even beam without dark spots. Ideal for reading. The only downside is they run off Lithium batteries, which can be hard to find (but Surefire will sell them to you in bulk at a significant discount).
  • Apple iPod 15GB, with either Etymotic Research ER-4P or Bang & Olufsen earphones. The in-ear Etymotics offer significant passive noise suppression (ideal for airplane use) but are dangerous to use in environments where you need to hear some ambient noise for safety reasons, like when you are in the street. Ordinary earphones like those supplied with the iPod don’t stay put, the clip on the B&O ones will keep them in place. They also have excellent efficiency and sound quality.
  • Böker Orion Ti-Carbone pocket knife. The Boy Scouts were started as an imperialist means of youth mass regimentation, much like the Nazi Hitlerjügend, Fascist Balilla or Soviet Komsomol. That does not make their motto “Be Prepared” less apt, and a pocket knife is always handy. While at it, why not get a good looking one like this carbon-fiber and anodized titanium-aluminum alloy one? Just remember to take it out before a flight…
  • A Socket Bluetooth GPS receiver. This tiny gizmo (smaller than my T68i) has a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery and will last over 6 hours on a charge. Combined with the free Cetus GPS software for PalmOS, it makes a decent handheld combo that can still be used with a phone. I have yet to look closely at navigation software for the Palm.

Update (2004-09-30):

Somebody at Gizmodo clearly has a sense of humor

Update (2005-07-10):

I have altered my standard gadget bag configuration. The messenger bag is wider than deep, and does not hug the hips well, not to mention the weight. I now use a Tumi expandable messenger bag (apparently discontinued). This bag is deeper than wide, which gives it a low center of gravity and improves handling. The flap with magnetic closures looks hip, but is in practice more of a hindrance than anything (you cannot put anything substantial in the flap otherwise it stiffens and does not snap shut any more), and I am considering getting a Waterfield Designs Vertigo instead. The bag’s liner for expansion acts as a form of padding, which is just great as I now pack either a Leica MP with a 50mm Summilux-M ASPH or a Canon Digital Rebel XT with a 35mm f/1.4L.

Many gadgets from the bigger bag did not make the cut. The Edmunds loupe, Surefire flashlight, Faber-Castell pencil did. The regular Moleskine was replaced by the thinner notebook with a soft cover. The iPod — well, the only time I ever use an iPod is during long flights

Update (2012-03-16):

For some odd reason people still read this post (perhaps this has to do with the EDC craze), so I may as well post an update.

I still use the Tumi Messenger bag for work, at least when it is raining. I have way too many bags and will use one or the other depending on the mood and how much stuff I need to carry. I have also taken to wearing Scottevest jackets, which have absolutely gargantuan capacity.

My EDC camera is a Fuji X100, that I keep in my jacket pocket. Excellent optics, high quality sensor. It’s bulkier than a Contax T3, but more versatile than the Leica X1 it replaced. I keep a Manfrotto Modopocket miniature folding tripod, although I have been testing a Gorillapod Micro 800.

I replaced the binoculars with a Leica Monovid, which is lighter, and for someone with a strong dominant eye, makes little difference.

The Moleskine was replaced with a Rhodia Webnotebook with dot grid pages. The dot grid is less obtrusive than squared paper, and the Rhodia paper from Clairefontaine is leagues ahead of the kind Moleskine uses. It doesn’t feather with fountain pens, for starters.

The Surefire L1 was replaced by a tiny Fenix E05 AAA flashlight with a nice floody beam that I keep on my keychain, along with a  now discontinued Leatherman Squirt S4 (the scissors on the S4 are way more useful to me than pliers) and a minimalist PNY 16GB USB flash drive.

The iPod, Palm, GPS and cell phone were replaced by an iPhone 4 and an iPad 3. I seldom listen to music on the go, so the Etymotic ER-4P or B&W P5 headphones more often than not don’t make the cut.

Stationery pattern

I found myself buying quite a bit of stationery recently. The nice thing is, even premium stationery lines are cheap compared to computers or photography, my other capital-intensive hobbies. A top of the line solid sterling silver pen like the Waterman Edson LE will not break the $1000 barrier, when you can’t even buy a handbag for that price from most luxury brands.

I spent four years in a Catholic school in Versailles, a very conservative city, where we were not allowed to use ball point pens because they deform handwriting. I used Sheaffer pens back then, and all the way to college. When I started working, I splurged on an Edson Blue, but what with computers and email, seldom got to use it.

There is a kind of fashion phenomenon brewing around Moleskine notebooks and journals, including an aficionado website (of which I was a charter contributor). Their Italian manufacturer concocted a clever marketing campaign to give them a cosmopolitan aura of travel mystique, branding them as “The Legendary Notebook as used by Van Gogh, Chatwin, Hemingway, Matisse and Céline” (to which my obvious reaction was, Chatwin who?). These notebooks have thin yet rigid covers, a pocket for clippings in the back, and an elastic band to keep them closed. They are decently made, but not exceptionally so. Just holding one in your hands makes you want to write in them, in a purely emotional way, as described in a recent book by Don Norman.

After the bug bit me, I bought in quick order:

  • A pair of Faber-Castell mechanical pencils that use thick 1.4mm leads and just glide on paper
  • Some sets of Crane’s paper. It is made from 100% cotton rag and they are the official supplier for US currency.
  • A pad of G. Lalo “Vergé de France” laid paper (paper that has a horizontally striped watermark, for a striking yet classy finish). This paper responds exceptionally well to fountain pens.
  • A Pelikan Souverän 800 fountain pen in classic green Stresemann stripes, with a broad nib for bold modulated strokes. My grandfather used to own a pen like this one, and they are the equivalents of Montblanc pens in quality, at a much more reasonable price.
  • Inks by J. Herbin, a company that has been operating since 1670. I am particularly enamored of their black (Perle des encres) and meadow-green (Vert pré) inks, the latter is the color I am now using for the navigation and date headings on this site.
  • A handsome journal by local company Oberon Design, with a richly detailed cover hand-tooled from leather in a Celtic knotwork pattern (St Patrick’s day is just around the corner…) and matching pewter accents. Many of their designs are breathtaking, like the oak tree on their home page.

Now, I just have to muster the inspiration to make use of all this…

Update (2004-03-21):

I may have to revise my judgement about “inexpensive”. Last Friday, I stopped by at a local Montblanc store. The saleswoman tried to interest me in a J. P. Morgan Limited Edition fountain pen, for a mere $1850… Her closing argument? “It will sell out soon”. Given the slightly hysterical nature of Montblanc collectors (and the fact it is the default brand for rich people who are not all that knowledgeable about pens, much as Rolex is for watches), she may well be right.