Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Photographic Heresy: Ditch Your Digital Camera

It's time to ditch your digital camera and just use the crappiest camera you own:  your cell phone.

Digital cameras, even compact ones, can take incredibly beautiful photographs.  Works of art.  But so what?  Unless you're angling for a career in photography or want to moonlight as a photographer, making art isn't the objective.  The point of having a camera isn't to see how good a picture you can take -- it's to share photos.  And when it comes to photo sharing, cell phone outshine even the world's most advanced cameras.  It's no surprise that the most popular camera on Flickr, the world's most popular photo sharing site, is the iPhone, which excels at sharing. 

The quality gap between stand-alone and cell phone cameras is narrowing.  Cell phone cameras keep getting better and better, adding greater resolution, better lenses, auto focus, flash, image stabilization, spot-metering, red eye reduction, white balance adjustment, macro mode, and more.  My prediction:  Within 3 years the cameras on most cell phones will be as good as most stand-alone digital cameras sold today.  Perhaps even better. 

My other prediction:  Digital cameras will never be able to do the one thing that cell phone cameras can -- share photos easily. The iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile phones, Android phones all have the ability to instantly and easily let you share photos in a variety of ways:  by email, or by posting photos on Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket, Twitter, CNN, and elsewhere.  Camera phones let you send photos phone to phone, too, so you can spread those smiles no matter where your friends are.  There's even an iPhone app, PicPosterous, that will automatically upload photos you take to sharing sites without any extra action on your part.  It's always risky to make predictions about technology.  (Thomas Watson, the former chairman of the board of IBM, said circa 1948, "I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.")  But I'm willing to bet that stand-alone cameras won't ever be as good as cell phones when it comes to adding photos to your Facebook status, your MySpace page, your blog, or just sending them to your friends.  Why not?  For the simple reason that if you want to share photos you need to be connected to the Internet, and there's no market for $50 a month always-connected cellular service just for cameras.  (Some cameras have wifi built in, and more will have it over time --and you can buy the Eye-Fi wifi memory card at www.eyefi.com-- but wifi is a long way from being universally available or free.) 

While the majority of cell phone cameras currently take only semi-decent photographs, camera phones offer the ability to tweak and edit photos before sharing them.  That is an amazing ability, one that makes you proud to share your photos.  Here four photos I took and edited with my iPhone, which show just some of the tools at your disposal when you use a camera phone:





Editing -- that's the brilliant part:  You can edit photos on smartphones, because these phones are computers.  While there's no full-featured Photoshop application for any smartphone, there is an impressive array of apps that will let you process photos and turn a so-so picture into something that is as dazzling as it is beautiful.  Some of the tricks that smartphone photo apps can do include:

* Create panoramic photos
* Crop, adjust sharpness, reduce noise, add contrast
* Convert photos to sepia or black and white, (or convert just part of a photo to black and white)
* Add frames to photos
* Work with layers
* Darken or lighten photos, increase or reduce color saturation
* Have a soft focus or glow effect
* Add "flash" to photos, especially portraits, where more light is needed
* Make 3D photos (the kind you look at with those funky 3D glasses)
* Give a photo a Polaroid look or make a retro-looking miniature photo
* Include captions with photos

And here's my favorite cell phone-beats-camera ability:  Cell phone camera photos are geo-tagged.  The GPS chip that's built in records where the photo was taken.  Click on www.flickr.com/photos/billadler/3416145488, and on the right hand side of the Flickr page there's a link to map:  Click on that and, well...that's pretty cool.  Geo-tagging means you don't have to write down the name of the bridge or building that you snapped a picture of; your cell phone camera knows where it is.  Score one for camera phones. 

You probably have your cell phone with you all the time.  Not so for your heavy digital single lens reflex camera, or even your compact camera.  So leave your regular camera behind and save your lower back from the weight of lenses and filters.  Instead, download some great photo editing applications for your cell phone camera, practice using them, and you'll have a photographic studio in your pocket.  And when you snap a photo (or video), you can share it from almost anywhere in the world.

The state of the art when it comes to cell phone cameras quality: C-.  The state of the art when it comes to editing ability: B+.  The state of the art when it comes to sharing photos from cell phones: A.  As cell phone cameras' quality and editing ability improve, replacing your stand alone camera with a cell phone camera as your main (dare I say only?) camera is the way to go.

You can read reviews of some of the best cell phone cameras at http://reviews.cnet.com/best-camera-phones

One last note about cell phone cameras.  Keep that camera lens clean.  Cell phone camera lenses usually aren't protected, and fingers have a tendency to find the center of that lens.  No amount of editing can fix a picture that's shot through a lens that has remnants of a Big Mac on it. 

Get those cell phone cameras out and start sharing your photos.


Bill Adler is the co-owner of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com, and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relations with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels." He is an amateur photographer, whose photos have appeared in advertisements, magazines, art shows and as the #1 photograph on Flickr

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Stole My Web Browser?

When you make a mistake typing in a website's name, such as www.microsoft.cot, when you meant to type www.microsoft.com, you're supposed to get an error message from your web browser. Full stop. But that was so last year. Now, chances are that your ISP (Internet service provider) hijacks your web browser to its own advertising page when you make a typo.

Here's what you see when you enter microsoft.cot through RCN, a popular ISP in the Washington, DC area:

And here's what it's supposed to look like when you make a typo or type in an URL that doesn't exist:

This is your basic oops browser error message.

The technical term for what your ISP is doing is DNS (domain name system) redirect. Sometimes it's called browser redirect. The DNS is what converts the words that you type, such as usatoday.com into the actual IP address, (Type in your browser's address bar and you'll arrive at USA Today's website.)

ISPs say that they're offering a convenience, because along with the ads come suggested alternatives for what you really were looking for. Most ISPs also give you a way to opt out of their browser hijacking, though this isn't easy, because ISPs don't want you to opt out of their advertising page. Even if you can find the hidden op-out setting, opting out of the ISPs ads still brings you to a web page that's still under the ISP's control, even though it looks like your browser's error page. In other words, when you opt out of this DNS redirect, you're not actually opting out; you're still going to a web page run by your ISP, instead of getting an error message that's entirely contained on your own computer.

When your browser, be it Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, or another browser, gives you an error message (without a redirect), this what you see in the browser's address bar: simply www.microsoft.cot. When your browser is directed to RCN's advertising site your browser's error message is replaced by something that disrupts your ability to use your web browser the way you want.

What's wrong with directing you to your ISP's advertising page when you make a simple typo? Plenty, as it turns out. When you make a mistake with an ISP that doesn't deploy browser redirecting, it's a simple matter to correct your typo: Just highlight the "t" in www.microsoft.cot and replace it with an "m." When you type in a web address that doesn't exist, you have to delete or backspace over everything in the address bar --for example, www17.searchresults.rcn.com/search?qo=www.microsoft.cot&rn=T2GXqYjiwVxRWms-- and type what you wanted again. That slows down your browsing and makes using the Internet a pain, unless, of course, you never make typos. It's so much easier to fix a single letter than to retype in the entire URL again.

Another problem with browser redirecting is that it takes time for an ISP to figure out that the page you requested doesn't exist and to return an advertising or search page. In contrast, your browser's error page appears lightning fast.

Browser redirection can result in your browser being sent to a malicious website or a link on that webpage leading to a website that's teeming with computer viruses. A simple error message poses no danger to your computer; a redirect could harm your computer and you would never know that until it was too late.

It's also simply wrong. When we type in a URL we expect to go to that website. When we type in a URL for a site that doesn't exist, we expect to go nowhere. It's deceptive for ISPs to send us to their own advertising page every time we make a typing mistake.

If you use Firefox, there's a solution to this deception: the add-on, No Redirect prevents browser redirects. You can find No Redirect at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/11787 . After you install it, you'll need to add your ISP's redirection page URL to the list. Use the wild card, ".*" to exclude all redirects from your ISP. Then check the DNS Error box. Here's how I set up No Redirect for RCN on my computer:

(The instructions on how to do this accompany the add-on, too.) Yes, it's a tad complicated to stop these unauthorized browser hijackings: You can thank your ISP for that.

Fortunately, not all ISPs force redirects. (Verizon doesn't, but Comcast and RCN do.) I'm not sure if complaining to your ISP and the FCC will help, but if we don't do so, then it's certain that this deceptive practice will never stop.

Tech Toys You Will Love to Hate

I want to preview two cutting-edge technology items that could be popular gifts this holiday season. In a strange way, as you'll see, these gizmos go together.

The Withings Wifi Bathroom Scale

The first is a Withings wifi bathroom scale, http://www.withings.com. Why in the world does one need a wifi scale? Ordinary scales give us a single snapshot, but it's the trend that's important. The sooner we can spot whether or not we're gaining weight or our percent of body fat's increasing, the sooner we can scratch the Oreos off our shopping list. Conversely, if the numbers are trending down, then you can visit the pastry store on the way home from work without feeling a single iota of guilt. (Side note: The sad truth of the human condition is it that we might forget how old we are, somebody's birthday, or an important phone number, but we never forget what our bathroom scale last revealed.) The Withings WiFi Body Scale instantly records your weight, body fat percentage, and body mass index, and transmits that to the mother ship. Your data is stored on both Withing's server (where it's password protected) and your home computer.

Up to eight users can be registered for a scale, so your entire family and even some friends can partake in this high tech form of torment.

What I especially like about the Withings WiFi Body Scale is that if there ever was an incentive to have a secure wireless network at home and to use good passwords, having your weight transmitted by wifi and stored on the Internet is it. Who cares if our credit card or social security numbers are stolen? But if somebody hacks into our body fat percentage data -- now that's a crisis.

As seems to be the case for everything, there's an iPhone app for that, too, so you can see how your weight, body fat percentage and BMI trend over time no matter where you happen to be. Wondering if you should order that double cheeseburger with bacon and onion rings on the side? The Withings iPhone app knows the answer. (Good thing that international data rates are so expensive: You might not be able to afford to access your weight and fat history while on vacation in Paris. Pity, isn't it?)

The Withings WiFi Body Scale is elegant looking, beckoning its owners to step on it and reveal all. You can see pictures of this scale and read more about it at http://www.withings.com . The scale retails for $159, the cost of about 50 Starbucks lattes.

The Chumby

The Chumby is one of those gizmos that you dreamed somebody would invent and they actually did, but you just never heard about it. The Chumby, a device about the size of a coffee mug, with a LCD screen, displays widgets with a variety of information. You can choose to have weather, news, sports updates, Facebook status updates, Tweets, movie trailers, best of YouTube (yes, it does videos), your email, world webcams, New York Times headlines --pretty much anything you can dream of-- displayed on your Chumby's screen. You can even get WMATA alerts on your Chumby. From the useful to the silly, the Chumby can display it. The widgets change every minute or so, showing you what you want to see in the order in which you want to see it.

Besides news, the family calendar, and the latest insights from Slate, my Chumby shows the San Diego Zoo's Panda Cam, which is soooooo cute. I also like the Loch Ness cam widget. You never know what might appear on the Loch Ness webcam.

Take a look at what's possible with the Chumby here: http://www.chumby.com. (There's a new Chumby coming out soon, too.) The Chumby costs $200.

Like the Withings scale, the Chumby connects to your wireless network.

The Chumby does a lot more than display customizable widgets on its 3.5 inch screen. The Chumby's screen is a touchscreen, so you can interact with it: You can send emails, play games, clip news stories, and more. The Chumby is also an Internet radio that plays a wide range of stations, from Radio Paradise to the New York Times' radio. The Chumby is an alarm clock that wakes you to sounds, music or Internet radio. The Chumby is white noise machine that blocks out those sounds that are keeping you awake at night. The Chumby will play your own music through a thumb drive inserted into its USB port. That's one amazing coffee cup sized device.

But be warned: If you get the Chumby, you'll never venture away from your bed or desk and then you'll need the Withing wifi scale to tell you that you should.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Web Browsers and the District of Columbia Government

A couple of months ago the Cleveland Park Listserv debuted Kelli Miller's Advice Column. The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and so we decided to do it again: We have added a technology column to the Cleveland Park Listserv. (Read more about her column at http://goodadvice.notlong.com.) We searched for somebody to be our tech columnist, and then decided that there's no place like home: The Listserv's owner and chief technology officer will be the list's technology columnist. (That's me.) The Cleveland Park Listserv's tech column will appear on Tuesdays.

Bill Adler


Web Browsers and the District Government

In the ancient days of the Internet, circa 2000, it wasn't uncommon to see websites that were "optimized" for a particular web browser, usually Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Even some United States government websites could only be used with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, including, until a couple of years ago, the United States Postal Service's website. We've come a long way since then in terms of web design and almost all websites are viewable and usable in any browser that you choose, be it Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera, Safari or some other program. Many websites instantly adapt to smartphones, too.

Except for the District of Columbia's Service Request Center. Firefox users: Go ahead, give it a try at http://311.dc.gov/cwi/Login/UI/PortalPage.aspx or through http://dc.gov. You can't get beyond the opening page, which tells you, "This site is optimized for Internet Explorer 5 or higher. This new version of the Service Request Center currently works only with Internet Explorer. An updated version with expanded browser support will be available in the near future." "Optimized" isn't even the right word: You can't do anything on that page with Firefox. Nothing at all. You can't even copy the warning: I had to retype it for this article.

An estimated 50 percent of PC users deploy Firefox; another 10 percent use other browsers, so to create such an important webpage that can only be used with Microsoft's IE is -- well, it makes you scratch your head and wonder what other technology blunders are lurking behind the curtain in the District Government.

The browser is becoming the most important piece of software on our computers. As we move into "the cloud," the browser is the tool that does it all: Email, wordprocessing, listening to the radio, photo editing, connecting with friends, and more. ("The cloud" is the term used to refer to working with data that's stored on a remote machine, rather than your own computer. When you use a service like Gmail, Microsoft Office Online or Facebook, you're computing in "the cloud.") Websites need to and can work with all browsers. To design such an important website from the ground up that doesn't work with Firefox is Internet malpractice.

So what can you do about this problem if you use Firefox or another non-Internet Explorer browser? You can call 311 for a service request or you can grit your teeth, and fire up Internet Explorer. If you do use Internet Explorer and IE asks if you want to update to the latest version, do that. Latest may or may not be greatest, but updating such a vital piece of software will help reduce your computer's vulnerability to nasty things on the Internet, such as worms and viruses.

In a future column I'll write about which browser is best, and more about cloud computing. If you have any ideas about what you would like to see the Listserv's tech column, let me know. Happy computing!


Bill Adler is the co-owner of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com, and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relations with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels."  You can also read his columns on the Cleveland Park Listserv.