The Roundup – December 9-15, 2017 Edition

Winter Boardwalk by Christopher Parsons 

I have a whole host of things that I need to do in order to keep a chronic (very non-life threatening!) health condition at bay. Part of that is maintaining a pretty strict work-life balance. When I was doing my doctorate I absolutely failed to conceptualize of, let alone maintain, a real balance and as a result I suffered from a pretty problematic health condition for years and years. And because I didn’t have work-life balance (and ignored advice from those who maintained such a balance) a lot of unpleasant things happened in my life that didn’t necessarily have to and I prioritized the wrong things as being of importance.

I mismanaged relationships. I failed to take advantage of living in one of the most beautiful cities in Canada, if not the world. I didn’t develop, let alone maintain, many friendships at a time where I probably most needed them.

And in reaction to how my life didn’t work during that time, and with the privilege of having a full-time job where I’m not expected to be constantly on the clock, I’ve worked to maintain a balance in my professional and personal activities. The medical result has been that the condition I deal with has become an occasional inconvenience instead of a serious issue in daily life.

This week my carefully maintained work-life balance entirely fell apart. It’s still apart, right now, and that condition is on top of me once again. I cannot wait until the holiday break and the chance to hit the reset button and return to balance. I can only hope that things haven’t gotten bad enough to need to return to visiting my doctors…


A few weeks ago, Ming Thien wrote about the relative importance of the shooting experience that you have with your camera of choice. One of the key things he mentioned was:

… if a camera does not enable us to either translate an idea, preserve a moment or present something otherwise unseen: it isn’t very useful as a tool, no matter how pretty or expensive or high-resolving it might be.

This point really resonated with me. It brought me back to when I was trying to decide which mirrorless camera to purchase. I’d been using (and still do use!) a Sony RX100ii and, temporarily, a Fuji X100. I loved the Fuji but I couldn’t really explain why until after I’d relied almost entirely on the RX100ii for a full year.

While in part I missed the viewfinder, what I was really missing was the ability to rapidly change settings to get the shot that I wanted and, also, to learn what I had to do, to get the shot I wanted. Let me explain.

The Sony is a great little camera. I’ve taken photos with it that I’ve gotten blown up to be pretty large (36 inches by 24 inches) and which now hang on my walls. I have a series of photos I took while in Iceland, Hong Kong, Australia, and other places that I absolutely love. But the shooting experience has always been subpar. The inability to just turn this knob or that one to get exactly what I want, in a second or two, means that shooting with the Sony is often really frustrating. If I can plan a shot it’s great. If it’s in the moment? The shot is missed more than caught.

So when I was looking at different mirrorless cameras to purchase and supplement the RX100ii I was drawn to the Sony a6100, which had amazing specifications. But when I actually held and touched and shot with it I just wasn’t taken by it. It’s an amazing camera but just felt cold. The Fuji line was pretty great – I really wanted to get an X-T10! – but I found the glass to be expensive, especially when I started thinking about buying image stabilized lenses.

So I ended up getting an Olympus EM10ii, instead, and was initially sorta scared of it. There were a lot of knobs to turn and, while I wanted that, it was also intimidating. But as I’ve used the Olympus I’ve come to realize that it is definitely the right camera for me, now. It’s light enough and small enough that I almost always have it with me. It performs pretty well with prime lenses in mixed settings. And while I can lust over other mirrorless systems when they come out I don’t see anything that they do which I absolutely need given my abilities, shooting preferences, and devotion to the hobby right now.

Most importantly, the Olympus feels right in my hands. I’ve used it enough that I’m comfortable with most of the settings that I use1 while it still provides me with a lot of room to learn and grow. I’m pretty comfortable with my 50mm equivalent lens after exclusively shooting with it for several months straight, and reasonably comfortable with the 35mm equivalent that I use.2 In terms of the shooting experience the EM10ii is pretty great for someone who is interested in photography but certainly never expects to do much more than travel the world, shoot, and then make prints for personal or family use. I know it’s not the ‘best’ camera out there but, for me, the shooting experience is pretty close to perfect.


Great Photography Shots

I’m absolutely entranced by the photos that South-African photographer and visual artist, Elsa Bleda, has taken which emphasize the dream-like fluorescent glow from neon signs and lights. Breathtaking.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Products

  1. Of course, the camera is super capable at doing lots of things I’m not interested in doing. And as someone who doesn’t ever shoot video the relative limitations of the Olympus camera system over that of either Sony or Panasonic doesn’t bother me.
  2. Perhaps curiously I’m the least comfortable using the kit zoom lens that came with the camera!

The Roundup for December 2-8, 2017 Edition

It feels like everyone I know has led a more stressful life this year. Beyond the chaos wrought on the global psyche by the American president, there have also been more deaths, serious illnesses, job losses, and emotional meltdowns than normal. In my own case, the death of two parents and ongoing revelations of sexual assaults and abuses near to my life have been incredibly challenging issues to deal with.

So it was with great interest that I read a piece by Ankita Rao on how she has turned dealing with her personal stress into a kind of science experiment. The tests and activities she points to reveal the number of factors in our lives that amplify underlying stress levels as well as the means we can use to reduce stress in our personal lives. I’ve made a commitment since mid-2017 to actively, and assertively, maintain a particular work-life balance. That involves taking on consulting clients only when the monetary outcome is necessary to address particular fiscal stresses (see: student loans) and ensuring that I actually spend time working out, taking photowalks, and letting myself engage in non-productive play.

I haven’t always been successful. But on the whole I’m exercising a lot more, have taken photos I’m incredibly happy with, and am overcoming a longstanding guilt that playing games is somehow undermining my productivity. I have a long ways to go to ensure the balance I’m trying to achieve is a permanent feature of my life but I feel like habits are starting to settle in, and my overall stress levels declining as a result.


Just prior to Netflix’s release of The Punisher some critics argued that the show had an opportunity to — and failed to — respond to the tragedy of gun violence in the United States. I haven’t quite finished the series but I tend to agree that the show is definitely not directly addressing that issue.

But the show isn’t about gun violence. It’s about what losing family means and drives a someone (read: white males) to do. It’s about the problems linked to how soldiers of all stripes are asked to endure physical and mental hardships and then return home without society acknowledging their sacrifices or providing support for their wounds. Or about how even when support is provided that there is no guarantee that those broken humans will ever be whole again. The show is about how fraught relationships become when we are separated from those we relate to, either by distance, by death, or by betrayal. Throughout the episodes I’ve watched a repeated motif, which does pertain to gun violence, is how firearms can prompt the aforementioned hardships, either by killing in the name of one’s country or in the name of one’s personal ideology or simply by accident when weapons are nearby.


I entered the workforce ‘late’ in terms of my ability to save for retirement. Since I went to school until my early 30s, and lived paycheque to paycheque to try and stay afloat, and have loan obligations, it’s not going to be until my late 30s or early 40s when I can ‘really’ save for my retirement. And that assumes that I save for retirement instead of for a home or condo that I own.1

So it was with interest, and trepidation, that I listened to a podcast put out by TVO entitled “Creating Retirement Security.” The conversation they had about people in their 30s was strange to my ears, with guests relying on different baseline facts for their assessments and recommendations. And significantly, not one of the guests recognized that loan payments for student debt are higher than with past generations, nor that repayment periods are longer now than in the past. Several of the guests held an assumption that persons would be saving in their early 20s. While this practice might be true for Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) contributions it’s presumably less the case for Register Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) that can grow significantly over the course of 40 years.

Each guest called frequently for ‘financial literacy’. While educational approaches matter and have merit, at the same time such calls assume that retirement decisions should be individualized. Does it fall to specific individuals to ensure that they are earning enough, saving enough, and investing wisely enough to be secure in their retirement? Or is retirement and aging a collective action problem that is best solved as a society as a whole?2

As with many areas of expert knowledge only the barest of basics of financial literacy are likely going to catch on with the general public. Were we, as a society, to take some of the lessons from behaviour economics we’d realize that experts are needed to develop appropriate ‘nudges’ to compel savings,3 while also updating savings models to recognize the precariousness of the labour market for those under 35. That constant threat of un(der)employment, need to service student debt, and potentially provide assistance to parents who have insufficiently saved for their retirement are all pressures on the largest generation now moving through the Canadian workforce. And that’s to say nothing of the need for people to decide if they want to save for their retirement or save for a home that they own. Until all those variables and conditions are appreciated any advice from experts seems to just fall flat.


Great Photography Shots

Flickr released the best 25 shots of 2017 and they’re pretty amazing. The ‘best’ in this case is derived from social and engagement metrics, combined with curation by Flickr’s own staff.

1-Iwona-Podlasinska-800x533
“Say Goodby…” by Iwona Podlasinka, at https://flic.kr/p/ZYM6Hd
6-Albert-Dros-800x534
“Mi Fuego” by Albert Dros at https://flic.kr/p/Tbcpio

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Products

  1. I actually do save every month to the tune of about 10-15% of my paycheque, part for retirement and part for an emergency fund.
  2. Guests did spend some time talking about whether retirement savings should should be an individualized/collective problem. But the constant refrain that individuals need to be smarter means that individuals, first and foremost, are seen as the parties that have to assume responsibility for their futures and any collective action work is an idealized maybe-solution to aging in Canada.
  3. To be fair, nudges were discussed, but the hard lessons came down on individuals having to gain literacy to make their own decisions.
Link

How Russia Polices Yandex

From Vice Motherboard:

This year, the “news aggregator law” came into effect in Russia. It requires websites that publish links to news stories with over one million daily users (Yandex.News has over six million daily users) to be responsible for all the content on their platform, which is an enormous responsibility.

“Our Yandex.News team has been actively working to retain a high quality service for our users following new regulations that impacted our service this past year,” Yandex told Motherboard in a statement, adding that to comply with new regulations, it reduced the number of sources that were aggregated from 7,000 to 1,000 with “official media licenses.”

The predicable result of the Russian government’s new law is that the government can better influence what information is surfaced to Russian citizens: when state news outlets release the same press release, en masse, Yandex1 and other major aggregators with a large number of readers are predominantly exposed to what the government wants them to see. So while Russia may interfere with foreign countries’ political processes by exploiting how social network and aggregator algorithms function (along with out-and-out illegal exfiltration and modification of communications data) they, themselves, are trying to immunize themselves to equivalent kinds of threats by way of the liabilities they place on the same kinds of companies which do business in Russia.

More broadly, the experience in Russia and changes in how Yandex operates should raise a warning flag for caution advocates in the Western world who are calling for social media companies to be (better) regulated, such as by striking down or modifying Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). While there are clear dangers associated with these companies operating as contemporary digital sovereigns there are also risks associated with imposing harsh liability systems for publishing other persons’ content.

While such regulations might reduce some foreign interference in political systems it could simultaneously diminish the frequency at which legitimate alternative sources of information which are widely surfaced to the public. It remains unclear just how we should regulate the spread of malicious political messaging2 but, at the same time, it’s critical to ensure that any measures don’t have the detrimental effect of narrowing and diminishing the political conversations in which citizens can participate. It’s the very freedoms to have such conversations that distinguishes free democratic countries from those that are more autocratic.

  1. Sidenote: Yandex is the only website I’ve ever had to block from scraping my professional website because it was functionally acting as a DDoS.
  2. One idea would be to deliberately cut down on how easy it is to spread any and all information. By requiring additional manual effort to share content only the most motivated would share it. Requiring actual humans to share content with other humans, if done in a robust way, might cut down on the ability of bots to automatically propagate content as though ‘real’ people were sharing it.
Link

What’s On My Homescreen, December 2017 Edition

Screenshot of my iPhone 7 homescreen from December 2017
Screenshot of my iPhone 7 homescreen from December 2017

My homescreen is mostly divided between stuff that I want immediate access to on a very regular basis and one or two ‘testing’ applications (in terms of position on the homescreen and/or whether I like them as applications). Without further ado:

Photography (Folder): I play with a lot of different photo apps, though I tend to alternate between Darkroom and Snapseed a fair bit and rarely use Polar anymore. Slow Shutter is something I’m playing around with off and on, and ProCam was free.

Reminders: I don’t like the application but since I basically just use it for groceries I’m not willing to spend money for a ‘better’ app.

Notes: Much of my life exists in Notes.  I wish there was better support for markdown and would love tagging support. And it’d be great if Apple would fix the freezing bug that was introduced in iOS 11! But on the whole Notes plays well across all my Apple devices and the interface just gets out of the way.

Messages: Not my default means of communicating with people, in part because I try to avoid sending SMS messages as best I’m able for security reasons, but it’s a necessary evil in my life.

Phone: I take and make a lot of calls.

WhatsApp: My preferred method of communicating because it’s a cross-platform app (don’t need to know if someone is on an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or whatever else) and encrypts voice-, video-, and text-based messages end-to-end. Still, it leaks some metadata and so, in some instances I use…

Signal: The best of consumer-available secure messaging app. Unlike WhatsApp, Signal keeps the bare minimum amount of information required to process communications.

Podcasts: I listen to silly numbers of Podcasts. I had problems with the application in iOS 9 but they seem to have been fixed in iOS 10/11. Importantly, the application syncs well across all the Apple devices that I own.

Hello Weather: I wish I could download and use Dark Sky but it’s not available in the Canadian App Store. Hello Weather pulls data from the same repository as Dark Sky so it’s as accurate, if not as pretty.

Day One: I’ve kept digital journals in one format or another for well over 15 or 16 years. I’ve been using Day One for a few years and love the interface.

Ulysses: I keep coming back to Ulysses even though I don’t derive any joy from using it. It’s certainly functional and lets me publish to my WordPress websites and I enjoy how it does markdown. But the interface is the definition of ‘meh’ for me.

Reeder: Too much of my time is spent in Reeder. I follow a lot of wonky websites and blogs, plus fashion, tech, culture, and more. So much to read and so little time!

Paprika: A relatively new application in my life, I’m seeing whether the application fits  into my life. Previously I was using the Notes app to keep track of recipes but that didn’t scale very well. My hope is that Paprika really does take over part of my life and make shopping that much more pleasant.

iBooks: For pleasure reading I only purchase digital copies through iBooks. I realize it’s a walled garden but I’ve long since made my peace with that.

Activity: I’ve tracked my baseline activity information for almost ten year and this app collects daily information from my Apple Watch. I use a separate application — Healthview — to study longer-term trends in my personal fitness and health.

Halide: The newest application in my life! Though I usually shoot with my mirrorless camera, sometimes it’s not convenient and so I whip out my iPhone. Halide gives me more control over what I’m shooting and I really appreciate the ability to turn on focus peaking.

Safari: Because I, too, browse the Internet.

Mail: It’s not the best of clients but it’s as bad as most. And the really good ones would force me to move my mail through additional third-parties, and I’m not willing to engage in that kind of activity.

Tweetbot: I use Twitter a lot and a large portion of my professional network is located there. But the official Twitter application is just horrible in my view, whereas Tweetbot gets out of my way and lets me just enjoy the content steaming by.

Music: I usually have music playing in the background if I’m not listening to a podcast.

The Roundup for November 25-December 1, 2017 Edition

I’m a kind of obsessive consumer. Before I buy something I tend to get excited about it, and do a lot of research, and get super into whatever it is that has struck my fancy. When the iPhone X came out, even knowing that I wasn’t on a buying cycle this year, I still wanted it and so did dozens of hours of research. A few weeks prior I was looking at a particular Olympus lens. And before then it was a new Sony rx100 or Fuji x100.

But I’ve gotten to know myself well enough that I let myself wallow in the obsession…and then just let go. It’s a self-reflective defensive mechanism that kept my wallet pretty safe throughout the sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and one that more generally has helped to lift me out of consumer debt hell over the course of the past year. Consumerism is exciting, so long as you only enjoy the dreams and avoid crushing them by actually purchasing the item(s) in question.


During the Cold War humanity did terrible things to the natural ecosystems of the world by testing nuclear weapons. Bikini Atoll is one of the areas that most felt humanity’s ugly destructive impulses. So it was pretty exciting to learn that after abandoning that part of the world for about fifty years things seem to be recovering:

The research, López says, provides at least preliminary evidence that even if you destroy an ecosystem, it can heal with time — and with freedom from human interference. Ironically, Bikini reefs look better than those in many places she’s dived.

Despite the fact that the ecosystem is healing what’s there now remains dangerous to human life. The coconuts (and coconut trees more generally) hold huge doses of radiation, and the platter-sized crabs are presumably similarly radioactive because their primary food source is coconut meat. Despite the outward appearances of healing the atoll will likely remain hostile to human life: for the foreseeable future this paradise will only be accessible to animal life and off limits to human habitation.


In some exciting personal news, I got back a review from a journal to which I’d sent an article. While some revisions are required, work that I’ve been hacking on for the past few years is more than likely going to be public in one of Canada’s law journal’s next year! Unlike some other publishing experiences this time it was a fast turn around: submit in September, hear back by end of November, revisions by January, and publication in Spring 2018. W00T!


New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

Jenna Martin gave herself a challenge: go to an ugly location (Lowe’s) and get some pretty shots (success, in my opinion).

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Products

The Roundup November 19-24, 2017 Edition

It’s another week closer to the end of the year, and another where high profile men have been identified as having engaged in absolutely horrible and inappropriate behaviours towards women. And rather than the most powerful man in the world — himself having self-confessed to engaging in these kinds of behaviour — exhibiting an ounce of shame, he’s instead supporting an accused man and failing to account for his past activities.


I keep going back and forth as to whether I want to buy a new Apple Watch; I have zero need for one with cellular functionality and, really, just want an upgrade to take advantage of some more advanced heart monitoring features. The initial reviews of the Apple Watch Series 3 were…not inspiring. But Dan Seifert’s review of the Apple Watch Series 3 (non-LTE) is more heartening: on the whole, it’s fast and if you already have a very old Apple Watch and like it, it’s an obviously good purchase. I just keep struggling, though, to spend $600 for a device that I know would be useful but isn’t self-evidently necessary. Maybe I’ll just wait until Apple Canada starts selling some of the refurbished Series 3 models…


While photographers deal with Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), which is usually fuelled by the prayer that better stuff will mean better photos, I think that writers deal with the related Software Acquisition Syndrome (SAS). SAS entails buying new authoring programs, finding new places to write, or new apps that will make writing easier, faster, and more enjoyable. But the truth is that the time spent learning the new software, getting a voice in the new writing space, or new apps tend to just take away from time that would otherwise be spent writing. But if you’re feeling a SAS-driven urge to purchase either Ulysses or iA Writer, you should check out Marius Masalar’s comprehensive review of the two writing tools. (As a small disclosure, I paid for Ulysses and use it personally to update this website.)


New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week

Great Photography Shots

If tapeworms are your thing then there’s some terrific shots of them included as part of an interview with tapeworm experts. A few gems include:

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

WhatsApp Profits

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp made sense in terms to buying a potential competitor before it got too large to threaten Facebook’s understanding of social relationships. The decision to secure communications between WhatsApp users only solidified Facebook’s position that it was less interested in mining the content of communications than on understanding the relationships between each user.

However, as businesses turn to WhatsApp to communicate with their customers a new revenue opportunity has opened for Facebook: compelling businesses to pay some kind of a fee to continue using the service for commercial communications.

WhatsApp will eventually charge companies to use some future features in the two free business tools it started testing this summer, WhatsApp’s chief operating officer, Matt Idema, said in an interview.

The new tools, which help businesses from local bakeries to global airlines talk to customers over the app, reflect a different approach to monetization than other Facebook products, which rely on advertising.

This is Facebook flipping who ‘pays’ for using WhatsApp. Whereas in the past customers paid a small yearly fee, now customers will get it free and businesses will be charged to use it. It remains to be seen, however, whether WhatsApp is ‘sticky’ enough for consumers to genuinely expect businesses to use it for customer communications. Further, Facebook’s payment model will also stand as a contrast between WhatsApp and its Asian competitors, such as LINE and WeChat, which have transformed their messaging platforms into whole social networks that can also be used for robust commercial transactions. Is this the beginning of an equivalent pivot on Facebook’s part or are they, instead, trying out an entirely separate business model in the hopes of not canibalizing Facebook itself?