I’ve been on a speaking circuit this week, and so living a quasi-nomadic life. It’s a very strange experience to be shuttled between locations and across vast distances, all with only a modicum of awareness of all the places I’m scheduled to attend, persons I’ll be meeting, and expectations I will have to meet. I don’t mean to say that I don’t know why I’m travelling, or what I’ll be speaking about, but that the aspects of travel itself are often almost entire dealt with by other parties. There is no effort to determine where I need to go: someone will take me to the designated address. I don’t need to find a place to eat: I’ll be taken to where I need to eat. I don’t need to figure out where to sleep: someone else will determine that.
I contrast it with trips I take for personal relaxation and it’s a totally different experience. Tomorrow, as an example, I’ll be landing in a new place where I don’t speak the language and have no read guidance once I’m there. There are a few tent pole events — nature hikes! — but otherwise time will be entirely unoccupied with designated tasks or todos other than exploring. I actually find this kind of travel deeply uncomfortable because it feels so uncontrolled, but every time I learn a great deal more about the world, and how I should readjust my perceptions of that world.
While shuttling between places for conferences and events is intellectually stimulating it doesn’t tend to push me into uncomfortable spaces that facilitate growth. The exact opposite is true of personal travel. I half wonder, though: if I didn’t travel so often for work where things are scheduled and I’m attended to, would I prefer personal travel that had those characteristics? Would visiting resorts have some resonance if I wasn’t functionally visiting them for work on a semi-regular basis?
I find it really hard to identify the stories in my photographs, prior to actually pushing the shutter button. When I look through, say, my best photos of 2017 I can see which ones have stories embedded within them but it’s a pretty rare thing that I saw, and decided upon, the story before taking the shot. In part, I think that my challenges are linked to only taking my photography more seriously for a relatively short period of time.
But some of the difficulties I’m encountering are also linked with my still learning to take ‘technically’ good photos, after which I think I’ll be more comfortable with more ‘narrative’ style shots. And I want to get better at the latter because I take Martino Pietropoli‘s statement pretty seriously: “Good photos tell stories. Average photos are just beautiful.”
Pietropoli’s article is excellent, insofar as he spends the time to walk through not just the importance of building a story into a photograph but because he also shows examples. In choosing examples he doesn’t merely say ‘here are narrative photos’ but, instead, he spends the time to spell out some of the narratives which might be bundled up in the shots in question. For me, his article was a particularly clear and poignant way of thinking through what stories might be in any given shot, and also as a way to differentiate between what he identifies as narrative versus ‘merely’ beautiful shots.
If I have one critique of the article — and I think it’s pretty minor — it’s that there’s an assumption that someone understands how to take photographs competently, and using this basic competence they can take shots with story. Put another way: I think that a lot of the efforts to create popular stylistic shots are very helpful in teaching people how to use their cameras and lenses, and to think through the importance of framing. Does that mean the people may end up with a series of ‘generic’ skills that many other photographers can roughly approximate or precisely imitate? Absolutely. But just as it’s important to learn how to write the five paragraph essay before breaking into longer-form writing that breaks all the rules of that high school essay format, learning the high-school format in the first place is an important skill that leads to more advanced writing.
I think that spending time looking at Instagram or Flickr or other places which hold ‘beautiful’ images is entirely appropriate for those who are learning to take photographs, and take them seriously. But I also tend to agree with Pietropoli that a photographer must eventually come to a decision: will their photographic style focus principally on technically beautiful shots or, instead, try to engage with the world by evoking emotions and reactions linked to the stories contained in their photos.
New Apps and Great App Updates from this Week
Cypher – a puzzle game about the history of cryptography
Great Photography Shots
I was really impressed with a range of the shots which won in the 2017 International Photographer of the Year contest.
We generate a vast amount of digital exhaust which imperceptibly lingers around us. The metadata and content that’s left behind us is typically regarded as harmless until it’s used or abused, or until it’s misappropriated by someone.
Part of this exhaust follows from our regular shifting between services as our tastes, interests, attitudes, ambitions, and desires change. Social media platforms are adopted and abandoned. Fitness tracking systems that were exciting one year are dull the next and then forgotten, with the tracker consigned to a trash bin or electronics drawer and data residing in perpetuity with whatever service was collecting it. The data we’ve contributed to all those services lingers: it can come back to haunt us in ways we don’t understand or appreciate when signing up for the service, and it can be challenging to undo the associated harms when they befall us.
As part of my ongoing effort to clean up some of the exhaust I’ve left behind, I deleted an old Fitbit account a few weeks ago. It was a bit annoying — you need to contact support, click yes to some emails, and then support will delete the information — but after ten minutes or so the account and its data was consigned to the dustbin of the Internet. Similarly, I blew away over 32,000 tweets this week. I left the last six months data behind or so, but it means that there’s a long trace of exhaust that’s gone.1 And I’ll be undertaking similar operations for the rest of the year, or at least so I’ve planned.
In the case of the Fitbit data, it now rests securely in Apple Health, giving me a broader understanding of changes to my fitness activities than I previously enjoyed. I downloaded a copy of my tweets before wiping them away. And for personal blogs, I’m either consolidating them here or into a semi-local digital journal so I don’t lose what I’ve previously written. But if I’m serious it’s unlikely that I’m going to re-read (that many) of my old blogs. And I’m not looking at daily variations between today’s fitness regime and that of 2008. The data could do a lot more in other persons’ hands to harm me than in my own hands to benefit me, especially as I’ve moved away from where those blogs were active and the fitness communities where members engaged with one another.
The only thing that bothers me is that, in removing things from the Internet, I’m breaking the links that were inbound to those respective pieces of content. But…did anyone really link back to old tweets and, if they did, do I have a responsibility for their linking to what I tend to perceive as off-hand comments? Do I have to maintain and support now long-abandoned accounts on the presumption that someone might someday want to follow a link?
For a long time I would have said ‘yes’ to either of those statements. But I just don’t think that that’s a healthy attitude: humanity forgets. And then we rebuild the old it is in slightly different formats and in the (perceived) image of the past. I can’t imagine those old tweets, blogs, or fitness tracking data being so important that anyone will want to rebuild or remake what they once were and, if that is the case, then they’re welcome to follow in humanity’s ancient footsteps of imaging the past and superimposing their own aspirations, dreams, desires, and fears upon it.
Writing for friends and yourself can clear your thoughts, help you plan and invite the discovery of new ideas. Writing with the intention to put your thoughts out there leads to real writing. Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters. Writing to get read makes you careful, responsible, and considerate. It forces you to think as simply, clearly and understandably as possible. It forces you to think about how what you say may look and feel from the outside. Writing to be read may not be desirable for everybody. But if you feel that you have something to say, write to be read. Don’t search for something to write because you want to be famous or rich. If you want fame jump from a cliff into a butter bucket on YouTube. If you want to be rich, get into finance.
I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to structure my life, not just on a day to day basis, but with the intent of accomplishing something meaningful this year. Some of that relates to personal projects I want to pull off.1 But perhaps the most important thing I want to do this year is develop a really boring habit.
Mike Vardy wrote about his intent improve his personal fitness this year. His description of past attempts to become fit and how that differs from his current behaviours resonated with me. He wrote:
When I was trying to achieve a “body for life” before, I was single and doing it mainly to improve my physique for any potential ladies that I may wind up dating. I wasn’t really doing it for myself.
In contrast, this time he’s doing:
it for myself — and my family. My wife deserves to have a husband who’s in decent shape, and my kids deserve to have a father who can keep up with them. When my youngest turns thirteen, I’ll be fifty. I want to be able to roughhouse with him at that age and not feel it for weeks afterward. I’d also like to give myself the best shot at seeing my kids’ grandkids. Without exercise and proper diet, that just ain’t going to happen
In the past I tried to become more fit by taking it to the extreme. I also felt I had to hide what I was doing to avoid recriminations from family and people I lived with. I exercised when no one was around, or up, and hid the fact I was going on long challenging walks to avoid all kinds of hurtful commentary: getting fit was something that people were bemused about, at best, and openly mocked, at worst. I don’t have that kind of negative energy around me now and, instead, I have the support of people I love.2
I don’t know that my motives are quite the same as Mike: I’m not a father, and don’t intend to become one, nor am I doing this because I think someone else deserves my body in one format or another. No, I’m doing this purely because I would like to be in a situation where I can just say ‘sure, let’s climb that mountain’ and get going. I want to be able to hop on a bike and cycle across one of Canada’s smaller provinces because it would be neat to take that ride. And, more importantly, I want to get in the habit that regular active exercise is just so routine that it’s a normal, established, and boring part of my life.
Tim Cook was asked in the Apple earning call that took place in February about the company had considered whether, and if so how, their battery replacement program might affect replacement rates. The implied comment was the replacements might reduce the likelihood that consumers would upgrade to the new versions of devices, on grounds that some upgrades had historically taken place because people bought new phones as a result of their old ones slowing down or their batteries not providing adequate charge to get through a day. Cook responded that Apple:
did not consider in any way, shape, or form what it would do to upgrade rates. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do for our customers. I don’t know what effect it will have for our customers. It was not in our thought process of deciding to do what we’ve done.
This is a great answer. Though I do suspect that the battery replacement program will delay some upgrades, I don’t know that such a delay would be inherently bad for the company. Jason Snell wrote that the iPhone 8 — not the X — was a really amazing phone for most people because they tended to be coming from devices that were release two or more years ago. As a result, people that were coming from iPhone 6, 6s, and 5s devices didn’t just get the updates of the iPhone 8 but also all the updates that came to the iPhone 7 and, in some cases, iPhone 6s.
In effect, people who waited three or more years to update ended up being wowed by all of the features in the new iPhone. These are everyday users who really do use words like ‘magic’ and literally utter ‘wow’ when things happen. They laugh with joy when Siri just does something right, or they have calendar items automatically added from their mail. These are the everyday consumers that Apple is making its money from.
These normal users are the ones that are going to be blown away whenever they do an upgrade, and are going to be especially appreciative of all the incremental updates that take place in the extra year they might delay an upgrade. They’re going to talk to their friends and family and co-workers. They might also talk about how the battery situation sucked while, simultaneously, mentioning how no other company offers a similar replacement program. Probably the only equivalent they’ll be able to think of was Samsung’s global recall of devices that were literally exploding in people’s hands.
Quotation of the Week
“By retreating into ourselves, it looks as if we are the enemies of others, but our solitary moments are in reality a homage to the richness of social existence. Unless we’ve had time alone, we can’t be who we would like to be around our fellow humans. We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else.”
I’ve been thinking about how high technology is continuing to develop at a pace that outruns the least well off in our Western societies. I think that this was best crystallized in Amazon’s opening of its first Amazon Go store, which does away with cashiers and replaces them with cameras and sensors that automatically identify what you acquire for purchase and charge you as you leave the space. There are at least three (immediate) concerns that strike me with regard to these kinds of technologies:
As noted by Hanna Brooks Olsen, these are inherently cashless technologies. Consumers will enter the store with their smartphones, cameras and sensors will track them, and be billed automatically to their debit or credit card(s) associated with the Amazon account. For persons who have a hard time acquiring a smartphone, or having it repaired when damaged, or opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card, or possessing a language barrier, or without access to a convenient and reliable place to charge their devices, or those who rely on the cash economy, these kinds of ‘convenient’ stores are nearly impenetrable fortresses. Those who cannot enter and purchase goods in the stores will be those who are often the least privileged and, rather than being confronted by the diversity of the human population, shoppers in Amazon Go-type stores will have some portion of society’s diversity simply deleted from their shopping experience. As stated by Olsen, “cashless life … is necessarily one of privilege.”
These are anti-labour technologies. In promoting ‘convenience’ Amazon Go and equivalent technologies remove a certain portion of low skill jobs that many people depend on for their livelihoods. While the popular conception is that it’s just students who have these kinds of jobs, simply looking at service jobs belies this point: the age groups which have sales or sales service jobs are rising, and this is exacerbated by an older population who has to work longer into their retirement years simply to survive, let alone thrive. By removing, or at least significantly reducing, the number of low-skill jobs the numbers of persons who are struggling and unable to find work will increase and their social hardships be exacerbated.1
Cashless systems and those which remove labourers are inherently political technologies. They are technologies designed for a particular set of people, to solve what one group in society regards as ‘problems’, and which could significantly reshape how elements of society operate. Should these technologies cease to be ‘technology’ per se and be normalized as ‘infrastructure’ then it will be challenging to ‘reformat and replace’ the technology and ameliorate its long-term social impacts.2 Transforming cashless into infrastructure threatens to deepen the the aforementioned difficulties.
Aren’t there solutions to the aforementioned problems? Of course there are. But any solutions will likely impose costs on those who are developing, advocating for, and using convenience technologies that detrimentally affect the least well off or privileged. Solutions might entail:
establishing a guaranteed way for all persons to obtain banking accounts with diminished identification or language requirements;3
providing either a basic living wage or reducing the barriers to accessing social welfare benefits, to offset the reduction of low-skill employment opportunities; or
reducing educational costs or fully subsidizing such costs so that we as a society can improve the educational status of many of those affected by shrinking low-skill labour. However, education is often seen as the silver bullet when it should be regarded as a tarnished and dented brass shield instead: educational requirements for mid-skilled labour may be too onerous for some persons who have mental, psychological, or physical challenges. Similarly, if there is a major gap between initial education and when it is (re)required, such as when a middle income person loses their job after 25+ years of performing the same tasks, then a short 6- or 12-month course may be insufficient. Education may help to address some job loss linked to convenient technologies but education, alone, is insufficient to ‘solve’ the social challenges linked with such technologies and infrastructures.
It’s pretty rare that major news reports about novel and emerging technologies are accompanied with real-work implications of the technologies, should they transform to infrastructure. It’s even rarer for minor news reports to consider the social, ethical, or political implications of new technologies. Instead, the focuses tend to be on whether a new user interface is ‘fun’ or ‘convenient enough’ or ‘fast enough’. Those are the concerns of the majority. We need to far more seriously consider how our developing technologies will affect those least well off, or else risk further stratifying social and economic divides and widening the rift between the most and least privileged members of society.
Quotation of the Week
“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”
The current Amazon Go location does have employees working there, just not as cashiers, and the company hasn’t taken the population of would-be-cashiers and moved them to other locations. The very point is to remove cashiers as an occupation and number of employees from the experience. ↩
One of the challenges to obtaining a bank account is that customers may require a fixed address, telephone number, or other identifiers. While such identifiers are often stable and available to the majority of the population they are fluid for those who lack secure housing, employment, and other ‘normal’ components of daily living. ↩
I haven’t brewed a typical ‘cup’ of coffee at home for over three years. I drink 1-3 cups a day but in a particular coffee-snob kind of way.
I’ve been exclusively brewed using an Aeropress.
An Aeropress is basically a vacuum plunger where you attach a filter to the bottom of a plastic tube, load grounds into the tube, and after adding water and stirring the grounds, plunge water through the grounds. I wasn’t initially using a particularly ‘nice’ kettle and so wasn’t regulating the water temperature very rigorously. Despite this, the simple shift from a coffee maker-made coffee to Aeropress represented a a massive step-up in my morning coffee experience.
Enter a Proper Kettle
A few years ago I bought the Cuisinart CPK-17 PerfecTemp Cordless Electric Kettle so that I could precisely heat my water to the temperature I wanted. This kettle will let you select one of six preset temperatures (160°, 175°, 185°, 190°, 200°, and Boil) whereas a normal kettle is far less specific in the temperature it can consistently reach.
The Aeropress plus Cuisinart combination plus good coffee beans that were recently roasted (i.e. within a week or so) has always resulted in pretty good coffee. But if you spend time looking at the Aeropress championships that take place around the world, and the recipes that the baristas use, you find that they measure out the beans and water by weight.1
Weighing Everything Out
I got a scale for Christmas to weight out the amounts of water and coffee beans I use in making coffee. I’m using an American Weigh Scales (SG-2KG) Digital Pocket Scale. After trying it out I learned something profound: I’ve been using almost the precise amounts of boiling water and coffee beans as many of the most popular Aeropress recipes!2
I’m guessing that the scale will ensure that I’m better able to control for quality each time, and so instead of almost nailing the perfect balance of water and beans I’ll have a ‘perfect press’ more regularly. I’ll also be able to try out other recipes with accuracy and confidence. But it was surprising to learn that despite adding the extra coffee gear it’s actual improvements may be less significant than I’d expected.
Now I just have to upgrade to an even better burr grinder…
They also have a specific number of times they’ll churn the water over the coffee, break up when they add water, and more. It gets pretty complicated and ritualistic. ↩
The technique varies between the recipes I’ve looked at, but weights are pretty consistent. ↩
One of the things I’m trying to do this year is actively learn composition, framing, etc from professional sources to improve my photography. I feel like I’ve hit a wall just looking at other people’s images in terms of my creativity and the reading/watching/listening is really helping me to think more carefully about what I’ve shot to date (and why I like what I do) and what I want to try going forward.
The different challenges I’ve participated in and the technical videos I’ve watched have been helpful in teaching me about my camera and lenses, and how to do very limited post-processing, but really hasn’t been that useful for teaching me colour theory, framing theory, etc. I’m hoping to read (and take notes from) at least one book every month or so as to inspire, improve, and motivate my photography.