andrew catellier

negativesign

With Power

Comes responsibility. Walt Mossberg:

My fourth wish is for some sort of optical zoom that doesn’t require a heavy telescoping lens. The rumored dual-lens camera might provide this. Previous efforts at unobtrusive optical zooming by other phone makers haven’t been good, so Apple has a real opportunity here.

Apple has an opportunity here? Unless there’s some breakthrough in physics I don’t know about, nobody has an opportunity to make a good “optical zoom” in a small package (though you can get pretty creative with optics). I guess a two-camera phone could have two different focal lengths and that could be marketed as “optical zoom.” I have a feeling that’s not what Mossberg is expecting when he proposes that idea.

I can’t very well expect everybody to know everything. But is it too much to ask of a major media outlet like The Verge to run some of this stuff by their in-house experts before publishing?

What I really want is for people to understand that tradeoffs have to be made in product design, that those tradeoffs result in compromises and that not everything you desire is possible.

A superstar tech reviewer literally asking for the impossible is irresponsible at best.

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Thoughts on Five Years of Daily Photos

It’s that time of year again—I’m pointing to the tumblr I use to post photos of my every day life. Dailies, I call them. I take a picture of what I see most days and then put it somewhere. So yeah, you can find them at the following confrontational complete sentence dot net: faceit.thisisreal.net. All of my dailies ever should be there unless I made a mistake (of course I did).

My first incarnation of dailies began nearly five years ago. In 2010 I followed some advice, fed off some quality inspiration and started taking a picture of myself every day. It was as difficult as it was vain. I found myself lugging a tripod around everywhere I went and remember feeling uncomfortable (it’s kind of a silly thing to do) in potentially awkward public situations. Giving myself daily, hard deadlines like this stressed me out a good deal but it wasn’t without rewards. That year I probably learned more about the mechanics of photography and composition than in any subsequent year. I even won second place in a photo contest with one of the selfies.

After I finished that project I gave myself a break and then started up again. This time around I relaxed the rules—basically just keep my eye open for things that look neat and try to get one photo per day and if I don’t no big deal but seriously try to get a good one every day.

I was using either my DSLR or my rangefinder to work on the project. I learned even more about composition, logged some serious hours with my Cinch and wore some paint off of that brass block of a seeing machine that I hold in high esteem. I even made 4x6” prints of my 2013 dailies and compiled them into a photo album. That was pretty neat.

I kept up with that incarnation pretty well until about last January. As you may know, workflows dealing with so-called RAW files are not without friction. I found myself falling behind and sometimes uploading photos a month after the fact. According to the rules there was nothing wrong with that, but the friction kept me from spending time on developing other ideas and ambitions—I really want to get into portraits and need to organize my photos into cohesive groups.

In light of all that I changed the rules again. In 2014 I’d do the whole thing on my phone. Not a novel concept, but the idea was that I could take a photo, edit it, upload it and be done in a short amount of time. In practice I ended up editing and uploading the dailies in batches but I did manage to begin work on grouping photos in a cohesive way.

So here we are in 2015. Over these five years my dailies blog has gained 418 followers (compared to 363 following my main tumblr account). I’ve posted about 1503 dailies which amounts to roughly 0.82 photos per day. However, I did take a six month break in 2011. That means that while I was actively trying to do dailies, I didn’t take a photo 0.86% of the time.

I often feel guilty for not getting a photo for the day. The way I framed my “rules,” not getting a photo implied that I didn’t see anything worth capturing or that I didn’t take time that day to enjoy the world around me. Actually crunching the numbers provides some perspective on that guilt: I didn’t live up to the rules < 1% of the time. Given all that’s happened for/to me in the past few years, I’ll take it.


I’ve tried and failed many times to synthesize what taking daily photos means to me. (In fact, I recently realized that jumping wholeheartedly into something without fully understanding why is something I tend to do.) I think at first it really was about learning how to use a camera and to start building up a body of work that I could be proud of. Over time (and as I’ve grown), however, my understanding of the purpose of this project has evolved.

Looking back at these dailies gives me a small taste of the state of my brain on that day in the past. It reminds me about the world as it existed, people that entered my life, people that I pushed away and friends that have always been there. I’ve found that going through old dailies can be an anxiety-inducing experience. But I’ve also found that the entire process helps me to deal with that anxiety in a way that’s healthy for me.

On the front page of my personal website the link that points to my dailies is labeled “i keep a diary.” Late last year a friend of mine saw the link and the dailies and confronted me: “No you don’t,” she said. Needless to say, that made me think. The text posted along with the dailies varies from tautologically descriptive to intentionally obtuse. There’s generally very little indication of how I’m actually feeling, what I’m actually thinking or what actually happened at the time of the photo. I can see how an outsider would find it to be a boring read.

Ignoring the most obvious response (a diary is meaningful to the person who writes it and not necessarily anybody else), that question, in a way, cemented my understanding of the purpose of the whole project.

I’m not on Facebook and I don’t use Twitter for actual status updates, but I want those close to me to be able to check up on me if they want to. I’m concerned about privacy—mine and that of those around me—so I want control over the details associated with each post. I need an outlet to say things I sometimes need to say and a way to remember all the time that’s ruthlessly sucked away from the present. I need a place to practice seeing and make mistakes with minimal consequences.

This project has been all of these things to my multimedia brain.


2014 was an uncomfortable year for me. One thing in particular overshadowed most of the year. I struggled to make sense of relationships and pondered if what lies at the end of the path is what I want it to be. But damn if there weren’t some downright pleasant times as well. There was a wildlife photobomb and there were endearing ocean moments. I rode my bike all over the place and took a couple selfies. I was very often in awe of nature (specifically the sky and clouds). I took my camera with me nearly everywhere and took pictures of things that have changed or disappeared since. I explored and did new things on my own and even talked to my representative about net neutrality.

Thankfully and perhaps most importantly, I woke up every day and kept takin’ those photos.

So if you’re interested, feel free to follow along. Even better, start your own dailies project and let’s notice the beautiful world around us together.

New Year, Blank Slate.

Well kind of. There’s this infrastructure but it’s not immediately helpful. It’s more like an empty template.

The arrangement of the infrastructure appears to be random; seemingly placed without thought. Of course, that’s really not the case. This piece is here because the available HVAC capacity is most efficiently utilized when distributed in this spot and that piece must go there because it services the room above. That other piece—well, it was supposed to be over there but we made a mistake.

The infrastructure, as we see it now, is the way it is because it is the sum of some specific set of events progressing towards some goal that can only be met if specific constraints are met. That goal, its constraints and the formative events are never directly communicated to onlookers.

Expectations, traditions and preconceptions are projected onto the template with stunning fidelity yet none of them quite match what the template is or what it will be. The fact is, these expectations come from a place of external (from the perspective of the template) desire. Traditions come from a time when the rules were only partially defined and mostly unknown. Preconceptions come from a pattern recognition algorithm trained using only patterns exhibited before those external desires even existed and before we solidified and discovered the rules we currently know.

But, just like the unexplained state of the infrastructure, failure to match these projections inevitably seems to draw criticism. Onlookers won’t recognize the template for what it is until it finally becomes a finished product, if or when that happens.

Seeing yourself in all of this from a third-person perspective is jarring and uncomfortable. Criticism from onlookers isn’t particularly useful. The projections don’t cede any comfort because you don’t identify with them—they’re not what you are or want to be.

It’s not really clear how this additional input should influence progress towards achieving a goal. Processing these external opinions can call into question the tradeoffs that resulted in this empty template, thus endangering forward movement.

There’s a fine line between self-acceptance and stalemate. There’s also a fine line between working towards achieving goals and not being overwhelmed by the opportunity costs of participating in society. The intersection of these lines is a locale at the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy that few even have the opportunity to find.

Perhaps in search of this intersection you’ve found what looks to be a good compromise. But then you take stock of the landscape revealed by your new vantage point and realize suddenly that the only thing you’ve got to show for your 31 years on this planet is a wash basin and only a wash basin, in a not particularly useful or aesthetic location. If not heart breaking, this realization certainly induces anxiety.

Explaining the context of the infrastructure and its slapdash state becomes exhausting but leaving details to the imagination of those around you is alienating. The feeling that you need to build up so much background before you can talk or interact with someone on a meaningful level—even family or someone who you’ve known forever—is crippling. It’s a positive feedback loop that shuts you off from the world.

Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that the mental model that many people use as a representation of you is a finished product. Along with this representation is a set of expectations that can be completely unfair and unrealistic. Knowing that there are those who are judging you based on the haphazard state of your infrastructure can decimate self-confidence.

The extent to which long-term investments are undervalued in our society is a crying shame. It is of course very important see projects through to completion and to carefully weigh costs and benefits. Still, we need to retrain ourselves to be much less averse to the long slog.

So if you’re out there in the world looking at people looking at the state of their infrastructure, see what you can do to make sure that the version of the ugly duckling unfolding before your eyes resolves with the happy ending. Stop dismissing your friend who’s writing a novel. Ask the other friend about the completion status of that project, but don’t be judgmental about it. Don’t assume that the ultimate goal of that girl’s hobby is to make a business of it. If you’re asking questions about some ethereal desire, “I don’t really know,” is a completely acceptable answer.

If you’re out there in the world feeling bad while looking at the state of your infrastructure, try and shake it off but do whatever it takes to not get stuck. Take a snapshot at precise intervals and devote time to looking at the snapshots. It’s pretty amazing how progress seems to sneak in right before your eyes.

Hello 2015.

You dapper rascal you.

Here’s to the new narrative: getting better.

Cheers!

Thoughts on Perceived Scarcity

This scarcity mindset can also be debilitating. It shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision. Anxiety also saps brainpower and willpower, reducing mental “bandwidth”, as the authors call it.

Relevant.

(Clearing out the linkblog backlog shamalama bing bang.)

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Crank Up the Internet Outrage Machine

The FCC has recently changed its position on net neutrality and frankly it’s a bad deal. It’s time to contact your representatives and senators. I did.

Despite the fact that the current FCC chairman was formerly a lobbyist for the industry he is now supposed to regulate, the arguments concerning this topic are largely based on court decisions resulting from lawsuits filed against cable TV companies.1

Cable companies secure rights to broadcast content to all their users from the producers of the content. These rights are a significant expense. Additionally, the cable companies were the only party delivering content to their customers. Under these conditions, the court orders cited make sense.

The internet, however, is quite a different beast. Content can and does come from anybody, from your neighbor to Netflix. An ISP’s right to distribute content (via IP or in traditional cable TV fashion) should in no way influence how it delivers other content requested by customers. Your neighbor has the right to send any or all Caturday pictures to whomever he or she wishes. Netflix has already secured rights to distribute content to its customers. If you request either of them, why should an ISP stand in the way?

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll point to three ways you can protest the proposed rules:

What are you waiting for! This is the internet! Kittens are at stake!

  1. See Section I, page 8.

Mobile Device Pixel Density as It Relates to Video Quality

Joshua Ho writes for AnandTech about when an increase in mobile device pixel density provides no further benefits for its user. Considering some of the tradeoffs inherent in a system comprised of the human visual system and a mobile device, he concludes that screens with a resolution of around 90-100 pixels per degree are a good compromise for typical, RGB-pattern LCD screens.

Ho arrives at his conclusion through a discussion of visual acuity studies. I don’t disagree with him, at least when talking about text and images consisting of simple geometry. More complex static images and videos are different animals, of course.

The human visual system is extremely complex and delving into its complexities are well outside the scope of his (and this) article. That said, I just happen to know about research where a panel of viewers subjectively rated video quality on many different devices, including high and low DPI devices. One of the findings was that viewers judged video quality on both high and low DPI devices (each with the exact same screen size—an iPhone 4 and an iPod Touch) to be statistically similar.

Put differently, a theoretical video service provider could send a 480x320 pixel video to a device with a 960x640 pixel screen and the theoretical viewer would be just as happy as if the service provider had sent a 960x640 pixel video.

In terms of this discussion, high DPI mobile devices passed the point of diminishing returns where video is concerned long ago.

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No FEAR, Kind Of

Jason E. Harrington wrote about his experience as a TSA employee at Chicago’s O’Hare airport (go read the whole thing!). This quote from the essay refers to a letter that he wrote to (and was published by) the New York Times:

“The problem we have here is that you identified yourself as a TSA employee,” she said.

His letter to the Times demonstrated an attempt to take pride in his job and defend his employer. It also recommended a policy change that would allow employees a sense of agency in their work, something that to me is essential to job satisfaction and something that’s missing from a good deal of public and private jobs. He took great care to not disparage and even defend the TSA. His essay continues:

They were words I had heard somewhere before. Suddenly, the admonishment from our annual conduct training flashed through my head—self-identifying as a government employee in a public forum may be grounds for termination.

The basis for this rule is straightforward. Imagine an organization with a mission to teach math to anyone with an interest in learning. If one of the workers employed by this organization publicly endorsed the opinion that nobody uses math as an adult, that organization’s ideology would be diluted. So it is with the United States government. Most federal employes are bound by some form of this rule.

I was shocked. I had been sure the letter would fall under the aegis of public concern, but it looked as though my boss wanted to terminate me. I scrambled for something to say.

“I thought the First Amendment applied here.”

She leaned back in her chair, hands up, palms outfaced. Now she was on the defensive.

“I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”

She dismissed me with the assurance that we would discuss the matter further at some point in the future.

This exchange concerns me for several reasons.

  1. Termination is a harsh punishment for engaging in civil discourse.
  2. Instead of accepting the letter as a form of feedback and acknowledging Jason as an employee with ideas that could be valuable to the TSA, his action was condemned for disregarding a rule. A wise manager would have attempted to address Jason’s concerns. Perhaps she did but that part of the conversation was omitted from the essay.
  3. As a federal employee, Jason should have received what is sometimes known as No FEAR training—typically bi-yearly training sessions on the rights of federal employees under the No-FEAR Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act/Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act; the former protecting federal employees from retaliation when reporting discrimination in the workplace and the latter protecting federal employees from retaliation when disclosing government fraud, abuse of resources or concerns for public health. TSA employees should receive information about these laws. If they don’t, that is extremely unfortunate and possibly illegal. If they do, Jason would have done well to file official complaints concerning the ineffectiveness of full-body scanning methods and concerning the veiled threat made by his supervisor. That said, it’s conceivable the complaints wouldn’t have gone far.
  4. No-FEAR and WPA/WPEA are great but as far as I know, they don’t apply to contractors doing government work. As the government becomes increasingly dependent on contract labor this limitation is gravely concerning. It is absurd that a federal employee has protected, legal channels to challenge questionable work practices while a contractor in the same position could be tried for treason. It is under this pretense that I strongly disagree that government functions should be contracted to private industry.
  5. The exchange demonstrates a crippling trait possessed by the federal government: the desire for judicial indemnity and public-facing political neutrality, no matter the cost to the public. This trait can and sometimes does neuter the consideration of (federally funded!) scientific findings in policy debates and decisions. As an advocate for research, this trait is extremely disheartening. It causes other problems too, like complicating procurement processes to the point of gross inefficiency.

Finally, I found this part of the essay quite striking:

The I.O. room at O’Hare had a bank of monitors, each with a disabled keyboard—which perfectly summed up my relationship with the TSA. I spent several hours each day looking at nude images of airline passengers with a keyboard that didn’t work, wishing I could be doing what I loved: writing. To pass the time, I phantom-typed passages on the dumb keys: Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire.

People are so much more than their jobs. American employers seem to have lost sight of this while engrossed in their efforts to squeeze efficiency out of the workforce. In some ways, the quest for economic efficiency has relieved a great deal of us from our humanity.

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Quartz Writer Schools Himself

We all know modern publications use any or all tools at their disposal in order to drive traffic to their websites. I don’t know what it’s like to write for Quartz, but this gaffe is nothing short of embarrassing for Quartz writer Christopher Mims. Let me elaborate.

The linked article, entitled “Intel’s voice recognition will blow Siri out of the water—because it doesn’t use the cloud”, initially exhibited a fundamental lack of understanding of pattern recognition.1 Granted, it’s impossible for one person to have an in-depth knowledge of all the technology utilized by our gadgets.

However, in the update he posted to the article, Mims posted a link to an article he wrote that completely invalidates the title of (and largely the premise of) the piece:

Currently, the everyday magic of understanding voice commands is carried out almost entirely in the cloud, because processing human speech is difficult enough that even a sophisticated smartphone doesn’t have the processing power to do it at a high enough level of reliability.

Ideally, either an editor or Mims himself would have noticed this inconsistency before publishing. That the headline remains unchanged after the update is disappointing. Rather than posting an update and leaving the piece otherwise unchanged, Quartz should take a cue from traditional newspapers and at the very least correct misleading body text and explicitly state the difference between the initial and current article. Specifically, the wording “Intel has a solution.” immediately following the first subheadline needs to be stricken. The tone of the rest of the article should be adjusted as well.

  1. A pattern recognition system relies on either specific or immense training data to deliver accurate results. The Intel solution could depend on recording and processing speech data from each user of its technology (which would then be stored on the user’s mobile device for future reference) to achieve greater accuracy. This possibility is not mentioned in the article.

    Instead, the original (and to a large extent, the current) article states that Intel has somehow magically solved the same problem currently addressed by racks of servers with a chip that can fit in your smartphone.

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On What’s Around You

Time published photos Christopher Morris took early in his career. These photos are a delightful example of a sentiment I highlighted in an earlier post.

Christopher’s photos highlight the value of the ability to remove oneself from the present in order to become a detached observer and document a moment in its unique context.

Though a portrait of “the world as it is” (or “this thing we all see”) is a common photographic project, I believe it’s a project that will always have value partly because it’s my opinion that there aren’t many people who have the skill that Christopher Morris exhibits in this work. There are so many things about our lives that seem unremarkable to us but can be utterly fascinating to those in other cultures or other geographic locations.

Most importantly though, these fascinations can be compounded by time—the inability to physically exist in a specific context facilitates nostalgia.

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