Black Lives Matter, and so Does Democracy

Black Lives Matter, and so Does Democracy

I won’t take much of your time because there are more valuable voices to hear now, but I want it on the permanent record of this site where I stood during this time period in history.

As a kid, I remember learning about the Civil Rights movement in school as a kid and wondered how there could have been anyone against that movement at the time. A couple decades later and now it’s all too clear to me how that happens.

I stand behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s shocking we need to be reminded of this.

I stand with the protestors who are attempting to protest their government’s inaction on a literal life and death issue.

I despise those who are trying to take these protests and warp them into something else, as well as those creating false narratives in order to muddy the waters and justify undemocratic behavior.

And of course, I’m not only ashamed of our current president’s handling of this situation, I’m afraid that his violent instincts around squashing opposition, including peaceful protests, are a culmination of all the fears we had about electing this guy in 2016. He’s not pro-democracy, nor is he pro-Constitution, he’s interested in power. This is a dark road we’ve gone down further than I even feared he’d take us.

Oh, and if you were looking for that unsubscribe button, I won’t stop you. If this post makes you uncomfortable or you think I should stay in my lane and just talk tech, bye 👋

A Better Computer

A Better Computer

Today I'm excited to introduce my new YouTube channel, A Better Computer. This channel will be devoted to helping you make the computer in front of you, whether it be an iPhone, and iPad, or PC, better than it was before; we want to make it a better computer. Here's the trailer!

If you have read this site at all, you know I have a lot of experience using and experimenting with tons of apps across a bunch of platforms. I know what I'm doing and I want to share what I know with you, just like I've learned so much from other people out there.

Much like the trailer, each video will be quick, to the point, and highly produced. I can't match the top tech YouTubers in terms of physical sets and camera production, but I can make a mean screen share, so I aim to have the best ones you've ever seen.

Here's the first tutorial that's already there:

I have a lot to learn about YouTube, and I'm starting completely from scratch on this project (I'm not even using the BirchTree name!). As I write this draft, I have one subscriber...me, so go ahead and subscribe today so you don't miss what I've got coming up.

Point of order, I plan on posting about one video a week, but that schedule is subject to change. Right now I'm just doing tutorials, but I expect to grow into also doing things with previewing software and reviewing new things as they are released.

What Makes a Good Camera?

I posted this yesterday as an example of why I love, love, love having a “real camera” back in my life.

I didn’t get many responses, but I did get some people saying they thought the iPhone picture was better. Why? They liked the detail and the fact that the highlights were not blown out. These are fair, but they didn’t change my mind at all because of a few things.

  1. This photo showed me an example of the Sony camera doing something the iPhone simply couldn’t do. The bokeh in particular was really nice, but I could have also changed the aperture and gotten a deeper depth of focus to look more like the iPhone.
  2. The iPhone photo was definitely sharper, but that’s also due to the shallower depth of field I used on the Sony shot. The Sony pic was taken at f/1.8, which meant the focus are was a few millimeters. The wording “New Belgium” is out of focus because it’s not the spot I chose to focus on. Again, a more closed aperture would have had more elements in pin sharp focus.
  3. And maybe most importantly, the Sony photo was edited in Lightroom before posting it. The blown highlights were a stylistic choice, not something out of the camera. Here’s the RAW version of that photo, highlights and shadows intact.

As I wrote in October of last year, I am not particularly interested in doing "straight out of the camera" comparisons because that's not how I actually share photos. Especially when comparing smartphones to RAW images, since RAW images are inherently bland. You are expected to do things with them.

I just think that the world of camera comparisons has made us get to a place where we judge picture quality based on whether highlights are blown out, shadows are crushed, or clarity is as sharp as can be. For the average photo, these are great qualities, but they are not what you want in every single photo.

But here’s the other thing: I think the iPhone has a better camera for most people than the Sony RX100. The beauty of the iPhone camera is that you can open the app, point at something, and snap a photo without thinking. 95% of the time it’s going to get the focus, exposure, and everything else basically perfect. You don’t have to think about it and it works some magic to get you want you want.

Take a look at this photo:

This was taken while I was literally running down the sidewalk with my phone pointed in Sherman’s general direction and with me randomly snapping the shutter button. Given those conditions, this photo is remarkable!

This simplicity and flexibility is absolutely the right thing for the iPhone, as most people using iPhones are not professional photographers. But for people like me who want to have more flexibility in our shots, want more options in editing, and who want to have a higher limit on the quality of picture we can take, a dedicated camera can serve us very well.

Pain

Last December, I wanted to compare night modes on the newly released iPhone and Pixel phones. Totally reasonable, and exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see on this blog. So I waited for the sun to go down and around 9PM I headed out to a local park, which I knew had some fun lights up, but would be completely dark.

“You’re going to go walk around a dark park in the middle of the night?” my wife asked me.

“Sure, why not?” I replied.

She couldn’t understand the feeling that walking around a dark public park after hours could be seen as a totally safe thing to do.

Fast forward about 30 minutes and while I was taking pictures around the park, which I’ll admit kinda did look like someone casing the joint for a robbery, I was approached by a police officer who asked me what I was doing. I remember thinking “yeah, I could see why he’d be curious.” I proceeded to explain to him that I write for a tech blog where I compare smartphones and I was doing some tests to see which phone was better. He listened and asked some questions about which phone I thought was winning, and after a couple minutes he let me carry on.

What I remember about that interaction today is how little it bothered me at the time. I wasn’t nervous, something I could verify by cross-referencing the photos before and after our talk with my Apple Watch’s heart rate data, and this is the window where I was talking to the officer:

Yeah, totally steady, I wasn’t worried at all about the situation escalating or anything. I may as well have been talking to a friend.

I bring up this event because it is a great example of my privilege as a white man. I went to a pitch black, wide open space and didn’t worry at all about my safety. I was questioned by a cop about what I was doing and my heart rate didn’t so much as blip. The idea of either of those things being remotely dangerous were completely foreign to me.

This past week we have seen nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. I’ve been largely silent on the issue both here and on social media, largely because I don’t know what to say. There is an immense amount of pain that has been growing for many generations among people who don’t look like me in this country. There is a distrust of institutions to do the right thing. There is pain as every on-video murder of a black man sees a demographic scower the web for reasons that the murder might have been justified. It pains me that I can’t remember the source, but I heard a clip from a podcast on Twitter where someone asked the question, “how many white men have you seen murdered in high definition?” As I write this Sunday morning, I struggle to think of a single name, but I can recall several names of black men from just the past couple months.

I don’t talk a lot about this stuff because I worry about saying the wrong thing. I worry about not properly vetting my sources and saying something that’s either untrue or lacks required context to understand or appreciate.

So I listen. I listen to people who have different perspectives than me, people who have different perspectives simply because of the way they look. I listen to people who talk about wrestling with how they are going to raise their kids in a world that forces them to grapple with things I’ve never had to ponder for a second.

So yes, #BlackLivesMatter yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This hashtag is not a signifier that only black lives matter (as the AllLivesMatter folks would twist it to mean), it’s a reminder that black lives matter too. You would think this doesn’t need to be said, and some people will tell you that it doesn’t, but there are piles of evidence that as a nation, we do need this reminder.

And of course, in this time of pain and division, it would be very nice to have a leader who was invested in uniting the country or taking action to diffuse the mounting tensions causing the current wave of protests, but that’s not who we have right now.

The Coronavirus in Japan

From near disaster to success story: how Japan has tackled coronavirus | World news | The Guardian

Experts have pointed to universal healthcare, low obesity rates and expertise in treating pneumonia. More fanciful theories have gained traction – the consumption of foods, such as natto, that boost the immune system and, according to an unscientific experiment conducted by a TV network, the relatively low number of airborne droplets generated by spoken Japanese.

Japan, like the US, got off to a bad start with handling the coronavirus, but by all accounts they seem to have pivoted effectively and they’ve handled the crisis better than it looked like they would at the start.

Again, looking at the numbers tells a very different story from what I’ve experienced from my US-centric viewpoint. Japan currently has 898 reported deaths from the virus in a population of 128 million people. That’s about 7 per million people have died.

Looking at just my home state of Illinois, there have been 5,368 deaths among our population of 12,67 million people. That’s 423 people lost per million.

Mailbrew is my Secret Weapon in Finding Cool Links

Mailbrew is my Secret Weapon in Finding Cool Links

Mailbrew launched to all back in February 2020 and I've been using it ever since. This is basically a way for you to create your own personal mailing lists where you get the things you're most interested in delivered to your mailbox on whatever schedule you'd like.

Here's an image from Mailbrew's website that gives you a taste of what you can expect.

In short, this allows you to use news sources like Reddit, Twitter, RSS, Hacker News, Twitter, and more to surface the stuff you are most interested in reading.

Examples

Here's a few ideas for things you could follow.

  • Get the top voted "shower thoughts" post from that always interesting subreddit
  • Get the top quote of the day from the quotes subreddit
  • Get the top 10 posts from the Hacker News front page
  • Create an email that includes all of your favorite film essay YouTubers
  • See the top tweets for a specific hashtag on Twitter
  • Find yourself or your company in Google News updates
  • Follow a low-volume RSS feed

No matter what you do, you can use Mailbrew's WYSIWYG email creation editor to format the email nicely and customize things like how much you want to emphasize text vs images in the email. For example, I want to see headlines and the first line or two of articles from Hacker News and other news sources, but I really just want to see photos from the "pics" subreddit.

And if you have trouble starting from scratch, there are tons of templates they have created already to get you going. You can then create your own emails or modify the templates with more or less sources of data depending on your taste.

Pricing

Mailbrew is $10/month, which ain't cheap, but there's a free trial if you want to give it a shot, and frankly, I'm happy to pay to make sure this sticks around and doesn't sell my data as their monetization model. As they say in their FAQ:

We're a small startup, and for us to be able to build Mailbrew sustainably, we need to charge for it. Not only does this align our incentives with yours (we never sell your data or advertise to you), it ensures that Mailbrew will continue to work in the future. We are in this for the long haul.

Should You Use It?

I mean, maybe. I don't think everyone needs Mailbrew, but people who do will get a ton out of it. You do need to figure out what content and what frequency you want to get these custom newsletters, but if you put in a little work up front then you can reap the benefits going forward.

If you're interested, there is a free trial and if you use this link, you and I each get $5 credit towards the subscription.

There is Still Room for "Real Cameras"

There is Still Room for "Real Cameras"

Over the past few weeks I've been selling a bunch of stuff on eBay so I could break even on a new camera. Now I'm a huge proponent of smartphone cameras, especially those in the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4, being good enough for basically everything these days, but for me, there apparently still is room for a dedicated camera. Why? Let me explain.

Quality in the Details

First, let's get this out of the way: the iPhone and Pixel take great photos, but neither of them are perfect. They do great when looking at photos from afar, on a phone, and often even on a desktop monitor, but when you zoom in, they cut some corners. Here's a close up of my quarantine stubble:

Those were each taken in my kitchen with medium lighting, and while they both look good, the iPhone clearly approvomates some of the data in my facial hair, while the Sony captures it quite well. You can also see some visible "liquefaction" in the bokeh behind me on the iPhone shot while the Sony camera has a "creamier" quality to it.

Better Portraits

Next up, let's look at some selfies. Here's the iPhone 11 Pro front-facing selfie camera:

Looks pretty good, although the sun got a little into the lens and washed some stuff out, but we could improve this in post. Also, since this is a fixed focus lens and has a pretty high aperture, the whole scene is in focus. Fine, but not always what I want.

Here's the same shot with the back camera on the same phone:

The quality difference is pretty stark, and this is clearly better in my opinion. I have far more detail and the background has a bit of softness to it. I'm quite happy with this photo, but let's look at the Sony:

Now this was shot in RAW, so I edited it a little to make the colors more in line with the iPhone photos, but the quality is clearly higher basically all around. My face has less sharpening applied so it looks a little more natural, and the background has a lot more bokeh happening, which I like for this shot. Of course, I could close the aperture a bunch on this camera to get it to not be blurred if I'd prefer. Also, the sky is a little blown out in this shot, but I could reclaim that data if I wanted (RAW 🙌), I just liked the blown out look over there.

Better Depth Overall

And depth overall is just nicer on the Sony camera. Here's an attempt to get a photo of a single leaf on a bush on the iPhone:

And here it is on the Sony:

I cranked up the bokeh to show the difference, but again, since I control the aperture, I could make the background more crisp if I preferred.

The iPhone is Still Better in Some Ways

Shooting on a normal camera again has made me appreciate some things on the iPhone and Pixel cameras more than I did before.

First, almost every photo I take on my iPhone or Pixel are good. Some of them are great, but 95% of them are at least good. You literally just point your phone at anything and it will get a good shot. The Sony can take better photos, but it also requires more work from you to get them. That shallow depth of field I love? That also means that I have less room for error when focusing, lest I miss focus and have a bad image.

Second, night mode is really something else. Now, the Sony doesn't do horribly here, but it's definitely not as good as either Apple or Google's current offerings.

And third, there's something really magical about taking a photo and having it instantly be uploaded to your online photo backup, or be able to share it within seconds. Having to plug the camera into my iPad and import the photos is annoying, and the wireless sharing option is not any more convenient unless I want to do it when I've only got my iPhone with me.

Wait, What Camera Are You Talking About???

I'm using a Sony RX100 Mark 3, which is a 6 year old camera which still retails for $600. Yeah, this isn't the latest and greatest DSLR, and there have actually been 4 more revisions on this exact model since it launched in 2014, but it's still a great camera. Here's a couple requisite Sherman pics I got with it in the my first day.

Appearance: Home Screens

Appearance: Home Screens

I was pleased to join my friend Lee Peterson on his new show, Home Screens, this week to talk about, what else, my Phone's home screen.

The episode is embedded below, and I think the most interesting bits were discussing:

  1. How I use Airtable
  2. Why I prefer the algorithmic timeline in Twitter
  3. My photography workflow

Patently Insane

Timothy Klausutis writing to Twitter's Jack Dorsey (via The New York Times):

President Trump on Tuesday tweeted to his nearly 80 million followers alluding to the repeatedly debunked falsehood that my wife was murdered by her boss, former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough. The son of the president followed and more directly attacked my wife by tweeting to his followers as the means of spreading this vicious lie.

And:

I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the president of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.

We can debate Twitter's role in being an arbiter of truth, but let's take a second and think about how insane it is that the President of the United States chooses to spend his time during an international pandemic to spread wild lies about people he doesn't like.

The birther movement he helped popularize could be dismissed as the racist ramblings of an idiot, but now it's the ramblings of an idiot in the White House.

This is patently insane behavior and is yet another example of why this goon is unfit for office. It's such a common thing, in fact, that I suspect someone will tell me that he does this all the time and I shouldn't be surprised anymore. I'm not surprised, I just refuse to accept this as "that's just what he does" and not call out insanity in the moment.

The Value of an Open Podcast

Daring Fireball: ‘Joe Rogan Got Ripped Off’

Even if you put money aside, Rogan’s deal with Spotify will almost certainly shrink his audience to some degree, and it gives Spotify complete control over Rogan’s relationship with his audience. I don’t think Rogan is a fool — quite the opposite. But I still think he’s underestimating the value of his show.

I won't pretend to know the economics better than the parties involved, but this certainly follows logically.

  1. Before, you could listen to Joe Rogan's show in any podcast app, except Spotify. Finding it was no problem, just go to the top podcasts and it'll be there right in the top 5 basically all the time.
  2. Now, you can only listen in Spotify. This is good for Spotify because they are going to to from zero Rogan subscribers to likely millions overnight. For Rogan though, this means getting all of his current subscribers to resubscribe. It's basically like sending out an email that says "we've unsubscribed you from this newsletter, please download our app and resubscribe to keep getting this email." True fans will so it, but any marketer will tell you that's a failsafe way to lose subscribers.

For Rogan, the math must be that Spotify will pay him directly more than he would have earned from the audience members he's losing. Or maybe he'd rather have a set level of revenue he can rely on and wants that stability. One thing's for sure, I would love to be a fly on the wall in these conversations.