Smartcameras, Apple, and the future of photography


samsungI’ve got an article at the website Connect (part of Digital Photography Review) about what I see as a dilemma for fans of Apple’s iOS and iPhone photography apps. Smartcameras are starting to appear — that is, point-and-shoot cameras with the Android operating system and photo apps — and I fear that Android, and not iOS, will dominate this smartcamera trend. I’d love to buy a smartcamera at some point, but I would want it to be a camera with iOS apps — that is, all of the photography apps I’ve got on my iPhone. Will that happen? I’m not quite sure, and in my Connect article I come up with a bunch of scenarios (Apple buys Nikon, Apple introduces its own digital SLR, etc.) for how things will shake out. Realistic ideas? Not always, but it’s fun to speculate.

If you’re wondering about the smartcamera trend, check out my posts about smartcameras and Android cameras at What I See Now.

Distracted Living

Now here’s a concept: “I am here” days

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I love the spirit behind an article in the New York Times, ostensibly about “Exploring Red Hook, Brooklyn, Unplugged and with Friends.” The writer and his wife started to explore a section of the city on weekend days, and used the opportunity to unplug. Soon their friends joined in:

They joined us in what grew into a kind of anti-modern communal experiment: giving our gadgets a secular Sabbath; reveling in friendship and conversation of a kind that Facebook doesn’t do; being thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere. We began to call them “I am here” days.

I love that phrase “thickly in one place, not thinly everywhere.” More and more, I long to return to — to seek out — those experiences where you’re “thickly in one place” (that is, when you’re trying to have one experience, and not many). Running does that for me, or a long, wandering walk in the city, but so does playing poker, writing fiction, cooking, being in the pool with the kids. It’s an antidote to distracted living.


My short story, “Out There,” is available as a Kindle book


Out ThereWell, I published my first book, an e-book, as part of my goal of publishing one book a month in 2013. (Should I call this my One Year, 12 Books project?) My short story, “Out There,” is available at Amazon as a Kindle book. I’ll write more about the process soon, but for now I’ll just say that the mechanics of publishing the book (i.e., formatting it for Kindle, etc.) took less time than I thought it would; Amazon provides a very useful tutorial on publishing Kindle books with a Mac. I set the price at $0.99. I considered making it free — after all, it’s a short story (and one that I wrote and published years ago) — but decided I might as well see what happens if I charge a buck for it.

And what’s the story like? Well, as the cover says, it’s “a short story about teenagers, a road trip, and the Jersey Devil.” I’d like to think it’s inspired by the work of T.C. Boyle and Junot Diaz. You can buy it at Amazon and read it on your Kindle, your phone, your computer, or your tablet.


Self-tracking and the Twitter diet plan

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Twitter can help you lose weight, at least according to a recent study from researchers at the University of South Carolina. “In the USC study, 96 overweight or obese adults were randomly assigned to either listen to two podcasts per week about nutrition and fitness or to listen to the podcasts, record physical activity, and connect with other study participants on Twitter,” according to the Huffington Post. “At the end of the six-month period, the Twitter users lost more weight — each tweet actually corresponded with half a pound lost, researchers found, suggesting that social networking can be a powerful, accessible tools for dieters.”

Sounds weird, but this sort of public self-tracking apparently works. A cover story in the Atlantic delved into the trend and its connection to B.F. Skinner. It’s a great read. Also check out a column I wrote about the so-called self-tracking movement, with people using gadgets like the Fitbit activity tracker. As I wrote then:

It is the ancient dictum, “Know thyself,” updated for the digital age. In the smart phone world, “Know thyself” means a nonstop cycle of recording information about yourself, analyzing it and even sharing these details with everyone you know, and millions you don’t know, via Facebook, Twitter and other social networking spots. Delve into the nether regions of the self-tracking movement, and you can’t help feeling like we’re at risk of turning ourselves into a nation of insanely obsessive-compulsive exhibitionists.

That’s what was running through my head recently when I learned about a recent situation in which the sexual activity of a bunch of self-trackers was inadvertently exposed through their online profiles (with wording like “active, vigorous effort” and the activity’s duration in minutes).

Tech, Writing

My goal: Publish a book a month in 2013


Mosaic app

This sounds crazy. I know it does. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

In fact, when I came up with the idea, I actually thought of it as “a book a day” (yes, that’s really, really crazy) or “a book a week” (pretty crazy too). By comparison, a book a month seems reasonable, do-able, and not entirely off-the-wall.

The impulse behind this? I want to see how far an indie writer/author/journalist can take things in this new world of books and book publishing. I’m fascinated with the changes in the industry (e-books, on-demand publishing, Kindle Singles, Blurb photo books, and so forth), and I want to jump into the fray. This is a way to jump-start my exploration of the changes in book publishing, to experiment with the technologies available and the new forms evolving, and to learn (and think) about the future of books.

What will these twelve books* be? I’m not sure yet, but I’ll share a few ideas to offer a sense of the possibilities.

Let me start with an easy one — easy, that is, in the sense that I could publish it in minutes. With the iPhone app Mosaic, you’re able to create and publish a photo book, composed of 20 images, and then tap a button and buy your book for $20. The finished product comes with a lovely die-cut cover. I tend to think of this as an “impulse book.”

Another might be a reprint of an out-of-print children’s book in the public domain, possibly with new illustrations. I’d like at least one, and maybe more (one prose, one photography?), of the books to use print-on-demand technologies, and this would be a candidate for using an on-demand printer.

Yet another would be based on the content at my mobile photography blog, What I See Now — in particular, a series of posts naming the top 100 iPhone photography apps. Plenty of journalists and bloggers are turning their writing into e-books, and this would be a chance to give that a whirl.

All of this raises a question: Is this devaluing, or undermining, the concept of the book? I certainly hope not. I don’t have any illusions about the amount of time, thought, and skill required to write and publish a book properly. I’ve done that — well, I’ve been part of the process (as an author) — and I know the expertise book publishers bring to the process in terms of editing, layout, design, and marketing. But it’s also clear that our notions about what a book is, about how they’re made, and of who controls the appartuses of their production are changing. All of that’s worth exploring, and this project is just that — an exploration of books and their future.

Though I don’t want this experiment to be all about the technology, I expect I’ll use a variety of formats, services, and tools along the way: iBooks Author, PDFs, Kindle, on-demand printers (such as Blurb and Lulu), and plenty of others. Along the way, I’ll document what I’m doing and blog about it, focusing, in particular, on the questions likely to arise from the process. What is a book? Should writers become publishers? Is it possible for an indie journalist to create a publishing imprint with an on-demand publisher? How can books effectively integrate video and other multimedia content? What are the obligations to update the content of e-books? What will become of handmade artists’ books in the age of on-demand printing?

What will the end result be? I expect I’ll learn a lot. Maybe I’ll end up with a number of books I like. Maybe I’ll create a publishing company. Who knows? Maybe there’s even a book in this.

* Why the asterisk? Why this footnote? Because, well, I want to make clear I’m defining “books” broadly for the purposes of this project. Truth be told, when I think of a book, I think of Atonement, of My Antonia, of In Cold Blood: works of prose requiring years of effort, thought, and breathless creativity. Yet our notions of books are changing, for better or worse, and it’s clear the idea of the book is far more flexible than it was just a few years ago.


Deciding when your kid should have an email address


MailyThe Motherlode blog at the New York Times has a really thoughtful, and thought-provoking article, about the right age to get an email address for your child. KJ Dell’Antonia notes that “the possible problem lies not in the e-mail account itself, but in all you can do once you have that account.”

What can you do? Well, sign up for lots of things with your own email (and then confirm the sign-ups). Your kid could be on Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever, and you might not know it. Dell’Antonia solves that issue by funnelling emails through her own account (“They get an e-mail, I get an e-mail, and because I set up the accounts, only I know the passwords”).

There’s a really interesting discussion following the article. One comment zeroes in on a concern of mine:

I set up an email account for my 11-yr old son. I too know the password and can see the emails, which have been harmless. The problem has been the one that is caused by most electronics: he wants to “check it” all the time. I limit the checking to once or twice per day, but that does not stop the asking. Books, toys, outdoors all lose their luster when the electronic elephant is in the room.

That’s just it: My daughter is in fourth grade, and I don’t want to deal with lots of requests to check email. I suppose checking email once a day would be OK, and if that’s the rule, then that’s the rule.

Check out the article and discussion at When Should a Child Get an E-Mail Account?.


Take 2, and E-Mail Me in the Morning: Doctors Consult Patients Electronically

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(This article appeared at the New York Times website on June 3, 1997.)


By Allan Hoffman

When Rich Schafer came down with a sinus infection, he didn’t call the doctor’s office to schedule an appointment or to seek advice. Instead, he contacted his doctor by e-mail, describing his symptoms and asking what he should do about them. Within hours, he got a reply — and later, after the infection failed to clear up, a prescription.

“I hardly ever have to call the office anymore,” said Schafer, a computer engineer at Xerox Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif. “Before, when I had to call, it might not be until the next day that I got a response. Now, I usually get a response within an hour.”

Schafer’s physician, Dr. Paul Ford, is among a small but growing number of doctors who communicate with patients by e-mail about everything from test results to HMO authorizations. He fields about 10 queries a day, most of them asking for medical advice or following up on an existing condition.

“It’s taken that third person out of the loop,” Ford said. “A lot of times, the patient can come directly to us.”

As more and more people look to the Internet for medical information, they’re increasingly interested in contacting their doctors by e-mail. Doctors following the trend estimate only 1 or 2 percent of physicians exchange e-mail with patients, but they expect the numbers to grow as patients see the benefits of being able to e-mail their doctors.

Stanford Medical Group in Palo Alto, where Ford is the lead physician, provides a central e-mail address for patients to contact the clinic. A nurse reads the messages, either handling the queries herself or forwarding them to the appropriate doctor. The clinic’s eight doctors decide whether or not to share their personal e-mail addresses with patients.

Few practices have embraced e-mail with patients as wholeheartedly as Stanford Medical Group, a clinic in the heart of California’s highly wired Silicon Valley. Many doctors, in fact, would rather not add e-mail with patients to their list of responsibilities.

“A whole lot of physicians just don’t feel comfortable using e-mail, managing it, and thinking that it’s effective,” said Michael S. Brown, co-director of a study by FIND/SVP of New York and MSB Associates of Needham, Mass., about doctors’ attitudes toward the Internet. In focus groups, doctors “were adamant that they did not want to give their patients their e-mail” address, said Brown.

A separate study indicated that the main quest of consumers who use online medical resources was more information from their own doctors over the Internet. Combine that finding with the doctors’ wariness toward doctor-patient e-mail, Brown said, and you’ve got “a real conflict that’s building between physicians and their patients.”

The main concern of doctors? The added time it would take to respond to e-mail, most likely without reimbursement.

“Everyone worries about being flooded,” said Dr. John Renner, president of the Consumer Health Information Research Institute in Independence, Mo. “If a doctor would try to answer 100 e-mails a day, it could become quite a problem.”

Of course, doctors already have staff members to screen phone calls, Brown noted. The same people could be trained to screen e-mail, directing patients to a medical Web site, scheduling an appointment or sending the query on to a doctor.

Dr. Tom Ferguson, author of “Health Online,” said that doctors who accept e-mail from patients “find it not only allows them to offer much better care and have closer collaborations with their patients but actually saves them time and makes their interactions with patients more convenient.”

The benefits of doctor-patient e-mail, according to its advocates, include avoiding phone tag, added accuracy when dispensing instructions, and the chance to foster a better relationship with the patient.

Patients tend to ask more questions and be more forthcoming with details in e-mail, doctors say.

“People give information they wouldn’t give over the phone,” said Stephen Borowitz, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia and a doctor at the university’s Children’s Medical Center. “Perhaps they’re more reflective. Some people find it easier to express themselves with the written word.”

Still, even those doctors in favor of doctor-patient e-mail admit that a number of issues remain unresolved. Concerns include security, confidentiality and liability.

With the aim of providing guidance to doctors interested in exchanging e-mail with patients, Dr. Beverley Kane, the physician for Apple Computer, wrote “Guidelines for Clinical Use of Electronic Mail with Patients,” a document being considered for ratification by the American Medical Informatics Association. Kane recommends that clinics inform patients about who reads e-mail messages, establish a likely turnaround time for queries, and make it clear what actions will be permitted by e-mail.

At Stanford Medical Group, a special Web page outlines the clinic’s “electronic mail services.” Patients should consider using e-mail when an immediate answer is not required, the page said. The clinic does not discuss psychiatric diagnoses, HIV test results or work-related injuries by e-mail.

Dr. Paul Hattis, a medical consultant to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, calls the use of e-mail with patients “a murky legal area.” One particularly sensitive concern is confidentiality, said Hattis, who is also a lawyer. If a patient asks about a highly personal matter, such as a sexually transmitted disease, who will be reading the response to that message? “If you’re flippant about that, you could be creating liability for violation of physician-patient confidentiality,” he said.

No one denies that doctor-patient e-mail remains in an embryonic stage. Its use will increase, Kane suggests, when “every clinic puts up a Web site,” allowing doctors to “use e-mail to refer patients to sources of online education and other resources.”

Dr. Douglas Fridsma, a fellow in medical informatics at Stanford University, sees patients, rather than doctors, as the driving force leading to the widespread adoption of e-mail as an accepted form of communication between doctors and patients.

“As more and more people get online, they’re going to choose physicians who have e-mail,” Fridsma predicted. “That’s how I chose my personal physician. That’s the way I communicate with most people.”

Tech, Writing

I’m starting to use a standing desk


20130104-180306.jpg Enough sitting. I want to stand while I’m working. That’s the concept, at least. I’m experimenting with a Furinno Multi-functional Portable Desk, which my wife bought for about $50. It wobbles a bit, but not too much, and it’s definitely portable and adjustable — two things I really like about it. After all, I do a lot of my work — my writing — on a MacBook, and I need something I’m able to move around the house. If you’re looking for more advice on standing desks, here’s an article with 15 ideas for buying or building one.

Distracted Living, Tech

My efforts to get control of my email through filters

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gmailI get too much email. Yes, I’m not alone in this — many of us are deluged by email. But over the past several years, I’ve becoming increasingly fed up with the email cramming my inbox. I either avoid it, or I stare at it and think, “How can I ever get through this?” It feels like a to-do list that I never created. It just happened.

My solution? Filter messages. Ruthlessly.

There’s nothing novel about creating filters to get a handle on email. People have done this for years. I even wrote a column on email filters and how to use them, back in 2006. And while I created filters for myself years ago, within Gmail, I decided about a month ago to take my filters even further — much, much further — in an effort to avoid having anything other than personal messages in my inbox.

That’s right: I want only email from people, preferably friends and colleagues, in my inbox. No bills. No appointment reminders. Nothing but personal messages in my inbox.

To do this, I used Gmail’s filtering tools (and its labels) to filter messages into folders (well, Gmail calls them labels) with names like “meetups,” “events,” “linked-in,” “facebook,” “reminders-etc,” and so forth.

This is, admittedly, a way to ignore things by avoiding looking at them.

And it’s working for me.

It’s relatively simple to do, especially if you decide, over the course of a month or so, to filter any and every message that comes into your inbox that is not a personal message. That means you don’t avoid the message. You don’t delete it. You filter it. Yes, that’s right: Leave it in your inbox until you’ve created a filter for it.

And Gmail makes creating filters quite easy. I usually filter things by the sender, but sometimes I do it by content appearing in the message. There’s one feature I really like: If you go to Gmail’s settings, and then to Labels, you’ll see that you’re able to set things up so that you only see the folders on your Gmail homepage when you have new/unread email (just select the “show if unread” option for the label from Settings > Labels). I like that quite a bit, largely because it allows me to ignore things unless there are unread messages. And I don’t even see the messages unless I select the folder. What’s more, when I look at email on my iPhone, I don’t see any of those messages — that is, the messages in folders — because I just look at my inbox.

The upshot? My email is under control. Right now, it’s got just three messages in there — two from my wife, another from a photography publication looking for writers.


My technology wish list for 2013

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I’d really like a smartcamera running iOS, Apple’s operating system for iPads and iPhones. I’d like foolproof cloud computing. I’d like backups I don’t have to think about, at all. Those are just some of the items in my technology wish list for 2013, published in my last column from 2012.

As I wrote, “This list isn’t really about shiny new toys. If there’s a theme to my list, it’s the idea of refining today’s cutting-edge technologies — the ones you might not yet have purchased because they’re not quite there yet — and making them into hassle-free, everyday tools you don’t even need to think about to use.” Here’s the column as a PDF.