Archive for September, 2008

Thu 18 Sep 2008 9:43 pm   //   Posted in: Art, Videos

Another video about photography

Here’s a link to a video I made today at work.

Not my best effort, but it was done on a very fast turnaround… Shot this morning, online by 5:30. This time I stay off camera and read narration from a script. Also, this was my first time shooting in widescreen. Didn’t go so well. As things are set up now, it’s waaaay simpler to keep everything in 4:3.

Wed 17 Sep 2008 7:20 am   //   Posted in: Technology

Soon we’ll all be in HD

I’ve been watching the new cameras come out. The HD video revolution that we’ve been predicting is almost here.

What am I talking about? The experience of sitting in front of a computer screen, putting on headphones, and watching a crystal-clear high-def video is dazzling. It is not just an incremental upgrade, it is a whole new way of communicating. A news report, an entertainment clip, a video blog or a family movie becomes a rich, immersive experience when presented in a super-sharp motion picture. It’s also (and this is key) fun and satisfying to shoot and share videos. But until recently, the technology to create good videos was prohibitively expensive. No more. The next good camera you buy will probably be capable of shooting digital video as good as or better than the programs you watch on TV. No tapes, no DVDs, just a chip. Computer hardware is catching up fast to process and store all this video. And broadband speeds are nearly fast enough to deliver HD video in real time over the Internet.

What are the last pieces to fall into place?

First, file formats are a mess. You camera, your video editing software, and your Web browser all speak in different formats, and each time you convert from on to the other, you waste time and suffer a loss in quality. Somebody has to fix this. Also, audio is still too hard.

Second, there’s no easy way to store and share HD video online. If you have server space, you’re halfway there. But since most consumers don’t, we’re going to need an HD YouTube, or a Flickr with a serious video capability, or some new service out there in The Cloud.

Third, will our Internet have the capacity to handle all this extra traffic? Probably. All previous predictions that new demands would slow down or crash the Internet have been wrong. Of greater concern is that people are taking a jump backwards in speed, accessing the Internet through 3G cell phones or WiFi access when they travel. Wireless speeds are still too slow to deliver high-quality video. And Web sites are being designed accordingly. We may see everything split neatly into two content streams – one for broadband, one for wireless.

I think we’ll have solved all these problems in about four years. Then things will start to get amazing. Get ready. If I ran a media company, I would start building a super-awesome platform for delivering video reports, and training every journalist to shoot and edit HD video. (Hint: You’re going to want a tripod.)

Tue 16 Sep 2008 7:40 am   //   Posted in: In the news


I heard an unkind (and probably false) rumor yesterday about John McCain’s health.

First thought was: I wonder if the Obama people are behind this rumor.

Second thought was: I wonder if the Palin people are behind this rumor!

Mon 15 Sep 2008 7:17 am   //   Posted in: Hard times, It's a trap!

Sell! Sell! Sell!

So this is what they’ve been doing with our 401(k) money. Raise your hand if you regret ticking the “moderately aggressive” box.

Sun 14 Sep 2008 10:01 am   //   Posted in: Travel, TV, Videos

Space Disk: Totally cancelled

Proof that we still haven’t exhausted the humor potential of the Unisphere:

(More from SNL… Of course you’ve already seen Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, right?)

Sat 13 Sep 2008 9:08 pm   //   Posted in: Failure, Transit

We deserve a better rail system

Regarding the Metrolink crash near Los Angeles….

A grisly accident like this is an unfortunate blow to public transportation. It cost at least 25 lives, according to news reports, and will scare some riders away from trains. It should be a wake-up call that the West Coast badly needs to upgrade its passenger rail infrastructure.

The crash in California is being blamed on human error: An engineer failed to stop for a red signal. But this kind of wreck could only have occurred because of California’s clunky, obsolete train system. On this route, two trains in opposite directions were routinely running on the same stretch of track. Why the singletracking? Because a tunnel, dating to the early 1900s, was never made wide enough for two trains. Obviously it is possible to operate a railroad safely with this limitation. But it means slower trains and a greater risk of catastrophe due to human error.

In a first-class rail system – like the electrified passenger trains in most of Europe, or the Northeast Corridor in the U.S. – trains in opposite directions can be segregated to separate tracks. These modern rail lines are also engineered to avoid grade crossings, passing above or below the cars on the street. Some also have technologies to stop a train even if an engineer fails to heed a signal. But in the rest of the U.S., passenger trains have been on life support since the 1950s. Most passenger lines (including the Metrolink commuter trains) have to share track with freight trains and to contend with grade crossings. California, despite its good environmental record, is still a state totally ruled by the automobile. It deserves a substantial investment in improving its trains.

Sat 13 Sep 2008 9:00 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Videos

The jester and the pundits

Maybe you’ve already seen the clip below. I first saw it on CNN International when I was in France. It aired Sept. 3 and went viral – Comedy Central says it has been viewed over 2.7 million times online. Public service television from The Daily Show:

Fri 12 Sep 2008 8:18 am   //   Posted in: Photos

Omaha Beach, 1944 and 2008

Last week I stood barefoot on the soft sands of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. I tried to match the angle of Robert Capa’s famous photograph of the soldier emerging from the waves during the first wave of the 1944 invasion. I consider myself cynical about war, not a war history buff, but while in Paris I felt compelled to take a day trip to tour the D-Day battlefields. I found it powerfully moving. Imagine: We fought because we had to.

Thu 11 Sep 2008 8:05 am   //   Posted in: Failure

Build this ugly building already

Freedom Tower

I am sure the terrorists didn’t realize they were attacking New York at a time when city and state bureaucracy was completely logjammed. In retrospect, The Port Authority should have immediately dug out the blueprints from the 1970s and started putting the towers back where they stood. They could be up by now, symbols of hope and defiance. But what really happened? A developer produced drawings of buildings even more boring than the World Trade Center, and sat on the land for seven years while a tangle of quasi-government authorities churned out delays and excuses.

If you haven’t seen Ground Zero and are curious about what the site looks like now, I recommend the photos shot by my friend Mark Lennihan, who has been covering the redevelopment for the AP. You can see some of his aerials this week on The Big Picture (check out photos 9-12, 16 and 17).

Wed 10 Sep 2008 8:35 am   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Transit, Travel

Viva Velib!

Last year when I went to Paris, the city had just installed the Velib bicycle sharing program. I was so amazed by this idea I couldn’t stop telling people about it. When I visited France last week, it was clear the system is still humming along, but some cracks in the infrastructure have started to appear. More about that in a minute. First, here’s the rundown on how it works.

In short: You walk up to a kiosk, tap a few buttons, and the computer unlocks a bike from an electronic rack. You can ride the bike as much as you want and return it to any one of hundreds of other racks just like it scattered around the city. The computer charges you a Euro or two (or nothing) depending on how long you use the bike, and charges you 150 Euro if you fail to return the bike at all. (The bikes are heavy, fat-tire cruisers with ugly fenders. You can buy a better bike for 150 Euro.)

Who pays for this? No, not taxes. Somebody had a great idea when the contract to manage Paris’s outdoor advertising came up for bid. To win this lucrative contract, companies were required to submit a proposal to create and operate a public bicycle program. Done!

In Paris I had a great time riding around on the Velib bikes. I also saw similar systems in action in Lyon (their Velo’v system was the model for the one in Paris) and Perpignan. These local bike-share programs have been so successful that they are rapidly spreading across Europe. Some U.S. cities have expressed interest. But before we deploy the bikes here, we need to avoid the pitfalls starting to crop up in Paris.

  • First, the system needs way more racks that bikes. Why? Because people tend to ride in the same direction at the same time of day. When I was zipping around Paris last Monday, I found that all of the bike stations near the center of the city were full. I spent about half an hour looking for a station that had an open hitch. The kiosks can display a map showing you where the nearest open bike rack is, but it’s confusing. This problem really gums up the works.
  • Second, the payment system in Paris and Lyon seems needlessly complicated. Most riders buy a special card online, which is mailed to them. Visitors can buy a temporary card right at the kiosk using a credit card. (But only the European kind with a built-in chip. Curiously, the only card in my wallet that worked was my American Express card, and it only worked in Paris.) Perpignan has a much more elegant system. You go online and use your credit card to register for an ID number, which you punch into the kiosk to unlock a bike. (Mine was a four-digit number less than 2,000.) Use it once or use it forever; there’s no card to carry. So simple. I also found the BIP bikes in Perpignan to be better to ride – smaller and lighter, but still sturdy.
  • Third, the system should let the users choose the bikes they want. That was my one gripe with the Perpignan bikes. Sometimes people return damaged bikes to the racks, or bikes with flat tires. The Paris and Lyon systems let you choose the best bike yourself, but the Perpignan system assigns a bike to you.
  • And finally, these bike systems just wouldn’t work in some American cities. Snow and ice – and road salt – would destroy these bikes. That rules out most of the East Coast and Midwest. It has to be a compact city, so forget places like Los Angeles and Miami. What’s left? I’m thinking Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and mid-size southern cities like Austin and Savannah. Let’s make it happen!

(Photo shows a guy waiting for a space to open up at a Velib rack outside the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris.)