Latest Posts
Book Reviews
Petit guide de survie en belgique fédérale
The Metamorphosis
La démocratie des crédules
La crise: des subprimes au séisme financier planétaire
L'implosion: la finance contre l'économie, ce que révèle et annonce la
Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future
You Have to Fucking Eat
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
The Playground
Une nation nommée narcisse
Krishnamurti et l'individualisme
Croyances et imaginaires contemporains
Feet of Clay
Contribution à la critique de la philosophie du droit de Hegel
Les Fatwas de Charb, tome II: Petit traité d'intolérance
Vers une laïcité dynamique
Follow me on…

Photo or Video ?

About twelve years ago, Philip Greenspun wrote this in an article about "old" cameras:

If you have or inherit an extensive manual-focus system, you should get the bodies professionally cleaned and adjusted and then enjoy the system for another decade or two. After that, we'll all probably just be using high-resolution video cameras and picking out interesting still frames.

Freeze frames good enough to pass as photos? I was doubtful at the time, but look at this picture from my second New York post:

It isn't really a photograph in the usual sense, but indeed a still from a movie. Could you tell? Even in the low light of Washington Square at dusk, a 5DmkII movie freeze frame is good enough to pass as a photo on the Web.

But that's the Web. Surely this doesn't apply to serious photographs… or does it? Actually it does. A year ago, Esquire's cover was a still from a movie filmed expressly for the purpose of making a magazine cover. Arguably the Red One video camera used for this is too expensive for most photographers, but we're getting there.

So was Philip right? I'm still doubtful… For me, 99.9% of the time, filming and making stills are completely different processes. I just focus on different aspects of a scene when I'm capturing motion pictures. I think I'm far from alone in this: since the momentous Esquire cover, photographers have not exactly stampeded to video cameras, even those with the budget to do so. I'd guess they still believe that still cameras are still the best tools for taking still pictures. (No pun intended.) But maybe that's only their prejudice. We'll see. The quality certainly is there.


The iPad Review

I'm not entirely sure the world needs another iPad review, but since everybody who knows I have one apparently cares about my opinion, here it is.

Short Version

It's a fun device that very few people need but many will want. It has a few annoying quirks, some of which should be fixed in the next version, and it will not do everything a laptop does, but it does some things way better than any other device on the market today.


Given how intense the hype is, it's worth stating the fact that, as a piece of hardware, the iPad is almost entirely unremarkable. Yes it's a beautiful thing, and the screen is possibly the best-looking non-OLED display on the market, but all that is also true of the iPod touch. Because that's all the iPad is: a 10-inch iPod touch. Technically it would have made more sense to call it iPodXL, and a less marketing-savvy company would have done exactly that. Apple, however, knows marketing even better than it knows single-digit market share. So it named its new gadget "iPad" and introduced it as a completely different device: not an iPod, not a laptop, not a NetBook, but a solid slab of magic that will change your life, how people consume media, and the entire computing industry. As if a new name cold possibly turn an old horse into a young racing stallion.

Funny thing: apparently, it can. For the moment, it seems Apple has convinced just about everyone that its new iPodXL is a "game changer" and a "whole new category of mobile device" and "the future of computing", and every developer on earth is trampling his own mother to make it as one of the big fishes in a pond that didn't even exist until last week. This seems insane: people are investing enormous amounts of effort to "make it" in a platform that might itself be a total failure. Well, yes, it is insane, but it is happening, and judging from the apps that are available on day one, it is bound to make the device a success. Apple might have achieved a first in the entire industry: solving the chicken-and-egg problem before the device even came out.

So what can you do with a big iPod? When the iPad was announced, the first use I thought of was as a stylish way to present my portfolio. It is indeed absolutely awesome for that purpose. Photos look crisp and shiny, with great colors and shadow detail. They look better than on any magazine, any fine art paper, any iPhone or laptop or PSP, or in fact anything but a HDR reference monitor, and those aren't cheap nor pocketable. Downside is that the screen is also super-shiny, enough to be used as a mirror when it's turned off, and to make reflections distracting in some (reasonably rare) lighting conditions.

The touchscreen is also super responsive, even better than an iPhone 3GS. Battery life is excellent as reported elsewhere. All in all it's a big next-generation iPod, upgraded in just about every way.

I don't like the on-screen keyboard in portrait mode, but in landscape it is quite good. I took a typing test and scored 46 words per minute, which isn't too bad, but I can type twice as fast on a physical keyboard. Hopefully I'll get better at it with time, but I think there will always be a gap. The tactile feedback of a touch screen keyboard simply isn't as good as that of physical keys.


The most important thing about any hardware platform, however, is the apps it runs. Nobody buys Windows 7 for Windows Mail. They want to run Office, or SoftImage, or XMLSpy. Gamers bought Playstations because they were the only platform to run Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid. People buy Mac OS X for iLife and Motion and Aperture. What do apps look like on a big iPod?

I started this review saying the iPad was the ideal digital portfolio. It's true. If you're a photographer whose business depends on convincing people on the spot that you know what you're doing, you need an iPad – or one of the alternatives that, sadly, you can't buy yet. For the rest of the world, the big thing appears to be news.

The NYT Editor's Choice app is awesome. Not just slightly better than the web version, but miles better, even better than the dead trees edition. It combines the tactile pleasure of actually holding a newspaper with the vibrancy of photos on a backlit screen and adds the appeal of video content. It makes the Daily Prophet seem bland and unappealing. Many apps in that vein are also great: AP news, Reuters, BBC News, The Guardian's Eyewitness…

Games are probably a big deal. I don't play casual games much, but the ones I tried were nice. Scrabble is just perfect. So is Air Hockey. Simple, entertaining, fun. Fieldrunners and Plants vs Zombies are excellent ports from the iPod and gain quite a bit from the larger screen. I've also tried Red Alert, and I'm with gizmodo: if I don't see Starcraft for iPad soon, I'm going to bomb Blizzard HQ.

Google maps seems as much of a killer app as it was on the iPhone. There it was a nifty trick, a somewhat convenient way of finding the nearest Starbucks. The larger screen real estate, plus the higher specs and probably quite a bit of optimization work – the iPad version is so fast it feels like SeaDragon – makes you wonder why anyone would ever use a paper map again. It also appears to cache up more data than the iPhone version. While away from WiFi I was pleased to notice that I still had access to most of southern Manhattan.

Mail, iCal, Netnewswire, Twitteriffic all work well and are a significant step up from the iPhone versions. While I almost never read long passages on the iPhone, reading on the iPad is even better than on a desktop PC, so I find myself staying inside the apps a lot more.

I haven't tested iWork much, but I've read about the horrible syncing experience. Obviously Apple needs to do something about this, although it won't be trivial. The main reason iPhone OS is so easy to use is that it completely hides the hierarchical file system – a complex data type that only computer scientists and software developers really ever understood. Users don't forget to save their work because apps don't even bother with "saving" when they can simply bring you back where you were when you relaunch them. Users don't forget where they put their documents because they only have a single place to put them in – the app's "library". It's going to be tough to reconcile this no-filesystem model with multi-app multi-device syncing. However, it's clear that Apple's current model is an awful ugly evil kludge and that it needs to be replaced before people actually start syncing. Personally, I have a lot of experience with hierarchical file systems, so I wholeheartedly vote for a Documents folder on the device and Dropbox support, so that my iPad can automagically access the shared folders all my computers work on. Sadly, something tells me I'm not gonna win this one.

OmniGraffle is a gem. As long as there isn't too much text, diagramming is easier with multi-touch than on a traditional computer. I hope OmniFocus comes out soon, because I use it all the time and running iPhone apps on the iPad is completely unsatisfying. Drawing apps like SketchBook and Adobe Ideas in general are a real joy, even for someone like me, who can't draw a sheep to save his life. I can't wait for some version of Aperture to come along.

Many reviewers see this as only a content-consumption device. At the moment I would almost agree – all the "creative" apps are flawed or incomplete – but I think that's mostly because designing an interface for something like a twitter client is much easier than for a Photoshop clone, and most developers still don't have access to the physical device, nor any experience designing apps for anything remotely similar to it. I'm pretty sure in the medium term we'll see great creative apps appear on the iPad.

Oh, and of course the big iPod happen to be a really good iPod. I watched the Daily Show while eating on the plane back. In comparison, the inflight entertainment system looked like something out of the 1950's.

Little Gripes

While it's a very good device overall, a few annoyances really scream "Version 1". There's the aforementioned file syncing. There's the lousy iBooks application, full of useless kitschy fake-wooden-bookshelves and gratuitous, time-consuming animations. The Kindle app is way better. There's the useless requirement that you sync the iPad with iTunes before ever using it.

The stupid dock is especially infuriating. It doesn't fit the iPad unless you remove the cover, which is difficult because of the really snug fit. Since the cover is so good that I never use the iPad without it, this makes the dock utterly useless. Even taking that aside, the Dock only has one 30-pin connector, so you have to choose between the AC adapter and the USB cable for iTunes sync. Since on USB the iPad only charges very slowly (on a MacBookPro) or not at all (everywhere else I tried), and it can't sync wirelessly, you can't simply dump the iPad on the dock and forget about it until the next morning, like you'd do with any other iPod. You have to wait for the sync to finish and then switch cables.

None of these are deal-breakers, but they could be solved with only a little thought, for example by using a special cord on the AC adapter with a USB plug at the end for syncing while you recharge. It is aggravating that the device was allowed to reach the market with such obvious quirks, especially for a product whose only selling point is superlative user experience.

But… it's a closed platform!

Isn't the iPad a closed platform? Isn't buying it condoning proprietary software and locked down hardware even though open alternatives exist? Isn't Apple an evil corporation bent on taking over the world?

YES! Of course it is. Apple wants its revenge from the battle it lost in the 90's, it wants to become the Microsoft of mobile computing and the Google of mobile advertising. It will do anything it can, within the confines of the law and what its users will tolerate, to dominate the markets in which it participates. There is nothing unusual or surprising about this: corporations usually grow or die, especially in highly competitive fields. The only unusual thing about Apple's Plan for World Domination is how surprisingly successful it's been over the last few years.

So Apple is locking out Adobe, patent-trolling Android, and screwing developers who use compatibility frameworks. Big deal. Google's "Don't be evil" statement is nothing more than a saying, and Adobe's revenue model isn't built on open standards. I don't always like Apple's policies, but I really can't get too worked up about them either.

As long as developers continue to work on the platform (and with nearly 200,000 applications on the iTunes Store that certainly seems to be the case) this closed approach has almost no downside for the end user. (Apple's claim that it has significant upside is debatable.) The iPad, anyway, isn't any more closed than a PSP or a Nintendo DS, and nobody's complaining about them.

Is this the future of computing?

Many fans say that, and I always wonder what they actually mean by "this".

All the world's computers are not going to be replaced by iPads overnight. If anything, you'd then lack a copy of iTunes to initialize the next iPad sold. So if "this" is the future of computing, "this" can't possibly be "this particular device as it is now."

Clearly multitouch interfaces will play a big role in the future. When Aperture came out, I thought the Light Table feature would be really great if only it didn't suck so bad – and indeed, like most Aperture users, I've barely ever created a Light Table album. The problem is that it's a great photo organizing concept that sadly doesn't work at all with a keyboard and mouse interface. When full-sized Macs get multitouch screens it'll likely become a lot more popular.

If "this" means intermediate devices between smartphones and full-fledged computers, then, well, yeah, I think such devices will become more popular in the future, but they've always been used to some extent – PocketPCs, Palm Pilots, Psions EPOC devices, and lately Netbooks have their shares of fans. Many things in the iPad remind me of the Psion Series 5, one of the best designs ever in my opinion. This thirteen-year old device had an app-centric UI, a well-hidden filesystem, did mostly without Load/Saves and allowed working for 15h on text documents away from AC power. Nearly ten years ago I did all my note-taking in college on a 5mx, the only device at that time, and for a good long while afterwards, with the combination of ergonomy and battery life to make this possible. Now I would likely use an iPad. I am sure many people will.

Should I buy an iPad?

I don't care. Luckily, there are a couple flowcharts online to help you.

Seriously though, it's a tough question, because unlike with the iPod or the iPhone, there is no clear narrative of what this thing is actually for. It's not a laptop replacement, or at least, it can't replace my laptop, although this guy seems happy. It's kind of a kindle replacement, although a kindle might be better if you do most of your reading in bright sunlight or away from AC power for days on end. Some people will buy it as a gaming machine. Others as a news reader. Others as a digital portfolio.

It really is a blank canvas, which is its main strength. It's entirely plausible that popular apps six months from now will be unlike anything we've ever seen. Right now, the iPad is not perfect, and nobody really needs it. Many will like it, though, and in the near future innovative applications will undoubtedly come out for it and similar devices. For computing, these are very interesting times indeed.


New York City, 2

I was amazed by the first 24 hours of this New York trip. Now that I'm back in Belgium, I might as well mention a couple of the moderately interesting events of the next three days.

On the subway I sat next to a perfect John Kerry-look wearing a kippah. At Brooklyn's Prospect park, a smaller version of Saddam Hussein was playing soccer against two girls. He looked about 7 years old so hopefully his mustache was fake. A few minutes later an elderly Hassidic Jew came towards me and asked, "Are you Jewish?". I said I wasn't. He had the vacant expression of those who devote their life to events that reportedly happened five thousand years ago, and his grasp on 21st century reality was obviously tenuous. Three minutes later he came back to me and asked, as if for the first time, "Are you Jewish?" I confirmed I wasn't and he walked away. Not five minutes later I noticed him edging back towards me and ran for cover. I wonder what he'd said had I said yes.

After about an hour working inside a Starbucks in Brooklyn, I got up and started packing. As I made my way for the door, one of the waitresses waved at me: "Bye Serge! Have an nice evening!" I had never been there before. Even though that was a Starbucks, no one had asked my name when I ordered. She got it off my credit card when I paid, remembered it for the next 50 minutes, and pronounced it right, just to be friendly to a client.

As I was sitting in the metro, a young woman, obviously not a tourist, sat next to me to study the system map on the train wall. During the next five minutes she asked me where we were, what stop that just was, what was the next one and what train we were on. She wouldn't tell me where she wanted to go, but her face turned increasingly confused and uncertain. At the third stop she muttered a small "damn" and crossed the platform to the train headed the other way.

As I left the subway, the guy next to me walked straight for the wall, lavishly vomited, then walked on as if he was perfectly fine and just going through his usual morning routine.

Later in the day I drifted towards Washington Square, where a rag-tag band of musicians were playing. They were maybe six acoustic guitars, four djembes and four singers, one of them with a stentorian voice and heaps of charisma. They just finished "On the road again" and launched into "Hotel California". Well I'll be damned if that wasn't the best cover of Hotel California I've ever heard. And they weren't even a band. Just a couple people with instruments who gravitated towards the Square because that's the kind of thing they do on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

As awesome as the show was, I was famished so I repaired to a Pakistani restaurant on a side street. As I emerged an hour later, the impromptu band was gone, but a bit farther down the square was a trio playing what I can only describe as atonal jazz fusion. Let me repeat that: atonal jazz fusion. On a city square. And people were watching, often with interest. (The band was good. Of course.) At some point they took a break and started talking about interesting prog-electronica bands with a couple of passersby.

I can't get it into my head that, in New York, there is nothing at all remarkable about any of these stories. That this is a city where there are plenty of bands playing everywhere, nearly all of them really good, some happening to be into atonal jazz. Bill Bryson says about the beautiful Flemish city of Bruges that he can barely believe actual people live there, see those buildings and walk those streets everyday. I feel something like that about New York. There's something unreal about this place, which makes it hard to picture people merely living there, having breakfast and then walking these streets, every single day. I wonder how long it takes for them to get used to it and stop being excited about taking a walk. I have to say that after ten years in Brussels, my excitement factor there is running pretty low. And Brussels is still a far more exciting place than, say, Bloomington, Indiana. Only last decade I saw a good street band in the Sacred Isle.

And I guess that's the main reason I love New York: things happen there. Everybody knows why New York is a great global city: most populous urban centre outside Asia, setting for Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock, birthplace of hip hop, punk, disco, home to the most respected journal in the world, the biggest financial hub on earth and the siege of the United Nations… you know, those little things. New York also has a number of perks that make it especially appealing to me personally. A great subway system, cheap Japanese food, polite waiters who can pronounce my name and the ability to purchase a MacBook at four in the morning are only the first that come to mind.

And yet you could remove all of that, take away all the cultural grandeur and global influence, and then turn the convenience dial all the way down to, well, "France" I guess, and New York would still be an unbelievably awesome city. Because, well, lots of interesting things happen there. And for my money's worth, that's the highest ideal a city should aim for.

More photos here.


The iPad Launch

On Saturday morning, Apple launched the iPad, which in Europe would be quite a small thing, only important to techies and geeks. Not so in New York.

It made the cover of Newsweek, TIME magazine, and the New York Times every single day that I was there. At quarter past eight, forty minutes before opening time and official launch, the whole plaza in front of Apple's Fifth Avenue store was already crowded. A dozen news vans were parked in front. About two hundred people were standing in line, which made absolutely no sense because Apple had taken reservations, so the only benefit you got from being among the first people inside the store was the ability to brag that you were among the first people inside the store. I had breakfast and came back at five to nine. The line had more than doubled and was overflowing onto the sidewalk. Apple employees were being scolded by other shops' security guards because they were about to open and the fanboys were blocking their door.

Shortly after I joined the line, the shop opened with a sonorous countdown started by Apple employees and quickly joined by everyone else. The first hundred people or so walked in under the applause of all employees, as if they had just won the World Cup or something. It must be Apple's way of thanking those who do their marketing and evangelizing and beta testing pro bono. Apple employees did a wonderful job of handling the crowd and it only took about half an hour before I walked in, and three minutes more before I had my iPad in hand. I stayed inside the shop for a while taking advantage of the free WiFi to set the iPad up and sync it. People were everywhere, testing the demo iPads, buying and unboxing their own. A couple video crews were making the rounds and interviewing people. I got asked seven times if the iPad in my hand was actually mine and whether I liked it…

This was something I would eventually get used to: for the next three days, I couldn't use the iPad anywhere without someone joining me, asking me how I liked it, and telling me they were thinking of getting one. And I mean everywhere, not just the Starbucks facing the Apple Store, but the sushi bar in Greenwich and the burger joint and the pakistani deli and the coffee place in Brooklyn.

I read in USA Today that on Fifth Avenue a few people started queuing up Friday at 4PM and waited there for seventeen hours just to be among the first to enter the store. That's not too surprising: in a city of 20 million there's bound to be a few nuts. What startled me was that everybody knew about the launch, and most actually cared. Apparently all New Yorkers are gadget freaks, and mostly Apple freaks at that. From what I can tell, there are more iPhones and Droids and NexusOnes on the streets of New York than in a European web entrepreneurs' meeting. I bet the iPhone has a bigger market share in NY right now than Nokia ever had anywhere.

At noon on easter sunday, 28 hours after the iPad launch, there was still a sizable queue at the entrance of the Apple store. It had long since ran out of iPads, but apparently there still wasn't enough room inside for all the people whose only desire on this glorious, absolutely perfect, sunny holiday was to bury themselves underground and try out a device they could not even buy for the next few weeks. People are weird sometimes.

More photos here.


New York City

‘The intern said he had never lived in New York City, and asked me what it was like. I didn’t really have a good answer, but I said, “New York is the kind of place where ten things happen to you every day on the way to the subway that would have qualified as interesting dinner conversation in Bloomington, Indiana, and you don’t pay them any notice.”’

From Joel Spolsky's Introduction to Best Software Writing I

You can always expect people to rave nonsensically about their hometown. Usually they're just ignorant bigots. Sad, but that's life. Sometimes however, they're actually right, and that's when it becomes really irritating.

I'm in New York for the week-end. Around lunchtime, while looking for a good Deli, I saw a priest wearing a $2000 Armani jacket over his frock. He was more than ridiculous, he was a walking insult to good taste, and very probably christianity – although I wouldn't know much about that.

Earlier in the morning I saw a rundown hippie trip and fall upon the dogs he was walking– the biggest, meanest great danes I'd ever seen. I was sure the dogs would panic and drag the poor guy into incoming traffic, but they only looked at him with haughty condescension – not an expression that comes easily to a breed of dog with misshapen ears and overactive salivary glands.

As the evening fell, I passed the Versace store on fifth avenue, where two grossly overweight women were gazing at the predictably anorexic mannequin and arguing on which dress would look best on them.

Had dinner in an Irish pub which proudly welcomes UN workers from the neighborhood. Heard conversations in languages I didn't even recognize. Four different languages I didn't recognize. Oh, I also shook hands with Homer Simpson. And I haven't been here 24 hours.

What's amazing about all these little stories happening around me is that I am not even remotely trying to have an interesting time. I am proofreading a big project proposal and thus spend most of my time in front of a computer, working. But for the facts that I'm doing this in various Starbucks instead of at home, and that I'm sharing a dorm with 11 men I have never met, this could be just another day at the office.

At one point I came across an alternative-looking clothing shop and went for a quick look inside. It was full of rock-and-roll paraphernalia. Old amps. Posters. Alice Cooper's gold and platinum records.

The shop belongs to John Varvatos, a designer from Detroit who recently made it big selling rock-and-roll-inspired quality clothes. He apparently designed many of Cooper's stage outfits and hired him to showcase his current line – in return he got the trophy records as a gift.

As I chatted with the saleswoman, she told me the shop's whole story: it was formerly known as the CGBG club, and the birth place of Punk Rock. The Ramones played there before they were famous. A couple years ago though it was only a shadow of its former glory, and tenants wanted to close it down. Enter John (Varvatos), who walked by it in broad daylight, gazed inside, and thought he could turn it into an underground-looking fashion store with very little work. So he did. It looks awesome. It even has a stage where live concerts happen from time to time.

I was fascinated. And rather shocked that I was only discovering the guy then and there. An award-winning fashion designer who buys run-down Punk Rock clubs and hires Alice Cooper as a model strikes me as someone I should have heard of. But I had not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a platinum record up close either. But now I have. Just because I took a random walk in the east village looking for AC power and a latte.

I love this place.

More photos here.

Page 1 ... 7 8 9 10 11 ... 18 Next 5 Entries »