elasticrat still going

Curated Socks

“Wait. Evernote sells socks?”

I am fascinated by the Evernote Market.

The free form note taking service has become an invaluable part of many people’s daily life. I’ve started and stopped using it many times since the beginning but recently it has managed to worm its way into my daily workflow and take up one of the precious four dock positions on my iPhone.

I’ll write more about the apps later, but recently Evernote added an entirely ancillary feature that I find irresistible. Evernote is a freemium product and you can happily use it for free until its so useful that the $45 premium membership will seem like a steal. But if Evernote’s business is selling premium memberships to its most dedicated users then why is there a promoted link throughout the product to their new e-commerce site, Evernote Market?

Obviously many users of the note-taking features never upgrade to a Premium account but could potentially be enticed to buy something useful like a knapsack or notebook. And if that was all Market was — a kind of Amazon wish list — then it would be pretty boring, and probably not all that profitable.

But once I dug into the items for sale I was surprised and, yes, giddy. Evernote has carefully partnered with some of the most interesting physical goods makers in the world and got them to agree to make special versions that are cobranded. But this is no put your logo on a coffee mug level schwag. Rather it’s beautiful stuff that you would have discovered on your own if you were hip and Pinterested enough.


Here Evernote is the voice of the trusted friend, “Try this. You are going to love it.”

And they’ve done a great job of choosing what to feature and what to leave out. I can sense the care that has gone into each partnership from the YouTube video and from the fact that each featured product is so interesting. This collection makes me feel the same mix of shopping lust and design appreciation as when I read the detailed reviews on Minimally Minimal.

So what did I buy from the Evernote Market? You’ll see soon!

Dr. Hubert Nasse Teaches Optics

Recently Zeiss has been killing it in the "best lens at this focal length I've ever used" department. The Zeiss 55mm Otus is so good I've been tempted to get a Nikon mount body just to use it. (And now the 85mm is here too...)

I've been watching a few interviews with Zeiss optics engineer, Dr. Hubert Nasse and they are a great introduction to lens design. It's well worth watching all of them, but beware the urge to buy new glass!

Be sure to watch to the end of Matt Granger's interview when they discuss how big the ultimate 35mm lens would be if you were willing to use it on a tripod.

On the Design of the Otus 1.4/55

Matt Granger's interview with Dr. Nasse

Promotional Video for the Nokia N8

It's interesting the how, for Zeiss at least, Dr. Nasse has become the Jony Ive of lens designs.

One thing I am happy about however, even though I don't have any Otus lenses, is that the best lenses in the world, now from Zeiss and Leica, are all manual focus. Schadenfreude? Maybe, but it makes me happy.

The Twins

This is the year that iOS and Android got close.

For a long time they have been distinct. You would never have mistaken one for the other and you always knew which one you wanted to spend the night with. But now... Now it's not so clear.

It's funny that both companies couldn't resist taking jabs at the other during their main event developer keynotes. Android making fun of Apple for only now getting widgets and Apple jibing Android for being open to a mess of malware. And then in the next breath both introduced their own new features that the other already had.

This was the year that both operating systems caught up with their biggest competitor. iOS got connectivity between apps, extensions, and smarter notifications. Android got a clean and opinionated design language. Both landed simultaneously on watches, fitness, cars, and home control.

I don't think this is copying or aping the other guy. It feels like both camps have had this obvious long to do list for years but only now have the platforms become mature enough and their respective parents big and rich enough, that they've been able to deliver these luxuries.

And make no mistake -- these new features are luxuries. They are nice to have and are aimed at weaving these ever more complicated operating systems into the fabric of our lives. Both companies know that the way to win is to be hard to leave. Once your home is controlled by your Android or your drive to work is driven by your iPhone, once your visit to the doctor involves pulling our your phone, will you be less likely to switch to the other guy come upgrade time?

The twins are betting on it.

Rule Breaking Cameras

Cameras are a funny business.

More than most other areas of consumer engineering, camera design is a clear lesson in the trade-off.

We all wish for a camera with a giant sensor that can also take tiny lenses. With a built in EVF but no bigger than a pack of cards. With a battery that lasts all week but with a big, bright LCD screen on the back.

We want it all.

And while the smartphone industry has quickly converged on a design that is a thin slab of glass with the trade-offs being limited to screen size and the power of the little computer inside, the camera business is still something of a free for all.

Witness the reaction to the newly announced Leica T. I'll have more to say about that later, but it's interesting how angry some folks are when a company that they will never buy from tries a new combination of trade-offs.

The effort to create a camera that does everything well leads to the middle pack of me too products that are all more or less the same (modulo the current state of the components - sensors, batteries and cpus - that go into them). That's why it's especially exciting and interesting when some companies choose trade-offs that are far from balanced.

The Sigma Merrill DP cameras are one such "off the deep end" product.

The Merrill DP breaks a lot of camera rules. First off they use a completely unique sensor - the Foveon sensor - a sensor so different that there is no agreed on way to say how many megapixels it actually captures.

Secondly Sigma sells the Merrill with a fixed lens. Unusual in the camera market but not unheard of right? But wait! There are actually three different DP Merrill's, each identical except for the fixed focal length lens attached. The established wisdom among photographers who change lenses at all (a dying breed) is that you should carry three focal lengths - a wide, medium and long - and that's all you'll ever need.

The Sigma DP Merrill has a better idea: buy three copies of the same camera with different lenses! Not as crazy as it sounds since many professional photographers know they don't have time to fiddle with changing lenses and just carry multiple bodies instead. But for a consumer camera this was a particularly ballsy move. And at around $900 each you could buy all three and not have spent more than a lot of other systems with three lenses.

So of course I had to try. I rented the DP3 from LensRentals and it soon arrived (along with two batteries on account of the battery life being so short for these cameras - they aren't kidding - charge and carry both!).

The rental unit had been set to record only jpegs, presumably because the only way to convert the raw Foveon files is with Sigma's own, awkward, software. The jpegs were ok but I was not blown away. Once I realized that I wasn't even shooting RAW things changed considerably.

Every negative thing you will read online about these cameras is true - they are slow, and awkward, and the ergonomics are sub par. But the images from the DP3 (which is a 75mm field of view) blew me away and had a look that is pretty unique.

The lenses on the Merrills combined with the Foveon (custom paired for each sensor after all) are bitingly sharp. And the colour rendition is a sort of dreamy, painterly like thing that's hard to replicate with other systems. The best I can say in words is that the files feel both sharp and yet not clinical at the same time.

Next I tried converting the files to black and white and this was even more amazing.

Something about the Foveon sensor leads to especially snappy b&w conversions with little need to fiddle with the S-curve to increase contrast.

Sigma knows that these cameras are special and nearly unusable. They have gathered a faitful following of photographers who use them in spite of themselves. Sigma's answer to that is the Sigma DP Quattro coming this summer.

I can hardly wait.

Immutable URLs

In many computing languages there is the concept of the immutable object. An object that once created cannot be changed. You can copy it and make a new version that is different, but the original is forever the same.

Compare this to the contents of any web page. You follow a link to a blog post and if you are lucky the post is there, just as it was the day the author created it. But just as likely, the link is broken and goes nowhere. Or the author has changed the contents (or at least the presentation) or simply moved it to a different place.

Blogs are abandoned, services go out of business or are aquired, authors lose interest, lose faith, and sometimes simply die. And although the URL, that universally unique permutation of characters, remains, the content it pointed to is lost.

This is only going to get worse.

Services like The Wayback Machine and to some extent Google, do their best to cache content for later retrieval long after its steward has become negligent. But mostly the host, whoever that is, simply turns off the server or doesn’t renew their account and it’s gone.

Who hasn’t experienced this themselves? Think of your first ever blog post or photo upload to the internet. Is it still online? Is it even still on your hard drive?

And so we are left with a Web that was brilliantly conceived to be simple and yet suffers from a kind of computer science-ism: everthing is just a pointer. A URL is nothing more than a pointer to some content that may or may not still exist.

I think this is one of the reasons the web is careening towards a mostly closed and hosted world where we leave our content to others not because we totally trust them to be good stewards forever but because they are very likely better stewards than we are! Facebook may not be around in 50 years but it is highly likely that anything I post there will outlast anything I post on a blog that I host myself.

I can abandon my Foursquare account for two years and come back to happily find all my check-ins still there, quietly waiting for my return. Even disabling my Facebook account only hides the contents until I return to my senses and reactive them. Say what you will about Facebook, but they are a great protector of my data’s longevity.

Is there a solution for the open web?

What if URLs were immutable? What if once content was posted to a URL (maybe a new kind of URL, the immutable IURL) it could never be changed? The contents of the site and the URL itself would be hashed together and out would come a key that could never be altered. Not even the theme and styling of the page could be rebranded. It would be frozen like Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

I think most would say that would be ridiculous. A step backwards. But think for a moment about your first ever blog post. Sure would be interesting to go read that today exactly as it was then.