Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

Fair Phones & Mobile Woes [#46]

I’ve had my current Sony Xperia for nearly three years, which is a good run, but it’s definitely starting to show its age. First of all the headphone jack broke; it still works, it just doesn’t know when you plug something in. The first time this happened I had it fixed, the second was just out of warranty so instead I’ve been using a software override (an app called Soundabout) for the last two years whenever I want to use headphones. Irritating, sure, but manageable. The next thing to die was the camera. It has become quite scratched (which is my fault for not using a case) and has now fogged up on the inside lens and crystallised, leaving photos looking like they’re taken through a piece of cling film. Still manageable but I wouldn’t want to use it as an actual camera any more. The battery has been slowly dying for the last year, possibly because of an increase in general usage, but it’s at the point where the charge can suddenly disappear over a matter of hours. Finally, the memory is full. Despite having an expandable SD with 64GB of space, mostly unused, the core phone memory of 16GB has hit maximum. I’ve moved everything I can to the SD card, uninstalled a lot of apps but still I’m hovering around the 15GB mark and the phone behaves like it, lagging and generally crawling through tasks.

The problem is, I hate upgrading my phone. Part of that is just how used to the Xperia I am. I know all of its quirks and special features, I can navigate the menus with only the slightest of glances and have it setup just so for my particular tastes. The other part is that it feels so wasteful. Yes, the phone has seen better days, but it still ostensibly works. What’s more, the environmental impact of smart phones is pretty scary. Taken together, no matter how much I love new toys, I try to make my mobiles last as long as possible.

Which brings up another issue: what to replace it with. Because I want my phone to last several years and don’t plan on upgrading constantly it needs to be future-proof, durable and also something I will enjoy using. That means it needs to have all the functions I want, stuff like NFC and a good camera, whilst also being comfortable in the pocket and hand, easy to use with good software, and also look good. The last point feels shallow but if you think something is well designed I believe it makes using the device feel that much more fun. Unfortunately, the mobile phone market appears to have become incredibly stale over the past few years. With the exception of biometrics, which I’m completely nonplussed by, there really haven’t been any exciting new innovations in the field and, from a design point of view, your options are iPhone rip-off (square, thick bar top and bottom, black and mild bevel) or Samsung rip-off (curved, all screen, no bevel). I was hoping the release of the iPhone X would shake the market up a little, but instead the only talking point is more biometrics and whilst the design is no longer classic Apple, ironically, it now looks like a Samsung rip-off instead. Repetitive and boring design coupled with an increasing trend to get rid of core requirements for daily use, like headphone jacks and expandable memory, and honestly I haven’t been this unexcited by the phone market in almost a decade.

Part of that lack of excitement is knowing where I had hoped the industry would be by this point. When I picked up the Xperia it was with a mindset that this would be the last ‘fixed’ smartphone I would ever own. At the time, the web was buzzing with news about projects like Project Ara and Puzzle Phone. The future of mobile was modular, focused on handsets that could be tweaked and customised to meet an individual’s requirements. Phones would be easier to upgrade, modify and fix, leading to much less e-waste and, hopefully, lower upfront costs. That lower barrier of entry could have even created a large third-party landscape of modular accessories. We might even have phones with removable batteries again! Unfortunately that utopian vision has somewhat faltered and, with a couple of lacklustre exceptions, the modular ecosystem has utterly failed to reach consumers.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw an advert for a fairly different kind of phone (hehe). The “FairPhone”, on paper, is a perfect fit for me. It’s ecologically sensitive, designed with environmental principles at the core of the process and actually has a modular design. They are selling genuinely interesting ‘upgrade’ modules, like better cameras, proving that the concept works. Had I picked up the FairPhone 2 at launch I would now be looking at an upgrade cost of only about £70 to get the latest specs, rather than around £400 to upgrade the whole device. Core specifications weren’t bad either. The FairPhone is designed to be maintained by anyone and last several years, so the chassis is deliberately aimed at durability. The screen seemed decent, it has a replaceable battery, headphone jack, duel SIM and large expandable SD slot. Even screenshots of the custom rolled Android OS looked solid.

But then I read some reviews and the dream screeched to a halt. First of all, whilst the specs are by no means awful they’re also far from top-end. The CPU and OS are already a generation or two behind, RAM is comparable to what I currently have and the camera has pretty awful output. The latter can be upgraded, as mentioned, but the base phone itself is already sitting in the price range of top-end competitors. It’s not quite as inflated as an iPhone, but it’s pretty far from good value for money. I realise eco-friendly resources and the R&D required for a modular layout will mean a higher price, but it’s a shame the price is top-end when the result is distinctly mid-tier. On top of which, it’s incredibly ugly, even if you go for a non-see-through case, and the battery is getting some pretty shoddy scores. There’s a lot to love about the FairPhone and I truly hope they continue forging ahead. Perhaps, with a couple more iterations under their belt, the price will drop or the quality will improve to match it. It’s definitely the most exciting phone on the market right now, but as tends to be the way with eco-tech the actual tech part leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Xperia has a few more months left after all.

Untapped Market [#31]

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching, and ultimately buying, a new camera. From an outsider perspective it might seem a little odd, as I already have a very good DSLR that, whilst by no means top of the line, still serves me very well. I love that camera and actively enjoy using it, but it does have a couple of issues.

First and foremost is the size. I can’t take a DSLR to a music concert, or on a night out, or even around to a friend’s house for a dinner party (well, I could take it to all of those occasions, but it would always be impractical or obnoxious or both). They aren’t the most practical cameras and they’re definitely conspicuous, so I also struggle to take photographs of people. That means we return from holidays to various locations with some pretty great shots of our food, the scenery we visited and any wildlife that stuck around long enough, but rarely anything of the culture or people we met. A large part of that is just me and what I feel comfortable with, but there’s also a practical side to having to carry so much gear.

There are a couple of other issues, too. Whilst my DSLR can be great in low light, it will never be able to get truly sharp, fast low light images without investing in some seriously expensive lenses. It’s also not the best camera in the world for shooting video. The 600D can shoot 1080p well enough, but has no image stabilisation and only manages a maximum 50fps. Whilst it can shoot in 24fps, making it perfect for fixed camera filming, as a travel video camera it isn’t ideal.

So that’s why I’ve bought a new camera. In the end I’ve stuck with Canon and plumped for the G7x Mark II. It’s an impressive camera, with some clever features, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it solves several of my issues: it’s small enough to go everywhere, robust enough to travel well, has enough zoom range to be flexible, shoots well in low light and has in-built multi-axis image stabilisation. It also has a couple of other nice video features, such as an internal ND filter and a time lapse mode. So far, I’m very impressed by the image quality and happy enough with the video (though haven’t given this a huge amount of testing). It has a couple of issues, such as lacking a viewfinder (which I’m struggling to get used to), a poorly designed battery release, partial incompatibilty with my Joby tripod and an insanely stiff mode wheel. Still, so far it hasn’t done anything awfully.

And yet, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not with my camera, not exactly at least, but with the market in general. With the rise and rise of Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, it baffles me that there remains no decent all rounder compact system for film and photography. Every major player has a couple of models seemingly aimed at that market, but none of them quite manage to tick all the boxes. The Canon lacks a viewfinder (ignoring the G5, which desperately needs an upgrade to match the specs of the G7x) and only has basic video modes; there’s no slow motion filming, no 4K and you still lose have to crop the sensor to achieve 1080p. The main rival from Panasonic, the LX15, appears to be a clear market leader on paper, boasting 4K, 100fps slow motion, time lapse videos, a larger maximum aperture, smaller crop factor and 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately, it performs far worse. Despite having a wider max aperture, the low light performance is better on the Canon and it may have a more advanced stabilisation system, but the Canon routinely out performs in tests. Plus, that crop factor is still not insignificant, the zoom range is only just sufficient and there’s no inbuilt ND or ability to add an external one (clever third party solutions aside). Nikon barely factored in my research, despite their Coolpix line being one of the longest running on the market. They achieve some of the features, such as 4K, but rarely manage to get the right sets of specs together to make much sense. Then there are the Sony rx100 series cameras. These have certainly dominated the market for several years, but they each have two major down sides: the price and the overheating. Sure, they can shoot 4K, ultra slow motion and have great glass which works well at low light (though not as well as the Canon), but they also cost twice as much and can only film in those settings for a seriously limited amount of time. These same problems persist even when jumping to 4/3 sensor mirrorless cameras.

So I’m left baffled. I want a good point and shoot that gives me the best specs across the board and is aimed at the Youtube generation. That means full RAW control, in both photo and video modes, so that I can tweak my output as much as needed. That means the basic level of video features that the likes of Casey Niestat and Peter McKinnon have made the entry level for Youtube, such as 100fps @ 1080p, 24fps all of the time and a decent wide angle crop. It means good image stabilisation, the ability to hook up tripods and external mics, a decent battery life and no overheating issues. It means a viewfinder, touchscreen, selfie rotation and NFC connectivity. But, for some reason, that camera doesn’t exist. I guarantee it would sell insanely well, but for some reason no one is making it. Perhaps, as the LX10 has shown, the tech just isn’t quite there yet? Or perhaps the big manufacturers are scared that making a camera too good will mean less people taking up the 4/3, APS-C or full frame alternatives? Whatever the reason, I really hope at some point in the future they manage to move past it and release the camera I want. Just not too soon – I just spent a whole lot of money and something that isn’t perfect. I don’t want to have to do that again any time soon.