Data Movage

Kevin Kelly of ‘The Technium’ recently posted a illuminating piece on the concept of “Movage“:

Digital continuity is a real problem. Digital information is very easy to copy within short periods of time, but very difficult to copy over long periods of time. That is, it is very easy to make lots of copies now, but very difficult to get the data to copy over a century. For two reasons:

1) Formats change. Because of rapid technological evolution the “language” which one storage media speaks can become obsolete (incomprehensible) in only a few years. Or the hardware that speaks that language becomes so rare, it cannot be accessed. Who can read the data on ten-year old floppy disks?

2) The storage medium itself can decay. Turns out that paper is much more stable over the long term than most digital media. Magnetic surfaces flake, peel, shatter. And the supposed durable CDs and DVDs aren’t very stable either.

Is there a solution to these unique problems posed by modern-day media?  Fortunately, Kelly’s essay also provides the answer:

The only way to archive digital information is to keep it moving. I call this movage instead of storage. Proper movage means transferring the material to current platforms on a regular basis — that is, before the old platform completely dies, and it becomes hard to do. This movic rythym of refreshing content should be as smooth as a respiratory cycle — in, out, in, out. Copy, move, copy, move.

As it turns out, without knowing about the concept of “movage”, I was already exercising it!  And today, when I look back, the only pieces of digital work I can access from my past 10-15 years are the ones I bothered to keep moving to current media formats…

Are you doing enough to keep your critical data moving?

Platform Power

I am a big believer in going against the grain… standing out in a crowd… rocking the boat… being “different”… In fact, this entire blog has been dedicated to writing about the “other” point of view!  Lately, however, I have become increasingly aware of the benefits of staying with the crowd, at least where Technology is concerned.

Allow me to explain:  Buy a not-so-popular mobile phone, and you find yourself stranded in situations when you need a charger and no one else can lend you one.  Sign up for an obscure email service and your friends and family will find it difficult to remember your email address.  Got a no-name MP3/MP4 player?  I’m not sure if it will read your music files without needing conversion!

Many of us must have dealt with some or the other version of the above.  The bottom-line is that there is comfort in numbers.  Not to mention, the “Network Effect” that kicks in!

It’s not a problem that plagues individuals, alone.  Apple has historically lost the “PC” war on account of not making its hardware and OS “open” to developers.  The result?  Microsoft came and swept the desktop world, with millions of small and big developers writing applications for a platform they could easily work with.  Sony lost the video-cassette battle to the VHS standard.  As a result, its superior Betacam format was restricted to a niche place in the industry.  Most recently, a fierce war is being fought over DVD standards with entertainment majors like Sony and Toshiba on opposite sides of the BluRay and HD bandwagons.  In each such case, there is major money to be made by the organization that backs the right horse… its survival may just depend on that decision.

For an individual like myself, this “platform power” yields some very powerful and exciting benefits.

A good example is the iconic iPod which has now spawned a whole world of related technologies (e.g. podcasting?) because of its sheer popularity.  Some of the gadgets I own, or services I subscribe to, are no different.

The bluetooth device I own (Jabra BT250) has worked seamlessly with the last six mobile phones I purchased.  The MP3 player in my car (iPod Nano) is loaded with podcasts from Harvard Business School and the NY Times TechTalk.  My blogging service (WordPress) sports widgets that integrate beautifully with my other subscriptions from industry-standards like Feedburner.   And, it doesn’t stop there… Even my state-of-the-art Digital SLR (Nikon D40) is designed to work with any Nikkor lens manufactured by Nikon since the 1970s!!!

Once you begin reaping the benefits of the “platform”, it doesn’t make sense going back, does it?

Over Load

Let’s face it. Emails will keep coming. Task lists will keep growing. More music will need to be ripped and more digital photos will need to be stored in the years to come than you and I can imagine. That’s why, I thought I should take the time to share with you some of the things that have helped me keep it manageable…

Not a day goes by when I don’t encounter examples of how this whole “information overload” thing is making Life difficult.  Whether its the Inbox at work or your digital photographs collection at home, just the task of organizing the information that’s relevant to you is becoming a task in itself!

Let’s face it.  Emails will keep coming.  Task lists will keep growing.  More music will need to be ripped and more digital photos will need to be stored in the years to come than you and I can imagine.  That’s why, I thought I should take the time to share with you some of the things that have helped me keep it manageable.

Inbox on a Diet

Most people I know use Microsoft Outlook at work.  And Microsoft, in all its wisdom, believes that one item can and should be archived only in one location – even if it’s just bits and bytes!  As a result, most folks create and maintain anywhere between 10 and 30 folders in their Outlook file, based on the assumption that finding it will be easier if its stored in the “right” folder.

This creates several problems : 1. You need time to figure out which is the right folder for every single mail at the time of receipt.  For a busy emailer like me, that includes over 100 emails I receive in a single day!  2. You also need to remember that same logic when you’re trying to retrieve that message, several weeks later.  3. You still believe that one message can only go in one right place!  So where is that important mail from the client on the Sales project you were working on – in Sales, Key Projects or the Client folder?

My solution : Just three folders – One each for Inbox, Saved, Archive.

“Inbox” is all your incoming mail and stuff you haven’t got to yet.  At any point in time, this one should have no more than a screenful of items (less than 25 in my case).  “Saved” is all the mail that you think you’ll need to refer to in the future.  This includes organizational announcements, policy changes, etc.  This is the stuff you don’t archive.  “Archive” is all the rest.  Really.  All the rest!

And, that sub-folder needs to actually be “archived” every single week, so that your Outlook mail store does not show 10,135 mails, slowing it down even more.  The archived folder – now in a separate file – can be accessed with just a few clicks, whenever you need to refer to it.  This is also where all the Sent mail goes, after the week is through.  The advantage?  No need to figure out what goes where, while storing or retrieving.  And, your Inbox stays clean and manageable, freeing you up to focus on the things that really need your attention.

Aim, Shoot and Store

A similar problem of data storage and retrieval exists on the home front with your burgeoning collection of digital photographs.  Hard disks and digital cameras have become dirt cheap.  As a result, shutter-happy enthusiasts find themselves at the wrong end of 3000-odd photographs in a short span of a year!  What’s the best way to manage them without spending too much time doing it?

I believe the solution lies in a simple folder-structure : Home, Away, Arty, Resized, Mobile, Inbox.

“Home” and “Away” signify where it was shot.  That means all vacation shots go into the Away folder, not in separate folders for each destination.  “Arty” is for all the experimental stuff you shoot, if you do!  “Resized” is any thing that you have reduced to a smaller size, to post on the Web or email to your family and friends.  “Mobile” is what you shoot from your mobile phone.  “Inbox” is what any body else sends you.  Make that, what “every” body else sends you!

Access any of the photos via the Thumbnail View on Windows XP or a later OS, or use nifty software like Picasa to view them, as needed.  If you really shoot a lot, create the same structure in parent folders for each year e.g. 2007_Pics.  Lastly, burn a CD of the parent folder every few weeks, as a backup.  That’s it.

Since moving to this structure, I have found that the time I spend on storing and retrieving my digital photos has come down by 90%.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend that time behind the camera!

I’ve tried to cover these two areas as I thought they would be most relevant to a large variety of readers.  If there’s any such thing that’s coming in the way of your work-life that you’d like to make more efficient, I’d love to hear about it.  May be, just may be, I will be able to offer some help…

Picture Perfect!

There are countless websites and articles out there on how to take better photographs. Some of them delve deep into technical specifications, while others focus on the Art of Composition. While I do not have the time or the inclination to add a great deal to what is already published on the subject, I do believe there exists a significant gap – How does one get better at photography? This post will attempt to answer that…

There are countless websites and articles out there on how to take better photographs.  Some of them delve deep into technical specifications, while others focus on the Art of Composition.  While I do not have the time or the inclination to add a great deal to what is already published on the subject, I do believe there exists a significant gap – How does one get better at photography? This post will attempt to answer that.

Both, amateur photographers and snapshooters, often find themselves at the confusing end of a number of basic questions : How do I get better at photography?  Is it my camera or is it me?  Wouldn’t I need an expensive camera to take better photographs?  How many megapixels do I really need?  etc. etc. etc.

Here is my take on these questions, based on hundreds of manhours of reading and practical experience of 10-odd years…

* How technical do I need to get?

Most people starting out in photography assume one or the other extreme – I don’t really need to know any of this stuff  OR  I need to master all the buttons on the menu.  The reality is that the camera is just a tool to capture light.  What’s more important is the “art” that only exists in your imagination… in how you perceive what you see.

That said, it will help if you know a bit about the following concepts, irrespective of the make or model of your camera of choice :

  1. Aperture – The size of the opening that lets in light
  2. Shutter Speed – The amount of time the aperture is open, to let in light
  3. Exposure Compensation – Telling the camera’s light meter to over/under expose as per need (also known as EV +/-)
  4. White Balance – Telling the camera what really is “white”: Tungsten bulb, Sunlight, Flourescent lamp or some other?
  5. ISO Sensitivity – Sensitivity of the film (or CCD, in case of digital) to register light

I should mention that the first three of these points are equally important for any serious photography, irrespective of the technology or format.  However, WB and ISO are critically important to the digital photography world as the electronic CCD imposes some limitations to the medium that did not need as much intervention when it came to film.

Once you’ve mastered these basics, you will be able to perform the “adjustments” and tweaks you need to improve your results.  But remember, these are technicalities.  As much as possible, leave the details of setting the right exposure, etc. to the camera so that you are free to focus on the Art.

* Megapixel is a Myth

Megapixel matters if you intent to print the photograph in large size formats.  It also helps if you are not so good at composition, and often find yourself “cropping” extensively merely to get the shot you really wanted!  (More megapixels will mean even the cropped-up image will have enough information for a decent print)  Otherwise, it does not really matter.

About 3 megapixels is all you’ll need for great A4 snaps.  6 MPs will be more than enough for an 8×12 print.  I have printed 8×10 sizes from a good 1.3 MP Canon!  Just google “megapixel myth”, if you don’t believe this.

* Does a more expensive camera mean better pictures?

Think about it – Does buying a Ferrari make you a better driver?  Or owning a Steinway make you a better pianist?  Then why would the same not hold true when it comes to photography?!

The fact of the matter is that a more expensive camera offers a richer feature-set… one that will let you work in a wide variety of complex (light) conditions.  To illustrate the point, a camera that offers a burst mode of 2.5 frames per second will let you take 2.5 shots in a second when you’re trying to capture that elusive dolphin-leaping-through-the-ring at OceanWorld, but you have to know how and when to use that feature!  Similarly, an AutoISO in your digital SLR will automatically adjust the ISO setting upto the required level so that you don’t waste time fumbling for this setting when you’re trying to shoot your 3-year-old in his “Kodak” moment.  More expensive cameras are nice-to-have, not a necessity.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, it comes down to your imagination – your unique perspective.

As one great photographer said, photography is nothing but “Painting with Light!” You are the artist, here.  “Light” is merely the medium.

Photographic Memories

It was with much surprise that I read a small piece in the local daily outlining the nuances of today’s storage techniques and how it might just result in a “dark age” one day…

I am a reasonably tech-savvy person.  In fact, I often find myself giving others advice on their problems with Computers or Technology of almost any kind.  I am also a hobbyist photographer, and up until now, have prided myself on my regular efforts at backing up data – especially the hundreds of photographs I end up shooting with my digital camera, each year.

So, it was with much surprise that I read a small piece in the local daily outlining the nuances of today’s storage techniques and how it might just result in a “dark age” one day.

It argued that today’s digital storage media formats may not last even a decade, and there’s no telling what form of media will be prevalent, say, 50 years from now.  With the proliferation of digital cameras in today’s age, most pictures are not only being shot in digital form but also stored in digital formats.  As a result, there may come a time – a century from now – when hardly any pictorial evidence may exist of our life and times!  Compare that with the old black-and-white snapshots that outlived generations in each of our families, providing us a brief glimpse of how life was at the time…

Scary thought, isn’t it?  I’m glad I’m getting select pictures of my darling daughter printed on actual photo paper for the baby album!

The World in your Palm

Cell phones are cameras, too. Music players are photo albums, too. PDAs browse the Internet, too… A panel of industry players moderated by Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack took on the question of future “form factors” at the 2005 Cyberposium conference…

“Cell phones are cameras, too. Music players are photo albums, too. PDAs browse the Internet, too…” ; So begins an article on HBS Working Knowledge.

As makers of everything engage in an all-out features war to cram the most services, accessories, and functions into a single product, the real question for many is this: Does the consumer really want an all-in-one digital device?

A panel of industry players moderated by Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack took on the question of future “form factors” at the 2005 Cyberposium conference…

At the moment, the cell phone is the closest thing we have to a fully converged device, said panelists, who represented device makers, telecom service providers, and operating system developers. Many cell phones feature a camera, instant messaging, Internet browsing, address and date book, and wireless e-mail. Oh, and you can also make phone calls on them.

That said, a single device is neither technically possible today nor desirable, several panelists ventured. The barriers include human physiology (typing is still difficult on a small keyboard), technology (battery life for a fully converged device might be in minutes, not hours), and human preference (would the iPod be as popular if it looked like a cell phone?).

The watch industry might be a good analogy as to how devices will evolve, he said. For next to nothing, you can get a watch from Timex that contains all kinds of features. For $2,000, you get a watch from a high-end watchmaker that will do just one thing—tell time—but do it in style.

While I think the answer is not ‘one integrated device’, I do believe that limited convergence is a good thing.  For example, having my contact book and my phone in one device (a la smart phone) allows me to dial out any of a 1000 numbers.  That said, is there such a thing as the perfect phone?

My friends and colleagues will vouch for the fact that I change my hand phone almost every 3-6 months.  Sometimes it’s a specific feature in a newer model, and sometimes it’s justified as a business need (more memory or a better contact manager or some such thing!).  In fact, for the past several weeks, a friend has been trying to convince me to upgrade to an O2 XDA – a device that’s supposed to do almost any thing short of cooking you a meal!

And I would have, if I’d thought there was a chance that I’d stick with it for a while.   But for some of us, the reality is that there is no such thing as the perfect phone – however converged the device may be.

Quotes from “The World in your Palm?”, HBS Conference Coverage,
Harvard Business School – Working Knowledge, February 2005.