Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An iPad for pro’s

I couldn’t consider myself an Apple aficionado if I ignored the launch of the iPad Pro and looked the other way. And of course I didn’t. I went out to buy one white and gold right on the day of its local introduction. Just the wifi version, but with full GB capacity (128), not the Mickey Mouse bits (64) of the introductory model. Of course there was neither the smart keyboard and cover available, nor the Apple pencil. I would have to be a little more patient for those, although I found a similar convenient solution for the keyboard part by adding a BT Apple external keyboard that I found lying idle somewhere in my loft. As for holding it standing upright, I used an old Griffin stand that I purchased long ago, from the times of the very first iPads that came out.
Coupling the wireless keyboard was a breeze, even simpler than with any desktop Mac or Macbook. The only thing I haven’t found how yet is changing the keyboard layout, if needed to. So, for now, until someone shows me a better way, I quickly disable the BT on the iPad, open the keyboard on any app that uses it, change the language and layout using the earthglobe softkey, and then turn BT ‘on’ again. I am sure there is a more elegant way to do this, but, what the heck, it worked for me.
For the rest, the iPad feels like any desktop or a Macbook, only difference, you get the feeling that you are working faster as you can interact not with a mouse but with your fingers on its screen, or the Apple Pencil (stylus) when it becomes available. Fingers work fine so far, no complaints whatsoever. Right now, I am waiting for their smart keyboard that also serves as a protecting cover, before I replace my AirMac (1st gen 11 inch) with this one for good. Its screen of 12.9 inch is way bigger and far more attractive in terms of color depth and resolution that the 11 inch of my Air. I guess both configurations would be equivalent in terms of weight, but the Air is also a bit smaller in size. On the other side, the iPad is full of fun apps that I am used to, and in the past made me bring along a mini iPad each time I had to carry the AirMac with me. I guess this new iPad will somehow cannibalize the traditional Macbook sales, unless they find a different use for it (the Macbook, I mean), which doesn’t seem too likely anyways. Are they possibly going the Microsoft way with the latter’s Surface hybrids? Who can say? One thing seems plausible though. In the future, we will keep a big ass desktop workstation at home and a tablet of some sort for our needs when on the road. Suits me right!

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Watch


The Apple Watch, or iWatch as it was initially baptised by the speculating Press has been in the mouth of fans, reporters and gadget enthusiasts long before it appeared in real as a saleable product. I believe this dates back to the days His Jobness was still alive and kicking. Eventually the watch saw the light under the name Apple Watch, and after being gradually launched into the world markets, it must have sold several million pieces by now, as we speak. Apple won't provide actual volumes shipped, but I saw articles projecting anything between 10 and 50 million pieces to be sold in the first year. A press article last July speculated a billion dollar revenue had already been achieved from sales back then, but this figure was indirectly deduced from known incremental sales of a set of products among which the watch was one. Well, Apple is Apple, and any product it will create will typically sell in the (tens of) millions no matter what, even if it turned out to be a flop. So, for a company with $230B most recent known annual revenue, selling 10 million watches in a first year is not much of a guarantee of future triumphs. So I thought, surprisingly becoming a sceptic for the first time ever about an Apple designed product since the inception of the very company. Indeed.

Contrary to my traditional geek fan (fan as in fanatic) approach vis-à-vis any product designed by Apple, I have not been much of a Watch enthusiast from the very moment it was leaked to the press. I don't know why, but something felt like this thing was never going to cut it for consumers. Not because of lack of design, functionality, robustness or innovation. For sure, all these were going to be Apple-like, that is the best anyone could ever conceive and manufacture. It was the watch's purposefulness I was and still am sceptic about.

By now, we all know that the iPhone and all so-called smartphones are not only about calling people on a phone anymore. Actually, from the start, from the launch of the GSM technology wave, cellphones have been offered with enhanced functionality that went far beyond than merely talking remotely to people. They sought from early on to replace the so-called PDAs of the times, the Personal Digital Assistants. That extra functionality defined the very competitive advantage among the dominant cellphone suppliers back then. Nevertheless cellphones still remain tools for old fashioned telephone communication between human beings, but far beyond than calling grandma and grandpa, they have become a much sought after Swiss knife in a contemporary consumer's daily life. They provide all sorts of information to our finger tips that no generation before ours have ever experienced. The wealth and reach of the information provided has never been equaled by any electronics device ever before. The new mobile phone, the smartphone (actually any phone that mimics and impersonates the iPhone, introduced by Jobs in January 2007) became a disruptive game-changer in the telecom industry for ever. It did to the traditional cellphones what digital photography did to the film.

Is Apple's new wearable, the Apple Watch, going to enjoy the same re-write of the watch history and seriously disrupt and change the industry, as did the iPhone to the traditional cellphone markets? It might somehow, by I have no idea how far reaching this will be in changing our watch wearing habits, culture and beliefs. Does anyone deep in one's heart believe that it is going to push to the corner of irrelevance names like Omega, Rolex, Breitling, Tag Heuer, IWC, Hublot and Panerai? Hmmm... I sincerely doubt this. Here's why.

I always believed that the new generation, the millennials for instance, and those who'll follow, don't/won't wear watches much. Their mom and dad will have probably bought them a smartphone before their wrist developed a size suitable to fit a descent watch's band. If they want to tell the time, a quick look at their smartphone will inform them all they will ever wanna know. As for mature people like myself, who still remember the times of analog landline telephone devices, a watch has never been for just telling the time. It has been a piece of precious jewellery instead, for many of us still hanging around. It's been a statement of persona. Especially to men, who don't typically carry much precious metal jewellery to fit their body parts other than a (wedding) ring and a watch. Well, some might still wear a subtle earring on one lobe. Timepieces, as the Swiss call their world famous brand watches that have been handcrafted with pride for hundreds of years in relatively small workshops many of which still operate in traditional villages high up the Jura mountains, are meant to keep time and make a persona statement. Impeccably, with insane accuracy, almost perpetually. Electronics cannot and will never fit this Timepiece concept.

You must pay a small fortune for such a watch, entirely mechanical, handcrafted by real people, a genuine Timepiece made in Switzerland indeed. I appreciate this approach because it has an element of "the human factor" in it. The knowledge that a real person with outstanding crafting skills has worked the mechanics and put together the miniature components of infinitesimal tolerances to build a celebrity brand watch, this feeling indeed makes you profoundly appreciate the value of such a piece in ways that you will never ever do for a product of contemporary electronics, mass manufactured in China, with its heart and soul run by software, no matter how compelling its functionality can be. Is it then because such Timepieces unfold pages of the past, when craftsmen were still human, and their crafts were universally valued, that we are still prepared to spend even tens of thousands of dollars on such timepieces? Swatch, very much Swiss watchmakers themselves, early on realised they could never be able to challenge the known brands in durability, craftsmanship, and price, and therefore jumped to capture the other market end, offering dead cheap watches of some design that could be worn as prêt-à-porter and be changed like... underwear. In fact Swatch invited consumers to buy not only one watch, but several, and keep collecting them while the company massively supplied new models and designs in unstoppable fashion. And 30 years later they still do this, like the life of the company depended on this. Which it probably does.

Despite my initial scepticism, during moments of severe boredom and for lack of other compelling gadgets to buy, I eventually went out to purchase... an Apple Watch afterall,  however, the cheapest model of all. I bought a 42 mm model (and still need my reading glasses to be able to read the screen messages properly), 469 euro's in all, incl. VAT! Among other, I wanted to find out for myself about whether it was going to become another iPhone or a flop Newton PDA instead.

After a week of using it, I found that it deserves some credit after all, and you could own one among your other watches for sure, it's OK looking and all, but it needs an iPhone in the neighbourhood for full functionality, and it will definitely never be anything like a known brand Swiss Timepiece. Despite it's attractive design and functionality. It is also, even for an Apple product, quite expensive. I mean the basic and cheapest model, let alone the insanely priced in the tens of thousands dollars Watch Edition pieces. What were they thinking when they launched those? You could buy a small car instead. Even spoiled Arab peninsula princes won't promptly jump to own any of those, I think. From what I heard, these folks are universally loyal to the most expensive IWC's money can buy. I wonder how many Edition pieces Apple is going to eventually sell. Even those dressed with an Hermes band. A cute combination maybe, but at what a price indeed.

Do I still use mine? Well, yes, for the time being. I will revisit this post in six months and update you. Most likely I will have fallen back to one of my low-end Swiss Timepieces by then, I reckon. Let's wait and see.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

How I color correct my Vlog shots

With this blogpost I am sure I am not adding any original views to the community of videographers out there, especially the pro's among them, but I'm simply sharing my own experience with GH4 shooting Vlog footage.

I am using FCP as my NLE of preference. In every new set of shots, that I usually shoot in one session, I am trying to fix a representative shot first, and then create a preset based on those fixes that I subsequently apply to the remaining shots. This approach usually provides me with satisfactory results; nevertheless, I tend to go over all the remaining shots once more, observe their look-'n-feel that the preset generated, and review their waveforms, and, if necessary, I do some further fine-tuning. I believe this is exactly what most of you out there are doing as well

As the first shot is concerned, I work in non-aggressive iterative steps. The pictures attached hereunder show the sequence of my approach. Since the release of the Vlog-L profile on the GH4, I shoot in that style with +2 stops overexposure. As you can witness in the first screen-capture hereunder, this GH4 profile generates a highly washed out image that has the advantage that its luma waveform is spread between 25% and 75%. 

I first push the shadows to make the luma wave touch the zero line. Subsequently, to my personal taste, I push midtones down as well. Next, I push highlights to touch the 100% line at the top of the luma diagram. Doing this pulls the shadows and midtones higher as well. Therefore, during a second iteration cycle, I am repeating the process by fine-tuning the three exposure components to ensure the final waveform covers the best part of the entire spectrum from 0 to 100% and the resulting image shows the proper tonality and contrast, and above all it is pleasing to the eye. Of course, I don't just do that mechanically only based on waveform shapes, otherwise even computers could learn to do that automatically. At each stage I observe the output frame to get convinced that the result is aesthetically pleasing. 

Eventually, if the white balance of the clip happened to not be to my liking I do correct that in the Color tab of the Color Board, and that after fixing luminosity and contrast in the Exposure tab. In the example below, as can be seen in the RGB parade waveform, the color balance looks acceptable, and didn't need adaptation. Only the Saturation I pushed globally a little bit for reasons of personal taste. 

A sphere look-'n-feel (colorisation) I finally apply using one of many available 'looks' plugin and if necessary some fine-tuning of its parameters, again to my personal taste. In the example shown here, I used mLut by MotionVFX and applied their "metal suit" preset. I could have used anything else for that matter. The result is shown in the last picture in this series.

This has been a simple cycle, quick and dirty, suitable to us, gifted amateurs, who can't afford doing expert colorisation and log corrections with Pro gear like Da Vinci Resolve, regardless whether it's been made available for free by its owners BlackMagic.


Shot in its original state. On the left the Luma and RGB Parade waveforms, on the right the color board for tuning and fine tuning. 
First step pushing down the shadows to touch the zero line.

Doing the same with the midtones to my liking.

Pushing up the highlights, that pulls shadows and midtones higher as well.

Push shadows down again to touch zero.

Same for midtones to my liking.

As highlights moved down too, push them back up again.

As exposure got fixed, do color corrections next. In my case only the global saturation was pushed. The RGB parade shows all three RGB waveforms in balance; no corrections added.

Eventually, a purchased plugin look applied. In this case it was the metal suit look of MotionVFX's mLUT plugin.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

To err is human, or how Panasonic screwed up the (Vlog) firmware update 2.3 for the Lumix GH4.

From the moment Panasonic's Lumix DMC- GH4 was announced,  first prosumer camera ever to shoot 4K video, it became a legend. More than a year later quite a few good products from competitors emerged to challenge the GH4 with similar and better specs. For instance, Sony managed to pack its sLog2 cinematic profile used by pros in its latest bridge camera, also shooting 4K and offering at the same time up to 1000 fps slow mo! Phenomenal experience! They've been able to achieve such high slow-mo rates by attaching a storage layer back-to-back to the sensor, shortening data travel paths from sensor pixels to storage, achieving extremely short frame storage turnaround; they thus managed to reach spectacular fps rates at HD resolution, unseen for a camera at this price range... Anyways, enough said about Sony... we are discussing the GH4 here. But lets have a good laugh first...



In its initial implementation the GH4 offered various user photo styles of which the so called Cinelike-D was the closest possible to standard log profiles used by the pro's, but not entirely. Beginning of this year they eventually demoed and promised to come up with a firmware update to implement a genuine log profile, the vLog-L that would allegedly offer cinematic quality. A little later they released the 2.2 firmware update that unfortunately, the goodness it offered aside (like the possibility to shoot anamorphic video), it provided no log profile yet. Eventually this option was made available a few days ago (September 2015) on their most recent firmware update release 2.3, but with a caveat. The firmware itself was indeed freely available, but to unlock the vLog-L feature you had to follow a short procedure a part of which was to pay them 99 US dollars! The GH4 fan crowd cursed promptly the Panasonic folks for their greedy attitude. While other suppliers offered log functionality for free, Panasonic chose to earn some easy dough in the process.

By googling around I got to download their GH4_V23.bin update file, not from their support page mind you, but from a mirror site, somewhere out there... In fact Panasonic's download page mentioned something like their servers were under maintenance! You see, 
I made up my mind to install the 2.3 firmware on my GH4 body after all, but I wasn't sure I wanted to pay them 99 bucks to unlock the V-Log. 

Anyways, the firmware update went smooth, and I was soon the happy owner of a GH4 on version 2.3. I even generated the serial number file that I had to send them, that after paying the infamous 99 bucks, they'd have to ship to me a personalised key-file to activate my particular camera. Only then could I in theory select the V-Log setting on the Photo Style option of my camera menu.

As I was strolling around in the GH4 user group on Facebook, my eye caught a posting of someone claiming there was a hack that could render the VLog-L profile accessible without having to pay the 99 bucks. Curious as I am, I followed the links and found out how insane, pardon my French, generous I meant, Panasonic really is. This is how it worked.

If you operate the camera from a smartphone using Panasonic's Image app, besides the remote record function you can also remotely select a shedload camera settings directly on the app. Here's where things went wrong for Panasonic, folks. It appears that when you select the Photo Style settings on the smartphone app, you will also "see" and be able to successfully select the VLog-L option !!! Without a camera activation necessary. Also, once you do set VLog as the Photo Style of choice, it remains permanent on the camera, even if you power it down. In other words, you don't have to operate the camera remotely with your smartphone anymore to achieve a cinematic VLog look. Once selected, it stays selected. 

Pay attention... the "hack" is only valid for the 2.3 version of the firmware and the current version of their iMage app (1.9.5). I reckon they'll be correcting their gaffe in future firmware and app updates, so be careful. If you don't wanna risk accidental loss of this workaround (that's what it is, it's not a "hack" actually), configure your smartphone not to automatically update its apps; you can thus enjoy Vlog on your GH4 for ever, until you decide to get rid of the camera altogether. Naturally, if you change the Photo Style to something else on the camera's own Menu, then you'll have to repeat the remote procedure again to re-establish VLog. Unless you save the style into the Cust setting by pressing the DISP button on the camera, and recall the custom setting each time you want to re-establish Vlog.

The pictures below show captures of the remote app screens about how to select the VLog setting on the smartphone app. In this case this was an iPhone 6 on V 9.1. Click for larger view.


From left to right, Connect smartphone to camera and tap Remote operation, select Q.Menu next, then Photo Style and subsequently select V-Log L. Then save the setting on the camera in Cust.






Finally, here's a shot showing the VLog L look-'n-feel on a test footage and how it was improved to something else on Final Cut Pro via colour correction and subsequent expansion of its luma histogram.




UPDATE: Jeez, they've been lightning fast in pushing a new update (2.4) this time to correct the issue. They really need the 99 bucks, poor sods. I also believe they did their best to make vanish the GH4_V23.bin file from the entire net. You definitely can't find it anymore on their sites, but I believe various mirror sites like Softpedia that initially carried the item (this is where my own download came from) are also disappearing one by one. Some were probably shut down because of the excessive traffic they recently generated. I just checked Softpedia again, and if you select the manual download it still does it... not for long I suppose, as the automatic download re-routes the link to a Panasonic textual statement in... Japanese.

UPDATE 2: A sample short edit of my own test footage in slow-mo 96fps and VLog-L shot on my GH4 and corrected in FCP.



Friday, July 31, 2015

Coupling between Edelkrone's SliderPlus+Action Module and the Syrp Genie for motion control

Although I'm writing this as a memo for future reference, in case I forget the precise mechanics I describe, anyone with similar interests is also welcome to read.

I recently bought a number of items from Edelkrone, that I consider one of the best if not the best supplier of cinematography peripheral products for pro's and sophisticated enthusiasts like myself. For this article in particular, I am referring to Edelkrone's SliderPlus Small slider, their Action Module and their FlexTilt head. In the picture above, the slider is easily seen; the action module fixed on one slider end (here shown on the left) and the camera is mount on top of Edelkrone's FlexTilt head, which in turn is mount on top of Syrp's Genie. The entire rig is mount on a video Manfrotto tripod.

What Edelkrone's slider does is broadly known to any serious video enthusiast. It's based on a clever mechanical concept that enables the camera a total travel distance larger than the length of the slider itself. Visit their homepage to see how. Their Action module is a compact mechanism that easily mounts on one end of the slider and automates the transport of the slider belt and subsequently the camera bridge to achieve smooth video slides, or timelapses with slides. Finally the Flextilt head is an interesting tripod mount for cameras that allows a lot of flexibility. I am ecstatic about all three of these products.

Edelkrone also has another product that resembles the Action Module and attaches on the opposite end of the slider. It is called the Target module. What this achieves is, when you enter the distance in the module between the camera and the object that the camera is focused upon, then, when the camera slides along the rails (courtesy of the Action Module), it is also made to rotate as well (Courtesy of the Target module) in order to maintain the focused object in the centre of the Viewfinder (VF). In other words, the camera follows the object while it moves on the slider. Shots achieved this way give the impression that the camera moves smoothly around the object in question. Excellent and very cinematic camera movement for product ads but also in plain vanilla cinematography. As an example, almost all close-ups and medium shots, especially those with dialogs, in the White Collar TV series are shot like this. Rarely the camera remains static during shoots. They also use loads of timelapses to add a powerful dynamic to the entire show.

I was considering purchasing Edelkrone's Target module as well, when I fell upon Syrp's Genie. This is again a very interesting concept. It's a sturdy box with two types of base to be mount upon. One aims at supporting any given manual sliders and the other is used for panning. Depending on which base you mount the Genie on, it will either rotate (for pans) or transport itself along the rails of a slider (for slides). Indeed it seemed quite an interesting piece of equipment and I therefore decided to procure that instead of Edelkrone's solution. I had a gut feel that with Genie I could still achieve what Edelkrone's Target module offered and a lot more. And indeed it does.

This article is about using the Action module and Genie combined to achieve the same result as when Edelkrone's Action and Target modules are used in unison. Edelkrone made sure that the only parameter needed to sync the two modules (and maintain the focused object in the middle of the VF) was the distance between the camera and the target object. The rest they have calculated and embedded in their firmware algorithms. In other words, if you go Edelkrone all the way it's very little you need to prepare to achieve great results all the time.

However, you can achieve the same results with a little extra manual tweaking and this is what I describe hereafter.


fig 1 : top view of the set up

The figure above shows my setup, whereby the object, which the camera VF is focused upon, is found at a distance L from the middle position of the camera slider travel. At position A the camera is turned at an angle a/2 with respect to the vertical direction in order to place the focused object in the middle of the VF. As the camera mechanism progressively moves from A to B, Genie (with the camera on top) rotates counterclockwise (CCW) for a total angular travel of angle a, in order to continuously maintain the focused object in the centre of the VF. Also, the total travel time of the camera system from A to B should be the same with the total angular travel (rotation) from the camera's initial angular position, moving CCW to its end position. Of course, if one plans a move from B to A, then Genie needs to rotate itself in the clockwise (CW) direction by the same angle 'a' always.

So the process to achieve this in the setup above is as follows:

1. I first made the decision to use 10 secs as the total sliding travel time (and Genie rotation). Genie accepts this duration as a parameter, but in Edelkrone I had to apply trial and error to define the right speed for the travel distance. For 345 mm distance from A to B, I had to select 32 as the camera velocity and 10 as the maximum acceleration (meaning, no easing-in and -out at the start and end of the linear travel). Indeed, with these parameters the camera on the SliderPlus travels the 345 mm distance in acceptably ten seconds.

2. The camera, mount on the FlexTilt Head remains fixed in terms of angular displacement with respect to the Genie body. It is Genie that automatically rotates about its vertical axis. Other (height or tilt) adjustments are done via the FlexTilt Head. While adjusting the setup and focus on the target, it is perhaps easier to check results on the camera monitor at the back of the body instead of thru the VF.

3. Next, one needs to set the rotating angle parameter in the Genie settings. Measuring the distance L and applying the simple formula shown in the figure provides a first good approximation of the rotation angle that needs to be set as a Genie parameter. Also, don't forget to set (Genie's Advanced Settings) the Easing-in and -out to OFF. To make sure the angle works, you trigger Genie to rotate to its end position and in parallel you may move manually or automatically the slider to position B. You then check the camera to verify that the object has still remained in its initial VF relative position. If not, depending where it ends up to, you may have to increase the angular Genie parameter or decrease it. If the object is left of the original focus position it means that the angular parameter is set low and needs to increase a little. If the object ends to the right, the angle was too large and needs to decrease. Act accordingly and check again until you achieve perfect alignment.

4. After the angle is entered in the parameter, and the Action Module was programmed in the Wizard mode to travel from A to B in ten seconds, the system may be set in motion. First you prepare the video shot parameters on the camera and hit the Record button next. Right after that, press the Start/OK buttons simultaneously on both, the SliderPlus and the Genie. Both devices start automatic motion, with the SliderPlus sliding from A to B and the Genie rotating the camera in CCW direction. In ten secs the travel is over, and one may set the Recording function back to standby.

This is certainly much more of a burden compared to Edelkrone's Target module. On the other hand, if you happen to own other sliders, as I do, you are actually adding value to those, even more so if motorised sliding was not previously an option. Unfortunately, Edelkrone's Action Module only fits (for obvious reasons) Edelkrone sliders. 

On the other hand, once you calculated the angles for a few practical values of L, you can memorise what goes with what, and don't have to go thru the calculation and trial and error burden each time. For instance, I know that for a distance of 85cm the angle is about 20 degrees. If I made sure my target object is at 85 cm, I could always use the Genie preset that I have already stored for these particular parameters, and Bob's your uncle. If I don't like the VF scenes at the distances I preset, I can always use different lenses or zooms to adjust.

A common problem on similar devices, like Genie and Slider+, is the associated noise their motors produce. But as most people shoot B-rolls based on similar setups and use external audio equipment for better sound control, the noise will get suppressed in post and in so doing, it is less of a problem.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Windows Version 10, or how to experience the five stages of grief in just a few hours

When I heard Microsoft was giving away Windows 10 for free, I said to myself, why not, check it out to find out what they learned all these years, if anything. The phenomenal growth their sworn enemy in Cupertino has achieved in terms of global cash and revenue growth, but also in outpacing the global PC market by selling gazillions of Macbooks, must have taught them something about what users think an OS should be doing, right? Wrong... Continue reading.

Couple years ago I bought me a fancy SONY Vaio laptop with all its bells and whistles. I wasn't planning to be using it for my daily tasks, though. I only needed it to run Microsoft Money 2007, since I was used to that app, and it addressed all my "personal finance" requirements. I did use the Vaio for a couple of months like this, and it proved quite a burden, I am afraid to admit, mainly in terms or response times and continuous Windows updates for newly discovered security holes. I was no more used in handling Windows tasks (I was spoiled in the meantime by the Mac OSX, you see), so I abandoned the Vaio in some corner in the loft. I went to install Parallels on my iMac instead, and thus moved Money into a Windows sandbox running under parallels. Case closed. Proven fact, Windows running under Parallels on a Mac is way faster and more responsive than on any big dog Wintel configuration you can think of.

One thing is certain. The Vaio was still there, shut down and patiently collecting dust, almost untouched for 2 years. No special drivers, not even printers, no fancy configurations or customisations, almost all of it in its original factory settings. It was supposed to be 64 bit Windows 8 Home edition. Didn't need more than that anyway. So, when I heard the news on the radio yesterday morning (amazing how the Media are hooked to play MSFT's marketing game all along), I said to myself, let's see what the buggers did this time. Old wine in new bottles all over again, or did they clone Apple or Google instead?

So, after dusting the Vaio, I humbly started the route to my software Golgotha (much I knew then of what was to come), hopeful to be able to upgrade to 10 in, say, a couple of hours. From my Mac experience of moving into a new OSX version, I never had to wait longer than half hour from start to finish, so I reckoned, since MSFT is far less efficient, probably it'll take me four times that, couple of hours max. Much I knew then and hopeful I was. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was like staying in a $2K a night luxury suite at the Four Seasons in Paris, compared to what I had to go through. Like I suggested in the post's title above, I went from denial, to anger, to depression and finally acceptance in less than 10 hours. After that I kept taking anything MSFT had to throw into my face with a bitter smile.

I started the process at 11 am on Wednesday the 29th of July, official day of the V10 launch. My "factory settings" Vaio in its V8 64 bit installed version took until 4 am the next morning (!!!!!!) to complete updating 2.5 year long fixes (last applied dated back to Jan 2013) and its subsequent upgrade to 8.1. When I opened the laptop at 8 am this morning it still claimed there were even new arrivals of updates from 4 am to that moment and I was subsequently obliged to do them. I categorically refused this time. I rebelled! "F you", I shouted! It was obviously a bitter joke. I never installed anything special on that laptop, ever, and it took 18 hours to do the updates and upgrade to 8.1 !!! 18 hours of my precious and shortening life! On my deathbed I'll think of this experience again, I promise you. I just let it do its own thing by using defaults all the way. Like I said, no personal customisations were ever performed and it was in plain English that the OS was installed.

Eventually, by this morning the Vaio was able to run V8.1 after all. Not that it was any intuitive at all to go confirm the version of Windows I was running. What in Apple OSX takes two bare clicks to find out (the OS version you are running), in Windows proved a desperate search of computer settings, some place somewhere out there but not knowing where exactly!

I next rushed on my monitor to spot the little windows symbol on the right side of the balk, but to no avail. I read that you had to do this in order to get invited to upgrade to 10; another weird idea of Microsoft's to contain /span>downloads queueing in the billions by their users out there. Unfortunately, no icon was to be seen anywhere among the megapixels of my laptop monitor, anywhere at all. I dug into the net next, and spotted some horror stories about how to fix that problem, some suggesting it was extremely complex to achieve that without any guarantees of success, up to someone proposing to recreate the reservation app itself via code he offered to copy paste into a Notepad document, rename it into some form of command file and run it. No way I'd do that. The times I had to do witch magic to get MSFT operating systems incl. MS-DOS in the eighties and early nineties to do the things they were supposed to do has loooong gone and will never come back, I bet you. In my age, every minute of precious life counts. I'm not gonna waste it, not a single second, in MSFT OS workarounds because they decided to become one garbage can of technicians knowing about OS development as much as I know about Mandarin Chinese! No way!

Thankfully, and about the moment I was ready to throw the entire Vaio into the bin, with its brick and all, I found this Godsent CNET article claiming there was a way to download the V10 ISO files directly from Microsoft's site, without having to wait for their Highnesses in Seattle to respond to my humble reservation request via an impossible to find app icon, and then download the V10 installation files into my laptop, when it pleases them. I said to myself, why not? Let's see if it works this way. CNET is way more rational than MSFT, anyways...

Forgot to mention though, that in the meantime, I had spent ages on the MSFT web pages to figure out how to do the upgrade, and I have to say, the feeling was that I was being pushed into the secret pathways of their makeshift labyrinths to make it extra hard, read impossible, for any casual user to ever get this infamous upgrade. I happen to be a seasoned computer user, mind you, starting with Fortran 2 back in 1973! Imagine what a poor soul with only a few years messing around with Windows would do in such a mess. One particular page of theirs kept sending me via a hotlink back to itself. Over and over. Can you figure that? Really? Looping the loop! There is no way to even think comparing them with Apple on this very issue. Apple is miles ahead... what am I saying, lightyears ahead. Things that are of no concern to a user are kept totally out of the users' sight in Cupertino,Ca. In Seattle, every bit they are doing over and over again, from closing down and rebooting to copying files, they'll inform powerless and desperate users in seriously upsetting ways, like "we are taking care of a few things", or "checking to see if you got enough space for upgrades", or shit like that, and keep busy doing that for minutes to hours! How long to you need to check on a 21st century laptop and find out if there's a few miserable gigabytes available to put a new operating system in place? Ten minutes? Half hour, you said???? You gotta be kidding me. Things like that turn you (during your "anger" stage of grieve) into a ranting Lewis Black himself, and this in a matter of secs.

I'm simply curious... what is so technically sophisticated for a simple security loophole fix to take so long to be installed?! And will they ever achieve a moment that their stuff has no more deep security holes like we've seen in the last 25 years? Why do they even pay those gazillion developers, spending billions of dollars, to maintain such a monumental OS mess called Windows ? Why don't they ever do a serious rewrite, like Apple did in OSX fifteen years ago? How come is their system so vulnerable and needs to by fixed every week? And will they ever learn that their OS in the year 2015 should no more use those ugly and old-fashioned configuration windows that their 3.11 version used back in the last decade of the past century? Indeed, will they ever learn? Why should they do that after all? Bill Gates gets richer by the day even to this day, playing a role of the planet's greatest philanthropist and counting his 87 Billion of paper money from holding onto his MSFT stock. In his shoes, anyone can still believe that Windows was and is exactly what billions of users worldwide eventually need and want!

Long story short, and there's still so much I could narrate from my last 24 hours of living the Windows upgrade nightmare, but as I said, I reached the last stage of grieve, which is acceptance of my fate. In any case, I have no issues with the Windows user experiences since, once all installs are done, I'll shut down the darn Vaio and go back to my beloved Mac OSX boxes and laptops, and to the legacy his Sainthood, Steve Jobs, may he RIP, has left us with.

But it would be a spoil to deprive you from my ultimate experiences from the v10 installation itself. Because I eventually managed to get it installed. That's right! Sure did! In its own, it's gotta be the black humor joke of the 21st century. After downloading the infamous ISO image, following CNET's article, with the v10 install files, I started the procedure at 8:20 am this morning and at 10:10 am, almost an hour and 50 minutes later, I can claim I became the proud owner of an upgraded Vaio into Windows 10, 64bit. On a first sight it does look nothing more, nothing less than a somewhat improved look and feel version compared to the disaster 8 or 8.1, for that matter. At least now they stopped displaying those stupid blocks at start-up, full of useless functions, while obscuring simple things like computer settings and File Explorer. As before, the install took multiple reboots and many of the likes of "still a few more things to arrange and install" and more like this. And the best of all, the cherry on the cream indeed, I found myself hardly exploring the new version, and a bunch of new updates were waiting to get implemented. Incroyable mais vrai!

I'll leave you with a few screenshots that I was served with, before the V10 was eventually confirmed. I strongly believe, this must be Satya's idea of humor for sure, and that life should be taken lightly, as it's too short.

Update: After spending about 5 hours on V10 now, 24 hours later, I must admit that this must be their best version ever. Not just a marketing trick. They seem to have in fact rewritten almost everything I tested, had copied Google's and Apple's minimal design in many aspects, transparencies and animations all over, and the OS seemed, how can I say this... seemed humbled. The traditional Microsoft arrogance we are used of seemed to have gone away. For the first time ever I saw their apps centred around the user and his/her concerns. That's a novelty indeed. V10 is also consistent among apps and menus and such. Indeed a redesign. I'd guess, this would please Windows casual users for sure. Good for them. Not that I's consider going back to V10 from Mac OSX any time soon. Apple is still light years ahead in so many aspects, however, I feel good about the billions MSFT users out there who, after 25 years of painful experience, eventually got something along the lines of Google and Apple. Maybe I should hold to my MSFT stock a few more days... see how the market reacts. In any case, Satya Nadella appears a lot more realistic than that jumping monkey boy of Steve Ballmer. I couldn't have imagined a V10 under Ballmer for sure. Never ever. He was too thick and far too arrogant for that.








Monday, March 9, 2015

Arts and concepts

I recently watched a Youtube post on conceptual photography that made me think about artistic expression once more. I always struggled with the question whether a visual artist should consciously have something to communicate thru his/her artistic work, whatever that work might be. In the written word, literary or not, it is rather imperative that authors should always have a message to pass to their intended audiences, either clearly stated or in a hidden, rather ulterior way. It is universally assumed that texts are used to communicate ideas, points of view, impressions, facts, and emotions about anything authors might choose to focus upon. Is it thus the same with visual artistic expression? Do visual artists have to communicate a message preferably based on a concept as well?

One should reasonably expect that motion pictures, whose objective is visual story-telling, lust like in literature, do plan to communicate 'something' known to the Director and his/her crew even before production starts. Whether they are successful in achieving this effectively only their audience and/or film critics will eventually tell. In fiction movies, as well as in documentaries, there is always a story to be told, a message to be passed to the audience. Thru cinematography, actor performances, stage design, editing and the soundtrack they are also adding the necessary emotional impact to their statement to engrave the story into the memory of spectators for ever, as emotional memory is always the strongest and the most persistent.

How about photography? This is where 'conceptual' photography enters the stage. There are 'committed' photographers who make their life's work to shoot certain subjects and those alone, in certain conspicuous styles they preferably invent for themselves, all in the service of telling their story in their own special way. There's a thought process behind each photograph of theirs and this could be around emotional impact in its weakest expression or emotion enhanced with actual information in its strongest form. Shooting for instance photographs of old people, counting their remaining days in a 'home', and using black and white sharpness to draw even stronger the sensation of human body decay, tells you something about the photographers continuous intent to illustrate a mostly hated part of human life: ageing. There are thousands of subjects that have been used by conceptual photographers in their quest for passing a message and a concept. One known Japanese artist I have read about (Hiroshi Sugimoto) made a tour of the US and visited theaters, especially older classic ones, and photographed them systematically, using insanely long exposures (for the duration of the film projection) on a 4x5 Technical camera. By doing this he managed to eliminate any moving objects from his frame (mainly men and women spectators). His concept was to reveal the element of time in photography. The result, due to the size of his negatives and the advantages of using technical cameras to manage frame geometry and lens aberrations better than any other photographic technology, was a series of stunning photographs of the interior of hundreds, maybe thousands of theaters that he eventually printed in a book for the aficionados of the genre.

On the other side of the 'scale' we find photographers like Bresson, Frank and Leiter who photographed what appeared in front of their lens that happened to move them aesthetically and emotionally. They simply wanted to share that personal experience with their audience. Is there anything wrong with that? In interviews Saul Leiter has given about his art, he categorically ignored and rejected critics who tried to discover a concept behind his photography. You simply shoot a frame because you just feel the need for doing it, not because you planned it like that. If it then happens to create specific emotional experiences to any future viewer of that picture, so be it, so much the better... As for Bresson, and his impeccable framing of subjects, I don't quite believe that he was staging beforehand each and every frame he shot. That would be silly to assume for example that he has been waiting for hours the young boy stepping forward with an oversized in comparison bottle of wine, and catch that moment of his hilarious childish look, shining with pride about his feat under way. It sounds too improbable to believe that Breton set that up. He simply took advantage of a remarkable in those days portable camera, the Leica, and his photographic eye and personal interests made him capture the decisive moment the way he felt fit. He shot as a photojournalist, spontaneously. Anything wrong with that? Certainly, many Bresson experts, long after the facts, built a myriad stories behind each and every photograph of his to prove their point of view, that only photographs with a 'concept' can eventually claim genuine artistic value. 

I personally believe there is merit to both photographic approaches. Often, conceptual photography is not aesthetically interesting per se. As an example, I remember a temporary expo at the MOMA, NYC, not long ago of a woman artist, who filled an entire room (or was it several?) with frames of alike dimensions containing small uninteresting pictures and supporting documentation of individuals from India, who all shared a common detail in their lives. While still alive, they were declared to the authorities by their relatives as deceased in order for the latter to pocket the victims' inheritances. The 'concept' was an interesting one indeed, but what has this got to do with art whatsoever? Apparently, in the mind of many art aficionados, a lot!

I quite admire those photographers and other artists (including architects), who create works as a result of a concept they carefully developed beforehand. There is a lot of brainpower necessary to build artistic concepts. In many occasions, the artists concerned will simply and exclusively do that alone. Develop the 'concept'. Jeff Koons and Jan Fabre are examples of artists who often do that. Koons' Michael Jackson and his pet monkey sculpture, sold for millions of dollars, and Jan Fabre's Pietas that appeared in the Venice Biennale a few years ago were entirely built by professional craftsmen who simply followed the artists' instructions. Intriguing! At least Michelangelo and Caravaggio built their own works for the most part... Not Rubens though...

However, there's still a lot of value in the works of photographers, whose frames express their accidental state of mind at a given moment. Like I said, such photographers' intent is to freeze time and capture the moment for reasons of own personal excitement the very instant they decide to click their camera shutter pointing to a given scene that they are looking at thru their viewfinder. During post-processing they might possibly enhance that impression even further just to make their personal vision more explicit. Nevertheless, the original frame was indeed shot spontaneously, and not following a grand scheme of premeditated thought stream.  



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yani Varoufakis, Secretary of Economic Affairs

SYRIZA leader A.Tsipras picked him as his new Secretary of Economic Affairs, the most critical cabinet post next to his own of the Prime Minister. This is simply so because of the audacious promises he repeatedly made to the Greek electorate during campaigns, eventually leading to his sweeping landslide victory this past Sunday. His main theme was braided around (a) getting rid of the Troika monitoring and policy recommendations, (b) renegotiating the servicing of Greece’s debt with its creditors, and (c) rolling back lost benefits and jobs to the "victimised" members of his electorate. In other words, promising to bring back a large part of the "welfare state" that Greeks have been used to during long years of uninterrupted and unverified funding by the EU and its agencies/institutions. Only time will show whether this brand new and youngest ever Greek PM, Alexis Tsipras, «the great white hope of certain European leftwing movements» to bring «change» to the mainly rightwing governing EU Establishment, and «teach ‘em a lesson» remains to be seen. By nature, I don’t believe much in miracles, other than those related to Divine «intervention». However, for sure I am prepared, like millions of other Greeks, to give SYRIZA the benefit of the doubt. Like Belgians here say, «hope helps you live…» Maybe, just maybe, it would take a Leftist Radical Party like SYRIZA, that never governed anything before, to become the government that Greece needs right now. Since the remaining of the larger political parties have miserably «failed» in the past, and almost brought the Greek Nation to its knees, then, what else is left to do? From this point of view, last Sunday’s polls seem to have been, at the least, ...righteous!

The position of Minister of Economic Affairs, under the circumstances, is indeed this cabinet’s most critical ministerial position. It was also critical in each and every cabinet before, certainly ever since «the feces hit the fan» (2008), but, it is far more so now that the new cabinet needs to deliver the (unsustainable to many) promises an ambitious Alexis conveyed to his cheering supporter crowds during the election campaign. Worst of all the «average Greek on the street» genuinely believed him. His landslide proves this.

I haven’t ever heard of Yanni Varoufakis, as I am a Greek of the Diaspora myself, but I learned about him by talking to friends and reading his blogposts and CV, after today's announcement. He seems to have made quite a name for himself, internationally as an economist, and in Greece as a blogger about subjects of national interest focused on finance. He eventually amassed more than 55K votes in the last elections… not bad at all for a newcomer!

Varoufakis is a mathematician and a macro-economist with (a shedload of) academic level studies and published papers and books, especially with math-stats in spades. Also, he PhDed in everything you'd like to know about Industrial Actions. Suitable and valuable know-how, even if it's only theoretical for the most part, if you are made a Finance Minister in Greece right now. He doesn’t seem to have considerable people management experience though (I recall he mentions somewhere that he managed a small team of lecturers in a certain educational project), and he is indeed the stereotype of a reasonably successful career academic, by all means. In other words, he's got lots of experience "talking about things", if you know what I mean. He taught undergraduate and postgraduate classes in various Economics Schools internationally, in capitalist countries (UK, Australia and the US… even worse, in Austin, TX in the US, the epitome of the Capitalist Free World). Despite this type of rightwing credentials and exposure, he was eventually stamped a «Radical Economist» by the International Press earlier today, following announcement of his appointment. In all my ignorance, I am trying to understand what "radical economist" really means. I would have preferred him to be stamped a liberal capitalist, not necessarily a GOP libertarian, but a free market capitalist nonetheless. This is at least what I concluded based on his CV bullets.

I also picked one of his recent works from his personal blog, a paper in PDF format. It was in its latest revision (4th in fact), humbly titled «A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis» co-authored with Stuart Holland (UK), and James K. Galbraith (US), two fellow economists and academics like himself (Holland was also a UK MP for sometime). You see, reading a paper like this helps you find out a lot about someone’s core beliefs. Reading someone’s sentences, analysing the words and terms he uses and trying to understand why he said what he said, and how he said it. Simply reading a CV is not enough if you are trying to figure out someone’s skills and merits. Most of us make a habit of boasting unreasonably in our CVs. Especially career Academics are off-the-charts in describing each and every ‘thing’ they ever got involved into. So, since I can’t possibly look Yanni in the eye and chat with him to see, hear and deeply feel him talking about stuff (like we do with candidates we interview to hire), I decided that the best way to get under his skin was to read what he had to say to the World and how he's been saying it. The aforementioned paper and his various blogposts were the best sources available at hand, I reckoned.

So, I first read his declaration (in Greek) in his blog about why and how he decided to quit his current life and join SYRIZA in last Sunday’s polls, and then I studied (not simply read) his co-authored paper mentioned earlier. Since he was the first author in the list, I’ve reasonably assumed that he actually edited its lion’s share, with the remaining authors simply verifying/correcting.

The strategies Varoufakis describes in his paper seemed to me very much along the lines Tsipras has consistently followed on the question of Greek debt, I must admit… (That would also explain the latter’s decision to appoint him at the post of Finance Secretary.) It’s not too long a paper, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what they try to convey. Actually they unravel the Eurozone crisis in four components, ie. banking, sovereign debt, investment and social crises, and they try (all but modestly) to formulate solutions to each and every issue with (a slight degree of) intellectual arrogance and (extreme degree of) self-confidence, I’d say. In other words, the author(s) go that far as to suggest to the leaders of the Troika (Commission, IMF and ECB) how to… do their job... properly. Very daring indeed! Now then, some of the arguments they used make occasionally logical sense, but we have heard most of them time and again, even from the likes of liberal, stimulus hungry, anti-austerity evangelists like Paul Krugman, a primus inter pares among my personal favourite economists, for some time now.

However, there is nothing mentioned in the paper to suggest that the current unsustainable position in which peripheral EU countries found themselves has, for the very large part, been caused in the past by their own cabinet programmes and the execution of such programmes and policies. The authors conclude that it is mainly the fault of the better performing countries (the so called «surplus», with Germany on top) and of Troika’s stubborn austerity doctrine that eventually brought badly performing countries to the abyss. IMHO, not admitting openly the huge responsibility of local governments in this clusterf@ck is very much a mono-dimensional SYRIZA-line argument, that proposes that the peoples of problem periphery nations are innocent victims of the riches and the surpluses (not many, but some) of this European Union. To a certain degree, many might agree with a similar point of view, but, knowing my own Greek DNA well, I also know for a fact that, although Greeks have been somewhat victimised by the riches of certain surplus EU members (yep, nobody denies the billions paid to creditors due to exorbitant spreads when times got rough), they got mainly themselves to blame for the largest part. As an Academic, only focusing and offering advice about only one side of the problem, and not mentioning the other side not even once, while being aware of the objective truth (unless he lived under a Parthenon stone for the last 35 years), then what can I say? This paper in my eyes, as a casual non-expert reader, does not discuss the factual truths completely, but rather examines a partial version of these truths, most probably inspired by political motives.

As for the merits of their recommendations, I don’t know… most seemed to me like calling certain old subjects with new names to make them appear different (the cloth doesn't make the priest). What is the benefit, for instance, if investment projects funded by the EIB/EIF fall outside formal national debt? Does this make the actual total debt appear less than it is? C'm on! Is it going to solve the issue that the country is factually bankrupt with no remedy in sight? I’d give it to them though that a couple of their proposed "tricks" were aiming at reducing interest amounts paid to some of their creditors, and all this might be still helpful, at least if, at the minimum, a serious effort is done to ensure LONG TERM national recovery and job creation. Talking about Greece, with virtually no heavy Industry, a castrated agriculture, and only the weather and tourism on their side, these suggested "tricks" are indeed very short term remedies. Not a panacea! It is just an aspirin tablet to cure the Nation's pancreatic cancer.

I pray, when Alexis, with Yanni under his arms, appears in Brussels to (hopefully) re-negotiate the current debt servicing, that they both indeed maintain, above all, an attitude of humility. Tsipras was so far quite successful to get where he wanted by supplying abundant (populist) rhetoric for internal consumption that seems to have worked. However, Greece’s creditors have the International Law on their side. The last five years Greece has received a lot of help by its creditors. At the same time, these same creditors, having lost billions in the haircut, learned their lesson well, recapitalised their operations, and reconfigured their investment portfolios by better spreading risks. For sure, non-Greek banks did that in spades. I recently heard a financial reporter on the local (Flemish) TV say that, although the previous Greek debt haircut factually bankrupted one of the banks here, this time over the Belgian banking exposure to Greece defaulting would remain sub-minimal… now, if this is true for Belgium, it must be true everywhere else. That means, from a negotiating point of view, the only thing that can play to Tsipras advantage is simply a spirit of «humility» and of realistic argumentation that won't drive his creditors up the walls... Unfortunately for him, his creditors have not been sampled out of his supporter electorate. And above all, such creditors love their money, very much indeed. Too much to be accurate, as they are born and raised devote capitalists, who don’t believe either in charity, or listen to any arguments of "social inequality and wealth redistribution". For Greece’s sake, both Alexis and Yanni will have to forget what they have been preaching until now domestically, or else they both risk to experience personally the wrath of the same voters who gave him a landslide last Sunday. History, clearly teaches them that. Not any history… simply the 3 thousand year long history of their own homeland. Amen.

UPDATE: Unfortunately my prayers weren't heard. Not even a week passed since they 've been in charge and the gaffes performed by a whole array of new Ministers are beyond belief. Without an official announcement yet by the PM of his cabinet's planned programme, ambitious fresh ministers rushed to irresponsible statements about new measures that will kill the vast majority of troika inspired policies implemented by the previous two cabinets. How do you spell 'populist' my dear?

Our man Yani Varoufakis announced formally today to Eurogroup Chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem that the cabinet rejects troika altogether and demands an international conference of creditors to decide a proposed 50% haircut of the debt. Dijsselbloem reacted stating that the Eurogroup is the proposed 'Conference'  and there was no need for another one. And he then rushed literally out of the room. BTW, Varoufakis intends not only to negate everything the previous governments implemented but also launch his own new style of business attire, with casual jackets, no ties at all and colorful shirts hanging above his jeans trousers. The ridicule so far knows no limits. I have no idea what these people continuously smoke for breakfast, but they are either too stupid to understand the seriousness of the situation and the damage they are inflicting to their homeland or extremely arrogant and equally incompetent, or all of the above! I'd put my vote on "all of the above" and some more...