Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Digital Format Follies

I  recently bought an older Canon Selphy 4x6 photo printer and I love the thing. It has its flaws - like when it wastes a single image's worth of ink every time you power up the device (Canon, surely you can fix this after how many versions of this printer?). But on the whole, being able to get high quality 4x6 prints at just over 30 cents a print whenever I want, without having to deal with inkjet ink is simply great (it uses 3 color dye sheets).

Maybe I'm old school but I still make prints and still put them in albums - I find them easier to thumb through when I'm looking for that all important picture from days gone by. And prints have always been 4 x 6 (except when they were 3-1/2 x 5 way back when). 4 x 6 matched the old 35mm film (24 mm x 36 mm) format perfectly so nothing was lost. But making a few prints on the Selphy the other day reminded me of how problematic print making can be today.

A funny thing happened when digital cameras started to replace 35mm film. 35mm film had managed to outlive 110, 126, mini-disc, APS and other lesser known rivals. But it couldn't compete with digital. Camera makers were quick to see the greater potential of instant digital image delivery - not just for print making but also for delivery to other spaces such as the living room TV. Almost from the beginning, digital cameras sported video outputs that allowed image playback onto NTSC/PAL screens. These had a 4:3 screen (1.33); they were only slightly wider than they were tall. Early computer monitors also had the same aspect ratio because they were all based on TVs. The old VGA standard was 640 x 480. This was expanded to 1024 x 768 but both still had a ratio of 1.33. Later computer monitors became even more "square" with "workstation" resolutions like 1280 x 1024 (1.25). Ironically, professional photographers like squarish images. Square medium and large format films have been around for a long time. The major advantage of square images is that there's no need to rotate the camera. Cropping is done later in the printing process and any ratio can be achieved there. This works fine for the pros who command the entire photographic chain all the way through the darkroom.

These early digital cameras, mostly of the point-and-shoot (POS) variety, sported 4:3 image sensors. And with good reason - most started out using tiny sensors originally used in movie cameras. Since those were targeted for TV use, everything was 4:3 and it was all just one big happy family. Right? Except of course, the professional digital SLR (dSLR) market continued to use the 3:2 (1.5) aspect ratio of 35mm film. Whether they were called "full frame", "APS-H", "FX", "DX", or "APS-C", Canon and Nikon provided 3:2 (1.5) aspect ratio cameras to fully fill a 4x6 print image. Meanwhile new formats like Four-Thirds from Panasonic & Olympus sought to seek a middle ground - larger than the POS sensor but smaller than the dSLR. They decided on a 4:3 aspect ratio as their name implies.

Having two competing formats is a real PITA when making prints. Most print processors still use 4x6 as their standard image size. When a 4:3 image comes along, they automatically crop the image to fill the entire field to avoid having white space. To fill a 4:3 image onto a 3:2 piece of paper, some of the height of the image (the "3" in 4:3 for a horizontal image) is lost. Anyone who has had head or feet chopped off on a print knows how frustrating that it - you take the time to frame the picture only to have the printer chop it off. Worse still, the widespread ability to digitally edit an image on a computer, including cropping it to any size and aspect ratio, leads to even more potentially chopped prints. Some print houses give you the choice - cropped or uncropped prints. But they usually default to cropped meaning they will fill the frame when necessary.

But there's a bitter irony to the story. At around the same time that digital cameras evolved from the wider 3:2 to the more square 4:3 aspect ratio, the video and computer industry was busy going the other way. Movies have always had a wide field of view and when shown on TV, the sides had to be cropped out. Making the advanced TV standard wide-screen friendly was a top priority. The same thing happened on computer screens. All are now 16:9 (1.77) or wider. So one of the destinations of the 4:3 POS camera was suddenly no longer 4:3. What happens to that pocket camera digital image when it's displayed on a wide-screen? Well chances are it won't be cropped because the TV is able to handle the different incoming signal differences. But wait 'til you try and print that image!

This all seems like a huge missed opportunity to make the lives of the consumer easier. POS cameras continue on their march at 4:3 though most can now take 16:9 HDTV digital movies as well. Many also allow 3:2 picture taking. Meanwhile TVs are getting bigger and staying at 16:9. At the end of the day, it's up to the consumer to be aware of what their cameras are doing and what their prints will look like - but don't expect anyone to warn you of the pitfalls.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"This Device Can Perform Faster" Duh.

I get this message each and every time I plug in a USB memory stick into my computer. Why? Because my system is old (ancient!) and it has an "old" USB 1.1 interface whereas all the newer USB sticks are USB 2.0. So my dumb-ass operating system (XP) insists on telling me that I can do better. But really, is it necessary to remind me each and every time? And leave that message dangling at the bottom of my screen until I move my mouse over to kill it? Does the computer not realize that I have better things to do - like use the slow storage I just plugged in?

It make me wonder which engineering genius or marketing guru thought of this utilitarian message - "hey, let's remind that poor sucker that his device can go faster. I'm sure he'll appreciate it each and every time. He may even thank us for it."

I'm actually not sure what's more amazing - getting this message so often, or the message itself. Is this message even necessary? So I could go faster, but since I obviously can't what's the big deal? Why bother telling me?

I guess on the grand scheme of things, this is just a minor nit. But sometimes, it's the little details that matter. And details are what good user experiences great ones. Or not so great.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hungry Battle Royale Games

I'd read recently that the hugely popular movie "The Hunger Games" was very similar to "Battle Royale" a 2000 movie based on a book by Koushun Takami. Some accused author Suzanne Collins of excessively borrowing from the latter. Since I liked The Hunger Games, it seemed only fair that I take some time and see Battle Royale via Netflix.

It took a while but I finally got my copy of Battle Royale - interest in the movie suddenly peaked on Netflix. I wonder why?  :) The executive summary is that on the whole, I liked it. It has many of the qualities of Japanese movies such as excessively loud shrieking girls (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you haven't watched enough Japanese movies!). It's also extremely bloody and graphic - far more so than The Hunger Games. The only downside, is that the DVD did not have an English dubbed soundtrack, and reading subtitles never quite offers the same feel for the movie. Makes me wish I knew Japanese - all those Kurosawa movies would be even more enjoyable! And yes, even the military gives me flashbacks to Godzilla movies !

But back to the meat of the issue - is The Hunger Games ripped off from Battle Royale?

After watching Battle Royale, I couldn't help but try and think about the similarities and differences. And the more I thought about it, the more confusing my thought process was. But ultimately, I came full circle and considered my first gut reaction - what was I thinking when I finished the movie? For most movies, when the credits start to roll, I start asking myself questions about the movie - why did the main character do this? did this sequence make sense? how come they didn't mention this person? I guess it's my nature as an engineer to always look for consistency and logic even in fantasy movies. And what was my first reaction this time? I wondered about the movie and how it could have been better - how not enough was said early on to set up the storyline; how they didn't completely explain the teacher's role, etc. What I did NOT ponder about was how similar it was to The Hunger Games. It wasn't until later that I started trying to make a comparison. And therein was my answer. If I have to try to make a comparison, then there's nothing to compare.

This is not to say that the two movies don't overlap. Clearly the notion of teenagers set out to kill each other to the last person standing is at the center of both movies. But that's it. One could just as easily compare two spy movies and say one is based heavily on the other because there are spies in common. To me, the differences far outweigh the similarities.

I did not read either book; and I don't intend to; so I'm making a comparison based solely on two screenplay adaptations of two novels. To the purist, this may sound unfair but as a movie product, it's very reasonable. I found The Hunger Games to be much clearer in both the storyline and the rationale. At its root, the setting is believable because the inhabitants clearly fear the Games, and that is the intent of having these them. Battle Royale was lacking  here - if the BR Act was meant to punish bad students annually, why were students still behaving so poorly? Why was teacher Kitano asked how "they" were selected? They should all have known and feared the process and institution created by the BR Act. That said, the character development was better in Battle Royale. Even though there were more competitors, each had their time on camera and I felt I at least understood what happened to them. Not so with The Hunger Games where half of the crew could just as easily have worn Red Shirts. But that also says something about the focus of the story. The Hunger Games is much more about the society and more movie time is spent on underscoring the unjust nature of Panem where as Battle Royale is much more about specific individuals and their struggles in life.

In the end, I have to say that I liked both movies - and to me, that's the only similarity that matters.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Letter to eBay - bogus fee

Here's something I sent to eBay today.

For those who don't sell on eBay, here's the 411. eBay makes money in a number of ways. As a seller, you can be charged when you list an item for sale (depending on how prominently you list the item, the number of pictures you post, etc); you can be charged after the item is sold (with a percentage of the closing price that is the Final Value Fee (FVF); you can be charged for your use of PayPal which is owned by eBay (a percentage of the payment made).

For the most part, I don't mind the fees - eBay provides a means for me to sell certain items that I otherwise would not sell so it's a win-win for everyone. What I object to is the sneaky stuff; the unexpected; and frankly the unfair. In the past, eBay has never charged a FVF on the fee a buyer pays for shipping. This makes sense - the buyer is paying the seller to pack the goods and send it in some manner. A seller typically enters the weight of the item and lets the buyer select from one or more delivery services. Pretty straightforward and accurate. Buyer pays seller to ship, seller ships, done.

Some sellers try and bend the rules by artificially setting very high shipping rates. They know that buyers won't bid up the item as much since buyers tend to look at the overall cost - item + shipping. For those sellers, they end up selling items for less but still receive the same overall fee when shipping is added. And best of all, since the FVF is charged only on the closing price, they pay eBay less. As a buyer, I've seen a few such sellers but not many - they are rare as far as I can tell.

Sometime this year (April '11?) eBay responded by charging a FVF on shipping. I wasn't aware of this until today. Below is the letter I sent them. To me, this fee falls in the above-mentioned sneaky and unfair category. Not that eBay cares of course. I won't get a response since I used the general feedback web page. But does feel good just to send it.

"You must hate sellers. Really. I guess I've been too trusting; never scrutinizing your invoice. Today I took a look and finally noticed that you now charge a FVF on shipping. WTF!

I try to be honest with my buyers and only charge what I pay to ship. I never realized that you were robbing me all along. Tell me, what's the point of entering an accurate package weight and shipping method if you only get to actually see 91% of it?

I called eBay customer service about this today. I was told I could avoid FVF on shipping by providing Free Shipping! Now that's brilliant! Now I get to pay the entire shipping cost instead of just the 9% you took. I was then told I should start the auction at a higher price to cover the cost of shipping. So now that just moves the FVF on shipping to FVF on the item. You come out the same, the customer pays more and usually, that means they don't bid as high so guess who loses. Customer service must think the sellers are all idiots. Or maybe most are like me and never noticed the change.

I know a few former eBayers. They're "former" because they're fed up with your nonsense. You see, I don't mind the FVF on the item's closing price; that's an HONEST fee. But the FVF on shipping? That's underhanded fine-print-like sneaky stuff. It smells; it's rotten. And there's no way for a seller to compensate because the best we can do is add a flat S&H fee (oops, there goes another 9%), not a percentage like you're taking.

In case you haven't figured this out, at the end of the day, it's about the integrity of the process. You've failed with this one."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yet another reason why you can't always get that great gas mileage

It's funny what happens when gas prices go up. All of a sudden, that new generation automobile - the same make and model one you have - now gets better mileage. Especially on the highway. Did it go hybrid? No. Is the engine smaller? Oh no, they'll never do that! Wow, something great must have happened right? After all, necessity is the mother of invention and soaring gas prices sure make better mileage a necessity. At least in the marketing brochures.

A lot has been said about the deficiencies of the existing EPA mileage rating system. Among the known problems - they don't represent real-world driving conditions where accelerations are quicker for instance. The EPA changed the measurement system once recently when mileage ratings for hybrids came out looking a whole lot better than reality. They're supposed to be looking at them again.

For me, the mileage I got used to be almost spot on with that on the window sticker. Not anymore. What changed? Was it the car or the testing? For me, the answer is a little of both. On the highway, my Civic can get upwards of 39 mpg or as low as 30 mpg; depending on which highway. What's the difference?

It all starts with where you're driving. To measure mileage, the testing is done on a dynamometer. The car itself doesn't go anywhere no matter how fast or slow the wheels are turning. And most important of all, it's on level ground. We all know that climbing a hill is harder work than walking on level ground; well the dynamometer only knows level ground. When I'm cruising down I-95 in the Carolinas, that's flat ground. When I'm traveling through the Berkshires, that's not. In my previous cars, this hardly mattered. The testing was no different - still on a dyno but the key is that my transmission never changed gears - it stayed in top gear.

To improve mileage, automakers have been adding gears. During the 80's and 90's a typical manual transmission had 5 forward speeds and an automatic had 4. In the US, automatics far outsell manuals so what has happened in recent years is that a 5th and sometimes 6th forward gear has been added. Talk about overdrive! Take the Hundai Sonata for instance. Starting with the 2011 model, the new 6 speed tranny bumped the highway mileage estimate from 32 in the 2010 model to 35. True, these are very different models - a new "generation" Sonata but the engine is the same and so is the rough overall weight. And it's not just Hundai of course. Just about every manufacturer across the board has done so.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good thing. If anything, it's too bad they waited until gas prices soared before adding more gears. But there's a potential downside. If you live or commute through roads that are not table-top flat, that great mileage suddenly looks deceiving. What happens is that the last gear - the one added to make the highway mileage spec look better, only works on relatively level ground. Put a load on the engine - like say going up a hill, and you drop a gear. Here in New England, there's hills everywhere and that means you can expect to shift up and down a lot even on the highway. Don't expect to hold top gear. And because that top-notch mileage number is the result of a dyno test, it bears little resemblance to hills. It knows nothing about downshifting on the highway. Testing and reality just don't see eye-to-eye.

But wait, if the top gear was added for mileage reasons, and you drop out of it, doesn't that mean that mileage should be at least as good as the previous model without the extra gear? One would think so, but that's not quite right either. The problem is that when a new gear is added, the other gears are often moved a bit. So the 4th gear out of 5 is not where it used to be when there were only 4 gears and so the mileage in 4th gear is lower when downshifted than when it's the top gear.

So the overall effect is both one of the car's design and that of the testing conditions. Again, there's nothing wrong with the better highway numbers - drivers living in areas of flat terrain certainly benefit from it all. But it'd be nice if the EPA could also provide another number that shows what happens in less than ideal highway driving conditions so that consumers are better informed, and have more accurate expectations, at the time of purchase.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

hospital corners make me sick

After a couple of recent stays in hotels, I came away more convinced than ever that hospital corners should be classified as torture by the Geneva convention.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick Google search and lo and behold, the first page of results is all about how to make that perfect corner. But I'm looking for an explanation; as in "why would anyone subject themselves to sleeping in a bed where there's no room for their feet?".

Now I don't know about the rest of you but when I'm lying down on my back, my feet don't point sideways. They point up; as in up-to-the-ceiling up. OK, so gravity may angle them sideways a little. But just a little. And I like to move my feet, not to mention the rest of me. After all I can't just drop onto a bed and fall asleep exactly where I landed; not when sober at least. So the first thing I do when I come feet to feet with hospital corners is kick them. That's kick them straight up. Some hotels seem to have over achieving staffs and it can take upwards of 3 or more kicks to loosen the sheets. But I can live with that. What I can't live with is folding my feet sideways while sleeping. Maybe the inventor of the hospital corner was a side-sleepers. Or just a really, really mean person. Either way, to me, it's a simple case of visual aesthetic not seeing eye to eye with comfortable reality.

Then there are people like my wife, who prefers fully made, perfect, hospital corners all the time. She must have the retractable foot gene.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Paperless Banking, Technology and the Human Factor

Technology can be a good thing. Of course, the big technology thing these days is the internet. Everywhere you look, it's internet this and internet that. Banking is no different. There is online banking, electronic payment, and now there's paperless banking.

Bank of America just sent me my latest monthly statement. And there sitting between my non-existent interest earnings for the month and the list of electronic withdrawals was a single line that said:

 Check Image Service Fee   $3.00

Let's rewind the clock shall we?

A few years ago, the banking industry lobbied Congress to pass Check21, legislation that changed the time honored process of check cashing. When you write a check, it eventually makes its way back to you with a cancellation mark to show that it was cashed. That canceled check is proof of payment. The banks claimed that check processing was too expensive and scanning technology was sufficient to protect consumers. A physical check was no longer required as long as an image of the check could be accepted legally in its place. And so it was that Check21 was passed (though the legislation did not require the savings to be passed on to the consumer).

Needless to say, this "Check Image Service Fee" seemed strange to me. After all if the banking industry wanted check scanning, why are they charging for it now? So I visited my local BoA branch office and confirmed that this is in fact not a fee to image (scan) your checks but rather to send you a copy of the images. Your check's images still exist on some computer at the bank. This is really a printing fee. In my case, this amounts to one side of one double sided page of my entire monthly statement. That's some expensive printing.

So I turned to Google and found some banking industry website that described this practice as "weening the consumer" to paperless banking. The $3 is artificially large enough to entice you and I to not want check images. How much do you want to bet that in due time, additional charges will show up to print any statement at all. The end goal is to be entirely paperless and this is the first salvo.

Truth be told, I'm no fan of receiving tons of paper from my bank or any other institution for that matter. So long as I can get access to the documents I want, when I want them, I prefer to save a tree. BoA told me that I can print out the scans anytime I want. But I do wonder - if some day I change banks and later realized that I needed an image for a particular check written years earlier, how easy will it be to get access to that image as an ex-customer?

So now I have this $3.00 charge but I don't feel like paying it. The very nice teller at BoA did two things. First she got rid of the charge since she says the company did a poor job of notifying its customers of the pending charge (I concur). Second, she tweaked a setting in my account profile stating that I no longer want those check images (I did what BoA wanted; Pavlov would be proud). I bet I could have saved some time by tweaking that setting myself online, if I poked around long enough. But saving myself a whopping $3 could only be done by a teller with the authority to perform the "fix". Which makes me wonder if this is just going to increase foot traffic at the branch offices to "fix" this and that. This would be ironic since many banks are now charging you fees each time you use a teller.

Years ago, I wrote a $9.00 check. On my statement it rang in at $900.00. That's the only time I can recall when I absolutely needed my canceled check to prove that some data entry person hit that "00" button twice when cashing my check. Likewise, looking back, I can only recall a few times when I absolutely had to have access to a teller, a real human being sitting directly in front of me fixing a problem. The other 99.99% of the time my bank was already as good as a paperless entity. So is the shift to paperless banking going to really affect me? Probably not; as long as I avoid the 0.01%.

About a week after my $3.00 surprise, I received another statement from BoA. This one is for a line of credit that I never use. I get a statement like this about once a year. It reads in part:

  Previous balance: $0
  New balance: $0
  Minimum payment due: $0

Hey BoA, I have an idea about paperless statements you may want to look into...