Pope Francis gets it (mostly) wrong on families

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

Pope Francis, address to Congress, 9/24/2015

Many liberals adore Pope Francis. I can certainly describe him as a significant improvement over some of his predecessors.

But that’s faint praise considering what some of his predecessors did. Gregory IX started the Inquisition, and Sixtus IV instituted the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Leo X’s sale of indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation, which led to decades of extremely bloody wars. Pius XII was a Nazi sympathizer, whose silence on the Holocaust enabled Hitler to go unchecked.  John Paul II sought to contain much of the progress the church achieved with Vatican II.  His doctrinaire enforcer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, succeeded him as Benedict XVI. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI (to say nothing of popes before them) looked the other way on pedophile priests at the same time they staunchly condemned homosexuality as “an intrinsic moral evil.”

Returning to Pope Francis, while his statements about immigration, climate change, and economic inequality are music to my progressive ears, I cringed when he started talking about the family. Because he sounded an awful lot like his immediate predecessors.

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.

Pope John Paul II, 2003

Education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

Now, perhaps Francis, with his “Who am I to judge?” attitude has gone about as far to the left as he can realistically go on this issue, but to imply that same-sex marriage is a threat to “the very basis of marriage and family” makes him part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

A little bit right

When Francis said, “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future,” I was right there with him.

In agrarian societies, procreation was a means to wealth. The more children, the more laborers available for the farm. But today, a large family is typically a financial liability rather than an asset. Kids are expensive, and they go to school when kids from generations before them were out working in the fields. Industrialization, child labor laws, and free, mandatory public education changed the equation dramatically.

There are, of course, people who desire to have families — even large families — but they cannot do so because they cannot afford it. Francis was sensitive to their concerns, and so am I. The cry “If you can’t afford kids, don’t have them” seems like it could be a real problem for conservatives who claim to be so interested in protecting families.

Wrong again

You might say that my less-than-ideal financial situation has dissuaded me from starting a family, and that would certainly be one reason. But it’s not even the primary reason. I just don’t want the responsibility of being a parent.

Francis’s reasoning here suggests that it’s ideal for everyone to start a family (that is, marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate with that person), and other “options” are somehow a negative thing.

Considering the pope’s views on climate change, how can he also say that these other options (like contraception) are a negative thing? The more people we make, the more energy we use and the more damage we do to the planet. If Pope Francis is really concerned about climate change, perhaps he should revisit the church’s position on contraception and recognize that being childless is a legitimate option.

An olive branch — and some stern advice — to religious moderates

Moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists.

Sam Harris

Are all or even most religious people wacky and dangerous fundamentalists? No. I have never thought this to be the case. Some people have assumed that I thought this, but they assumed incorrectly. So let me set the record straight on that.

But, like Sam Harris said, religious moderates can be dangerous in a subtler and probably unintended way.

For example, I posted a news article about Pat Robertson blaming the recent downturn in the stock market on God’s judgment for same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood. This is obviously a dangerous notion, particularly for a man with a TV audience of about 1 million people each day. Here’s the actual footage from his program, The 700 Club.

This was the first comment on my post (edited for grammar only).

Yeah. Crazy. I get it. But people in this world abuse anything. Sex. Drugs. Marriage. You name it. But I think you want to transpose Pat Roberts, Creflo Dollar, et al to your own disdain for God and religion. Look around you. See the wonder of this world. The complexity of life wasn’t accidentally contained in the “Big Bang.” Yes, I don’t know why we are in a world w/such atrocities and inequality, but I also know the vast, vast majority of the people in this world are good. My wish for you is that you’ll stop celebrating the “fringe” and realize there ‘s a God who loves us.

And it’s an understandable response. Religious moderates tend to be peacemakers, and that’s a quality that I admire. But what responses like that do is insulate the real extremists like Pat Robertson from any kind of criticism. They say, “You shouldn’t talk about this.”

But, for you religious moderates out there, I think that’s a misguided approach. These people are making your entire faith look very bad…and if anyone should be calling them out loudly, it’s you. Because when you fail to do this, you’re leaving it up to outsiders like me who don’t really have a vested interest in drawing such fine distinctions.

In the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell has made a point about the importance of “protecting the shield” (the NFL logo). You can decide for yourself if he has lived up to that standard, but that idea was an excellent justification for stronger policing of the league that he runs. When he comes down hard on players and even owners within the league for bad behavior, he sends a signal to the world that this behavior doesn’t represent the NFL shield. (And when he fails to do so adequately, as he did with the Ray Rice situation, he sends the opposite message to the world.)

To make matters worse for you, it’s the fundamentalists who are the most visible ambassadors for your faith. They’re the ones who make the news or have television shows. (Pope Francis is a notable exception to this, but even he is still somewhat homophobic.) If you want others to see that you’re “not all like that,” get out there forcefully and declare it. Isolate the fundamentalists. There’s nothing wrong with being vocal and forceful, even though moderates are probably less naturally inclined to do so.

This is not just true of Christianity…the image much of the world sees of Islam is ISIS, which is an unfortunate representation of a religion covering approximately 1 billion people in virtually every nation on earth.

It’s just human nature to paint groups of people with a broad brush, especially when we don’t regularly interact with them on an individual basis. I’m certainly not immune from this tendency, but I do consciously work on it. Police officers profile African-Americans, and now African-Americans are profiling police officers.

Should you really buy a Christmas gift for your second cousin twice removed?

When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.

When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.

But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.

Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)

We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.

It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.

What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.

Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).

It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.

As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.

Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?

AirDroid, Continuity and PushBullet might just change your life

Chances are, you’ve never heard of AirDroid, Continuity, or PushBullet. But one of them might just change your life for the better.

Battery life blues

Just about every smartphone owner knows the pain of always looking for an outlet; trying to avoid running out of juice for their all-important devices. I know I have a major problem with this; always fighting with the battery indicator on my LG/Google Nexus 5 and often watching helplessly as the device shuts down at the worst possible time. Just last night I was walking on the indoor track at a nearby park’s fitness center, and I needed some music to keep me going. Unfortunately, due to a dead battery, my phone was not in the mood to work out with me.

Surfing on a sofa with a smartphone seems silly

One of the reasons I struggle is that I use my smartphone a lot at home when there are other devices (my Lenovo Yoga 11S hybrid laptop and my first-generation iPad Mini) that are far better suited to the tasks of web browsing, reading and watching videos at home than my smartphone would ever be. The screens are substantially larger (which better for my eyesight), and I get very good battery life from them.

Yet I often lie back on my sofa and hold my smartphone up to surf, read, etc. But why? Because I didn’t want to miss an incoming text message while my phone was plugged in. As great as my Lenovo Yoga and iPad Mini are as devices, I could neither send nor receive my phone’s text messages on them.

Enter AirDroid

Although you don't have to use this feature to see notifications from your phone, AirDroid's AirMirror feature enables you to mirror your smartphone's screen to your PC or Mac. Image courtesy of AirDroid / Sand Studio.
Although you don’t have to use this feature to see notifications from your phone, AirDroid’s AirMirror feature enables you to mirror your smartphone’s entire screen to your PC or Mac…and you can control your phone with your computer keyboard and mouse.
Image courtesy of AirDroid / Sand Studio.

There are two parts to AirDroid: a free app for your Android smartphone and a free companion app for your computer (Windows or Mac) or a web-based client. I even used it on my iPad Mini.

Not only can you see these notifications on your computer, you can respond to them on your computer. You can have entire text message conversations without ever touching your phone.

You can even mirror your phone’s screen with a feature called AirMirror. This is quite useful when you want to see an entire text message thread or if you need to operate a specific app on your phone that doesn’t have an equivalent on your PC. Because I have a Nexus 5, which is always kept up to date with the very latest version of Android, the AirMirror feature is still catching up to my phone. So I haven’t really gotten to test that out yet.

I don’t see myself using it much, but AirDroid also offers convenient wireless file transfers from your computer to your phone.

If you have more Android smartphone users than computers in your household, you might want to pony up $19.99 per year for the premium version of AirDroid, which can support up to six smartphones on a single computer along with some other nifty features that I will probably never use.

Don’t feel left out if you don’t use Android

AirDroid, as it names suggests, is only for Android smartphones. That means no support for iPhones, BlackBerry phones, or Windows phones.

If you have any two of the following: iPhone, iPad or Mac computer, you may be able to use Continuity, a new feature that integrates iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite so you can send text messages, make iPhone calls, and mirror your screen right from your Mac or iPad. It’s essentially the same as AirDroid but for the Apple-centric crowd.

For other users, I’d like to recommend PushBullet instead. PushBullet is like a scaled down version of AirDroid, but it does the most important thing equally well: sending and receiving text messages. PushBullet is compatible with Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Phone.

PushBullet can also work as a browser extension for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and (coming soon) Safari. The Chrome browser support is indispensable for people who use Chromebooks instead of traditional Windows or Mac computers.

The Big A-Ha

Since you’re not touching your phone while you use one of these apps, you can charge it even in another room and leave the screen off. For me, the screen is always my #1 battery life culprit, and even using the screen while your phone is plugged in prevents it from charging as quickly as it otherwise could.

I can operate my laptop while plugged in even if the battery is totally dead. Some people even operate their laptops plugged in with the battery removed. My smartphone provides me with no such luxury; it won’t even power on while plugged in unless there is enough power in the battery to run it.

Better yet, since my phone is free to charge with the screen off, it’s far more likely to be fully charged when I really need it: away from home and away from power outlets. And that’s a very big deal.

Do camera industry engineers have moms?

A few months ago, my mother dropped her trusty old Fujifilm Finepix S3100 camera (circa 2004) and broke it for good. She really loved that thing…all 4 megapixels, 1.5-inch LCD screen, 6X zoom, and ISO 250 of it. It had an electronic viewfinder, it was dead-simple to operate, and it felt comfortable in her hand thanks to the deep ergonomic grip. She didn’t care if it took terrible, blurry photos of her retirement party with all her friends present (it was a dark room). That camera just fit her.

Since I take a lot of photos, she enlisted me to help her find a replacement. I have to admit, I really enjoy researching these things, so I was happy to help. Unfortunately, the camera industry let her down.

Smartphone cameras are getting smarter all the time, but…

The first question was whether she needed a dedicated camera at all or whether she could just go out and get a smartphone and use that camera all the time. After all, smartphone cameras keep getting better all the time. But my mother likes to take a lot of photos of birds that visit her feeder, and she got really used to the viewfinder on her old camera. I reminded her that the vast majority of smartphone cameras don’t have optical zoom lenses (yet) or eye-level viewfinders (probably ever), and that convinced her that she really did want a dedicated camera.

Fixed-lens cameras are getting smarter still

Fujifilm FinePix S3100
The Fujifilm FinePix S3100 — my mother’s old camera, circa 2004. It offered a whopping 4 megapixels of resolution, a 1.5-inch LCD screen. and a maximum ISO of 250. 

Because of the rapid improvements to smartphone camera technology, manufacturers of point-and-shoot cameras have had to raise their photography game to compete, and that’s a wonderful thing. The lines are blurring between fixed-lens (a.k.a. “point-and-shoot”) cameras, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and digital SLRs. The public has started to catch on about the diminishing returns on ever-increasing megapixel counts and absurd zoom ranges, so the trend now is toward larger image sensors and wider-aperture (“faster”) lenses — for better results in low light.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K has a huge 60X zoom lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 20mm to 1200mm. Image courtesy of Panasonic.

As the LCD screens on compact cameras have gotten larger and brighter, the public’s demand for cameras with eye-level viewfinders has waned. And that means cameras with viewfinders are becoming harder to find. Even long-zoom compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot SX510 HS (with a 30X optical zoom) are ditching the viewfinder to cut down on costs and bulk. (I don’t think this is a good trend; framing your shot through an eye-level viewfinder enables you to hold the camera steadier, and even the biggest, brightest LCD screen is hard to see in bright sunlight. This is especially important in low light and when using a long lens. Even though my Olympus Pen E-PL5 mirrorless camera did not come with a built-in electronic viewfinder, I bought an accessory EVF.)

For the most part, electronic viewfinders have been relegated to cameras with extremely long zoom lenses. One camera that my mother considered was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K…particularly for its viewfinder. But when she saw the way it looked with its 60X zoom lens extended, she bristled at how bulky and awkward it was. Besides, these ridiculous megazoom focal lengths are a bad idea anyway.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocket camera with a small electronic viewfinder. Image courtesy of Panasonic Market.

So now we had three requirements:

  1. An eye-level electronic viewfinder.
  2. A maximum price of $300, or thereabout.
  3. Not enormous.

Getting two out of three would be easy, but getting all three would present a significant challenge. There are lots of fine and pocketable cameras under $300, but they don’t have eye-level viewfinders. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K discussed above had a viewfinder and a low price of $249.99, but it was huge. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC0RX100 Mark III was compact, and it had an innovative pop-up viewfinder, but it also came with a sticker price of $799.99.

And then, miraculously it seemed, I discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocketable (or purse-able) camera with an electronic viewfinder and a low sticker price of $249.99. It even had an extra large 1/1.7″ image sensor, which gave it an extra stop of ISO flexibility compared with regular fixed-lens cameras. I thought this would be the camera that would make her forget all about her old Fuji.

I read the glowing expert reviews and recommended it to my mom. She bought one, but she’s still missing her old Fuji friend. But why?

Smaller is not always better

There’s an old saying among photographers that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s obviously true: that expensive full-frame dSLR with the massive lenses may be able to take beautiful photos when you have it, but if you find yourself leaving it behind all the time due to the bulk and weight, then it’s not doing you much good. Even the best camera is useless when it sits on a shelf.

But I’m learning that there’s a flipside to this: a camera that trades good ergonomic design for compactness might also get left on the shelf. And that goes double for my mother, who has impaired vision even with her eyeglasses and has endured carpal tunnel surgery on both of her wrists. That might have been why she dropped the old camera in the first place.

Take a look at how each camera is designed.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 Fujifilm FinePix S3100
Front View

LF1 front
The LF1 is a small, pocketable camera. It has a control ring around the lens that allows the user to adjust settings.

Fujifilm FinePix S3100 front view
The S3100 is a squat, stout camera that feels a bit more like a digital SLR than a compact camera. It’s substantially bulkier than the LF1.
Top View

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 top view
The LF1 has a mode dial with 10 modes. The On/Off button is placed on the outside edge of the camera, which can cause you to turn off the camera accidentally when reaching for the shutter. The zoom controls are connected to the shutter button, which means you can zoom and snap with the same finger.

Fujifilm FinePix S3100 Top View
The S3100 has a deep rubberized grip to wrap your hand around. The mode dial is simple, with only four modes. The flash pops up thanks to a dedicated button on the lefthand side.
Rear View

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 rear view
The LF1 has a large 3.0-inch LCD screen on the back and a tiny 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder in the upper lefthand corner. A dial surrounds a rocker button which controls the flash, macro mode, burst mode and exposure. There is a menu button in the middle of the rocker. At the lower-right, a button works for deleting images, the Quick Menu and as a “back” button on the menus. It’s awkward, and I would have preferred more physical buttons and a larger EVF, even if it meant a slightly smaller LCD screen or a slightly larger camera.

The S3100 was a simpler camera from a simpler time. The 1.5-inch LCD screen is small and dim by today’s standards, but the viewfinder was larger (0.33 inches), and the buttons are more straightforward. I don’t care for the zoom controls being on the back. But it was quite a bit less intimidating to use.
Images courtesy of Adorama. Images courtesy of The Imaging Resource.

The 0.2-inch viewfinder on her new Panasonic is so small that she can’t see out of it, so it did not truly meet requirement #1. If Panasonic had made this camera just a little taller to accommodate a larger viewfinder, it would have made a vast difference without adding much bulk. A small handgrip on the front would have also been helpful while still keeping it in pocket camera territory.

For some reason, Panasonic opted to place the On/Off button on the outside edge of the camera so that she has to reach over it in order to get to the shutter button…which has caused her to inadvertently shut off the camera when she’s trying to snap a photo. I have read a lot of user reviews on this camera, and apparently she was far from the only one who has struggled with this problem.

By contrast, the S3100 had a deep grip for her to really wrap her hand around, and she had to turn a dial to turn it on and off. That seems wrong to me too because it did not allow for zooming in and out with the same finger that controlled the shutter button (the zoom control was on the back), but at least she didn’t find herself inadvertently turning the camera off. And, if she dropped a camera with a grip like that, her new gripless camera is even more vulnerable.

A smarter camera does not always lead to better photos

Here’s a blurry photo from the Pets scene mode. This room gets pretty dark, but the camera SHOULD have chosen a higher ISO setting to allow for a faster shutter speed in low light to prevent the image from becoming blurry. A noisy image is better than a blurry one. Image courtesy of Mom.

Check out the mode dials on the top of each camera as well. The Fuji had four modes: auto, movie (240p, which is not even standard definition), manual and a scene mode with four scene options. But with such severe ISO limitations and a lens that ranged in maximum aperture from f2.8 to f8.7 across the zoom range, even the manual controls were quite limited.

By contrast, the Panasonic has a maximum ISO of 12,800 — and it can produce relatively noise-free images up to ISO 1600. The zoom lens ranges in maximum aperture from f2.0 to f5.9 across the zoom range, so that’s a significant improvement. It offers 10 modes: intelligent auto, program, creative control, shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, movie (1080p full HD), a scene mode with 16 scene options, and two fully customizable modes.

My mom got overwhelmed by it all — she just wanted a camera that she could simply point and shoot. Yes, the intelligent auto mode allows that, but my hope was that she would venture out of this mode and get a little more ambitious. But the camera doesn’t do a good job of making this easy. Shutter priority mode should, by default, show the aperture, ISO and exposure values so that you can see the consequences of your shutter speed decisions. And the scene modes don’t help much either: the blurry cat photo was taken in “Pets” mode.

Bread Cornucopia
My mom took a photo of a lovely bread cornucopia she made for Thanksgiving. This room was a bit brighter, and obviously the subject was not moving around. It still looks just a tad underexposed, but it’s quite sharp.

Quite frankly, even I as a photography enthusiast struggled to find all of the settings on this camera. Trying to set up the WiFi Smart Transfer feature was an exercise in frustration, primarily because the camera’s text entry does not allow for spaces. Not very smart.

The LF1 had a lot of promise, and it does take excellent photos once you figure it out how to set it. But you shouldn’t have to set it quite so much to begin with. It should just work out of the box. Maybe the successor to the LF1 will correct these problems and be a much better camera for it.

So I have a message for the camera industry: you can come up with all of the whiz-bang features you want, but unless they work intuitively and you get the ergonomics right, you won’t sell many more dedicated cameras. If you’re not sure about how to best design something, ask yourself if it would make sense to your mom.

The Internet might just make rabbit ears obsolete for local television

Have you ever had to use rabbit ears to pick up a local TV signal? I have, and I’d say most of us have as well at some point in our lives.

Quite frankly, it sucks.

Last year, I embarked on a cord-cutting experiment in order to save the money I had been spending on cable television. It is easier now than ever with online services like Netflix to provide affordable content and DTV broadcasts.

Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that has transformed the television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, and multiple channels of programming. Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format.

Federal Communications Commission

Despite these technological advancements and my modern flat-panel HDTV purchased new in 2010, my experiment failed miserably.

Apart from missing the programming from certain cable channels that could not be substituted online (I’m looking at you, ESPN), the most annoying thing was having to constantly adjust my antenna to get a good picture only to have it flake out on me a minute or two later. An omnidirectional antenna was still just as flaky, and I couldn’t even adjust it.

I live in the city — within 10 miles of all the local broadcast transmitters, in fact — so it wasn’t a matter of distance. I bought a newer amplified antenna that was a step above the basic, so there was no good reason why I should have trouble. Of course, in the city, there are a lot of tall buildings around that can interfere, but there is nothing especially tall between my apartment and any of the transmitters. I even contacted one of the local broadcast stations and told the engineer where I lived — he said something to the effect of “From where you are, you should be able to get a clear picture with a paper clip.”

Very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that I decided to pony up the cash and reinstate my cable TV subscription. There just seemed to be an inevitability about paying for television, and to me that payment was worth avoiding a lot of frustration.

Since that time, a few things have happened that lead me to believe this won’t be so inevitable for long.

  • Broadcaster/network/provider contract disputes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely intensifying. Here in Indianapolis, the parent company of local CBS affiliate WISH-TV refused to pay the CBS Network more money for broadcasting rights to network programming, so CBS just found another local station (WTTV-TV) whose parent company was willing to pony up. On a related note, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR-TV) got involved in a contract dispute with DirecTV that led to a brief discontinuation of NBC programming for DirecTV subscribers. The dispute was resolved, presumably with DirecTV paying WTHR more money…and those subscribers ultimately paying higher bills for the privilege. Presumably the pressure from WTHR to insist on more money came from having to pay higher broadcasting rights fees to NBC. And the pressure on both the NBC and CBS networks to charge the affiliates higher rates is coming largely from sports — especially the NFL. It was no coincidence that DirecTV and WTHR resolved the dispute just in time to get an important Sunday Night Football game involving the Indianapolis Colts back on the air.
  • Broadcast networks offering online subscriptions. In addition to Netflix, television networks have increasingly begun to post programming online…it’s a good way to catch up on missed episodes and the like. But CBS recently made a much bolder move: offering online-only paid subscriptions to live television and archived episodes. If the other major broadcast networks follow suit, then that will enable them to completely bypass the local affiliates and go directly to viewers.
  • Local news online. Those affiliates are even beginning to broadcast their local news shows on a live online stream as an alternative to over-the-air or cable/satellite.
  • Easier ways to get online programming onto the TV screen. One of my favorite gadgets is Google’s Chromecast. It’s small, it only costs $35, and it can use your WiFi connection to beam whatever is on your smart phone, tablet or on the Chrome browser on your PC to your TV with the touch of a button. I have one plugged into one of my TV’s HDMI ports, and I use it frequently. Now that the Chromecast device has been out for over a year, it has dramatically improved in terms of app support and full-screen casting. Dead simple. And even local affiliate stations are coming out with their own apps.

So, that begs the question, why do we need to broadcast television over the air at all anymore? The obstacles are more on the business side than the technology side. Here’s where the FCC needs to be bold (but probably won’t be).

  • Preserve net neutrality. Video content takes up a large amount of bandwidth (especially high-definition and 4K video), so it’s important not to have the telecom companies create slow and fast lanes. After all, the concepts that I’m talking about that could save costs for consumers are a major threat to their cash cow business. Right now, the FCC is taking public comments on this issue — so make your voice heard!
  • Mandate live, free Internet streaming for all over-the-air broadcasts. By law, television stations are supposed to be operating in the public’s interest. As a condition of having a broadcast frequency, the FCC could also mandate that the affiliates provide the same content over the Internet. At the very least, they should have to stream the locally produced content like the local news. This should not be too difficult a hurdle because a lot of stations are already doing this. Now that we have made the full transition to DTV, all of the video content is already digital anyway. But ideally they should also have to stream the network content too for people within their broadcasting area. The programming is free by antenna, so why shouldn’t it be free online?
  • Complete the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is already hard at work implementing the National Broadband Plan, which should dramatically expand high-speed Internet access across the nation. Now that the DTV transition is complete, the older analog television frequencies have gone to emergency response, and the remainder will be auctioned off — presumably to telecommunications companies. The FCC estimates that there are about 7 million households currently without any access to broadband Internet at any price because they are located in sparsely populated areas where telecommunications companies could not expect much of a return on their infrastructure investments. Of course, having broadband access available for a price does not equate to actually having broadband access.
  • Auction off the DTV spectrum. Just as the FCC is auctioning off the portion of the analog TV spectrum not being used by emergency responders, it could also raise funds by auctioning off the DTV spectrum and using those funds to help subsidize broadband Internet access for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, just like the National Broadband Plan is. With a mandate already in place to live stream all broadcast content, local TV stations would not need to change much.

Hopefully by this point in time — let’s say 10 to 15 years into the future — almost no one would still be using a TV without at least an HDMI port. And we already have lots of cheap Internet-based devices today like the Chromecast or Roku that could simply have buttons for local channels right next to their Netflix buttons. It would not be a huge leap. Much like the FCC created a coupon program for DTV converters, they could create something similar for an Internet-based device like this.

Television stations, of course, make their money from advertising, and the amount advertisers are willing to pay is driven by Nielsen ratings. But even Nielsen has said that Internet-based devices have reduced overall television viewership. Of course, you can still measure the number of hits a video receives (see everything on YouTube), and online video advertising is quite common these days. Getting the type of demographic information that Nielsen measures is a little harder than that, but having users complete a web-based questionnaire is a lot easier than having Nielsen install boxes in people’s homes. The Internet provides a far larger sample size to measure all the hits — not just a select few to extrapolate from.

What do you think? What other obstacles might there be to permanently throwing away the rabbit ears and the huge rooftop antennas?

Stop the megazoom insanity

Note: If you are not familiar with basic photography terms like exposure, sensor, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and focal length, this article will make a lot more sense after you read a primer on photography. I recommend Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 of the Photo Basics Series. Really, the whole series is worth a read if you’re a beginner.

Trouble of their own making

The camera industry is in trouble once again, and camera manufacturers only have themselves to blame.

Just as the advent of digital photography killed the film business, the advent of smartphone cameras is taking a major bite out of demand for dedicated consumer cameras. Smartphone cameras have gotten so good, in fact, that the best ones can replace entry-level “point-and-shoot” cameras.

Enthusiast and professional photographers seem to be undeterred from buying and upgrading high-end gear, but the mass market is shifting.

What went wrong?

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/
A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

For years, digital camera manufacturers sold new point-and-shoot models in droves and then convinced consumers that they could take much better pictures if they only upgraded to a new model with a longer zoom lens and more megapixels. For example, the Nikon Coolpix P600 has a 16-megapixel sensor and a 60X zoom lens.

While there were indeed some legitimate improvements in consumer camera technology during that period — the move from CCD-based to CMOS-based sensors led to huge gains in low light performance — consumers would need to dive deep into the spec sheet to notice gains in ISO flexibility. The megapixel counts and the zoom ranges, on the other hand, were printed right on the camera itself.

Yet these were exactly the wrong things for consumers to key in on when buying a camera. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of ever-increasing megapixel counts on consumer cameras, including smartphones. But now I want to talk about why you probably don’t want a point-and-shoot camera with a 60X zoom lens.

What you should know about super-telephoto lenses

We’ve all seen the professional sports and wildlife photographers standing behind their massive telephoto lenses mounted on monopods, and maybe we wanted to be just like them.

A pro like this is most likely operating a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) to match the image size on a roll of 35mm film, so just to keep things consistent, I’ll talk about lenses in terms of full-frame equivalency.

If a professional wildlife photographer with a Canon camera wanted a really long telephoto lens, he or she might buy this one: the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS II USM. Purchase price: $11,999.00. The lens is a massive 17.6 inches long and weighs in at 8.64 pounds, and the focal length is fixed at 600mm…no zooming.

Let’s compare that to the 60X lens on the Nikon Coolpix P600: when fully extended, it reaches out to 1440mm of focal length in 35mm terms: that’s more than twice what the long, $12,000 pro lens can do, and of course it’s much smaller and covers the whole focal range below 1440mm all the way down to 24mm while being much smaller.

Sounds great, right? A quasi-telescope that fits in your hand and takes pictures…all for under $400. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and there’s a reason that the pros buy huge $12,000 telephoto prime lenses to mount on their $7,000 full-frame DSLR camera bodies.

For the best possible image quality, a prime lens — that is, a lens with a fixed focal length and no zoom — is the way for a photographer with an interchangeable lens camera to go. Of course, sometimes pro photographers are willing to trade off a bit of image quality for the focal length versatility of a zoom lens. For example, the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. If you divide 200 by 70, you get 2.86. That’s not even a 3X optical zoom, and yet the sticker price is $1,449.00.

So why doesn’t it cover a longer focal length range? There are three reasons:

  1. Size. This lens is already 7.6 inches long and weighs 2.86 pounds. Increasing the focal length would make the lens nearly unbearable to carry. Lenses attached to cameras with full-frame sensors have to be wide, and the focal length is dependent on the distance of the lens from the sensor as well as the width. That’s why point-and-shoot cameras with smaller sensors can pack on very long lenses while still being able to fit in your hand…if the sensor is small, the lens does not have to be as wide to cover the sensor.
  2. Aperture. There are zoom lenses available for full-frame SLRs that are cheaper and smaller than that one with longer focal ranges, but that is because they have narrow apertures. For example, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens is only 5.6 inches long, weighs 1.39 pounds and costs “just” $649. Because of the laws of physics and light, the wide f2.8 aperture makes the 70-200mm lens even larger at a given focal length. (You may sometimes hear photographers refer a lens being “fast” or “slow.” A lens with a wide aperture like f2.8 across all focal lengths is considered to be “fast” because it’s more accommodating for fast shutter speeds.)
  3. Barrel distortion. Moving from a prime lens to a 2.86x zoom like this is already a tradeoff because zooms inherently distort the picture a little as compared to prime lenses. The longer the zoom range of a lens from the wide end to the telephoto end, the more the image is distorted, generally speaking. By distortion, I mean the image is actually bent out of shape a little. Some lens manufacturers, most notably Tamron, manufacture “all-in-one” zoom lenses for people (usually amateurs just starting out with an entry-level DSLR) willing to make this distortion tradeoff in exchange for not having to carry multiple zoom lenses, but even those compromised lenses tend to hover around the 10X to 12X range. And you never see these all-in-one lenses with constant fast apertures like f2.8 because they would have to be absolutely massive.

So, circling back to the Nikon P600, how good is that long zoom lens? Not very. First of all, the maximum aperture ranges from f3.3 at the wide end to f6.3 at the telephoto end. That f6.3 is a killer in low-light situations, and with a compact camera, you can’t raise the ISO much to compensate because your images will get noisy very quickly. And barrel distortion rears its very ugly head toward the wide end of the focal length range…turning your nice, straight vertical lines into slanted lines to the point where you might be reminded of the opening text crawl from the Star Wars films.

Back to that huge Canon 600mm f4 lens…there’s also a reason (besides just keeping it from tipping over) that photographers often mount super-telephoto lenses on monopods or tripods. It’s to keep the lens from shaking while taking a photo. At wide, normal, and even short telephoto focal lengths it’s not much of a concern, but in the super-telephoto range, a little shake of your hand can totally ruin your image. So if the professionals need help stabilizing a 600mm lens, do you really think you can keep your hands steady enough to shoot reliably at a 1440mm focal length without a tripod or monopod? (And, yes, that professional lens has image stabilization — hence the IS in the name.)

Better alternatives

Fortunately, there are some newer fixed-lens cameras on the market that can really help you take better photos with a viewfinder and plenty of zoom…by emphasizing more important specs than megapixel count or extreme zoom range. Unfortunately, they do tend to cost more than more ordinary megazooms like the Nikon P600.

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (MSRP $599) offers a somewhat more reasonable 24X zoom (25-600mm in full-frame terms) with a constant bright f2.8 aperture across the focal length range. Because this is still a point-and-shoot camera with a small, 1/2.3″ sensor, you should probably consider anything above ISO 800 as a last resort due to noise concerns. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects at long distances, like sports or wildlife because those require fast shutter speeds in order to avoid motion blur. So having an extra stop or two of light at the telephoto end can make a big difference — and the f2.8 aperture delivers. Even at the reduced focal length of 24X, you still get to the super-telephoto length of 600mm. Barrel distortion would still be a significant issue with a 24X lens, just not as much as it would be with a 60X lens.
  • At an MSRP of $899, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 is the FZ200’s big brother. Instead of a 1/2.3″ sensor, it has a larger 1″ sensor for improved image quality and cleaner photos at higher ISO settings. A larger, wider sensor requires a larger lens for the same focal length and aperture, so this one only manages a 16X zoom (25-400mm focal length range) with an f2.8-4 aperture across the focal length range. A 400mm zoom is still a lot — this is typical for the long lenses you see on the sidelines of soccer or football games, and f4 is a full stop brighter than f5.6, so it’s still somewhat “fast.”
  • The excellent Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 has dropped from its original sticker price of $1,299.00 to a slightly less shocking $999. Like the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, the Sony RX10 has a 1″ sensor. The RX10 has an 8.3X zoom, which provides a focal range of 24-200mm and a constant aperture of f2.8 across the focal range. The shorter zoom may cause you to miss out on some distant shots, but the photos you can get should look great. Another advantage of cameras with larger sensors and wide-aperture zoom lenses is that you can get shallow depth-of-field effects so you can have those dreamy defocused backgrounds with the foreground in focus.
  • The Olympus Stylus 1 (MSRP $599) falls somewhere in between the Panasonic FZ200 and the Sony RX10. It has a 1/1.7″ sensor, which is larger than the 1/2.3″ sensor in the FZ200 but smaller than the 1″ sensor in the RX10 and FZ1000. It also has a 10.7X zoom with a constant f2.8 aperture across the 28-300mm focal range.

Cameras like these will inevitably fall in price as technology improves, and that’s good for everyone. Right now, for about the same price, you can also get an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and maybe even a 2-lens kit for long zooming. Changing lenses isn’t all that difficult as long as you don’t mind carrying two lenses with you. You won’t get f2.8 lenses anywhere near this price range, but with big DSLR sensors, you can dial up the ISO with a lot less of a noise penalty than with a point-and-shoot camera, so you may not need such a fast lens. Those are for the professionals.

Just remember, that when it comes to megapixels and zoom, more isn’t always better.

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