Design for Time Well Spent

I’ve actually ended up doing quite a few on this list thanks to the limited storage and diminishing battery capacity on my iPhone 5s:

9 MINDFULNESS TIPS

How can we live more mindfully with technology today?

On iPhone:

  1. Create a Tools-Only Home Screen
    Limit your home screen to the top 4-6 tools you use frequently to get things done. Move all other apps off the first page and into folders.
  2. Open Other Apps by Typing
    Typing filters out unconscious choices while keeping conscious ones. Open apps by typing their name.
  3. Keep Only Two Pages of Apps
    With six pages of apps, we find ourselves swiping back and forth through them mindlessly. Keep to two pages, the first with tools and the other with folders.
  4. Turn Off Notifications, Except from People
    Only get notifications when people want your attention, not businesses or machines.
  5. Keep the M&M’s, but Hide the Wrappers
    Colorful icons are designed to trigger us to use apps unconsciously. Put these on the second or third page inside folders, and open them by typing instead.
  6. Stop Leaky Interactions
    Set your Alarm or Camera without unlocking your phone so you get kicked out automaticaly afterwards. Swipe up on the lock screen to quickly access.
  7. Reduce Phantom Buzzes with Custom Vibrations
    Create your own unambiguous vibration pattern to distinguish between when people need you vs. a machine. (Go to Settings > Notifications > Messages > Sounds > Vibration > Create New)
  8. Buy a Travel Alarm Clock and Charge Outside the Bedroom
    Waking up to check our phone sets our day off to a bad start. Get a separate alarm clock and leave your phone outside to charge.
  9. Know your Bottomless Bowls and Slot Machines
    Know which apps are bottomless bowls (trapdoors) and slot machines (constant checking) for you. Move them off the first page of apps.

Source: Design for Time Well Spent

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Getting rid of those pesky MTNL Ads

In the NDTV app on Android
In the NDTV app on Android

That’s the article view that greeted me when I tried to read one of the news articles on the Android NDTV app. MTNL has been doing this for the last few weeks in Mumbai, and I’d noticed it earlier while browsing sites on my iPad, laptop and phones as well. I finally gave up and decided to block the IP serving these ads – 203.94.227.140 – at the router level itself so that I wouldn’t be bothered on any device.

In fact this doesn’t seem to be the first time MTNL has done this given Yogesh’s similar post from over a year ago which also contains instructions to block the ads in greater detail (maybe first time in Mumbai though). If you want detailed instructions, check out his post, and use the IP- 203.94.227.140, as his IP seems to be for MTNL Delhi. It is also possible that they start using other servers, so if you come across any MTNL ad, right click and check out the source server IP, and then add it to your router blocklist. In my case, I found the IP this way, and then enabled the firewall on my TP Link router and added a rule to block this IP (use add WAN host to add the IP).

TP Link router firewall
TP Link router firewall

If you check out the user posts on the MTNL Mumbai facebook page, you’ll find similar complains from other customers as well. Airtel drew its share of flak sometime ago for similar behaviour, but the MTNL shenanigans have gone almost unnoticed with hardly any mainstream coverage.

This is a very poor way to treat customers and it really gets in the way on mobile devices. Of course, this kind of injection only works on non secure sites only, so HTTPS sites like Google, facebook etc should be problem free. Here’s to hoping that MTNL stops being user hostile.

Taking photos of X-ray slides at home

Well, I broke my left arm last week and as expected got some X-rays done. Hospitals and clinics have their well lit setups for viewing the X-ray slides. Ideally you would want to take photos from these setups, but it may not always be possible to do so. In such cases there are a few options for you to snap the slide at home:

  1. Use a flashlight app on an iPad\tablet to get a full white screen set at full brightness and use this to light up the slide. I used this technique for my slide pictured above. You may not get full coverage, but it is good enough if you know which section of the slide you need to click.
  2. The next option is to use a laptop screen with a white wallpaper or a blank text editor to get a white background. You will need to hold the slide in place with this technique, but it should give you greater coverage.
  3. The last option would be to use the largest screen at home, i.e., the TV. It may not be easy to get a fully white screen on the TV unless you can connect your tablet\smartphone\laptop to it and mirror the white background, but this is probably the only screen large enough to cover the slide completely.

So, there you go a few simple ways to light up that slide.

So you really want to buy a DSLR?

Now that you have made up your mind on buying a DSLR and have hopefully allocated a budget, let me present you with what I think are your best options to spend your money based on my experiences over the last 3 years. I have kept the recommendations as platform agnostic as possible and tried to present options that will give you the most value in the long term. To start off, you’ll need to DSLR body and a lens to go with it. You can then add on other lenses and accessories over the course of your photography journey. You also need to choose the company whose platform you want to buy into as this will determine not just your initial options, but also your upgrade roadmap.

It makes sense to split your budget into two in order to choose the lens and body. A 50:50 or 60:40 split (lens:body) should give a good balance. The table below is based on Indian market prices, so if you decide to get the equipment from abroad, you should be able to get them 15-20% cheaper at the very least.

Body

Choosing the right DSLR body is an important first step, and the cost can range from around Rs 20,000 to a few lakhs. We are already in a situation where even the starter bodies give excellent results. However, investing in a higher end model gives you more room for growth as you get accustomed to the DSLR system. Typically, the starter models have the least capable sensor (about sensor formats), while the mid-range to pro\semi-pro models have similar ones. While megapixels should not be a driving force in Point & Shoot or Smartphone camera buying decisions, they still have some value in the DSLR arena. The images you obtain using a DSLR are of a much higher quality and more megapixels give you more cropping room.

Higher end bodies also have better construction quality with the pro models being weather sealed when paired with a suitable lens. Of course, this also means that higher end models are heavier. Apart from this, higher end models have a lot more controls in the form of buttons and dials. This makes it easier to access a lot of the advanced functions that a DSLR offers, but you will appreciate this only later on. In fact, buying a higher end body can seem intimidating if you are not used to tinkering with camera controls. The camera manual is something you should be prepared to read if you want to make the most of your new purchase.

Auto focus performance is an area where a higher end body will have a big leg up on the lower end models. This can make a tangible difference in the images you capture, particularly for moving subjects. Of course, the lens also plays a major role in this area.

A few other features to consider are touch screen capabilities, tilt & swivel screens and wireless flash control capability. While the first two features can make your life easier while using the camera and composing images, the third option is something that you will need a capable external flash to appreciate. An external flash is one of my recommended accessories, and this feature will help you use it even better (explore the Strobist blog on this topic, though you will appreciate it a lot more down the line). This feature is available on most of the mid-range bodies and higher up. Some OEMs (Sony, Olympus, Pentax) also offer image stabilization built into the camera body and this can make for cheaper lenses while making the feature available at all times.

My recommendation is to invest in a mid-range body (unless you can get a relatively recent pro\semi-pro model second hand) as they offer a good set of controls. Also, it is better to buy the model from a year or two earlier as the price will be a lot more reasonable, while offering similar image quality and features to the current year’s model. Starter models, while cheap will begin to feel limited in a couple of years once you get used to the system.

Lens options

First thing you need to do is to make yourself familiar with the terms like aperture and focal length as these are the basic parameters based on which you will be choosing lenses. Secondly, you need to understand that lenses do not come down in price unlike the DSLR bodies. So, it is better to either buy the lens that you want right now or save up for it rather than buying a lower quality lens and upgrading later. Thirdly, lenses are made not just by the companies that manufacture DSLR bodies, but also by other companies like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina for these DSLR platforms. Their lenses are usually cheaper than the OEM versions and can be a good deal on a limited budget.

The lens choice might seem pretty simple to begin with as most DSLR bodies come bundled with a lens or two (usually called kit lens). However, lenses can make the biggest difference in the type and quality of images you can take and it is typically better to skip the kit lens keeping the photography journey in mind. You could go for the kit lens in a few scenarios:

  • Constrained budget (option 1 of the table) – the kit lenses still give you really good images, way better than any Point & Shoot can offer. Plus you get 2 lenses covering a long focal length range (the lenses by themselves would cost over Rs 20,000).
  • 6 figure budget in which case the bundled lenses are actually premium ones
  • You will be shooting a lot of videos in which case going for the silent and smooth focusing kit lenses (Canon uses the STM moniker) makes sense

Other parameters to consider when choosing a lens (apart from focal length and aperture) are availability of image stabilization and the kind of focus motor being used. The former can help when shooting handheld while the latter can make for faster and silent focusing. If you plan to use circular polarizing filters with the lens, it also helps if the front element of the lens does not rotate when focussing or zooming.

My recommendation for a starting lens is to go for a general purpose zoom as this will let you shoot images in different scenarios. A lot of people suggest to start with a prime lens (fixed focal length, i.e., no zoom). While it does help you become a better photographer, a prime lens will make it difficult a lot of images as there will be situations where you won’t be able to move close enough or far enough to compose your shot. However, a prime lens makes for an excellent second lens and my recommendation is to get one of the 50mm versions eventually, unless you have gone for a wide aperture (f/2.8) zoom lens.

Even in general purpose zooms, you have quite a few options – starting from third party zooms like 17-50mm f/2.8 costing around Rs 20-25K to premium first party models like the 24-70mm f/2.8 costing around a lakh. Here’s a brief explanation of my recommendations from the initial table:

  • Kit lenses (normal zoom + telephoto zoom) – typically the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 & 55-200mm or 55-250mm f/4-5.6. These offer good value for money, but not the best possible image quality or convenience (particularly CPL filters).
  • Wide aperture zoom – typically the 17-50mm or 17-55mm f/2.8 lenses available from both OEMs and third parties. Both image stabilized and non-stabilized versions are available. While they may seem to be similar to the kit lens in terms of focal length, the image quality is considerably better due to the better quality elements used (check out the comparison image in the middle of this review). The other tangible benefit is the constant wide aperture of f/2.8 that results in a 2 stop advantage at the long end. Not only does it help in low light shooting (lower ISO or faster shutter), but it can also help you blur the background when taking portraits. You will also appreciate the constant aperture across the focal length range when shooting in manual mode as you don’t need to adjust the settings when shooting wide open.
  • Ultrazoom – typically the 18-200mm to 18-300mm variable aperture, again available from both OEMs and third parties. These may not offer very good image quality (on par with the kit lens), but make up for it with their focal length range. You are basically paying for the convenience of not having to carry around and change between two lenses. If you are not sure of what situations you will be using your camera or plan to travel quite a bit, this makes for a good choice.
  • High quality zooms – these are usually premium lenses made of high quality components giving you shaper and more colourful images. Most of these lenses have constant apertures and offer fast and silent focusing. Which lens you choose will be governed by your budget and focal length requirements.

Accessories

This is an area where you may not choose to invest immediately, but over time you can add on some basic equipment like a flash and filters for some interesting effects. At times in low light, you will find that even a DSLR does not give you the kind of images you had hoped for and the on camera flash makes things even worse. That will be the time to create your own get an external flash with a tilt and swivel head. Tripods are another frequently recommended equipment, but thus far I have not felt much need for it as I prefer handheld photography and image stabilization takes care of my needs. If you do want to go for a tripod, don’t bother with the cheaper models as they will not be very stable and I doubt you want your investment on the camera to come crashing to the ground. Instead, do some shooting and figure out whether you actually need one, and then be prepared to invest Rs 10-15K on a decent model.

You will also need to good camera bag to carry around your equipment and you are likely to get a decent one bundled with your initial purchase. That should take care of your needs till you decide to buy more lenses and\or a flash.

Which system to choose

My recommendation would be to choose either Canon or Nikon (especially if you are in India) due to their market presence and lens range, while Sony is a distant third option. Olympus also has its DSLRs, but they use a smaller sensor and their network and lens range is limited. Pentax is pretty popular in the USA, but their presence is practically non-existent in India. There are also the mirror-less models from Sony, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic but the lens options are again quite limited and they don’t really give you much advantage over a full-fledged DSLR in terms of size or weight.

Another aspect to factor in is which system your friends and relatives are using and choosing accordingly. This will enable you to borrow and exchange equipment, particularly lenses and open up more avenues for experimentation.

Personally, I am a Canon user (EOS 550D), and my decision was based on having used the Canon system of Point & Shoot cameras starting with the PowerShot A300 and moving up to the A630. Plus, the 550D was the best mid-range model in 2010 (Nikon had the D5000 then).

What you get for your money

Today, when you buy a DSLR, you are entering not just the world of still photography, but also that of videography. It will also be your first step towards building your photography platform of choice. If you are coming from a Point & Shoot or camera-phone background, then you will really appreciate the better quality images to begin with. Over the course of your journey, you will also experience the images that were not technically possible on your previous cameras due to their limited low light capabilities and slow focus. Just remember to carry your new DSLR on your expeditions.

The road ahead

I hope that I have given some basic guidelines that will make it easier to choose which DSLR to buy. You can always read up more on the web and check out the current market prices of the bodies and lenses. So, do some more research, make up your mind on what to get, and go get that DSLR.

It will be pretty tempting to spend more money on equipment once you have got the camera. However, the main area where you should be investing after getting your camera is in improving your skill (shoot as much as you can) and buying a few photography books should be a worthwhile investment.

If you want some ideas from me on what you should do with that DSLR of yours, stay tuned for my next post in this series.

Magic Camera Settings by Thom Hogan

Can’t get more concise than that I suppose:

The best, most concise instruction manual in the modern world comes on the back of shampoo bottles: lather, rinse, repeat. So here’s the camera manual equivalent: learn, experiment, control, repeat. Pick one feature or option to learn about, experiment with it to see what the range of things it does might be, figure out how you want to control it, then repeat the process.

via Magic Camera Settings by Thom Hogan.

Return of the daily links from delicious

By now you have probably noticed that I’ve reverted to posting daily links from delicious to my blog (this time with more description hopefully) even though I had thought at one point in time that they were cluttering up my blog. One of the main reasons I did this was to keep the blog active as I seem to be bookmarking & twittering a lot more nowadays, and don’t make the time to come up with lengthier blog post.

Quite a lot of water has flowed under the bridge during this period, of which the most notable change is the new delicious interface going live. The other handy feature is the ability to post to twitter and email contacts while bookmarking through the firefox extension. I also refreshed my memory for posting from delicious through this blog post on posting to wordpress from delicious and also noticed that Steve Rubel had recommended daily links post as an essential blogging hack (too bad I gave it up for over a year and a half). So, now the daily links posts are here to stay.

delicious blog posting settings

Another thing I noticed while setting up the delicious service was that they’ve tweaked the interface slightly. Now the password field is no longer plain text (whatever made them do that in the initial phase is a mystery to me), and there is a way to effectively utilize the category field to keep the bookmark posts organized. All you need to do is figure out the category id by going to the wordpress blog dashboard –> Posts –> Categories to view the list of categories in the blog. Each category is hyperlinked (something like ….wordpress.com/wp-admin/categories.php?action=edit&cat_ID=4360) and the last portion of the URL gives the category id (out_cat_id in delicious). In my case, 4360 is the id for the “bookmarks” category that I had created for such posts. The setup is pretty convenient & should help keep the blog active in some way till I finish my Management course next year.

OpenOffice Writer, citation & table quirks

I’m two weeks (out of eight) into my internship with Sun Microsystems in Delhi, and have been using OpenOffice almost exclusively to create & edit documents during this period. Initially I had installed version 3.0 & last week upgraded to the latest 3.1 version. Feature wise, OpenOffice seems to be quite a useful alternative to MS Office, though it is not entirely compatible with the Office 2007 formats, particularly pptx.

There have  been a couple of features that I found lacking in the OpenOffice writer. The first was the lack of a proper citation/reference management tool like in Word 2007. The database based feature seemed a bit too complicated. As I was looking around on the OpenOffice wiki, I found a nifty Firefox based utility called Zotero. It allows the collection of reference sources on Firefox & these can later be inserted as references in Writer. It supports a number of citation formats & also allows one to insert a bibliography section that is synced with the main Firefox reference database. There is also a plugin for MS Word in addition to some other word processors. There seems to be one limitation with the reference tool though – it does not support inserting references in tables. Still, it is quite a useful tool to have.

And, talking of tables in OpenOffice Writer, there is a feature turned on by default that seems to be more irritating than handy. This is the auto number formatting in table cells along the lines of a spreadsheet. I found this to be quite a problem when typing in numbers with decimal points (entering “3.0” would get converted to “3”) or date like numbers/phrases that got converted to a different format. This feature while quite handy in a spreadsheet caused me quite a lot of problems initially before I turned it off. Turning it off is quite simple. Just go to Tools->Options->OpenOffice.org Writer->Table and uncheck the “Number recognition” feature (I could have probably just unchecked the “Number format recognition”). I did the same under the OpenOffice.org Writer/Web section too, to be on the safer side.

image

Settling down at SOM – I

The last one and a half months since the orientation programme for the new entrants to the PG courses in IIT Bombay have been very eventful and really hectic. In fact, the first term is almost over and the end term examinations are scheduled to begin within a week (the management course divides each semester into two terms of around 7 weeks each). I guess it is about time I posted my experiences during this period.

Hostel – from one room to another

The hostels were allotted on the day of the orientation itself. However, the increase in student intake for the IITs seems to be straining the infrastructure quite hard as we got rooms on a shared basis, i.e., single rooms with double occupancy. Then again, construction is underway for a new hostel (scheduled for completion in 2010, so won’t be of much use to us) and there are talks of expanding some of the existing hostels.

One of the interesting aspects of our hostel accommodation is that our entire batch was accommodated in the same hostel, thanks to our HOD and seniors, which is indeed a bonus considering the fact that we have numerous groups activities. In the initial room that I was allotted, I had a local resident for a roommate, and things were going fine till the roof started leaking after 4 consecutive days of rainfall. I subsequently moved to another room in the same wing, and now both my former roommate and I have individual rooms :-). So, I guess roof leaks are not that bad after all.

The first room that I got also had its share of peculiarities other than the roof leak. The former resident had decided to generously leave behind his philosophies in life on the various surfaces that he could find. Here’s a sample:

Hostel Room

In fact, the new room I got also had some philosophy on the walls, but fortunately in pencil. So, I put my eraser to good use.

LAN connections

With double occupancy of single rooms comes the problem of LAN connectivity, as there is only one port per room. However, one of the advantages of being a management student is that you’ll be using a laptop rather than a desktop. This is where network bridges and wireless ad hoc networks come in handy. To get two or more laptops connected to the LAN through a singe hub, just do the following on the machine connected to the LAN:

  1. Create a network bridge using the LAN and wireless connections
  2. Provide the TCP settings (IP, gateway, DNS servers etc) for the LAN in the network bridge if required
  3. Create an ad hoc wireless network, and connect to this. This step is very easy in Windows Vista, but a bit tricky under XP (steps provided in this article). Also note that some of the security and encryption settings provided for the ad hoc network may not be supported on older OSes, so you might need to opt for an open network

Once this network is setup, the TCP settings (same as the LAN settings) need to be configured in the other machines before connecting to the network. Once connected, the LAN should be accessible.

I made a small screencast too (for Windows Vista)

(You can also check it out directly on viddler)

Incidentally, I got myself a Lenovo Ideapad Y510 on my first weekend in the hostel (can’t live for long without a computer I guess). Not only did it get me connected to the internet after almost a week without connectivity, but also provided my first encounter with Vista. And I must say that I like Vista over XP, especially the search.