Recording a phone call with an iPhone

The iPhone doesn’t support the recording of calls, and, as a journalist, I’ve found this to sometimes be a pain. Generally I simply resort to Skype, because that’s an easy way around the problem, but when one of my colleagues asked me about the problem, it got me thinking.
I came up with a workaround.
I didn’t want to waste a lot of time on the problem, so if I couldn’t solve it with stuff in the studio, too bad. My first thought was to take the call on speaker and record it with a Zoom H1, but I thought, “that’s way too analog!”
So I thought I could run a 3.5mm cable from the headphone jack to the H1, then headphones from the H1… But this eliminated the microphone. No good.
Then I remembered my Monster SoniTalk microphone. Bought back in the day so I could take calls but use my Earmold headphones (custom molded earplugs with audio capability, used while riding motorcycles), the Monster cable was the missing link.
The solution was iphone-monster cable-headphones-3.5mm cable-H1. My colleague was rapt and the interview recorded easily.

A optimist’s view of the future

I listened, yesterday, to a podcast which had a scientist saying we needed to reduce our carbon emissions to 1% or current levels if the rest of the world was to have its standard of living rise to Western levels and at the same time halt global warming.

A somewhat sobering idea.

But I gave it some thought, applied some science fiction and thought about a carbon-free future.

One idea was a nuclear powerplant essentially dedicated to converting sea water to hydrogen and fresh water. Motor vehicles could burn the hydrogen – the only byproduct is water – and the fresh water byproduct of making the hydrogen could be used to grow food, which is going to be increasingly difficult in the future, or so the pessimists believe.

The next was a high-speed electric railroad running from Brisbane to Sydney to Canberra and on to Melbourne, powered again by nuclear powerplants at reasonable intervals along the way. The powerplants would provide power to local communities as well as the rail line, which would provide high-speed carbon free transport.

None of this technology is particularly difficult – the problems are political, driven by Nimbys and Modern Luddites.

One problem is too many people following a bad trend to a disastrous outcome – a likely result when you look at something like the overconsumption of resources and see a trend accelerating: it makes it very easy to predict disaster by simply forecasting increased growth and consumption. But it doesn’t have to be that way: things change in ways people forecasting the future don’t predict, and the changes are manifold.

My industry, magazines, is slowly dying. Paper prices are rising, magazine consumption is being eroded by everything from FaceBook to increased working hours, and the industry is scrambling to find a way to make itself relevant in the future.

I’m not alone in hoping the iPad, and other similar devices, will prove to be a saviour, changing media consumption from the printed page to downloaded bits.

A knock-on effect is the reduction in paper consumed, in fuel burnt transporting the printed pages, in energy used recycling the paper. But scientists don’t, to my knowledge, try to incorporate new technology into their assumptions about the future: indeed, to do so would be saying ‘unknown and unpredictable advances in science and technology will make problem x disappear’.

But changes occur all the time. Nissan is introducing the Leaf, an electric-only car, into the USA. What if sells like proverbial hot cakes? How much would that accelerate the development of competitors, driving down the consumption of fossil fuel?

Apple’s latest iPhone, and the iPad before it, have sold vastly better than Apple or the tech pundits predicted. How many people are planning to read on their new electronic devices rather than books in the future. I know I’ve read a book a week on my iPad since I downloaded the Kindle App, and my sister has bought one for exactly that reason, too.

Geothermal power is a simple technology: if a discovery makes the process more efficient, we could see it powering all sorts of industry. It produces no carbon gases, doesn’t require uranium mining and is, well, pretty boring really. But many of the best ideas are often very simple.

I also believe the planet, and people, will sort themselves out. Richer countries will start to feel the effects of global warming and start to make changes, too late for the rapid conservationists and possibly too late to avoid lots of disasters like reduced biodiversity, increased extreme weather events and rising sea levels, but not so late as to cause the breakdown of modern society. Maybe we we learn to conserve DNA from life going extionct and be able to bring it back in the future: a little Jurassic Park maybe, but who really knows?

Poorer nations are already learning from the West’s past, so instead of relying on coal and oil are looking to nuclear and renewables for their future energy needs.

The scientist at the top of the story can’t know if a middle-class Indian national in 2050 will have a carbon footprint at all. And if that Indian doesn’t, who says the whole world can’t have a lifestyle avoiding poverty without global warming?

The podcast:


A better solution to 3G on the iPad

In Australia, the 3G iPad is $170 more expensive than the WiFi only version, and then you have to buy a data plan – which then only works on the iPad. It’s a rip-off, basically, although the carriers have come out with a number of reasonably-priced data plans.
Why I can Bluetooth tether my laptop to an iPhone but not an iPad probably has more to with deals being done between Apple and AT&T than any technical reason and the situation might change in the future, but in the meantime there is the issue of getting the iPad onto the Internet.
In my case, I didn’t believe when I ordered my iPad it would be used all that much away from a WiFi network, so I opted for the WiFi only version, hoping either Bluetooth tethering would be available in Australia, I could get a MiFi, or I’d just learn to cope with connecting with my iPhone when WiFi isn’t available.
Well, Apple didn’t switch on tethering. Maybe with iOS 4 due out in a few months, but I doubt it. Apple is selling too many 3G versions, so it’s more likely in an updated unit in a year.
The MiFi is a Novatel device described as an Intelligent Mobile Hotspot. I thought genuine artificial intelligence was something the boffins were still striving for, but maybe Novatel’s cracked it…
Anyway, the MiFi is a small device – similar in size and shape to a business card holder – which connects to a 3G mobile phone network and creates it’s own WiFi network. You can connect up to five devices to your MiFi at any one time, so the same data plan can provide Internet access to your iPad, laptop, phone and still have provision for two more devices. A number of podcasts from the USA have been basically raving about the device – but here they are $399 unlocked or $299 on a 24 (!) month contract.
Hmm… Don’t know if I’m going to get enough usage to justify that sort of cost.
Enter from stage left the Virgin Mobile Pre-paid WiFi modem. $149 with 3Gb of data (in the first month, and since I purchased the offer has been bumped to five GB).
An oval-shaped device about the size of the older plug-in style USB modems, the Virgin unit allows three devices to connect, runs data from the Optus network and is easy to set up and use.
Spend $80 on a recharge and Virgin will unlock it for you, but before you ask it doesn’t run on Telstra’s 850khz Next-G network, so getting great coverage out of major centres isn’t going to be easy.
Pricing for a recharge runs from $15 for 500mb (expiring in 30 days) to $149 for 12GB, but that one lasts a year.
The one real downside to the Virgin unit I’ve discovered so far is charging – there are bugs in the way the battery recharges. Turns out it really only likes charging off a USB port in a computer loaded with the Virgin software, but that wasn’t a hassle to load on my Mac. It also lets the device run as a standard USB modem even if the battery is flat.
That doesn’t solve the problem of charging the unit on the road when you haven’t taken your computer, which is the point, isn’t it? has a forum thread with people saying various Motorola and Blackberry chargers work fine, but not older iPhone and many other USB chargers. I don’t think the iPad charger works, which is a big shame. I’m using a Hahnel universal charger which my wife Corinne bought when she accidentally took the wrong Panasonic charger to Sydney for a weekend. It charges AA and camera pack-style batteries and has a USB charging port, too. Like many USB chargers it doesn’t seem to charge the WiFi modem, but removing the battery and charging it independently works fine. The charger is bigger than the unit, but I carry it when traveling anyway because it can charge my iPhone, flash, camera, iPad and now WiFi unit.

Is the Canon EOS 1D MkIV half-baked?

Canon’s EOS 1 range of cameras were the professional standard against which others were judged. Put simply, they are the choice of squillions of working professional photographers, the guys and girls who make a living looking through pieces of glass, who require dependability and high performance in every respect.

Some would argue the range peaked with the EOS 1D MkIIN, at least in the digital realm. Since then the 1D MkIII was released and plagued by a reputation for poor autofocus. Various fixes were instigated by Canon, seemingly with some success, but the simple fact was Nikon had released its D3 and was stealing the march on Canon.

I own a MkIIN and have used the MkIII, and to be honest I thought the MkIII focussed faster, locked on better and was more consistent than my MkIIN. But with these cameras costing $6000 (in Australia) I wasn’t about the upgrade on a whim, especially considering I only shoot professionally for about one day a week – I’m a publisher and the photography is important, but it’s not the only thing I do.

From a specifications point of view the jump to the Mk III wasn’t that great either – 25% more pixels, 10 frames per second instead of 8.5, a better screen on the back, a lighter battery and tweaks to the user interface definitely made it a better camera, but not better enough.

Now we have the 1D Mk IV: 16MP, 10fps, revised autofocus and movie mode. Those specs sound pretty good: I’m always scratching around for a few more pixels, 10fps is enough without being that impressive these days and now I’m making vodcasts for Cycle Torque ( movie mode is basically essential. But looking a little deeper into the specifications makes me think Canon has dropped the ball a little on this one, for the Mk IV doesn’t show the forward-thinking and innovation I expected.

Firstly, it still has the 1.3x crop factor, something we’ve had to deal with since the 1-series went digital. When the first 1D was introduced the technology to mass produce a 24x36mm sensor at anything like an affordable price (if you call the close to $6500US launch price affordable at the time) didn’t exist, so the sensor was built a little smaller. Canon used an even smaller sensor, one with crop factor of 1.6x, in its range of consumer and ‘prosumer’ cameras, and does to this day. The smaller sensor, though, is supported by a range of lenses which are specifically designed and built for it and cannot be used on the full-frame cameras (5D, 5D mkII, 1Ds range). There’s nothing specific for the 1D range and its 1.3x sensor, you have to use the sensors for full-frame cameras – which would be fine, but it screws up the focal lengths of your lenses, especially your wide angles.

My widest zoom runs to 17mm. On any 1D (not 1Ds) it’s effectively 22mm, which isn’t ultra-wide. My 24-105mm f/4, on a 1D, becomes 31-136. Zooms of that range have been built in the past, but a little wide to not very long isn’t half a useful as wide to short telephoto. I’ve also owned three of the 1.6x crop factor Canons, and it was a joy to buy the 10-22mm zoom to once again have a genuine wide-angle lens again (the 10-22 is effectively 16-35 when the crop factor is taken into account).

Truth be told, those two lenses (the 17-35 and 24-105), in particular, feel better suited to the 5D MkII, with its full-frame sensor. On the 5D the 24-105 can often cover every focal length you need, but with the 1D I almost always need to carry two lenses. They never felt ‘right’ on the 1D. In the 1D’s defence, though, long lenses get longer, which is great when you’re photographing a small object (a motorcycle) travelling at high speed (they do over 300km/h at Phillip Island). So my 300 f/2.8 becomes 390mm – and as anyone who has used both will attest to, the 300 is a lot easier to use than the 400mm f/2.8, which weighs about 3 ton more.

So I was hoping the next generation of 1D would have a full-frame sensor, but it doesn’t. Maybe Canon thought it would look like they were copying the Nikon D3 with its 12MP full-frame sensor, but the result is the Mk IV looks like an upgrade of an ageing design rather than anything revolutionary.

An almost essential addition was HD video recording capability: while Canon’s delivered here, it seriously looks like it’s been added in as an afterthought or extra feature rather than a design which points to a merger of the two mediums (stills and video). There’s still no effective autofocusing, going to movie mode isn’t intuitive or quick and the new camera doesn’t even have the full manual control being offered to owners of the 5D MkII soon via a new firmware update. According to DP review shooting video with the MkIV isn’t as simple as on the much cheaper 7D. One very important update to the 5D’s firmware is the addition of audio meters, something the MkIV doesn’t have.

I was expecting so much more. Where’s the XLR audio input, or at least an optional extra to provide professional audio? Where’s the full full set of controls the cheaper 5D will have for audio in a couple of weeks? Where’s the full-frame sensor? Where are the lenses built for video to go with these cameras with their own autofocusing ability?

For the hard-core professional sports photographer, the Canon EOS 1D Mk IV will almost certainly be the best sports camera ever produced by Canon. Whether it will prove to be better than what Nikon is offering remains to be seen.

I’ll probably buy one anyway.

My iPad

There has been no end of coverage of the new Apple iPad, and I suppose I’m just contributing to the noise here, but that’s the point of a blog: I can write this and if no one reads it, well, no trees will fall in the forest.

But I’m not going to say who the iPad is for, or if it will revolutionise media or computers or communication. I’m just going to tell you about how I plan to use mine, when I get it (but we all know about best laid plans…).

In no particular order, here’s how I will use it. It will be a photo and video viewer, using the optional camera kit. As a photographer and now videographer, playing back images on the screens which came with the camera is good but not great. You can’t really check focus, exposure is a bit hit-and-miss and compsition looks different on a 3-inch screen compared to a big one. The iPad’s screen is actually bigger than the final use of many images, so I’m sure it will be a big benefit. It’s certainly not the giant leap forward moving from film to digital represented, but I still feel it’s significant.

The iPad will be my travel computer. I regularly travel for motorcycle launches and need to bring back written articles: the iPad, especially when combined with a bluetooth keyboard, will be fine for writing these stories. Apple has shown a word processor, Pages, which will be a US$10 download. I can afford that. The iPad will also do email and web browsing, of course, so that will keep me in touch with the world. I’m hoping it will tether with my iPhone for connectivity through the 3G mobile phone system so I don’t always have to have a Wi-Fi network available… I really don’t want to buy the 3G-equipped version of the iPad and have yet another data plan to pay for, although being unlocked and month-by-month I suppose it won’t be too bad.

It will be frustrating being in a hotel with broadband available via an ethernet cable which won’t, of course, connect to an iPad. For the same reasons the iPad is great for business trips, it will be good on holidays, too. Lighter, easier to pack and carry than a laptop with most of the functionality, it will be handy to have.

The iPad will be the machine I will usually carry between office and home. I have this fantasy I might actually start riding a motorcycle between home and office occasionally (something usually difficult because I pick up my two kids from school after work) and a $750 iPad weighing 750 grams rather than a laptop at 3kg (and which cost $4000) is a much more attractive proposition. I rarely need a computer at home with more power than an iPad and there’s a number of machines there, anyway.

At home I’ll use the iPad to read, maybe listen (iPods and iPhones are probably better for the latter), and to communicate. I’m not a big user of FaceBook, but I can see me uploading more pictures to the site with an iPad rather than a laptop, mainly because I think the process will be more seamless. I will use the iPad for web surfing (something I do quite a lot of in my job) and email at home.

I can also see the TV in the bedroom going, becoming unnecessary. It’s only used about once a month anyway, and I can sit an iPad on my knees. Then again, ripping a  DVD takes quite a bit of time, especially compared to popping one into the player under the TV. But there may also be a way to watch a DVD on the iPad with the disc actually in the Mac Mini in the loungeroom…

Then there’s the apps. I can see the iPad becoming an adjunct to my workstation in the office (laptop, second screen, keyboard and mouse). Instead of bouncing from program to program, I may use the iPad to check stuff online, do calculations etc. I already often do this, reaching for a conventional old calculator rather than firing up the very powerful one built into my Mac (and just a moment ago I used Appbox to work out the metric equivalent to the 1.5 pounds Apple is quoting the iPad’s weight). Screen real estate is like horsepower: too much is never enough.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one using my iPad. The kids love playing with iPhones, and I’m sure the iPad will be even more attractive. There’s a plethora of games available for the iPhone and many more – and expanded versions of existing games – will come to the iPad. They, and the movies, will be great for keeping kids occupied during long journeys (which they believe is anything further than their local school).

I’m also hoping to read magazines on the iPad. Sports Illustrated demonstrated its ideas on how we can consume media on a device like the iPad, and it’s a much richer, more interactive and immersive experience than simply reading a magazine. I’m hoping for versions of National Geographic, Life, Time, Australian Geographic, MacWorld, ProPhoto, Crikey, The Monthly and lots more all to be available on the iPad – and I’m even happy to pay for the content, something people in general (including myself) are reluctant to do on the web. I feel quality media is in decline because people aren’t willing to pay for it in its current forms. Web stories are typically poorly researched, written to ridiculously tight deadlines, are short and shallow and usually aren’t worth the small amount of time it takes to read them.

Esquire on my iPhone is much better. The same content on an iPad would be an even better experience, because the images would be displayed better, the designer would have more scope and the words would be easier to read.

In the short term Apple seems more interested in taking on Amazon’s kindle rather than re-inventing the magazine, but I think they will get around to other forms of media soon enough.

That’s how I plan to use my iPad. It won’t replace my MacBook Pro in my office, but it might just move me off the dining room table of an evening and onto a couch, and I know where I’d rather be.

How Skype could improve the world

Skype Language Learning System is something I hope is being developed (but maybe it’s my idea). It wouldn’t be difficult to develop and would result in the decline of global warming and world peace.

OK, it wouldn’t be that significant. What it would do is help people help each other learning foreign languages. Essentially the Skype Language Learning System would pair up people from all over the world who would then video conference or simply use text chatting to improve their language skills.

What you’d do is register a username and password, then choose the languages you know and the language(s) you want to learn. Skype’s database would show a list of people online who are available to chat and can would then connect you together. If there was no one available who could help you learn Swahili when you logged on you could simply register you Skype phone number with the system to call you when a Swahili-speaking user was available. You might also be able to schedule timeslots with instructors somehow, too.

So, how do you get people to help, to actually instruct? By making it an exchange system. If you spend time as a student, you must also spend time as an instructor, helping people with your own language. Instructors might also earn phone credits they can use making other Skype calls. Skype, of course, earns money from the system because the learner is paying for the call. If you have two learners hooking up to help each other with their respective languages, both could pay for their calls and no credits are earned.

Tying-in the various automated translation sercices shouldn’t be difficult, either, but the greatest feature of Skype Language Learning System is it’s one-on-on video conferencing. See, hear and learn the subtleties which people use when they talk.

The flow-on for this could be huge for Skype. This could be the ‘killer app’ for many people to try – or use – Skype for the first time.

Call me square

There has been a slew of new cameras announced on launched in recent months, but no manufacturer has really launched a game-changer.

Put simply, we still use cameras like we did when their design was as much dictated but the shape and technical requirements of film rather than what’s ideal for us – except we hold them further from our bodies to look at the back of our digital cameras instead of through a viewfinder.

We still put up with rectangular pictures, and in the world of advanced amateurs and professionals, the manufacturers even duplicate controls so the cameras can be used vertically and horizontally. This is downright silly – why not simply have a square sensor and crop accordingly?

A square format – used for decades by Hasselblad even today – would give designers a lot more freedom when it comes to the design of a camera and with the flick of a switch the photographer could change what’s captured from horizontal to square to vertical, a lot quicker than physically rotating a camera.

As an editorial photographer I’d almost always shoot square. I can crop images later in the computer and have the flexibility of creating a horizontal or vertical from each image in post rather than having to decide how I like it when I take the shot – or worse, continually take both!

Until recently it could be argued we didn’t have the megapixels to waste on a square sensor, but we sure do now. My Canon EOS 5D MkII captures over 20MP with a touch of the shutter, almost three times the amount my 1D MkIIN captures – and I’ve produced double-page spreads from the 1D. Sure, they’d look better from the 5D, but they were acceptable for the times.

A square format would require rethinking of camera design though. Video cameras aren’t used vertically, and look how comprehensively different they are to still cameras. Flip-out screens which could be angled to suit the image would be a no-brainer, any built-in flash would always be above the lens where it should be, the camera’s shape could be configured to make shooting from waist-level viable.

I doubt we’re going to see a square-format camera from anybody except Hasselblad. I just don’t think it’s what people are asking for – but I think we’re missing out as a result.