Blog: 2012-02

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Googlezilla vs. Gardenra

Perhaps Google did not realize this, but it looks it was on their behalf that someone made a stealthy attempt to destroy perhaps the greatest little spot of goodness in all of Kendall Square.

A Kendall Square developer retreated Monday in the face of resident and city councillor outrage from asking the city to let it build a 25,000-square-foot building atop a beloved rooftop garden. The request was made via the city manager's agenda for that night's council meeting, and its appearance there was the first people were hearing of it. [...] Indeed, the more discussion there was about the tabled proposal, the more questions seemed to arise, many of which put City Manager Robert W. Healy in the position of either predicting the future or answering for Boston Properties and its tenant, Google. But Healy was clear in saying he had vital information the nine councillors lacked. "There's a timeliness -- Google as a prospective tenant needs to know whether this is a possible location or not," Healy said. "I will only say, without going into any detail, there is a timeliness to the need to know whether this is a viable real estate option for Google to exercise."

—Marc Levy, "Outrage stalls developer's plans for rooftop garden in Kendall," Cambridge Day, 2012-02-28

In the photo accompanying that article, peer down at the commercial architecture of the surrounding streets, to get a hint of why people like to escape up to the roof garden, which is elevated above the traffic and much of the bustle.

The last loss of a treasured bit of green space in Kendall was kitty-corner to this same block: when a nice hedge-lined spot of grass -- a favorite for people getting away from their labs to sit on the grass at lunchtime -- was taken to make way for a building named for a billionaire right-wing political figure.

If they ultimately take the Rooftop Garden too, I think that Google will have to do some hugely great mitigation to help preserve some bit of soul of people who work in Kendall Square yet don't just sit tethered to their corporate computer stands all day except for the occasional foray to the free food in the company cafeteria and the company snack room. And none of this traffic island 'park' concept that the city likes and people avoid. (Hey, Google could brand the mitigation, as a PR move. The student-related turnover in Kendall Square would mean that people will be seeing the mitigation as benevolent largess long after the Rooftop Garden is forgotten.)

MIT Alumni Can Now Join Credit Union

If you're an MIT alum, that's now all you need to join the MIT Federal Credit Union.

I neglected to join when I was a grad student and RA, so when I later returned to MIT as a real employee, one of the first things I did was join the credit union. Now, you can enjoy the credit union without subjecting yourself to an academic salary.

Hey, Pal, Great For You

Last week, in conjunction with the announcement of the new "Great for You" front-of-pack icon that Walmart introduced for its private-label products, [...] The first suspicion of anyone reading about the icon is that Walmart is making an end run around the IOM and the FDA: cherry-picking nutritional criteria that will better sell products -- like Froot Loops, which notoriously merited the "Smart Choices" seal of approval devised by manufacturers and grocer groups. Then comes the suspicion that this is just another way to dupe consumers into buying highly processed foods, with all the added-on costs of processing and none of the benefits of unprocessed, unpromoted fresh food, which never has marketing muscle behind it.

—Corby Kummer, "The Many Questions Surrounding Walmart's 'Great for You' Initiative," The Atlantic, 2012-02-15

Has anyone articulated the obvious: that the initialism for Great For You is GFY?

To spell out why I find this amusing: Executives, branding people, communications people-- have to be reasonably verbal, preferably high-verbal, and Walmart can afford to hire competent people for these roles. So, how many milliseconds after "Good for You" was tossed out in a brainstorming session or presentation, til someone blurted out "GFY"? (Were we extremely cynical, we would wonder whether the initialism came first.) Regardless of origin, I'd speculate that this became a joke among at least some Walmart people before the brand went public, especially given the context alluded to in the quote above. In that case, going forward with the brand despite the fairly obvious and relevant joke suggests an untouchable, cocky attitude that one might already expect from a retailing superpower like Walmart. Which would be a joke about a joke.

Phone Off

In an attempt to save the battery of my Android smartphone, I tried taking out the SIM card. Turns out that the radio is still talking to the towers even though there is no SIM card. Fortunately, what seems to turn off the phone radio is to put the device into Flight Mode, after which I can then turn WiFi back on.

When not connected to the phone network, I have incoming calls redirected to a voicemail service, which emails me automatic speech-to-text transcripts of the voicemails. Which is vastly preferable to listening to voicemails.

I can take the phone out of Flight Mode when I need to make a call, when a client has an urgent situation and I am standing by, and when I am meeting up with someone and using SMS to coordinate en route.

A key here is to have friends, colleagues, and clients who usually prefer email to texts and phone calls. Of course, if someone does phone me, and leaves a voicemail, I get a transcript email almost immediately, and can switch my phone back on and return their call within a minute.

One risk to having phone off concerns street safety. The other day, I was walking through a relative crime hotspot, with my DSLR over my shoulder, and it suddenly seemed like some young ruffians might be trying to box me in on a small side-street. Although I am male and part Irish, now that I am no longer in my 20s, I no longer just naturally assume that I can take out two or three guys in a fist fight before they know what hit 'em. Unfortunately, my SIM card wasn't in my phone, and I wasn't certain that 911 would work without a SIM, so I had to simply bluff that I was prepared to call 911. This kind of scenario is less of a problem now that I'm not removing the SIM card: in a test just now, it took only 5 seconds to disengage Flight Mode and wait for a few phone signal bars to appear. Dialing can happen in parallel. If I make a practice of turning off Flight Mode at the first sign of a potential emergency (such as witnessing an auto accident, or some disadvantaged youths who seem overly keen to make my acquaintance), I suspect that the cost of an extra 5 seconds is negligible in most such situations. And I'm more likely to have a good battery.

PS3 Web Browser Usable

 [photo of PS3 and monitor displaying Google Maps] If you have a Sony PlayStation 3, but haven't tried the built-in Web browser recently, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you can now do things with it like operate Google Maps. Might occasionally come in handy in the living room, for people viewing something as a group, rather than asocially whipping out personal smartphones.

I'm not advocating the PS3, since it's a very closed device, and Sony basically does whatever it wants to PS3 users. Just pleasantly surprised that for once a mandatory system update has done something in the users' interest.

Russians on Cusp of Releasing Slumbering Ancient Evil

After drilling for two decades through more than two miles of antarctic ice, Russian scientists are on the verge of entering a vast, dark lake that hasn't been touched by light for more than 20 million years.

—Marc Kaufman, "Scientists close to entering Vostok, Antarctica's biggest subglacial lake," Washington Post, 2012-01-27


DSLR Camera Lens Calibration

I used to be a photographer, who got spoiled by gorgeous Canon L lenses, so now that I'm a non-photographer, and permitting myself only a 40D and one cheap-ish lens, I have to find the right cheap-ish lens. I decided that cheap-ish with my expensive tastes probably means a prime. (Yes, among other normal-ish zooms for a 1.6x crop, I've had a then-much-awaited Tamron 17-50/2.8, which overall wasn't bad for the relatively cheap price, except chromatic aberration occasionally got freakishly bad. After trying a few lens models when I was a photographer, I eventually settled on an old Canon 17-35/2.8L, which was acceptable, but is out of my current non-photographer price range, and I doubt I'd be able to find a sharp copy of that lens again.)

Initially, my current one cheap-ish lens is a Canon 50/1.4, which I picked because my most important use was the occasional headshot of a friend, and a fast 50mm prime is both great for portraiture on 1.6x crop prosumer DSLRs, and relatively affordable because it's a normal on the 35mm format camera for which most current 50mm lenses were designed and sold.

However, the 50/1.4 is a bit too long on 1.6x for most purposes other than headshots, such as taking a shot of a group indoors, or as a walkaround lens. Yet it's still too short to be used like a long. So I decided to trade my 50/1.4 in on a 28/1.8 (and let friends deal with their headshots being a bit less flattering). When the 28/1.8 seemed soft on an initial shot just now, I printed out a focus chart, and found that the AF was front-focusing considerably on my 40D. Sadly, both lens and body were bought used, and can't be sent to Canon for free calibration. Sigh.

Think that your own lens is soft, or back/front-focusing? One of the better articles I've seen on the topic is by Roger Cicala, "`This Lens is Soft'...and other Myths." Read this article first, before going to the test charts.

Anyway, I'll have to do a practical test with the 28/1.8, to see whether the front-focusing is noticeable when stopped down a bit. All I know at this point is that, if I need to do any near-macro photography wide-open, I'll have to fine-tune with manual focus.

Earlier to... 2012-01

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