Monday, November 26, 2007

Digital camera review: Sony Ericsson K790 Cyber-shot

Close-up of sculpture of Aphrodite, with Eros, by Praxiteles, in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece

Cell phone and camera

The best thing about this unit is its screen: big and bright with an attractive visual interface. The size of the screen allows Sony Ericsson to make the numbers big, easily legible for someone of a certain age, like me.

The worst thing about the K790 is the size of the buttons---even smaller than with most other cell phones I’ve owned or used, which were small enough. These seemed shorter than usual, making it very difficult to be certain without looking that I was pressing the right one. Even while looking at the keypad, it’s hard to tell, sometimes, which button you’re pressing down until its icons shows up on th screen.

The K790 is really more of a cell phone with a decent digital camera than a good digital camera with a phone added --- but depending on your own photographic needs, it may be both.

It’s a GSM phone, (Global System for Mobile communication standard), which means that it has a SIM card that carries your identify information, contacts and other personalized data, and it can roam across national boundaries. It even works in Europe (I tried it!). It has such features as text messaging and Web browsing, among others.

A slightly newer model, K800, won a GSM award as the “best camera phone” from the GSM Association in 2007.
Its form-factor --- what it looks like --- is a flat rectangle, often referred to as the “Hershey bar format” by those in the trade. Hold it upright and it looks like a cell phone; turn it sideways and it’s a camera, with a shutter button on the top (what used to be the side), under your right index finger, and a zoom control under your left.

As a phone, it has a lot of features: camera, games, MP-3 player, text messaging, contact list, web surfing ability, email functions, a video player and a photo “slide show” player. It even has a built-in radio, like my slightly older and much cheaper Nokia flip-phone. It even comes with a hands-free, although not wireless, headset with microphone. I have to admit, though, that my Nokia seems to have better radio reception, and a simpler interface for tuning and volume control. The K790 is also Bluetooth-ready.

The sound is good, whether you’re using the built-in speaker and microphone or the headset. The main drawback to the phone half of the device is the keypad: the buttons are a lot smaller than those on most cell phones (which are already too small for my fingers!). However, whether that’s a problem seems to be more about your perception: I didn’t actually make many typing errors when entering a phone number, although I did find it frustrating to enter text: the internal timing is too quick, so that when I entered “r” when I wanted to enter “s,” the phone quickly moved to the next character before I could hit the 7 key again. And backing up meant starting that name all over again!

It’s a pretty good unit for the amateur enthusiast or holiday snapshotter. The back of the phone has a lens cover that you slide down to activate the camera mode. It has an auto-focus and an automatic flash, as well as some limited options to adjust the white-point balance for bright sunlight, cloudy conditions or fluorescent lighting.
Waking the camera up sometimes takes longer than you want it to, especially in “snapshot” situations where you want to be able to whip it out and shoot a fleeting moment. I often have to open and close the lens cover two or three times to “wake” the camera.

With a 3 megapixel image size, it’s definitely not a professional level camera, or even enough for the serious prosumer or amateur enthusiast. On the other hand, it’s a good mid-range camera, and a good picture captured with the K790 can make a good 8 x 10 print.

Above is an example of an outdoor shot: taken at the chapel of St. Nicolas at the top of Likavittos Hill in the middle of Athens, Greece. Under these conditions - lots of light, clear subjects - the camera performs quite well.

However, at extreme zoom, images are poor. Here is a shot taken of the capital of the Temple of Hephaestus in the Greek Agora in Athens.

As you can see, the detail gets broken up and looks very blocky. Optical zoom gives much better results.

As stated, the viewing screen, which is also the only viewfinder you have, is a good size: 2 inches diagonally, approaching the size of the screen on the Kodak EasyShare v610 reviewed last year (URL). It’s bright, and the initial menu is cute, with fairly intuitive icons.

There’s a tiny “joystick” to help you move through the menu, and you can press it down to select it. It worked reliably when I tested it.

Other buttons and sub-menus can be a little confusing. Sony has added a “go back” button, akin to the Back button in a Web browser – except that this one is hardware.

Other buttons are context-sensitive --- their function depends on the use you’re getting out of the camera. For example, the Select button is at the bottom right; but if you’re using the phone part, you’re holding the phone upright --- it’s taller than wide. When you’re using it as a camera, it’s wider than tall. In either case, the Select button is at the bottom right of the screen, which means it “moves” --- or the function moves from one button to another depending on the mode you’re using. I was always double-checking that I was pressing the right button.

The K790 has both built-in storage and a slot for an M2 memory card. Those are really tiny chips, 1 by 1.5 centimetres --- smaller than my thumbnail. Really. Don’t try to change those on the beach, because you’ll lose them.

• Auto focus – sometimes didn’t work on the first shot, requiring a second attempt
• 16 x digital zoom – not bad, but of course not as good as optical zoom.
• image stabilization -- essential, as shaking is always a problem with such a small device
• xenon flash with three modes: automatic, off or red-eye reduction – works well, but you can’t turn it on at will so you can use the flash to fill in backlighting, although you can add more light by adjusting the ISO setting
• BestPic – takes 9 shots in quick sequence, allows you to pick the best one, then deletes the rest. This is great for action shots, but it uses a lot of memory. You have to be quick to pick the best, or you’ll quickly fill up your memory on a busy day of shooting
• Video record – decidedly low-resolution, choppy video, far worse than on any other digital camera I’ve ever used before
• BlueTooth and PictBridge for easy printing on enabled devices – sounds good, but I didn’t test these features.

What I think
The pictures are very good for my uses: on-screen slide shows, saving to DVD.
However, the auto focus does take a few seconds. There’s usually a delay in shooting a picture, which can frustrate small children who have to pose.

Turning the flash on and off is a little slow, too, taking several steps through the menus. A single button, as many other cameras have, is clearly preferable.

Another confusing aspect was the memory. Although there were two memory banks --- built-in and M2 --- the camera moved seamlessly between them when it was playing back pictures, but asked me to select where to save when taking new ones. And the menu doesn’t make it clear whether you’ve selected built-in memory or the memory stick.

As said, the videos aren’t very good at all. The resolution is too low, the capture speed jumpy, and the images themselves look like they’re made of blocks, or like a still shot with far too little light.

All in all, I think that the Sony Ericsson K790 is a great phone with a good camera in it. It’ll be great for snapping vacation shots, and it carries easily. Its resolution is a bit low for professional communicators, but it may be just right for the serious amateur or the vacationer who wants good shots for the home slide show.

Here are some more examples of the camera's capabilities:

Imerovigli, Santorini, Greece

Looking at a street vendor's wares on Santorini Island, Greece

From Likavittos Hill again, looking past the Acropolis to Piraeus and the Aegean Sea. You can see how the image breaks up at extreme zoom.

Again, under ideal conditions, with lots of light and without an extreme zoom, you can get a nice snapshot --- in this case, the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Notice the scaffolding where the Greek government is attempting to restore this monument --- after, what, 2,500 years of neglect?

Monday, November 12, 2007

An annoying tradition

Today, November 12, I walked into a Shoppers Drug Mart and heard an awful version of “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” on their background music system. (I suspect that “Muzak” is a trademarked name.)

I love Christmas: the togetherness, the real music. But while stores and malls love to play music to encourage people to buy stuff, their selection is extremely limited. They don’t dare play any overtly religious Christmas carols for fear of offending someone.

So the selection is limited to a small selection of the most awful, cheesy or maudlin songs: “Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” and, worst of all, “Jingle Bell Rock.”
No matter which store or mall you walk into, you’ll hear the same songs. Different versions, different singers, different arrangement, but it’s the same bad songs.

Come on, retailers: give us a break. Don’t subject us to over a month of awful songs played endlessly. How about a little more variety? Or maybe just some silence?

Monday, June 11, 2007

What's wrong with impacting or accessing?

There are some professional communicators who decry the use of "impact" and "access" as verbs.

But why? The English language is full of words that act as verbs as well as nouns and adjectives: rub, release, contact, copy, bar, act, dam, staple, shoe, box, bag, handle --- the list goes on.

So what's wrong with saying "to access" or "to impact"?

The resistance by many teachers and communications professionals, I think, reveals a bias. "To access" is a phrase or a use common in the IT industry, while "impacting" is a usage that grew out of the corporate world. Communications pedants tend to look down their noses as these two fields as being populated by functional illiterates.

They may be right in that; there is no shortage of bad writing from the computer or corporate fields.

But you know, nobody is wrong all the time. Sometimes, the most efficient word to use is "to access," especially when we're talking about computers.

And remember, English is a living language. People are always inventing new words for new things, and using old words in new ways.

I, for one, have no more problem accessing my blog site, hoping that my words will impact someone else.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Is 24 really slipping?

In this post, I rant about one particular form of once-innovative communication: the Fox TV show, 24.

This latest season of 24, which probably was hyped more before its launch at the end of January than any other season, just doesn’t measure up to expectations --- expectations that were, for me, created by the previous seasons.

The first few episodes were great: lots of action, lots of tension. Jack’s condition on his release from prison in China, and his new persona, added a lot of depth to the character and the show, as did his necessary killing of Curtis, much as I’ll miss him. Detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles (or just outside it, whatever) was unexpected. But after those first few episodes, the season’s premise became very repetitive: the terrorists’ nuclear threat, the White House palace conspiracy to replace the President with the more hawkish Vice President, and of course Jack’s having to work against CTU and the White House. It’s been done before --- even last season, when Jack brought down the President more or less single-handed.

The timing issue, always a weakness in the show, has become a problem that threatens to engulf the whole plot. Yes, the “real time” idea that is the basis for the show and creates the tension and the action, is a great innovation. But from the beginning, it’s required the suspension of a great deal of disbelief when characters can drive across Los Angeles during a four- to seven-minute commercial break. This season, far too much is happening in less than a day: within a few hours, the President is severely injured in a bomb attack, placed in a coma by his doctor, is revived to put down a palace coup, then suffers another stroke. Government policy reverses three times within, what, six hours? Anyone with any experience with any government knows that’s not fiction, not even fantasy; that’s so far out of possibility, it’s complete raving lunacy.

Last night (April 30), “between the hours of one a.m. and two a.m.,” showed an even greater error: just before the commercial break at around “1:30” or so, Lisa Miller falls into bed with her lover, and they’re done and cuddling when the commercial’s over four minutes later. Sex in four minutes, including disrobing and putting on a silky housecoat? There are quickies and quickies, but give the girl some chance for satisfaction, will you, Keifer?

The biggest problem, though, is the forced return of Audrey Raines, played by the awful Kim Raver. I’ve never been a fan of this love interest; she’s not a very interesting actress, nor is she much to look at. So what’s the purpose of keeping her on this show? After hanging around with no purpose last season, she was given her own show, The Nine, last fall. That show flopped, and within a couple of months, surprise! here she is on 24 again.

It’s obvious that Audrey’s return is an afterthought. A series like 24 develops a pace, a rhythm, and three weeks ago, when Jack finally caught and killed Fayed, the ending of that plotline seemed rushed. And it was, truncated so that the show’s final seven hours could be all about Audrey.

Now, the plot has spun into a completely different direction: saving Audrey and getting back the “component” from the Chinese in order to stave off World War Three. What happened to Jack’s father, sister-in-law and nephew? That looked like an interesting possibility, particularly since there had been some romantic relationship between Jack and Marilyn, his sister-in-law, and strong hints that Josh might be Jack’s son. And Marilyn, played by Rena Saufer, is certainly more attractive than Kim Raver. Exploring their history and relationship would have been much more interesting and provided a lot more depth to Jack’s character than telling us more about Audrey.

What do you think? Are there any 24 fans there? Are you impressed with this season?

Any Kim Raver fans? Can you explain the appeal?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Nikon Coolpix S10 digital Camera Review

Communicator's Toolbox

A great gadget feeling

By Scott Bury

Nikon has a terrific new camera for serious amateur photographers and professional communicators in the Coolpix S10. It offers high, 6-megapixel resolution in a compact form, along with a host of features that make capturing great shots easy. It’s fast, flexible and has a new, lower price of $399 CDN or $350 US. Overall, it could be a champion in its category.
Basic data:
Size: 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.8 in.; 97 x 61 x 45 mm
Weight: 7.8 oz/220 g, without battery, lens cap or memory card
Resolution: 6.0 million pixels
CCD: 6.18 million total pixels
Lens: glass Nikkor 10x zoom; 6.3-63 mm; 35 mm format; f/3.5; digital zoom up to 4x
LDC monitor: 2.5-inch, 230,000 dot TFT, 170 degree wide viewing angle
Price: $399.95 CDN SRP

There’s a definite gadget appeal to the Nikon Coolpix S10 digital camera that comes from moving parts. Rather than just having a tiny viewing monitor come out on a sort of cantilever from the body, the body is actually divided into two connected parts. The lens section takes up the right-hand third, and swivels 270 degrees; the main part of the body holds the view-screen, shutter and power buttons and other controls. I just couldn’t help playing with that, rotating the body and lens around.
There are real, practical advantages to this design, of course. You can adjust the viewing angle for the viewfinder so you have a clear image however you’re shooting, You can shoot from chest level, for instance, rather than eye level, without having to bend down. Or you can hold the camera overhead to shoot over crowds, and still see the image you’re capturing. And when you close the camera a swivel the body flat, it’s a nice compact shape that fits into your pocket. Nikon has used this design in a number of models for the past seven years or so.
The lens cap is also a simple mechanical device: a round piece of plastic attached with a hinge to a plastic ring that fits around the lens housing. Most consumer-level digital cameras have a motorized lens cover that opens when you turn the power on; you have to flip the lens cap off yourself. It’s a bit flimsy; it popped off when I was shooting outdoors, at Ottawa’s Winterlude festival, and I was lucky to find that gray piece of plastic in the slush.
Other important features include
• VR Vibration Reduction image stabilization to reduce camera shake, especially at long zoom lengths
• Extended light sensitivity to ISO 800
• In-camera red-eye adjustment
• face-priority auto-focus
• D-Lighting feature to lighten dark image areas in the camera
• Pictomotion ™ software for creating slide shows with music in the camera
• USB and Pictbridge compatibility

Using the Coolpix S10
The most important measure to any camera is how good the results are. At 6 megapixels, the S10 has very good resolution for a “prosumer” camera, and even good for some professional use, although if you really need to crop and enlarge your photos, you may not have quite enough pixels for a sharp picture.
The 10x zoom, plus the 4x digital zoom, gives you even more flexibility. This is a long zoom in a compact camera, which makes it prone to vibration or any kind of motion at the extreme enlargement. That’s why Nikon’s image stabilization feature, which they call “Vibration Reduction” or VR, is so important. Anyone who’s tried a long zoom with a larger camera and ended up with blurry shots knows how important a stabilization function is.
The camera also features an “auto rotation” function, so that if you turn the camera 90 degrees for a portrait-format shot (longer than wide), the image in the view-screen rotates, too, so you’re looking at a preview that’s right-side up.
The 10x zoom is double the range of the Coolpix L5 compact camera, and the VR function really works well. Take a look at the photos of deer, which I shot in the greenbelt near my house. (Really — walking distance from my house, you can get really close to a herd of deer.)

These pictures show another advantage of this camera: the increased light sensitivity, to ISO 800. This improves the image results in low-light situations. This is important because, particularly for those of us who aren’t professional photographers, it’s often hard to know when the light level is low for a camera. It’s easy to get bright, sharp shots outdoors on a sunny day, but indoors, or at the end of the afternoon, when light is fading gradually, the amount of available light is often deceiving.
The S10 gave me excellent results in both these situations. The deer were shot in late afternoon in winter, when the sun was below tree level. There was a fair amount of light reflecting from the snow, but the amount of light that’s actually shining on the subject is not great. As you can see, the S10 deals with that challenge very nicely.
At 2.5 inches, the S10’s viewing screen is large for a compact camera. It’s easy to see the images you’ve taken, and it gives you a good idea of the overall image quality.

The S10 has very few shortcomings, but there is one that bothered me: the menu is difficult to use.
Probably as part of the effort to make a quality camera as compact as possible, Nikon has put only a few buttons on the body. The power, shutter button and the rocker switch that controls the zoom are all on the top of the body. They’re a little awkward to use, compared to some digital cameras I’ve used.
On the back of the body are four more buttons: trash, to delete unwanted shots; menu, which activates the on-screen menu; mode, which also opens the menus to select video, still shot, portrait and other image capture modes; and the Playback for viewing captured pictures and videos. There’s also a joystick for navigating through the menus and selecting options. The menus need some rethinking — the camera requires too many steps to do something as simple as switching between camera and video modes. Most cameras have a single button to switch between video and still modes, including Nikon’s Coolpix L5 (reviewed in February). Why doesn’t this one? Making other choices, especially more complex things like enhancing the photos, seem to have a lot of unnecessary steps.
One other thing: like almost every other auto-focus camera, the S10 has a noticeable shutter lag of almost a second. This makes action shots almost impossible, and I couldn’t find an easy way to turn it off. In comparison to Kodak’s EasyShare v610, the Nikon Coolpix S10 takes slightly sharper images, but the Kodak is the first digital camera I’ve found with no shutter lag. That makes it preferable for most action-oriented applications — the kind of situations that the avid amateur and the business communicator who needs pictures for the website or the newsletter will be in.

Summing up
The Nikon Coolpix S10 is an excellent high-end amateur, compact digital camera with all the features needed by a serious amateur or a business communicator with limited training in photography: sharp image, long zoom, light enhancement, red-eye reduction and more. It’s very easy to transport and relatively easy to use, once you get used to the menus. And its new low price will no doubt add to its popularity.
If Nikon could perhaps simplify the menu structure, and come up with a sturdier lens cap, they’d have a champion camera with the S10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The importance of YouTube: Learning Not to Control It

What will YouTube, FaceBook, MySpace and other Internet-based social networking technologies mean to business communicators? Most of them are still trying to work that out. And as the April attack at Virginia Tech showed, students are way ahead on this technology.

YouTube’s impact on the business world is obvious: Google spent $1.65 billion to acquire it, and now Viacom is suing it for a billion, for hosting video material that Viacom holds copyright on.

There is a wider significance, too — not only do millions of young people around the world spend inestimable hours searching, watching and posting videos on YouTube, now, students are getting suspended because of it.

Six students from the South Carleton High School in eastern Ontario were suspended for a day by their principal for participating in a “flash mob.” About 30 students mimicked the unaired commercial for Xbox by suddenly, seemingly without warning, aiming their fingers at each other in the cafeteria, saying “bang” and falling to play dead.

It’s an example of “flash mobbing,” a phenomenon shown in the Microsoft ad, that’s been played out by young people in places as far-flung as Gdansk and South Florida.

At South Carleton High, students planned the flash mob through the FaceBook website. Apparently, school faculty learned of the plan in advance and prepared to intervene. The reason: according to school board official, it was “threatening the moral tone of the school” and “stripped the ability of students to feel safe.”

It hardly seems like something to get suspended over; essentially, the kids were playing Cops and Robbers or some other elementary-school game. Who hasn’t pointed a finger-gun at a playmate?

The difference here is obviously the use of the Web-based social networking technology to plan the event. The principal’s reaction was clearly motivated by fear, fear directly tied to the fact that the student action was spread by the democratic, uncontrollable tools that youth are using. Clearly, there’s a fear of new technology here. If the Internet, which rightly evokes worries among adults about the safety of children, hadn’t been involved, would the principal have cared?

This is an important question, when you consider how students at Virginia Tech used social networking and the Internet in general to communicate during and immediately after the gun attack on April 16. There's no doubt that the technology and the websites that have become popular among students and other young people had real benefits in helping people deal with the shock and grief, and may even have saved some lives by informaing people durin gthe crisis. It's time to get past the fear, and to start looking at what's really working in new communications media and technology.

Business has been slow to start to take advantage of technology like blogs, wikis and social networking systems. But there are clearly a lot of opportunities here.

It hardly seems like something to get suspended over; essentially, the kids were playing Cops and Robbers or some other elementary-school game. Who hasn’t pointed a finger-gun at a playmate?

The difference here is obviously the use of the Web-based social networking technology to plan the event. The principal’s reaction was clearly motivated by fear, fear directly tied to the fact that the student action was spread by the democratic, uncontrollable tools that youth are using. Clearly, there’s a fear of new technology here. If the Internet, which rightly evokes worries among adults about the safety of children, hadn’t been involved, would the principal have cared?

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Hijab continues to make headlines

Girl’s ejection from soccer game touches a very sensitive nerve

Last week,Asmahan Mansour, an 11-year-old girl from Ottawa, was ejected from a youth soccer tournament in Montreal for wearing a hijab on the field. The event got front-page headlines across the country, proving that the hijab is a sensitive issue.

Photo: CBC news

The event made headlines in countries from Europe to Australia. A Written Words reader sent the following:

Egypt shows yellow card over hijab ban
Several dailies in the English-language press report that Egypt has warned of "mounting signs of racism and intolerance in Canada" over the recent game expulsion of an 11-year-old soccer player for wearing her Islamic headscarf. The article quotes the Egyptian Foreign Ministry: “The question of wearing the headscarf should remain a part of individual freedoms, so long as it does not harm security, public order or the values of a society.” However, the articles note the Egyptian ambassador to Canada, Mahmoud El-Saeed, has downplayed his Foreign Ministry's comments and said the criticisms levelled against Canada were only reflective of Egypt's "concern for the status of Muslims around the world." It is noted Mr. El-Saeed said he discussed the case with his government and assured them the incident was an anomaly in Canada. Mr. El-Saeed states: “I explained to Cairo that the situation in Canada is different -- it is a very tolerant place...This was just one soccer match and one province...I explained to Cairo that this was one incident, that the referee who made the decision was reported to be a Muslim himself ... and that this does not reflect the position of the [Canadian] federal government."

Meanwhile, soccer’s world governing body has failed to make any definitive statement about this issue.

While mainstream media tries to be neutral about this, shockwaves are spreading. Some Muslims, understandably, see the ban as symptomatic of the clash between secularist Western and Muslim values. Others see it as “Islamophobia.”

There is a lot of Web traffic on the issue, with the predictable number or ravers on all sides talking about discrimination and reverse discrimination and people taking advantage of Western freedoms to try to enforce an “alien” value on Western cultures. What that shows us is that the event has touched a very sensitive nerve.

We need to work out a way to talk about the conflict between the West’s ideas of religious freedom and freedom of expression — which support anyone’s freedom to wear any religious garment — other cultures’ ideas of religious duty, and Western concern over the freedom of individuals within cultures, such as Islam, to not be forced into religious observances if they don’t want to.

And for the record, I can’t see why a girl shouldn’t be able to wear a hijab when she plays soccer — it can’t interfere with other players.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

When you know you’re being lied to

Gas prices in central Canada are spiking again to nearly a dollar a litre — for you Americans, that’s about four bucks a gallon. And some gas stations in Toronto have had to close for lack of fuel.

The reason, apparently, is a fire in a refinery on February 15. That’s led to a huge shortage of gas, and hence the price increase.

Come on: one refinery fire means there’s not enough gasoline in half the country? There have to be more refineries.

I think it’s just another example of big oil taking an excuse to gouge us consumers. And their cover story is a further insult. How can they expect anyone with a little intelligence to buy that?

I would have expected the oil industry to be able to come up with a better cover story for raising their prices yet again. In the past, Big Oil has used hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and war in the Middle East have to excuse their price gouging. This time, I want a better explanation than one fire.

What do you think? Post a comment and let me know.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Does this look bad, or what?

If the preview trailers look awful, just imagine what the movie’s like.

Wild Hogs, the laughfest with John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy, starts this weekend. From the preview trailers, it looks like the studio poured a lot of money into movie star salaries, motorcycles, cars, explosions and costumes. (Who knew there was a stretchy leather fabric for Travolta’s motorcycle pants?)

It looks like another predictable road-buddy movie. It’s been done so many times before — think City Slickers on Harleys. Who are these supposed movie critics who feed the studios lines like “Travolta, Allen, Lawrence and Lacey are a comic dream team”?

I suspect, as with most movies of this quality, that the best laughs are in the trailers, and none of those is original: guy gets poked by bull (Bugs Bunny did it best); bird poop on face; fire goes out of control. There is nothing new, nothing even remotely resembling some thinking. It’s a complete formula. We get the whole ho-hum plot from the previews.

I will even predict the ending: all four guys return home, chastened, with a renewed appreciation for their wives and families, and a release from whatever obsession had alienated them and prompted the road trip.


The studio’s aiming low: it even provides labels for the one-dimensional characters: “the rich guy,” “the geek.” We don’t even have to think. Not that figuring out those labels requires much thought.

Do we need mindless comedies? Absolutely. But they should be funny. So at least make the jokes unpredictable.

Yes, I know I’m criticizing without having seen the movie. So if I’m off base, you can criticize me later.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Communicator’s toolbox: Nikon Coolpix L5 Digital Camera Review

Flock of flamingos, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florda, USA

The Nikon Coolpix L5 digital camera is an excellent buy for the “prosumer” digital photographer, and an excellent choice for corporate communications departments who need a versatile, easily portable and easy to use camera occasionally or regularly.

Basic data
Size: 3.8 x 2.4 x 1.8 in.; 97 x 61 x 45 mm
Weight: 6.0 oz/170 g, without memory card or batteries
Resolution: 7.2 million pixels
CCD: 7.41 million total pixels
Lens: Nikkor 5x zoom; 6.3-31.4 mm; 35 mmm format; f/2.9-5.0
LDC monitor: 2.5-inch, 115,000 dot TFT
Price: $299.95 SRP
Complete specs: Nikon Canada

Using it
Using the Coolpix L5 is enjoyable. It’s nice and light, small and easy to transport. It starts up quickly, so you don’t miss those spontaneous shooting opportunities.
The user interface is well designed: just a few buttons take you to the functions you want, quickly. Nikon put four buttons across the top of the body: On/Off, Photo and Video modes, and of course, the shutter button. So it just takes one touch to get ready to frame your shot, and one more to take a picture. Want to shoot videos? One more touch of the Video Mode button, then frame your shot and press the shutter button once to start rolling.
There are enough automated features to make capturing excellent pictures easy. It also offers “one-touch” buttons to activate all the settings for portraits, Face-Priority auto-focus, in-camera red-eye fixing and “D-Lighting” light adjustment.
Most significantly, the Coolpix L5 delivers excellent results. This is because of a few important features: a very high resolution — 7.2 megapixels — for the suggested retail price — $379.95 CDN (although I’ve seen it advertised by some U.S. retailers as low as $219 US.) It offers a 5x zoom feature, which is very high for such a small prosumer camera, and lens-based Vibration Reduction that steadies shots, critical for long zooms.
The results are excellent pictures. Here are a few examples.

Alligator in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA

Wading bird at extreme zoom, cropped.

I have very few complaints about the L5, and they’re mostly the result of somewhat unfair comparison to more expensive competitors.
First, the view screen on the back is pretty good at 2.5 inches — not bad at all for a small, consumer-level digital camera. I found it bright with a fairly good viewing angle. However, I thought the screen could have been a little bigger; even a small increase makes a big difference in user comfort.
Like all digital cameras, the Coolpix L5 has that annoying delay between the time you press the shutter button and the moment the shutter opens. I missed several candid action shots that way. However, almost every other digital camera I’ve ever used had the same issue, and the L5’s delay was shorter than most.
Battery life was occasionally an issue. The camera uses two AA batteries, and the model I received came with rechargeable batteries and a charger, so theoretically, I should always have been able to take pictures.
However, more than once I found myself caught out with dead batteries. While I didn’t measure the actual shooting time between battery failures, it did seem shorter than with some other cameras (though longer than with the Kodak EasyShare V610). Interestingly, extremely cold weather seemed to hamper the battery performance. I took the camera out for a trial run on the Rideau Canal Skateway one very cold evening, and wasn’t able to take one shot.
The L5 comes with only 8 MB of internal memory, which only holds one or two shots at high-quality mode. It has a slot for an SD card, so you can add 256 or 512 MB, or 1 or 2 GB of storage. This was initially a problem for me: I have a number of the smaller-format XD cards, so I had to go out and buy an SD card. However, Steve’s Digicams reports that the SD format memory cards are now the most popular choice for digital cameras, so Nikon may have bet on the right technology. Still, neither the SD cards no the XD offer as much capacity for the price as Compact Flash, my current favorite format.

Summing up
The Nikon Coolpix is an excellent high-end consumer, or prosumer digital camera. It has a relatively strong zoom at 5x, high resolution at 7.2 megapixels and an easy user interface.
Battery life is somewhat limited, and if you have XD memory cards, you’ll have to pay for the larger, if more popular SD cards.
The bottom line, as usual, is this: the Nikon Coolpix L5 takes excellent pictures. For the price, it’s an excellent choice.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bill Gates goes on tour

The fascination with Bill Gates comes from two sources: first, he’s the world’s richest man. The first time I met him, he was just “the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.” But for several years now, he’s stood on top of the world, outstripping the legendary modern Croesuses like the Sultan of Brunei.

Photo by Tom Hanson/Canadian Press; courtesy

It’s understandable that he draws crowds for that reason, alone. Everyone wants to catch some of the glow from that kind of treasure. We listen to his pronouncements, hoping to learn some clues that will help us amass our own riches.

But Gates would also command attention, without his wealth, because of his role as the head of Microsoft. Few other companies have had such a profound impact on our jobs, lives, culture, as Microsoft. (It’s hard to imagine Gates heading a company with as pervasive a reach and profound an impact as Microsoft without amassing such a fortune.)

So it’s heartening to know that Gates is now putting his intelligence and considerable star power to noble goals such as fighting AIDS and helping Africa out of its many plights. What’s going to be interesting from a communications perspective is noting what the population takes from his “farewell tour.” People accepted his predictions about the impact of computers — well, some of them, anyway. The world has bought his software.

Not only that, media has paid Gates a lot of attention whenever he’s launched new software and talked about what computers will do in the future. Now that he’s headed in a direction that’s much more difficult to follow, will the spotlight linger?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Asking questions about Islam

News. 24, Keifer Sutherland’s hit show. Documentaries, books, magazines.

Everyone is talking about Muslims, Muslim culture and especially about Muslims practicing their faith within a secular, pluralist Western society. Journalists, editorialists, politicians, casual observers are all struggling with some questions about our relationship to this significant minority. Environics Research even asked Muslims about their relationship to Canada. Their report was the top of the morning news on February 13.

What makes this remarkable are the convoluted questions they ask. Actually, the questions we all, in our secular, pluralistic society, have to ask.

Photo source:

Take, for instance, the issue of the hijab, the head-scarf that many Muslim women wear. Environics, CBC News and others ask how people feel about them. How do Muslim women feel about them? It’s not trivial: France has forbidden women to wear them in schools, and other countries have taken stands against or for them.

There’s a deep conflict that’s difficult to resolve. On one hand, we feel that people should be free to wear what they want and worship as they wish. On the other hand, wearing the hijab is not optional for many Muslims. Even in Western countries, some women feel pressured and intimidated into wearing them. So there’s the conflict.

One of the most interesting aspects is the logical somersaults that politicians, journalists and commentators make about this, trying to stand up for both sides of the issue at once. Let’s see how convoluted they get.

How do you feel about this? Should Canada ban the hijab, or legislate some way to protect those who do not wish to wear them? What about veils covering the face – should they be outlawed? What about turbans?

Are we even asking the right questions? Tell me what you think.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kia’s racy ad and the sensitivity of our police

Apparently, the Montreal Police Brotherhood, Quebec’s provincial police association, and, by extension, other police representatives, are very sensitive. They’ve protested Kia’s recent ad, which shows a female traffic cop passionately kissing a driver in his Kia, until they’re interrupted by a call on her car-radio.

Thanks to YouTube for the image.
It’s a cute ad, but the police in Quebec, apparently, are not amused. They want it pulled. Kia agreed to air it only after 9 p.m.

This raises a lot of questions about freedom of expression, the limits of expression in commercial and publicly-accessible television, the depiction of identifiable groups, respect for authority and the ability of any group to limit expression by crying “offensive.”

Personally, I wonder where the offense lies. What does the ad say? That driving a Kia makes you irresistible. In fact, the ad implies that police officers normally can resist temptations, but of course Kia’s product overwhelms even them.

Anyway, even if police officers are not immune to such temptations, what’s the worst that this ad says? That officers can be impulsive? Has the officer done anything wrong? She has kissed a man. No one has been hurt.

What the police associations don’t seem to realize is that we viewers aren’t stupid. We know this is hyperbole. We don’t expect to be mobbed by women when we drive a subcompact car, no matter who makes it. We also don’t really expect to be smothered in smooches when we wear any particular deodorant or after-shave. But it’s an amusing idea, nonetheless.

Get over it, officers!

What do you think?