Saturday, January 05, 2008

Digitize This

This week's On The Media closed with a segment that had me rolling my eyes at the start. The story was about "lifeblogging" -- an effort to record to disk every bit of minutiae that passes in front of your eyes, through your hands, or out of your bowels. Okay, they didn't really say that last part, but I got my suspicions.

They started with a researcher at Microsoft whom I've heard about before, Gordon Bell. He wears a camera around his neck that takes a picture every minute, and he offloads the images to his computer every day. He also stores all electronic communication, records much what he hears, and scans everything he can, preferring, say, an image of a gift coffee cup or other bit of memorabilia to the physical item itself.

By now, I'm thinking, okay, not only am I paranoid about the idea that everything about everybody is going to be recorded everywhere (hello, Big Brother!), I'm also getting impatient with Bell's apparent neglect of my belief that some things are meant to be held. Tactility seems to stimulate a different part of my brain than does vision, more ruminative and free-associative at times, more vivid and recall-provoking at others. I have a small collection of thank-you mugs from local NPR stations from several of the places I've lived, and drinking out of one can send me on a trip back to L.A. or Northampton. I'm not saying touch is better. I'm saying it's different and that it adds to whatever visual stimulus offers.

Plus, there's that whole other bit about gathering and storing the data in the first place. Few things are more annoying than going on a trip or to a party and feeling the pressure to document every bit of it. If you have the same kind of obsessive-compulsive tendencies that I do, you find yourself struggling between worrying about preserving good memories and doing anything to provoke them in the first place.

And then there's the inescapable fact that Sturgeon's Law always applies. Who needs to remember everything? Who wants to? It's like Pepys on steroids and crack at the same time.

Finally, there's the idea that too much of a good thing can rob individual things of their importance. Let's let Travis McGee grouse about this for a bit (click to enlarge):

T. McGee on Pix

However, the OTM segment ended by talking about an offshoot of this idea. Recent research indicates that you can wear a camera like Bell's, flash through all the pictures at the end of your day -- really quickly, the whole day reviewed in a minute or two -- and greatly boost your ability to remember the events of the day. This appears especially helpful to people suffering some forms of short-term memory loss.

So, kinda cool. Good for Gordon Bell and his research.

You can listen to the segment here (about fourteen minutes) or the whole show here (about an hour).


Alastair said...

Quite a timely post Brendan. I bought myself a new DSLR for xmas and have been snapping away madly for the last few weeks.

My main justification is to produce memory aids. I have two young boys and want to create a lasting record of them before the weight of the world crushes their innocent young selves.

A secondary justification is to explore a bit of my own creativity in the visual realm (long dormant).

In either case, Sturgeon's law definitely applies and this just means you have to commit to a lot of filtering and tagging after the fact.

kidneystones said...


I've linked and made a tiny request. As flattered as I am to find rattlesnakepoint right next to 'Shit Sandwich' may I ask you to place a large cap for the first letter of the listing. Cheers. Looking forward to our next.

bjkeefe said...


I can't go along with "large cap," but I did change the first letter of your blog's name from lowercase. ;^)

Sorry about the juxtaposition due to alphabetization, but I think if you have a look at Mr. S's blog, you'll be proud of the proximity.


Glad to hear about your new toy, and I look forward to seeing some of the shots. You're right about the need for post-processing, especially filtering. That's one of the things I like best about digital cameras: you can buy into the old pro's rule of thumb that you have to shoot a roll of film to get one good picture, without, you know, having to buy film or pay to develop it.

I haven't taken so many pictures with my camera that filtering has become necessary (except for not imposing every one on the rest of the world), but I should think about a tagging system pretty soon. Looking for something in a directory filled with files all named DSCNnnnn.JPG is becoming tedious. Picasa and NikonView are both pretty good at speedy thumbnailing, but I'd like to think about some way of associating metadata with the pictures so that I could look for a specific one without having to scroll through screens of pictures.

Please share your recommendations for efficient tagging, if you get a chance. Thanks.

bjkeefe said...

P.S. to kidneystones:

Forgot to thank you for adding me to your sidebar. Thanks!

kidneystones said...

Brendan, Thanks for the suggestion. I had no idea I'd be in such elevated company.

Most enjoyable. I'll peruse the rest at my leisure. Any special recommendations?

bjkeefe said...

I'll peruse the rest at my leisure. Any special recommendations?

Are you seriously asking me to rank my friends' blogs? In public, where they'll all be able to see what I say??? Of course they're all fabulous!!!!!

Actually, the three right above yours are no longer being updated regularly, so you can put them toward the low end of your priority list. That leaves just a quick dozen to evaluate.

Alastair said...


I quite like my non-current version of iPhoto, although talk to me after I import my 200+ holiday snaps. The grand plan is to adopt either Lightroom or Aperture, which can handle the (hopefully) increased volume and size of photos taken. This will in turn require a hardware upgrade, so it's obviously not the answer for everyone's photographic filtering needs, particularly for those struggling with less than cutting-edge hardware.

Tagging is an absolute must IMHO - once you've worked out that each person is a tag. Again iPhoto is suboptimal, but tolerable.

Rating of photos (as in, assigning each a number of stars) is another great filtering tool, probably even more useful than tagging.

Any photo library app I chose would of necessity include both of these. I understand that iPhoto, Aperture and Lightroom all support these features.

bjkeefe said...


Thanks for the report. I tried iPhoto briefly, but I didn't like it as much as the software that came with the camera (NikonView, IIRC). At the time, I was a n00b in matters of digital pics, so I wasn't even aware of concepts like tagging. I might give it another look.

I don't know anything about Aperture or Lightroom. I'll have to give them a look, as well.

I also just took another look at Picasa, which I have installed and sort of like, and it turns out that it does have tagging capability.

[Side note: Picasa calls tags "keywords," which follows the Google preference for "labels" on Blogger, instead of "tags." I wonder what's up with the apparent corporate revulsion for the term the everybody else uses.]

That's a good point you make about tagging each photo with the names of the people appearing in it. My grandmother would always write the names on the backs of her pictures, which we mocked, but boy, were we happy when we looked at them years later.

Alastair said...

Brendan, just because you asked, I've posted some (heavily-filtered) initial experiments with the new camera to my flickr account.

iPhoto is actually annoying me a bit so far, partially because of the sluggish performance (which admittedly is at least partially due to my old hardware) but also because I haven't yet worked out how to filter/rate each of the shots quickly. Will keep at it, at least for the short term, and also work on the justification for a long-delayed hardware upgrade...

bjkeefe said...

Thanks for the update, Alastair. Some nice shots, particularly in the cave, on the train, and of the fish.

I'm curious about why you chose to mark your photos as "copyrighted, all rights reserved." No interest in any of the Creative Commons spirit of sharing?

bjkeefe said...

Should have looked first, but I just looked at my own Flickr account, and it appears that marking all photos as copyrighted is the default setting. This seems new to me, because I'm pretty sure I marked my photos with a "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons" license once before.

Must have been an "upgrade." Well, I did it again.

Anyway, this is something you might want to look at, if you didn't set this on purpose. And if you did, I'd be interested to hear why, as I said earlier.

Alastair said...

Brendan - perhaps you should read this series of articles on the pitfalls of flickr and CC licensing. I haven't digested it myself yet, so can't comment meaningfully.

bjkeefe said...


I can see why you say you haven't digested that series of articles yet. My goodness, the man does go on. Were I his editor, I might point put that just because he's a professional photographer and did not include pictures with these blog posts, it was not necessary to offer thousands of words instead.

I can't be sure I completely digested Heller's three articles, either, but I did put a fair amount of effort into reading through them and trying to understand them. As far as I can tell, his two biggest problems with Creative Commons licenses (CCLs) are: first, that they have the potential to put at risk people who use photos marked as such, and second, that they don't offer enough protection to the original creators.

In the first problem area, the most likely scenario is this: Alice publishes a photo and marks it as copyrighted. Bob grabs a copy, reposts it, and marks it with a CCL. Chris comes upon the picture at Bob's site and thus assumes the picture may be reused. Chris publishes the picture in a third location, and Alice sues Chris.

Heller describes other possible scenarios, what he calls "gaming the system," that involve people copyrighting photos and then trying to lure other people into thinking they're under CCL, with the express intent of creating victims to sue.

The main consequence of this, Heller believes, is a growing reluctance on the part of big companies to use CCLed photos.

In the second problem area, Heller mostly focuses on the claim that those who make their photos available under a CCL that has some restrictions might have trouble enforcing these restrictions. For example, my stuff has a "no commercial use" restriction, but without formally copyrighting my pictures, it would be tough for me to go after someone who, say, used one of my pictures as the cover shot for a magazine.

Let's just say it up front: At least 95% of Heller's entire argument is pure FUD.

I grant the conceivability of what I read as the most likely scenario, but even that one is a stretch. In the first place, any publisher with legitimate worries about being sued for copyright infringement has (should have) an infrastructure in place to assure the provenance of the preexisting content that it publishes. Second, publishers that make any money at all tend to invest in creating (or buying new) content that is specific to their desires at the moment. Third, who cares whether big companies might worry about CCLs being uncertain? Let them decide whether it's better to hire lawyers to protect themselves or to hire creative types in the first place.

Most tellingly, Heller offers one (1) real-life example of this scenario actually causing a problem, and then has to admit that it really didn't have anything to do with the CCL aspect. He then retreats to his previous imagined scenarios.

As to Heller's "gaming the system" worries: Well, yeah, I can imagine the possibility here, too. One of the worst aspects of living in a post-industrial economy is the existence of leeches who think the way to riches is to dream up new ways of suing each other. On the other hand, if you're running any kind of company, dealing with such leeches is an inescapable fact of life and a cost of doing business. It's not like doing away with CCLs would change this reality in any measurable way.

Moving onto Heller's second class of potential problems: The thought that I don't have much ability to enforce the restrictions I set on my CCLed photos underwhelms me with worry. I fail to see how I'd be much better off going through the trouble to copyright my pics -- I'd still have to discover the misuse of my work and hire a lawyer. Maybe I'd have a stronger case in theory, but really, how likely am I to win against a big company? More to the point, how likely is it that such a situation would ever come up? Heller says there are over 2 billion photos posted on Flickr. He also admits, in his third article, that just saying that a photo that you've posted on Flickr is copyrighted doesn't make it so -- at least in the US, you must explicitly register the photo with the copyright office to have real legal recourse.

I'll be clear: I don't care about the first class of problems -- the worries that companies might have. To the extent that I have thought about them at all, above, I think corporate worries specifically related to CCLs are a drop in the ocean.

As to the second class: I'm not sure what your goals are as a photographer. Presumably, at least for now, they're similar to the reason you have a blog: you enjoy the act of creating and you'd like to share (and/or show off) some of your results. Placing your work on a central site is more efficient than emailing it, and making the site publicly accessible increases the chances that more people will find out about you. So, the act of creating something is a big part of the motivation in and of itself, and receiving acclaim is a nice bonus.

That's certainly what drives me. The nice thing about the CCL is it provides a concise statement of my intentions: Anything I put out on the Web I'm putting out there to share. If by some chance someone comes across my work and likes it enough to want to print out a copy, or to email it onward, or to repost it to decorate their own blog, or to use it as part of a mash-up or other further creative effort, I'd be thrilled to have provided something that someone else thought was worth something.

I'm not worried about someone making money off of my work; I put the non-commercial restriction on mostly for the same reason that other people buy lottery tickets -- there's that one in a gazillion chance that someone might think it'd be worth paying me to reuse something of mine. Since I'm creating assemblages of words and pictures for my own enjoyment anyway, it's not like it would cost me anything if someone came along later and reused something of mine to make money. If someone figures out a way to make big money off my work, would I like a piece? Of course. But I figure that even if that lightning bolt happens to strike, the odds are good that the entrepreneur would be honorable enough (or lawsuit-shy enough) to get in touch with me. To contemplate the combined possibility that someone could figure out a way to make big money off my work, and would be slimy enough to do it on the sly ... well, I'm not going to worry about such remote possibilities. And if I did, I wouldn't put my stuff online in an unrestricted forum in the first place.

I suppose some of this thinking doesn't apply if you have hopes of being a professional photographer. If that's the case, I'd say at this point, putting your early efforts out there without restriction is about the cheapest form of self-promotion I can think of. Your work is bound to get better, and you can worry about restricting reuse of it later.