My Love/Hate Relationship with Apple and Straying Outside the Walled Garden

The Unrest

A few months ago I was in the market for a small tablet. I was feeling a little claustrophobic in the apple world, as my laptop, my phone, my wireless router, etc were all Apple products. I had heard some good things about the new Android operating system. The family has an iPad2 wireless only that mostly lives in the house. I was annoyed that Apple doesn’t put a GPS in the wireless only version of the iPads, this meant that when we took the iPad out on a road trip and tethered it to my phone, the maps program didn’t work a worth a damn. Really, Apple? Would that have been so hard? Other Android wi-fi only tablets do that and come in cheaper. One that rose to the surface was the Google Nexus 7. Hell, if you are going to jump ship from Apple, Google seemed a good bet. Now, they don’t make the tablet, Asus does, but Google writes the code for the software on the Nexus 7. Ok, looks good. Better resolution than the iPad and a narrower profile (almost giant iPhone like) and more open source. This was also big draw. I have felt that tablets are artificially handicapped. Why can’t I use them as a phone? my over 40 eyes would love a giant iPhone. And I have no shame, I would absolutely hold an a tablet to my head to make a phone call. Why not? It’s not like talking to no one and waving my arms like a crazy person looks any better, as people with Bluetooth ear buds do.

Fine. I did the research and settled on a Nexus 7 with both wi-fi and cell service. Ordered it, got it set up from AT&T and settled in buying all the apps that had sister apps over from the Apple world. I was able to download apps so I could make free phone calls to and from my Nexus using Google voice. Very cool. And of course I had Google maps, not the travesty that Apple maps has made for itself. (I once had apple maps insist I drive into Boston bay to get to the waste treatment facility, which while on the coast is attached to the mainland.) Great. Maybe I had the new “One Device” it could be my phone, my GPS, my calendar, etc, and it was big enough to use and just small enough I could, depending on what I was wearing, get it into a pocket. Now all I had to do is learn the operating system.

The Bumpy Ride

Android OS is…. interesting. There would be a few cool new things, then some inexplicable dumbness. I was able to get apps that synced all the calendars on my iphone and Mac Book Pro, as well as my contacts. Not too hard. So far so good. The Nexus being a Google product it tries really hard to shove Gmail down your throat. Ok fine. I Set up a Gmail account. But around here I realize I have left the serenity of the “walled garden” that Apple provides. There is a Gmail only email app on the Nexus that seems nice enough, but that is not my primary email, so I am never going to use that app. There is also a generic email app but it seems to be really limited in functionality. After doing some research, I determine that “Aquamail” is the best most flexible powerful email app out there. I get it, set it up for my multiple email addresses. It has lots of “under the hood” settings about layout etc, most of which were bad. I kept thinking “this tablet is bigger than my iPhone, why is it harder to check my email on this thing than it is on that?” everything was busy, hard to read, hard to keep track of emails, etc. after much futzing I got it to where I was “OK” with it, but not really happy. Plus Aquamail is made by some Russian developer, and I couldn’t get out of my mind that he could have put a back door in it and now some Russian hacker has access to all my emails. Also now I have 3 different email apps all not great all checking emails and downloading them. Battery life suffers. I mess around with various settings and improve it somewhat.

On the Road

I have a big trip planned where I will drive up the east coast, vacation with my family, then bus and fly back to work, then fly and bus back and rejoin the vacation already in progress. I figure it is going to be a big “sea trial” for this new Nexus 7. We drive up the east coast using the Nexus 7 as our GPS. Even plugged in it cannot keep up with the power demands of the tablet. Battery levels drop during the whole day. If we had driven another hour we would have lost navigation as it couldn’t charge itself fast enough. Something has got to be wrong I think. I jigger with email fetch settings, and some other settings. The next day it seems a little better, although we don’t drive as far. Not good. One of the allures of a tablet is longer battery life than my phone. I know GPS use taxes the thing, but IT WAS PLUGGED IN. into a 2 ah USB port so it should have been fine.

During my vacation I decide the following things: although a bit busy, I like widgets. I like Google Chrome insofar as it integrates with the GPS of the tablet and gives you a welcome web page with info about things to do in your area and tracks travel plans as long as the tickets were booked via your Gmail account. Voice recognition is surprisingly good. Battery life remains poor. And surprisingly, I miss having a front facing camera. The Nexus has a back facing camera, but ships with no apps to use it, which is odd. Of course Skype and other apps can use it, so it is not like it is useless.

Airplane mode

I then bus then fly back to DC. On the bus I read “Treasure Island” a free ebook installed on the Nexus to get me hooked on that feature. I do this because I couldn’t figure out how to download a movie via the “Google Play” store. Turns out you can do it, but the setup is counter-intuitive. When I get to the airport I have several hours to kill, so I decide to watch a movie, streaming “Zero Dark Thirty” via the 3G network. Taking a huge hit in my monthly use, but whatever, I chalk it up to the learning curve. On the plane I go back to reading the e-book. The rest of the travel is uneventful. “Zero Dark Thirty” excepted, I finally realize that by not buying an Apple product not only am I locked out of the “iTunes” library I am locked into the Google library, which is pretty weak. Movie selections are not great.

Anyway, during my stay in DC I figure out how to download movies, rather than stream them, so I download two for viewing on my travel back. I watch part of one on the plane. When we land I turn my tablet out of “airplane mode” and that is where the trouble begins. The screen starts blinking and flashing at first I assume as all the apps come online and try to call out to the world. I deplane. At baggage claim the tablet is still stuck in some sort of subroutine, and unresponsive. I reboot the thing, thinking that will fix it. It takes an extremely long time to boot. In fact it never finishes. It just gives me the Google Nexus logo which in this tablet is suspiciously like a giant “X”. I restart the boot. Nothing. I start using my iPhone to look up how to troubleshoot a Nexus. I boot in safe mode. Still hangs. I do more research. My bus comes. The entire 2 hour bus ride I spend killing my iPhone battery trying to troubleshoot, chat w Asus technicians etc, on how to get this thing running again. I finally pull the nuclear option and opt to wipe all my data on it. This does not fix it. Let me repeat, in just outside of two weeks, without downloading any exotic apps I manage to brick my Nexus to the point where even a hard reset cannot save it. the only hope apparently is to connect it to a PC. A PC?! That is it. I am done. I get an RMA from both Asus and B&H, which is where I bought it. I get my money back. And start over.


Nexus “X” of death

The Aftermath

It turns out the Nexus going belly up was a blessing in disguise. I ran out and bought an iPad Mini no longer upset about the price or feeling claustrophobic living within the iOS environment. It was like coming home to an old friend. As Steve Jobs said “It just works.” No buggy email apps, good battery life, excellent library in iTunes, nice size. I have even come around to apple maps, as it seems to have improved somewhat. The one thing I lost is the ability to call in or out like a phone on the mini. Some version of this can be done i think by jailbreaking it, or maybe calls within wi-fi area only. I have found I don’t care so much, as long as everything else works. My one regret is not making one phone call on my Nexus 7 in a public place when it was still working, preferably surrounded by hipsters in a bar or coffee-house, to see the ensuing confusion in their eyes as to whether it was lame or cool.


Color Charts, Calibration Targets and Mars

All cameras lie. At least a little bit. For that matter so do our eyes. What we want in most cases is a camera to perform in the same characteristics of our eye, although even that can be subjective.

Gretag-Macbeth_ColorCheckerBack when I would work as a Camera Assistant we would often use a “Macbeth Colorchart” at the head of each scene, and sometimes at each roll of film. It would act as a known “control” that the post production people would know, and therefore be able to tweak color and contrast so that the chart looked like it did to our eye. This was important because color negative film meant that a positive needed to be made and at that step changes could be introduced and of course the goal would to be not to introduce any unwanted changes. Essentially It was “re-exposing” the film, and the chart gave the film lab something to go by on what the cinematographer wanted. Sometimes these charts were shot under “white” light (i.e. light color balanced to the film stock) and then only after it was photographed were gels to change the color of the light applied for the scene to be shot. The goal here was to communicate with the lab, “Just because I put blue gel on the lights doesn’t mean it is a mistake I need you to fix, I want you to “time” your color to the light I shot the chart under, so that my desired color cast is achieved” resulting in this case to a blue cast to he scene.

As the shift to video happened, Macbeth Charts began to lose ground to charts like DSC labs Chroma Du Monde which was more useful when used with a Waveform and Vectorscope, video engineering devices not used in film, but prevalent in video production. according to the DSC labs Website these charts were originally designed by the “US Space Program” which made me think of a color chart I had seen recently photographed in a fairly remote location. “Bradbry Landing” to be exact. No, this isn’t a BBC sequel to “Downtown Abby”, it is the landing site of the Mars Rover Curiosity, or more accurately Mars Science Laboratory (MSL.) It has 17 cameras onboard, some for hazard navigation, some for scientific research. The HazCams are black and white so color reproduction is irrelevant. But some of the cameras shoot in color. We all know Mars is the “Red Planet” but what if you want to correct out that color cast? Well, you shoot a color chart of known colors. NASA calls this a Calibration Target as it does more than just color. Nevertheless it is a pretty simple device. It has 6 color samples. Red, Green, Blue (3 primary colors) 40% gray and 60% gray, and a fluorescent pigment that glows red when hit with ultraviolet light. Pretty simple, especially when you look at the complex charts that DSC produces. I imagine the heavy engineering of the camera’s performance was done here on earth, and this simple chart is just to analyze color cast like that on Mars. The descending bar graphic is adapted from the US

Mahli Calibration Target

Mahli Calibration Target

Air force for judging camera resolution. And below that is a 1909 Vdb Penny. what is a coin doing on the chart, you might ask. This chart is mainly for the MALHI camera, which is essentially for close up work, essentially a geologist’s eyes. The penny is a nod to the common practice of a geologist placing a known object within the frame to show scale of object being examined. Rulers work, and are perhaps more scientific, but in choosing a penny NASA is showing a bit of whimsy, something not that bad for a big governmental science and engineering branch to have. Perhaps something we should all keep in mind.

Why a 1909 Vdb penny? The first year the “Lincoln head” penny was produced was 1909 and 2009 was originally the launch date for the rover, and the 100th anniversary made it a good choice apparently. Ultimately the Rover’s launch got delayed to 2011, but by then the decision was made. “VDB” are initials on the bottom of the coin indicating the initials of the designer: Victor D. Brenner.

I find this especially interesting as when I was a kid I dabbled in numismatics, or coin collecting. I got started with some silver quarters my parents gave me, but I remember vividly looking through all the pennies I got over the course of however many months and finding three or four 1909 Vdb pennies myself. At the time they were valued at about $2. Now they are about $15 on ebay for average condition. There is also a 1909 Vdb S penny, which was minted in the San Francisco mint and has a “wheat” back. Those are quite rare and are worth at least a thousand dollars today. Who knows, you might have one in your pocket right now. And you thought pennies were worthless.



MastCam with fixed 34mm f 8.0 lens Notice the Swiss Army knife for perspective. Much like putting a penny next to the object for scale

Now it is not clear to me whether this Calibration Target is available to the other cameras on the Rover, but I think so. The other main camera on the Rover is the “Mast Cam” which provides a human height perspective from Mars and can even capture footage in stereo. The Mast Cam uses the same sensors as the MAHLI does.
The sensors are 1200×1200 pixel (2 megapixel) Bayer pattern sensors. The Mast Cam has two cameras, a “wide angle” (15 degree field of view) 34mm f8 lens with a minimum focus of 2.1 meters and a “telephoto” (5.2 degree field of view) 100mm F10 lens with same minimum focus. Together they can shoot stereo, although with the mismatch in focal lengths means this is only a bonus feature rather than a primary function. Each camera can do 720p video at about 10fps. And for us camera nerds, it has ND filtration as well as IR cut filters (for study of specific wave lengths more than IR contamination I suspect.)

One thing that instantly occurred to me when I first was listening to news reports of Curiosity’s landing, was how the hell do they keep dust of the lenses? Dust has an affinity for front elements here on Earth and I imagine it is only worse on Mars. I don’t know if Curiosity has the ability to blow off dust of its lenses, but I did find out they have an ingenious design to their lens caps. They are transparent. This means that they can take pictures through them if conditions are unfavorable. The optical quality suffers, but the lens is protected. When conditions are clear, they can remove the lens caps for clearer pictures. And like any good photographer, the Rover probably keeps her lenses capped when not in use.

What does this have to do with Calibration Targets and color charts? Well, it helps us get images like the two below. One is “un-white balanced”, and the other is “white balanced” and represents what the surface would look like under Earth lighting. By shooting the Calibration Target first, the engineers can “dial out” any color cast created by the Martian atmosphere. The uncorrected shot, if it had a calibration chart in the frame, would have colors that would not look correct. In the “white balanced” shot, all the colors on the target should look true and accurate, the same as they did back at NASA before it launched.

Uncorrected "RAW" panorama of Mars

Uncorrected “RAW” panorama of Mars would look like if it were on Earth.

Corrected "White Balanced" version of the same shot

Corrected “White Balanced” version of the same shot

If these pictures are too small to your liking, here is the link to NASA’s page that has links to some super high res versions. Now I don’t know about you, but I find high res panoramic photos of a foreign planet pretty cool.

So what does this all mean? Well, for one, I plan to tape a 1909 Vdb penny to my Chroma Du Monde chart. Why? there are several reasons. I want to be reminded that whenever I pull my color chart out that somewhere on a different planet millions of miles away, there is a similar chart being used to aid in photography. The penny also reminds me that in the most ordinary mundane things, like a penny, there can be surprises if you just look carefully enough. A good thing to keep in mind in life, as well as photography. Who would have thought that the lowly penny would be the first currency to arrive at another planet? And lastly, no matter how big or important the job is there is always room for some whimsy.

I feel getting a copy of the only coin (of any currency) that is on another planet for $15 on Ebay is a deal if ever I saw one. And in the meantime I am going to start checking my pockets more often. Who knows, there could be a 1909 Vdb S in there with all that loose change.