my network (via Facebook)

I found a link to Nexus in my reader this morning thanks to a post from Information Aesthetics, and decided to check it out. It’s an app for Facebook that graphs out a member’s network, indicating connections and clusters. Here’s my network:

Facebook Nexus Detail

Moving the mouse over any dot within the Nexus app highlights that person, and their connections. It’s pretty easy to see things like the University of Calgary folks (the lines of dots in the middle), the Northern Voice folks (on the left side, mostly), family members and old high school friends (the unconnected mini-networks outside the main circle).

It’s an interesting application, but is restricted to just the “friends” you’ve made in Facebook. I’d love to see something that takes this and adds the Google connections from TouchGraph, my network in del.icio.us, contacts on Flickr, subscriptions in Google Reader, etc… Tie that in with some kind of meaningful online identity system like OpenID, and we’ll start to see some pretty meaningful ways to organize and navigate our online networks.

What videos would you show faculty?

I’m going to be showing some videos to faculty members who have participated in our Inquiry Through Blended Learning program. I get 20-30 minutes, during a wrap-up lunch on Friday. But I’m stumped. I could easily just show a TED talk (or two, if edited for time) but… what you YOU show, considering the audience is made up of faculty members from a wide range of disciplines, but are brought together by a common interest in inquiry and blended learning?

I was initially just going to remix/edit the Canadian eLearning 2007 Video Party but that’s almost a year old. Surely something more recent could be dropped in. Any ideas?

morning cuppa joe

the actual daily photo for today was one of Evan, and it’s set to be visible only to “friends and family” on Flickr. So, here’s a runner-up…

on focal lengths (or zooming)

Focal length is the factor determining how much “zoom” you get when taking a photo. Larger numbers mean longer lenses, meaning closer zoom. But, if you have a couple of lenses, it’s sometimes hard (at least initially) to figure out which lens to use for which shot. With a point-and-shoot, it’s easy, because there’s only one lens, and it’s built in. The only control you have is over the level of zoom. With a DSLR, you can swap the lenses out, which gives a great deal of flexibility, but means you need to put some thought into what range of focal lengths you want to have handy.

Here’s an example shot, taken at a playground near my house. I shot a “wide” photo at 17mm (on a Canon 17-35mm L USM), and took corresponding shots at various key focal lengths on the other lenses in my kit.

Focal Lengths

18mm is the widest that the Canon 18-55mm kit lens will go, and is likely the widest angle most people will have available without spending a whole bunch of cash (which I haven’t done yet). 35mm is the long end of that L lens. 55mm is the longest that the kit lens will do, so that gives a pretty decent walking around range of focal lengths. The 50mm (shot with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 II) is pretty close to the long end of the kit, but the image was much sharper with the 50mm prime. The 75mm was shot with the wide end of the Canon 75-300mm USM II, and the 300mm was at the long end of that lens.

So the kit lens actually has a pretty decent range of focal lengths for regular use and landscapes. It’s not long enough to pull details out of things very far away, but does pretty well. It falls down miserably on its aperture range – it’s a pathetically slow lens, meaning it’s only really good for bright conditions (outdoors, or brightly lit indoor settings).

The Canon 50mm prime lens is actually the one I use about 90-95% of the time. You can see that it is not very wide – you’re not going to capture sweeping panoramas with it – but I love this lens for two reasons. First, it’s great at capturing the central focus point of a scene – the part that you are really looking at when you’re not peeking through the camera. Many people say 35mm is “normal” but for me, 50mm feels much closer. Maybe that’s a hint to visit my eye doctor again… The second reason I love the 50mm prime is that it is a fast lens. In this case, “fast” doesn’t refer to the speed of the lens, but at how it gulps light in through a wide aperture (the opening inside the lens that lets light through), letting the camera take pictures with a faster shutter opening. Yeah. It’s not exactly intuitive. Fast lenses are really “wide aperture” lenses, and they’re called fast because they let the camera take pictures with less exposure. Slow lenses (like the Canon 18-55mm kit, or the 75-300mm) are still great for outdoors, scenery, or even night shots with a stable enough tripod and a long exposure. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just something to keep in mind when picking the lens to use. I typically pick my 50mm f/1.8 lens because it’s so ungodly fast that I don’t need to use a flash even in relatively low light (especially if cranking the ISO to 1600).

Another lens that I’ve used is the Canon 28-135mm USM IS. It’s a great lens (we picked it up for the office) and I believe now ships as a kit option on the Canon XTi. I didn’t have the lens with me when I shot these test photos, but it should be pretty straightforward to see where the 28mm and 135mm ends of the range fit in – 28mm should be a bit wider than the 35mm box in the image above, and 135mm should be roughly halfway between the 75mm and 300mm boxes.

So, with a bunch of lenses in a photo kit, how does one pick the right one for the job? I came up with 2 handy tricks to help me pick. It should be noted that these tricks are calibrated for the length of my arm and hand, and for the 1.6 crop factor of my Canon XT.

First, if I’m thinking about shooting something far away, I just hold my hand up at arm’s length, like this:

finger for 75-300mm

The part of the scene that spans the first two knuckles of my finger are roughly what will be captured at 300mm. Makes it easy to see if a small/distant item will fit, or if 300mm will be enough. 75mm is roughly the span between the thumb joint and fingertip.

For 50mm, I came up with a quick test. Just make a shaka at arms length, like this:

shaka for 50mm

The part of the scene that spans my thumb and pinky is roughly what will be captured at 50mm. Plus, it’s fun to make the shaka when composing a scene. (total aside: when swimming at Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu, a local woman shared the story behind the shaka. Picture the shape of a humpback whale’s tale as they make a dive. It comes out of the water, looking very much like my hand in the photo above. Shaka is the whale’s tail.)

Of course, with enough practice, these tips become unnecessary as you begin to judge what will be captured at various focal lengths automatically. But they can be a very handy shortcut, especially when learning to use a new lens or two.

on taking the lane while riding

This evening, while riding home from work, I was involved in my first ever bike vs. car door incident. As I was approaching a red light, a driver decided it would be a great idea to open his door without looking. I had maybe 1 second to react, swerved left, and was thrown from my bike as it bounced off another car. If I hadn’t been able to react quickly enough, I would have crashed square into his open door at about 20km/h. I pictured myself being thrown onto the trunk of the taxi cab in the next lane, and was trying to pick my spot on the trunk to minimize damage to me. Thankfully, I was somehow able to stop before hitting the cab (have I ever mentioned how much I LOVE disk brakes?) and wound up just being thrown to the ground as I hit the cab. Thankfully all traffic was stopped, because it was at a red light. Who opens their door at a red light?

Getting up, I shared some pleasantries with the driver (a profound “WHAT THE *ahem* ARE YOU DOING? *jebus* *cripes*!”) I pulled the bike off to the sidewalk to inspect the damage, and everything looked OK. I thanked the driver for his care and attention, and continued riding home.

This incident brought home three things for me.

  1. assume every car on the road is full of braindead cretins hellbent on your destruction.
  2. assume every car on the road is about to open its doors.
  3. claim the lane. don’t ride so far to the right that an open door will kill you.

For the rest of the ride home, I tried to remember to claim the lane. It’s harder than it sounds. Riding in the lane, rather than along the edge. It’s intimidating, picturing traffic piling up behind. I was able to keep pretty close to traffic speeds, so that wasn’t a problem (except on a couple of uphill stretches). But, I’m going to keep claiming the lane.

I stopped a few km later to inspect the bike. There was no real damage, except for a chunk smashed off the rear fender from when it bounced off a car. Nothing fatal, but I’ll want to fill the gap so when riding in rain I don’t get a rooster tail.

Things could have ended so much differently. If I had failed to react, or if I’d been only a few mm to the right, I’d have had at the least a smashed right hand. At the worst, I’d have taken the full impact on his door with my head, or bounced off the taxi.

Update: It didn’t dawn on me until later that evening, but of the dozen or so cars stopped at the red light when I got doored, not a single person got out to see if I was OK. The driver that doored me asked “are you ok?” as he closed his door, but not a single person got out. Are people so insulated in their cars that they just don’t care? Did it all happen so quickly that they didn’t have a chance to snap out of their commuter comas in order to react?

Not a single person. This city can kiss me where I don’t have a tan.