iPhone 6S low light RAW photographs

One of the great new features that came with iOS 10 is full RAW support for any iPhone with a 12MP camera, i.e. the 6S, 6S Plus and the 7, 7 Plus. As a photographer, this is a welcome addition because of the increased latitude RAW files allow for during post-processing. After using it for a few days, I decided to head out this weekend and make a few photographs to see what the newly unearthed RAW access can do.

The issue with any iPhone till date — but really, not an “issue” in the true sense of the word — was that the photos made were jpg files, or, as some apps claimed, tiff files. Nothing better was even available. When you make a picture with any camera, the light data collected by the camera sensor is of incredible value to the photographer. Having this light data as-is means you have a RAW file. The problem with shooting jpg is that as soon as the data is collected by the sensor, the device itself makes the first calls regarding the best exposure and outputs a somewhat lossy jpg file while discarding any unwanted data in a bid to make file sizes more tolerable.

From a user experience perspective, this is great. First of all, RAW files are huge: a regular photograph on my iPhone occupies one to two megabytes of space while a RAW file is at least 10MB or more. Second, most people are not serious photographers and could not care less about handling RAW files, let alone spending time processing them to look and feel just right. Continue reading

Making a case for the liberal arts

Although I have been critical of the liberal arts — often jovially, at times not — there can be no question that having the liberal arts can part of our society can be enriching in more ways than one. Some narrow-minded politicians have, of late, been making rather nonsensical statements about scrapping the liberal arts altogether and having only science, or STEM to be specific, as a ”real” college degree.

If they were expecting any support from any self-respecting member of the scientific community, they will probably not get it. In fact, the scientific community has been extremely outspoken about its support for liberal arts and in recognising its place in society. It would be both short-sighted and dim-witted to claim otherwise and yet, for some strange reason, I was not the least bit shocked when I heard a bunch of politicians go on about exactly this. (Perhaps Mr Trump has set the bar so high that little, if anything, surprises us today?)

Scientific American ran an article in its last issue, written by the editorial board, called “Science is not enough”, which put forth some valid points in support of a liberal arts curriculum. “Is the US focusing too much on STEM?” asked The Atlantic two years ago, pointing out that STEM can quickly become a buzzword adversely affecting students who do not get a “quality, well-rounded education”. This is precisely what SciAm argues in favour of the liberal arts as well, and when you think about it, there is almost no other argument one can think of. Continue reading

What’s the point of iCloud Drive?

There are problems in quantum mechanics that I have solved with greater ease than answering the question, “What’s the point of iCloud Drive?”. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration (just a bit), but the point is Apple has not made their cloud storage solutions all that clear. A lot of people would agree with me when I say iCloud is a mess: there is photo stream, photo sharing, photo library, iCloud Drive, the generic term “documents and data” (formerly documents on the cloud), and desktop and documents sync.

At first glance even the names seem off-putting. By contrast, Dropbox has a more straightforward feature-set: selective sync and file backup, sharing and versioning. The term “iCloud” is a generic term that refers to cloud storage; the main function of this, as we will see soon, is more sync than storage. And right off the bat I feel the need to mention that iCloud is not — and cannot, in its current state, be thought of as — an alternative to Dropbox, Google Drive, Box etc.

We ought to start simple: say you have a bunch of photos on your iPhone that you want to share with someone else, then you use iCloud Photo Sharing. This lets you create an album and share that album via your iCloud — in which everyone has 5GB of space free — so the album then appears on the other person or persons or the public’s iCloud and is accessible through the Photos app on their device, whether on macOS or iOS, or a dedicated web link for those on Windows or those without Photo Sharing turned on. Continue reading

Apple software updates this year are far too cosmetic and far less meaningful

After patiently waiting for a year, I am now frustrated with Apple’s stock e-mail solution on macOS, and e-mail and calendar applications on iOS. To add fuel to the fire, the iOS apps are defaults that cannot be replaced: you can “delete the app” which really just removes the icon from the home screen, but you cannot pick a default. Thankfully macOS is more mature, which means I can actually pick an alternative as my default.

I have been using Airmail on all my devices and it leaves me little to complain about. My calendar of choice on iPad and Mac is the stock app and only because, one, I rarely use my calendar on my iPad; and two, the stock macOS calendar app has natural language input and laptop screens are bigger so the app is inherently more usable. On my iPhone I use Timepage.

Unfortunately, this is not where my frustrations with either OS ends. The new RAW support effectively renders the stock camera app useless for me, and with it the incredibly convenient quick access from the lock screen which had become second nature to me. First, the gesture was changed for no apparent reason (and this is not what bothers me — a few weeks and the new gesture becomes muscle memory) but second, and worse, the fact that there exists no DNG support means I simply have to use a third-party app now and that means unlocking my phone. Widgets are a sound option, but when you consider the unlocking requirement, it is effectively moot: raise/power — swipe to widgets — select camera option — unlock. Continue reading

The re-branding of Physics Capsule

Two years ago we launched Physics Capsule. Along with my good friend, Roshan Sawhil, this new venture I had stepped into was not only important for both of us but also useful and, in some small way, exciting. Back then we (thought we) had the entire route map for Physics Capsule all chocked out and it seemed to be only a matter of following it through.

Who knew it would be harder than we expected? As always real life got in the way and I am quite sure neither of us has any qualms about admitting that Physics Capsule should have been a lot more active than it is today. But we also learnt a few things over the last two years which we believe will help us approach Physics Capsule differently.

First of all, writing an article every day — even with the two of us taking turns — is hectic and near impossible at the moment. We have come to terms with this. We think a much more realistic aim would be to write two articles a week, one from each of us. Individually, that means writing one article a week is doable, and is a fair, albeit reduced, speed of growth for Physics Capsule.

Secondly, we had always looked at this as an online magazine. In fact that is still what we want it to be, but after some thought we have come to the conclusion (and this was over a year ago) that the strength of Physics Capsule lies in it being more of a primer on basic — and eventually advanced — physics, rather than reportage. Continue reading

Protest votes today, disastrous Trump presidency tomorrow

We are in a crucial point of time. A wave of extreme right-wingers and authoritarians is gaining support among considerable groups across the world and at the edge of the cliff now sits America. By January we will know if they took a safe step backwards to contemplate or plunged into the darkness of the gorge.

Given the choice (and the citizenship) I would not support Hillary Clinton. But between her and Donald Trump, I would pick Mrs Clinton any day. Unfortunately, an increasing number of people are blind to the fact that withdrawing their support for her means letting Mr Trump win. The idea of protest voting is “potentially self-destructive”, as Charles M. Blow wrote in The New York Times. Unfortunately, this American election does not come down to Hillary v. Trump, but rather Trump v. Not Trump, and when you look at it that way, perhaps the choice becomes clearer.

There is, though, a kink in the ideology because the race for presidency — no matter how heavily the media chooses to focus on Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump — is between four people. One would be kidding if one thought either of the other two stood a chance of winning, but the mathematics itself is simple: every vote Jill Stein or Gary Johnson wins is a vote Mrs Clinton could have won. Or, more straightforwardly, it means Mr Trumps gets that many votes closer to making himself home at the White House.

The rarely discussed problem with having him there has to do with his response to things. Continue reading

Why the emoji ballot makes no sense

Emoji are not numbers. However surprising it may be, let us get that out of the way right off the bat. In March this year I tweeted about a new research that was looking into using emoji as a means of rating school lunch. It sounds all smiley and funny until you realise how vague it is. A recent article from Associated Press quoted my tweet, which is what brought me back to address this issue.

I opposed this experimental practise long back favouring the usual, standard practice of using numbers instead. Until recently I was under the impression that it was universal, but apparently that is not the case. Every single airport I went to in Europe had three emoji staring at me as I walked past security into the lounge: a smile, a glower and a poker face. For some reason the usual numbers (which, by the way, look like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0) are not as universal as emoji.

Some may consider me biased since I have made it a point to never use emoji, ever, and have also been vocal about how emoji is ruining language itself as if proper English (or proper any other language) was not going down enough of a negative slide already that it needed little faces peppered all over it, speeding its fall. Plus, emoji are a new trend and I seriously doubt if they are here to stay. (Remember the days of emoticons?) We already have stickers slowly gaining dominance and with the iMessage store that iOS 10 brought with it, game- and animated-type responses are starting to seem more exciting to people than static emoji. Continue reading

Read my interview with The Sweet Setup

Some of the best tech reviews and recommendations come from The Sweet Setup, a magazine/website that reviews the most popular software solutions across various genres and recommends one, definitively. Today they published an interview I had given some weeks back and you can find it on their website. The interview revolved mainly around how I use my devices in my daily life, and is meant to either give an insight to those who are in a similar situation or are simply looking to make better, more economical use of their devices and incorporate them into their lives, or be a source of infotainment for the technologically savvy crowd.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading The Sweet Setup is because they actually arrive at a conclusion once they review and compare a set of apps. Oftentimes reviewers compare poorly, leaving it entirely to the reader to decide while they claim to have put things into perspective; but really nobody has gone a single step ahead all the while. With The Sweet Setup, various reviewers (meaning there is almost no bias or leaning for the magazine as a whole) talk about popular applications for various needs and arrive at the best one as a recommendation while also briefly talking about other options, which makes the review feel wholesome. Anyway, I think if you ever need clarifications this should certainly be a site to drop by and look around.

Besides announcing that my interview has been published, I also wanted to take a moment in this article to address something that I personally find remarkable. Continue reading

Drop by drop

She saw it just as it was about to hit the edge of her glass and drew her glass back instinctively. She looked up. Something had dripped from the upper floor balcony. Perhaps it was someone’s drink; she could not say, but if it was, she cursed whoever was being so careless.

It was a large house with several floors and several balconies and almost all of them were occupied. There were two others on the same balcony as her, but she did not speak to them. She kept to herself, leaning, looking out into the distance, enjoying the cool evening breeze. She stayed there for what seemed like a long time, lost, until a tap on her shoulder shocked her back to reality.

She spun around, recognising the person behind her. “Ally,” she cried, “oh, it’s been so long.” She was overjoyed and suddenly, nothing else mattered. She picked up her drink hurriedly as Ally led her back into the house. The champagne in her glass swayed as she picked it up. It swayed just enough to spill off the edge. And the drop made its way down the wall and hung at the edge for no more than a fraction of a second before it fell ten feet, straight towards a glass of champagne. It would have fallen into the drink with a silent plop, had the woman not noticed it in time. She saw it just as it was about to hit the edge of her glass and drew her glass back instinctively. Continue reading

Meet the new Pluto, planetary graffiti and X-ray artist

Ever since Pluto was demoted to the status of a “dwarf planet” — or a plutoid to be specific, in reference to any trans-Neptunian dwarf planet — thanks to some sly redrawing of the definition of a planet, it has been a constant source of amazement. Back in 2006, an IAU meet decided that to be a planet, the body in question would have to keep its orbit clear. The relatively large mass of, say the Earth, Mars or Jupiter, mean they engulf or push away anything in their orbit, but Pluto’s orbit was filled by stray objects, some of which were almost comparable in size to Pluto itself. And then there was also the discovery of the dwarf planet now known as “Eris”, which was a good example of there being objects in the Kuiper belt outlining the solar system that have sizes as big as, if not bigger than, our dear Pluto.

Thanks to the flyby of New Horizons, we managed to accumulate an incredible lot of data that has been dumbfounding us with its revelations about Pluto. Just last week the strange question of the presence of a reddish material all over the poles of Charon, Pluto’s natural satellite, was answered with some certainty. “Pluto is a graffiti artist”, as New Horizons co-investigator, Will Grundy colourfully put it. It is believed that methane escapes from Pluto only to be trapped by Charon’s gravitational pull — the moon is 12% the mass of its host planet — where it freezes. Continue reading

The shapeshifting design philosophy

I have rarely been one to run away from facts, which is why when it dawned on me that I am eternally dissatisfied with the design of this website I realised I had to pick my battles. I would rather be disappointed by this than, say, my pursuit of physics, which is also eternal — knowing that any ideas about this site being poorly designed is wholly untrue, that it is more a case of the shine washing off a new toy a few weeks after I redesign this website. Which is why I have decided not to touch this website in any way for the next six months.

This is a bigger challenge to me than most people may realise. I constantly get new ideas to fix this or that, not because it is broken, but because it would be better that way. Perhaps. Or maybe this radical new thing I came up with. Would it be too much? You will never know until you try it. And so it drifts from thought to thought, design idea to design idea, until, like a chameleon, or worse still, like a shapeshifter, this website transforms subtly or dramatically but certainly. To those of you who subscribe via RSS, kudos I say: you have not been subjected to this horrendous identity crisis. To the others, settle down.

My biggest trouble with this design as it stands now is that Cheltenham, which I love and have used for headings all this year, is not ITC’s version but Bitstream’s. Continue reading

Podcast recommendations: Night Vale, Alice isn’t dead, Serial and more

For the past six months I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. It seems ironic that with all our technology having come so far, we still promptly return to radio-format shows from the earliest days of communication technology. This was something I had pondered over when I took a semester course in journalism during my master’s degree.

Podcasts are simply convenient: you can listen to them on a commute, you can listen to them before bed, you can listen to them during your daily chores — things that you do (and that you have to do everyday) out of sheer muscle memory. In other words, instead of playing that same song on repeat and getting it stuck in my head, I found podcasts were actually useful because they taught me new things or supplied a fairly continuous stream of new information or fired up my creative thinking and imagination with quality entertainment and so on.

Until a few weeks ago, however, I was only listening to news on podcasts, like the BBC and Politico, and science-based podcasts like the ones from Science and Nature, alongside more casual ones like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk and Brian Cox’s The infinite monkey cage. Clearly, none of these are quite bedtime shows, or, for that matter (such as in the case of Science and Nature) not light listening either, which means you ned to dedicate about 30min a fortnight to each one. Whichever podcast you happen to like, simply search for it on your podcast app of choice and you should find it without trouble. Continue reading