Yuri Litvinenko

Web news editor at Vedomosti, contributing journalist at Tedium etc. Read more about me. This blog is for articles too specific or personal to be published elsewhere.

Amateur’s Week #1: Escaping routine trough mobile photography

For quite a long time, I’ve been struggling with finding any sort of pastime which wouldn’t be too similar to my main job. Sure, I love writing and contributing to various outlets, but I’d have to do something else to not go insane!

Photography might be the only activity that I liked for as long as I dug the journalism. I’ve never progressed much, though, and I wouldn’t say I am able to continuously produce good photos—although I can sometimes make still worthy of brand-name publications. What’s more interesting is I’ve never owned a camera, having to lend one from relatives and friends instead.

No, this isn’t going to be a GoFundMe announcement for a shiny new DSLR. Instead, I’m taking whatever I already have and, starting this week, trying to remember what kind of fun I was having with shooting and editing photos. To build both a skill and a healthy habit, I aim to consistently publish at least a few photos a week, complete with an analysis of my errors and a postmortem for each individual still. I will be making mistakes—that’s the whole point.

I am going to post my photos on Twitter, Instagram Google Maps (when relevant), and Flickr, complete with the Creative Commons Attribution tag on the former. Most importantly, I will be using this blog to vivisect my work and compare edited photos with the originals. (Please report me if there are some problems with fancy comparison galleries.)

Tools I’m using

Mobile photography has come a long way since whatever it was in the early 2000s. Most importantly, even mid-range photos can now do adequate stills. For the project, I will be using the new Samsung Galaxy A71 which comes with a whole bunch of sensors and lenses. Right now, I will let all the “AI” (read: re-branded auto modes) do the groundwork for me, but I do aspire to switch to the manual mode when needed.

The post-processing will be done on the 5th-generation iPad Mini, suited with Affinity Photo and an Apple Pencil. I’ve edited enough photos using GIMP and a laggy mouse, so I’m going to treat myself to the comfort of the post-PC environment. Besides, while I’m only learning to use the Affinity Photo, I already appreciate its balance between a full-fledged editor and a collection of easy-to-apply filters (which, thank God, automatically go to their own layers and do not bake into the image unless you’ve ordered them to).

With that cleared up, let’s see what I was able to do this Saturday.

Some seeds

The Galaxy A71 does not have a telephoto lens or optical zoom, which is a shame. Samsung does try to make up for that by offering a macro sensor—the first in the industry, from what I get. It’s arguably the least useful camera in the four-piece set, but that did not prevent me from taking a few pictures with it. Shooting flowers would be the best case for it, but in February, bird feed in the park will do the job.

This is one photo that turned out fine composition-wise. Even if it was in need of cropping, I wouldn’t be able to do much with a 5-megapixel file. However, as I was trying to compensate for the early evening dusk, I’ve overblown the colors on the photo. Millet now looks like tiny oranges under a bad Instagram filter, and the sense of frost is gone completely. I will have to be way more careful with color correction.

Apartment complex near the Troparyovo station

That one was physically fun to do, as the shooting involved hiking through the field of snow and basically sticking the phone in it. As I was unable to look at the screen in detail, I relied on automatic guides to check whether the horizon is skewed. The phone did guide me—and made the building look like the Tower of Pisa.

Aside from rotating the photo, I’ve digitally removed some on sticks and objects from the snow. I could have done a better job, especially on the spot right below the metro station on the left. Colors are fine, compared to the first picture, although the harsh shadows on the building and smudges in the sky bother me a bit. All things considered, I think it’s an alright photo, if visually uninteresting.

Vorobyovy Gory, Entrance 3

This might be my most favorite photo of the bunch. Colorful lights right behind me reflected beautifully on an industrial-looking bridge-cum-station. I even managed to now screw them up! However, by relying on the rule of thirds too formally, I’ve left too little space to the pink area on the top. I should have realized that the second and third parts are too similar in color, with the asphalt floor being absent of anything visually interesting. Anyway, I find myself really attached to the result—maybe I’ll return to the original photo (or the spot) in the future.

Kommunarka Metro Station

In this photo, a similar composition worked better due to the better variety of colors. It’s also the one which I’ve spent the least time with in the Affinity Photo. I’ve mostly fixed the geometry and retouched parts which got smudged by the phone’s software (note the left border of the column’s base, as well as the train’s roof above the first door). The whole station is a delight, but I’ll return there only once I’ll become more skilled.

Here goes the first week of what I’ll try to do on a regular basis—if only for the sake of my sanity. If you spot some bad practices, feel free to guide me away from them! I would also appreciate it if you pinpoint something you’ve liked and note what exactly has grabbed your attention.

 No comments    47   9 mon   Photography

How to Embed Creative Commons Metadata in Office Documents

Photographers, artists, and writers use Creative Commons licenses to open their work to the worldwide community. But how would you do the same with your Microsoft Word document?

Technically, you don’t have to do anything special to release files made in Microsoft Office under Creative Commons license: just choose the variant you are comfortable with, print its name in the document itself and give a link to the license. A wizard on the Creative Commons web site can even generate the most preferable legalese.

But while this might be enough for humans, algorithms scraping the Internet for CC-licensed content need specially formatted descriptions. Machine-readable metadata is what search engines rely on when you limit the results to CC-licensed works only. On the Web, metadata are usually embedded in the HTML code using the RDFa format. Files generated by Adobe software, from images to PDF documents, use XMP profiles instead.

Back in 2006, Microsoft released an add-in for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint which allowed to mark documents with machine-readable Creative Commons license. Originally designed for Ofice XP/2003 and 2007, it was updated over time to provide support for versions up to 2013. However, if you have anything newer than that, the installer found on Microsoft’s web site will refuse to work.

Thankfully, the workaround does exist, and I’ve personally tested it with the latest, x64-based monthly build of Office 365. But, from my experience, here are just two mentions of it on the Internet, and both of them are not available in English. In this post, I’ll give a loose translation of a French blog post (which, in turn, is a translation from Chinese), as well as an overview of the tool.

How to install Creative Commons add-in for Microsoft Office 2016 and later

  1. Install Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office system (version 3.0 Runtime) (x86), Please note that you need to install the 32-bit version, no matter which platform your Windows or Office installation for.
  2. Update them with Service Pack 1.
  3. You’ll need the add-in files from the system it was already installed on. (Alternatively, you may use this archive; while I’ve tested it, you shouldn’t usually trust strangers offering you executables.) Copy the folder from the archive to C:\Program Files (x86) folder, or C:\Program Files for 32-bit Windows.
  4. Import keys from three registry files (for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint respectively) from this archive. You may need to edit them to omit the (x86) if you are running a 32-bit version of Windows.

Creative Commons add-in should now load on the next startup of Office apps it was made for.

How to license Microsoft Office files under Creative Commons

You’ll notice the To use a Creative Commons license, you need to download it first by selecting Licenses > New License… Unless you are dedicating the document to the public domain, the wizard asks you several questions: whether you are allowing commercial uses; what’s your modification policy; and what is the jurisdiction of the license you are going to apply. (Be sure to not select deprecated CC Sampling license.)

After the license is downloaded, you may apply it by clicking Licenses and selecting it from the dropdown list. The licensing works a bit different in Word compared to Excel and PowerPoint. With spreadsheets and presentations, the metadata are embedded in the document itself, and the visual data (Creative Commons button and the legal notice) can be changed or replaced. In Word, however, both visual and metadata are kept in a single locked field. While this provides greater security, it might result in a language disparity if the document itself is not in English. To remove the field, you have to use the Document Licensed button.

What it may be useful for?

Despite the tool being supported throughout the lifespan of five Office versions, the adoption of CC-licensed Microsoft Office documents is virtually nonexistent. Fiddling with search operators in Google revealed that, out of several dozen Word files with Creative Commons metadata, most of them were actually clippings of Wikipedia articles and other free web content.

Uploading Office files for public use when PDF files would suffice is an Internet mauvais ton. Still, using the add-in might be useful where interactivity matters — in feature-rich PowerPoint presentations and, most notably, complex Excel spreadsheets. And for me, it’s just nice to see one of the most prominent file formats in computing supporting Creative Commons on a technical level — even if few efforts were made in this regard since 2006.

 No comments    397   2019   Guides

Microsoft Kin Creators Reflect on What Was Cut and Planned

It’s impossible for a company as prolific as Microsoft to not make at least a few stinkers. But their first attempt to release a mobile phone under their own brand could not be described as anything but a disaster. Kin phones, released at the dawn of the current mobile landscape, were discontinued just six weeks after their US launch. It took a multitude of factors to make it fail — the feature set was not great for a targeted demographic, the competition was strong, and Verizon’s plans were just too steep.

Behind the story of a giant company releasing a dud (don’t we all love them, if only instinctively?) lies another one — of hard work and hopes for the future. For all its cons, Kin’s deep social integration, if implemented better, could make a difference in a bloodbath of 2010 mobile phone market.

Instead of making a summary of what we already know of Kin, I’ve decided to talk to people involved in its creation. Not only they shed more light on why Kin turned out to be the way it was, but also showed Microsoft was interested in evolving their phones over time — if only they didn’t flop.

Three-dimensional UI: too much for first-gen Tegra?

Microsoft had the presence in the mobile market since the 1990s, licensing their Windows CE operating system to device manufacturers. Kin One and Kin Two, on the other hand, were the company’s first attempts at releasing its own complete product. They were not traditional smartphones, though, but feature phones with touch controls and a subset of iPhone and Android functionality.

In 2010, before the influx of cheap Android handsets, it was yet sensible to release so-called “touch phones.” Kin phones and their contracts, however, weren’t cheap, and the platform, being targeted to teens and tweens, notably lacked features vital to the digital generation — Internet chats, for example.

The software issues could realistically be resolved over time, as Microsoft implemented an over-the-air update system. The hardware, though, was here to stay, and the choice of components raised the eyebrows even back then. Kin phones marked the first time Tegra, Nvidia’s system-on-a-chip, was used in a mobile phone. But it was the aging APX 2600 chip, first used in Microsoft’s Zune HD media player, while devices powered by next-generation Tegra were already announced at that point.

The chip might be one of the causes for performance woes, documented well enough in regards to both final and pre-release hardware. In 2012, Wired obtained internal videos showing how poorly the system responded to swipes and touches, among other things.

The videos have vanished from the source by now. One of them was uploaded to YouTube; I’ve mirrored it to the Internet Archive.

It’s hard to imagine the UI was initially going to be way more visually impressive. Erik Hunter, who was working for a design studio Method at the time, was responsible for the UI motion design of Kin phones. According to him, Method and Kin’s lead designers collaborated on creating a three-dimensional, motion-rich UI. The look, featuring a drastically different design language, is shown on Hunter’s web site.

“There were lots of interactions which didn’t end being developed, like the motion on the lock screen, the Spot [sharing widget] icon animation, and the scrolling tiles. Most of the interactions and animations we designed ended up not being possible,” says Hunter, citing the processing power and the features being cut in development.

One of the visual features implemented at some point was the 3D effect on the Loop, a home screen displaying social media updates. Chris Furniss, responsible for implementing the UI on device with XAML and Silverlight, was involved in downscaling the designers’ vision to what the hardware was able to do.

“The UI, in general, had a cool parallax effect as you swiped back and forth, or scrolled up and down through your social feed. That had to be cut, which affected the way text had to be layered over photos and so forth,” Furniss explains.

The 3D effect can be seen at 0:20 mark of the video.

Intelligent Spot and prospects of Kin Three

The eye candy wasn’t the only thing that had to be cut. The video above shows the Spot, one of Kin’s trademark features, featuring a dashboard filled with sections and features. In the final version, all it could do is to serve as a drag-and-drop target for SMS, MMS, and email attachments. Even without any social media integration, it was seen as one of the most clever features of the phones.

The concept video, however, shows the Spot not only sending photos to Facebook or Twitter, but serving as a system scrapbook, storing reminders and sets of objects to share. According to Furniss, it was supposed to be even more than that; “a context-sensitive bucket which you could drop anything into and Kin would figure what you were intending.”

“We were never given a reason for why the Spot wasn’t as powerful as we originally designed it,” Hunter adds. He points to the internal conflict between Microsoft’s managers and multiple mobile teams, reported by Engadget at the time, but did not confirm it from his own perspective.

Kin Two had twice the memory over Kin One, as well as better camera.

Kin has almost instantly built the image of a teenager phone — and that’s the case for oddly-shaped Kin One, marketed to pre-teens and teens. Furniss describes that the Kin Two model, looking like a contemporary QWERTY side slider and having better specifications, was aimed at a 25- to 35-year-olds. (Notably, according to him, Kin One was specifically designed to appeal to the female audience, with Kin Two being a “men’s phone.”)

But looking forward, Microsoft and its partners were already planning to reach another demographic. A third developer, who decided to remain anonymous due to NDAs, shared that Kin lineup was going to evolve as the audience captured by first-generation models changed their taste.

“If Microsoft Kin is a mobile device designed specifically for a younger, millennial audience, our job was to think about how the device needs to change as this audience becomes older,” they describe their role in the project. The source states their team researched the potential new audience and outline new features for the future Kin.

The work made by the developer was left unused, as Microsoft embarrassingly discontinued Kin over its low sales. Later that year, unsold phones got a revised firmware which, stripping social and cloud aspects, allowed to resell them as souped-up dumb phones. The failure of Kin, according to Business Insider, sank the morale within Microsoft.

“Leading up to the launch date of Kin, we were really excited. We were all in creative brainstorm mode for the next big thing, and spirits were high,” recalls Furniss the mood across his team just before the historically poor performance.

“We were given lots of room to explore and encouraged to push the boundaries of what can be done in a traditional mobile UI,” says Hunter from his point of view as Method employee.

The last app-less smartphone

Not only Kin phones had not held their value upon release, but they were also out in the most unlikely of times — both by Microsoft’s mobile divisions and the industry as a whole. Windows Mobile, Microsoft’s legacy mobile OS, was on its last legs, with people having high hopes for all-new Windows Phone. Kin’s mobile platform, having no app support as the world was captivated by them, looked out of place both in the market and in Microsoft’s pipeline.

“When Kin was being designed, it was before this huge paradigm shift to consuming everything via platform-specific apps... I don’t think the social media consumers of today are of the same mindset, they are too used to download specific apps for specific services,” reflects Furniss on how Kin, having no social media clients, embedded their feeds in the UI itself.

On a smaller scale, the idea of unified feed was transferred into Windows Phone, as the People app had a “What’s New” screen showing social media updates. But in 2015, as Facebook had to discontinue one of its APIs due to privacy concerns, Microsoft terminated Facebook integration, with apps like Twitter and LinkedIn dropping it afterward because of the public’s general disinterest. In 2018, commenting on yet another privacy scandals, Facebook called early system integrations “Facebook-like experiences.” The choice of words has clearly separated Facebook as used with apps and browsers and deep system integrations.

Kin phones were the only ones which fully bet on experiences, not apps. From Windows Phone to even more obscure platforms like BlackBerry 10 or Nokia Asha, it was usually a combination of two. The most recent feature phone platform, KaiOS, does not even try integrating social media it the system — but it has an app store and support for web apps.

To win that bet, Kin had to either be as good as planned or cost as much as it deserved. Unfortunately for everyone involved in its creation, it did neither.

 No comments    320   2019   Features
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