Demystifying QR Codes: What are they and how do they work

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You’ve surely seen these codes around either in print or digital format. Chris Sacca may call QR Codes the ‘herpes of technology’, but they’re quite enabling; allowing you to link web pages, profiles, and even bodies of information to a specially formulated code that can be digitally scanned (in fact, you can scan the code in the image above too). Although considered ‘old tech’ by some (and a venereal disease by others), these little black-and-white boxes are apparently going through a revival. About 1.3 billion mobile QR code coupons are estimated to have been redeemed last year, and that number is expected to rise to 5.3 billion in the next 4 years. In fact, countries like India and China rely strongly on QR codes for visiting web pages, making payments, or even storing government-backed identities.

The QR in QR Code stands for Quick Response code. Developed and patented by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp in 1994, QR Codes were used to track vehicles as they moved along the assembly line, and to quickly scan components used in the vehicles. While Denso Wave still owns the patent over the technology, the company very kindly granted free license to it, allowing third parties to use the technology and help it be widely accepted.

The QR code is a natural evolution of the zebra barcode. While the barcode holds smaller bits of information, laid out on a strip of black lines of varying thicknesses, spaced apart differently, QR codes actually store much larger pieces of data (as much as 350 times the data you could store on a barcode), and are laid out on two dimensions, vertically and horizontally. Additionally, barcodes are scanned using a thin strip of infrared light and a sensor that reads the way the light bounces back to it, while QR codes are digitally scanned using a camera and software to decrypt the information.

The information in the QR code is contained within the black and white squares, called modules. It is this arrangement of modules that stores the data. The more modules, the more data. The design of a QR code can even be broken into different parts that serve different purposes. The large squares on three corners of the overall square are referred to as ‘position markers’, and the camera or QR scanner usually track these position blocks to determine the orientation and location of the code as well as its outermost edges. The position blocks are separated by white breathing spaces, so that the camera can easily distinguish between the position blocks and the and the rest of the code.

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The rest of the code comprises small pixelated blocks, and in order to read them, the scanner must determine two things. The size of the block, and as a result, also the spacing. The scanner does so using a row of alternating blocks known as timing marks, located along the base of the upper two position markers. These alternating blocks of black and white give the scanner information of how big each individual black pixel is, and the spacing between them. An alignment block on the bottom right corner reinforces the information provided by the position blocks and the timing blocks, while also ensuring the code can be deciphered even if it’s distorted, for example, if viewed at an angle. Other features of the QR code include a Format Row that tells the scanner what sort of information the QR code holds (whether it’s a URL, text, etc.) and a Version Control area that helps the scanner identify the version number of the code. The rest of the code stores all the information that the QR code’s supposed to hold.

Since QR codes are likely to get damaged (given that they were meant for a factory floor), they employ an error-correcting mechanism known as the Reed Solomon code. This system adds redundant/repetitive information to the data so that it can be recovered even if the graphic is slightly damaged. This Reed Solomon code also allows you to input logos and graphics into the graphic without compromising the information stored within the code to create a sort-of ‘vanity QR code’.

QR codes, whether you like them or not, open a lot of gateways for storing critical pieces of information in small spaces. The design of a QR code is scalable too, so the bigger the QR code, the more information it holds (version 40 of the QR code has a 177 by 177 pixel resolution). QR codes are finding increasing applications in payments, where you’d expect NFC technology to fail. In fact, WeChat in China, and PayTM in India use QR codes for merchants and customers, allowing you to simply identify transactors by scanning their codes either in print, or from a screen. Snapchat and Facebook’s Messenger are taking this technology further by designing QR codes that are proprietary in the way they look. Your Snapchat profile picture is, in fact, a scannable vanity QR code that contains your avatar in the center. FB Messenger uses a radial pattern, as opposed to Snapchat’s ghost-shaped QR code, for individual profiles. Today, QR codes are being used in innovative places, from tracking logistics and guerilla marketing to even allowing cashless donations to the homeless and encouraging voter registration, and the possibilities can only increase with AR and VR… So next time a Shark Tank investor tells you QR codes are dead, maybe don’t really listem to them!

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The Six Killers of Night Sky Photography (and how to avoid them)

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One of the best things about night photography, in general, is how forgiving it is. That is to say, you generally don’t need special weather conditions to create a really nice picture. The night and urban lights give you all you need to work with. Once it is dark the light isn’t changing so you aren’t chasing the light. Almost any night will do.

 

But if you are trying to photograph the night sky it is a completely different story. The reality is that night sky photography is very finicky. If you are going to pursue this sort of photography be ready for your opportunities to be very limited. You should also be ready for some failures.

Milky Way - Night Sky Photography

Failure is never any fun, but it is even less so in night sky photography. You have to go to remote areas, so you will often have to drive long distances to get the shot. You will be cutting into valuable sleep time as well.  So let’s try to avoid some of those failures. In that regard, here are the six biggest problems I expect you will run into and how you might deal with them.

Night Sky Photography Killer #1: The Moon

There is nothing that will destroy your opportunities for night sky photography more than the moon. This might surprise you, but it is true. Why is that the case? Because the light coming from even a quarter moon is over 100 times more powerful than starlight. So it simply washes out the scene.

Having the moon in the sky does have its advantages. It can light up your foreground, for example.  But when it comes to photographing the stars, it is a killer.

What’s more, the moon is in the night sky for most of the month. Frankly, I wouldn’t plan a night sky outing more than about 4-5 days on either side of a new moon. Anything near a full moon is out of the question. That takes about 70% of the year out of the picture for night sky photography. As such, it is a huge limitation.

Campsite panorama of the night sky.

So how do you avoid problems with the moon? There are two ways, and for both of them, you need nothing more than a website called TimeAndDate.com. That website will tell you the moon phase, first of all. That way you can plan your night sky outing on or close to the new moon.

If you are totally unfamiliar with the moon and its phases, the new moon is when there is no moon in the sky at night. From the new moon, the moon will transition into a crescent moon, to a quarter, and then a few weeks later to a full moon (and then the process starts reversing itself). The nights around the new moon are critical because not only does that limit the illumination coming from the moon, but during a new moon phase the moon won’t even be in the night sky.

The moon travels across the sky in the daytime during the new moon phase, and across the sky at night during a full moon. The closer you are to a new moon, the less time the moon will be in the sky at all during the night.

That leads to the second way to avoid the moon, which is to take note of the times of moonrise and moonset. Again, you can get these times through TimeAndDate.com. Make sure this lines up with the other conditions you need for success (ie. times of complete darkness, weather conditions, movement of stars, etc.) which we will talk about in a second.

night sky photography - Milky Way over a road

Killer #2: Light Pollution

You may have read that heading and said “duh.” You already know you need to be in a dark place to have any success in capturing the night sky. But you might be surprised by just how dark it needs to be. You cannot just drive outside of a city for half an hour and expect it to be dark enough to really capture a great night sky shot or the Milky Way.

What you need to do is consult the Dark Site Finder. This is the best resource I have found for avoiding light pollution. It is basically Google maps with an overlay of different colors that tell you how much light pollution a given place will have. The darker the color the better (ie the less the light pollution).

dark sky finder map - night sky photography

How dark do you need it to be? Really dark. Take a look at this picture:

church and Milky Way - night sky photography

This picture was taken in a blue area on the Dark Site finder, which is the fifth darkest area out of the 15 different levels. The light pollution you see on the bottom left of the picture was not from a big city, but rather from a small town shaded green on the map that was about 10-15 miles away.

The light pollution was not something you would see as you were shooting – everything looked totally dark to me as I was standing there. But it shows up very clearly in the shot, obviously. Make sure it is very dark where you are planning to shoot.

Killer #3: Star Movement

If you are not familiar with night sky photography, you might think you can just open up the shutter for a minute or two to allow enough light into the camera to achieve a proper exposure. But you can’t, because the stars are moving. And they are moving a lot faster than you might think. (Okay, I know this is actually due to the earth spinning – I’m not a flat-earther – but it appears as though the stars are moving!)

If you shoot the night sky with a long exposure, the stars will move while you have the shutter open. They will show up as small trails. It doesn’t look attractive and just makes the stars look blurry. Of course, you can go with it and create trails that go across the entire frame, but that is a different story entirely. What you are after here are crisp pictures of the stars in the night sky.

How long of a shutter speed can you use? On all but super-wide-angle lenses, you shouldn’t go longer than about 15 seconds. Even on super-wide-angle lenses, you shouldn’t go longer than 30 seconds. You can also use something called the Rule of 500 to determine your longest useable shutter speed. That rule says that the maximum shutter length should be 500 divided by your focal length (eg. with a 24mm lens it would be 500 / 24 or 20.8 seconds).

Because of this, you should use your widest angle, fastest lens for night sky photography. For more information on picking a lens, check out this article.

shooting star night desert photo - night sky photography

Killer #4: Lack of Foreground Element

A starry sky or Milky Way shot will provide a nice background for your picture. It is sort of like having a nice sunset. It is a great thing to have, but on its own, it won’t be enough. You also need a foreground element.

If you just head out to shoot the night sky with no real idea of where you are going, you will likely have problems. You will end up with an uninteresting foreground, and therefore uninteresting photography. The middle of the night is no time to explore and try to come up with something. Remember that where you are going will be very dark. It will be full darkness, with no moon, in a place with no light pollution. You won’t be able to see anything to come up with a foreground.

To fix this problem, you need to scout your area ahead of time. Sometimes that is possible by physically going there, but often it isn’t. When you cannot go ahead of time, you can still virtually scout the location.  Use the Street View feature in Google Maps to get you started.

Killer #5: Unforeseen Conditions Blocking Out the Stars

You probably already know that you cannot head out on a cloudy night and expect to have any chance of success at photographing the night sky. You need a clear sky, or at best partly cloudy conditions. There is no secret as to how you check this. There are a number of weather apps, so just use the one you are comfortable with.

But that isn’t the end of the issue. I have had many outings ruined when there was not a cloud in the sky. They have been ruined by things like dust clouds, smoke, and mist. These conditions aren’t as flukey as you might think. Remember you will usually be doing your night sky shots in remote places.

A desert environment is a pretty commonplace, and moderate winds kick enough dust up into the atmosphere to essentially block out the stars. If you are in a coastal environment, sea mist can do the same thing. Forest fires from hundreds of miles away can also impact your ability to get the shot.

So be sure you take a close look at conditions in your target area. It is no fun to drive for many hours and then not even pull the camera out of the bag.

trees and stars - night sky photography

Killer #6: A Boring Sky

Finally, not just any clear, moonless night will do. If you go out without understanding which stars will be in the sky when you will be shooting, you might be destined for a boring sky. If you have a strong enough foreground element, this might not matter so much. But if the night sky is the predominant subject matter, you need it to look really good.

For most people, this means including the Milky Way in your shot. That means capturing the band of stars that runs across the sky. It is best when you capture a cluster of stars at the heart of it. But the Milky Way isn’t visible all year. It isn’t visible at any time of night during about November through February. Starting in about March it will become visible just before sunrise. In June through about August, it will be visible most of the night. Starting in about September it will only be visible just after sunset. This is true no matter what hemisphere you live in.

To plan for including the most interesting stars and constellations (and, again, usually the Milky Way), just pick up one of the apps that are available for your phone. I use Star Walk 2 and I like it very much, but there are others available such as PhotoPills.

tree at night - night sky photography

Putting It Together

Again, night sky photography is finicky. Taking steps to prepare will pay huge dividends. Because you need to be in remote areas, that means a long drive to get there. Planning will keep you from wasting a whole lot of time and effort.

But don’t wait for perfection – that never happens. Plan for the best conditions you can get, and then give it a shot. It could lead to some stunning pictures.

The post The Six Killers of Night Sky Photography (and how to avoid them) appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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Why Your Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter

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Many discussions in online photography groups and discussions revolve around “What’s the best camera brand?” or “What is the best lens for x?” or “Thinking about upgrading, should I pick between camera x or camera y?” and so on.

It seems that a lot of people think that there is a Holy Grail of camera gear that will solve all their problems if only they can achieve it. However they fail to understand that it isn’t the gear that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - pink flower

So many people praise Ansel Adams or Cartier-Bresson as peers of the craft, yet those photographers were dealing with old film cameras. The camera in your cell phone is more powerful and advanced in technology by light years in comparison.

If all the photographers in history were capable of making lasting impactful images with old film camera hardware and development techniques – if you have a modern camera (of whatever brand you choose) or even just your cell phone – what is your excuse?

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It isn’t about the gear. It has never been about the gear and as soon as you realize that, you will be free to create and shoot in a new and exciting way.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - still life image

Let’s Count the Ways That Gear Doesn’t Matter

  1. The camera doesn’t decide what brand or model you buy, or what lens you opt for. You do your own research (presumably), make your choices, place the order and pay the money. Or perhaps you were gifted with some gear or loaned it. Maybe you just have a phone with a camera. It doesn’t matter, they are all cameras with essentially the same capability to capture images.
  2. Your camera doesn’t haul itself out of bed early in the morning to get to the desired destination for a sunrise shot. It doesn’t drive for hours to get to a pretty lake, nor does it pack itself into a backpack and hike its way into the mountains to get the perfect shot – would be nice if it did though!
Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - ice and snow in the sun

This image was taken on a recent camera club trip in the mountains – roughly 4 hours drive from home. Lying full length on a snow bank to brace to get this shot, I chose to do it backlit for the desired creative outcome.

  1. The camera doesn’t decide what the composition will be, it doesn’t walk this way and that way, crouch down low, or climb up looking for a better vantage point.
  2. The camera doesn’t go without its daily latte for a year, while it saves up to go on holiday to an exotic destination so it can take lovely new photos while its there.
  3. Your camera doesn’t sit for hours on the side of a river, lake, or estuary waiting for the birds to come close enough to shoot.
  4. The lens doesn’t decide, “Hey I want to be the lens on your camera today, shoot with me all day”.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - rolling hills landscape

  1. Unless you are a complete beginner and shooting with everything on Auto, the camera doesn’t decide what settings it’s going to use. Nor does it decide when to click the shutter, when is exactly the right time to take the shot.
  2. The camera doesn’t say, “I don’t want to shoot macro today, instead let’s do architecture instead, I’m bored with flowers”.
  3. The camera doesn’t go, “I know it’s going to be cold and frosty tomorrow in the snow but it will be super pretty so let’s get up early to take photos before everyone walks all over it”.
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A behind the scenes shot of what it takes to stage a food photography shot – I haven’t even got the camera out yet.

There are so many decisions that you, the photographer make, that are essential to the image being created. But you could get the same shot with a Canon, or Nikon/Pentax/Sony or whatever brand you have.

For many of the shots that are taken, a recent cellphone has a pretty good camera in it and will do a good job too.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - flower abstract

Specifically mounted and lit against a black background, this was deliberately shot with selective focus and edited for a dark moody rich color tone.

What the Photographer Does Matters

  • You are the one saving up to go on the exciting holiday, deciding where to go, what time of year, what places to visit, what things you might want to see and photograph.
  • It’s you that decides how your image is going to be composed – portrait/landscape, close in or far away, what the subject is, what aperture or shutter speed to use for the desired creative outcome.
  • You choose your subject, you decide how the image is going to look, where you will shoot from, what height/angle, and what settings you will use.
  • You make the creative choices such as is it going to be macro, or shot with a very wide open aperture for a blurred background. Perhaps a long telephoto lens to separate the subject from the background. Maybe an ultrawide or fisheye lens for a different look, or even an old vintage lens with swirly bokeh.  You choose the gear and decide how you are going to use it at any given point in time.
  • It’s you that makes the sacrifice to get out of bed early in the morning for the sunrise shots.
  • You load up the gear, put on walking shoes, load up a drink bottle and head off into the unknown for an adventure and you earn your blisters and sore feet.
  • If you are a food photographer, you might spend hours baking in the kitchen to create tasty treats which you then spend ages styling and propping before you eventually shoot.
  • If you are a portrait photographer you might dabble in hair or makeup, and you absolutely need to have control of the light, shaping and modifying it to suit the desired outcome.
  • Maternity photographers probably have to do some hair/makeup/clothing as well as set design and lighting for newborn shots.
  • If you are a wedding photographer you probably have a bag full of tricks and emergency supplies to cope with any last minute drama or wardrobe failure, plus you have to wrangle all of the people on what is often a stressful day.
Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - frosty morning mountains

Minus 6C Hoar Frost – yeah it was pretty cold getting out of bed that morning but it was totally worth it.

There are so many creative choices that you can make – high key or low key, black and white or color, cool or warm tones, tight abstract or bigger picture, low to the ground or eye level, morning/daytime/evening light – but none of these references your gear at all. These are all things you may even decide before you even pick up the camera.

So much of what we do is visualizing the image in our heads, and putting in place the required circumstances or situations to make that image happen. You may have to save for a couple of years to afford the trip to Patagonia or Alaska. Perhaps you might chase storms for months before you get the absolute best cloud formation or lightning shot you were after.

You might get up night after night to capture an aurora or every morning for a month to get the stunning sunrise. Maybe you have to wait until the next breeding season to get the shot of the bird that only flies in once a year. Plus you have to stake out a nest, build a hide and keep it secret.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - cutlery still life

Sometimes Gear Does Matter

Yes, there are absolutely situations when having a specific piece of gear totally matters. It is difficult to take macro shots of things if you don’t have a macro lens, or extension tubes or similar options.

Having a longer lens makes those birding shots a lot easier as well, not only are birds skittish, they can fly away from you. Plus you should be a responsible environmentally aware photographer and stay out of their habitat and not scare them deliberately.

I don’t shoot astrophotography but am aware that there are recommended lens choices to get the best outcome for your night shots.

Sports, action, and wildlife photographers usually want a camera with a high burst rate for the action shots, fast focus action, and reasonably good high ISO for low light situations and a really long lens.

Wedding photographers need high-performance camera/lens options that are adaptable to a range of situations and can work in low light.

If you want to do soft flowing waterfalls and waves, neutral density filters, a tripod, and a remote shutter are usually requirements.

So yes, there will always be situations where you do need specialty gear, but the same rules apply. You still need to make all the creative choices and decisions. Adding that extra hardware choice into the mix just becomes part of it.

Why Your Camera Gear Doesn't Matter - flowing water frozen in the air

To get this shot I needed a 70-200mm lens mounted on a tripod and then I experimented with fast shutter speeds to get capture the motion in the water and the splashes.

Conclusion

Being there matters. Having the right light matters. Your subject choice matters. How you choose to frame up the composition matters. Your creative choices matter. Post-processing matters.

What gear you use to take the shot – doesn’t matter.

Any general camera gear can do the job for the vast majority of images taken. Does the brand matter? No.

Is it a cell phone? If you can take images you are happy with on a cell phone, then keep doing it.

Are there situations where specific lenses or gear makes a difference? Absolutely, and yes you probably will need to have what’s required to make those images.

But not everyone wants to do macro. Lots of people have no need for a tilt-shift lens for those architecture shots. 600mm lens that weighs several kilos? No thanks!

Street art in Melbourne, Australia. Some of these laneways are so hidden away only a local knows where to find them.

But even when you do get the specialty gear, there are usually multiple choices of options to purchase. But again, the brand doesn’t matter.

Even if you do have the top-end camera with the fanciest tripod, the longest lens with all the bells and whistles…unless YOU take it out and use it, it isn’t going off and having photography adventures on its own.

As the saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you” so work with what you have, learn to use it to the best of your ability. Experiment, be creative, try different things, push your boundaries and have fun.

My camera does landscape, nature, birds, macro, food, still life, fine art self-portraits, flowers, cats, long exposures, black and whites, high key, low key, sports, abstract, events and probably many other things I have yet to point it at.

What does matter is that you are out there, with whatever gear you have, and are using it.

Happy shooting!

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Why You Need a Reading Plan

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You may have a plan for your week, a plan for your workouts, a plan for your finances, and even a plan for your leisure time. These plans help you get the most out of your time and resources — the most out of your life.

But have you ever thought about having a reading plan?

You should: just like any other plan, it can help you maximize the value, enjoyment, and satisfaction you get from your reading.

Today we’ll talk about why, and offer suggestions for formulating a reading plan of your own.

What Is a Reading Plan?

A reading plan is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than flitting about from random book to random book, you have a system — usually a list — for determining what you’ll read next. Whether that’s specific titles (all of Dickens’ works), or simply broader topics/genres (Civil War history), a reading plan guides your reading efforts and keeps you from stagnating or always choosing the path of least resistance (whatever is right in front of you, easiest, or most entertaining).

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re only reading those books, of course. At any given time, I’m probably reading 2-4 books, one of which is part of a larger plan I’m following (right now it’s biographies of US Presidents, in chronological order; before that, it was a deep dive in the Western genre). If you’re a one-book-at-a-time person, maybe every other book is just for fun, and every other is part of your plan.

The Benefits of a Reading Plan

Keeps you in a lifelong learner mindset. Everyone should strive to be a lifelong learner. Your education doesn’t end once you have a diploma in hand. Reading can be used not only for entertainment, but to further your own education, and giving it a plan can help you make this “curriculum” more substantive and meaningful.   

Keeps you disciplined in your reading. I don’t mean this to say that your reading shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable. It absolutely should be. I mean this more in the sense that having a plan keeps you reading consistently. When you see a list of books you’re trying to tackle, you’ll be motivated to actually put in the time to get your 50 pages or 30 minutes per day. Just as a to-do list keeps you focused on completing work tasks and chores, a to-read list keeps you focused on knocking out books. It can help you make reading a priority.

While I know I’m in a unique position since I work from home, and since reading is often part of that work, I try to read about 100 pages at the start of each day before tackling just about anything else (100 pages of anything; perhaps it’s all of a single book, but many times it’s split between a couple books).

My list keeps me motivated to wake up early and stay on track before the kids are taking up my time and mental space. Since I know this is my goal, I also know that I have about 3,000 pages a month to work with, and I occasionally even schedule out the reading I’d like to accomplish each week. When you take your reading seriously, you get serious amounts of reading done. It’s that simple.

Helps push you to get through books you may otherwise not have the gumption to finish. While your reading should indeed be an enjoyable endeavor (I can’t repeat that enough; hating what you’re reading will make you not want to read anymore), sometimes it’s worth finishing a book that you aren’t super in love with.

Every once in a while I come across a book that I want to have read (past tense). To get there, I obviously have to read it (present tense). And sometimes those books — even if the writing is good and I’m enjoying the story — can be a slog. It’s sort of an odd phenomenon, but I’m sure you can relate. For me most recently, that has been Anna Karenina. I can objectively state that the writing is just magnificent. Tolstoy crafts a sentence as well as any writer I’ve encountered. But, I got stuck about halfway through, and haven’t been able to finish. It just sometimes takes a lot of mental energy to keep going with hard books that you aren’t naturally drawn to. I want to be someone who has read Anna Karenina, but it’s not currently part of any plan of mine, so it sits on my shelf, but halfway finished.

Now, let’s look at a book that was also somewhat tough, but that I managed to finish: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I originally bought it back in college and made it about ⅓ of the way through before giving up. Then about 6 months ago I tried again, and got stalled about 50 pages in. I couldn’t figure it out. Chernow is an amazing writer, and the story was superb. It was just hard to get through; the typeface was small (which meant a lot of words per page), and it was all such new information (I hadn’t read much about the Revolution before) that my brain was drained after seemingly each page. It wasn’t until I committed to reading a book about each of the presidents that I was finally able to sit with it each morning and get it finished in just a couple weeks.

There’s just something that happens in the brain when you have a list and curriculum to work though that adds an extra dose of motivation.

Greases the reading wheels a bit. This is perhaps a minor point, but one worth noting. Have you ever noticed that even simply choosing your next book saps some of your reading willpower? You’re at the library, or the bookstore, or even just staring at your own shelves, and you’re overwhelmed with the choices. You want to read all. the. books. But you just can’t decide on which one to pick up, and by the time you finally settle on something, you’re drained from simply making the selection. It’s indeed proven that this “paradox of choice” can be paralyzing, and stymie our ability to make a decision or accomplish anything at all. Conversely, when you work from a plan, you don’t have to choose at all; you simply go to the next book on your list, full of willpower and fresh energy. Having a reading plan greases the wheels and lets you get into a groove much easier.

Creates room for mastery of a subject. This is perhaps my favorite part of having a reading plan. We’ve made the case multiple times here on Art of Manliness that everyone should strive to be “T-shaped”; that is, you should have a breadth of general knowledge, but also mastery in a single topic or subject or skill. Such mastery provides satisfaction and self-confidence in spades.

So how do you achieve mastery? One way is certainly by reading deeply into a single subject. Whether driven by your career or your personal passions, having a reading plan is a surefire way to deepen your knowledge base.

As mentioned above, last year I set out to find the very best Western novels as research for an article. I read nearly 50 for the project, and now feel like I can talk Western literature as well as just about any other expert on the topic. Before working for the Art of Manliness, I was employed by a “green” IT services company. I didn’t know much about this sector, so one of the first things I did was make a list of every book I could find on data centers, green IT initiatives, the “cloud,” etc.

You can not only read deeply into your professional field, but into your hobbies and interests as well. If you’re a hunter, read about the history of this pursuit; read biographies of famous hunters; read practical field guides on the sport; read everything about hunting you can get your hands on.

Make a list, and plumb the depth of the vertical axis of your knowledge. Truly master a subject.

Provides a sense of accomplishment. Just as your body feels accomplished after pushing through a lifting plan and hitting your goal on your deadlift, so your brain feels accomplished when you push through a list of books that you’ve been working through for a long time. You’ll feel as though your reading has really meant something. If nothing else, I can all but guarantee that having a plan will assist you in reading more, which alone will increase your sense of accomplishment.

Some Ideas of Reading Plans to Follow  

Make it a challenge. Push yourself a little bit. Don’t simply choose from the New York Times Best Sellers list, which is not only manipulatable, but also almost always consists of some combo of mystery fiction and celebrity memoir. Again, sometimes there’s a place for those books, but not in a reading plan in which you hope to challenge yourself.

That said, you do you. If you want to read the canon of James Patterson, go for it. Again, if nothing else, you’ll likely read more, which is always a good thing. (You might also come to realize that all his books are actually the same, and you’ll want something a little more challenging. Zing!)

A few ideas for reading plans to follow:

Art of Manliness lists. We have a number of lists of books here on AoM. Our list of 100 books every man should read is the most popular, but any of them will do the trick:

The Great Books. There are a number of avenues to pursue reading the Great Books. Online Great Books is a paid program, but has the benefit of allowing you to read and discuss them with people on the same track. Mortimer Adler has a long list in the back of his classic How to Read a Book. Susan Wise Bauer has a slightly more accessible list in the back of her book, The Well-Educated Mind.

Award winners. Go through some sort of list of award winners. The list of Pulitzer winners, for any category, is popular to do. The National Book Award is another. Read a book by each author who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The options here are many.

The entire canon of a single author. Love Hemingway or Steinbeck or Dickens? Read everything they ever wrote, in chronological order if you’re feeling especially bold.

Read through some historical category. Men tend to really enjoy biographies and histories, so dig into that in a more specific way. Read a biography of every president (or leader of the nation you live in). The creator of bestpresidentialbios.com has spent 5 years doing that. Make a list of Civil War books. Read every book you can find about the state or region you live in (including novels set in that state/region). You get the idea.

The number of book lists out there on the web is innumerable. Find one, commit, and stick to it. Plans take you more directly to what you want — and that’s as true in reading as in anything else.

You can follow along with my journey through the presidential biographies, as well as my other non-plan reading, by signing up for my weekly newsletter: “What I’m Reading.” 

The post Why You Need a Reading Plan appeared first on The Art of Manliness.

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3 compelling reasons why we haven’t found aliens yet

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Aliens have always captured our imaginations. The universe is large and filled with other planets but somehow it seems like humans are alone. So we decided to break down three theories on why we haven’t found any aliens yet. Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Odds are, somewhere among the estimated 100 billion planets in our galaxy, intelligent alien life has taken hold. So the question is, why haven’t we found even a hint of it? While scientists could stick with the classic reasoning that alien life simply doesn’t exist, or maybe it just doesn’t exist near us, mounting evidence to the contrary has inspired an increasing number of experts to explore new avenues of possibility.

In 2017 a team out of the University of Oxford proposed the Aestivation Hypothesis. It’s the idea that most aliens are hibernating, sort of like a bear but for longer. The scientists reason that just about any advanced civilization will eventually merge with machines, forming a fully digitized society that can think, act, and function on levels beyond our imagination. The only problem with that is cooling. Processing systems here on Earth, for example, become 10 times more efficient when they’re in an environment that is 10 times colder. So digital aliens would see the logic of hibernating for a few trillion years or so while the universe expands and cools. That way, they can then devote more processing power toward important activities, like conquering the galaxy, instead of simply keeping their systems from overheating.

Another idea proposed in 2016 is what’s called the Gaian Bottleneck Hypothesis. It addresses the fact that many young rocky planets no older than one billion years have extremely unstable climates, and eventually grow too hot or too cold for life to exist long-term. Take Venus, Earth, and Mars, for example. Four billion years ago, each planet had the right conditions for life, and may have even harbored simple microorganisms. But as far as we can tell, only life on Earth survives today; the reason, according to the Bottleneck Hypothesis, is that early life on Earth evolved rapidly, releasing large amounts of gases like oxygen into the atmosphere that ultimately helped stabilize the climate. But this behavior is likely the exception than the norm. So perhaps the real reason we haven’t found aliens yet is because, well, they’re all dead.

But what if life could flourish in a completely different environment, safe from extreme temperature fluctuations and radiation? That’s what planetary scientist Alan Stern proposed in 2017, about a year after evidence suggested that Pluto harbors an underground ocean. In fact, worlds like Pluto, Europa, and Enceladus, that have an icy shell above a vast subterranean ocean, may offer a better incubator for life than Earth-like planets, which are more vulnerable to extreme temperature changes and high-energy radiation that strikes the surface. If this turns out to be the case, any intelligent life that may be swimming on these worlds would be shut off from the rest of the universe, potentially unable to communicate.

Whatever the reason may be, we must answer the question of how we can improve our search for what would be the grandest discovery in human history.

Join the conversation about this story »

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How to Attract Luck 

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Image: fotografierende from Pexels

When you look to people you admire for one reason or another, you might think that some part of their success—whether it’s their corner office, their new TV pilot or their beautiful vintage furniture—comes down to dumb luck.

And while certainly some things in their life were out of their control, they also created some of that luck themselves. Because, as Tina Seelig, a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford and author of 17 books, says in an interview with GQ, luck doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of hard work and introspection.

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In fact, making a few changes in your own life could make you luckier, according to Seelig. Here’s what she suggests.

Redefine Luck

Many of us think of luck as something that’s completely outside of our control, according to Seelig; simply up to chance. But she sees it as something different, more malleable.

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“Fortune is things that are outside of your control, things that happen to you,” she says. “Chance is something you have to do; I have to take a chance. It requires action on your part in the moment…Luck is something where you have even more agency. You make your own luck by identifying and developing opportunities in advance.” (Emphasis hers.)

By reframing what you consider “luck,” you might be able to turn it in your favor.

Practice Appreciation, Risk-Taking and Embracing Crazy Ideas

Seelig says there are three big things people can practice that will translate to better “luck.”

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First, show appreciation: “Most people are not appropriately appreciative of what other people do for them, and they take it for granted,” she says. If you are properly appreciative, more opportunities will arise for you.

Second, take risks: You’ll never accomplish anything if you never try anything. Think about it: Would you look at Serena Williams and say she got where she is because of luck? Of course not. Picking up that tennis racket was a risk the first time, and it paid off tremendously. You can’t be scared to try new things. Suggests Seelig: “Go up and say hello to somebody you don’t know. Try a sport you haven’t tried. Go somewhere you haven’t gone before. Each of these opens up the door to possibilities.”

Third, embrace crazy ideas: You have to be willing to experiment and try the crazy-seeming or impossible things that come your way. Think of improv’s “Yes, and” rule or Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes. Essentially, say yes! Embrace the things that come your way instead of immediately thinking of all the reasons you can’t or shouldn’t do something. Make the default that you can.

Hard Work Matters, As Does Resilience

While much of this has to do with working hard and acquiring the skills necessary to pursue your dreams, a major component of luck is resilience. To get back to the Serena example, how many times have you tried something only to do a poor job the first time around and then never attempt to do it again? (As a recovering High School Perfectionist, this is something I think about often.) “If you can extract the learnings from mistakes and failures, you’re going to move forward much more quickly,” says Seelig. You’re going to be luckier.

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In terms of your career, that also means being honest with yourself about what will work. Rather than just parroting the “follow your passion” platitude, consider where your passion, skills and the market meet. “That’s where your sweet spot is,” she says.

Consider the Consequences

Every single action has a consequence, no matter how seemingly insignificant they seem at the time.

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That includes big things, like your job and skills, sure, but it also includes more mundane things, like who you spend time with and where you live.

But if you’re just running through your life on autopilot, hanging out with the same people who don’t inspire you, in the same job where you learn nothing, and hoping to get lucky sometime, it isn’t going to happen.

Instead, you have to “craft” your life to your liking. You have to think about the consequences of the way you’re living. Says Seelig:

I think that so many people limit themselves, they make a box around themselves that’s much smaller than it needs to be. Then you read stories about people who go off and live in interesting places and you say, “How did you do it?” and they say, “I just did it.”

So go do it. Luck will follow.

How to Get Lucky | GQ

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A favorite sequencer gets more dimension: new Make Noise René

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Forget about gear fetish: the delightful surprise behind the modular movement is that a whole bunch of people are interested in exploring weird new musical ideas. And one of the sequencer modules at the heart of it is getting a big refresh.

The René module wouldn’t strike anyone as something that’d turn into a big hit. This is an esoteric little device: a grid of touchplates and a bunch of knobs, which you then spaghetti-wire into other modules to make, uh, odd patterns.

But making weird patterns you can then shift around – well, that’s a lot of fun. And René liberated modular rigs from onze of their major weaknesses: too often, people were stuck with rigid step sequencers that produced overly repetitive loops that would drive you insane. Basically, the “Cartesian” bit is, instead of having a line (those marching steps), you get a grid (x + Y).

So, here comes the René refresh. This is three-dimensional chess to the original model’s checkers.

The new model is three channels instead of one, three dimensional sequencing instead of two, and boasts expanded memory so you can save up to 64 states – no more long modular performances that sound great for the first three minutes and then … sort of exactly like that for the next hour, too.

This “three-axis” business is really a bit like that three-dimensional chess idea – you can plot in additional states from the x/y positions. Make Noise’s Pete Speer explains:

The Z-Axis on René is not an expression/pressure control input— it allows for the sequencing and addressing of up to 64 States of stored programming.

As the old René was the first to introduce Cartesian sequencing (plotting non-linear sequences based on X and Y position clocks), the new René adds a Z-axis for sequencing of X and Y positions across up to 64 unique iterations!

We will have videos covering the Z-Axis in the days and weeks ahead (and the module’s manual will be online soon, too), which will hopefully clear up any confusion about this new level of sequential control.

Thanks, Pete! Yeah, that will be worth checking up on, as it’s a clever idea. Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated what the z-axis was about.

Combine this with three channels of output, though, and you can in fact route a lot more control from this one module than before. And no doubt the additional memory will be useful in performance.

Here’s the full feature set:

  • 3 CV outputs for controlling pitch or timbre
  • 3 Gate outputs for generating musical events
  • Snake and Cartesian patterns available simultaneously
  • STORE all Programming in one of 64 STATEs.
  • New Z-Axis allows for modulating through any combination of 64 STOREd STATEs
  • All programming done real-time, programming of René is a key performance element
  • Visualization of pattern activity always displayed on left half with 16 illuminated Knobs
  • Visual indication of Programming always displayed on right half with 16 illuminated touch buttons
  • Communicates w/ TEMPI via Select Bus to Select, Store, Revert, Multi-Paste and MESH STATEs
  • Maximum amount of artist controlled musical variation, derived from minimum amount of analog data input
  • All new touch sensing technology tested successfully on the most commonly used euro rack power solutions

Of course, since the René first came out, it’s gotten a lot more competition. So it could be fun to see how this stacks up against other modular (and desktop, or software, even) sequencers.

René is available to preorder for US$525.

http://makenoisemusic.com/modules/rene

Since that’s my monthly rent, it’s worth saying Eurorack is still pricey relative to some lower-cost desktop hardware, to say nothing of computers. Clever software patching is great if you’re broke, or if you’ve a little scratch, something like Five12 Numerology.

But that said, this no doubt will go high on people’s shopping lists in the modular world – and it’s an impressive piece of work. Look forward to seeing more.

Oh yeah – there’s a GIF, too.

via GIPHY

https://gph.is/2CTzLbq

And yes, I promise to get what the letter ‘z’ is about. For real.

The post A favorite sequencer gets more dimension: new Make Noise René appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

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Watch The Emotional Trailer For Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ Final Season

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anthony_bourdain_parts_unknown_trailer

CNN

Anthony Bourdain died in June while filming the 12th season of Parts Unknown and the episodes that were completed before his death will air later this month. The emotional trailer was released and for fans of the celebrity chef this will be a heartbreaking watch.

The renowned chef, best-selling author, and beloved TV host only fully completed one episode of the final season of Parts Unknown. The one finished episode complete with narration by Bourdain was the journey to Kenya with comedian and fellow CNN TV host W. Kamau Bell.

“I really felt like a passenger just wanting to be present for it,” Bell says in the clip. “And I didn’t want to suck—that was my overwhelming feeling, like, ‘Don’t screw up his show.’ Everybody who had dreams of traveling with Tony, it’s exactly as cool as you think it is.”

“The greater context of the show and the reality and the fact that Tony’s gone makes that like a — it’s like a punch in the gut,” Bell added as he fights backs tears during the video.

There are six episodes total for Season 12 including Spain, Indonesia, West Texas, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The other uncompleted episodes will feature staff and friends remembering Bourdain.

Bourdain died on June 8, 2018, where he was found dead from an apparent suicide by hanging himself at Le Chambard hotel in Kaysersberg, France. The 61-year-old culinary personality was filming an episode in nearby Strasbourg and his body was discovered in the hotel room by his friend and fellow chef Eric Ripert.

Last week, Bourdain and the Parts Unknown staff won six Emmys for the previous season of the travel TV show.

The final season of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown will begin on September 23 at 9 pm ET.

[Thrillist]

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Teenage Engineering to ship their OP-Z, a handheld game-like synth

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In a sea of synths that embrace retro vibes or big form factors, futurists and minimalist design lovers have eagerly awaited the Teenage Engineering OP-Z. And that wait is nearly over.

The new thing from Sweden now at last starts preorders now, with a ship date in mid October. The first batch are already gone, but at least we know these things are making their way into the world.

It’ll even come with a cute case bundle. (Cables and grippy knobs sold separately.)

There’s even an atypical apology from the Teenagers:

– let us start by apologizing for the long delay.* to develop new products can at times be quite hard and when you work on things that have never been done before,

it’s even harder. over the last year we have re-worked and re-thought in absurdum, but now when three long years of development have finally come to an end, we feel quite confident that you will actually thank us for that extra long wait. why? you might ask…– because the result is just pretty, pretty great.

Hands-on sessions at Moscow’s Synthposium – the surprise in-event this year for synth lovers – in fact confirmed the pretty-greatness of the OP-Z.

So instead of Stockholm, we got the really proper view of the OP-Z in the Russian capital, as documented here. The “Z” stands for “depth”:

And that’s also how Cuckoo, YouTube personality, suddenly shows up on Russian Music Mag’s channel and not only his own:

The jumbo candybar form factor of this synth recalls the Teenagers’ other flagship, the OP-1. But it’s safer to say that the OP-Z brings together a lot of what the design shop have been about over the years. There’s the lineage from the machinedrum and the early Elektron days, and its emphasis on design, rectangular corners, minimal controls, and grooves embedded into hardware. There’s the reduced calculator-style layout and key controls as we saw on the Pocket Operators. You have the unmistakable design aesthetics, introduced on the OP-1 but continually improved with collaborations with the likes of IKEA. So the OP-Z looks more stylish and design-conscious than anything else on the market.

But that’s not nearly as important I think as the way Teenage Engineering have increasingly mixed gaming metaphors, particularly from the Nintendo legacy, with music.

The OP-Z looks like a portable gaming console, and one that’s simultaneously both futuristic and kind of 1980s. (It’s a future for people who spent part of their past in the 80s.)

It plugs into a bigger display, in a throwback to old consoles and PCs.

And it suggests that an electronic musical instrument is a game and a tool at the same time.

The best way to follow how it works is to catch up with some of the best hands-on videos coming out of the YouTubers who were seeded beta units. Tutorial:

Jam session:

Do you speak German? Do you speak English but prefer the way synthesizer talk sounds in German? (Really, sounds way more … intelligent, somehow.)

The visual possibilities, meanwhile, are captured more clearly in Japan, and … those features sound better in Japanese, I think.

And here’s Cuckoo playing the thing live:

Check out the preorder:

https://teenage.engineering/products/op-z/pre-order

Or in person, Teenage Engineering is showing this and their other recent stuff in King’s Cross London:

https://teenage.engineering/now

https://teenage.engineering/

* Side note: once upon a time, I projected a graph of awesomeness vs. shippingness, specifically regarding the OP-1. Seems it’s still a curve you have to fight – but it can be defeated even with awesome stuff.

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5 Assemble-It-Yourself Furniture Brands That Aren’t IKEA

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I’m not an IKEA hater, and I’ll never be. There’s a reason they’ve become such a success. Their pieces are functional and affordable, and there’s something to be said for that. IKEA also basically put flat-pack furniture on the map, which is a win for all of us. Other companies have followed suit, and if you’re looking for something that might last a little longer than IKEA’s entry point pieces, you’ve come to the right place. We rounded up some of the newer kids on the block when it comes to flat-pack options, and from the looks of things, these companies’ pieces have real staying power potential.

Take your storage game up a notch with Kvell, a modern furnishings company that launched back in 2017. Most of their products pack flat, including an assortment of storage cubes, ottomans and occasional chairs. Several are also collapsible, meaning they’re clutch in small spaces. Kvell’s Nordik storage lounge chair and matching storage ottoman, for example, are two pieces that offer hidden storage in the seat, utilize flat pack construction, and boast an assembly time of just a few minutes. Color is another strength of this line—there are tons of on-trend options from wine and mustard to navy and flame orange. And the prices aren’t crazy.

The founders of Campaign felt like there was a gap in the market for flat-pack, assembly-required furniture that didn’t feel disposable. Point taken. If you live in a city, chances are you’ve seen a MALM dresser or KLIPPAN sofa laying out on the curb on moving day. So building on the idea of “campaign furniture”—quality mobile pieces created for 19th and 20th century British soldiers out on military campaigns—all of Campaign’s furniture can be set up in 15 to 20 minutes with one to two people and no tools. The brand focuses heavily on seating: Sofas, loveseats, chairs, and ottomans, but all items are made from American steel, hardwood, and sustainable fabrics in a variety of colors. And Campaign hits the longevity angle by offering extra cover and leg options, so you can update your piece if you tire of the finishes you originally chose.

“It all started with four legs,” reads the Floyd website, referencing the fact that this company got its start making metal legs you could clamp to any surface to create a table. In that respect, Floyd feels the most DIY and industrial of all the flat-pack brands here—those steel legs and brackets are still a part of all of their offerings. But since then, they’ve expanded their collection to include a bed, a table, a side table, a desk, and coming soon, a sofa. So they cover more categories of product than most of their competitors. Shipping is free, and same-day delivery is available in certain cities.

If modular furniture is your thing, then you’re going to love Burrow, a New York-based sofa, chair, and ottoman company. All of Burrow’s pieces are made from sustainable wood and chemical-free fabrics, plus the packaging, which looks like cardboard suitcases, is made from recycled components. Burrow doesn’t offer quite as many color choices as the others, but they’re among the most affordable and literally look like their pieces snap together, so sign me up. And there’s definitely a millennial vibe here, too. The arms of the chairs and sofas have hidden integrated USB chargers, the cushions are reversible, and you can add or remove sections of a sofa as your needs change, which is brilliant.

Think of HEM as kind of like IKEA’s cooler older cousin. This Swedish design house announced plans for a fully flat-pack sofa, the Kumo, and a flat-pack conference table earlier this year, and they should be rolling out any day now. I wouldn’t call HEM affordable exactly, but it’s not outrageous, and the more flat-pack pieces they offer, they cheaper they’ll be here in the states. But if you want to give off major Scandinavian modern vibes, HEM’s pieces definitely have a little more style and point of view to offer than the rest of the bunch.

What other flat-pack brands are you loving right now? One of my favorites, Greycork, shut down last year, so clearly there are still challenges in this space. But I’m hopeful that more companies will get in the game.

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