Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time-Lapse Photo software for the Mac? ImageCapture!

I (somewhat) recently bought a new DSLR camera: the Nikon D3000. I had no idea what was best, and didn't have the time really to do very in-depth research about which camera to purchase. Usually before buying a new camera, or any expensive piece of equipment, I would prefer to do such research, but I was buying this one with just a few days to go before leaving for India, and was overwhelmed with other preparations on my way out of the country. I took the advice of my cousin Jon who is a professional photographer (his amazing website here), that Nikon is the best brand, and with that alone, went to a camera specialty store in LA. I allowed myself to be persuaded by the salesman to buy Nikon's new D3000 model, something he said which was in between their previous amateur and pro- lines (what they call 'pro-sumer'). It was at about the right price-point for what I wanted to spend, and it had all the features I thought I would need. It also came with what seemed like a desirable lens: 18-55mm. I needed a macro for research purposes, and so bought a separate (thankfully used, but in excellent condition) AF macro Nikkor 60mm 1:2.8 lens. It is much heavier, and higher quality than the camera body. So much so, that though the lens supports auto-focus, the camera does not have a motor strong enough to drive the auto-focus mechanism, and therefore it is not able to auto-focus with the macro lens. I was warned of this, and it didn't really matter, because I usually prefer to manually focus on my macro subjects: beads, pottery, etc, because I prefer to select the focal length, and what element of the object is in focus.

I have since read reviews which call the D3000 Nikon's 'worst camera ever'. But it's too late now. I'm not really a pro- user, so there are plenty of really fancy things that I'm not even aware that I'm missing. I've been really happy with the camera in general, until now. Now I wouldn't say I'm unhappy with the camera, but I ran into one particular need where my old relatively 'crappy' digital point-and-shoot was better. Video. Not that the quality of video taken by my old point-and-shoot (PAS) was very good, in fact it was pretty awful. But at least it was video, and for some things, video captures better than still. Even when the quality sucks.

I ran into this problem when I started visiting a local potter to begin doing some experiments in firing pottery to try to recreate some of the ancient pottery that I've been studying. I wanted to shoot some video of his various activities, laying out the pots to be fired, or making them on the wheel. Without the ability to shoot video, I thought the best option would be to take something like time-lapse images, which I could later stitch together into a video. The frame rate would be low, but at least I could capture a series of images over time, showing the activity in progress. My first attempt was manual - I set the timer on my cell phone, and walked up to press the shutter button on the camera (on a tripod) every time the timer on my phone went off. This got pretty old pretty quickly.

It was recommended that I download Nikon's own Camera Control 2 software, which I did (30 day free trial), only to discover that it doesn't support the D3000 model. I started searching for "time-lapse software for mac" or "remote shutter control software" and any other phrases I could think of to google, that might find me something I needed. I came across a few free and paid apps, supporting various lists of models, none of which supported the D3000. Some of them looked great. I would have downloaded them, if they listed my camera among the supported models. Then I came across this review which said "I should point out that the D3000 cannot be controlled from your Mac or PC, unlike Nikon's more expensive models."

I was becoming discouraged, and almost ready to give up, when I came across the software Icarus Camera Control. I went to his list of supported cameras, and found only three supported cameras, though the developer suggested that it may well work with others. On going to the support wiki I found his narrative of how he developed the product:
Icarus Camera Control came about because I have a Nikon D80 that I want to connect to telescopes and control via my MacBook. Nikon sells software for camera control (Camera Control Pro) but it is expensive and getting more so, it is terribly slow, and is a horrible battery hog. It is completely unusable for portable work. So I started writing my own camera control tool.

Linux has gphoto2 infrastructure for controlling cameras. That works well for a wide variety of camera, including my Nikon D80, but it works very poorly on Mac OS X. It compiles, but it can't really get at the camera due to Mac services that already grab access to the camera. So while I could surely use gphoto2 to make a Linux application, I need something more native for the Mac.

Mac OS X, it turns out, has the Image Capture Architecture that is exactly for this purpose. The ICA provides an abstract interface to locate and access cameras, as well as a means to get at the lower level PTP commands to do the more interesting things that one wants to do with a camera. And this is the level where Icarus Camera Control operates. It uses the ICA to locate the camera and images on the camera, get thumbnails, and perform basic camera control functions. It then uses PTP messages passed through the ICA to perform more direct camera activities, including probing device features and capabilities.

Which led me to think to myself 'Image Capture Architecture' meaning, it has the built in utility 'ImageCapture'?? Is this another example of something where the app I'm looking for is already installed on my Mac?? Indeed it is.

Image Capture (found at ~Macintosh HD/Applications/Image Capture), though it is not fancy, does exactly what I need for remote (USB connected) timed shutter release. It allows me to set the interval in seconds minutes or hours, and it allows me an option to determine a directory where those files should be saved - directly to the harddisk. It doesn't allow me to control any of the cameras settings, light, aperture, speed, ISO, none of it. I still have to manage those settings on the camera itself. But once it's set up, all I have to do is click start, and it begins taking pictures at my determined interval.

To stitch the pictures together into a time-lapse movie, I am able to use another pre-installed app: iMovie.

None of these are "pro" apps, none of them allow the control that someone might want if they were going to get really technical with the thing. But I'm not at a stage where I want to get technical. And I am amazed at how, after all this searching, the applications that I needed, with the functions I wanted, were on my computer all along, and they work great.

In addition, I found these online guides to time-lapse photography and movie-making useful: Photojojo.com and Tucows.com

I promise I'll post the results of this time-lapse stuff soon. :)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Future of Higher Education: YouTube Lectures, Distance Learning, and Open-source Education

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called "A Self-Appointed Teacher Runs a One-Man 'Academy' on YouTube: Are his 10-minute lectures the future?" by Jeff Young. This piece suggested that Salman Khan, an MIT graduate with a bachelors degree, who one day decided to start creating 10-minute YouTube lectures on various subjects, was the beginning of a trend, and possibly a paradigm shift in higher education in the US. Like most articles of its kind, I think it is intentionally written to be provocative. Especially when considering the audience. The Chronicle of Higher Education is primarily read by academics. In other words, professors and administrators, people who are highly invested in the system of higher education, and as such, probably to some extent invested in the status quo. They, especially the old and stodgy types, are likely to reject that technology is the answer, or in fact, that there is anything wrong with the system at in the first place.

What follows is my attempt to answer Mr. Young's question, whether 10-minute, informal YouTube lectures are somehow the future of higher education.

First, I should start out by saying that higher education does have problems. Plenty of them. The current system (in the US), the status quo, is by no means satisfactory to many of the participants, teachers and students alike. Some of the complaints are as follows (from my personal experience, first as an undergraduate student, then as a graduate student, and a teaching assistant). Undergrads (and their entire families) wish that college wasn't so expensive. Now that going to college seems to be a prerequisite to get a job, practically any job, it has become a necessary cost to most Americans. Without a college education, in modern America, as in the past several centuries, you are at a severe economic disadvantage. The educational gap is part of what (at least seemed) to create the gap between rich and poor.

Actually, access to education has for most of recent history been a symptom, rather than a cause of economic differences. The GI Bill, and the increasing availability of federally subsidized student loans created a huge increase in access to education. There is no doubt that this was a good thing. But, it didn't really change the structure of universities, and instead of economies of scale making education cheaper (as one might think), the cost of education seems to have gone up. Universities definitely have costs, they have the cost of the classrooms, the buildings, dormitories, libraries, lab equipment, etc. Now, with computers, they have the cost of constantly maintaining and upgrading computer systems for student and faculty use. In addition they have the cost of faculty salaries, highest for the law schools and medical schools, since those folks could be getting much better paying jobs practicing instead of teaching. They have the cost of paying salaries to all their administrators. I'm sure that's not all. There is no doubt that there are huge costs, some of them of value to students (teachers salaries, teaching materials, access to research equipment etc), but also some costs that have no apparent benefit to students.

More and more, students, especially those who pay from their own pockets (or their parents), have started to look at their education from the perspective of consumers. In this way, education is becoming increasingly commodified, and courses, majors and degrees are evaluated by students and prospective students in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Students get mad, if when paying for their studies, they are not satisfied with a course or a professor, they feel as though they have been ripped off. I don't necessarily agree with this perspective, but I do understand where it's coming from. But, like any large society, democracy, or bureaucracy, a course with lots of students can't possibly please them all. Some students may love a course. Others may hate it.

The increasing access to education, and the increasing number of students going to college has created a problem of scale. Educational research (not to mention common sense) tells us that different students learn better in different ways. Some of us are auditory learners. We learn best by listening. Some are visual learners, and learn best by seeing. Some people learn best by touching and working with something hands-on. I think it's fair to say we're all experiential learners. But with so many students now, its difficult to serve all these needs with a single model for teaching or education.

So if the question is posed as: "Do 10-minute lectures on YouTube serve a purpose?" I would say the answer is yes, obviously. They give people - not just "students" - access to information in a short, easily consumed package. They are free to the user (minus the cost of the computer and/or internet access), as are many thousands of lectures on iTunesU - where universities are posting course lectures as podcasts, or MIT's OpenCourseware Consortium. Providing content for free is great. The opensource concept which lies behind many of these efforts is great. But I don't think it's going to replace or supplant the current system of colleges and universities, at least not in the near future.

What can such digital online educational media provide? Lots of things. They can be used as supplementary tutorial material for students who are studying a subject, and need help understanding it. They can be introductory pieces, giving information and background on fields of study, and the kinds of results those fields can obtain. They can give access to knowledge and information to people who might otherwise have no access whatsoever. And those are all wonderful things.

But there are lots of things, at least with present day (2010) technology, that a 10-minute YouTube video lecture CAN'T do. For instance, it can't give students hands on access to labs or other materials. In anthropology we teach many courses with hands-on activities. For human evolution we look at casts and reproductions of fossils of our hominid ancestors and the skeletons of contemporary primates. For archaeology we give students a chance to look at ancient pottery, beads, stone tools. We can teach them how to flake stone tools, not only by showing it, but by giving students two rocks to bang together, and guiding them through the process. You can watch as many videos - or Discovery, History, Nova/PBS, or NatGeo TV shows you want about human evolution or archaeology, but this doesn't replace the experience of being able to hold such things in your hand and observe them directly with your own senses. Without this sort of hands-on access, everything about education would be purely conceptual. And while lots of knowledge is purely conceptual, that's certainly not true for everything.

Another drawback is the ability, or lack thereof, to simply raise your hand and ask a question. The YouTube model, and other social media models, do give the opportunity for feedback, through a comments system, but it is much more difficult to engage in a full scale question and answer session, or even debate over a topic, at least with the existing software. Even with an (oldskool) IRC style chartroom, at least, such a discussion might be possible.

The last, and perhaps most important aspect of education that is missing from a 10-minute YouTube video model for higher education, is the opportunity, or even necessity of students to do their own work, their own research, to think, and write, and then have that product be evaluated by their peers and their professor. A frequent end to a college course is the submission of a final paper and a class presentation. Ideally, students should be submitting their own work, their own thoughts and responses all along, during the course of a semester. In large scale education, this does get cut back, and that's definitely a problem, but not one that's solved by a 10-minute YouTube video.

Many universities are now offering distance learning courses. They are modeled on the traditional method of giving 1-hour lecture two or three times a week. Students submit questions by email, or post to a message board, and watch online videos, or sometimes audio-accompanied powerpoints, in a relatively low tech solution. It works passably, as a system, as most any student who's taken a distance learning course will tell you. But it's got serious drawbacks. Is it possible that 10- or 20-minute chunks are more digestible than the current hour-long discourse? Definitely.

I think that learning at a distance, is one answer among many, to the question of the future of higher education, and how to get information, or perhaps better thought of as knowledge, to more people. I think that to reach the level where distance education can meet all of the same requirements, and provide all the same things as in-person, physically present education, technology needs to advance a LONG way. For instance, technology, such as in a virtual reality simulation, could potentially bring students the same level of interactivity with each other, the professor, and "hands-on" experiences with lots of things. But that sort of virtual reality is decades if not more away from us, and may never develop in the way it has been envisioned in science fiction. Even if high-quality virtual reality were possible, I still think I'd be advocating real, human, in-person, direct contact for the best quality of education.

But that's just the thing. Even if we take that some version of in-person education is the best, potentially the most rewarding for both teacher and student, we are again stuck with the problem of scale. The worlds population is currently almost 6.9 billion people, and counting. It's growing, and will continue to grow (though that's a debate for another post entirely), and we want to educate everyone, or as many people as possible. In order to do that, we have to diversify the ways and means of distributing knowledge and information - this is definitely already changing in the digital age, with YouTube, Wikipedia etc. And we need to change the model of university education, to reduce those costs.

But, if you've ever listened to any NPR station, podcast, or YouTube video lecturer asking for donations and support, you know that there will always be costs involved. There are costs to creating new knowledge - otherwise known as research, there are the costs of supporting teachers to live and buy food for themselves and their families, there are costs of distributing knowledge, especially bandwidth, which is a cost both to the distributor and the consumer. These costs will never go away. It is now mainly a question of who will shoulder the burden. Will we someday have advertising supported education: "This lecture brought to you by Cyberdyne Systems"?

I personally would like to see the college and university system miniaturized rather than super-sized. I think that many, many small colleges and institutions could do a much better job serving peoples needs for education, around the globe, with less overhead, fewer administrators, etc. This would bring education to the people, rather than bringing the people to the education. In the sense that small colleges, and community colleges already exist all over the US, this need is to some extent already being addressed. Community and vocational colleges are providing good basic education, at a much lower cost than the larger universities. They are much more numerous, more locally accessible, and open to all. This system could potentially be replicated abroad.

Another solution is to diversify the approaches to content. Some students want or need a liberal arts education - with courses in a wide variety of topics, outside of the one they ultimately select as a major. Other students may not want or need those courses. Offering programs that are more targeted on one particular topic, without requiring students to take courses in other areas could also reduce the number of years in education, and the cost to the individual. I believe the option should be left open. I personally loved my liberal arts degree. I loved taking courses in many different disciplines. But such programs are not even available in the UK or India, where degrees are solely in the subjects that they are listed under. A student in a bachelors in physics, for instance, will study nothing but the discipline of physics. Not to say that there aren't diverse fields within physics, but still, a student in India taking such a course will at no time be expected to think about politics, or read a novel. This can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on the individual, and the topic.

There is a lot to appreciate behind the idea of free, online, 10-minute lectures. And maybe, with increasing technological developments, these sorts of environments will be able to offer some of the aspects of in-person education that are lacking. Whether or not a person is giving accurate information is another thing to worry about. But I think, in the future of social media, crowd-sourcing, and potentially open-source education, I'm not sure that will be the biggest concern. I think my biggest worry about a digital age, open source, distance education, is that education isn't just about gaining knowledge or information, it's about learning how to think for yourself. It's about learning how to communicate those thoughts well to others. Having personal contact and relationships is hugely important. Having a mentor, a person who responds to you personally, and with insight, and care, is something that will become increasingly difficult to find in a YouTube/Wikipedia model for education. That is why I don't think these technologies can ever really replace the relationship between teacher and student.

With more and more students, we need more and more teachers. We cannot attenuate this link to nothingness. One professor cannot teach us all, because one professor, (or ordinary citizen like Salman Khan) can never REACH us all, in the way that, at least sometimes, professors reach out to students and not only impart information, but guide us into becoming better people, better thinkers, and better citizens of the world.

Because of the benefit that mentoring relationship has brought me, I want like to thank all of my teachers, and especially my mentors, who were and still are more than just teachers. Anyone who has ever had a great teacher, or a great mentor, and I hope that's most people, I think we all understand the value of that relationship, which is something that a YouTube lecture can never provide.

Thank you to the teachers who have touched my life: Ms. Trout (2nd grade), Mrs. Dever (6th grade), Jennifer Shikes-Haines (7th grade), Mr. Halpern (9th grade English), Mrs. Grover (10th grade History), Mr. Panasenko (10th grade Biology), Dr. Cohen (11th grade History), Dr. Linda Grimm (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Michael Fisher (Oberlin College, History), Dr. Perween Hasan (Oberlin College, now University of Dhaka, Art History), Dr. Lynn Fisher (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Lipika Mazumdar (Oberlin College, now U. Pittsburgh, Anthropology), Dr. J. Mark Kenoyer (U. of Wisconsin-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Sissel Schroeder (U.W.-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Carla Sinopoli (U. Michigan, Archaeology) and Dr. Kathy Morrison (U.Chicago, Archaeology)…. just to name a few.

I don't think I would be the person I am today, if I had simply listened to lectures online, even if those lectures were given by the very same professors and teachers I am listing here. These people have done more than lecture material at me, they have taught me how to think, and how to write, and how to be a better person. Maybe my list is exceptionally long. Maybe I have been extraordinarily lucky. I hope not. I hope everyone has the opportunity to have such wonderful teachers and mentors as I have had, on and on, into the digitally mediated future…

Update 6/8/10: Recently was linked to this article, which argues for a return to truly "classical" education.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Why is it that we humans seem to want, or even need to belong? What is belonging, and how do we measure it?

The music swells at the end of the film, the young man joins his tribe, his group, his people. He finally belongs. Members of the group greet him like an equal, like a friend. He is reunited with the girl he loves, and now he can be with her. They hold hands, walking with the group towards a new future, through the ashes of the past.

This could be the end of many movies, but in particular I'm reminiscing on the end of Avatar (by James Cameron). Like many Hollywood movies before, the themes of love, hardship, and belonging carry the film about an otherwise ordinary, and perhaps uninteresting character.

I almost hate to admit it, but in that moment at the end, (sorry folks, spoiler) where he is accepted, and his soul transferred from his human body to his Na'avi body, and the music swells, and he gets up and walks away with the girl, hand in hand, in that moment tears welled up in my eyes. Now maybe I'm extra sensitive, maybe I'm more emotional than some people, but I don't think I'm the only one. It felt like an almost autonomic response. There seems to be something deep and universal about this need to belong. Something that pulls at us, that identifies deeply with the need to belong, and the relief, satisfaction, contentment that Jake Sully feels when he finally does belong.

I am fascinated with this subject because I have always been fascinated with things that are universal in human nature, and simultaneously fascinated with the things that make us different.

It seems to me that the need to belong is universal, but the act of belonging, the groups, tribes, cultures, languages, religions, political parties, to which we belong, are part of the immensely diverse manifestation of that need.

We've come up with so many solutions to belonging, we can't avoid the fact that many of them are contradictory: Religions that each proclaim to have exclusive truth, cultural and ethnic identities defined in opposition to the other. Sure some groups are non-exclusive. You can be a member of a book club, and also a member of a volleyball team. But you can't (at least technically according to both groups) be both a Muslim and a Hindu. Some of these groups are in friendly, or not-so-friendly competition. Others are at war.

I have come across many examples of this problem recently. For example, apparently India used to allow multiple citizenships. Now, it seems, they are demanding NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who have obtained other (such as U.S.) passports to surrender their Indian passports, and pay a "processing fee". Apparently, you they are just now choosing to enforce a rule that you can't have dual citizenship in both countries. (Petition for NRIs to sign here).

Anthropologists have long examined the ways in which people define their identities, as members of various groups, frequently nested within societies. What function today as the major categories of identity were not always the most important ones. Today, it would seem broadly, that religion and nationality are the most important identifiers. At least these are the ones that divide us the most.

Within nations, there are political groups. Parties, and perhaps more strongly in many countries, the "right" and the "left". In many places, party politics depend heavily on other aspects of identity to mobilize and form their membership. Ethnicity, language, religion (or sect of a religion), these elements are all used, played like strings on a harp to make people feel like they belong.

Most world conflicts, wars, civil wars, massacres, colonizations, invasions, and battles, though they may, at their root be about money or resources, most conflicts are played out, and defined in terms of "us" and "them". Because "us" and "them" are really arbitrary terms, accidents of birth, of time and space. I think this is partly why it fascinates me so much.

Even though the categories that make up "us" and "them" are arbitrary, and in some sense illusory, they seem very real, and people act as though they are real. The same is true of international boarders, lines on the map.

To be asked to belong, might be the greatest feeling in the world. To be invited to join something, to be told you have something to contribute, that we value your presence, provokes a powerful feeling. A recent NY Times article talked about the marginalization of young Muslims, and how this relates to their radicalization. The article made this seem like rocket science, that someone had figured out, if you don't want people to join the 'enemy', you might want to ask them to join you instead.

But to me this isn't rocket science. People want and need belonging. And if they feel marginalized and pushed out by one society, they are going to seek another that accepts them, that validates their views, that gives them vindication, and perhaps even one that gives them the opportunity to retaliate. The solution? Not to marginalize them further, to accuse, to arrest, to put them in jail, but instead to offer them a place at the metaphorical table.

As modern nations become a jumbled up mix of people migrating and immigrating from other nations, bringing their different identities, and with them, different practices, beliefs, languages, and ways of life, it seems like a growing problem of figuring out how so many different people can belong together to something greater.

In the United States of America, the solution to this problem has always been to tell immigrants that the something greater is America itself. To become a U.S. citizen, to be American was a chance to belong to something great.

But, as I've said before, it's not clear to me that the nation-state is the best solution to this problem. We unite everyone in America as Americans, and (we used to, more or less) make them feel welcome, and wanted, and to feel like they belong, but we do this in counterpoint to other nations. This is a tact that seems to me to be designed to foment and facilitate war.

In reading the news, I am faced with many different versions of apocalypse. Nuclear disarmament activists warn of the risk of impending nuclear war. Environmentalists warn of the changing climate, the rise in sea-level, extinction of animals, the total transformation (or annihilation) of earth's ecosystems. These are just a few of the ways in which I am told the world, or civilization, or everything as I know it may come to an end. And while I agree that many if not all of these causes that are news-worthy are important, and something should be done, I believe that if we are to have any chance at surviving ourselves, at avoiding nuclear holocaust, etc, we must also find a new way of belonging.

If we are not enemies, if we all belong to the same 'tribe', then we won't need nuclear weapons. If we join together, and decide to belong to something greater than religions or nations, then we have a much better change of being able to do something about climate change.

It shouldn't be to hard to see what I'm pushing at, the unification of humanity, the concept of belonging to us, to our species, to unite us above and beyond everything else.

Strangely enough, it had actually occurred to me recently (and before watching Avatar), that what Stephen Hawking said about the fact that we probably shouldn't try too hard to contact aliens, since they might just come over here to kill us, wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing. My strange and totally flawed reasoning was that an alien threat would help to unite humanity. Maybe, if we had something truly "other" to fight against, and define ourselves in opposition to, we would learn to embrace our unity, and get over our differences.

Taken further, to its ultimate conclusion of inter-species warfare, that solution isn't really a good one either. But then I'm not the first person to think of that either. Avatar represents it, and vilifies humans for their destruction and exploitation. Even if we're fighting another species, that doesn't necessarily make us the good guys. This is a point most effectively brought home by Orson Scott Card in the book Xenocide.

So, what can I say? It is clearly human to want to belong. Perhaps it is even biologically programmed. Maybe such needs are also programmed in to other social species, dolphins, whales, parrots, wolves and primates. Maybe it would be there in alien species as well. If our species isn't the answer (or our planet), then we are stuck in an ever expanding universe of inclusive belonging, a plan that doesn't seem very tenable either.

By needing to belong, we seem to need to define the other. We need not only to belong, but to define that to which we do not belong. While this may have been an adaptive strategy for early hominids, defining the hominid social group, in juxtaposition with competitors, or predators, it's not a good working model for the future of humanity.

At some level, I love the things that are universal. I am fascinated by the things that we share. These things are probably to some extent defined by our biology, and evolution. But they are not all good. We are universally capable of hatred, and fear. We are universally inclined to belong, and in doing so, define others, against ourselves.

Even though belonging is this thing that unites us, and watching a movie about some young guy finding himself, finding that sense of belonging with an alien species tugs at some heart strings, I think we need to find a way to rise above it. Not necessarily to find bigger and bigger entities to which we can belong, but to stop feeling that need so strongly. Or at least to stop feeling it in a way that requires defining the other in opposition to the self.