MacSparky on Apple AirPods by Simon Abrams

A reasoned first take on Apple's AirPods from David Sparks, aka MacSparky. His take confirms my expectation that they won't work for me, as the current EarPods that Apple ships with every iPhone fall out of my ear with the slightest movement of my head, so I never use 'em. Plus, I like something that has a little noise reduction, if not noise cancellation, so I can block out the annoying chatter on the subway.

I'm still bullish on the tech, though, specifically Apple's W1 chip, which improves pairing and wireless sound quality. I have personally tried the new BeatsX wireless headphones, which also feature the W1 chip, and will probably get a pair of those when they're available.

Flash Photography techniques explained with slow-mo by Simon Abrams

This video from The Slow Mo Guys is cool and informative on its own merit, but it's also one of the best illustrations of how and why some crucial flash photography principles work.

Sync Speed

Have you ever seen a dark strip across the lower portion of your photograph when shooting with an external flash? (There's a great example on this page.) Well, that dark strip is a result of shooting above your camera's sync speed - ie, the maximum shutter speed the camera is capable of syncing up an external flash at. The sync speed varies, and and for most SLRs, is usually somewhere between 1/160th and 1/250th of a second (check your manual, or Google your camera model). Some SLRs won't even let you shoot at a shutter speed that exceeds your max sync speed, but if you inadvertently manage to make it happen, you'll know it from the nasty black bar you'll see towards the bottom of the resulting photo. That black bar is actually that same rolling shutter that's clearly visible in the video, casting a shadow as it passes over the sensor.

So what do you do if you want to shoot some high-speed action, using a flash, at a higher shutter speed than your camera can technically work with? Or if you want to shoot with a wide open aperture to get really shallow depth-of-field in lots of bright daylight? Well, many external flashes have high-speed sync mode, which lets you do just that. This flash mode doesn't actually fire a single burst of light; rather, it fires many low-powered bursts of light as the shutter passes over the sensor, thus avoiding casting that shadow. Cool, right?

That third button puts your flash in high-speed sync mode, and also toggles and 2nd-curtain sync

That third button puts your flash in high-speed sync mode, and also toggles and 2nd-curtain sync

The down side of high-speed sync is that it's not as powerful as your regular flash output, so you'll just have to move your flash closer to your subject, or use multiple flashes.

1st-Curtain and 2nd-Curtain Sync

Setting the shutter sync settings

Setting the shutter sync settings

If you've spent any time shooting with an external flash with your SLR, you might have seen these settings on your flash and not fully understood what they do. But if you take another look at that video, from the way the rolling shutter works, you can probably guess that the "1st curtain" refers to that first cluster of blades that passes in front of the sensor, and the second cluster is the 2nd curtain.

What does that mean, with respect to your flash? Well, imagine that you're shooting a moving subject: 1st-Curtain sync (the default mode of the flash) means the flash will fire freezing your subject at the beginning of the shutter's movement, leaving motion trails moving away from the subject as it keeps moving. Conversely, 2nd-curtain sync will freeze the subject at the end of the shutter's movement, with motion trails following behind your subject.

2nd-curtain sync leaves trails behind your subject, creating dynamic images

2nd-curtain sync leaves trails behind your subject, creating dynamic images

I often use 2nd-curtain sync at parties and events where people are dancing. I'll slow the shutter speed and actually move or turn the camera while the shutter is open to create light trails and blurs in the scene. No joke - it makes parties and wedding receptions look epic.

One thing I should note: all my photos, and some of my terminology might be Canon-specific, but the same principles apply no matter what camera brand you prefer.

There are plenty of articles on the internet that explain these topics in far greater detail, but this video is such a great illustration of what's actually happening in the camera, that I think it should really help to solidify your understanding of these highly useful concepts in flash photography.

Thoughts on 1Password and MacID by Simon Abrams

MacID unlock's your Mac using your fingerprint via a connected iOS device

MacID unlock's your Mac using your fingerprint via a connected iOS device

Now that I have two TouchID-enabled devices, entering passwords by typing them feels like what I imagine it would be like having to write prose with a chisel and tablet after getting used to using a pen - especially now that iOS 8 allows for 1Password integration throughout your i-device. Quick recap: 1Password is a password manager that securely stores all your passwords to everything, obviating the need for you to remember - or even come up with - any passwords except for the one that protects its database. It's cross-platform and works with all your favorite browsers. Amazing.

Anyway, before extensions allowed for 1Password's iOS integration, if you're like me, and don't know any of your passwords to anything, logging in to a website or app on an iPhone or iPad went something like this:

  1. Open site/app that asks for a password
  2. Grit teeth and sigh resignedly
  3. Go back to Home screen and tap 1Password
  4. Enter your long and secure 1Password Master Password
  5. Find password to app in question (or create a new entry in 1Password for said app, and let it generate a suitably secure password for you)
  6. Copy password
  7. Hop back over to the app in question (yay, multitasking!)
  8. Type in your username, paste the password, and try to remember that despite your current state of annoyance, we're still living in an age of technological miracles and wonders. Everything is amazing.

Now that iOS 8 Extensions are a thing, the process goes something like this:

  1. Open site/app that asks for a password
  2. Tap Share button and swipe right to 1Password extension
  3. Tap the icon, then use your finger to unlock 1Password
  4. Oh look - 1Password knows your credentials for the site/app you're trying to access. Tap to fill in your credentials, and be on your merry way.
Treehouse's app has 1Password support built-in. Amazing. More like this, please.

Treehouse's app has 1Password support built-in. Amazing. More like this, please.


It is a downright joyous experience compared to the old way, and it's no exaggeration to say that simplifies my life a lot, especially since I am doing more and more with my iPhone and iPad. I tweeted the good folks at AgileBits a few months ago, wondering if something like this was possible on the Mac - ie. could I use my iPhone/iPad's TouchID to unlock an app on the desktop. It turns out, it is at least partially possible: MacID lets you designate an iOS device as a touch-enabled "key" for your desktop machine, and unlock a password-protected lock screen when you return to your computer. Sweet!

I've only just tried it a couple of times, but from my first impressions it seems really promising. I'm not quite paranoid enough to be able to thoroughly think through any negative security implications of this. MacID never connects to the internet, so the chances of your login password getting hijacked that way are zilch. I can't wait for this to grow into a fully-supported technology that becomes something baked into iOS 9/OS X Big Sur (or whatever the next OS X ends up being called).

The current state of computing and devices still forces us to choose between security and convenience, but apps like 1Password and MacID, and technologies like TouchID are at least getting us part of the way towards the convergence of those two ideals.

Why Website Speed is Important - SixRevisions by Simon Abrams

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin calculations.


Last year alone, Amazon’s estimated revenue totaled $74.5 billion.

Based on Linden’s disclosure, increasing page loading times by just a fraction of a second would cost Amazon $745 million a year in lost revenue!

I'm no analytics guy, but it sounds like we in the business of building websites need to make them load faster.

Except for the AOL case study on the bottom of the page, the article doesn't really mention connection speed, though. I bring that up to say that this seems like a pretty strong argument for improving broadband speeds in America, like the telecoms are supposed to be doing anyway, but are dragging their feet on, because why should they; they already got their National  Broadband Plan money.

Your First Mac by Simon Abrams

As part of their 30th Anniversary of the Mac celebration, Apple has a cool year-by-year visualization of peoples' first Macs and what they used them for. Scrubbing through the timeline, it's interesting watching Internet & Email surge into popularity in the mid-90s - followed by the decline of Desktop Publishing shortly thereafter.

I've used Macs since college - in my freshman year, one of my friends had a Mac SE II, which was an amazing machine for playing Tetris (and writing papers, of course). Later, when I transferred to SCAD, the labs also had a bunch of Quadras and various other assorted Macs in the Desktop Publishing and Computer Art departments.

I've worked on nothing but Macs at the various advertising gigs I've had since I graduated, but the first Mac that I bought for myself was a 15" G4 PowerBook in 2001. The thing had 8MB of VRAM and a 500Mhz processor, and it cost me close to $4000, but it lasted a good 6 years before it started to feel old and sluggish. It shipped with OS 9, but I remember running at least up through OS 10.4 (maybe even 10.5) on it, which is kind of impressive, looking back on it. It's still one of my favorite Macs, in terms of its design, although it had its issues (the stress cracks near the hinges, the heat, etc.).

My setup, circa 2007. MacBook Pro and G5 Tower.

My setup, circa 2007. MacBook Pro and G5 Tower.

Around 2003, I had a brief part-time gig at the Soho Apple Store. That was a fun gig, and the employee discount helped me get a G5 tower and one of those giant plastic-bezeled 23" Cinema Displays.

Eventually, I upgraded from my old PowerBook to one of the Intel-based (and now aluminum rather than titanium) 15" MacBook Pros.

2009 - iMac 27" and MacBook Pro

2009 - iMac 27" and MacBook Pro

When the G5 got long in the tooth, I replaced that with a 27" iMac. This was about the time I was finally sold on the iMac as a high-end machine - by now there was no point in spending $2500 on a MacPro (tower only!) just because I considered myself a power user.

A couple of years later, I got my first (and only, so far) iPad (the 2nd-gen version), and ended up selling my MacBook Pro.

Current setup: unibody MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt Cinema Display

Current setup: unibody MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt Cinema Display

For a while there, I was rocking the iMac/iPad combination, and it was cool, but I missed the ability to go completely mobile and get work done. Don't misconstrue that as me validating the "iPads-are-for-content-consumption" trope - the fact is, my 9-to-5 requires me to work on desktop-only apps like Flash Professional and Photoshop. Plus, I use Aperture to manage my giant photo libraries (though I'm dabbling with Lightroom more and more lately, given the neglect Aperture has been suffering).

I've always held on to the philosophy that I should get the best computer I could afford, and that way I could extend its useful life for as long as possible, and then sell it for a pretty decent price. That's worked for me for the last 13 years and 5 Macs.

So that's my Mac history - what's yours?

Pencil | FiftyThree by Simon Abrams

I've been quite pleased with my iPad 2 over the last two-and-a-half years, not feeling the familiar twinge of gadget envy when newer devices like the iPad 3, 4, or Mini came out.

That's started changing lately, particularly as the Apple cogniscenti have been pushing out their reviews of the iPad Air (and Mini), but I've been coping - even though I'm noticing more and more lagging here and there during day-to-day use of my aging precioussssss.

But just today I was reading about Wacom's Intuos Creative Stylus, and I was shocked to see that it was incompatible with the iPad 2. It's expensive, but I won't lie - I was bummed.

And now this: the Pencil, by FiftyThree, makers of one of my very favorite apps, Paper. Again, it's incompatible with my iPad, and the culprit is low-energy Bluetooth, which only made its appearance on Apple's tablets post-iPad 2.

If I'm being realistic about it, I don't think I can exactly afford to upgrade my iPad at the moment. But it's official: I'm definitely lusting after a new one.

Broken by Simon Abrams

First time in four years of owning an iPhone that this has happened to me. I guess I was due? I still don't really plan on getting a case. I might, at most, get one of the anti-glare screen protectors that I had on my iPhone 4, but I think that's it. I'll just have to not drop the replacement phone they (eventually) give me.

8 days later...

RetinaBook Pro by Simon Abrams

I stopped by the West 14th Street Apple Store, and having seen it in person, I can join in the chorus: Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Retinal Display definitely looks amazing. Thin, light, fast as hell. I’m in the camp that thinks it’s pricey, but will get cheaper in a generation or so (like the MacBook Air did). It’s the direction the notebook industry as a whole will invariably go in.

Leap and T(ether): Our Minority Report Future Draws Ever Nearer by Simon Abrams

Interesting things are happening on the gestural/spatial computer interaction front. First up, Leap Motion garnered a lot of buzz a week or two ago. This little brick hangs out next to your computer and allows you to interact with it by tracking your gestures. It seems to be tracking movements at an incredibly high-resolution, too, as seen in this demo:

An SDK and app store are in the works, promising lots of fun stuff will be readily available when the Leap Motion ships at the end of the year.

T(ether), from the MIT Media Lab is an iPad-based 3D object manipulation and animation tool. Using motion capture and the built-in cameras on the iPad, it offers immersive interaction with the 3D data, and even allows multiple people to collaboratively edit the same virtual environment. The video explains it better than I ever could:

While you can pre-order the Leap Motion for the grand sum of $70, the T(ether) appears to be still in the concept phase. The future is here, man.

From the Archives: My Desk by Simon Abrams


Skimming through my Aperture library, I came across what I now think is a really nice image. I like the lighting, I like the perspective… the processing makes me wonder what kind of mood I was in that night.

Finds like these make me wonder what other forgotten gems are languishing in my 40k+ image library, waiting to be rediscovered.