Author Archive for: Jeff

Ode to a Pittily Little iPhone Camera That Could

24 Jun 2010
June 24, 2010
before and after photographs

Click on image for a larger view.

I picked up my new iPhone 4 this morning. One of the main reasons bought it was for its upgraded camera. It’s been pushed from 3 megapixels to five and its sensor is now back-illuminated. In plain language that means I should get brighter images with more detail. Yes, I have my better and more professional cameras yet I never seem to have them when I need them. But I always have my iPhone. And, I’ve taken some pretty good pictures with it, despite its meager specs.

Before moving on to my new iPhone I wanted to say thank you little 3GS camera and show you how I compensated for its limitations. Above is one of the best images I ever took with the phone’s camera. It was all I had when I saw Glenda walking towards me. And I didn’t have much time to take the pic. No “would you move just a bit to the right” or “could you smile just a little–no a little less.” We were both on our way to work and had little time for this impromptu photo op. I was grateful she allowed me to take her picture. Any photographer will tell you that “decisive moment” is hard to capture. So I did the best I could. I made sure she was centered and focused. She did the rest.

When I looked at the image I’d taken I was a bit disappointed. Despite using the camera’s focusing and exposure box her face was in deep shadow. I thought this might be a problem when I took the photo because of the bright background. I was happy to see detail in her face and hopeful that I could use Photoshop to bring it out.

No matter what I take a photograph with I always bring it into Photoshop before putting it on out there for the world to see. And I love this post-production process. Control baby! That’s what it’s about: getting the best out of what I’ve got to work with. Back in my digital darkroom I started by lightening her face and hair. Amazingly, the detail came out nice and strong (not bad for just a pittily phone camera). I liked the warm skin tone and kept it. But to really make her portrait pop I decided to create a shallow depth-of-field, throwing the background out of focus. Digital cameras have a hard time with depth-of-field and it’s even more difficult to control when your camera is totally automatic. Creating depth-of-field after the fact is a multiple step process, something I’ve already outlined. In this case there was one last challenge: Glenda’s earrings. I had to make sure they stayed sharp, along with her face. I used Photoshop’s pen tool to create a very precise path around them so I could kept them in focus when I threw the background out of focus. With that done the pic was complete.

So, before moving on to the iPhone 4’s more luxurious 5 MP camera, I wanted to pay homage to my little camera that could. Thanks for the great pics!

I’m in Heaven and It’s Only Wednesday

02 Jun 2010
June 2, 2010
Woman with Amazing Hair

This is Glenda.

The morning commute was ending like all weekday commutes. As I shoved my way to the surface it was time to start thinking about work: the fires I needed to put out or needed to start. I didn’t look forward to either, quite frankly. I’m a risk taker but lately it’s been in remission. “If I can just get through the day without making waves,” I thought, “my day will be a success.” (And it was only Wednesday.) I looked around at my fellow commuters climbing the stairs to the top, I mean the street. What were they thinking?

Suddenly, I heard music from above. Was it a celestial chorus coming to rescue me? Was my redemption imminent? Even better: street musicians were playing Vivaldi. Vivaldi! I stood there entranced for what seemed like hours. Finally pulling myself away to my beckoning cubicle I turned the corner and saw Glenda. Glenda had the most amazing hair I’d ever seen. What was happening to me? First my aural sense climaxed and now this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

“Just a little mousse,” when I asked her how she did it. “And it’s all mine,” she added, as if she was reading my mind.

I’d gone to heaven the easy way. And I was surprised at what a changed man I had become. It lasted almost two hours. What? You’re surprised? Heaven on earth is never an all day thing.

A Valuable Anniversary Gift

31 May 2010
May 31, 2010
money watch

My anniversary gift, set to the time we were married. Click on image for larger view.

Yesterday was our seventeenth wedding anniversary. And while I wasn’t expecting furniture, the traditional gift for this celebration, I definitely wasn’t expecting this!

I woke up to Susie’s loving warning: “Don’t come out until I tell you!” I obeyed. And when she finally gave me the signal I made my way the kitchen. “I know you’ve been lusting over a special watch so I wanted to give you this to go towards it,” she said. I noticed the smile in her eyes.

My heart leaped. Her gift, a watch made out of a fifty-dollar bill for the wristband and a dollar bill for the face, was beautiful. The hands were red thread, set to 3:30, the time we were married seventeen years ago. I was blown away. “There’s no way I would ever use this money for anything,” I replied. The Hamilton Ventura, one of the classiest watches ever made, paled by comparison (and truth be known, I simply couldn’t justify paying so much for a watch, no matter how beautiful it was).

In my family I am known as the consummate gift giver. And, as we all know, a good gift giver’s standards are often so high, it’s almost impossible to buy him anything. Almost, but not impossible. It’s not the monetary value of a gift that counts. It’s the thought that went into choosing it that’s really the gift. Rule 7 on my list on how to be a good gift giver: the best gifts cost little (or nothing). My wife had transformed legal tender into something much more valuable than its face value. This was the artist I fell in love with the first time I saw her art in a show in Baltimore.

“You mean you’re not going to spend the money?” “No way, you could have used two one dollar bills and it’s value would have been just as sweet,” I replied.

After 17 years, it’s nice to know the romance is still there. But I’ve refused my wife’s offer to remake the wristband using cheaper materials.

On Talking to Strangers

24 Apr 2010
April 24, 2010

Never say a commonplace thing.

Jack Kerouac

My name is Jeff Gates and I talk to strangers. More on that later.

Ad for Online Security Software

We don’t want our children to be fearful of public engagements. But we want them to be able to understand the risks. Illustration from an ad for online security software.

With one bona fide teenager and a proto soon-to-be teen in the house privacy has been a hot family topic. Well, only their parents seem to think it’s an important issue. The girls seem totally nonplussed. And that’s our point of contention. My wife and I are trying to teach our children about the boundary between public and private space in a world that seems to be working against us. The boundaries are constantly changing and we can’t rely on our upbringings to guide us. There was no Internet when we were kids. Children have unparalleled access to information. But they have no real world experience with what to do with it or how to engage it.

Thursday, Nina Simon, who has written a great deal on the participatory museum (and has just published a book about it) came to the American Art Museum for a talk. Museums are morphing. The old hierarchical authoritative paradigm–we are the experts and we invite you to come to us for knowledge–is changing. In this Web 2.0 world museums are now beginning to engage our visitors in dialogues, not lectures about our collections. Nina has written a lot about this process and her experience is helpful in understanding this challenge. Her topic in a nutshell: how can we talk with strangers who come to our museums and how can we devise situations where visitors can engage other visitors?

I love talking with strangers, both online and in the real world. But I’ve devised some fuzzy rules for these engagements. So how do I reconcile this with my concern for privacy and the education of my girls? The answer is context.

Interestingly, Thursday was a banner engagement day for me. I had two of the most intriguing conversations with strangers within hours of each other. At lunch I was sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble sipping a coffee and surfing the net. Sitting next to me was a man on the phone. Being the voyeur that I am I overheard him talking in his Irish accent to an airline, trying to confirm his flight home the next day. When he got off I turned to him and asked if the volcano had stranded him. I mentioned that I had just come home from a conference at which many of my European colleagues were struggling with the same issue. But before I approached him I assessed the situation. He didn’t appear to be threatening; we were in a public place; and I could leave if I needed to. The assessment was cursory (I didn’t ask him for references) but I also relied on my past experience to continue. Let it be known I’m not one of these chatty strangers who will talk with anyone about anything. I have boundaries and I respect others’. He asked me what I did.

He works as a researcher for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, part of the Irish Royal Academy. He was at the bookstore for its free WiFi and a conversation about the Net and the changes cultural institutions like ours are encountering ensued. It was an amazing and serendipitous encounter with a total stranger. And if I hadn’t connected with him on a common ground (the volcano) we would have never had that conversation. And wonderfully we are now in contact with each other.

A few hours later I was grabbing a bite to eat at Starbucks before Nina’s lecture. As I sat down at a long table a man was standing next to a woman talking about mathematics. At first I thought he was trying to pick her up (and indeed math might simply have been his entry into her world). She appeared to be a bit uncomfortable with the engagement, explaining that she had done her PhD on the subject and worked for the National Institutes of Health. It appeared her credentials were her only defense but he ignored them. And when he finally left she was pissed. She immediately called a friend. “Why do men think they know it all,” she said. I listened (hey, it was a public space and I was two feet from her). She was disgusted. And I seriously wondered if I should enter her world. I had something to say in defense of my gender, but should I? I decided to but I was prepared to disengage if it was clear I was adding to her discomfort. Yes, I actually thought this through. I would take a chance but, given the context and sensitivity gender plays today, I was prepared to apologize and leave if need be.

She got off the phone, we made eye contact, and I said: “Not all men are like that.” She sighed and explained the whole encounter. When she was finished I replied: “Perhaps the only thing you can do is to raise a son the right way.” She laughed and thanked me for adding a bit of levity to a situation she obviously faced often.

Two radically different encounters with strangers. Yet each was rich, adding a bit more to all of our experiences in those public moments. Whether on the Net or in a coffee shop, the notion of public and private space is changing. And we’re struggling with it just like our institutions are.

So after Nina’s lecture about engagement, I stood up at the Q and A to ask her to talk a bit about a workshop she’d given to a group of teenage girls on how to talk with strangers. Her reflections on teenage interactions were interesting but my parental experience made me feel there was a piece missing. Nina had provided these girls with tools for talking to strangers (signs and ways to pose interesting questions to query strangers) but I was looking for how to teach teenagers to assess the context of an engagement, just like I had with my fellow strangers.

Nina responded to my concern by stating that most dangerous encounters were with people who knew each other. I agreed with her stat but I still felt uneasy. In October 2002 DC’s sniper John Allen Muhammad used our neighborhood as a random shooting gallery. Experiences like this inform our lives. I just don’t want these to run our lives.

A few years ago my intelligent older daughter opened a gmail account (without our knowledge) and was emailing a “girl” who worked at Cirque du Soleil. Yikes. She was so trusting of basic information without any skill to assess its veracity. This is a learned thing. But how should we be teaching it?

I don’t have a pat answer. But, for the moment, I believe it’s something that will come in time as my wife and I reinforce what I call “healthy paranoia” to our children. Privacy and public engagement are not mutually exclusive. Ten years ago when I started posting online missives about my family I set some rules of the road for posting personal information. These are malleable, changing with each context. We don’t want our girls to be fearful of every public nook and cranny. But we do want them to understand that looking at the context of these engagements is important for their safety and success of these encounters. It’s a calculated risk.

But risk taking is not a science, although I wish it was.

A Big Return on Our Taxes

26 Mar 2010
March 26, 2010
Del Capri Wedding Chapel

My romantic rendition of the Del Capri wedding chapel. Click image for a the full view.

The advent of tax season means it’s time for our extended family’s annual pilgrimage to Dundalk, Maryland, a working class neighborhood, just east of Baltimore. There we meet Ed, our CPA, at the home of his side business, the Del Capri wedding chapel. We’ve been making this yearly sojourn since our girls were toddlers. Back then, during breaks in the action I’d keep them occupied by walking each of them down the aisle set up for a wedding that was to take place later that day.

Now they are too old to be seen walking any place with their dad, let alone down the aisle. But we still see Ed to catch up on the last year, our annual “discussion” about backing up our computer’s tax records (this year he promised to end his holdout against retiring his floppy disks and I introduced the idea of off-site backups), and of course, to discuss last year’s finances.

As we arrive the ritual begins. First my wife and I go in while my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, along with our girls sit in the reception area eating our packed lunch and playing the games we’ve brought to keep the kids happy. There’s nothing like turning a trip to your tax man into a picnic. This year my thirteen year old spent the couple hours browsing wedding magazines and deciding the color palette for her own nuptials (blue, silver, and white) while her younger sister spent the time “being bored.” My oldest cautioned us on her plans: “I am not getting married any time soon. I am only looking.”

Dundalk is about as far from where I grew up as I can imagine. Instead of the sprawling housing tracts of the San Fernando Valley there are rows and rows of compact 1950s brick houses. As we travel down the road leading from I-95 to the Del Capri we pass three large cemeteries —close neighbors of the living (dead people in L.A. had their own exclusive enclaves far from our Southern California neighborhood). Tombstones mirror the row houses just across the street. The history of this town is a history of our early American immigration. While Catholic churches now dot the way I see Hebrew at the entrance to one cemetery. And Polish and Ukrainian mortuaries are nearby.

Usually our early spring tax outing is accompanied by cold and damp weather. But this past weekend was unseasonably warm and sunny so during my post-tax wait I went outside to photograph. Even though we’ve been coming here for years, I’ve never taken any pictures. My youngest came with me while my oldest continued her wedding planning.

Right across the street from the Del Capri are more brick houses and right next door is the heavy metal hot spot The Black Hole. The wedding chapel and nightclub share a large parking lot and I can only imagine the comedy that ensues when patrons miss their marks.

This year we got good news from Ed, my oldest has her wedding all planned, and my youngest, accompanying me on my photo trek, has found a new calling. You might say our 2009 tax return was definitely filed jointly!

Clearing the Path for Sisyphus: How Social Media is Changing Our Jobs and Our Working Relationships

14 Mar 2010
March 14, 2010

This is the second in a series of essays on the effects of social media on organizations. The first, Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary, looked at how social media is changing our jobs. This piece continues the exploration by looking at how these changes in information delivery are changing our relationships with our co-workers.


Social media is changing the inner workings of our museums. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our on-line visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. And many of us are joining our traditional experts in representing our institutions in these conversations. In response, we in new media have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing and using applications that encourage dialogue; however, in order to succeed all of us will need to approach our jobs and our relationships with our co-workers in different ways.

While the early hope of many technorati was that the Web would dramatically change the inner workings of our cultural institutions, new media’s role began as a support for more conventional projects – exhibitions, outreach, and our collections – with their Web-based counterparts. But as new Web 2.0 tools developed and we saw the possibilities for a greater engagement, we often felt like Sisyphus. We heard concerns these new initiatives would take too much time or they would take away from our institution’s core tasks. And just when we thought we had made inroads, the boulder would come crashing down: one step forward, two steps back. Our work was to function within our traditional organizational structure. Yet these first steps were just a prelude to real change.

Social media is now challenging the traditional flow of information throughout our institutions and out into the world. Researchers, educators, new media specialists, and exhibition designers are asking to join marketing and public affairs departments in conveying the mission of our museums to our visitors. Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, just to name a few social applications, allow for and encourage multiple institutional voices.

But how is this transformation really taking place? Are there methodologies that encourage this shift? And how can we negotiate with our peers a greater role in content creation and dialogue? How can we challenge existing paradigms, yet maintain the support of our coworkers?

Read more →

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