Kudos to Fred Wilson and Union Square Ventures!

Nice writeup today in the New York Times. Who says that nice guys finish last? Or that good guys can't win? I've been hearing good things about the team ever since their del.icio.us investment and Dick Costolo at Feedburner couldn't say enough good things about them. Fred's also a prolific and thought-leading blogger, who has kept up consistent quality for a few years now - not an easy feat. Congrats, Fred and team! Well deserved.

Complete Camera Lust: Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I admit it - I'm a bit of a camera junkie. I've been a photographer for 20 years, and I know enough to know that the camera you use is simply a tool - and that the true skill of photography lies between our ears. However, I just couldn't help myself from getting a bit tight-chested when I saw that Canon had announced their newest camera in their lineup this week - The EOS 5D Mark II.Buttes as a Storm Approaches, Monument Valley AZI left the film world behind in 2000, which I gotta tell you, was way too early - I was shooting 640x480 onto floppies way back when, and the pictures looked like crap. But ever since I got the 3 Megapixel Nikon 990, I've been hooked on digital. I have 11x14 prints taken by that camera, and a few are still my favorites, like the one on the right, "Buttes as a Storm Approaches, Monument Valley, AZ". I've upgraded a few times since then, both in point-n-shoots, as well as in workhorse DSLRs - first the EOS 10D, which I used in 2004 to shoot the DNC and RNC political conventions while working with CNN, and then more recently, with the EOS 5D, which I have taken with me all around the world. Kiosk on the Champs Elysees - 2604I love the 5D. It's got nearly everything that I want as a photographer, in a reasonably lightweight, solid package, and it's built to make most tasks easy and intuitive. I bought it primarily because I love taking wide-angle shos, and the 5D as the first reasonably-priced camera with a true 24mmx35mm sensor - meaning that there is no "magnification factor" when you put a lens on it. A 24mm lens looks like a 24mm lens back when I shot film. A 50mm lens is a normal lens, not a portrait lens like it was on my 10D. It had significantly improved low-ligh characteristics, like really smooth shots up to about ISO 800, which meant that I could get a lot of those birthday-shots-lit-by-a-candle when I fixed a nice fast lens like the 50mm f1.4 to the 5D and shot at 800 or 1600 ISO. My family thanked me, because I was able to get no-flash shots of the kids blowing out birthday candles and I loved it because I could walk around places like Paris and get shots I would never have been able to get before. So when i heard that Canon was finally doing an upgrade to the 5D, I was very excited. And then I heard about the features of the camera, and some of the preproduction reactions by photographers. Some of the things that impressed me:

  • New, higher ISO settings - including shots that look nearly noise free at ISO 1600 and 3200. This is amazing. And the camera can go up to ISO 25,600 for when you really are in nearly no light, but I uspect I won't go any highr than ISO 6400. But still, this increase in relatively noiseless high ISO images is nothing short of fantastic. Basically, this means that I'm going to be able to get greater depth of field or faster shutter speeds later at night. This is a very good thing.
  • 21 Megapixels. Now Megapixels aren't the only judge of quality, but it appears that these 21 megapixels are the real deal - it's truly medium format quality in a 35mm body. Often adding pixels means that the overall sensitivity of the camera drastically drops in low light, but see the item above - Canon has made their sensors dramatically more sensitive, even as they made each individual pixel smaller so that they could cram in 21 Megapixels in. Amazing. Again, a big win.
  • 3.9 fps. Now this isn't the super-fast 5fps that sports shooters need, but adding essentially an extra frame per second will definitely feel faster, and let me get more expressions when I'm taking portraits. I'm one of those guys who likes to take lots of shots of people and try to get them relaxed to get lots of different expressions - chances are, you'll end up getting at least one well-exposed, natural smile when you d that. The current 5D is 3fps, but the new one will get me an extra frame per second. That's a good thing.
  • Live preview shooting (which means a nearly silent shutter) I'm hoping that I'll be able to get lots more fun candid shots. I haven't had a camera with Live Preview before, but it has been available on Canon's (and some Nikons) for a while, so it must be pretty good. I 'll give it a go, anyway.
  • The big kicker: 1080p video along with a microphone jack and HDMI output on the camera. Wow. This is amazing. When I heard about the Nikon D90 coming out that could do video, I was envious. Now when I think about the kids of video productions I can create with my current lens lineup, fast zooms, and fast focus, I get very excited. Add to it the enhanced smoothness and noise reduction at high ISOs and shooting with natural light even in low light sounds like it'll be fun too. Definitely looking forward to filling up lots of hard disks with video to play with. Another plus - it shoots directly to 1080p quicktime movies, so there's no transcoding necessary if you want to edit in iMovie or Final Cut Pro. Sweet.

I could go on and on. I think this camera is going to be a huge seller, and I'm preordering mine - I think that if you don't get in now, this camera is going to be backordered for months. There are downsides oo- like the incompatable set of accessories and batteries, meaning that you're going to have to buy new ones when you get the camera. But for a guy who takes care of his tools, I'm really looking forward to having the 5D Mark II as my new primary camera, and the 5D as it's very worthy backup. And now my Channukah list is complete. This camera comes out sometime in November, just in time for the holiday season. Woo hoo!

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Giving MarsEdit a try

For many years, I've been using Adriaan Tijsseling's ecto as an offline blogging client. It's not perfect, but it's a damn good blogging client - full-featured, easy to use, and has plugin support, as well as having nice things like Technorati tags built into it. if you're starting out blogging, you should definitely check it out, it is a big improvement from the web-based tools that come with most blogging platforms.Recently I've noticed, however, that for some reason, I haven't been blogging much. Maybe it's because I've been really busy, or because of the amount of time I'm spending working on Offbeat Guides, I'm not sure. Maybe it's because I've been hanging out a bit more on Twitter and Friendfeed. Who knows? Well, I'm going to try blogging a bit more often from now on, and we'll see if it sticks. And just for fun, I'm going to go give MarsEdit a try, and see how I like it. So far, it's pretty nice - it gets out of my way, and there's this nice Preview window that gives me a preview of my post that updates while I type. I like that. It supports Technorati Tags, and has support for Flickr, which should make it easy for me to add photos. And it seems to support some Emacs-style keyboard shortcut, like Ctrl-a to go to the beginning of a line, and Ctrl-e to go to the end of a line - little things that just feel right for an old-timer like me. What's your favorite offline editor for the Mac? Got any good tips or shortcuts when using MarsEdit? Leave a comment below...

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Personalization and the publishing business

The Business Standard of India wrote up a really interesting review of Offbeat Guides today:

Recently, I had the chance to travel to Japan to speak and participate in an international conference. Ever heard of Sapporo? Quite honestly, I hadn’t. It’s Japan’s 5th largest city in the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s a good chance I would never have bothered to find out where it is, if not for the conference. Now that I had to spend a week there, I figured that it would be a good idea to get a travel guide. And so, off I went looking for a travel guide to Japan. I found two books, both very generously priced at around Rs 1,500 (ed. Note: That's about USD $35). I probably wouldn’t have minded it that much if the book had enough material about Sapporo. Unfortunately, all it had was a measly chapter about the city where I was travelling to and I was left standing with a book where 95 per cent of the information had no practical use to me. It didn’t take me long to put the books back in the bookshelf. It’s after this experience that I so much appreciate the value of OffBeat Guides, a make-it-yourself, personalised guide book service. The service understands that your main interest is the city you are travelling to. In this case, my only interest was Sapporo in Northern Japan. And in under 10 minutes, I had myself a personalised travel guide to Sapporo.

This sums up so succinctly why I started the company - I travel a lot, and I was disappointed with what more traditional guides gave me about the places I was going - especially if they were not the 50 most traveled places in the world. I wanted travel search that worked for me, rather than something that made me work hard to collect all the information on my own. Here's what Kiruba Shankar, the author of the article writes:

It then gives me the choice of menus of the different information about the city and I get to choose what I want and what I don’t want. For example, I did not want information about 5-star hotels. So, I unchecked them. But what I definitely wanted to know was the Subway train map and the local bus routes. Likewise, there’s a long laundry list of items I can choose. Even though all the information is available on the Internet free of charge, there are two distinct advantages that the book provides. One, someone else does the searching for you, saving you time and two, all the information is neatly packaged into a small book making it easy for you to carry along. You can either choose to have the PDF version for about Rs 400 Ed. Note: USD $9.95) and read it off your laptop or choose to buy the printed book for about Rs 1,000 (Ed. Note: USD $24.95). I prefer choosing the PDF version and taking a printout on my printer. Works better this way. The beauty of the book is it’s personalisation. Since it knows what dates you are in the city, it only lists important events that take place in the city when you are there. For example, I was told that there is a Beer Garden Festival happening which I made sure to attend.

Go read the entire article, and sign up for the private beta - there's a waiting list right now, but we're letting more folks in to the beta on a first-come, first-served basis. We believe, as does Kiruba, that personalized publishing is a tremendous opportunity in the publishing business - and that printed books have a lot of value, especially if you can personalize them to each individual reader. I'm a big fan of customized product companies like Moo, Cafepress, Lulu, Spreadshirt, Threadless, and JPG Magazine. I think there's a new sector forming around creating tangible representations of digital creations - and I like it...

Offbeat Guides: Personalized, On-demand Travel Guides

Today is a very big day for me and my team - Offbeat Guides, the new company that we've been working on for the last 6 months is launching in private beta!What does the company do? Offbeat Guides' first product is personalized, on-demand printed Travel Guides. Ever go through the experience of planning a trip using the web? I've always found it pretty painful - finding all the sights, the best places to stay, restaurants, walking tours, public bathrooms, wifi maps, and all that, not to mention finding out what bands are in town, or what interesting local meetings, book signings, museum and gallery openings are out there. I also end up getting maps for my hotels and meetings, too. When I do end up having the time, I often become like a packrat, finding tidbits on the web, bookmarking, and then printing them on my home computer. Add in a big black clippy to keep all the pages together, and if I'm lucky, it'll hold things tightly so I won't be dropping papers everywhere as I'm running through airports, or searching through papers in taxis. The end result often gets stuck at the bottom of my bag, totally crumpled and ripped. The problem with everything else out there Here's the other thing I noticed - when I've got time to do more extended planning, the travel guides that I get at the bookstore are really only about the "big" destinations - you know, the big cities and tourist spots. And I'm paying for lots of information that I really don't need - I end up getting a book that's mostly about the places where I'm NOT going, often hundreds of miles away. Of course, that's all that the current publishers can do - the economics of the book publishing business demands that you focus all your energies on the lowest common denominator - and that you mass-produce the same out-of-date content to every bookstore on the planet that puts you on the shelf. It's also pretty wasteful from an environmental standpoint - all those unnecessary pages means more dead trees. That's just not right, and in the age of the net, there's got to be a better way. After five years of building a search engine that scoured the "live web" for new, fresh information from authoritative sources, I knew that there was an exciting opportunity to add in a new dimension - location - and maybe build something really neat: A constantly changing, up-to-the-minute set of travel guides that could also be personalized to your preferences; but also something that was easy to build and easy to read. Oh, did I mention that these would be physical books, not just virtual? Of course, if you want to get the PDF, you can do that too, and print it yourself, or put it on your Kindle, for example. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the technology of paper still has some legs yet: When you do it right, paper is lightweight, extremely low power, flexible, you can even write on it! You can get it wet, no need to reboot it, and it fits easily in a knapsack or back pocket with no fear of breakage. You can also feel perfectly safe riding an elephant in the jungles above Chang Mai, Thailand even if you drop it in a muddy puddle, or if it gets stepped on by a following pachyderm. No 3-year warranty necessary! Of course, when I head on a trip somewhere, I like to have my computer and mobile phone with me, and I love it if I can get internet access while I'm on my trip, but sometimes that's just impractical or impossible - I don't like leaving my computer or phone on a beach, or wait for a crappy net connection when I'm on the road. Those things are great at the end of the day, when I'm in my hotel room, but they're terrible when I need to look up how to say "Where's the bathroom?" in Italian, or "I'm staying at the Sheraton Hotel" in Thai. For that, we put a bunch of useful information on the back cover of each guide - just for the important facts that take too long to look up, like how much to tip your taxi driver! Ideally, what I wanted to bring with me is a nicely bound personalized travel guide, that has information about just the destination of my trip, and includes more detailed information - not only the history and the like, but also gives me updated information on exchange rates, local events and festivals, and what's actually going on in the city while I'm there. Who cares if there's a great festival in December if I'm there in June? I wanted to add in information that is relevant to my preferences, too - If I'm traveling with my kids, I want to know what's fun for them in that town, or if I'm on business, I want to know where to get free wifi. And of course, I want to know where to get a great meal; but if I already know where I'm staying I want to be able to pull all of the "where to stay" info out of my guide too! And it would be great to have this guide accessible to me when I'm in front of my computer or phone, as well. Offbeat Guides was born from that personal itch. There's a lot of technology on the back-end: You could say that in a way, what we've done is flip the implementation of travel search on its head. We're trying to actually give you more of what you want, and less of the unnecessary or irrelevant stuff. We've scoured the web for the best information about over 30,000 different travel destinations, using a combination of search technology, and curation by both amateur and professional travel experts (our travel content coodinator spent the last 4years at Lonely Planet!) But technology is only useful if you can make it simple - so we spent a lot of time boiling the user experience of building a guide to it's essence: 5 simple steps that everyone should be able to answer easily: 1) What's your name? 2) Where are you going? 3) Where are you coming from? 4) What are your travel dates? 5) (Optional) Where are you staying when you're there? With that information in hand, you can create a personalized guide. You can go in, customize your table of contents to add or remove sections depending on your interests. And more is coming soon as we continue to build out the product: For example, you'll soon be able to add your own chapters with any information that you cut-and-paste into the guide, and you'll be able to tell us a bit more about yourself and have the guide tailored for you: If you're travelling with kids, for example, or if you want WiFi maps, or food preferences. We're currently pulling information from some really great places on the internet - about two dozen sources so far, and more being added every day. We're very cognizant of copyright issues, and try to work first with folks who put their information in the public domain, or use creative commons licenses that encourage commercial use. With some sites, we've worked out commercial relationships to be able to use their data, and we're actively negotiating with lots more who want to make available their writing and data to our customers - and we're looking at creative ways to build an ecosystem where everyone wins. We're also working with some fantastic companies that are solving big pieces of the puzzle, like trip recommendations, flight reservations, and other travel scheduling tools. If you want to work with us, drop us a line! It's been a thrilling and exciting 6 months, and I'm so proud of the team that has gotten us here - it's been such a blast to be able to work with such smart, motivated, and fun-loving folks! If you're interested in helping us to deliver a great experience, looking to help a young company produce just the kind of guide you want, and aren't afraid of seeing a few bugs along the way, come to the site, and sign up for the beta! We'll be adding folks to the beta as we continue to fix bugs and increase scalability, and we'll be doing it largely on a first-come, first served basis. More to come. Onwards and upwards!

Some more Venice, Italy Carnevale pictures

Taking a brief break from enjoying Venice to rest, relax, and upload some pictures. This morning we went to Murano island, home of the famous Murano glassblowing factories, and we got a tour. Here's a picture of one of the master glassblowers making a vase:

Murano Glassblowing - 1733

Carnevale is in full swing, with costumes, children, and confetti everywhere:

The Joy of Confetti - 1835

There's even Samurai out there!

Carnivale Samurai - 1825

More soon, or you can see the entire Carnevale set on flickr...

Carnivale 2008 in Venice, Italy

It's my first time in Venice, and today was our first day. Beautiful city, amazing crowds, carnivale is fantastic, it's a circus!

It rained the whole day, but I already find myself falling in love with the city. I'll be here most of the week, then heading to Udine for the Next Web conference, thanks to an invite from my old friend Paolo Valdemarin. I'll post pictures as I have time...

For those of you just dying for a picture, I'll be adding photos to my Flickr set throughout the week. For some instant gratification, here's some Carnivale revellers heading into San Marco square, one of the biggest squares in Venice:

On the way to San Marco Square - 1539_1

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Webhotornot - Is your site hot or not?

Want a fun game to play with your friends when you've got a few minutes to waste? Try out Webhotornot - see how good your eye for sites compares with everyone else's. You might even stumble upon an interesting site that you didn't know about but others have rated highly, too!

How did it come to exist? When I was in Madrid visiting my friend and investor Martin Varsavsky late last year, we had a fun time brainstorming ideas to help find and rate interesting web sites, and we came up with the idea. Who knows, perhaps the ratings might even be useful if people start using the site - sort of a "prediction market" for web sites. Most of all, we just wanted to create a simple site that was fast-loading and fun to use. We both love Hotornot, so we figured we'd do an homage.

Who knows where it'll go, it is a quick hack that Martin's team pulled together quickly with our direction. Go check it out - and if you've got a hot site that you want to add, you can submit the site as well! Martin blogs about it as well.


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Public Service Announcement: When was your last fully bootable backup?

I'm working from home today, so I kicked off something that I really needed to do for a while - I'm running a fully bootable backup of my primary computer onto one of my portable hard drives. I also dropped by the local Best Buy and picked up a 750GB Seagate drive, which I got for only $197, that's 26 cents per gigabyte (wow). I've had good performance with the Seagate drives - they're quiet, as opposed to the WD "My Book" drives, which sound like a jet engine going off in my living room. I got the extra 750GB to do a complete backup of all the photographs I've taken since 1999, which now total about 550GB, so that's running at the same time. I've had all of that data up to 2007 backed up on DVDs, but I haven't had time to do my annual yearly DVD backup, and I was starting to feel vulnerable - I wouldn't want to lose all those photographs from the entire year!

So, when was the last time YOU did a full backup of your primary computer? How much valuable data would you lose if your disk went chunka-chunka-chunka-whiiiiiiiiine tomorrow?

Go back up your data. it's amazing how little storage costs nowadays, and don't put it off until tomorrow - there's nothing worse than the shiver that runs down your spine when you realize that you just lost all the work you've been doing for the last month/quarter/year...

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