Something I want - take a picture of a sketch, get a barebones webpage

OK, so this just hit me as I was prototyping my latest thing - what I really want is a magic app that allows me to take a crappy paper sketch, say something like sketch-o-crapola: Crappy sketch input

Then you hit "MAGIC BUTTON!" and the spinner spins for a while, and in your inbox you get a basic html+css template with your sketch already implemented, say with a basic grid, buttons, and text areas, all pre-rendered and put into a reasonably usable format. Of course, with just a tiny bit of tweaking, it looks like this:

Awesome Output

Why oh why does this not exist? I can see how you could create something that would take these images and a couple of additional parameters, like, say, color palette, grid type that you want (or preexisting template format), and then send it off to some designers to bid upon and build for you, a la Mechanical Turk, ODesk, or eLance. With some OCR intelligence, you could probably even get part of the way there in a fully automated fashion.

With all the advances in HTML/CSS/JS technologies and frameworks out there, how come there's nothing out there to even turn , say, Balsamiq Mockups directly into basic gridded HTML?


Update:Just found Napkee which purports to do this for Balsamiq mockups...

Offbeat Guides Public Beta!

I'm proud to announce the launch of Offbeat Guides first product in public beta! What's Offbeat Guides? Offbeat Guides homepage. 5 simple steps to build your customized guidebook.Our first product is quite simple: On-demand, Personalized Travel Books. Travel books that are tuned just for you, only about the place that you're going, with local information like festivals, events, and concerts that are going on during the dates of your stay. We put in local maps that are tuned to where you'll be, and we even customize the guide based on what we learn about you, like the timezone differences from your hometown, electrical plug differences, embassies and consulates nearby, differences in tipping policies, exchange rates, local weather forecasts, and much more. We provide guides for over 30,000 city destinations around the world - of course we cover New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, but we also have guides to Newark, Paradise, Romeoville, and Tokorozawa, and many more places. We're trying to solve the problem that most of us have when we travel - you want to know where to go, what to do when you're there, and what's going on while you're there. We're a company run by obsessive technologists who happen to travel a LOT. We don't come out of the travel industry. We're travelers, just like you. We value your time, so we focused on simplicity. To get started, we only ask you 5 questions:

  • Where are you going: We currently cover over 30,000 city destinations
  • When will you be there: So we can include information about local festivals, events, club meetings, sports teams, concerts, and other timely information
  • Where are you coming from: With this information, we give you contextal information, like timezone differences, embassies and consulates for your home country, language guides, exchange rates, electrical adapters needed, and more.
  • Where are you staying: So we can localize the maps that go into your guide, and put your hotel right at the center of things.
  • The Traveler's Name: Well, we need to know who you are, so we can put your name right on the book cover! Makes for great gifts, too.

From that, we show you a live preview of your guide, with sights, attractions, restaurants, and hotels - but we also pull in all the local and contextual information we can find, tuning your guide just for you, your preferences, and your trip details. We also brought on a top-notch team of travel experts, who have gone through the top 1000 city destinations in the world, called the museums, checked on the hotel information, and chatted with the restaurateurs. We built an travel search engine to help us to locate the most interesting information about the other 29,000 destinations, using both freely available information as well as licensed information from partners like Wikitravel, Wikipedia, Flickr, Eventful, Upcoming, Meetup, the World Factbook, and many other local sources. As we continue to build out the site, we'll be adding in many more validated sources as well as incorporating feedback from travelers and locals into the future guides. Can I customize it? The Book Preview Screen, with Customization FeaturesOf course. You get full control over your guide - so if you already know where you're staying, you can click to deselect all of the information about hotels, for example. You can add customized chapters and fill them with information that you gather from your friends, or from around the internet. And when you're done, you can get your guide in multiple formats:

  • As a beautifully printed full-color book, shipped to your door (or your hotel!) right before you leave on your trip so it has the freshest information in it,
  • As a PDF suitable for printing on your home printer, or downloading onto your mobile phone or reading device, or
  • On the web so you can read through the book on-line, and update information before and during your trip.

Why only City Guides? Well, we had to start somewhere. One of the most-requested features from our private beta testers has been to create regional or area guides, for example, for Maui, or for The Napa Valley. We're working on this, it's in the pipeline, but we wanted to open the doors to all of you, even if those country or regional guides aren't ready yet. Another frequently requested feature is for multi-segment trips - where you are visiting multiple places on a single trip. Right now, you'll have to get a guide for each place, but this is something that we're definitely keeping an eye on as we continue to build out the product. How much does it cost? It's USD $9.95 to buy the PDF version, so you can print it yourself and save money. It's USD $24.95 + shipping to buy the book, and the PDF comes included - you can download updated PDFs as many times as you want before your trip ends, as well! That's about the same or less than you'd pay to buy a guide in a bookstore, and you'd end up with information that's 12-24 months old, that's not customized to you. Is there a Money-back Guarantee? Yes! If you're unhappy with your guide for any reason whatsoever, simply let us know, and we'll refund your money. No questions asked. Even if it is after your trip, and you've used the book. We're committed to making a really great experience for you, so if you're unhappy with the guide at all, we will refund your money. Where's the catch? Why is it Beta? This is a pretty ambitious product, and we're really happy with what we've built so far - but there's still so much more to do. We've been testing for 5 months in private beta with over 6,000 people helping us to get things right, but things still crop up, and we want to learn more from you. We're opening up the doors to let anyone come and kick the tires and buy some guides, and we really want to get your thoughts and feedback so we can make the experience and the guide information as good as possible. There will be bugs. We promise to stay in touch both on our blog and on Get Satisfaction and keep you in the loop as we find and fix bugs and issues. We appreciate your willingness to work with us on this and to help us create a great product together. For our Private Beta Testers We love you. We really really do! Thanks so much for all the help and feedback, you are the best group of testers I've ever had the opportunity to work with. The free book coupons that you got as a private beta tester are still valid until November 30th; after that they won't work anymore, so don't procrastinate! We'll also be sending you a survey as we close up the private beta - please check for it in your mailbox soon. It should take 10-15 minutes to fill out, but it will really help us to get your thoughts and feedback and to continue to improve the product. Thanks!!! How to get involved Well, first off, come and kick the tires! Check out the guide preview for your hometown, or for a place you're visiting soon. Drop us a line and let us know how things look. Are there errors? Problems with the information? Are we missing a great feature? Let us know! Also, follow us on Twitter! We're @offbeatguides. We love hearing from you. And Thanks! Thanks for all of your support. On a personal note, I want to thank the Offbeat Guides Team who have weorked their butts off getting this built. I'm really excited to be taking this next adventure with you!

I'll be on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny at 9am on 10/9

It's a bit late notice, but I just found out myself - I'll be on Forum with Michael Krasny this morning at 9am PT. I'll be on with Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and my old friend Sarah Lacy, columnist for Business Week, co-host of Yahoo! Finance's "TechTicker" and author of "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0". We're going to be discussing the effects of the Financial Crisis on Silicon Valley.I'm a fan of Michael Krasny - I often listen to the 2-hour long "Forum" show, and I've always found him to be articulate, intelligent, and very well educated on the subjects he covers, making great conversation with his guests - so I'm really looking forward to meeting him in person down at the KQED studios. I'll try to get some photos. It should be an interesting discussion - especially with the market gyrations in the last 2 weeks, the all-but-closure of the IPO market, and now the tech M&A market, it sure looks like we're in for a cold winter. But I think there's still room for optimism - busts are the perfect time for large companies with cash on their balance sheets to ride things out and gain market share, and also for small agile companies to develop and disrupt industries. I call this the "barbell theory" - where companies at the large and very small end of the scale will do quite well - but the ones in the middle get slaughtered. It's a time when great talent gets easier to find, rents drop, and it's easier to be heard above the din. But I've got a lot of concern for speculative businesses out there that haven't found a way to get big and build brand and revenue yet (or even a business model!) and are large enough that they're burning through cash. I fear that many Valley and "Web 2.0" businesses in the middle of the barbell are going to have a very difficult time in the coming downturn, especially those that are solely advertising based. There's still an enormous opportunity to create value and build very successful businesses, even in a crisis and downturn like the one we're going through - I think it is incumbent on forward-thinking entrepreneurs and investors to think creatively about how they: a) Help businesses save money, b) Increase efficiency or disintermediation reducing friction, c) Reduce their own costs, and d) Diversify their revenue streams I plan on talking more about that during the show - and I'll blog about it afterwards. I'm looking forward to the discussion! I sure hope I'm wrong - Here's hoping for a market upswing!

Offbeat Guides Sneak Peek and Beta Update

We've been hard at work on the private beta of Offbeat Guides, and I thought it would be a good time to give y'all an update on our progress!We've been making huge strides both in making the site simpler and easier to use, as well as cranking away on the hard tasks of building out a deep semantic search service that dynamically builds guides for over 30,000 different city destinations around the world. We've taken a lot of what I've learned building comprehensive real-time search engines at Technorati, and also what Marina and her team have learned in building and curating a narrative experience when she was with Lonely Planet. We want to give you more than just the facts - to also get you a flavor and some the romance of the place and of your trip. We've expanded the partners we're working with to include even more local photographs, festivals, tickets, and events, and we've put in a lot of heuristic technology to help to make sure we weed out as much irrelevant information as possible. If you want to work with us, drop us a line. Algorithms can't provide everything though, especially for the top travel destinations of the world - humans mean a lot too. We've got a team of people who have been digging deep into the top 1000 city destinations of the world - calling the shops, restaurants, hotels, fact-checking, and pulling out the cruft, while focusing on bringing you the most interesting offbeat local perspectives, and we also take advantage of all of the great Creative Commons-licensed and Public Domain information thats out there on the internet to help to create a satisfying experience for anyone who is traveling. We're also looking to get feedback from locals and travelers so the guides stay current and completely up-to-date, too! There's still a lot to do, but I thought I'd put up a screencast (it runs a total of about 13 minutes) that takes you through the main features of the site - a sneak peek of what our private beta testers have been playing with.

We're actively adding more people to the beta, on a first-come, first served basis - so if you want to get involved in testing out our beta, helping us to identify and fix bugs, and get two printed guides shipped free-of-charge to you as part of the private beta, make sure to sign up at the site. This offer won't last forever! :-)

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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...

Beginner’s Digital SLR buying guide: The Sifry Starter Photo Package

I've had a few friends come to me this holiday season asking me what kind of camera to get for the holidays, especially when they're moving from a point-and-shoot to something that gives them a bit more control and lets them grow in their creativity. I figured I'd pull together the advice I gave my friends, and then give you some equipment recommendations - the gear I'm recommending, at a cost of under $1000, will give you everything you need to get those great portraits and night shots that you've been wanting. This is a complete set of gear that I would feel 100% comfortable bringing with me on a trip to a new city or on an important shoot, and still get excellent shots. But first, a bit on what you need to make good photographs, in priority order:

What makes a great photograph

1) The light. You can get a great photograph with a Kodak Instamatic if the light is beautiful.

2) The subject. Having a beautiful or interesting subject that you are photographing makes an enormous difference.

3) The composition. Putting the right subject in the right light in an interesting composition can absolutely make a photograph.

4) The lens. A great lens can give you what you need to keep everything sharp, even in low light. I'm a big fan of prime lenses. A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens, which is what most people know from those point-and-shoot cameras. With a prime lens, the focal length (the zoom factor) is fixed - so you "zoom" by moving your feet closer to or further away from the subject. :-) Some folks love zoom lenses, and I believe that they have their place - but as I'll explain later, I think that for the novice photographer, they can often be a crutch. Read on.

5) The body. Of course, a good camera body helps, especially using one that has good low light performance, full frame sensor, or AF performance (like the Canon 5D, which is my current workhorse DSLR) but this is actually the least important part of the decision, imho, and is most often the biggest mistake that new camera buyers make - they buy an expensive body and skimp on the lenses, and then they wonder why their photographs haven't improved. I advise going for the most inexpensive body in the manufacturer's line that has full manual controls, and getting great lenses with the money left over.

6) The number of megapixels (a measure of the resolution of the image) in the image. Kudos to my friend Tim Bray for reminding me of this. There's a belief that Megapixels matter, after all, they are usually the first thing you see when you look at a camera spec sheet in a store, and that more must always be better. Look, practically any digital camera made after 2005 - even that point-and-shoot you currently carry around - has more than enough resolution to get a nice print at 8x10, which is the largest that most people print. Trust me though, that more is not necessarily better, or that in today's age, it really even makes a difference. Don't believe the hype. Lots more go into this, including sensor size, sensor sensitivity, bits-per-pixel, and a whole lot of other highly technical stuff that most folks just don't have to worry about. Trust me on this one, one of my best-selling photographs was taken with a 3 Megapixel camera in 2001. I still love looking at it.

What's funny is that most people who are deciding on what to buy think the priorities are exactly the opposite. They think that by getting the most megapixels or by buying the camera that the pros use, they'll get great pictures. Don't believe this. The camera companies are just trying to brainwash you into buying more camera than you need, and you'll end up puzzled as to why your photographs end up looking, well, mediocre.

My recommendations

First, the camera system. In my opinion, both Nikon and Canon make excellent cameras and lenses. So do Sony, Pentax, and Olympus, although their gear is sometimes a bit harder to find. If you've already got film cameras of one type, I'd definitely try to stay within that system in order to use your older lenses. However, if you're starting out from scratch, my recommendation is Canon. They have been the leaders in affordable digital SLR technologies for at least the last 5 years, and show no letup in pushing the state-of-the-art. That's not to say that their system is perfect - but I think that a beginner will get the most bang for his buck starting with a Canon system, and progressing upwards both in lenses and bodies as you grow as a photographer. I'm sure I'll attract the wrath of Nikon fanatics, but that's the way I see it. Of course, do yourself a favor and go and try out the different bodies and lenses and pick one that makes you feel good, but hey, it's my blog post, and you asked for my recommendation.

The gear to buy:

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (a.k.a. 350D) 8.0 Megapixel, SLR, Digital Camera (Currently $394.95 at B&H Photo)

Some people might recommend getting the Kit, which includes a 18-55mm EF-S lens, currently $459.95 at B&H Photo. I don't recommend this, even though it is only $65 more. The lens is pretty crappy, and even though it is not very expensive, I think that it will be used as a crutch by most people who are used to using zooms all the time. I know that this is a somewhat radical statement, but I believe that most people have been completely spoiled by zoom lenses. In my experience, a zoom lens can end up killing an enormous amount of creativity in your photographs as you'll be tempted to just zoom in or out rather than thinking about the best position or composition. It is also a slow lens, which means that its minimum aperture (lens opening) varies between f3.5-f5.6. This means that you'll be pretty unhappy when the lighting is low, or when you want to separate your subject from the background, as in a soft portrait.

The body of the Digital Rebel XT is lightweight and compact. It has a pretty large LCD screen on back for reviewing photos once you've taken them, and you can shoot in RAW mode, which preserves all the details of your shots. It's not the most ergonomic of cameras, but it gives you enough control when in Av or TV mode (aperture priority or shutter priority mode) to have a LOT of control over your shots, in a relatively straightforward way. And I'm going to tell you to get out of all those gadgety modes like the "sports mode" or the "portrait mode" and learn how to use Av and Tv on the camera. Trust me, the time you spend on learning the basics of exposure, f-stops, and shutter speed will serve you over and over and over again. And the Digital Rebel XT won't get in your way there. It even has a built-in flash that you can use for fill lighting (but I'd never use it in the dark, unless you really want to make your shots look mediocre).

Canon 50mm f1.4 USM Autofocus Lens (Currently $309.95 at B&H Photo, with a $20 instant rebate = $289.95)

CRW_8766.CRWCRW_8829.CRW This is one absolutely fantastic lens. It is a lens that many pros I know still use, and because it is a relatively simple lens, it is inexpensive and has a number of other benefits, like a very close focusing distance. For 35mm film cameras and for digital cameras with full-frame sensors (like the Canon 5D), this is often called a "normal" lens, as it produces about the same perspective on the sensor as what your eye sees. However, the Digital Rebel XT (along with most entry-level cameras) has a smaller sensor - which means that there's an effective magnification of about 1.6x that occurs when you put any lens onto the camera. So, that makes this inexpensive 50mm lens into about a 90mm f1.4 lens - which is a wonderful portrait lens. The photo on the right is a picture of my dad that I took with this lens and an older camera (the EOS 10D) which has the same properties as the Rebel XT. Note the sharpness of the parts that are in focus, while the background (the beach scene) is out of focus. That photo was taken at f2.2, which shows you what you get from a high-quality prime lens, like the 50mm f1.4 USM lens.

The photo on the left was also taken with the same lens. Note the beautiful color rendition in the lotus flower, the leaves, and even down into the dark water - This is one of my personal favorite photographs, and it was taken with a kit that cost under $1000. As you develop your eye, you'll be able to get shots like this as well.

Hoya 58mm Introductory Filter Kit (Currently $54.95 at B&H Photo)

I am a big believer in putting a high-quality UV filter on every one of my lenses as soon as I get them. I've dropped my cameras and lenses lots of times, and I've broken a lot of filters, but I've never broken or seriously scratched a lens. There are some lenses, like extreme wide angle lenses, where you can't do this, but those are the exception to the rule, and those are usually very expensive or special-purpose lenses. Some people will object to putting another piece of glass in front of the lens surface, but in my experience, if you keep replacing the filter when it gets too dirty or scratched beyond repair, you still have a pristine lens underneath.

In addition, this filter kit includes a circular polarizer, which is a great accessory to have with any camera. You can use this to make blue skies look darker, enhance or remove reflections or glare on water and other translucent surfaces. You can even use this filter in some advanced flash applications when you get more adventurous with your flash. Some circular polarizers cost $60 by themselves, so you're really getting two filters along with a nice filter pouch, for $54.95 - it's quite a bargain. Oh, and they throw in a "warming filter" which is basically useless. Don't worry about this, you can feel comfortable never using that filter, you're still getting a great deal with the UV filter and the circular polarizer.

SanDisk 4GB Extreme IV CF Card (Currently $91.95 at B&H Photo)

One of the things I learned when I started shooting digital in 2000, was to take lots of pictures - the beauty of digital is that there's essentially no cost to just keeping the motor drive on, and shooting lots and lots of pictures when you're in a good situation - chances are that you'll end up coming up with something that you like. You'll catch a unique expression, you'll get some interesting blur you didn't think about, or you'll catch something unique and spontaneous when you take this attitude. In order to do this reliably, though, you need a big memory card, and you want to make sure that the card can record files quickly so you can capture more pictures in quick succession. In my experience, the SanDisk Extreme IV cards are very very fast - and they have been coming down in price as well! To get a fast 4GB card, which should hold about 250-300 RAW pictures, for under $100 is an absolute steal. This card, which I bought about a year ago, was about $250 then, which shows how technology keeps improving and prices keep dropping. Take advantage!

You could get the 8GB version of this card, but my suggestion would be to get two of these cards if you wanted to splurge for an extra $100 or so - that way you'll have a backup, and you won't feel so bad when you lose one of these cards. :-)

SanDisk Extreme USB 2.0 Card Reader (Currently $19.95 at B&H Photo)

You'll need a decent CF card reader to transfer the pictures off of the camera to your computer. Most cameras come with a USB 2.0 interface, but I don't suggest using it - it is generally a slow interface and also wastes the camera's batter while you are downloading pictures. Better to carry around a small USB 2.0 card reader like this one in order to transfer the files - you just pop out the CF card, put it into the reader, and let your computer's software do the rest. Some folks make claims that there are faster CF readers out there, like Firewire readers, but in my experience, the reader is irrelevant, it is all about the speed of your CF card, as long as the reader (and your computer) is USB 2.0 compliant. Most new PCs and Macs are.


So, how did we do? Well, if you add it all up, your total spend will be $849.75. Add shipping, and you're going to spend about $900 for this entire kit - which is a fantastic starter kit into the world of DSLR photography.

Want more?

To fill out this set, you might want to get a good camera bag so that you can easily fit all your gear into a safe, rain-resistant bag. This is a matter of personal preference, and my suggestion would be to go to the biggest camera store you can find with your kit and try out all the different bags, until you find one you like. Then go buy the bag at the store - you should really help your local camera store. If you live in San Francisco, I recommend Calumet, they have a friendly knowledgeable staff, and they've got a good selection of cameras, lenses and bags. As for my choices, I'm a personal fan of the Domke bags, I might get the F-3X super compact bag for this kit. Alternatively Tamrac's Velocity 6x might be a good choice as well. They're well made, and are easy on your back.

You'll probably want to start filling out your selection of lenses as well. I highly recommend adding a few other lenses, which are excellent, affordable lenses: The 24mm f2.8 lens for street and wide-angle shots, the 35mm f2.0 lens for a more traditional "normal" lens on this camera, and maybe even the 100mm f2.8 Macro lens for extreme closeups.

Last, if you are new to the concepts or exposure: f-stop, shotter speed, and ISO, you should learn a bit about them. I like the Amphoto book Understanding Exposure, which has been through a whole bunch of editions, starting back in pre-digital days. Well worth the $16.47 it is currently selling at on Amazon.

No matter what you choose, don't forget to go out there with your new camera and take lots of pictures!

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