Category Archives: Technology

Google PhotoScan and Google Books

One of the mobile apps I’ve had the most fun with lately is Google’s PhotoScan. Basically, it lets you use your phone’s camera to scan printed pictures rather than take a picture of a picture. Here’s how it’s described on the app page:

Don’t just take a picture of a picture. Create enhanced digital scans, wherever your photos are.

– Get glare-free scans with an easy step-by-step capture flow

– Automatic cropping based on edge detection

– Straight, rectangular scans with perspective correction

– Smart rotation, so your photos stay right-side-up no matter which way you scan them

Scan in seconds

Capture your favorite printed photos quickly and easily, so you can spend less time editing and more time looking at your bad childhood haircut.

The way it works is you fire up the app, make sure the picture you’re scanning is in the “frame” you see on your screen, and then when you tap the shutter button four dots appear on the picture and the app instructs you to move a circle from dot to dot in a certain order. I wondered why the app requires this action, but not enough to acturally research it, but I think I might have stumbled on the answer in this article about Google’s massive book scanning project:

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

What made the system so efficient is that it left so much of the work to software. Rather than make sure that each page was aligned perfectly, and flattened, before taking a photo, which was a major source of delays in traditional book-scanning systems, cruder images of curved pages were fed to de-warping algorithms, which used the LIDAR data along with some clever mathematics to artificially bend the text back into straight lines.

I don’t know for sure, but it sure sounds like the technology developed for the book scanning project translated nicely to an app that could be used by average people armed with smartphones to scan gazillions of old photos into the great Googleshpere in the sky. Amazing.

Oh, and you should read that article on the book scanning project. It’s a fascinating exploration of a copyright conflict that has resulted in Google having a database of 25 million scanned books that no one is allowed to read.

A Lifetime of Backing the Wrong Player

Sony Betamax PlayerThis story about Sony ending production of Betamax tapes is a reminder that my family has a long history of buying technology products that seem like a winner but end up being an also-ran or downright lemon. Here’s just a small sample:

  • In the mid-70s we had a Ford Pinto (you know, the rolling bomb)
  • Betamax instead of VHS, but it didn’t take us long to convert to VHS
  • I kept my cassette player for years too long because I didn’t want to buy a CD player because I was convinced they’d only be around a couple of years.
  • A few years back my mom was trying to figure out which e-reader to buy for her kids and grandkids. I sagely advised her to go with the Nook.
  • I used Typepad paid service for this blog for almost 10 years before finally moving over to WordPress. Not that Typepad sucked, but it was the Betamax of blog platforms.

Even when I don’t back a total nag, I rarely go for whatever else everyone else is using. To wit:

  • I’ve never had an iPod and have always had generic MP3 players.
  • I’ve never had an iPhone. First it was some Verizon specific bastardization of a smart phone that barely worked, then a Blackberry that I loved and then a series of Droids. My current phone, the LG G4 is da bomb.
  • I’ve never had an iPad. First it was a Samsung Galaxy tablet that I really liked and now a Fire. I’m looking at a Surface for work.
  • Eschewed the Fitbit and went with Garmin’s Vivofit, which I actually think was a winning choice given it’s durability and the fact it works with a standard watch battery – no recharging!

From Scarcity Thinking to Abundance Thinking

This Tedx New York talk will really get you thinking about things differently. The speaker presents two radical ideas: first, basic income guarantees for everyone to cover housing/food/health and the second is to allow bots to represent us. You might wonder what they have to do with each other, but the common thread is that we live in a time of technological abundance, not scarcity, and thanks to the coming wave of automation and the continuing impact this technology is having on our workforce we have to invert our thinking about public policy in response. Whether you agree or disagree I think the 17 minutes you spend with this will cause you think about how we think about things in our society:

Before you jump to any conclusions, one of which is most likely “Why in the hell should be pay people even if they aren’t working” you should stop and really think through what he’s saying and the opportunities that these ideas present. Once you allow yourself to move beyond the knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t want lazy lowlifes benefitting off my hard work” to really thinking this through I think that you’ll find that the premise leads to some interesting potential outcomes.

The Incredible Turd Machine

As a man who’s spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the ebb and flow of turds in my home I found this post by Bill Gates to be quite interesting:

I watched the piles of feces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin. They made their way through the machine, getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water.

Marriott Wants to Block Guests’ and Exhibitors’ MiFi

This article at Boing Boing about Marriott’s petition with the FCC to be able to block personal WiFi networks on its properties is also a very informative primer on how these networks work:

Marriott is fighting for its right to block personal or mobile Wi-Fi hotspots—and claims that it’s for our own good.

The hotel chain and some others have a petition before the FCC to amend or clarify the rules that cover interference for unlicensed spectrum bands. They hope to gain the right to use network-management tools to quash Wi-Fi networks on their premises that they don’t approve of. In its view, this is necessary to ensure customer security, and to protect children.

The petition, filed in August and strewn with technical mistakes, has received a number of formally filed comments from large organizations in recent weeks. If Marriott’s petition were to succeed, we’d likely see hotels that charge guests and convention centers that charge exhibitors flipping switches to shut down any Wi-Fi not operated by the venue…

The FCC reserves all rights to the regulation of wireless spectrum to itself. Even licensed owners of spectrum—such as cellular networks—aren’t allowed to employ techniques to jam other users. Rather, they pull in enforcement from the FCC, which tracks down, shuts down, fines, and even proffers criminal charges against violators.

Marriott is asking, therefore, for a unique right: the right to police spectrum privately based on property rights. As Cisco put it in its comment, “Wi-Fi operators may not ‘deputize’ themselves to police the Part 15 radio frequency environment.”…

So far, there’s no organization representing consumers, small businesses, trade-show exhibitors, or business travellers that has submitted a comment, though a couple dozen individuals have. The affected parties are these groups. The original complaint against Marriott came from a savvy business traveller who saw what was up. Should Marriott get what it wants, we’d all have to use hotel or convention Wi-Fi; portable hotspots would fail, and our cell phones’ Wi-Fi sharing would be disabled, though USB and Bluetooth tethering would continue to work.

There’s also no representation from businesses and people adjacent to hospitality operations. If a hotel is in a city, how can it possibly protect just its own network without disabling all the dozens of networks around it without whitelisting those networks—in effect, requiring neighbors to register with them.

I’ve been involved in managing and organizing trade shows and conferences for multiple organizations and I can tell you from personal experience that the hotels and convention centers charge incredibly high rates for often spotty internet connectivity for exhibitors and guests. I’ll be interested to see if one of the organizations I belong to, the ASAE, comes out against this. Its members are people who work for associations, many of which spend a significant amount of their time and budget on trade shows and whose own members would be subject of these “jamming” techniques.