Choosing a Camera in 2015

So, in my last post I wrote about photography in general, and specifically about what helped me along the very first steps. In this one, I want to share the considerations and decisions that led to me going for the Olympus OM-D E-M10 (can you get all the hyphens right?), a mirrorless camera. Yes, just before 2015 runs out. Since I try and do sustainable blogging though, the broad strokes should stay relevant until the camera landscape changes dramatically.

I’m gonna try and give a quick and reasonably simplified overview of the current landscape in cameras first, how they differ, then describe what I find important interacting with a camera, how I almost setteld for a used DSLR, but then opted for a part of the mirrorless future. At the end I can’t help it and give a few tips on using the E-M10.

Olympus E-M10, with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens – and randomly placed former-hipster-now-mainstream beer

Kinds of Cameras

A little primer on the current field of products: There are DSLRs, which have an optical viewfinder, and because of that (I think), a mirror and a prism. This makes them big and bulky, and kinda heavy. But DSLRs are what professionals still swear by.

DSLRs are the ones with the mirror, so another kind of camera is called mirrorless, of course. This by itself has all the effects on how they’re built and what kind of properties they have. In short: They can be smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but they cannot have an optical viewfinder, and most of them have worse autofocus systems. But technology advances, and mirrorless bodies catch up quickly. They have electronic viewfinders (EVFs) that only get better with time. Anyway, DSLR vs mirrorless is the kind of discussion with sometimes religious undertones in the camera geek community right now.

The Wikipedia definition also throws an “interchangeable lens” property in there, and that distinguishes it from the next kind of camera. Before we get to that, I have to say that there’s not one mirrorless “standard”, since there are a few manufacturers doing their own thing. This isn’t the biggest difference between them, but the lens mount is ultimately the reason for the incompatibility of those systems. So by picking a specific manufacturer, you decide on which range of lenses you want to be able to chose from (just as with DSLRs between Nikon and Canon). There is the Micro Four Thirds system (or MFT, or M43, or µFT) championed by Panasonic and Olympus; there are Fuji’s mirrorless cameras (X-mount lenses), and there’s Sony’s ɑ-series (E-mount lenses).

Anyway, the next kind of camera is, of course, a compact or point-and-shoot camera. These are “mirrorless” as well, but have a fixed lens. While you’re just getting ready to be snobby and disregard these cameras (I certainly would), let me tell you that “compact” – actual surprise! – doesn’t necessarily mean “crappy”. To pick a popular current example: The Fuji X100 models are well-reviewed, loved as a fun camera by seasoned photographers, have a large sensor (more on that later) – and cost over 1000€/$, if that convinces you.

Fuji X100T – photo by Kārlis Dambrāns, used under CC-BY

Kinds of Sensors

When you’re talking cameras and lenses, you almost always are also talking sensor sizes, directly or indirectly. So, why does it matter?

The sensor of a digital camera is what film is in a film camera. And sensors come in different sizes. 35mm film is referred to as “full frame” (“Vollformat”, or perplexingly, “Kleinbild” in German, which translates to “small picture”). High-end DSLRs and some Sony mirrorless cameras have full frame sensors. Everything smaller than full frame is also referred to as a “crop sensor”. A very widespread sensor size is APS-C. Fuji and Sony use APS-C for some of their mirrorless cameras, and it’s also used in most consumer/prosumer-DSLRs. Relevant to my angle here is also the even smaller four thirds size used in the MFT systems mentioned above. Here, the crop factor is 2x, by the way. So if a lens is a 25mm, it has the properties of a 50mm lens on a full frame (35mm – confused yet?) sensor. People talk about 50mm being the “35mm equivalent” of that lens.

These cover the most relevant I think. And just if you were wondering (I was), there’s also something bigger, medium format. You like graphics? Here’s a graphic:

Sensor Sizes by MarcusGR, used under CC BY-SA

The bigger the sensor, the more information it can capture (d’uh). But there are two different ways to go about that: A sensor bigger than another can either be filled with more pixels, or with the same number of, but bigger pixels. More pixels allow for more detail (a.k.a. resolution), bigger pixels allow for more light to be caught (good low light performance, meaning less noise, therefore higher ISO allowing for shorter exposure possible). Those pixels, of course, are the megapixels everyone was talking about a few years ago.

Mix and Match

While there are differences in picture quality, any modern camera’s is sufficient for almost any purpose (If you believe people who know way more about this than me). That makes other factors more important: size and weight, number of dials, lens selection, kind of viewfinder, touchscreen, accentuating screen, Wifi?

Do you want to tap on a touchscreen to focus and take the picture? Then you don’t need an EVF. Do you “just” want to take nicer pictures than your phone allows for? Then you don’t necessarily need any fancy dials and function buttons and probably want the body to be as slim as possible. Do you want nice jpegs out of camera (no processing of the RAW in Lightroom)? People love the Fujis for that. If you just want want want a full frame sensor, you are either looking at a pro DSLR or the more expensive Sony cameras.

Here’s an example: The Olympus E-PL7 and the E-M10 are almost identical looking at the specs. The PL has one manual control dial instead of two, some buttons, a little extra grip and the EVF, but comes with a screen that folds down 180 degrees (sick selfie capability!). These two cameras will take the exact identical picture, though. It’s literally “only” the described differences in the body. Here’s a side by side view, and here is the E-PL7 in all its glory:

Olympus E-PL7 – photo by PetarM, used under CC-BY-SA

Choosing the E-M10

What helped me figure out that I wanted an E-M10 probably was handling my friend’s 40D. Not that I didn’t like it, actually the opposite: I loved it, especially that it felt like an analog tool, almost like a hammer (yeah, with dials, but still).

Canon 40D – photo by cubmundo, used under CC-BY-SA

I almost settled for a used 60D, which would’ve cost around 400€ and has some nice improvements over the 40D: More resolution without worse low light performance, more focus points, SD instead of CF cards. That sounded nice to me.

Then, another friend told me she wouldn’t recommend anybody without an investment in Canon or Nikon lenses to get in the DSLR market today. With mirrorless, picture quality is well beyond “good enough”, and there’s a big and affordable lens collection. I remembered Shawn Blanc’s E-PL5 review from one of the times when I was wondering if a “proper” camera would be something for me. Reading his review of the E-M10 then gave me an idea of what it offered that a slimmer camera like an E-PL could leave me wanting.

Anyway, all the advantages of mirrorless cameras kinda came back to me. If only there was one that also gave me what I loved about the 40D! Well, I had the opportunity to fool around with an E-M10 for a few days. By the way: It is the “smallest” in Olympus’ OM-D line, after the E-M5 and E-M1.

Olympus E-M10, with the Olympus 14-24mm kit lens – compact, but I wanted to go with prime lenses instead of zooms in the beginning

Electronic Viewfinder
What had turned me off the whole mirrorless thing before was the concept of an EVF. I had tried some at a big box reseller, and found them absolutely appalling. Probably very brigh, neon-lit surroundings and misconfiguration were to blame, because I didn’t hate the E-M10’s when I first tried it in real world conditions. I also wasn’t blown away, but it only got better with time.

The lag is not a problem for me at all. The resolution could be better I guess, but it is alright. And then, there are all the advantages that come with it being digital: Different grids to choose from, exposure correction affecting what you see, and looking at pictures you’ve taken or even the menu in the EVF as well – without taking the camera away from your eye. Very handy sometimes.

I had fallen in love with the big manual control dial on the 40D’s back. I used it for exposure compensation as well as scrolling through pictures, and knew that I didn’t want to miss this kind of control in my own camera. And there needed to be two of these, another one for adjusting the aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode I’m shooting in.

All of this, I found in the E-M10 as well. As mentioned, it has two dials. In combination with a function button, these also allow for easy changing of the ISO and white balance without digging into a menu.

AF Point Selection
Another thing that I liked about the 40D was the little knob-thingy above the control dial for selecting the focus point. It only has 9 of them, so with one push in the right direction, the right focus point was selected.

The E-M10 has 81 focus points. Guess what doesn’t work with 81 focus points: Pushing once to select the right one. So you have to use the 4-way dial on the camera’s back, which for me is the weakest spot in day to day use. Pressing the dial ten or twelve times to get to the right point for the specific shot just isn’t fun. But it is possible without taking the camera from your eye, so it’s acceptable for me. The E-M10 II (released in August this year) goes at this with a touchscreen that acts as a trackpad (“AF targeting pad” when you hold the camera up. I don’t know how well that works, but the solution probably is somewhere along those lines. (I guess this is where the focus-and-recompose photographers cheer.)

Olympus E-M10, with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens – photo by Silvan Dähn

Handling the E-M10

Because I’m overall endorsing the E-M10 here, I feel that I have to express a warning: The Olympus menus are a mess. They clearly stand in the way of the camera’s potential. A lot of stuff is possible with custom button and dial configurations and modes and settings etc., but it takes dedication to get there. Just a warning. These help: Here’s a guide in German, here’s a shorter overview, and this DPreview thing about the E-M5 also mostly applies to the E-M10.

Another gripe: although Auto ISO is a nice feature, it is badly implemented: The camera is way too conservative with the ISO and doesn’t let you take full advantage of the excellent IBIS (in-body image stabilization). DPreview has a workaround that makes it a little better. I still mostly set the ISO manually. This would be the second most annoying thing about the E-M10 for me, after the AF selection. But it’s a pure software thing, which makes it more incomprehensible that Olympus doesn’t just fix it with an update.

Enough with the negative though. There’s talk about the short battery life with mirrorless cameras. While you are not gonna get close to a DSLR’s, I found very long shooting sessions with several hundred (ca. 500 with one charge? I don’t remember for sure, but up there somewhere) exposures were no problem at all, meaning it’s not close to annoyingly short for me. With the E-M10, the key is to use the EVF and have the main screen not act as a viewfinder and suck battery when you don’t even need it. This way, waiting for a shot, you can dial the settings in, and the camera just lights up a display instead of transmitting the sensor image to the screen as well.

Olympus E-M10, with the Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens – and me, not knowing how to hold a camera – photo by Silvan Dähn

Closing thoughts

I hope this is a useful overview and example of what could be important to think about in a new camera. I’m only a few months in with my E-M10, but I’m exceedingly happy with it.

When I got the E-M10 Mark I, it was the best deal, no question. Now, it actually got a bit worse, and the Mark I and II are closer together now, within about 150€. If the small improvements sound interesting to you, maybe that’s worth it. Check out DPreview’s E-M10 Mark II review. A used E-M5 might also be an option, if you can stomach the lack of Wifi.

If you’ve made it this far, you must be really interested. If you’re already looking for lenses, the Wirecutter has a good piece, worth a read.

Getting into Photography in 2015

a portrait – © Timm Schoof

I’ve always struggled with photography. After a trip to London at the age of 15, I realized that I had taken the worst pictures ever, and was really disappointed. So naturally, that was it for me and photography – at least for the next few years. Then, the iPhones came but I never quite got beyond taking snapshots. I also was just disappointed when they didn’t work. Or didn’t in Instagram’s square format – which, admittedly, is a bit less of a problem now, because the squares are gone now (the joy, the joy!).

Don’t we all take photos?

But, haven’t I been a “photographer” anyway? Aren’t we all, nowadays?
Well, yes and no. I watched photography from a distance. A few times I had fooled myself into thinking that I’d learn about exposure, aperture and all that complicated stuff just from an old book I had found in my father’s collection. My best guess is that I opened it once, saw a formula, and never opened it again. I never got to know basics like the triangle of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Or optics in general: What is the focal length, what is the aperture? Being a technical person, I still knew what a DSLR was – but not much more, nothing that brought me closer to the very matter of photography. With only a smartphone, I realize now, I had no “way in”.

A few months ago, I finally accepted a friend’s offer to borrow his DSLR, and everything changed. Turns out, dialing in all the settings individually really opens up the process/mystery of how a photo comes together.

Old Cameras are like Guitars

But let me back up a bit. I found that photography as a hobby is a bit like learning to play the guitar. You might not have a close friend who is a famous rockstar, but you probably have a few friends or relatives who at least at some point have played the guitar – and still have one sitting in their basement.
Same with photography: I bet you know someone who has a camera just lying around. And I’m not even only talking about an old point-and-shoot, but a consumer-level DSLR, like the Canon X00D (“Rebel” outside the EU) or the Nikon DXX00 models. Any of those, and probably a lot of other cameras out there are totally sufficient to find out whether or not photography is a thing you’re interested in just by playing with them. You won’t break anything, can learn everything there is to know, see which parameter has what effect in the end result.

Why your Smartphone still isn’t “good enough”

To circle back to the smartphone question: Yes, the cameras in smartphones nowadays are actually black-magic awesome, especially considering their size. Over the last few years, every time I was beginning to realize I’m interested in taking pictures, visual arts etc., that fact popped into my mind. And I stopped there, just short of seriously considering what would happen if I took a more serious camera in my hand, and tried to understand it.
Yes, I know that there are very, very talented photographers out there who take marvellous pictures with their iPhones. Some of them have never used anything but an iPhone, but many use and have used all kinds of cameras before – for several decades, even.
The thing is, though, that the iPhone has a special camera (a very special camera for very general purposes, one could say). Learning, or getting better at photography with it is a bit like learning how to drive in city traffic using the Mars rover. There are fashion shoots done entirely on an iPhone, but they’re still stunts.
For me, it’s not so much about the picture quality as it is about the accessibility of the mechanics that I mentioned above. The better image quality and options in lenses dedicated camers offer is, for the learning aspect, just added benefit.
So, still could be the iPhone is all you need, but it’s more likely that it doesn’t make photography as approachable to you as a dedicated camera would.

Let’s hear Chris Plante on this:

For most, the markedly improved cameras in our cell phones are enough. But I do suspect there are people like me who unwittingly forgot the pleasure of good photography because their phone made things easier and it captured images well enough.

His point and mine, I guess, are kind of aligned in that we’re both saying: The in-between state of smartphone photography is nice and all, but it might really pay off for you to dive in deeper.

All of this goes to say: If you sense that you have a thing for visual works, go for it. You might be frustrated with some pictures out of your iPhone really working and some really not, and I have good news for you: It doesn’t have to be that way.

Just try it.

That’s enough for a motivational speech, let’s get a little more hands-on.

If you know somebody who knows how to shoot a camera in manual mode, just buy them a beer or guilt them into explaining the basic controls to you. For me, it started to click a short time after I had taken two photos of a lamp post next to me, one with a large and one with a very small aperture. From there, I was motivated enough and internalized “the triangle” in no time.

If you can, try out aperture priority mode. It’s called A, Av or something like that on your camera’s mode dial. The aperture has the biggest stylistic impact on your picture most of the time, therefore it makes sense to adjust it manually and let the camera figure out the rest, which then is ISO and shutter speed. You worry about those later and only appreciate the effect aperture has on the picture. Not convinced? Try to be convinced by this video!

Online Resources against Roadblocks

If there are no manual-mode masters in your life, or if you want to dive in deeper: The internet has got you covered! I mean: I do like to figure stuff out by myself. I consider looking at a manual a failure, either for me or (more likely) for the manufacturer.
On the other hand, I do google stuff like any sane person nowadays should. Somewhere between those extremes, there are (YouTube) tutorials. I fully acknowledge that I am the last person to say this, but YouTube is awesome! There are also great for-pay tutorials on sites like where you don’t have to pick the good tutorials out of the sea of the not-so-great ones. With a little effort though, you can find something that really kickstarts almost anything you’re not so skilled at yet on YouTube.
Anyway, I feel like for photography, there are very bad tutorials, especially the more general ones. So I’m just gonna throw a bunch of links in here :)

In this episode of the excellent What’s Tech podcast, Chris Plante (yes, from the article mentioned above) and Sean O’Kane explain what DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, ISO, shutter speed, and RAW are – recommended.


With all of the above, don’t mind the theme music, and/or dad jokes.

Cameras or Whatever
I also really enjoy the Cameras or Whatever podcast. They say it’s a “podcast for the working photographer”, but I didn’t find that to be a barrier for me as a beginner. I started with these episodes because they hit topics that were also wandering around my head. This order should be roughly equivalent to the relevance to beginners I think:

Focal length

An extra word on focal length: One could think it’s as easy as googling the definition… but it is not. All the graphics and examples like “greater focal length brings you closer” really didn’t do it for me, until I saw one specific graphic that I can’t find anymore. 🎉
Everything that focal lenght was to me were random numbers. Missing was a reference. But there is one, and it is our, the “regular” human field of view. Of course we have very wide peripheral vision, but the FOV people with glasses have for example, the “main” part of the vision is roughly equivalent to a 40-50mm focal length. Therefore lenses in that range are called “standard” lenses.
I find this diagram by Panasonic to be okay-ish. It comes close to the one I am not able to find.

Also handy, because you can play with the different examples and it also incorporates the focal length’s effect on the perspective is this site by Sony – I think you can see the compression effect pretty well in the example with the fountain.

There’s more

Of course it can always get more complicated, if you want it to. I only really learned about mirrorless cameras when I thought that I had settled on getting a used prosumer/enthusiast DSLR for myself. I now own a mirrorless camera. But that’s another post, probably the next one in this (two-part) series! Here it is: Choosing a Camera in 2015

Update: I stumbled across Shawn Blanc’s post about how the iPhone made him want more out of his photography (and which camera to pick for that). Interesting to see his angle on this topic.

A short Update on a few things Podcasts

Just a few quick thoughts and notes, all podcast-related

ungeheuerlich eschoofierend

So, unfortunately, shortly after my last post on the topic, my podcast ungeheuerlich eschoofierend ended. This happens, apparently. While I am sad to let this project go, I am also proud. We started out recording with an iPhone, then got a digital recorder, and finally two Shure SM58s for it. Then I learned how to use Logic Pro X, at least a little, and I think we had a very nice sounding podcast. And we got better with identifying and talking about topics, I think.
In the last episode, we even did an interview with Johanna, a feminist outside our immediate peer group, and had an exchange that really came out very nice (you really should check out this episode: ungeheuerlich eschoofierend 028: Sexismus – zu Gast: Johanna Polle).

Currently I’m thinking about ideas for a new podacst project. Something law-related one or the other way may come out of it, but I don’t know yet. If you have an idea, let me know!

Podcasting Community

Anyway, the first Podcaster Meetup in Hamburg happened, and I think that’s one of the ways the community can continue (or: start, for the cyncics out there) to develop this unique and awesome medium. If you are even only slightly interested in Podcasts and live in or around Hamburg, I urge you to keep an eye on the meetup group.

And for non-meatspace meetups, there is Sendegate, a forum-like place for discussions for the German podcast community. When I first came across Sendegate, it seemed only to be concerned with Podlove-related stuff, but it turns out that’s not true. Same here: If you’re interested at all, give it a try!

A Recommendation

After the accidental tech podcast had a discussion about women in tech, they did a host-switch with Rocket. Rocket is an awesome tech podcast hosted by Brainna Wu, Christina Warren and Simone De Rochefort. I had listened to the first episode of Rocket and wasn’t a fan. But by now they’ve really found their voice and I really, really like it. They’re funny, witty and on top of their game in their respective fields. Thumbs up!

"ungeheuerlich eschoofierend" update

I don’t really know why I stopped to post about the podcast my pal Timo and me are doing here – probably because of the different languages, now that I think about it. Meh, who cares?! Anyway, it’s time for a little update.

While ungeheuerlich eschoofierend is somehow getting zero traction, it is more and more fun for me: We’re getting better at identifying and talking about topics, and there is a trend more the 30-minutes episode, which is a comfortable length I feel like.

Inspired by less than or equal’s, we redid our website. It is much more welcoming now, I think. The website also sports the podlove subscribe button, an attempt to make subscribing to podcasts less cumbersome.

I am doing the editing for the show, and boy is that fun. Everythin audio was completely new to me, and I found – and still find it – interesting to dive in. It’s both the best and the worst: Every little detail is a potential rabbit hole, from the microphone (let me tell ya!) to the bitrate of the audio file you put out into the world. But it also is tremendous fun, and I honestly think ue is a pretty good sounding podcast by now. *humblebrag*

So, if you speak or understand German: the latest episode of ungeheuerlich eschoofierend is about user interfaces – in general, and especially in public toilets. It may be my most siracusa-like performance yet.


AppleScript for generating podcast-ready mp3s

Here’s an AppleScript that passes variables (episode title and description) to a bash script, opens it in a terminal window and runs it, letting you watch how it generates a podcast-ready mp3 file. I’ve put it into an Automator workflow that accepts audio files.

Here it is on GitHub.

It should be pretty self-explanatory: Just fill in the path to the script. Which script? I’m glad you asked! It’s the script that does the “work”, if you will, of generating an mp3 using LAME. I used a fork of Marco’s script because it was easy to feed with variables and a bit more elegant. To use it, just fill in your podcast’s name, the path to the artwork, and you’re good to go!

Getting the POSIX file name of the input file via AppleScript was kind of a hassle, I hope whoever runs into the same problem finds this.

With the method of using AppleScript to pass variables to a bash script, I riffed off of Jason Snell’s solution.

What it Takes to Listen to a Podcast

Once again, something seems to be happening with podcasts. There were roughly 500 articles and blogposts written about Serial, so people seem more likely to know what podcasts are. It’s not quite a gold rush like I’ve heard it was around 2004, but it’s something.
Caused by this, there was more talk about the medium itself, and I found myself thinking more and more about all the ideas and observations that were brought up.

There’s a lot to say about the mechanisms of this medium, how it works, and more importantly how it does not – yet. Podcasting is so much rooted in tech geekdom that not all of the problems are easy to see or grasp for everyone involved. Actually, that could be the cause for many of them. Acknowledging that podcasting can’t retrospectively change its roots, let’s just take stock for now:

  • There’s the whole ‘white media’ thing (hello again, Serial).
  • There’s the (also white) ‘dudes talking about tech for (four) hours’ phenomenon, which has multiple layers (quality, topical and conceptual monoculture, as well as ‘white media’) as Dave Wiskus points out.
  • Discovery is a big problem. There are podcast directories, sure, and iTunes is fine for being the place where all the podcasts are. But you likely won’t find your new favorite podcast by browsing a genre list.
  • There is the underlying technology, both for consuming and for producing podcasts that has multiple intertwined problems

All of these are certainly important and/or interesting in itself. In this post, I am picking what I find to be the most fundamental, and if you look at it chronologically from a user’s perspective, literally the first problem: The onboarding experience: Somebody’s first podcast episode.

Nobody listens to a Podcast by Accident

But before I look at that specifically, I want to present my theory why podcasts are so different from everything else in today’s media landscape. This namely is why nobody finds himself on a podcast’s website, clicks ▶ and by that became an avid podcast listener.
One could rant about how it is 2015 and it is audio we’re talking about, how it is unbelievable that we haven’t solved this yet. But that would miss the point: The problem, when you think about it, is actually pretty complex and hard to solve. Spoken word audio cannot be handled like text or video, or even like music. It exists in a totally different space. In the average day of the average human in our modern world, it requires a very specific state of mind to be able to even begin listening to spoken word audio.

What about Text and Music?

We are reading, looking at our phones, skimming Facebook and Twitter all day. And yes, you might think, we are listening to music all the time! That is correct. But music just goes too well with skimming text and looking at pictures. And with working, depending on what you do.
Let’s be honest, few people commute or walk around town with their eyes closed, focusing on the music they’re listening to. Spoken word audio though requires you to pay attention and therefore doesn’t go well with everything just mentioned.

What about Video?

But what about YouTube? Video adds another dimension, requires much more attention from the user and a higher-bandwith connection than text or music. Much, much more so than a podcast, certainly! Still, people are watching videos on YouTube all day long! Why is it then, that videos are so shareable and go viral all the time, while podcasts aren’t at all?

Here, I think, duration is the key element. I have no data to back this up, but let’s just agree that the “watched all the way through”-rate of a YouTube video significantly drops with every minute or even second that it is longer (some statisticians may just have died. Also: Sorry, Dr. Drang). Podcast episodes rarely come in under 20 minutes, the attention span equivalent to about 200 funny YouTube videos and 1000 gifs.

Listen to it Later

I think that’s why the daily routine of most people is a very hostile environment for opportunities for ‘getting into podcasts’: When we’re most likely to stumble across a link or a reference to one, we’re the least likely to end up listening to it. That is why podcasts cannot and do not spread like articles or videos or gifs. They just die out there, man.

So, podcasts have to exist in a different space: Mobile. Hands-free. Commute. Dishes, laundry and the like. That is why podcasts, when they streak the user’s attention, need to be easily ‘saved for later’. That is hard to pull off.
The real sad part is how hard it is for somebody who even has made that intellectual leap and said “Yeah, on my way home, I’m gonna listen to that episode” to follow through and make the technological one as well.

Technology is supposed to connect people to content, but at the same time, and necessarily so, stands between people and content. In an almost literal and very sad sense, the latter is the case with technology and podcasting.

I alluded to this earlier already: I needed, and you, if you’re reading this, probably need to realize that we are nerds. Things we don’t even think about, things we at best subconsciously recognize are inconvenient, for others are either hurdles that are very annoying to overcome, or brick walls that are impossible to. In that state of mind, witnessing the following was just mind-boggling.

I recently recommended the How does a farmer work? episode of the Working podcast to my sister. She doesn’t really listen to podcasts, but she is a real foodie and I thought she might be intersted in how the interviewee grows certain kinds of apples.

Dead End Episode Website

So, I sent her the permalink to the episode on the slate website and she actually was willing to listen to it, albeit later (understandably, as I pointed out above). She was probably sitting in front of her Windows PC, received the link on her iPhone.
Okay. Piece of cake, right? Hoho hooo hoohohoh, noo no no. Inconceivable! The laughable options I could think of:

  • Mobile browser. For a 20 minutes episode that might be almost feasible, but listening to a longer audio track in a mobile browser, pre-loading the episode while on WiFi is at best an enormous hassle.
  • Dropping the episode mp3 file in Dropbox doesn’t work, either. I felt very clever and tried, but this kind of thing only seems to work with .pdf files on iOS (it also would be a hassle, and required the Dropbox app).
  • The Working podcast is hosted on SoundCloud. I suppose the SoundCoud app is a possibility. Still, this requires that donwload and doesn’t apply to all podcasts. People’s willingness to download one app per podcast might be the only thing lower than to download one dedicated podcast app.

So, we see the link to the episode at best helps in regard of letting my sister decide if she wants to listen to the episode or not. Like a frikkin program guide from the 80s! When it comes to listening through the episode, there’s just nothing. The options listed above all were duds. This battle is lost! We have to take a step back, regroup and take a look at the podcast as a whole.


The next best thing would be to grab the RSS link and subscribe to the podcast proper. Reality check: Just Imagine you had to subscribe to all the YouTube feeds you want to see one video of. ‘Subscribe’ is a big word! I don’t blame anybody who shys away from that kind of commitment. But for the sake of this post let’s say you feel crazy today and are fine with subscribing to this podcast you haven’t even heard a full episode of yet.
The process isn’t trivial at all. The user needs to a) find the RSS link on the website and then b) know just to copy the RSS link and then c) drop it into his podcast app of choice that d) needs to be installed or bought/downloaded beforehand.

If the user doesn’t copy the feed URL and instead just taps on the RSS feed address, they’re at the mercy of the OS: iOS 8 comes with Apple’s own podcast app, so in that case they’re kind of lucky.
Android’s Chrome browser just displays the raw RSS feed. Your average user just freaked out.

Quick aside: This is a thing the Podlove project’s Subscribe Button tries to fix. It sits on a podcast’s website and presents the appropriate options of subscribing to the podcast to the user. At first I was sceptical, but now I think it’s a great idea. Check it out on!

So, to be clear: I don’t think anybody makes it this far without really wanting to listen to the episode, or being really committed and still having somebody explain the whole thing to them. Meaning: Why it is so annoying and that it’s worth it.

App Good, All Good?

Anyway: I recommended a podcast app to my sister (Castro, for its slickness – I myself prefer Overcast), so she didn’t use Apple’s app but still was able to go ahead. Reminder: Interacting with a whole new kind of app is always a big hurdle for most users.

Should be easy now, right? Again, wrong. We wanted to get to a specific episode, remember?
Either by having grabbed the feed URL from the Working website, or by searching for the podcast name within the app (remembering the name and then manually typing it, like it’s 2007) my sister subscribed to the feed. Phew!

The average podcast app now would go and download only the most recent episode. While this is perfectly reasonable, this again isn’t what my sister wanted.
She had to go in, delete that most current one and then skim through the feed to find the episode we’re all doing this for. For shows with huge backlogs, finding an older episode is real hassle.

We’re done. Finally. Recommending podcasts almost seems offensive to me at this point.


Sorry, I don’t have the silver bullet. But maybe something to make the last 10% less painful: I’m thinking about URL schemes or something like that. Something that not just kicks the user over to the podcast feed, but a specific episode of it. Opened in-app, that would make it very easy for the user to download that specific episode (kudos to Marco here for allowing Overcast users to do so without ever subscribing to the feed).
Maybe a search function within a single podcast’s feed, to make huge backlogs more manageable, is feasible as well.
Of course, there’s the idea of chapter marks out there, and in some way there are time stamps in Overcast links. Both featuers add to discoverability and such, but chapter marks don’t spread that well and Overcast’s timestamps were broken for me when I tried them. Besides that, I don’t believe any of that alone would have a profound impact.

We also have to keep in mind that every bolted-on convention puts the single best (and only good one, one could argue) thing about the technology at risk: Its openness, it being decentralized and stupidly simple (from a technological point of view): Just an RSS feed with linked audio files and some descriptive text. So beautiful.

Anyway, I hope something happens in this regard. I hope this article helps to identify problems that keep podcasting back. There is so much great content out there, it would be a real bummer if we can’t figure out how to make it more accessible for everyone. Thank you.


Thanks a lot to Jason to so kindly mention my article, or rather my feedback email, on the latest episode of Upgrade. Interesting thoughts about how Apple might be in the best position to do some (more) ground work for podcasts.
Make sure to listen to (at least) that intersting bit, starting at minute 08:04! <– Overcast timestamp link!

Aiming to save privacy, jeopardizing freedom of speech: The "Right to be forgotten"

Google strives to make every kind of information searchable. A fascinating, and to some somewhat sinister goal. Now, the European Court of Justice has decided that every citizen of the EU has a “Right to be forgotten” that is enforceable against Google (press release, .pdf – En, Ger). Surely, that is for the better, no?

No, it is not. Not at all. Except for one detail: The ECJ ruled that European Privacy laws are applicable to Google’s services offered in the EU, even though it’s incorporated in California. That makes sense. Ok.
Let’s take a closer look at the ECJ’s decision.

No balance

If an individual wishes for links to be removed from the results for a search for their name, Google has to do so. While there are exceptions for public figures, the rule is that privacy trumps freedom of speech and freedom of information. That’s it. There’s no balancing by the ECJ, as there ought to be whenever fundamental values like these collide. That is the most fundamental problem.

Invisible information

A very, very disturbing consequence of that lack of balance is that the ECJ separates information itself from its discoverability. I’ll give an example: An individual requests the removal of a newspaper article about themself. Google complies with the request. The article, on the newspaper’s website, stays online. Technically, the article is still “out there”. The point is that nowadays, what Google doesn’t find also doesn’t exist, as far as the general public is concerned. And the ECJ explicitly knows that.
Just a reminder: We’re talking about perfectly correct and lawful content here. Mr. Masing, judge with the German Constitutional Court, hits the nail on the head: He points out (Ger) (I’m paraphrasing) that in a free society, it would suggest itself that a statement covered by freedom of speech can also be distributed freely.
The ECJ seems to disagree on that very point, arguing with the “effective and complete protection of data subjects”.

One caveat: As soon as your search query doesn’t contain that person’s name, the newspaper article will show up in the results. How do you find information about a person without using their name, though? Managing that will become some sort of “skill” or something along those lines.

Trusting the cat to keep the cream

That’s not the end of it. Google itself is obliged to make the decision about which request to grant. There’s all kinds of problems with this. As just described, the ECJ’s decision bases on the very premise that people won’t find what Google doesn’t list. Hereby, it acknowledges Google’s gatekeeper position to the Internet. Instead of carefully working with this though, the ECJ goes on and hands Google the holy grail: The decision over what information is to be “forgotten” and what information is to be preserved.
You don’t like Google’s power that lies in managing all the information in the world? Better make sure to let them decide which website to remove from search results!

Google’s impossible task

I was part of a small group of law students that visited Google’s in-house counsel here in Germany, shortly after the ruling. He told us that Google definitely doesn’t want the burden of having to make these decisions. Not only because it costs them a ton of money, but also because Google aims to make information available instead of doing the opposite, so the very idea to selectively de-list websites repulses them. But of course they would comply with the law. It was also said that Google, in case of doubt, would risk litigation in the name of freedom of speech.
Whether or not you believe all parts of that statement: They don’t want the burden of the process, that’s for sure. They are puzzled, and rightfully so, since the ECJ didn’t give too much guidance on how to make these decisions. Google simply isn’t capable (and really nobody would be) of making tough decisions like these with a lack of information about the specific case – on a massive scale, let’s not forget that.

So, to somehow deal with this appropriately, Google seems to want to assemble some form of “council” to come up with some rules for the decision process. Now, it is understandable that Google wants to show that they’re on top of this.
The problem is that any body of people picked by Google will always lack democratic legitimization. If this is to be “proper” co-regulation, there have to be requirements for the regulation process. Coming up with those would be the European legislator’s task, not that of a group of people assembled by Google, however qualified they might be. The ECJ also misses the opportunity to lay these requirements out.
Getting privacy advocates into the process also wouldn’t work. There is a danger of them becoming “Communication regulation Agencies”, as Masing puts it (Ger).

In case you’re in doubt that the current model can’t work: We’ve already seen how it works out. Google de-lists specific search results, in compliance with the judgment. Then the Guardian complains about Google not making the right call, playing the censorship card, and legitimately so. Google reverses its decision, also justifiably.
Nobody could blame Google for defaulting to make the decisions so that there’s the least complaints, meaning granting all requests except the ones demanding de-listing of a Wikipedia page or a newspaper article. There’s some hope that there will be litigation at some point, resulting from Google not complying with a removal request (or defending a specific de-listing, but I honestly think the other way around is much more likely). That means trusting Google with going to court in the name of the freedom of speech. I’m not entirely convinced that’s what the ECJ intended.

Privacy who?

A side note: This is supposed to be about privacy. Well, I have to be honest: I’m a law student, and not since yesterday. But “privacy” for me was more the kind of thing that allowed you to go to Deutsche Telekom and request all of the information they have about you, like Malte Spitz did. Search results are nothing more than links to publicly available websites. “Privacy” wouldn’t have come to my mind in a thousand years. And, at least before the ECJ’s decision, many others wouldn’t have thought of it either. Now, of course, nobody can afford to even express this thought.
The decision’s severe consequences come from the inapt application of “full effect” privacy principles to an information and communication context.

Inconsistencies and backfiring

On top of that, there are several weirdnesses and inconsistencies.
Normally, you’re redirected to a Google page with a TLD according to the country you’re located in, for example in Germany. On Google’s main page though, you can switch to (link in the bottom right corner) and hereby get to unaltered search results. Yes, it is that easy.
On one hand that is good, because that means all of the stuff I described above is easy to circumvent. On the other hand: The fact that wrong regulation is easy to circumvent doesn’t make it right or even less dangerous. Even more dangerous actually, because it makes the slippery slope that this is seem more harmless.

Alluding to Google’s position as a gatekeeper: Any search engine operator with meaningful market share will be obliged to do the same. Remember, due to the massive scale, this requires significant infrastructure and therefore raises the bar of entry into this market even further. Maybe Microsoft will get annoyed with all of the EU’s regulation and just leave the search engine business altogether. Who knows? Anyway, this is another way the ECJ further reinforces Google’s position.

Another point, seemingly small but even more weird, is that publisher-run and for-pay databases will keep all the links (Ger) that are de-listed from Google search results. This, accidentally, makes freedom of information some kind of a media privilege.

Jeopardizing freedom of speech

There’s no other way to put this: This is really, really concerning. Freedom of information and freedom of speech are fundamental values, especially in the information society we live in today. All of this for prohibiting you from finding anything not entirely positive about your new neighbor online?
We simply can’t afford undifferentiated, trigger-happy and blanket-style approaches that endanger these values, be it in the fight against child pornography, copyright infringement or for the protection of minors (meaning porn filters).

All of this is not to say that I don’t see the problem with information living online, possibly forever. But I honestly think that’s a societal, not a technical one. Managing an online persona will only become an ever more important skill, and we have to acknowledge that. Making people compete for being the best private “censor” can’t be the way. I, for one, don’t want to live in that kind of society.

Mr. Masing, the judge of the German Constitutional Court heavily criticizes the judgment in an essay (Ger), letting me look forward to a decision of the German Constitutional Court concerned with any of the relevant aspects. The majority of law-savvy bloggers (Ger) also have many complaints.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s take is also quite interesting.

I’m anxious to see how this will play out.