Tactics for Productivity in a Distracting World

1) Exercise for at least 30 minutes each morning. This induces an increased metabolism, oxygenation of blood, focus and creative output for up to four hours.

2) Drink (a lot of) water, juice, or tea. Low sugar content. No caffeine if you can help it.

3) Have within your reach, readily available, low-calorie snack foods you can eat all day (unflavored popcorn, low-carb crackers (digestives), grapes, apple slices, etc.).

4) Turn off Facebook, Twitter, and email. Work off-line as much as possible. Sketch with a pen or pencil as much as your work will allow. Experiment with various forms of music to learn which ones support reading, research, writing, math, art, and organization / composition / publication.

5) Get up and move every 20-30 minutes. Walk around the room. Look out the window. Run a flight of stairs–unless you are in a really good grove–then keep going!

6) Switch locations when all focus is gone. Find a couch and curl up with your laptop. Head to a cafe. Sit on the beach with your notebook. Anything to bring a positive outlook back to your work paradigm.

7) If frustration / anger enter the game, do physical exercise which invokes limited pain to relieve the angst: yoga stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups on door jams–until the frustration is simply worn out.

8) Choose from your list of tasks based upon how you feel, what looks interesting. If you force yourself to do something that does not feel right, chances are it will not get done no matter how hard you try. In the end, you’ll beat yourself up for not doing it, only adding to the downward spiral. Embrace what you can do, what your brilliant mind is capable of in that moment, and build patterns of self-praise in order to build capacity for total, quality, creative output and subsequent joy.

9) Choose activities after work / outside of school which support a strong, focused start the next day. Each and every day is just too damn important to waste a single morning, afternoon or night not fully engaged. Personally, no social activity is worth the loss of even an hour of the next day for that could be THE day in which I write my best poem or make a cognitive leap toward the end goal of my research … or invent something that truly helps humanity. Why take the risk that I may miss that opportunity?

10) Give yourself permission to just walk away. It is sometimes better to not push through a period of total distraction or lack of focus, but to embrace that part of your day as available for something totally new. Go for a swim, a run, or to your favourite cafe. Go home early, take a hot bath, watch a movie, bake a batch of cookies or fresh bread. You’ll have a fresh start the next day, clean and clear and ready to dive in again.

Kalk Bay, a Photo Essay

Kai Staats: Girl on Sandstone, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Father and Son, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Woman Selling Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Fish, Kalk Bay, South Africa
Kai Staats: Day at the Beach Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Wedding Procession, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Tide Pools Kalk Bay, South Africa IMG_2507 Kai Staats: Ice Cream, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Bottle, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Captain and Deck Hand, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Boat, Kalk Bay, South Africa
Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Kids, Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Tide Pools Kalk Bay, South Africa Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa

Kai Staats: Day at the Beach, Kalk Bay, South Africa The intensity of the sun and nearly silent wind inspires locals and tourists to this seaside town for what may be one of the last warm days of autumn. Shop owners stand by the front door, encouraging passers-by to venture inside for a drink, lunch, or a look around. Homeless kids welcome those with full stomach back onto the streets, asking for something to warm their insides in turn. Some simply point to their belly, their face and gestures needing no words. Others rattle sand and pebbles in an empty soda bottle, singing “Oh when the saints go marching in” out of tune and a few stanzas confused. Like fish in the sea, when one received food, the others swarm, begging, sometimes taking without asking from their friends.

The closest beach to downtown lies below the arch supported train bridge, at the bottom of the marina. That day the beach was used primarily by blacks and coloureds. A white man walked across the top, just behind me and to the left, saying “I don’t understand Why they don’t erect a fence, to keep those kids out. Just look at them.” Tents and umbrellas sheltered parents who keep careful watch over their children a play. Chicken and burgers grill over open coal fires, the smell of a meal in preparation enough to call those who wade play to shallower water. A seal breaches just off shore, a child laughs and tries to splash it. Too late, for the seal submerges again, releasing its breath an incredible distance from where it was last spotted.

Kai Staats: Seal, Kalk Bay, South Africa I stood from my kneeling position after taking a photo of a girl sitting among the sandstone formations (above) when a man with two small girls approached me. He asked for two or three minutes of my time. I assumed he would soon ask for money, the children a ploy. I didn’t mind the conversation, so I invited him to continue as we walked together, his young girls running forward and then waiting, criss-crossing between our legs once we caught up with them again.

He asked if there was money to be made in photography. “No,” I answered honestly, “it is far, far too hard a business to break into. I would not recommend it to anyone at this time. Too many people with high quality cameras, even if they are not the best photographers, they make it work.”

He continued, sharing his vision for a photography exhibition which tells the story of his people, the Malay, who were brought to this continent as slaves more than two hundred years ago. We continued to walk and I was engaged. I kept waiting for his request for money, but it never came. I asked questions. He shared. I learned a great deal. He was direct and well informed, his historic research impressive, to me.

I recognized the coincidence, that he should have approached me, one who is always seeking this very kind of story. As we neared the end of the beach I explained that I am documentary film maker and am interested in continuing the conversation. We exchanged contact information. I encouraged him to record his story in the coming weeks in order that we might prepare a rough script.

I then asked why he approached me. He answered, “I watched you, how you photographed. You took your time … that’s all.” Perhaps the story of his people displaced will generate something more far reaching than what he intended when he approached me. We’ll see …

Bringing Mars Rover Design Down to Earth

As published by Space.com
January 29, 2014

Kai Staats, documentary filmmaker and member of the MarsCrew134 team, contributed this article to SPACE.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I recall the first time I stepped into the red coveralls, pulled on the backpack, and with the help of a crew mate, closed the acrylic dome over my head to become part of MarsCrew134. Immediately, the sensation of a real expedition on the Martian terrain was suddenly made real. I could hear my own breathing, the cool air blowing across my face inside my helmet. The sound of those around me in the staging area was muffled and difficult to understand. Once outside, the glare of the Utah desert sun refracted in the scratches of the helmet’s visor, which has seen many Crews come and go over the years.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is the second simulated Mars surface exploration habitat and analog research station, owned and operated by the Mars Society. Pioneered by Mars Society member Shannon Rupert, the society built MDRS outside of Hanksville, Utah, in the early 2000s.

NASA had used analogs for decades as a means of conducting research, testing equipment and conducting food and psychological tests to both improve methods of space travel and train astronauts — MDRS built upon that experience. In the years since Rupert envisioned the station, she has always remained fully engaged. Run entirely by a volunteer staff, it is a major endeavor, from managing the water supply, fuel, food, plumbing and generators to staffing a daily Mission Control from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. every night. Each MDRS team delivers no less than 27 reports each day, measuring water consumption and fuel, and providing engineering, medical, and greenhouse updates.

When in the field, I knew the hardware we wore only moved outside air into our lungs — there was nothing but a mechanical connection between the helmet and the modest, home-built suits, worn and in need of repair. Yet, there was a certain excitement, an anticipation of the first, mock, extra-vehicular activity (EVA) of the day, which was amplified by the effort required to open the station’s airlock door.

I helped Ewan Reid, a Canadian electrical engineer, roboticist and member of MarsCrew134 configure the carrying deck of the RoadNarrows Kuon rover: a prototype, large-scale, multipurpose, wheeled, payload platform. The rover carried our payload, a laptop coupled with a pair of cameras that provide stereo vision for terrain mapping. Quarter-twenty bolts, zip-ties with mounting-holes, and kite string serve as mounting points and tie-downs for a machine capable of moving four hundred pounds at twenty miles per hour. [Mock Mars Mission Photos: Life on a Simulated Red Planet ]

My gloves were thick (by design), making the use of any tools smaller than a hammer tricky — and tying knots in multi-strand, nylon cord nearly impossible. In our field excursion, the helmet visor fogged over and I was forced to wait for it to clear before completing the modification. We required more than one hour for what would have been fifteen minutes effort in a proper lab, or even a field exercise in which we were not wearing thick, simulated spacesuit gloves.

We powered on the rover, remote laptop and Xbox360 controller that served as the remote control for the rover, and … nothing. The Linux application which controls the rover provided by RoadNarrows yielded the proper response, echoing on-screen our controller key presses in succession, but the rover remained immobile.

Through hand radios, our stand-in for the remote communications that will be available to astronauts on Mars, Ewan and I discussed what we believed to be the cause of this lack of communication. We moved from hardware to operating system to application to driver, trying to determine the point of failure.

After a power cycle of both the hand-held laptop and the rover, the two hundred and seventy pound wheeled platform lurched forward with power to tow a truck (as RoadNarrows has demonstrated in the alley behind their Colorado shop). For safety, it is important to not stand near either end of this machine, for its shell is metal and wheels are designed to crawl over rough terrain.

The rover spun, hesitated and lurched forward with the push of the Xbox joystick, and then — nothing. No response, even after two power cycles. The harsh shadows of the setting sun alerted us to the little time remaining in the day, another come and gone too quickly on a simulated Mars.

Once inside the MDRS habitat — where we live, work, eat, and sleep — we communicated via email with RoadNarrows to learn the source of what is likely a wi-fi override, two devices fighting within the same frequency domain. The company instructed us on how to access the settings via the rover’s self-hosted website (the rover has its own on-board web interface), and we knew the next day we should be ready for a proper, long-range, terrain-mapping excursion.

This is field testing, where all solid systems break down and the real world steps in. This is why we are here. We cannot simply pick up our cell phones to call for assistance when there is a problem. We do not carry network-enabled tablets, nor can we overnight a part from Amazon. Outside of analogs in the polar regions, this is as real as it gets.

After the excursion, Reid and I manually rolled the rover back to its parking spot outside the green habitat and returned to the airlock, toolbox and laptops in hand. Twenty minutes later, the entire crew was walking around in indoor slippers, light shoes and flip-flops, greeting each other to learn about research and plans for the evening.

This is not faked. This is not a scripted story. This is not pretend. Each and every day we engage in real research with real challenges. Each day we learn something through our own projects, and through those of our colleagues.

The Mars Desert Research Station may be an analog, but it generates an opportunity for learning like few others on Earth … until we someday arrive at Mars.

To learn more about MarsCrew134, visit www.marscrew134.org.

The Memory of Silence

Tonight will be my very last night here at Buffalo Peak Ranch. This place has given me six months of peace, solitude, and healing. I have found what feels like who I truly am for the first time in my adult life. Such comfort with being me. Amazing.

There was a time when the entire planet was like this place, free from noise and congestion. Just fifty years ago we did not have the constant buzz of aircraft overhead. One hundred heard only sound of horses and wooden wheels. Two hundred, just five or six generations and we were not even to the Industrial Revolution.

Now, there are only a few places remaining on this globe which are free of human clutter. Audible, physical, tangible infiltration of every sense during our entire life, from first breath to last gasp.

We even have cliche terms such as “tune out” to pretend this noise is acceptable. I have failed to find the switch inside which disables the long term detriment to my soul. I now know, I have solid evidence that nothing, no amount of meditation or insulated walls or power vacations will ever replace the healing of nearly two hundred days and nights of perfect, natural silence.

I hope only that I am able to maintain this sense of solitude and peace inside, no matter where I travel. No matter the traffic, the rumble, the sirens, the tension in the density of viral human populations on this planet–I hope I will recall what it meant to watch the sun set and hear those sounds which never ever tire–the wind, the fall of rain, the occasional bugle of the elk and nightly call of the coyotes–the perfection of absolutely nothing.

The Bliss of Solitude (revisited)

In this place of solitude, there is no room for blame. There is no one to receive the pointy end of my finger, but me. As my days unfold into weeks, and weeks into the close of four months, two of which I have spent almost entirely alone, I recognize that the challenges of being me do not fully subside.

Instead, my anxieties, my fears, my resentment, contentment, and joy all remain completely present and accounted for. Not a day goes by that I do not experience a mixture of two or more of these.

Yes, alone, they are no longer murky, no longer confused by the complexity of relationship with another human being. I am alone, and in this aloneness, have come to experience all of me in perfect clarity.

I cannot help but consider the old man in the cave, the monk sworn to a monastic life, or the shipwrecked sailor who for years is stranded on what would otherwise be a paradise.

We simultaneously cherish and shutter at the thought of that path, that journey, knowing full well the challenge of working through your own internal, broken stuff is as difficult, perhaps more so, than learning to be with another. Or are they the same?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Only in publishing this did I rediscover an entry of the same title, on a similar subject, written a year prior. Interesting to revisit and compare my experience of solitude, a year later, both times after having lived at Buffalo Peak Ranch alone.

Digital Film – Product Comparison

Having spent more than two months researching, reading about, watching reviews, and testing various digital cameras, this is a compilation of the data I gathered which I felt was relevant to my work as a film maker.

It does not include hi-end cameras such as the RED or Arri. It is a comparison of DSLRs, mirrorless, and full-featured digital film cameras, all within the price range of $1000-5500 USD (with the Canon C300 added to the bottom to show that the C100 + Ninja II is equivalent in performance to the C300 with the added bonus of the Apple ProRes compression codec).

Canon 60D: $700

Sensor Size: 22.3 x 14.9mm (APS-C)
Effective Pixels: 5200 x 3462 pixels (18.0 megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.6
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes (not continuous)
ISO: 100 – 12800
Codec: MPEG-4 (AVC?) / H.264
Colour space: 4:2:0 (4:2:2 raw w/Magic Lantern)
Maximum Bit rate: __ Mbps

Canon 70D: $1100

Sensor Size: 22.5mm x 15.0mm (APS-C)
Effective Pixels: 5472 x 3648 (20.2 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.6 (or slightly less?)
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes + continuous
ISO: 100 – 12800
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC / H.264
Colour space: 4:2:0 (4:2:2 raw w/Magic Lantern)
Maximum Bit rate: 91.3 Mbps (ALL-I) or 31 Mbps (IPB)

Panasonic GH3K: $1300

Sensor Size: 17.3 x 13.0mm (4/3)
Effective Pixels: 4608 x 3456 (16 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.6
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes
ISO: 200 – 12,800
Codec: AVCHD Ver2.0, MPEG4-AVC H.264
Colour space: 4:2:0 compressed / 4:2:2 uncompressed
Maximum Bit rate: 72 Mbps (ALL-I) or 50 Mbps (IPB)

Black Magic Pocket Camera: $1000

Sensor Size: 12.48 x 7.02mm (Super 16)
Effective Pixels: (?)
Crop factor: 2.88 (?)
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes
ISO (dynamic range): 13 stops
Codec: Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) and CinemaDNG RAW @ 1920 x 1080
Colour space: 4:2:2
Maximum Bit rate: (?) Mbps

Black Magic Cinema Camera: $2000

Sensor Size: 15.81 x 8.88mm
Effective Pixels: 2400 x 1350 (3.2 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.7 (?)
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes
ISO (dynamic range): 13 stops
Codec: ProRes & DNxHD @ 1920 x 1080; 2.5K RAW @ 2432 x 1366
Colour space: 4:2:2
Maximum Bit rate: (?) Mbps

Canon 5D-Mark III: $3000

Sensor Size: 36 x 24mm (full frame)
Effective Pixels: 5784 x 3861 (22.3 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.0
ND Filter: no
Autofocus: yes
ISO: 100 – 12,800
Codec: H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC
Colour space: 4:2:0 + 4:2:2 over HDMI
Maximum Bit rate: 91 Mbps (ALL-I) or 31 Mbps (IPB); full HDMI

Canon C100*: $5,500

Sensor Size: 24.6 x 13.8 (Super 35)
Effective Pixels : 3840 x 2160 pixels (8.29 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.5
ND Filter: Mechanical with option of clear, 2, 4, and 6 stops
Autofocus: yes
ISO: 320 to 20,000 in 1/3 stop increments
Codec: H.254 / MPEG-4 AVCHD in MTS format; full raw over HDMI to external recorder
Colour space: 4:2:0; 4:2:2 over HDMI **
Maximum Bit rate: 24Mbps internal; up to 220Mbps via external recorder

Canon C300: $14,000

Sensor Size: 24.6 x 13.8 (Super 35)
Effective Pixels: 3840 x 2160 pixels (8.29 Megapixels)
Crop factor: 1.5
ND Filter: Mechanical with option of clear, 1/64. 1/16, and 1/4
Autofocus: no
ISO: 320 to 20,000 in 1/3 stop increments
Codec: 8 Bit MPEG-2 Long GOP; full raw over HDMI
Colour space: 4:2:2; 4:2:2 over HDMI **
Maximum Bit rate: 50Mbps (CBR) or 35Mbps (VBR); up to 220Mbps via external recorder

* Canon C100 review
‘Super 35mm’ sensor has just eight million effective pixels, and these are grouped into RGGB (Red, green, green, blue) groupings called superpixels. Using this method, the C100 gets rid of the Bayer filter found on most cameras (which provides colour information for the sensor), and instead produces a far more accurate colour image. The smaller pixel count also means hugely reduced noise, yet you still have the two million pixel output required for HD footage. Canon reckons the quality is equivalent to that of a typical 3-chip broadcast TV camera.

If you need something higher-quality, though, there is the option to plug a third-party recorder into the HDMI output, which will deliver a clean, uncompressed 4:2:2 video stream, which is broadcast quality and will satisfy the BBC’s HD standards.

** How to setup the Atomos Ninja II with the Canon C100
The Atomos Ninja 2 is a perfect fit for the C100. In fact Canon worked with Atomos to get it to work as well as it does. I wish the monitor was a little better but for the price it works very well. One of the best features is the C100 will trigger the recorder on the Ninja 2 which is a real plus. It also deals with 24P 3:2 pulldown.

Sensor Size | Crop Factor | Bit Rates | Broadcast Defined | Product Comparison


Digital Film – Broadcast Defined

What, exactly, does “broadcast quality” mean?

The answer varies, depending upon the nation in which you are applying your digital film, the broadcaster, and the medium by which it will be delivered to the indented audience. A few standards are presented here.

We’ll start with the traditional television platforms:

NTSC: 30 fps
PAL: 25 fps

In the United States, the ATSC (US) A/53 standard uses MPEG-2 video at the Main Profile at High Level (MP@HL), with additional restrictions such as the maximum bitrate of 19.4 Mbit/s for broadcast television and 38.8 Mbit/s for cable television, 4:2:0 chroma sub-sampling format, and mandatory colorimetry information.

In Great Britain, the BBC Broadcast Standards are (at the time of this writing) at a higher bit rate and chroma sub-sampling format level.


Digital Film – Bit Rates

The bit rate is the number of bits of data produced each second by a digital film camera. While there are two places to measure this, the traditional (and important) number is the bit rate correlated to that which is literally written to the digital storage medium.

This number differs from the maximum potential of the sensor (CCD) and governing microprocessor prior to the application of the compression codec. When a camera is enable to export directly to digital storage or over HDMI in an uncompressed raw format, this represents the maximum potential data rate produced by that camera. However, some cameras, such as the RED produce a compressed raw as the fully uncompressed raw would be an overwhelming volume, truly more than anyone would ever need.

Here is a table which provides a breakdown of some the industry standard bit rates, represented from the Wikipedia page (above):

16 kbit/s – minimum for a consumer-acceptable “talking head” picture
128–384 kbit/s – business-oriented videoconferencing
1.5 Mbit/s max – VCD quality (MPEG1)
3.5 Mbit/s typ — Standard-definition television quality (MPEG-2)
9.8 Mbit/s max – DVD (MPEG2)
8 to 15 Mbit/s typ – HDTV quality (MPEG-4 AVC)
19 Mbit/s approx — HDV 720p (MPEG2)
24 Mbit/s max — AVCHD (MPEG4 AVC)
25 Mbit/s approx — HDV 1080i (MPEG2)
29.4 Mbit/s max – HD DVD
40 Mbit/s max – Blu-ray Disc (MPEG2, AVC or VC-1)

At the time of this writing, 38.8 Mbit/s and above is used by Broadcasters for various formats.


Digital Film – Crop Factor

The crop factor is a much talked about, but ultimately minimal impact aspect of film making. There are several well written articles about this topic such that I do not feel the need to reinvent the discussion here.

Daniel Haggett provides an excellent overview of various crop factor and how they affect the apparent magnification of a given lens.

The following is the proper formula for calculating the crop factor against the 35mm sensor:

(sqrt((36^2)+(24^2))) / (sqrt((SW^2)+(SH^2)))

This is shorter version of the formula which when copy / pasted into Google’s search entry box with the WIDTH and HEIGHT replacing SW and SH respectively, provides the crop factor against the 35mm sensor:

sqrt((36*24) / (SW*SH))


Digital Film – Sensor Size

Digital Film Sensor Comparision Sensor (CCD) Size – Industry Name (example)
– 51.2 x 28.8 mm – Phantom 65
– 36.0 x 24.0 mm – Full Frame (Canon 5D)
– 27.7 x 19.0 mm – APS-H
– 24.0 x 13.0 mm – Super 35 (Canon C100 / 300)
– 23.6 x 15.7 mm – APS-C (Nikon, Pentax, Sony)
– 22.2 x 14.8 mm – APS-C (Canon 60D)
– 20.7 x 13.8 mm – Foveon (Sigma)
– 17.3 x 13.0 mm – Four Thirds (Panasonic GH3)
– 15.8 x 08.9 mm – (Black Magic Cinema)
– 13.2 x 08.8 mm – Nikon 1/CX
– 12.4 x 7.02 mm – Super 16 (Black Magic Pocket)

Graphic by Abel Cine

Both Full Frame and Super 35 are based on the size of traditional 35mm film. However, full frame cameras have a much larger sensor where the height of the frame is equal to the width of a strip of 35mm film—the orientation is rotated 90 degrees. With Super 35, the sensor dimensions and orientation match that of traditional film.

While there is a lot of hype around the sensor size, a small sensor can produce in incredible image when the CCD (Charge Coupling Device) is scanned at a faster rate.

What’s more, larger sensor cameras invoke a more shallow depth of field, just like opening the iris (aperture) of a lens to its lowest setting (ie: f-stop 2.0). More light over a shorter period of time results in a shallow depth of field. Sometimes this is desirable, sometimes not.

Keep in mind that nearly every movie ever made was shot on 35mm film and in the past decade, nearly every digital film was shot using a camera which maintained a Super 35 sized sensor. Here is a good, historic overview of widescreen aspect ratios.