Thursday, October 20, 2011

Confucian ethics as you exercise

The last place I'd expect to see a quote from Confucius: the jogging track.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Black Swans and Old Lenses

I've always regretted that the switch to digital photography meant that my Voigtlander lenses sat in the dry cabinet, un-used. About the last time I used those lenses extensively was in Cambodia in 2004. Aside from a few weddings, they've seen little use since.

I've kept an eye out for various options for mounting them to a digital back, but since a Leica M9 is not really a viable option, I've waited. The Micro Four-Thirds system, with the Panasonic then Olympus cameras, seemed to offer the best chance, but I balked at the 2x crop factor. Then came the Sony Nex series.

True, they're still a 1.6x crop factor, but that's something I've grudgingly learned to live with on the Nikon D70 anyway, and I've had good experience with Sony cameras. I bought a Nex 5 and a Leica M-mount adaptor when they dropped the price, in advance of the Nex 7 coming out, and have been waiting for an opportunity to try it out.

As you can see from the shot of the swan, it's not bad at all. This was taken with the Voigtlander 50mm f3.5 Heliar that came with the T101 Anniversary set - my favourite lens, but oh so very difficult to use for fast moving subjects, and all the more so with focusing on an external LCD screen. The Nex's focus assist was turned on, which magnifies the centre of the image to allow for detailed focus, but in practice this takes so much time that only relatively stationary subjects stay in focus. Still, I am quite pleased with how this shot turned out. I could go on about the resolution and detail in the dark areas (in this case, a black swan is a very appropriate subject to test he resolution of a camera) but I what I like most is the feel of the lens: it looks like film, and has a certain aged look - and not the kind that comes with instagram or hipstamatic filters (though I have nothing against those, especially given the limitations of a smartphone camera — but it's nice to have the real thing once in a while though :)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Plumbing the past

A while back I thought of a great business idea: buy and mothball a computer system every 2 years, and then wait 20 years. Set up shop, and offer a service to help people recover their data from media which were no longer supported by current technology.

The first computers I used had 5¼-inch floppy disk drives (that really flopped), then saw the shift to 3½-inch drives (that no longer flopped, but were still called floppy), and then the first hard drives.  I saw the evolutionary dead-end that were the "super-floppies" (and even worked a temp job at Iomega's local office for a while), and then the rise of optical media, and then USB and flash drives.

Each time we crossed a threshold from one media to another, there was a brief window - a few years usually - where both systems of media existed side by side, and you could transfer data from one to the other: computers with 5¼-inch drives alongside 3½-inch drives in the mid-eighties; then 3½-inch drives with hard-drives; then a brief period where computers had hard drives, 3½-inch drives, and an Iomega Zip drive, before CD-ROMs took over, to be replaced in turn by DVDs.  When Apple got rid of the floppy drive from their iMacs in favour of an optical drive, that signaled the crossing of one threshold: similarly, the lack of an optical drive in the MacBook Air signals another threshold crossed.

I found all my old photo back-ups yesterday, a thick stack of CD-ROMs.  I spent today transferring them across to a hard-drive because in a few years, I don't think there will be computers with optical drives any more. Physical media aside, I wonder about the file format: besides transferring from one physical medium of storage to another, I wonder whether jpg files will be readable, or Nikon RAW files for example, will be readable.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

I used to blog: now I Facebook

I used to blog: now I Facebook. I used to spend hours editing, post-processing, and tweaking every photo: now I upload them 'as-is', or maybe with a few in-camera (i.e. in-iPhone) filters applied. I used to shoot on film, or large digital SLRs: now I shoot mostly on the iPhone.


I used to upload my carefully crafted images to flickr, and I used to post them in various groups for feedback, and (of course) appreciation: now I post them mostly on facebook, mostly for appreciation, or a few funny comments - 'for the lulz', in effect. I used to agonize and re-draft blog posts for hours, to get it right, to make sure they said what I wanted to be said, a habit I carried over initially to Facebook and Twitter: now, more likely than not, I'll post a status update with only 5 minutes of pondering.

From 2004 to 2008, most of my 'creative' (small 'c') output was on flickr and blogger, and it consisted of generating ideas (like this) in a style of writing that would have been familiar to essayists throughout the centuries, and in photos (articularly infra-red landscape shots and 'hockneyesque' composite shots which required hours of work in photoshop or GIMP). From 2007 onwards, most of the data I've generated has been on Facebook, mostly pithy observations (at best) and throwaway comments (at worst). Disposable ideas for a disposable age. Fast production for a culture of impatient consumption.

The brief and immediate have triumphed. There are still moments of considered, weighed and weighty pondering on Facebook (just as there were moments of the frivolous on blogger) but the balance has shifted. The fact that I am typing, and soon uploading, this on an iPhone shows how technology has shifted the foundations of our culture rapidly, giving us the new New even as we've barely got used to the current New. I used to joke that blogging was like maintaining a homepage, but without learning HTML; Facebook, when I first encountered it, seemed to me like blogging without content (back when 'content' meant 'original ideas you generated' rather than 'here's a video I like'). Twitter, i initially thought, would be like blogging without even the thought. It's more than that, of course, insofar as any tool is limited, or has it's potential fulfilled, by how people chose to use it: for every Twitter account that is nothing more than a series of retweets, or an endless moan about the minutiae of someone's sad life, there are many which genuinely offer insight - albeit 140 characters at a time.

And that's what is on my mind right now: how to bring the balance back. All this was spurred by a conversation with Wesley on the changes in photography over the years we've known each other, as well as the unexpected wave of nostalgia started by Steve Jobs's death. It's a bit of a cliche at this point in time to talk about moving forward, but I am reminded of Heraclitus: you can't step into the same river twice: the river has changed, and so have you.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

How to assemble a PC

No, we didn't really use the hammer. Or pliers. Or knife. But the screwdriver was used to short-circuit and start the computer when we were testing the motherboard. I spent the afternoon helping a friend put together a computer: good fun, and great catching up! :)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam Steve Jobs


In memoriam Steve Jobs:

It's safe to say we're a Mac household. Over the past ten years my wife and I have owned, and enjoyed, many Apple products. I heard an interviewee on BBC radio today point out that people develop an emotional connection with Mac products that they don't with other products: how very true. We've never thrown away a single Mac product, and most of them still work. I didn't think I would be so moved by the death of someone I didn't know, but then again, a bit of him was in everything Apple made.

Everything on this table is a Mac, and all but one were because of Steve Jobs (bonus: spot the one Mac that isn't the result of Apple)

Clockwise from top left: MacBook Pro circa 2007; iMac circa 2000; iMac G5 (2005?); iBook G4 circa 2004; iBook G3 circa 2002; Titanium Powerbook circa 2003ish; iPad; iPad 2; MacBook Pro 2010

Small devices in front row: original iPod circa 2002; four-button iPod; 3rd or 4th ten iPod; iPod Shuffle 2GB; iPod circa 2007; iPod touch original; iPod shuffle (second gen?); iPhone 4. Oh, and a magic mouse.

Thanks for making our lives a little better: you'll be missed.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Showing versus Telling

I've been following the Egyptian protests on the radio, and it's been an interesting experience.

I grew up in the era of Television news, and I'm living through the age of the Internet press. I've been fed a steady diet of images and text, moving and still, broadcast and streamed, on-demand and pushed, collaborative and not. Recently, however, I've been so busy that the only news I've been able to consume has been on the commutes to and from work, the meal of choice being the BBC World Service.

It's strange listening to someone describe a scene to you, rather than seeing it yourself. Television shows; cellphone video footage shows; radio tells. Granted, there is an attempt at scene-setting - background sounds of protest dubbed over with commentary- but the basic mode of radio is description and telling. When a radio reporter says "These are the most amazing scenes I'd never have thought I'd see in Cairo", you're left largely to imagine what those scenes are.

On the Television, and on blogs, there's a clear division between commentary and viewing. A news reader will say "Let's watch this amazing footage coming out of Cairo", show a clip, without any commentary, and then tell you what you ought to think of it. A blogger will write "Just click on the link and watch the video", and then comment afterwards. On radio, however, the line between description of events (reporting) and interpretation of events (commentary) is unclear. The reporter both describes and comments at once.

You might think that I am implying that radio is less reliable as a source of news than Television, or other visual media. After all, seeing is believing, and with radio, you never see. However, I think quite the opposite happens: the apparent truthiness of video gulls us into a false sense of confidence. We think that video shows us the facts, and gives us the freedom to decide for ourselves, when an interpretation is implicit in the choice of what to shoot, what to focus on, who to interview, what to edit and juxtapose, and many other features of a video opaque to the viewer.

Radio, on the other hand, makes me painfully aware that someone, a human being with prejudices and opinions like me, is interpreting events for me. My experience of listening to the radio is one of questioning: I find myself being critical of the report in ways that I am not with video. I ask myself questions about the nature of the evidence for the conclusions reached, I question the objectivity of the report, I am skeptical of poorly supported and poorly reasoned commentary, and I am on guard. This same alertness is not present with watching the news on tv: you're more likely to just sit there and go "Gosh, that's a violent demonstration".

Radio is a poorer medium than video - it is less rich, conveys less information, is less compelling- but news reporting over the radio (at least of the kind we get from the World Service) makes for a richer experience than the passive consumption video, whether on tv or YouTube, promotes.