Late to the party

I’ve been reading “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” recently — after pretty much everyone I know recommended it to me. It’s not a bad book, but there’s something that’s been bugging me about it, and I finally figured out what it it: the writing is based on expository dialogue. It’s a little bit like the dubbed dialogue in anime: “Well, as you know, Colonel, the project started here after the war. The objective was to make sure that superweapon development remained under the control of the central government, and so the brightest surviving scientists were recruited to participate. But the project grew out of control, and the government began to worry that the scientists might not have had the national interest in mind. So they sent in…”

(Or, perhaps: “It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his own undefinable memory. But memory cannot be defined, yet it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization,” to use a non-made-up example.)

You know how this works. It’s not bad, just… different… to see characters speaking in what amount to relatively full, self-referential paragraphs. And, as I usually do when I encounter this kind of thing, I wonder whether this was a function of the original writing, or whether it was a function of the translation.

A Chilean paraphrase

Overheard / participated in:

A: “Wow, there was an 8.5 magnitude earthquake off Chile.”
B: “I think it was closer to 8.8.”
A: “Does the 0.3 make a difference?”
C: “Well, with moment magnitude, that’s 2.8 times the energy.”
A: “… oh.”

Pixel shock

There were a lot of things that the digital revolution made easier in the photography world. I’ve been taking pictures long enough that I can remember using Polaroid backs to evaluate exposure with studio strobes, and fighting to get the exposure and compensation just right on the Polaroid before changing magazines and doing it all over again for the real shot. The instant feedback of a digital camera is awfully nice to make sure you got what you wanted, though the sluggishness of a lot of early generation DSLRs at processing the files meant that it probably slowed your workflow down. I’ve also noticed that I seem to spend a lot of time reviewing what I just took, rather than looking at the scene again to see if there’s anything else worth taking a picture of. With film you never knew what you got until you came back from the lab, so you’d never spend any time thinking about it; I see way too many people continually evaluating the results of their latest shutter press rather than looking around outside, and I’m just as guilty of this as the next guy.

One thing that digital decidedly did not make easier was picking a new camera. Used to be that you could simply evaluate the camera, particularly a point and shoot, in the context of its lens and how it felt in your hand, and be reasonably assured of getting a reasonable product and good results once you shoved some film in the thing. The limitations were really with your own creativity; I took some staggeringly good pictures with absurdly cheap cameras when I was a kid, and you can still have this kind of fun with something like a Lomo if you’re willing to put up with the crappy lens. (This is how things like the Yashica T4 turned out to be such brilliant deals — great lens + compact form + right film = woo!)

Now, however, it isn’t enough to evaluate the lens and the form factor. You have to have some understanding of noise reduction algorithms and methods. You need to know whether a camera has an anti-aliasing filter (and, indeed, what an anti-aliasing filter is). How does the white balance work? What’s the sensitivity at the various ISO levels (which aren’t really ISO levels at all)? If someone had tried to buy a film camera and had to make decisions about not just the camera and lens but also the film, the lab, the printer, and probably the framer at the time of purchase I think that person probably would have gone nuts. It would have been a frigging miracle if anyone had actually managed to buy anything.

It reminds me a little of trying to buy medium format gear; you have to, before you can even think about lenses or bodies, decide — sometimes with basically no background information — what size you want your originals to be. Of course, there actually is a correct answer here (6×6), but I remember the heat and light that these discussions used to generate on and* — it was intense. But medium format, like all film photography, could in some senses be saved by film choices; if you got a crummy slow lens you could play around, find the right aperture, park it on a tripod, and get the finest grained film you could find, and generally figure out how to salvage your work. With a digital camera, though, you’re stuck with the same film, the same lab, and the same printer, as well as the actual hardware. Forever. (Well, maybe not: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the CHDK project, which is interesting and probably useful if you’re trying to push the limits of what the small-sensor Canons can do.)

And then you get the yahoos for whom cameras are gadgets, and for whom pixel peeping is the end-all, be-all of photographic quality… oh, it’s really irritating. I suppose this is why people use shorthands: “Buy the top-end Canon and don’t worry about it too much.” OK. I did this twice and it worked all right; what are the odds it works the third time, too?

Service notice

I have migrated all of the Flickr content off of that service and on to SmugMug. I think this is going to make us all much happier. (Summary: SmugMug is a photo hosting site with some collaboration and Web 2.0 services grafted on to it. Flickr is a Web 2.0 site with some photo hosting grafted on to it. This isn’t really a fair comparison, but it’ll have to do until I have a chance to quantify what, exactly, it is that I like so much about SmugMug.)

Thought for the day

The complaints of the major broadcasting and media companies regarding the long-term viability of local television would be a lot more believable — and easier to support — if CanWest Global hadn’t just recently tried to kill off a local TV station (which now has its own logo on the campaign page).

I am agnostic on this issue, since I can find plenty of people to dislike on the other side. It would be easy to say that, given the CRTC’s historical position on fee-for-carriage (oppose) that if you’re satisfied with the status quo you might find yourself on the same side as the cable companies — but then you look at what you pay for cable service, and how much you’re getting in return, and realize that maybe you’re just going to stop paying attention altogether.

This might be the first time I’ve seen people get this worked up over a proposed CRTC decision since the blank media levy was introduced in 1997…

Thanksgiving Quick Hits

  • Whatever you do, don’t panic: The drama of a call to the emergency services. Transcripts and audio recordings of calls to 999 in the United Kingdom. Interesting for lay readers because most people never actually hear what these sound like; interesting for my colleagues because the PDI is basically the same and, modulo the accents, the calls themselves are basically the same, too.
  • Principles of the American cargo cult: “I wrote these principles after reflecting on the content of contemporary newspapers and broadcast media and why that content disquieted me. I saw that I was not disturbed so much by what was written or said as I was by what is not. The tacit assumptions underlying most popular content reflect a worldview that is orthogonal to reality in many ways. By reflecting this skewed weltanschauung, the media reinforces and propagates it. I call this worldview the American Cargo Cult, after the real New Guinea cargo cults that arose after the second world war. There are four main points, each of which has several elaborating assumptions. I really do think that most Americans believe these things at a deep level, and that these misbeliefs constantly underlie bad arguments in public debate.”
  • LaCie imaKey USB flash drive: WANT.
  • The Toaster Project: “I’m Thomas Thwaites and I’m trying to build a toaster, from scratch – beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99. A toaster.” Take that, localvores!
  • Shawn Colvin: Born to be telling her story. Strikingly interesting interview with one of my favorite artists about one of my very favorite albums.
  • Because it’s on TV tonight, and because this is one of my favorite pieces of fan-created SF tie-ins: The Endor Holocaust. Knowing this totally changes the way you watch Return of the Jedi. See also these guys for more ways to kill beloved childhood popular culture memories.

City of blinding lights

Back from Tokyo yesterday afternoon, after a whirlwind 4 day stay in Japan. Why? Because it was days off, that’s why. It was a fantastic trip overall, reminding me of how much I love Japan — but I do think, in all honesty, that four days is about all I can take of Tokyo. I remember last time I was there I felt this mixed sense of relief at leaving; Tokyo, for all of its charms and its advantages as a city, remains the biggest city on the planet with almost as many people in it as live in my entire country, and so it’s probably not surprising that (a) you are almost always swimming against a current of people moving in the opposite direction and (b) the only time you can really feel alone is at 4:00 when you’re up with jet lag.

A more complete description of the trip — sumo, sushi breakfast, Jodo Shinshu services entirely in Japanese — will come later. Meanwhile, this is a placeholder and pointer to the quick and dirty Flickr photo set I’ve thrown up with my favorite pictures from the trip.


This was the craziest sumo matchup I’ve seen in a long time.

Motivational speech

I wanted to break this point out from the last post, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with my own personal history. Well, it sort of does, in the sense that my mother worked for the CPR for a lot of years and I grew up as a railway kid, and the railway looms large in the minds of a lot of people on the prairies. So I feel a kind of ownership of the CPR, and its various assets, including those that have been divested — Fairmont, I’m looking at you and your hotel properties — but this isn’t about that odd sensation.

The Glenbow Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called “Vistas: Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway.” I’ll let them describe it, since they’re better at this sort of thing than I am:

In 1871, with a vision of a new nation spanning the continent, Sir John A. Macdonald promised a railway link to the Pacific Ocean if British Columbia joined Confederation.

Glenbow’s Vistas: Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway features works by 20 artists who travelled west, courtesy of the CPR and William Van Horne. These remarkable artists captured images of the prairie and the mountains, incorporating them into Canada’s emerging national identity.

It is a spectacularly good exhibit. The CPR encouraged and paid for artists to travel with them as the railway was being built, and although a lot of it is quintessentially Canadian frontier stuff, it’s really really well done Canadian frontier stuff. We forget how important rail links were in bringing this country together, and this is the visual story of an age that we’ll probably never see again in our lifetimes.

I was particularly taken with the work of William McFarlane Notman, who was one of the only photographers who showed up in the entire exhibit. The quality is breathtaking. The fact that he was working with 30×40 view cameras probably didn’t hurt matters much. (The above link goes to his collected works, not the work in the exhibit.)

Low speed, high drag

It only took 4.5 years, but I’ve finally put some of my favorite pictures from Japan online. Turns out that going to Flickr is a lot easier than writing a bunch of HTML. What can I say? I’m weak.

Going through these pictures was interesting. Most of them I could caption and talk about without having to consult my notes, though a few place names and spellings were elusive. (I could not, for the life of me, remember who Jizo was, for instance.) Which I think is pretty good for something I did almost half a decade ago. The other thing that stood out for me is that man, I’ve really fallen off the quality ladder when it comes to photography — I clearly used to be able to occasionally take a moderately good photograph, and now, it’s like, yeah, ok, whatever. (Writing on the blog on a regular basis has also reminded me that I used to, you know, be able to write, which clearly isn’t true anymore, either.) So obviously I’ve got some work to do.

(Tip: When you’re feeling bad about your own photography skills, do not go looking at other peoples’ photographs on Flickr of the same subjects. It will only depress you.)

Also, you can now get to 365 by banging the link over on the right hand side of your screen. That gorgeous typeface is Dear Sarah, if you cared.

Next up: Europe! (By 2011, I swear.)