24 June 2009

Canon T1i: Stupid Name, Brilliant Camera

I posted last week on the great HD video capabilities of the Canon EOS 5D Mk II DSLR (= 5D2). It runs about $2500. For me, they may as well add a few more zeros on to that, 'cause in any case I can't touch it.

But I could, nay, will someday lay hands on Canon's new EOS Rebel T1i, known as the 500D to the rest of the world. Why Americans always get stuck with nonsense branding from Canon, I have no idea. But I shoot Canon, so I'll put up with it.

The Rebel series is Canon's entry level line of DSLRs. They have generally been very good cameras which Canon hobbles by deleting pro features, less to save cost than to drive people up their line. They could easily do much more at that price point but have felt no need. Like Apple, they've mastered the craft of giving their customers a good enough product to thoroughly please them, but not one so good that they might truly be content with it. So the Rebels have been consistently better than the competition while always lacking those one or two things you really want (DOF preview, certain manual controls, Live View, whatever).

But I think Canon screwed up their own fiendish plan with the new Rebel T1i. First, they the put in the great 15.1mp sensor from their mid-line 50D, which runs $500 more than the T1i and, while carrying a few more features, does not do HD video like the Rebel. I expect that model is soon to be replaced.

I will not do a review here, but rather see here and here. The vital 411 is this: the Rebel T1i can shoot 720p HD video @ 30fps, and full 1080 @ 20fps. And if the video quality is not equal to that of the 5D2, it is still very good for a $900 camera.

I've been ogling the Canon HD200 camcorder for about $600, but in 18 months I'll be able to pick up a T1i for that price. The Rebel XS is down to $540 now and you can get a refurb Nikon D40 for a ridiculous $360.

At these prices, there is no reason for anyone serious about photography to buy a high-end compact over an entry-level DSLR. DLSR image quality is vastly better, interchangeable lenses an important tool, and being able to work with RAW images is a must. Once you've used one, there'll be no going back.

23 June 2009

A World One Film Poorer

About seven years ago I became seriously interested in photography, for the second time. I had a fling with it in high school, and am starting another right now, but that particular fling came at a most interesting time.

In high school, of course, I mostly learned all about different films and developing. There was no auto-focus, zoom lenses were something of a novelty, and digital imaging required a camera the size of a sofa. 10-pound Nikons with towering motor drives and massive proboscises of prime glass danced in my dreams.

But seven years ago, digital imaging had not only arrived, it was poised to take on film as a serious medium. The whole digital vs. film debate was in full swing, with most serious photographers still arguing that not only was film superior, it was hard to see it ever really being surpassed. So, while I bought the best compact digital I could afford (a used Canon G3), I also invested in quite a bit of film gear.

That was obviously a bust. The whole digital/film debate now seems like a quaint and curious argument. But the argument for film was compelling at the time because contemporary films were brilliant while digital images were merely good. Films are still brilliant, but so is pro digital, and for the low end of the market, merely good digital is good enough. And digital is so much cheaper and easier to work with. Film is well on its way, if not to extinction, at least to the far margins of obsolescence.

But it is still a sad day whenever another great and historic film is discontinued, as has just been announced of Kodachrome. I confess to being fond of great photo films. Kodachrome was revolutionary in its heyday, from the 1950s onwards. It uses a unique film process to produce images that have good color, very fine grain and, unlike other older color films, exceptional archival stability. It is probably the only film to have a state park named after it, Kodachrome Basin State Park in southern Utah.

Kodachrome was a photographer's darling well into the 1980s, when the decline of slide film and the rise of great conventional color films (especially Fuji Velvia) challenged its popularity. It's always been very expensive to develop, which has also hastened its decline, and today only a single K-14 processor is still in business. So Kodak's decision to discontinue it was not a big surprise.

There are a number of homages to Kodachrome going up, which is fitting, given how much of the 20th century's history is recorded on it. Check out this modest one by Kodak (see gallery, mid page), but the place to watch is the Kodachrome Project. While purists are agonizing over what to expend their last rolls on, I expect a lot of great old Kodachrome photography is soon coming to an internet near you.

Update: See the story and gallery at NPR.org, which also mentions an upcoming Kodachrome exhibit by National Geographic in Washington, D.C., which "was meant to be a celebration of the impending 75th anniversary of the film that changed the course of photography. Instead, it will be something of a funeral."

22 June 2009

Our Nerd in Chief

Not sure if someone who oozes as much cool as Obama could really be a nerd, but comedian John Hodgman takes a run at the idea in his roast at the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner. So often these things misfire, but I thought he was pretty good. I even felt a little nerdly pride.

21 June 2009

Kindle's DRM Hell

After a rosy post on Kindle the other day, I then came across disappointing news on my new favorite geek site, Gizmodo. Turns out that there is no clear and uniform policy for how many times a user can download a Kindle book to various Kindle-capable devices. Every book has different DRM restrications and even technical support cannot tell a purchaser what exactly the download limit is for a particular title. This is literally locking users out of their books permanently, as they use Kindle software on their iPhones and Touches, migrate to new Kindles, etc. Here is a first person account from someone locked out of their books who called Amazon customer service for help:

    The customer rep asked me to send every one of the books in my Amazon library to my iPhone. Most of them gave the message that they were sent but a number of them returned the message “Cannot be sent to selected device”.
    “Oh that’s the problem,” he said “if some of the books will download and the others won’t it means that you’ve reached the maximum number of times you can download the book.”
    I asked him what that meant since the books I needed to download weren’t currently on any device because I had wiped those devices clean and simply wanted to reinstall. He proceeded to tell me that there is always a limit to the number of times you can download a given book. Sometimes, he said, it’s five or six times but at other times it may only be once or twice. And, here’s the kicker folks, once you reach the cap you need to repurchase the book if you want to download it again. . . .
    It gets worse.
    I asked the customer representative where this information was available and he told me that it’s in the fine print of the legalese agreement documentation. “It’s not right that they are in bold print when you buy a book?” I asked. “No, I don’t believe so. You can have to look for it.”
    We’re not done-it gets even worse.
    “How [do] I find out how many times I can download any given book?” I asked. He replied, “I don’t think you can. That’s entirely up to the publisher and I don’t think we always know.”
    I pressed — “You mean when you go to buy the book it doesn’t say ‘this book can be downloaded this number of times’ even though that limitation is there?” To which he replied, “No, I’m very sorry it doesn’t.”
    Here is the major problem with this scenario.
    First, it’s not clear that this is the policy.
    Second, there’s no way to find out in advance how many times a book is able to be downloaded. You can buy a book and it can be downloaded numerous times or you can buy a book and only then discover that it can be downloaded only once. (The rep even put it this way!) There is no way to know.
    In the meantime, Amazon wants us to upgrade our Kindles every year or two. Apple wants us to upgrade our iPhone or iPod touch every year or two. This means that although the books remain in your Kindle library online you may not be able to download them once you upgrade your hardware. And there is no way to know — at least according to what the customer service rep told me.
Update: This poor Kindler is still trying to clarify with Amazon what has happened to all his books, and it's becoming obvious they really don't have their act together. Courtesy of a rant by Mr. Fweem.

19 June 2009

Books Not Blogs

So, what are you still doing here?

18 June 2009

Lobotomized Cyclopsmobile

I think every little girl should have one of these.

Some of the comments to the Gizmodo post I found this on are five-star geek humor (which also means, a few are PG-13). My favorite: "I especially enjoy that it looks like she's peeling the eyelid open. It reminds you who's in charge of the terrifying monster car."

17 June 2009

Kindle: Verb or Noun?

I could be writing another "death of books" post, because I have seen it again today. But I won't.

Ok, maybe I will, just a little. The BYU library has just been chosen as an Internet Archive partner, which means it now has an IA book scanner that will be relentlessly turning out-of-copyright and uncopyrighted works in the BYU collection into pixels. The library has reversed their conservation policy. It used to be that virtually no book would be deaccessioned unless it turned to dust. Now old and brittle books will be scanned dirrectly into the Internet Archive and then discarded. This is but the tip of the iceberg in terms academic libraries becoming data centers. But enough of that.

I was told earlier today that there is also "a pilot project by the library to use kindles for faculty inter-library loan." This is the first I have seen "kindle" used as a generic noun for books delivered in Kindle format.

And then later today I read a great article that observed, "Amazon cares less about our choice of screen than our choice of store. Amazon wants Kindle to be a verb, not a noun, as in 'I Kindled that book,' which could mean that I read it on a smartphone, computer, or dedicated electronic-book device."

This is certainly true. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, just explicitly stated that Amazon sees their Kindle device and Kindle ebook business as two separate enterprises. Kindle book sales have skyrocketed. 35% of titles sold which are available in both print and Kindle formats are sold as "kindles."

Even more interesting, Bezos also recently said, "We see that when people buy a Kindle, they actually continue to buy the same number of physical books going forward as they did before they owned a Kindle. And then incrementally, they buy about 1.6 to 1.7 electronic books, Kindle books, for every physical book that they buy."

The article I mentioned above discusses our increasing consumption of books in multiple formats, or at least profiles one person's experience. These multiple formats–print, Kindle, iPhone, audio–are not really competing. Many of us, as did the author, may find ourselves increasingly consuming books across multiple media at the same time. Amazon is already selling Kindle/print bundles, and has enabled Kindle purchases to be available simultaneously on the iPhone. And the new Kindle DX can read those books aloud to you (if you can stand the robovoice and the feature withstands the lawsuits).

I predict proper 4-in-1 bundles are next, perhaps with synchronization of Kindle/iPhone bookmarks with iPhone audio books, and vice-versa. This isn't the end of dead-tree books, but soon I expect most of us will also be kindling kindles along with our books.

15 June 2009

Amateurs' Carnivale

Amateur artists have never had it so good. In fact, this is truly their day. Not only has the internet broken studio and publisher monopolies on distribution, they also control no longer the means for filming/recording and production. The industry still has most of the money, but of course nothing gets made without the artists, and now musicians and visual media artists can produce much of their work entirely on their own.

Recording software like Digidesign's Pro Tools is used in high-end studios to make glossy, big-budget recordings. But it's also found on 1000s of Macs in private garages and basements where really good music is also being made. Veteran bassist Lee Sklar (Phil Collins, James Taylor) says he is doing more and more session work in recent years in private homes, having literally recorded bass lines while sitting on someone's bed. Three of my all-time favorite albums (the three freshman albums by the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and Fleet Foxes) were all recorded in home studios, the first two on four- or eight-track recorders that give a great, raw retro vibe. But Fleet Foxes sounds purely studio. In fact, professional studios are being driven out of business by falling demand, due to the rise of home studios.

Amature film makers have had it a bit harder. Film cameras and stock are very expensive, and both editing and post processing really have to be contracted out. Camcorders have been out for years, but their quality has been nothing like studio. Even recent pro-digital HD cameras, while much less costly than $100k studio cameras, have still required substantial capital investment.

But I've been fascinated to see what amature film makers are doing with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR. That's right, it is a still camera, but it also can capture full 1080p HD video at 30fps, and looks brilliant. All for about $2500 (body). Even with a good lens or two, a computer, Final Cut Pro software, and recording and support equipment, you can start producing almost studio quality HD video with less than $10,000 in gear. Brilliant.

Loads of 5D videos and film shorts may be found on TheEOScars.com, and see more as well on the cinema5D.com forums. I've embeded one below. If you start it and then click the HD icon on the right of the screen, it will link you out to Vimeo, where you can watch the clip in full 720p HD. You'll want to let it cache, and it may not play smoothly on older computers. But wow is it gorgeous. The first feature-length film shot entirely with a 5D will be released next year.

wemakemusic* - Dance with a Statue from Sebastian Woeber on Vimeo.

12 June 2009

Bigger Stronger Faster I

I freely write here what I like and know, but have not yet blogged on a serious hobby of mine in recent years, weight training. Partly because (like diet and nutrition) no one not already into it wants to read about it, and if you're into it, I have nothing new to tell you. But I believe everyone should lift weights, so read it or don't, but here we go.

When most people think of weight training, they think of bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is a competitive sport, in my lexicon, while weightlifting is just a form of exercise. Most people who weight train are not, would not, and could not be bodybuilders. They will not even put on much visible muscle. But even moderate weight training aids significantly in building and maintaining lean mass, keeping off fat, and reducing risk of injury during strenuous activity, among other benefits. I'll go into the benefits more in a later post. But first, about bodybuilding.

Conventional bodybuilding is big business and a sham. Open up any issue of Muscle & Fitness in the supermarket. The magazine is full of ridiculously huge guys talking about their exercise routines and endorsing myriad supplements. "Do this, take this, and you'll be like me."

Total rubbish. Most supplements (there are a couple exceptions) will do little or nothing for your average person, and even for elite athletes, their benefit is marginal. And if your average person spent 30 hours a week in the gym doing such extreme routines, they would become injured and overtrained in no time. And they still wouldn't get anything like that huge.

Mainstream bodybuilding has a few secrets that everyone on the inside knows but does not publicly discuss. The first is simply this: the amount of muscle mass you can develop is fixed by your genetics. We all have different body types. Some of us tend to be fat, others thin, and a few lucky dudes are just hugely muscled. They could never exercise a day and still you and I, training day and night, could never be as muscular as they are.

Robert Kennedy writes of training next to future champion bodybuilder Al Beckles many years ago. They were both doing the same exercise.

    While exercising he was talking to a friend about where they were going that night, even pausing now and again to make a point. He was putting no effort into what he was doing. The weight he was using was pathetic. Al always trained like this. So here are the facts: I was using 180 pounds and had six solid years of training behind me. Al was using 35 in the same exercise with two years of training. My arms measured 15 1/2 inches. His measured 21 inches. All this was BS (before steroids) and it is a testament to the importance of genetics.
Genetics are one major reason Al Beckles looked unbelievable, and was still winning competitions, into his sixties.

However, Kennedy also mentions steroids. Now, there is a dirty secret. I'll tackle it next post.

I loved this picture of Al Beckles as a kid, found on the cover of a muscle mag, maybe the first I ever bought. He's about 60 here. Not your average grandpa.

11 June 2009

Heatin' Up the Game(s)

I wrote about the iPhone/Touch phenomenon last week just ahead of the new iPhone 3G S launch, and speculated that the next Touch would be a must-have. And I'm sticking to that. The next gen Touch and Nano will probably not be out until September, but we now have the hardware specs for new iPhone, and it rocks.

TouchArcade gives us a detailed look under the hood and we find a major revision of the CPU core and GPU. In brief, the core gets a 188MHz bump in speed, which is nice, but that is just part of a massively revised architecture that is more powerful and efficient. I'm guessing at least 50% more powerful. Even more exciting is the GPU revision, the graphics engine. It should produce 3.5x-7x the geometry throughput and 25%- 150% more pixel bandwidth than the original iPhone, depending on how they clock it. And it will be OpenGL ES 2.0-capable, meaning, programmers can make even better graphics for it.

The article ends by noting, "It may look like just the same old iPhone on the outside, but under the hood it's a screamer. Sony and Nintendo have good cause to shift from worry to fear as this hardware makes its way into users' hands. The PSP has nothing on Apple's latest mobile game console."

Look for all this hardware under the hood of the next Touch, likely out end of summer. I know I'm starting to save my pennies.

09 June 2009

The Animated Alan Watts

I have really been enjoying reading and listening to lectures by Alan Watts lately. I posted about one of his books last week, The Wisdom of Insecurity, and while I flippantly suggested my summary made reading it unnecessary, it is in fact one of the most significant books I've ever read. Not just for its content alone, but because my place in life right now enables me to understand and appreciate it. I would not have understood it a year ago, and perhaps will think nothing of it in another year. But encountering the work of Alan Watts right now was rare serendipity.

Watts was a charismatic British teacher of Eastern religious thought. As a scholar and philosopher of religion, he was perhaps not a great force, but as a popularizer and philosopher of life, he was a genius. Insecurity was his first pure work of life philosophy, and the vigor and freshness of it more than 50 years later is still very compelling. It seems to boil out the essence of his thought and insight. The basic ideas are not new to me, a mix of philosophical idealism and mysticism, but the exposition left me a bit breathless. I can see why he became such a giant figure.

Very curiously, two of the most offensive people in Hollywood today, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, created some South Park-esque cartoon shorts narrated from lecture recordings of Alan Watts. And they're quite good even if entirely unexpected. So, why did they do them? Well, Parker noted in a interview, "[My] father tried to raise me Buddhist, as in Alan Watts Buddhism, which is Buddhism in a way." I suspect they also love Watt's deep sense of irony, and they illustrate it well.

Some Mormons will know that Parker and Stone also have a (almost entirely unwelcome) fascination with us. As offensive as we find their satire, they actually like Mormons. Trey Parker's first girlfriend was a Mormon, whom he really respected. Scientology, on the other hand, they also skewer but really do hate. But that's all another story.

The three shorts below are "official." But two others seem to also be by the same team, even if lacking some polish: Madness and I.

Alan Watts - Life and Music (full screen)

Alan Watts - Prickles and Goo (full screen)

Alan Watts - Appling (full screen)

05 June 2009

Touch Notes II

More iPhone/Touch paradigmata:

Touch screen + accelerometer: That large, hi-res screen is beautiful and functional, but Apple's brilliant implementation of the touch interface is a paradigm maker. Pinch zoom, two-finger rotation, etc., are becoming new standards for device interaction. Combined with an accelerometer, you have a whole new device interface. This is as revolutionary as Apple's introduction of the mouse. Touch screens, accelerometers and mice were of course not invented by Apple. Apple just made them really work. Huzzah!

I am most impressed by a few programs that make this new interface foundational, doing things that just cannot be done on a PC. I'll profile two in a near-future post. And Apple's success here is breeding imitators, like the slew of new touch screen netbooks forthcoming and Microsoft's aggressive support for touch interfaces in Windows 7 (see here). Touch screens are (finally!) about to arrive en masse.

apps, Apps, APPS!: Powerful CPU and graphics, big screen, revolutionary interface, ease of use and low cost for apps are driving incredible software sales through the App Store. More than 1 billion apps already sold (April 23, 2009), and the App Store has been open less than a year (from July 10, 2008). As ever more devices are sold, prices are dropping, quality rising, and sales are still accelerating. And this is all just getting started.

Simply put, Apple has created a new computing platform.

iPhone/Touch developers are still mostly independents, many just porting apps they had already published for PCs or other mobile devices. And they've made a lot of money, to everyone's surprise. Like, $10,000 a day. This platform is an independent developer's dream, since there is (as of yet) no publishing or marketing cost required to sell their software, beyond a $99 yearly registration fee to Apple.

Now the majors are getting into it with big, original titles. They have to. The iPhone/Touch is the hottest and most crowded platform in the software universe. And with 1000 new APIs being introduced with OS 3.0, we're just seeing the beginning of what developers can do.

I am close to taking the plunge and buying my first "premium" ($10 and up) Touch app . A game, of course, probably Need for Speed. I've played NFS for years on the PC and the new Touch version is getting rave reviews. It is among the first big productions from a major publisher, and much more is in the pipeline.

The low price, staggering quantity, innovation and rising quality of Touch games is pushing it into competition with dedicated handheld game consoles. Many Touch games currently are of the casual variety, for which there is a huge market, but console-quality titles like NFS are arriving.

Many believe the Touch has already started crowding the consoles' market space (see here, here and here). It may even challenge the success of the upcoming Sony PSP Go, even if more by making new gamers than stealing old ones, as the Wii did with the PS3. But I guarantee both Sony and Nintendo are wringing their hands. They rely on developers and developers go where the money is. Which is at Apple.

With so much innovative software available for a buck or two, or free, the App Store has me hooked like crack. Look out for a bunch of mini software reviews forthcoming.

But I end with a word of warning. If you start down the iPhone/Touch road, start saving for upgrades now. Not only will OS 3.0 cost Touch owners $10, software performance will always be hardware dependent and developers develop for the latest platform. The next Touch will be, yes, that much better than the current G2. It will be a must-own. Start saving today.

04 June 2009

Touch Notes I

I find this to be a richly pivotal time for consumer technology, partly due to netbooks, but mostly due to my iPod Touch. The iPhone/Touch is something more that just the second coming of the iPod or a cool new smartphone. It's actually not user friendly as mobile music player, and to a large extent, a phone is a phone. It's all the non-phone features, had in common with the Touch, that make the iPhone unique. So let's look a those common features which are making and breaking paradigms.

The greatest feature is the hallmark of all Apple products, which makes it less revolutionary but is certainly critical. The iPhone/Touch looks great, has a brilliant GUI, is simple to use, and just flat works—hassle free. Most importantly, this extends to iTunes and the App Store. If I find a program that I like, I click a button, it downloads to my phone, and two minutes later I'm using it. My only complaint is that the iTunes client software is very sluggish and a little buggy on the PC. I've never used it on a Mac, but I understand the difference is dramatic. Some have suggested that Apple sabotages the PC version to drive consumers to their computers. Not impossible.

Now, on to the revolution:

Internet: PDAs and applications for them have been around for years. I've owned just about every incarnation of the PDA, starting with a Casio Palmtop PC about 10 years ago. I've had apps for them all, of course, but they all soon ended up in drawers gathering dust.

PDA apps were underwhelming, largely due to underpowered devices, small screens and clunky interfaces. And as I now realize, their lack of internet access was very limiting. My last PDA (a Dell) did have wireless access, but it was slow, as was my Dash smartphone. And again, the screens were just too small, the browsers too limited.

The iPhone/Touch has surprisingly fast wireless access and the screen is just big enough, combined with pinch-zoom, to view non-mobilized websites. Which results in the first fully-functional web client that fits in your pocket. Well, let's say 80% functional. The lack of Flash, pdf, and some other plug-in support is limiting.

But given the aggressive development of hardware Flash support by Nvidia for mobile devices, and increasingly video-capable netbooks crowding the edges of Apple's market, I'm very sure Apple is working very hard on Flash. I'm looking for it in the next hardware update, if not OS 3.0. And we already know that YouTube support will be improved in 3.0. Mobile video on the iPhone is a top concern for developers, so we are just seeing the beginning of the iPhone/Touch's potential as a video delivery platform.


03 June 2009

The Taoist Farmer

Reading Alan Watts and basking in Eastern wisdom, it occurred to me that a visiting church leader this past weekend shared a  Chinese folktale that is a classic expression of the Taoist philosophy of living life in accordance with nature. I think he took away from it something rather different, but I'm happy that a wise allegory which has been so variously told in different times and cultures lives on in Mormonism. It has been given many titles, and there is a great children's book based on it under the title, The Lost Horse. That is congenial to westerners, but I prefer the more authentic title, The Taoist Farmer. There are more rigorously Taoist tellings, perhaps, but the  following is close to the version this person related:

The Taoist Farmer

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"

Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?"

Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. But one day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other.

Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

02 June 2009

Creative Emptiness

Thought for the day from the introduction to Alan Watts’ classic The Wisdom of Insecurity (p. 10):

    In [my former books] I was concerned to vindicate certain principles of religion, philosophy, and metaphysic by reinterpreting them. This was, I think, like putting legs on a snake—unnecessary and confusing, because only doubtful truths need defense. This book, however, is in the spirit of the Chinese sage Lao-tzu, that master of the law of reversed effect, who declared that those who justify themselves do not convince, and that to know the truth one must get rid of knowledge, and that nothing is more powerful and creative than emptiness—from which men shrink.
Lao-tzu was the author of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational "scripture" of Taoism. Taoism is the most compelling of eastern philosophies to me. Contemporary therapies like CBT draw on its principles, as does Watts in this book, both of which basically argue that anxiety and insecurity are, paradoxically, "the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves" from suffering and death (p. 9). In other words, embrace change as the only certainty in life. Live life mindfully and openly, but with no fixed expectations. Despair is nothing more than a fear of and resistance to change.

There, now you don't need to read the book. (A terrible summary, actually.)

But in fact, I liked this quote for other reasons, which I will not entirely explain. But it echoes my own experience of the conflict between theology and spirituality, religious discourse versus religious experience. Religious apologetics and sermonizing fill me with boredom or even mild melancholy, and theology may be intellectually engaging, but rarely anything more. To invoke an old saw, discoursing on religion is like dancing about architecture. To reduce it to words empties it of meaning, since it is irreducibly experiential. It can be evoked by the arts, including words-as-art, but words-as-description aspire to fixed definitions, which are limiting and grossly inadequate.

So, how exactly did I become a scholar of religion by vocation? Scholars can be mystics, too.

01 June 2009

Mood Amplifiers

Ever since posting "More Real than Real" the other day, I've been thinking a bit more about photography. I'm a great admirer of  fine photography, and have aspired to it occasionally, but have so far found I enjoy looking at photographs more than making them. A little more precisely, I found that photography takes a great eye and great subjects. Constitution has robbed me of the first, it seems, and location and circumstances of the latter.

But I am a great admirer of the art. And a really stunning practitioner of that art is Trey Ratcliff, a Texan born blind in one eye (true fact) who excels in the technique of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. You can read all about HDR on Trey's site, and see daily examples posted on his massively popular travel photography blog, Stuck in Customs.

HDR photography is the zenith of the "more real than real" aesthetic, often verging into surreal. But not dreamy surreal. It grabs you by the eyeballs and kicks you in the brain. Ratcliff combines HDR with all the dramatic tricks of the trade and incomparable subjects. I have no idea how one man can criss-cross the globe so thoroughly and survey all its wonders. Oh, and you can download much of his vast work for free, for personal use, in original resolutions. Unbelieveable.

Ratcliff freely doles out tips and advice, but I had to laugh at this observation:

    I notice there are a few things that are "Mood Amplifiers" in photos. These are items to include in your photo to take whatever mood is being conveyed to the next order of magnitude. These include: graveyards, churches, dogs, pretty women, miniature horses, and blood. I've been trying to think of a way to include all of these elements into a single mind-blowing photo, but a clear path has yet to present itself.
Coming from a master of dramatic photography, I take this advice seriously. And it all makes good sense to me, except the miniature horses. That might be discounted as a fetish, but I admit, I'm not entirely sure. After all, I'm no Trey Ratcliff.