31 October 2010

Ditch Witch [Payson 12/52]

Something for Halloween. Sort of.

Ditch Witch [Payson 12/52]

Added by invitation to the Flickr Ditch Witch group on Nov. 9, 2010.

30 October 2010

Drama Queen

Out of 234 posts here to date, only 7 are tagged "humor." I'm not humor challenged, I don't think, though I'm not really a comedy fan either. I find stand-up painful and most sit-coms unwatchable (30 Rock is a glorious exception). I usually like my humor dark, subversive and smart. Then again, Steve Carrell had me in tears during some scenes of Get Smart, and I like Will Smith even in his (many) really bad movies. Maybe my funnybone is just selective.

Or maybe I just feel a bit cheap reblogging "funny videos," which often feel like spam. Probably because they are just spam when they miss, and most funny videos sent to me do miss. I don't want become a humor spammer myself.

Well, I'll take my chances with this one. It's smart and even British. It still may be a cheap reblog, but how can it miss?

29 October 2010

A Dose of Bliss

Bombs from Yemeni terrorists, a looming election catastrophe, Pontiac headed for the guillotine . . . it's all a bit much. Digging around for some soothing music, I ended up listening to some trip hop from more than a decade ago, which in musical terms makes it pretty long in the tooth. But the 90s was bumper season for electronic chill-out music of all sorts. The British made some of the best of it, certainly due to their massive club scene. Trip hop itself is (or was) entirely a British thing.

I find trip hop blissful and dreamy. Some people find it gloomy. Meh, maybe a bit. Make up your own mind. Portishead is probably the best known trip hop artist in the States. Most people have heard at least Glory Box and Sour Times at some point. This live performance completely nails it and has perfect sound. (Long live YouTube!) Massive Attack is, well, massive in Europe, but I only bumped into them last year. "Black Milk" off of Mezzanine features vocals by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.

27 October 2010


I went to see my "doctor" (Jay the nurse) the other day to get a prescription renewed (sleeping pills). He has long been hassling me for a copy of my lipid profiles. I get them done every couple years through my job. So I brought them in. My total cholesterol was a bit high at 237. The Mayo Clinic rates 240 as too high; other groups say 200; but in any case, it's not exactly freakout high. But he tut-tutted. "Let's see, you're 42? Well, it's time to get you started on statins." As if it's just what you do at 42.

Jay the nurse is an idiot, always has been, but I go to him because he just gives me my damn prescriptions without major hassles. This, however, really irked me. I'm 42 and in otherwise good health, and he wants to put me on a liver-altering drug with ambiguous benefits, numerous side-effects, and unguessable long-term negative consequences, for the rest of my life.

"No, thanks. I'll lose some more weight." "Won't do any good," he says absently, not looking up. Jay really is an idiot. "No," I say flatly, "I won't take statins." Now he looks up. Awkward pause. "Ok," he says. "Uh, can I listen to your heart?"

He says I have a murmur, previously unnoticed by anyone, oddly enough. Maybe he didn't factor in the anger-fueled adrenaline pumping into it. I'm trying to be worried about that murmur, but I've never noticed it on thirty-mile bike rides or pressing 80-pound dumbbells. I don't feel like I'm about to drop dead. And I'm not taking statins.

Statins lower "bad cholesterol" (LDL), produced in the liver, by altering liver function. They are also anti-inflammatory and do many other things, intended and unintended. There is a string of theories going back to the 50s that high cholesterol causes arteriosclerosis, or heart disease. The theory, which has gone through several incarnations, is clearly not based entirely on science. It's always been a facile answer to a complex question. There is a society of researchers that oppose it entirely [1], and the ever-lucid Gary Taubes explains the basic grounds for skepticism. [2]

But this "lipid hypothesis" gained so much traction that Big Pharma saw enormous profit potential. Statins lower LDL cholesterol, indisputably, and are now the second most commonly prescribed medicine behind psychiatric meds. As a bazillion-dollar profit center, they have been marketed to doctors with unparalleled vigor. And clearly this marketing has been successful. They were first approved for the treatment of heart attack victims with advanced heart disease. Now they are prescribed to healthy 40-somethings. It's been seriously proposed that they be sold with hamburgers, as a sort of antidote to fast food. [3] They'll start putting them in our drinking water any day now.

I'm not giving medical advice here, but am advocating self-education. Google around and you'll see that, whatever Big Pharma may say, statins carry serous risks that are gradually being exposed, including an increased risk of diabetes [4, 4a], testosterone suppression [5], and long-known problems like muscle myopathy, memory loss and other neural issues, liver toxicity (of course), and various bowel and flu-like symptoms. I like this real-world perspective from an Amazon commentator:

    While doctors will tell you they've rarely seen anyone with side effects from statins, among my own circle of middle-aged friends, I know 3 who've had serious problems with their livers, one who had some muscles permanently destroyed, one--a usually energetic tennis player-- who felt, for the few months he took statins, as though he had the flu, and could barely go to work-- and one who was left with ringing in the ears and a facial tic. All of these are listed as side effects of statins, as Kendrick points out. [6]

Compounded with the downsides, the actual benefits are ambiguous. Studies of benefits have been tainted by money, and surveys of studies reveal that while statins may help elderly patients with advanced coronary heart disease (CHD), there is no evidence that all the statins being given to the rest of us, even to people at high risk for CHD, actually reduce mortality at all. [7, 8, 9] And even when helpful, it may be due to statins' anti-inflammatory benefits (like aspirin) rather than its impact on lipids. [10]

Statins are big money for Big Pharma, which spends billions on "physician education" (marketing); in fact, twice as much as it does on research, "US$61,000 in promotion per physician during 2004" ($57.5 billion total). [11] Remember who is educating your physician and make an informed choice for yourself. Heart disease rates are still insanely high, in spite of us gobbling up statins. I think I'll take my chances with an old-school remedy: diet and exercise.

24 October 2010

Toy Cameras

I've had a bit of fun lately with toy cameras, which really are cameras but not usually toys. "Toy camera" is a term of art for simple cameras with a plastic body and lens. Most are cheap and look at least a bit toy-like, but as cult objects some can in fact be quite expensive. Most are film, either 35mm or medium format, though the category of digital toy cameras is becoming better defined and is growing. Google will teach you all you want to know, but see here and here and here. This one was $2 from a goodwill shop and is clearly a toy toy camera.

Pink Eyelash
Still trying to the work up the courage to use this in public.

Toy cameras are very simple point-and-click affairs. They have a fixed focus and no exposure controls. That means you just load them up with fast film, stand back at least four feet or so from a well-lit subject, and trip the shutter. The picture turns out or it doesn't. Amazingly, it usually does. Though it will probably look like it was taken with a toy camera.

Which is the half the fun. Pictures from toy cameras are lo-fi and wonderfully flawed. Poor contrast, softness, distortion, light leaks, and all manner of random weirdness. Some photos are just bad and others are so bad they're good. Just depends on the camera and many unguessable variables. You never really know what you'll get, which is the other half of the fun. It's so cool that they make iPhone apps to simulate it. But accept no substitutes. Using film is part of the experience. Since every shot costs you money, it feels a bit like playing the slots. You only find out how much you lost or won when you pick up your prints from the printer.

Enthusiasts scour second-hand shops for toy cameras. The odd thing is that you will be sorting though a bin of $5 cameras, looking for one that came free with a magazine subscription or with a Malibu Barbie, and tossing aside film point-and-shoots that cost a couple hundred bucks just twenty years ago. I recently pulled one of those out of a bin, too, and will blog the results later. Some of those eighties p&s cameras were engineering marvels. But I find that toy cameras, cameras that take bad pictures by design, are just more interesting.


23 October 2010

22 October 2010

An Argument for the Obvious

David Pogue of the Times, who I do not much enjoy, nevertheless made an argument for the obvious that is worth reblogging. In fact, everyone should reblog this until software designers get a clue. From Pogue's review of the new Office 2011 for Mac:

    The Mac suite now includes the Ribbon, a horizontal toolbar that’s built into Office for Windows. What I don’t get is this: Last time I checked, computer screens were all wider than they are tall. The last thing you’d want to do is to eat up that limited *vertical* screen space with interface clutter like the Ribbon. Don’t we really want those controls off to the *side,* like as with the Formatting Palette in the previous Mac Office?

In my previous post I mentioned that most computer LCDs now adhere to a squished 16:9 format, mimicking wide-screen TVs. Lots of width, little height. You have to spend big to get a taller 16:10 monitor, $500 or more, and the squarish 4:3 monitors of old are long gone. If you actually use your computer monitor for reading, as more than a few people do, you want a tall screen rather than a wide one. Optimal line width for reading is constrained (traditionally, 66 characters is considered the ideal). Our brains cannot effectively parse long lines. You can't just stretch Word docs or web pages across your massive 1920 screen. If you want more text on screen, you can only go taller. And all computer workers want to read more and scroll less.

Software design has ignored these facts, constantly cramming more and more into the tops and bottoms of our screens. Software and system controls needs to be designed vertically for modern superwide desktops. In this respect, the palette in the previous version of Office for Mac was obvious and brilliant. I've always wished it would find it's way onto the PC. Microsoft has now homogenized the platforms on that account, but in entirely the wrong direction. Oh well. One less reason to feel Mac envy.

21 October 2010


Google gave a graphic shout out to Dizzy Gillespie today on what would have been his 95th birthday (he died in 1993).

I just really discovered jazz about a year ago. After going to a number of concerts and digging into some recordings, I decided it was time to really figure it out. This music that is so compelling but so hard to appreciate. So I watched the Ken Burns documentary (yes, all of it), picked up a couple great books, and started digging into some best-album lists to see which recordings jazz enthusiasts put at the top.

One thing you quickly see is that jazz, from our perspective now, had a brief golden age that produced the preponderance of the top 100 albums. The magic years were from about 1950-65, with it peaking in the late fifties. This music can generally be termed modern jazz, and the varieties developed in the 40s and 50s continue, for all its evolution, to still define jazz today.

The first incarnation of modern jazz was bebop, which changed jazz from dance music (swing) to musicians music. The two main innovators of bebop were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It's because of bebop that jazz today is one of two academic musical genres (the other being classical). It's hard stuff. Hard to listen to and very hard to play. It was created by virtuosos who could not repress themselves, even when people often reacted to their music with shock and dislike. But Gillespie played his music his way his whole life, becoming enormously influential. He is certainly one of the five most important musicians in the history of jazz. The man deserves some respectful thought occasionally, and today was a day for it.

Here's something sweet and cool from Diz.

Dizzy Gillespie Quintet - Tin Tin Deo

True Colors

Anyone who uses a computer ten or more hours a day, like I do, appreciates two things above all else: a good chair and a good monitor. Chairs are easy. Just sell a kidney and buy yourself a Leap. Trust me.

Monitors are harder. Most people just want big and bright, and they want it cheap. The market has responded with a flood of 21.5" to 24" 1920x1080 ("full HD") LCDs. You can buy them any day of the week starting at $170 or less.

But LCD technology is not monolithic. All LCD monitors use the same basic technology, called TFT, but there are various subtypes. At work I use a 5 year-old Dell 2405FPW 24" LCD that has a PVA panel. When introduced, it was probably about $1200.

PVA technology is still used on some high-end monitors. Rather than the now-prevalent 1920x1080 (16:9 ratio), it is sized at 1920x1200 (16:10 ratio). This extra height makes two-page reading much more enjoyable. My old Dell also displays color at full 8-bit color depth (16,777,216 colors).

But all of the big, cheap LCD monitors you see today are based on TN panels. They are at most only 1920x1080, which is fine for movies but lousy for on-screen reading. I personally use my monitor more for reading than movies, but "Great for Reading!" is apparently an unconvincing marketing point.

TN panels are bright and fast, as well as cheap, but they achieve this by compromise: they only display 6-bit color (262,144 colors). They then "simulate" the full 8-bit color gamut with various dithering techniques, which compared side-by-side with true 8-bit color are immediately seen as unconvincing. They also have little stand adjustability, poor viewing angles, uneven backlighting, poor blacks, color casting, clouding and other problems. My cheap Acer monitor at home has all these problems at once.

The best monitors today use IPS panels. All IPS monitors are 8-bit true color (or higher) and have wide viewing angles. They also tend to have much better backlighting and, well, better everything. IPS monitors used to be much more expensive than TN, starting around $500. New IPS technology (e-IPS) has brought down the cost of entry-level IPS monitors dramatically, starting under $250. You still get more when you pay more (wider gamut, better performance, 1920x1200 or higher), but reviews of entry-level models have been positive.

In a post the other week I included a flower photo I made with a Canon EOS-1Ds MkII. It looked wonderful on my 8-bit work monitor, with perfect detail and great color. On my craptastic 6-bit monitor at home, though, the colors were smeared and garish, and some fine details obliterated.

Photographers spend big on great monitors. It's vital to both the
enjoyment of photography and the production of great photos. I'll never settle again for a cheap TN monitor. True color is a must.

19 October 2010

15 October 2010

The New Gap Logo

So Gap has . . . well, had a new logo. For about a week. In case you missed it in the news:

Public flogging has rarely been so entertaining. The new logo appeared on Oct. 4, and the instantaneous and universal mockery of it probably had the designers cleaning out their desks that same day. It would take a dissertation to map the full dimensions of the response.

The site craplogo.me went up straight away, turning whatever text you like into a version of the new logo. A faux Twitter account was created for the logo to explain itself ("The blue square is a scratch-n-sniff"). Eloquent descriptions of its utter failure flooded design and advertising sites. "[It's like] that awkward cap-sleeved tee with the rhinestone letters you find while thrift shopping that’s neither vintage nor new, but definitely not cool.” [1] An interview with the new logo probed its feelings: "The only way to deal with the pain is comfort eating. Pretty soon I'll be type set in Helvetica Neue Black." [2] Deconstructions of the public outcry are appearing. [3] Vanity Fair posted an obit: "The logo passed after a brief and ignominious battle with stage IV banality." [4]

I agree that the design totally blows. With the typeface they chose (Helvetica 75 Bold), placed next to a blue superset window, it reminds me of the the startup screen for Windows XP. I've lost many hours staring at that screen, and I hate it. Anyway, there is nothing interesting about the new logo. It looks undesigned. The blog iso50 has a thread with over 300 user-submitted designs. Subtracting a few that are intended purely as comic, almost every one is better than the new logo. And these were just tossed out.

What went wrong? The amount spent on the redesign was probably staggering. Perhaps millions. That was certainly the heart of the problem. There was no room in this for individual creativity and genius. It was thoroughly a committee product. And some senior decider, a non-designer, was probably really fond of that Windows XP logo. Probably Gap NA president Marka Hansen. [5] I guarantee that person still has their job. The suits never take the fall.

The passion of the public outcry shows what ownership the public feels for corporate branding. We are a consumer society. We co-opt corporate identity as our own identity. If I wear Gap chinos, that logo is my logo, too. And the chino-wearing public has spoken: Hands off my logo.

14 October 2010

Blahg Post

I have the blogging blahs. Mostly due to mental fatigue, and otherwise due to the futility of trying to blog anything that at least 1,436 other bloggers, at that very moment, are not also blogging. There is nothing new under the sun, just endless recombinations.

So I'm just going to blog a few other blogs that I wish were mine. They deal with photography. Naturally. But otherwise, their virtue lies in their narrow topical focus. The essence of art is relentless topicality. Too tired to say much, but here's a half-dozen.

1. 5b4 - A blog on photobooks by a connoisseur's connoisseur. Brilliant books, most of them way off the beaten path, and exceptionally well reviewed.

2. Shorpy - This site posts a new hi-res scan of a historic photographic plate daily. I time-trip on it every single day, and the photography is usually technically impressive. Very impressive. We've now mastered color, but otherwise you quickly learn from Shorpy that still photography reached its technical crescendo a full century ago.

3. tokyo camera style - Nothing but photos of (mostly classic) film cameras that the blogger spots on the streets of Japan. The Japanese love their cameras. I'm staggered by the classics and exotica this guy finds everywhere in common use. Anyone for, say, a pristine Polaroid press camera?

4. Unhappy Hipsters - Another blog that proves every possible subject already has a blog dedicated to it. This one is a subversive critique of the contempory (well, 80 year-old) fetish for the minimalist aesthetic. I'm personally smitten with both minimalism and hipsterism, so this site leaves me rolling. See this post for a keen commentary on it from a photographer's perspective.

5. Prison Photography - This site is as titled: a blog about the photography of prisons. But its purpose, otherwise, is to shine a bright light on the need for prison and sentencing reform. A sustained visual meditation on the socially invisible practice of incarceration.

6. The Photography Post - A live feed aggregator for over 100 of the very smartest photography sites on the Web. Two of the preceding sites (5b4 and Prison Photography) are covered. I've only sampled a few others there so far, but they have been similarly impressive. This is a note to self: go and browse with high intent. An impressive resource.

09 October 2010

05 October 2010

Test Driving a $10,000 Camera

My job in times past has sometimes involved document photography, for which we've used various high-end commercial and professional cameras. I've never used this gear myself. I'm a project supervisor, not a technician. We no longer do this kind of work ourselves, but a pile of our old gear is temporarily parked in my office. Looking at it the other day, I realized I've never pulled any of it out for a test drive. And since it's the nicest equipment I'll probably ever touch, it suddenly seemed irresistible to take it for a spin while I had the chance.

The best digital camera we have is a Canon EOS-1Ds MkII. The 1Ds is Canon's flagship model, though the MkII version is a generation old. Its dinky 2" LCD tells its age, but it's still a thoroughbred and built for serious combat. With a beefy Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L lens on it, it weighs almost six pounds.  I was really starting to notice the weight after just 30min. But I would expect it to contain a bit of metal. The camera cost $8000 new and the lens about $1200. Just the filter on the front cost more than the last compact camera I purchased.

So what's it like using a $10,000 camera? Not so simple. It took me 15min just to figure out how to run it. Three screens, lots of buttons, a single dial (no knobs), and menuing that is completely unlike other Canon DSLRs. I shamefully had to consult the manual.

But shooting with it was a lot of fun. The first time I held it up to my eye was a revelation. The viewfinder is the biggest and brightest of any Canon. Compared to a Rebel-class viewfinder, this baby is IMAX. And then I pushed the shutter, and jumped with surprise. The shutter response is crisp and instantaneous, and sounds amazing. If this were a car, that shutter sound would be the throaty snarl of a Ferrari V12.

The 1Ds MkII has a 16mp full-frame sensor, which means that unlike most DSLRs, there is no crop factor for 35mm lenses. This also demands more of the lens. I was surprised to find that even with this premium L-series lens there was vignetting in the corners when shot wide open at 28mm. The filter may be a bit to blame, though this is a known problem with this lens on this camera. The 1Ds simply demands more of the lens than the film cameras it was originally designed for.

One big upside of a full-frame camera is you have a shallow depth of field that both gives you more creative options and imparts what has come to be regarded as "that pro look" (since compacts can't do it). This lens allows close focus to about 1.5ft, at all focal lengths, which for a non-macro lens is very good. It lets you do this (random desk shot, sorry):

This lens produces fantastic color and contrast, especially for a zoom. I am not a flower photographer, but flowers were what I had to photograph nearby. And I have to admit, the light was perfect and the results beguiled me. My only disappointment is how easy it was to get commercial-quality images with such a great camera and lens. Even just 10 years ago pros were sweating at their craft with fussy Hasselblads and Fuji Velvia slide film to produce work that, in technical terms, was inferior to what a rank amateur like me could get 20 minutes after picking up this camera for the first time.

02 October 2010