_MG_4570, San Jose

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Posted March 28, 2009 | Comments (0)

A Fundamental Problem

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At this point everyone in America and certainly most people in English-speaking countries are aware of last fall's election success of Proposition 8, by which a majority of California voters banned non-pairing non-heterosexual marriage in the state. At its core it opens the curtain not only on the single issue trumpeted on the TV networks (gay marriage), but several: with the toughest, most difficult being those relating to what constitutes a "right" and what status "rights" have against that other favorite human institution: God.

This week the California Supreme Court got an earful of testimony regarding the specific bureaucratic issues relating to the constitutionality of Prop 8. A quick check of the wikipedia entry seems more concerned with celebrities and scandal than core issues. In fact, it's decidedly hard, from the wikipedia article, to actually find the brief text of the "Protection Act":

SECTION I. Title
This measure shall be known and may be cited as the "California Marriage Protection Act."
SECTION 2. Article I.
Section 7.5 is added to the California Constitution. to read:
Sec. 7.5. Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Pithy.

Anti-Prop 8 attorney Therese Stewart puts forward this important question: Can a simple majority use the ballot initiative to take fundamental rights away from historically disfavored minorities? In the past, the California Supreme Court has already defined LGBT people as a protected minority:

...When the court ruled that LGBT people constitute a protected minority, it put anti-gay provisions on the same constitutional footing as provisions that single out people of color, women, or religious minorities; and when it ruled that relegating same-sex couples to domestic partnership instead of civil marriage violated their fundamental right of dignity, the court recognized that the humanity and the equality of LGBT people are inextricably linked.

i wonder if the (largely) religiously-driven campaigns in support of Prop 8 are creating a dangerous precedent for themselves. Consider the standard U.S. government wording relating to the description of groups who are protected from illegal discrimination, here grabbed from Title VII: "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

To my mind, one of these things is not like the others. While race, color, sex, and national origin are innate properties of an individual, properties which were not chosen by that individual and not open to revision, religion is not. There is very clearly no objective case for religion as part of biology or an otherwise innate property of a person. Any christian can declare themselves muslim, any muslim declare themselves scientologist, any scientologist declare themselves tired of the exercise and become a comfortably non-practicing agnostic. It is a choice, a matter of opinion and behavior -- not a fundamental property of the person.

Crucial to the core of religious intolerance toward homosexuality is the assertion that homosexuality is a sin -- and of course the very nature of sin is that humans make choices which are contrary to the rules set by God (or so the theory goes). If homosexuality is behavior, and behaviors are not protected as rights, then religious advocates are setting themselves up by saying that there is some more basic principle that divides rights from privileges.

Worse yet, for the faithful, is that research increasingly indicates that homosexuality is just the part of the individual's biology, that it is an innate part of their person. At which point, if homosexuality is simply part of the description of gender, then Title VII's protection (along with that of other statues) relating to "sex" kicks in, and with it a host of legal challenges can be made, with healthy precedents regarding gender rights issues, to ensure the equal civil rights of LBGT people (and such implicit rights would likewise function against the notion, already proposed by some christian evangelicals, that "pre-natal anti-gay treatment" should be used (without dealing with the probably more difficult question of "what sort of prenatal treatment do you think would work?") -- after all, if gender is protected, then doctors would have no rights to alter or suppress it, given that the same fundamentalist demographic also asserts that embryos are persons with rights. Or would they be willing to forgo that assertion for the sake of their homophobia?).

(Or would they dare to say that religion has a biological basis but then run the risk of admitting that it's all in their neurology? Where's the tax break in that?)

Of course, one can rarely find rational, objective basis in fields like government and religion. Religion in particular operates explicitly on the principle that it is not subject to rational discourse or to any requirement for objectivity (which includes, of course, all questions about biological bases and similar medical or scientific "obfuscations"). Which is fine -- as opinions are -- as long as it stays away from attempts to assert these unfounded (err, carefully designed to be unfoundable!) ideas up as the (legal) basis of objective behavior and restrictions to be imposed on everyone else.

This is in itself a paradox: if God is all-powerful, then why do humans need to be enforcing God's opinion? If homosexuality is a sin, don't they believe God will sort it out and punish (or reward) the right people at the right time? Or is being trapped in a world full of irrational paranoia punishment enough?

Posted March 22, 2009 | Comments (0)

_MG_4504, US-101 North of Google

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In the film Repo Man, Tracy Walter's character opines: "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are," a line I've glibly repeated ever since hearing it.

That line has always felt true, and the central kernel of it is this: intelligence doesn't really enter into it. No matter how intelligent, no matter how fit, no matter how wealthy, no matter how experienced, no matter how good you could be, you simply won't be. Michael Schumacher has essentially no advantage whatsoever in commuting when compared, say, to a semi-paralysed 87-year-old illiterate who forgot to bring her glasses. A $400K Mercedes has no operational advantage over a rattling secondhand Kia in over in 95% of real traffic. They will all arrive at the same time: late.

Short of hiring a driver (or a helicopter pilot), there's little to be done about it. At least one can try to use the time that highway commuting wastes, as I do with podcasted lectures and the like, but you need to do it at the expense of both reduced safety (attention distracted by learning) and reduced learning (attention distracted by a non-signaling white pickup suddenly veering left through the three lanes in front of you). No wonder idiots like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk can dominate radio: their listeners are strapped and buckled into their chairs, and intelligent consideration is a freeway hazard. It's a motorized version of the Ludovico technique.

Year after year Moore's Law accelerates the information superhighway by a sizable margin; year after year we have quicker computers and related circuits to drive our businesses and media, yet every year the nearly-straight slice of Highway 101 between the offices of Intel and Oracle gets slower, more choked, more dangerous. It's astounding to think how many people willingly burn an hour or two of every day having to deal with mortal terror -- not in an abstract way, but dealing with traffic jams and seeing the ambulances on a regular basis.

It's a perpetual puzzle to me. Cars kill us on the street, they choke us, isolate us, they cloak the planet in hot carbon, drown our cities, and yet we still obsess over them. News reports on global warming run side-by-side with "most popular story" links on "top cars of 2009." The rack of car magazines at Borders is even larger than that for fashion rags.

Repo Man was right -- and worse, the more each of us drives, the less intelligent we all are, collectively. In simple economic terms this is a gigantic drag on the social and financial state of the world. Why, exactly, are so people many willing to toss themselves into debt for the latest hulking SUV, and governments & industry so timid about even suggesting alternatives?

Posted March 19, 2009 | Comments (2)

No Clear-Cut Blacks and Whites

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Wayne Levin w/Akule

For those who think that monochrome != contemporary, stop reading here.

After a long break we finally got a chance to head up for a lecture at PhotoAlliance during the weekend -- a special session featuring not one or two but four different photographer speakers, as part of the launch of the PhotoAlliance Our World Portfolio Review.

Of the four photographers showing work that night, all of them showed black and white imagery -- and all for different reasons:

Mark Klett showed both his own b&w photos as well as those he culled from history, embedded and impacted with modern color shots of the same places. One could see his work as using b&w for nostalgic reasons here; instead, he seems to be grasping at the idea of imaging practice that evolves and changes with humanity even as the western landscape's rocks and chasms remain.

Wayne Levin's Hawaiian undersea work is b&w, so he says, largely because the color available from underwater equipment, even digital, is just plain poor. As a diver I have to agree -- without flash, working close, there are no colors but shades of blue, even at moderate depths. Underwater work is a classic case of how color's "realism" can vary widely from the subjective experience -- while diving your eye becomes accustomed quickly to the low light and limited palette, while the camera -- even a digital camera -- does not. By styling in monochrome and controlling the contrast, Levin's photos are both more dramatic and true to their situation.

Camille Solyagua's photos do pursue a decided nostalgic bent, with works made in 19th-century museum archives and more modern ones with much the same feel, not unlike a natural history collection by Blossfeldt but with a very different intent, less focused on scientific cataloging and more on the objects -- not as scientific specimens but as cultural ones. She also has created numerous photograms using refracted light through liquids (less successful imo). Her comments about ending the use of film and silver-based paper indicate to me that she may have abandoned that direction for a while.

Arno Rafael Minkinnen chose black and white early in his career, around the time he first chose to work exclusively with the nude figure and for a similar reason: to make the work more permanent, to avoid making the photographs' intent be overwhelmed by fashion. 1985, 2004, 1978, 1848...? All the same tones, and all of them, in their various moments of capture, "as alive as anything."

Four artists, four different rationales -- it's tough to imagine how any of the B&W work that any of them showed could be remotely improved by the addition of color. Klett's ancestral saguaros or time series? Akule-school vortices? Dead rats? Some guy hiding behind a tree? In every case a "realistic" color application would have simply stamped-out both the mystery and meaning in these works.

Can color work engage us in similar ways? Perhaps. Is color needed? Obvious not. But I do wince every time I hear comments about photographs by reviewers, editors, and dealers who opine "sadly it's not in color" -- it pains me to think that their viewing eyes have developed such narrow mannerisms.

Posted March 16, 2009 | Comments (1)

P1010308, Madrid

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Posted March 15, 2009 | Comments (0)

Three

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I've been shooting for some time now with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (aka Leica D-Lux 4, more or less). I've come to think that it's overall the best small camera I've ever used.

As a companion to my previous LX1 and LX2 notes, here's a personalized LX3 overview.

For myself, the key refinements over the previous cameras are:

Speed of Recording
The LX3 shoots RAW files quickly. No seven- or five-second waits.
Speed of Operation
The addition of the little AF-assist button lets you use the AF selectively, much like the Canon "Custom-Function-4" -- that is, leave the focus-mode selector on Manual and just use the AF intermittently, selectively. So "quick mode" is: MF w/auto-assist + manual exposure (alternatively, zone-focus:zoomed all the way out to 24mm gives a zone focus (at f/8) from a half-meter to infinity).
Hot Shoe
This one I was slow to warm to, and the dedicated-synchro connector I haven't used -- but with manual strobes (or a radio trigger), it's a terrific tool and it synchs at all speeds.
Faster Lens, Better Low-Light Performance
The higher ISO's are much improved, while the extra stop worth of light lets you get more out of the low ones.

That's really it! A short list but each item has had a big impact.

My (small) bag currently contains the stuff shown in the top snapshot: the LX3, a corded manual strobe, and my LX2 as a backup for shots that can benefit from its slightly longer lens.

In a pinch, the whole kit (plus spare batteries, SD cards, & a pocket notebook) can be transfered from bag to a few coat pockets.

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ISO 100 with Vivitar 285 dialed down to 1/16 power

The Canon 5D usually sits at home -- more powerful, faster, but comparatively huge. As they say, the best camera is the one in your hand.

Some other new LX3 attributes I've found useful though less crucial:

HD Video
I can imagine this being a killer app for some people. It hasn't been, for me (though I've used it on occasion).
Face Recognition AF
Again, this is very cool as a "geek factor" feature, but I haven't found a use for it. Yet.
External Viewfinder
I was so excited about this at first. I have a Voigtlander 25mm finder that works reasonably (though it blocks the built-in flash) and a 50mm finder that corresponds well to the LX3's long end. The "LCD display off" feature is a nice touch. Yet the truth is that the LCD is excellent and besides, I'm a comfortable LX hip shooter.
Auxiliary Lenses
The 24-60mm range is already just about perfect for me, and carrying around extra stuff makes the camera unwieldy and hard to store. This likewise applies to filters & other sorts of "system accessories." I'm already toting a strobe that's bigger than the camera!

There is an array of other subtle improvements and alterations, which I appreciate though they're not game-changers in the manner of those other big features. I really get the impression that the design work was done by someone who actually uses the product. What a concept, so unlike most other compact designs, which tend to focus more on body styling, fashionable colors, and confusing on-screen menus. The Pana-Leica designers really seem to get the idea that the camera is a device for the hand; that the eye should be taking pictures, not navigating camera controls.

What about hacks?

So far, only one: A strip of tape across the top of the lens to keep the aspect-ratio switch firmly locked to 16:9 -- I have an annoying habit of bumping and otherwise moving it when the camera is coming in and out of the bag or my pockets.

I'm not alone in my admiration of the camera's redesign, there's already a swarm of fan web pages, sites, and dedicated groups for it, more than for the previous LX's and possibly driven by some apparently photographer-savvy people at Lumix marketing (I suspect that the growth of LX3-specific product-fan pages has already peaked -- like all modern products, the marketing life of the LX3 is as brief as a flower's, already past its prime while the sales machine is preparing for their next round of new-and-exciting. But this means little to those of use who see cameras as tools rather than as consumer fashion items).

Features I Never Use

Maybe someone can clue me in on uses for these geek-factor checklist items that have simply slipped right past my imagination.

Photo Audio
Besides the fact that this doesn't work with RAW, it makes the camera stop for several seconds after the exposure, while it records audio. Does anyone use this?
Kid and Pet Names
Do you really need to fiddle around with a menu to decide who you're going to snap before photographing "BABY2"? Won't you recognize them later?
Direct-from-Camera Printing
Another feature I've never seen anyone use, other than the souvenir-photo guys trolling around amusement park entrances and national monuments.

What Next?

No tool is perfect for all things. It's hard to imagine a range of improvements for an LX4 that would be as significant as those that the LX3 already has over the LX1 & 2. Not that that would stop me from dreaming up my own list of suggestions:

Instant On
This can't happen for a retractable-lens compact. Or can it? I can imagine that it the camera could detect that the auxiliary-lens/filter extension tube were attached, then the lens could be told not to retract. Then it's just the electronics, which could easily reduce the turn-on time from a few seconds to a few tiny fractions.
Zoom While Shooting Video
Come on, why doesn't anyone support this well?
Locks
This is the "Kevin is clumsy" feature. I often accidentally press the [+/-] or [flash control] buttons on the back of the camera while shooting. Then I have to stop, look at the menu, turn them off again. I'd like some way to tell the camera "I am shooting now, all settings buttons should be ignored until further notice." You might think that pressing AE-Lock (even in manual mode) might do this, but: not today.
Webcam Mode
This seems an obvious plus for such a useful travel camera (and if you can feed live images from USB, you could potentially let the user shoot tethered, too).
Mic Input
Then again, if you could record video tethered, you could just use your laptop.

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Posted March 11, 2009 | Comments (0)

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Posted March 10, 2009 | Comments (1)

 

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