blarg?

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A little while ago, the espresso machine in our office broke down. This doomsday scenario is, and I say this without the least bit of hyperbole, the most catastrophically dire situation that can exist in this or any other possible universe. If the intertubes felt slow for you the last few weeks, that’s probably why.

After a while, I started asking a colleague, Sean Martell, to ‘shop up some old war propaganda every few days, to express our dismay.

So, here you go.

We Need Coffee To Survive

It Can Happen Here

We Can Do It

Mercifully it is now fixed, and productivity should normalize in a day or two.

Ready To Go

Maya packed her bag, put her boots on and told me she was ready to leave home this morning.

Well, that happened a little sooner that I expected. I suppose I’m going to have to get used to this feeling-very-proud-while-wanting-to-cry feeling.

Polaroid

I bought a beat-up Polaroid Spectra at a garage sale last week, and a single unopened package of Polaroid film in unknown condition. It cost me two dollars, and it’s the first time I’ve ever actually used one; I shot them all on the walk to the bakery with Maya, and she was confused and thrilled that the camera hummed and buzzed and spit out actual pictures. Physicalism! Imagine the novelty of it!

She was pretty sad after the tenth picture when I told her that no more could come out. Because cameras can take pictures forever, right? They don’t “run out” of anything, that’s ridiculous. She asked me if I needed to charge the batteries; the idea that a camera would just stop working is so brain-damaged and broken that it’s outside her understanding. I told her that the camera she was holding would never take another picture and she seemed genuinely hurt, like I was scolding her for breaking it.

“It won’t work again, Maya. Sorry.”

“Is it broken?”

“In a sense, yeah. In a lot of ways.”

“Oh. What happened to it?”

“I think, it’s … Progress, kid. Progress happened to it.”

I’ll try to explain it to her again when she’s older, but by then we’ll be playing so far past this that it’s hard to imagine she’ll care about it beyond humoring crazy old Dad while he’s telling one of his weird stories.

I have no sentimental attachment to the hardware, here – Polaroids are kind of dumb by 21st century standards, no matter what the fetishists tell you – but I have more than a little for my subject. So here you go, Maya. I’ve put most of these into a frame, for art’s sake; maybe someday you’ll like it for the kitsch value. Probably not; that is the way of things, but maybe. I’ll probably still be fond of it. Either way this is quite likely the last Polaroid I’ll ever shoot; I’ve always loved how much enthusiasm you can squeeze out of that smile.

The Last Polaroid I'll Ever Shoot

Meta, Circular

I took this picture of Maya taking a picture of a Skype session with her grandfather, in which the camera on my computer embedded a picture of her in the corner of the picture his computer took of him holding up a picture of me from when I was 12 years old, holding a camera. While thinking to myself privately that Douglas Hofstadter was, on reflection, a bit of a simpleton.

It took me a few minutes to shake this moment off, let me tell you.

Nearing Sundown

I own a DSLR and take a lot of pictures, which makes me an authority on the subject of cameras and photography, and guarantees that every time my shutter snaps, magic happens. It said so right there on the receipt.

Now, that is obvious nonsense, but I get asked a lot of questions about cameras anyway. I carry around an SLR sometimes, so people ask me what camera should I buy or how do I take better pictures, just a bunch of stuff I don’t always have answers for. Honestly: my occasional hobby is buying cheap, weird old lenses and filters off Craigslist and seeing what kind of pictures I can take with them, because I think not knowing how things are going to turn out is fun, but that’s the extent of my qualifications.

I take a lot of pictures, go me, and some of them come out OK.

Focused

But this little rant was brought on when I saw someone just recently with obviously no idea what they were buying drop two grand on a camera they’ll likely never really use, much less take a decent picture with. The most cringeworthy bit was when the person asked which, of a prime or zoom lens, would “take better pictures”.

So I thought I should get this out there. Having done this in an amateur capacity for two or three years, here’s entirety of my thinking on buying and using cameras.

The first thing is: don’t buy a DSLR. Just don’t. Get yourself a competent point-and-shoot. Don’t skimp on the memory card; buy a large one from a reputable brand, but buying last year’s cameras on sale is a good idea. Don’t spend a lot of money; just learn to use it well enough that you can go from off and in your pocket to on and taking pictures in one motion with one hand. Fiddle around with the menus until you’ve turned off digital zoom and the flash, carry it with you wherever you go, and when you see something you’d like to take a picture of, take a picture of it.

Gate And Sky

Take lots and lots and lots of pictures. Don’t take the kind of pictures you think you should take; take pictures of the things you find interesting. You’re taking the whole picture, not just the subject; frame the subject in the shot. Move around, just for the change in perspective, and take more pictures.

You can expect to take a few dozen or hundred pictures for every one that’s even kind of good, and strangely as you get more experienced that number will get higher, not lower; the bar you set for yourself will get higher faster than you improve. But now that pictures are just about free that’s a good thing: failure is more informative than success when you’re just starting out. The Rule Of Thirds will get you a long way here, so keep it in mind.

Phone

So by and large what kind of pictures are you taking? What works well, what doesn’t? What is great, what isn’t and why? Are you zoomed all the way in most of the time, or all the way out? Are they mostly scenery, mostly people? Plants, cars? Are they mostly moving, or are they sitting still for you? With that information, do you still enjoy taking pictures?

Are you still interested in getting better at this? If so, and with all that information, consider buying yourself a DSLR, maybe.

You can blow up a 6 megapixel shot to a 20″x30″ print and they look great, so megapixels are an irrelevant metric. This is doubly true in this modern age where virtually all your picture-viewing happens on a screen; your top-of-the-line 1080p HDTV is a whopping two megapixels; extremely expensive computer monitors might go as high as three. All cameras, and indeed almost all lenses, have been better than that for a couple of years.

Buy used, if you have that option; expensive cameras do not promise good photos, and digital camera prices drop like a rock. I shoot Nikon, but from what I hear the rule of thumb is “If you shoot things that are mostly moving, Canon. If you’re shooting things that mostly aren’t, Nikon”. That said, when you see a guy winning a Pulitzer with a $30 piece-of-crap Holga, you’ve got to know that ultimately the technology is secondary. If you’ve had your point-and-shoot for a year and haven’t shot a few thousand pictures with it, looked at them and thought about them, don’t buy anything, why are you even doing this? If you don’t go places just to take pictures of whatever’s there, don’t waste your money; if you don’t take a lot of photos, having a lot of camera won’t help.

Self

If you’re buying the camera as a kit, as entry-level DSLRs are often sold, you will often have the option to upgrade to a slightly better zoom lens. Did your point and shoot spend all its time zoomed all the way in, while you took pictures of stuff a ways away? If so, and if you have the means, spring for the longer lens. If not, save your money and in a couple of weeks or months buy the cheapest prime lens you can find.

Paint Over Concrete

You now have more camera than you’ll likely ever need. You can learn a lot about the bells and whistles that modern cameras provide, but my advice is to the same as it was for the point-and-shoot; set it to JPEG-Fine and no-flash and take lots and lots more pictures. Keep your point-and-shoot in your pocket anyway; as always, the best camera you can get is the one that will be in your hand when the shot comes along.

If anyone has any other advice, I’d love to hear it. That’s all I have.

Division

My wife and I went out for dinner at the Danforth Dragon who, somewhat silly website aside, make very good and interesting food. They would have my unqualified endorsement if it weren’t for the fact that, to wrap up the meal, they gave my wife a fortune cookie with not one but two fortunes in it, one of which read “You will make many changes before settling down happily” and the other reading “You will take a chance in the near future”.

Mine, for completeness sake, was something entirely pedestrian about friends being important. True! But not relevant to the problem at hand, if you see what I mean.

So, ominous! And no combination of arbitrary in-bed or pants-related subordinate clauses have allayed my suspicions. I was thinking about this in the subway the next day, a conveyance whose windows are 1/4″ thick; not something you’d normally notice, but it does give you a barely discernible and slightly offset reflection. Just enough to make my reflection look like it was wearing two identical wedding rings.

Everything is fine, you know? We’re good! I’m totally happy! But that was weird, seemingly all at once like that, the sort of thing that tips the more precariously off-kilter all the way over. Lucky for me, I’m completely sane. So, listen, it’s completely OK go eat at the Danforth Dragon, the food’s great, but if you catch them conspiring with the TTC to screw up your relationship, just leave a decent tip and get the rest of the meal to go.

East From Spadina

Like alcoholism and pyromania, in moderation paranoia can be a lot of fun. So if you’re interested in making your commute just a little bit surreal or add a certain cold war East-Berlin-chic to your next get together, I have quite a treat for you.

Numbers Stations are shortwave radio stations that transmit seemingly-random sets of numbers, repeated in sequence, on some arbitrary schedule; they’re guaranteed not to mean anything to anyone except for the shadowy figure with the right one-time pad, for whom those numbers will magically become their next marching orders through the magic of crypto.

But since it’s shortwave, anyone with a shortwave radio can tune in, and the Conet Project has collected several CDs worth of transmissions from all over the world. And if you grew up reading John Le Carré these crackling synthesized tones and strange recitations will speak to you through a code that means nothing; they will make you think of dimly-lit meetings in the cold alleys of East Berlin, of dead drops, safe houses, microfilm and old men with old secrets.

The Conet Project isn’t selling the CDs anymore, but they’re all downloadable, so put it on shuffle and head to work, looking over your shoulder the entire time. That woman with the loose suit-jacket? She’s wired. That guy with the moustache? He’s an informant, guaranteed. Don’t look him in the eye. Those two guys on the train with you, who were were on the streetcar too?

They’re on to you, man. You’re blown.

Run.

Under A Blood Red Sky

This looked like a thin crescent moon against a cloudless, nighttime background to my simple human eyes. I took it outside my second-floor window through a screen at a quarter to four in the morning.

I can’t sleep. And it came out a half-moon under a rusted-out alien sky, the one hydro line across the shot turning into the light trail of some imagined passing vessel.

A little surprising, but pleasantly. I still love you, D40.

I’m so tired.