Friday, 21 June 2019

From the Earth to the Moon: My Apollo Space Nerd Film List

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLA. -- Former Apollo astronauts meet with the media at the Apollo/Saturn V Center prior to an anniversary banquet highlighting the contributions of aerospace employees who made the Apollo program possible. From left are Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin who flew on Apollo 11, the launch to the moon; Gene Cernan, who flew on Apollo 10 and 17; and Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. This is the 30th anniversary of the launch and moon landing, July 16 and July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLA. -- Former Apollo astronauts meet with the media at the Apollo/Saturn V Center prior to an anniversary banquet highlighting the contributions of aerospace employees who made the Apollo program possible. From left are Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin who flew on Apollo 11, the launch to the moon; Gene Cernan, who flew on Apollo 10 and 17; and Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. This is the 30th anniversary of the launch and moon landing, July 16 and July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. Source:

I’ll admit it. I’m a space nerd. I am a complete and utter space nerd. Specifically of the “space” that occupied the popular imagination from the years 1957–1975. The “space” of the Space Race, which saw the United States and the Soviet Union battle for supremacy of the heavens and be the first to step foot on the Moon. A battle you could play on your computer in the obscure strategy game Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space (no longer “Buzz Aldrin’s” for licensing reasons, but nonetheless available for FREE download). Play me via mail with difficulty set to 3 and historical model ON. I DARE YOU.

But I digress. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the mission which launched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins not only to the Moon, but into the annals of history reserved for Washingtons, Napoleons, Caesars and Cleopatras.

There’s a quote from Armstrong—one which doesn’t involve steps or leaps small or large—from the last milestone anniversary of Apollo 11. The last milestone, it would turn out, where all three of the original crew would be alive to mark it. In a rare public appearance, Armstrong said how kids used to come up to him and tell him they had learned about him in science class. Now (in 2009), they come up and say they had learned about him in history class. Time does not stop, particularly for those fated to become a great of history.

I remember well the 30th anniversary of the moon landing. I was about 11 and it consumed a good portion of the first half of 1999 for me. I’ve often felt like someone born out of time, from my love of film photography, to my taste in music, films and desire to consume alcohol in the workplace. Never have I felt that sense more acutely than in June and July of 1999. I was in awe of the Space Race, particularly of the milestones that got the technology (then humans) into orbit and on to the Moon. But no one—bar my wonderful science teacher—seemed to share my wonder. There were no great museums of industry and technology in Melbourne (or Australia for that matter) that put the Space Race front and centre like riches of the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Space Centre or Huntsville. Although “we” in Australia had played a key role in the success of the entire US space program and of Apollo 11 in particular, I felt, at this time, this was not recognised or well remembered (thankfully Working Dog Productions would rectify this the following year with The Dish).

The Internet (sic.)—also known as the Information Superhighway—helped immensely to feed my passion. NASA was in the midst of their own public digital revolution, having recently published the comprehensive Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and making available freely and easily the best photographs from the Apollo program. I got in heaps for downloading several 400kb JPEGs, clogging up the phone line, but holy Alan Shepard, I’d be damned if I’d ever seen anything so beautiful in my hitherto short life. It’s amazing how good JPEGs that size look on a 640x480 screen.

But most memorably of all for me were the movies and documentaries that brought history to vivid life. Firstly, there was Apollo 13 which, even though covered an entirely different mission, featured the best (to date) filmed representation of a Saturn V launch. And boy...that subwoofer (a feeling I’d only know once I had the DVD and a surround sound system). Then there was a little-seen TV movie called—imaginatively—Apollo 11 which dramatised the leadup to the eponymous mission and the landing. I think I originally saw it on channel 10, but it lived on—like so many childhood memories—on a VHS recording. I don’t remember much about it, other than Xander Berkeley (who was in Apollo 13 and would go on to play George Mason in 24) was Buzz Aldrin and it probably isn’t as good as First Man.

Above both of these, though, sat the defining television experience for 1990s Richard (aside from A*Mazing, Captain Planet and Widget the World Watcher). From the Earth to the Moon was a 1998 HBO miniseries, before anyone—in Australia at any rate—knew what that really meant. Its twelve parts charted the epic journey of American manned space exploration from the chalkboard calulations of ex-Nazi engineers through to the end of Apollo (with a detour to 1902 to witness Georges Méliès making the journey on 845 feet of celluloid before astronauts would make it on 7.5 million pounds of thrust). And, oh my gosh, that Michael Kamen score.

Although such a series could, in lesser hands, fall into a docudrama funk, each episode is written and directed by its own creative team, leaving each one with its own unique feeling and flavour. The executive creative team of Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer ensure coherence and consistency, but never compromise. The narrative’s points of view vary from episode to episode, each focusing on a different element that ultimately constitutes the whole. Even though that “whole” is NASA of the 1960s, the sum of its parts does indeed—somehow—feel greater than the whole. If I had to pick two standout episodes, they’d be the sombre and underplayed Apollo 1 and Spider, dramatising the conception and construction of the Lunar Module. But there’s too much goodness in this series to fit in these bulging paragraphs—MARK FU$#ING HARMON—so I’ll just finish it up with this: From the Earth to the Moon has been confined to cable TV (how I first viewed it—thanks Optus Vision!), VHS, then two versions on DVD. Next month it’s out on Blu Ray and I will delight in watching it anew as soon as it is out.

To mark this most awesome of milestones, the golden anniversary of humanity’s greatest achievement, I will be watching the best of the best of films about or pertaining to Apollo 11 and the Apollo program. If I find the time (heh) I might even write a few words about them as I go. In no particular order:
  1. For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989) 
  2. Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995) 
  3. In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington and Christopher Riley, 2007) 
  4. The Dish (Rob Sitch, 2000) 
  5. First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018) 
  6. When We Left Earth: the NASA Missions (Discovery, 2008)
  7. The Space Race (Christopher Spencer and Mark Everest, 2005) 
  8. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, 2019) SEEING IT IMAX, BEACHES 
  9. From the Earth to the Moon (HBO, 1998) BLU RAY ARRIVING AT MY DOOR 17 JULY!! 
Godspeed, movie watcher.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Alphasmart Neo 2: the Anti-Winword.exe

The following was written on my latest acquisition: an Alphasmart Neo 2 word processor. It's basically the world's least impressive LCD screen mated to a a full-sized keyboard. For a writer, it is mana from heaven in a world riven with gadgets and gizmos of increasing price and decreasing utility. Despite its spartan appearance, the Neo 2 is not all that old, its manufacturer only ending production in 2013. Its sheer existence—in the post-convergence period—is a miracle worth exploring later on. But now, the words.

Here I am. Typing away for the first time on this thing. Just me, a proper keyboard and my words, displayed on the world’s most piss-poor LCD screen. I’m in heaven.

Introducing the Alphasmart Neo 2. In this age of convergence—let’s face it, post-convergence—this is a device which does one thing and nothing else. It’s a word processor, not dissimilar to the types which used to be mated to a printer/typewriter thing, and spit out the fruits of it labour on the wonderful dot matrix printer paper I and many of my cohort grew up drawing on. I feel I can just write with this thing. It doesn’t matter much what I write, but the words are coming down the fingers. I expect such a device will get some looks, but it works really well. So well, I might have grab a couple of them to ensure I have a backup or two.

I think I can probably just sit here and watch the world going by. My touch typing is okay, although I have some troubles as I migrate between Mac and PC keyboards. The Apple Extended Keyboards—the best keyboards ever made—mark their home keys as K and G; PC keyboard tend to mark F and J. Take a look on your keyboard, they’re little bumps which help tell the fingers where to go next. But I digress, none of this should prevent me from writing something of at least a vague interest on here. And technological determinism is bullshit.

I wouldn’t call myself a writer, but words matter to me. Words matter to me so much that I piss about trying to find not only the perfect words, but the perfect tool with which to scribe them. I was listening to an interview with Geoff Dyer recently on the sort of podcast that talks a lot about Writing (with a capital W). Dyer is, of course, an incredibly talented yet incredibly unpretentious writer who has a knack for making almost any topic interesting. His latest book is a blow-by-blow critique—though 'critique' is far too serious a descriptor—of the Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood film Where Eagles Dare.

The interviewer asked whether Dyer has any particular writing system (longhand; word processor) or whether he has anywhere in particular he must write. Dyer gave one of those disarming answers that fills mere mortal wordsmiths with joy. He, of course, uses a computer (what sane person wouldn’t) but can write almost anywhere or—as he corrects himself—he can not write anywhere, that is to say it is equally easy and equally difficult regardless of his location.

That is, I reckon, an entreaty to all of us to get out (or in) there and get those words on the page. They won’t write themselves. Now, how the fuck do I get the words out of here?

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Microsoft Word sucks so much I can't even be bothered coming up with a pun for this title

Microsoft Word for Mac. Version 16.23. Look at that goddamn paste options pane. WTF even is that? Who needs that many pasting options????

Writing is important to me. Words are much of my life, whether it’s my day job in marketing or teaching my three year-old seven syllable words (/ˌpætʃɪˌkɛfələˈsɑːrəs/). Words are my trade and like all tradesmen, I need good tools to get the job done.

For paper-based scribing, I use a Lamy Safari fountain pen which is a nice balance between practicality and pretension. For the computer-based input, I use an Apple Extended Keyboard II (I’ve got a few units and the requisite adaptors—enough to have one at home and one at the office). These are good tools—in fact the mechanical AEKII is regarded by some as the “best keyboard ever made”. But moving away from the hardware of writing to the software, things very quickly fall apart.

Word “processing” has, at various stages of the term’s use, meant an electronic typewriter, a piece of software and even a person trained to type. These days, it almost exclusively refers to software and the first piece of word processing software that springs to most people’s mind is the Monopoly Man of the digital word: Microsoft Word.

In which Microsoft Word is a bloated piece of crap

I know, it's fashionable to hate Word. Once upon a time, it was a plucky newcomer, competing with the big boys in the world of word processing. But now it is an ungainly, bloated piece of crap that claims to do too many things and doesn't do any of them particularly well.

At uni, I spent several years trying to come to grips with the intricacies of Word. I thought that if Word was everywhere, it must be OK, right? Somehow, it must be my own technical knowledge that was lacking. All I needed to do was learn...and I would win at Word! Hahaha, you poor fool, naive dummy past Richard.

Turned out there wasn't any real level of insight or knowledge that would make Word do as you vainly commanded. I found this out through my own blood, sweat and tears—well sweat and tears anyway—after coming close to losing my sanity writing my parliamentary internship report (complete with tables, breakouts and charts) with Word. Actually writing "with" Word probably doesn't do justice to those months of toil. I completed my report "despite" Word? Wrestling with the keys of fate, linked charts of catastrophe and wretched text wrapping of wickedness, I toiled to complete, against all odds, my parliamentary internship report? Hmm. Better. I mean whose sphincter hasn't irreparably tightened when an attempt to nudge an image one millimetre up the page results in the disappearance and dislodging of 46 pages of carefully laid-out text, charts and tables?

In fact, if I had the power to eradicate something from the surface of the earth, Word would rank highly on any list I dreamt up. Sure, it would probably sit behind war, famine and plague, but it would be higher than most others would place a software package. Why? Because Microsoft Word is a plague. It is like a virus that has infected almost every home and commercial computer.

Word is so bad that this is where I invoke Adobe in a positive light(room)

For me, I’d like to invoke Adobe as an example of one way forward for Microsoft and Word—yep, a I'm citing Adobe as a positive paradigm...the world has gone topsy-turvy. Adobe, like Microsoft, has a bit of a problem with legacy. Where Lightroom was once a revolutionary program for editing and managing digital assets, a dozen years of legacy coding have left recent releases running very slowly, even on blazing fast machines.

To address these issues (and ready the program for a cloud-based future) Adobe has released a reimagining of Lightroom called Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud). This version is entirely new and shares only a name with the older software. Developers are unencumbered by 12 year-old code free of the restraints of backwards compatibility. They are free to develop a program for the future of photography, not the legacies of the past. But Adobe hasn’t killed the “old” Lightroom. They rechristened the original version Lightroom “Classic” and are continuing to develop and support both programs side by side. The intention, however, is clear: the future is Lightroom CC, but we’ll have a while to adjust.

Adobe’s solution to the legacy problem is the best of both worlds. Developing for the new paradigm while supporting the old. Now why can’t Microsoft—with their subscription service and large development teams—think about doing the same. Do we really need word processing, charts, tables, mail merge, Word Art, shadows, outlines, address books, templates, ducking autocorrect, auto formatting or “smart” tags in one program? Or do writers want to sit down and write?

Funnily enough, Microsoft have actually done this already...kind of. In moving the focus of Office to the 365 subscription service, Microsoft developed Word Online as part of the package. This allows subscribers to view and edit documents in a web browser without opening the desktop app—so basically Google Docs, but you have to pay for it and it's still the same Microsoft rubbish. It's too baroque for my liking, but it's a step in the right direction.

And yes, Microsoft Word of 2019 is better than Word of, say, 2003, but the improvements are mostly ribbon deep. I still find myself stuck in a type-autocorrect-backspace-retype-autocorrect again-backspace-retype-autocorrect yet again loop, expecting the software to understand after the first two corrections that I did indeed want to begin the next line with a lower case letter. And don't get me started on formatting...that styles pane is a goddamn pain should you dare want anything other than Verdana or that standard bearer of default mediocrity: Calibri. Sure, the menus have been cleaned up, but I'll be damned if I don't spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find how to switch a function off after accidentally turning it on through an inadvertent key stroke.

Beware the Anonymous Capybara...

It’s often noted that George R.R. Martin still writes using WordStar 4.0 on a DOS-based machine. In his words, it does everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t. Plenty of niche developers out there are working on word processing software to meet this criterion—which is fine—but the monopolistic leaders in this space are doing nothing to improve the lot of the rest of us. As much as I'd like to take Ulysees or Scrivener into the workplace, it would not be accepted by the powers that be as a replacement for Word. Where is the business-friendly commercial word processing product that does everything we need and nothing we don't? Oh hi, Google Docs. I see you there. Yep, I think you're about ready for the big long as some anonymous capybara doesn't edit you off course...

Instead of burying the bloat in the “ribbon”, perhaps Microsoft can stop and think about their baby from the ground up. Maybe then I’ll shudder less whenever I see a .docx attached to an email in my inbox and I’ll open it without cursing the sender and the medium.

Further Reading

Death to Word by Tom Scocca (2012)
Why Microsoft Word must Die by Charlie Stross (2013)
WordStar: A writer's word processor by Robert J. Saywer (1990, updated in 1996)

This post was drafted in Notes for iOS on an iPhone XS. Notes is a simple cloud-based word processor which comes with Apple iOS. It's actually pretty useful, as is its MacOS version.

The typing experience on the iOS varies from mediocre to terrible, but I’ve used plenty of laptop keyboards worse than an iPhone’s touchscreen. 

It was edited in Google Docs on a desktop computer (with Apple Extended Keyboard II) before making the jump to the Blogger CMS. 

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

15* Days Which Would Be More Appropriate as Australia Day than January 26

Photo: Phil Whitehouse, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
*I'm adding some additional brilliant brain farts as they come

1 January — Constitution of Australia comes into force (1901)
3 March — Commencement of the Australia Act (1986), which finally instituted Australia's legal independence from the UK
3 March — Graham Kennedy's infamous 'crow call' on The Graham Kennedy Show (1975)
3 March — Tony Abbott's then-record 'eight flag' press conference, featuring the PM flanked by — you guessed it — EIGHT Australian flags (2015)*
15 March — First Cricket Test Match (1877)
16 March — Advisory Council of Science and Industry formed by PM Billy Hughes. It would become CSIRO (1916)
18 March — Neighbours first aired (1985)
29 March — First Federal Election (1901)
30 April — Nikki Webster's birthday (1987)
21 May — Assent of Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 extending electoral franchise to Indigenous Australians for the first time
27 May — Henry Parkes' birthday (1815)
27 May — Referendum on the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967, recognising Indigenous Australians in the Australian population
13 June — Vegemite first goes on sale (1923)
23 June — Tony Abbott's record 'ten flag' press conference, featuring the PM flanked by — you guessed it — TEN Australian flags (2015)
4 September — Steve Irwin is taken too soon by some form of marine monster of nightmares (2006)
5 September — Naomi Robson wears lizard on shoulder while reporting on the death of Steve Irwin (2006)
24 September — Sydney wins hosting rights to the 2000 summer Olympics (1993)
26 September — Australia II wins seventh and final race to claim the America's Cup (1983)
24 November — John Howard's Coaltion government is defeated; John Howard loses his own seat of Bennelong (2007)
26 November — Official launch of the Holden FX (1948)

*temporary record superseded in June 2015

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

So on and Sofort

It might seem strange as a photographic enthusiast, but I’m over cameras. There was a time, when I was working in photographic retail, that I visited DPReview a dozen times a day and was forever pressing F5 on, waiting for the rumoured release of a brand new 12 megapixel full frame DSLR.

Not any more.

After selling these products for years and seeing the same people come into the store and purchase mark I, II, III and IV of the same cameras, I realised we had reached the point of diminishing return with digital cameras. Incremental increases in autofocus speed and image quality had not improved the photography of these chumps. All they were getting were larger photos of the same unimaginative crap. For almost all photographers today, the limiting factor is not the camera, but the idiot behind it.

This is why it’s so nice to find a camera which makes me excited to go out and take photos again: the Leica Sofort.

The Leica Sofort is an instant camera that uses Fujifilm’s popular Instax Mini instant film. It is essentially a slightly more brutalist — and more expensive — version of a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90. Why would you go the Leica over the much cheaper Instax? For the same reasons anyone buys a Leica product: because it’s a Leica.

Operation of the camera is straight forward, with a power button, flash and exposure settings on the back, and a lens that offers close range (1–3m) and distance (3m+) settings.

This simplicity makes the Sofort a blast to use.

Travelling overseas recently, I shot around 60 exposures with the Sofort, and part of me thought, in the event of a mugging, I’d much rather lose one of the “real” cameras in my bag than my irreplaceable Sofort frames — don't take that as an invitation!

Instant film allows photographers a different way of seeing. As someone who came into photography at the tail-end of the last instant film era, I can appreciate why the new films and cameras are so popular.

For me, instant film is a sort of visual notebook far more tangible than what can be done with a smartphone and its in-built camera.

The importance of physicality can’t be overstated. My 2 year-old son knows exactly what the Sofort is for. I’ll get the camera out, and before I’ve even turned it on, he’ll be saying “CHEESE!” with the toothiest grin I’ve seen. I’ll never forget his first gasps as the picture developed right before his eyes — a picture of himself. Then I was able to leave a couple of frames on his grandfather’s fridge before we jetted back to Australia. Cue the old man voice saying "you can't do that with digital".

The only slight letdown is the quality of the lens. Yes, I know this is instant photography, but the Sofort isn't cheap and the Leica name is synonymous with extreme glass, so it's sad they sully their good name with cheap plastic. Instax film is very capable when shot with real glass. I can only assume it must have been cheaper for Leica to repurpose the Fuji Instax lens, rather than designing their own. No doubt the inevitable Leica Sofort Super Elmar starting at $599 (plus $299 for the Limited Edition Ostrich Skin Edition) will address some of these issues...

So is the fun of instant photography exclusive to the Leica Sofort? No, of course not. Any Instax camera provides a similar experience — and the larger format Instax Wide looks very enticing — but none does it with the same bold presence as the Leica Sofort. Anyone who truly loves images owes it to themselves to give one of the Instax lineup a try.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Overheard: Google Home

“Oh I soooo want Google Home,” one woman said to her colleague as they commuted into the city.

The benefits were self-evident, she said, like being able ask the omnipresent connected listening device to convert ounces into grams when cooking in the kitchen, “But because my husband works with computers — like, how do I describe it, like…”

“Like a competitor?” The colleague asked.

“No, not a competitor, but he works with like with spyware and that sort of stuff, Google products are off the shopping list.”

The colleague made a sympathetic disappointed noise, “I love my Google Home. It’s so good.”

“He’s concerned about like security and hacking and stuff.”

“Oh yeah, but you know, you’d like to think a company like Google would be protected from hackers and stuff,” the colleague said.

“Yeah if you couldn’t trust Google, who could you trust? They’d have to be safe from all that. They’re so big.”

“Exactly. It’s just so great, so convenient, just being able to ask it anything…”

“My husband always talks about how these things are always listening…but seriously, good luck to anyone listening to our conversations. They’d be bored in a few seconds!”

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

25Mbps is more than enough

Watching last night's Four Corners on the clusterfuck that is our National "Broadband" Network, I got angry. I got angry that the rarest beast in Australian politics — a truly visionary policy — got trashed for the purpose of political point scoring.

I got angry that the people who are vested with responsibility for the future of this country can't (or won't) see a future that many can, where fast, future-proof technology (yes, fibre is as close to a future-proof technology you'll ever find) places us at a substantial competitive advantage.

I've written extensively about the Coalition's clusterfuck of an NBN many times before on this blog, critiquing the Coalition's policy from its announcement in 2013. But even going back only 4 years, to that infamous press conference where Turnbull and Abbott pretended to be friends announcing the Liberal's deficient NBN policy, even I'm surprised how much their assumptions have dated.

At the press conference, both Abbott and Turnbull said 25Mbps was "more than enough" for home users and that the network would be completed by 2016. They said that instead of the "expensive" fibre option connecting 90 per cent of Australians, the Liberal's use of the existing copper network would allow the network to be rolled out faster and cheaper than Labor's policy.

The network is now scheduled to be completed in 2020 — only four years late — and will likely end up costing about $20 billion more than the Liberals originally claimed. All this for a woefully inferior product.

But what's most interesting about the 2013 press conference is just how inadequate 25Mbps is — a fact known to most tech people then as now.

As Four Corners mentioned, data use by Australian internet users has more than doubled over the past two years. Going back even further to the time of Abbott and Turnbull's awkward presser shows how wrong assumptions of data use only a few years ago were. Since June 2013, total data use has skyrocketed by more than 350 per cent, with fixed-line connections accounting for the vast majority of increase.

If that increase occurred in only four years, imagine what will happen over the next four? Or the four years after that? Very quickly, the NBN begins to look like a DIY crystal radio set in a 4K HDTV world. Then what? A future government will likely have to spend billions more upgrading the network, when it could have been done once, done properly and be done with fibre.