Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Photo of the Year

Now comes that time of year when those who have been lacking in probity and/or accomplishment promise to make a concerted effort not to lack probity and/or accomplishment at the arbitrary ticking over of a man-made construct, only to revert to lacking probity and/or accomplishment after the passage of a few man-made hours.

2012 could be made into 2013 with the clever stroke of a pen; 2014 holds no such joys for scribblers.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Handy People I

Images from an ongoing project. See more at Handy People.

Photographs of people almost unknowingly and subconsciously using their mobile phones on the street will at some point be entirely unremarkable. Until that day, here are a few images from the everyday experience.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?

Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst,1622

It's time to think about the important things in life, we're told. Pause, take solace, think about the true meaning of Christmas. 

The story goes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea.

There exists little evidence for this. 

Let us think about that for a moment. The foundation theology of a religion that has dominated the minds and bodies of billions of people for two millennia, abused, persecuted and murdered millions more in the name of "god" and even to this day seeks to influence secular political debate has NO basis in reality. 

The story we tell today through television specials and corporate-sponsored caroling events is actually an amalgam of the interesting bits present in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The other gospels see fit to ignore something as seemingly important and notable as the miraculous virgin birth of their lord and saviour. 

As historical records, the accounts of Matthew (probably not written by Matthew) and Luke (probably not written by Luke) are virtually useless. They were written (probably) by men up to eight decades after the fact about an event none was present at. The birth of Jesus was likely trumped up for theological reasons to ensure the pretty impressive adult Jesus could be retconned as the messiah. 

In a answer to the question proffered in the article title, YES, there may as well have been more than one lobster present. There exists no evidence to the contrary, therefore there were at least two lobsters present.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

I am an art (and so can you)

Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn't

You might have seen this facile semi-graphical maxim kicking around on everything from tea towels to Facebook covers +1 likes from me to Limited Edition Giclée Fine Art Prints® available in the gift shop (visit our Etsy pop-up store).

The above equation (which I've re-created using a bespoke digital imaging process) implies the act of creating art is simply in the doing. It implies merit (I could do that, therefore I will do that ∴ art). It also implies modern art is nothing more than doing a simple thing someone else hasn't already done, or perhaps taking something existing and labelling it "art".

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Holden Closure Blamed on Dodgy Accounting

General Motors Holden is set to close its Australian car production arm after dramatically underestimating the number of cars it had sold.

It is understood Holden executives used a method that counted vehicle production and sales only once cars were on the road. It is believed trained car counters stood on major freeway overpasses tallying the number of Holden badges they saw. This method is not used anywhere else in the automotive world with Holden accounting officer Marcus Carmaker describing this method as a "uniquely Australian innovation".

This alleged disparity between the number of cars actually produced and sold and the number of cars recorded sold is believed to have occurred when Holden's actuaries did not include Commodores that had had their Holden badges removed and replaced with Chevrolet ones.

"We're very embarrassed that our biggest fans have actually killed Holden in Australia," Mr. Carmaker said. But even with the forecast 2017 plant closure Mr Carmaker remains upbeat, "I plan on buying up every surplus Holden badge in existence so I can rebadge the 2018 Chevrolet Impala as a Holden."

Monday, 16 December 2013

Think Generously This Christmas

A Salvation Army band in full swing - http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1484865
As you wander around the streets of any city over the next week or so, you are likely to hear the dulcet (or otherwise) tones of the brass band or singular wind instrument pumping out the old Christmas standards. They will often be accompanied by a tin rattler imploring you to give generously this season. But before you drop that gold, silver or paper legal tender in their tins, have a think about what you're doing.

The most prominent of these en-brassened Christmas groups is the Salvation Army. When hiding behind the veneer of solemn traditional carols and even some post-1907 foot-tapping standards, those Salvos can appear positively perky. Besides, they "do good" in the community and stuff. Helping the homeless and addicts and telling people they can't smoke. Where's the harm in that? It's easy to forget that behind the Christmas cheer is a conservative evangelical church that demands absolute obedience from its members and arguably has many of the hallmarks of a cult.

The rigid military hierarchy seeks to control the thoughts and actions of its "soliders", with acceptance of god and buddy Jesus the only solutions to any of life's infinitely complex problems. You won't be surprised to read the Army officially holds an ultra-conservative outlook on the usual issues such as gay marriage, premarital sex, and abortion. As usual with most "pro-family" organisations, their stance on homosexuality is confused and unconvincing.

After a fracas on Melbourne's Joy FM, where Major Andrew Crabe may or may not have agreed with gays being put to death (whether he did or not is immaterial; his lack of a full and explicit condemnation of the mere suggestion says a lot about "good" Christian folk), the Army's not quite sure what to say.

They have been hard at work trying to reconcile their dogged and almost literal belief in the scripture with the existence of gay people. There isn't even a "positional statement" on homosexuality from the Southern Territory branch of the Army, which is telling. They are apparently having a "healthy and vigorous" debate over how they deal with sexuality that doesn't conform to their ancient and irrelevant text. When finally and vigorously released, I gather it won't be a missionary position.

But of course, you'll say, the Salvation Army does so much "good". Well, of course they do. They provide recovery services for alcoholics and drug addicts, where victims are evangelised at, prostheletysed to and bible-bashed until free of their wicked human sins as part of the rather Orwellian sounding "12-steps" programme (the link's from NZ).

The Salvos regularly rally against evidence-based, socially progressive reforms such as safe injecting rooms, infecting the secular world with their all-singing, no-dancing form of Bible-bashing evangelism. They also ran children's homes where hundreds of wards are known to have been abused, with many other undocumented cases likely. To the Salvation Army's credit, they have apologised unreservedly, but why any right-minded person should think an unreserved apology (accompanied by financial compensation) is something we should congratulate these organisations for, I'll never know (still waiting, Pell).

Of course I would be accused of cherry picking the worst behaviours of these organisations if I didn't mention the extensive other "good" work done by the Salvos, from supporting the homeless to the help offered to victims of drug and alcohol abuse. Their work in these areas is mostly good, although one must question how a good "Soldier" balances their requirement to spread their faith with the help they claim they provide to anyone, regardless of religious or sexual orientation. But this is the friendly face of the Salvos, the seemingly non-evangelical, tuba-blowing tin rattlers who we see this time of year. Why not give them a few bucks for this "good" work, you might say. I'd ask you this: why support an organisation with such extensive ideological and prejudicial baggage when you can just donate to the Smith Family, OXFAM, UNICEF or Médecins Sans Frontières who "do good" for the sake of doing good?

You might agree with the conservative evangelical ethos of the Salvos. If you do, you probably aren't reading this. Go forth and do whatever conservative religious types do - scorning others I think is your main thing. But I have a feeling that if you've read this far and stumbled upon my little web log, you probably don't agree with the Salvo's underlying values. So this Christmas, think a little and put your charity dollars somewhere more in-keeping with your own beliefs and values.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Film Review: Lomography Lady Grey 400

It is my usual form to pour scorn over everything Lomographic, from the brand's retrograde embrace of aberrations to their questionable business ethics. As an analogue photographer, what cannot be criticised is Lomography's unswerving commitment to film. Even if they are predominantly responsible for the inextricable conflation of analogue and lo-fi.

Take it to T-Max
With all this in mind, it was with some trepidation I purchased a three pack of Lomography Lady Grey 400 35mm, having found myself short of my usual T-Max 400. Local film prices (even for those with connections) in Australia just don't make it worth one's while to purchase single Kodak or Fujifilm rolls.

So I examined the Lady Grey box: "Made in USA". Promising. A further bout of googling later brought me to the conclusion that it must be Kodak Tri-X or T-Max, assuming 3M hadn't started up production of film again.

Opening the film box to load up my Leica M4, I noticed the familiar grey cap on the container usually seen on Kodak films. As I took off the Leica's baseplate and fed the film to the takeup spool, I recognised the Kodak purple anti-halation dye layer on film base as it exited past the metolius. I would shoot as if T-Max until end results or Internet told me otherwise.

Lady Grey's Lover
After processing the film (T-MAX RS), the first thing I noticed were the edge markings. Although its sole identification was "B&W 400", the typeface and numbering all revealed itself to be Kodak, without needing Big Yellow's name to appear anywhere. It's the emulsional equivalent of a Toyota Lexcen to a VN Commodore.

Looking at the results, it's easy to fall in love with Lady Grey. Shot with my Leica M4 and Summicron-M 35mm Version 4, there is an undeniable beauty to the film. Tone, grain and contrast, all of it is spot on (exposure errors excepted!). Even then, like all good modern Kodak B&W films, its wide exposure latitude means it's very forgiving of user error.

Kodak Alaris
But to be content with the results of Lady Grey is is to be content with the results of Kodak T-Max 400. While Lomography deserves credit for their ongoing commitment to film, it is the long-term viability of Kodak (now Kodak Alaris) we should be hopeful for.

The recent "open letter" from Kodak Alaris to Lomography - less than the "partnership" some online news pages reported - might be a step in the right direction, although in reality I suspect the letter was little more than a nice PR gesture from Kodak Alaris.
As IMPOSSIBLE has demonstrated, once the massive infrastructure and technical wherewithal required to make film from scratch is gone, it is very difficult to revive production in anywhere near the quantities (and qualities) desired.

While Lady Grey is a stunning film, it is Kodak T-Max 400 that is the real winner. It is indeed a shame that a roll of 135/36 Kodak T-Max 400 retails Australia for around $13, whereas in the United States it can be had for as little as $4.95. A 3pk of Lady Grey, on the other hand, will set you back around $23 locally (around $7.67 per roll).

Friday, 6 December 2013


Many words will be written by those eminently more qualified than I over the coming days, months and years, but I thought it would be appropriate to just jot a few notes down.

Nelson Mandela was a moral hero almost beyond equal in the 20th and 21st centuries, enduring greater pain and injustice than most of us will know in our lives.

Labelled a "terrorist" by those great self-appointed defenders of "freedom" Margaret Thatcher, John Howard and Dick Cheney, Mandela lost 27 years of his life on a miserable rock off the coast of Cape Town (anyone who looks to the recent political right for champions of human rights will be sorely disappointed, bar one apostate).

While comparisons between Mandela and people like Gandhi will likely be made, these are largely offensive. Where Mandela brought a nation torn apart for decades together, the absurdly devout Gandhi helped break one apart, all the while wanting to throw India back to some medieval agrarian spinning wheel-powered state. Mandela's conciliatory actions throughout not only his presidency but his life generally speak to a great moral courage and power that few throughout history have possessed. His legacy should outshine many of those who claim a place in the pantheon of peacemakers.

Mandela's legacy will be no doubt debated for decades to come, but I can be certain that we need more of his kind in our world.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Frame #313

Figure 1: The inconsistent shadows from Lunar Rover indicate a forgery of the Zapruder Film, proving once and for all that Buzz Aldrin is a lizard*.
The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has brought more than the usual cavalcade of television specials and docudramas, each promising "never before seen" footage and claiming "all new" evidence that will solve crime once and for all. One would be forgiven for thinking investigators have been keeping such evidence hidden, waiting for this milestone anniversary to roll around.

But the vast majority of this "new" evidence is based on variations or re-statements of  theories that have been around since 12:31pm CST on the 22nd November, 1963. It's just that now they feature high-definition frame-by-frame digitally remastered state-of-the-art computer animation to "prove" their particular contentions. Despite the existence of numerable photographic and documentary sources, three major government investigations and the release of most of the classified documents pertaining to Kennedy's assassination, the culture of conspiracy that has grown up around the assassination is one that has held the public imagination for five decades.

Innumerable theories and variations on theories have since been postured, first in grimy civic halls with bootleg copies of the Zapruder film. Later moving onto fax modems across the newsgroups of the burgeoning World Wide Web and today favouring 720p YouTube uploads complete with poorly-recorded narration, captions and arrows indicating what the author wants the viewer to see. 

Not the Mel Gibson film

There is an enduring popular appeal to a good conspiracy theory. Their appeal partly lies in their clear division of the world into good and evil. Conspiracy thinking tends to feature a group or groups acting in secret to some nefarious end. As Michael Barkun puts it in A Culture of Conspiracy (2007), a conspiracist worldview "implies a universe governed by design rather than randomness" (p.3).

To some, this is a comforting idea similar to belief in an omniscient god. Horrible acts of violence, the infirmity of the human condition and indiscriminate natural disasters can all be explained away as part of some "greater plan" or, in the case of conspiracy world-view, treated as parts of a master plan by a global cabal of evil-doers. Conspiracy theorists view themselves as possessors of a truth that only they know and make it their lives' mission to get this truth out.

It's interesting to note how many conspiracy proponents of the Kennedy assassination crop up writing about also about the moon landings and more recently September 11, 2001, virtually in the same breath. To them, such massive events are so vast and so intricate that the only reasonable explanation for them involves coercion, deceit and conspiracy. 

The enormity of the events in Dallas on November 22nd 1963 is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. It is easy to question how one loner named Lee Harvey Oswald could alter the course of history. If the President of the United States isn't safe, who is?


The conspiracy theories began to circulate almost as soon as President Kennedy was announced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital and on face value, it's little wonder. The doctors who attended to Kennedy in what must have been a blood-soaked frenzy of confusion gave contradictory assessments on what were entry and exit wounds; Kennedy's body was rushed out of Dallas aboard Air Force One before an autopsy could be performed as per Texas state law; Oswald claimed he was "just a patsy", before being gunned down on live television, not to mention the enigmatic character of Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby...and these were only in the first three days...

The "official" story, as put forward by the Warren Commission did little to dispel conspiracy theories and its little wonder why. Many of the Commission's members did not want to be on the panel, most of the hearings were held in closed (but not secret) sessions and there was little unanimity on the Commission's conclusion of a "lone nut" assassinating the President of the United States. Simply put, its final report was a compromise to please its members, but not all agreed on the conclusions.

After the release of the Warren Commission's Final Report, a group of assassination "buffs" combed the official record for discrepancies and incongruities. In the main, these buffs were self-taught researchers from across the professional spectrum who felt aggrieved by the assassination of their president. Their intent and their goal was an admirable one - to get to the bottom of this very public execution in Dealey Plaza where they felt the official commission had failed. Herein lies another conspiratorial appeal: what could be more alluring than fighting conventional wisdom and established facts by offering a truth only you possess? However, criticism of the commission was not confined to "buffs", the issue of belief in a conspiracy divided the mainstream political left in America for many years to come.

The tumultuous events of the "decade of shocks" from 1963 to Watergate seemed to many to prove the existence of a vast conspiracy involving the government, CIA, FBI, the mafia and/or the military-industrial complex. In the wash-up from Watergate, what people had suspected about the intelligence community's involvement in secret activities domestically and overseas became established fact. With a White House cover-up and history of CIA-backed coups d'état revealed, was it really much of a stretch to imagine a conspiracy to kill the President? The paranoid style of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s suggested not.
Oft-alleged conspirator Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
"That's what they want you to think"

While there aren't enough column pixels in the world (or pixel hours) to go into detail about each and every conspiracy theory pertaining to Kennedy, most involve an ambiguous mass of shadowy organisations, be it CIA, FBI, Secret Service, US Military or the Mafia. Motives vary from revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, through to the prevention of Kennedy revealing hidden UFO secrets.

The problem (well, a major one anyway) is that conspiracists regard these implicated organisations as monolithic entities where history has shown them to be anything but. The lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI has placed US national security at risk on more than one occasion. If there was a conspiracy to be found, I'm more than confident that a Deep Throat-esque character would have come forward to reveal the true Kennedy assassins.

The other major problem with the conspiracy world-view is that it is essential unfasifiable. If anyone were to present uncontrovertible evidence of Lee Harvey Oswald firing three bullets from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in 6.3 or 7.1 or 8.3 seconds from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository - some hitherto unknown film or photograph - it would likely be disregarded by conspiracy theorists as a forgery or fake - the work of the government. To a conspiracy theorist, contrary evidence proves their argument!

Similarly, it's interesting to note how the initial eyewitness statements and media reports form the basis of many conspiracy theories, not only in the context of the Kennedy assassination, but from September 11 also. Barkun calls this "superseded knowledge" (p.27): claims made in the heat of the moment to fill air time or to meet deadlines that have since been demonstrated to be false, yet regarded as fact by conspiracy theorists. Later retractions of these initial reports or eyewitness accounts are seen as evidence of witnesses being "gotten to" by authorities, usually the shadowy forces of the FBI, CIA or the nebulous military-industrial complex. By the way, the majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots and no, the mafia didn't get to them.

Even the Rosetta Stone of the assassination, the 8mm Kodakchrome Zapruder film is not without its critics. Some claim frames 314 and 315 show Kennedy's head snapping back and to the left as a result of a shot from the front. People who know more than me about ballistics have put forward their ideas on why Kennedy's motions are consistent with a shot from behind. Others claim alteration or deletion of frames, or even outright forgery of the entire film using complex special effects, travelling mattes and animation (must have been the same methods developed for Kubrick to fake the moon landings).

The problem with much of these incompatible theories is that if the film is altered or forged, isn't it easier to have no film at all? If a giant conspiracy made use of the most advanced photographic effects techniques to produce a fake or altered film, why produce a film that, at first glance, doesn't support official version of events? Why not have Kennedy's head moving forward from a shot from behind as logic (and the official story) dictate? Because the evidence is real and sometimes things do not occur as we expect them to.

Each of the films and photographs available from Dealey Plaza correspond to each other. As the original conspiracy "buff" Josiah Thompson has said, the films and photographs from the day are self-verifying. Alteration or fabrication of one would mean the same for all. Then it becomes a question of who fabricated the photographic evidence? A conspiracy is only as good as its conspirators and it is difficult to imagine a) a conspiracy so vast as to completely fabricate the photographic record of a particular event; and b) that the people employed (who would have been the best in the business) could keep their collective mouths shut for five decades.

This is where some conspiracy believers should employ some form of Occam's Razor, where the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected until real evidence proves otherwise. There are simply too many assumptions to make with most conspiracy theories pertaining to Kennedy's assassination. While some theories - such as a second shooter - are entirely plausible, others jump the shark as it were. The argument of a complete photographic fabrication is one of those. Unless of course the Men in Black used their neuralisers on the Dealey Plaza crowd, stole all their cameras and edited their own photos...

The Other Z

The issue for conspiracy theorists is from time to time, uncontrovertible evidence supporting the "official" story does appear. In the late 1990s, a retired Kodak engineer Roland Zavada led a team of technical experts on an analysis of the camera original Zapruder film and other photographic records. Uh-oh: experts.

Zavada is the world's foremost expert on 8mm Kodachrome film, having played a key role developing Kodachrome II, Ektachrome Commercial and Kodachrome Super 8 film for Kodak. Zavada and his team spent a long, long time analysing the Zapruder camera original and Zapruder's Bell and Howell 8mm camera. He concluded, in a lengthy report, that the anomalies present in the film are due to camera characteristics. He could find no evidence of alteration to the film.

Evidence, shmevidence. Naturally this exhaustive report by Zavada was deemed rubbish by many in the conspiracy community and herein lies the rub - the unfalsifiable nature of conspiracy theories. There is no level of evidence possible to disprove a conspiracy theory. Any evidence offered will be rejected in kind. Zavada now wishes he never took on the task of analysing the film as his methods and honesty have been endlessly questioned by people like Jack White, whose main qualification is a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When White was asked if there was any level of proof that would alter his belief that the moon landing was faked, he replied that since he believed the landings were faked, any evidence in support of a genuine landing must also have been faked. Down, down and further down the rabbit hole we go...

Beyond Zapruder

If there's a fault with Zapruder's shocking 26 second 8mm film, it's that it is the sole means through which many of us understand this brutal public execution of the most powerful man in the world. As detached viewers, the whole thing has become a sort of carnival attraction from the past, mediated and distorted by popular fiction, pseudo non-fiction and feature films.

What is forgotten is the utter panic that must have gripped both the eyewitnesses and Presidential staff on that day of unprecedented mayhem. How the Presidential detail must not known was whether the killing was an isolated incident or the beginning of something bigger, like an act of war. These were unchartered waters for the Secret Service and the American nation - the rush to ensure the security of LBJ as Jacqueline Kennedy, Kenny O'Donnell and a handful of key Kennedy staffers drove the body of the slain president to an unceremonious arrival at Air Force One.  In many ways, the "official" story is far more interesting than any story that can be concocted. The "what-ifs" concerned boggle the mind - if the weather had been inclement, the plexiglass "bubble" might have found its place on top of the limousine; if the FBI had arrest Oswald for threatening to blow up the Dallas office, he might not have been able to pull the trigger; on and on it goes.

Even with the passage of time, it's unlikely the various theories of what occurred on that day will lose their appeal. Neither will we ever likely know definitively exactly what went down in Dallas that day. The lack of a consistent and precise "official" narrative makes it difficult to discount a conspiracy, but little hard evidence has been produced to support any of the other alternate versions of event. As a former acolyte of every conspiracy theory under the sun, I've come to realise most are based on nothing but the same tired - if creative - ideas. As appealing and schmick as Oliver Stone's JFK is, or as ardent as conspiracy believers are, they are mainly based on supposition, misplaced assumption and conjecture.

As a university lecturer of mine always said if you ever have to choose between and conspiracy and a fuck-up, choose the fuck-up every time. In the case of this seismic event, I think the same can be said until Area 51 reveals its secrets...

*Yes, I know this is a composite. Yes, I know that the lunar image is from Apollo 15 and therefore it is not Buzz Aldrin in the image, rather it is Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who died in mysterious circumstances in a jet fighter crash in 1959, after a failed sub-orbital attempt, and was subsequently sent on a suicide mission to the moon and survived and became American astronaut James Irwin.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Who Wants to Talk About Taxation? Or: Old People These Days

The Grattan Country Club's Resident Pro, John Daly (if Media Watch asks, I blame Google)
Taxation? Who wants to talk about it? No one of consequence, certainly not the politicians whose task it is to legislate such weighty matters. It seems only civic-minded think-tanks can formulate any substantial policy response to one of the most important areas of national fiscal security.

And so it is that the Grattan Institute and its resident Pro Golfer, John Daly, have published a report titled "Balancing Budgets: The tough choices we need".

If you're not one to read these reports, the best thing about them is that they give away the ending at the beginning! (how subversive!) with what is called an "executive summary" or "overview". 

The long and the short of it is the scope of the GST needs to be embiggened (as I have argued in both PDF report and essay form) and some serious changes need to be undertaken to alter where and how government gets its revenue. None of which the current government (or any subsequent government) will likely have the guts to do. However, to avoid unpalatable options becoming simply impossible, they'd do well to act sooner rather than later.

If even a few of the recommendations in the Grattan Institute's report were instigated, those of retirement age would likely be affected the most. For instance, the pension would be locked away until one reaches 70 years of age and the house added to income tests. This is fantastic in theory, but with an ageing population, politicians will be less likely to do anything that requires upsetting this increasingly vocal demographic

As the opposition movement to the Carbon Tax (and the "boats" and any other societal change of the past decade) demonstrated, the intransigence of Australia's ageing and elderly knows no bounds. Implacable with placards, incapable of critical thought ("that young Neil Mitchell says a lot of sense") and too myopic to see beyond their next caravanning trip, they want the unsustainable government and market-funded largesse they have enjoyed over the past decades to continue unabated.

Many will be more than happy to pass the financial burden (and their massive public medical expenses) to the younger generation who will likely never see one dollar from the aged pension. After all, the aged and ageing have "worked hard" and "paid (their) taxes" all their lives. They deserve a peaceful, relaxing retirement of golfing trips and Queensland holidays, the cost to the nation be damned.

Alas, instead of taking the hard decisions, governments will bicker and argue about the size of the public sector and campaign on "razor gangs" and nebulous "government waste", avoiding nation-changing policy decisions at all cost.

The only way out of this unenviable situation would be a bipartisan programme of far-reaching tax and revenue policy changes, something that would require political leaders of integrity and foresight, rather than boats and brawling.

You'll probably be of pension age before that happens.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Smoke and Mirrorless

Are they serious?
Everything old is, while not quite new again, tepidly re-heated and served up to today's fashion-concious consumer. The retro-inspired Nikon Df is just the latest in a bunch of needless superficial throwbacks that ignore the technical and design innovations of the four decades. Nikon now joins a long list of manufacturers guilty of lazily rehashing the past in order to move stock.

"It's alive!"

The Df is essentially the ugliest digital SLR of the past decade. Nikon's resident Victor Frankenstein-sans have been busy cannibalising cameras, mating what somebody told them was how "one of them old film cameras" looked with the beating heart full-frame sensor of the Nikon D4. And now, on a dreary night in November they behold the accomplishment of their toils. They behold the wretch - the miserable monster they've created. After their very own Nikon 1 V2, this comes close to the ugliest digital camera in years.
A face only a blind mother could love. But at least it didn't feature funky retro dials.

Moulded Plastic is Awesome

Photographers would be forgiven for thinking that camera design stopped sometime between 1972 and 1983. It was then, the golden age of dials and metal and things that went *CLACK* that our fair camera manufacturers seem determined to revive. From Fujifilm to Olympus; from Pentax and now to Nikon, no modern camera manufacturer can possibly do without a silver/chrome SKU in their lineup. Except the problem is that a modern DSLR is pretty much as close in functionality to a 35mm SLR as George Pell is to a functioning, empathetic human being.

As the Olympus OM-D E-M5 demonstrated, "retro" looks are one thing, practicality is quite another. While the 35mm OM-1 was brilliantly simple and beautifully executed, Maitani-san need only concern himself with controlling the shutter speed and aperture. After all, this was 1971. But with the digital E-M5, the designers simply aped (ahem, paid "homage" to) Maitani-san's design without thinking about the modern requirements for a digital camera. 

On the M-1 and OM-1, form simply followed function. Maitani-san's design was an attractive alternative to cameras that had become increasingly large and unwieldy. The E-M5, on the other hand, wasn't so much an answer to large, clunky DSLRs, as it was retro design for the sake of marketability. The OM-1's flat front, necessary before moulded plastic became affordable and practical for industrial design, is nothing but a pain in the hand on the EM-5. It offers no grip for users and gives no support to the user when attempting to make sense of the clusterfuck of depressed buttons and recessed dials on the back. Not to mention that hideous, superfluous pentaprism. 
Form and function - the Olympus M-1
In aping paying homage so closely to the OM-1's lines, Olympus's digital design team forgot people need to be able to use their cameras. They overlooked the fact that people have fingers which may be larger than the pin-head sized buttons they install on the back. They have "addressed" these issues in the newly-released E-M1, although have made the camera about as attractive as the Konica AiBORG in the process – suffice it to say the E-M1 deserves its own dedicated post. But I digress, the E-M5 addressed neither the shortcomings of 1970s SLR design or the problems with modern DSLRs. It was a half-way house of design vacuousness. 

Pure Marketing

Nikon has clearly approached the design for the Df in the same manner. Sure, it's imbued with a kinda-sorta old-school SLR charm, but unfortunately the 35mm gestalt doesn't transfer particularly well to the digital world. The Df's top controls, while nice to look at in press photos, don't lend themselves to quick or easy alterations. In fact, the absurdity is that most setting alterations can be performed quicker by using the "normal" DSLR combination of command dials and function buttons. 

Command dials simply work on modern electronic SLRs, which is probably why they were introduced in the first place on the F5/F100 series as cameras moved from the purely mechanical to the totally computerised. The Df screws around with this by offering both command dials and funky retro dials on top of the camera. 
Popular Photography,  Dec 1999, thought the F100 was ace. And photography magazines are never wrong.
This is not retro design for the sake of pure photography, this is retro for the sake of pure marketing. Like much marketing, Nikon is trying to sell you a feeling, not a product. The incredibly indulgent pre-release teaser videos for the Df demonstrate this, with a lone figure wandering pensively around Scotland taking photos of castles, fields, golfers and Sean Connery. There you have it. "Pure" photography. 

Just a question, what the hell have Nikon been doing for the past decade if not "pure photography"? Have they been off herding goats and now feel it time to return from the mixed business of goat herding/photographics to "pure" photography? Or are they saying that their previous endeavours in cameras weren't "pure" enough? That one couldn't make picture with a Nikon D4? I gather they mean that by cluttering up the top panel of a DSLR with dials and knobs and machines that go PING and by needlessly removing HD movie recording, they have successfully crafted a camera designed for "pure" photography. Just not so "pure" as to remove HDR mode.  

You asked for it…

Nikon users can't claim their Japanese overlords haven't been listening. For years, the well-meaning veterans of DPreview have complained about the lack of <insert old camera they grew up with here> body with digital guts, oblivious to the technical limitations. Nikon have now - in part - given this to us. There is no doubt the camera looks the part. Its press images are impressive and even though I dislike its faux-retroishness, I was secretly hoping it would feel nice in the hand and I might find myself pining after one. But one hold in the hand and I was disappointed.

This ain't your hipster friend's daddy's SLR

Unlike the D600 or D800, the camera itself does not fall nicely into the hands. The body is light - too light for its size - and feels quite cheap on top. While I'm not of the "metal is heavier therefore betterer" school of old-man camera design, its construction doesn't feel up to scratch for a $3,199 body. Nikon's website tells me it's heavier than an FM2, although you wouldn't guess it. To me, this is a bad thing; to others it might be a great benefit. 
Retro done right…by default - Wikimedia Commons
The beauty of a compact 35mm SLR like the FM2 is that its heft is in a small body, whereas the Df's mass is more dispersed. Strangely, the Sony A7 and A7R feel as if they have a greater heft to them, even though they are considerably smaller and lighter than the Df. Clearly this has to do with how the camera is balanced and in the Df's case, it doesn't appear to be balanced well. Naturally, Nikon can't win everything and I understand the compromises that must be made in all disciplines of design, but I still can't shake that feeling that Nikon missed an opportunity here.  

Retro rockets firing

And at this point, retro for the sake of retro begins to fall apart. Although the Df looks like it takes its design language from Nikons of the past, it actually doesn't. An FM, FE, FA, FE2, FM2 is to the Nikon Df as Paris is to Paris Las Vegas. It is a theme park sideshow; a Hollywood backlot of plywood and rain machines; as Hollywood as Movie World - Hollywood on the Gold Coast (Shut your eyes, Marion. Don't look at it, no matter what happens). It looks like what you think an "old" camera is supposed to look like, without actually looking like any one of them in particular, or working anywhere near as well. 

It feels middling to bad in the hands, but worse is still to come. The silly spinny dials atop the camera (that look sort of like the stacked stones of Atlantis from the game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis) are about as useful as speaking French in the aforementioned Paris Las Vegas. It gets you nowhere and it's easier just to stick to what you know - either American "English", or in the case of the Df, the standard index finger/thumb combination of command dials that has served the Nikon faithful well since 199x.
ISO/Exposure Compensation dials Earth, Moon and Sun Stones from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
As a long-time Nikon digital and 35mm user, I found neither of my muscle memories (mémoire musculaire) worked particularly well. The stupid spinny dials just stuffed with everything and I felt I had to contort my largish man-hands to manipulate the tiny (and I mean tiny - like the ubiquitous chihuahua's head on the body of a common-or-garden variety minotaur) B/D/S/M P/A/S/M wheel thing. Funny, I don't remember that dial on my FE2...

The end (of design?)

So, in conclusion, the Nikon Df is a good camera done badly. If I am to overload this absurd purple polemic with even more poorly thought-out and florid analogies, then I would say it's like a delicious piece of steak cooked by and for a vegetarian. It's useless. It shouldn't exist. There is no conceivable reason why this camera needed to be made. It did not. If Nikon existed in a vacuum, then the Df might have been ok. Instead, Nikon exists in a world populated by stereo and mobile phone-making upstarts who think they can muscle the dedicated photographic apparatus out of existence. Although I don't share the Financial Post's argument that Big Camera isn't "going to be around in five years", only Leica can get away with releasing unnecessarily adorned, hyper-expensive versions of the already expensive cameras. If Nikon is going to stay relevant in the age of iPhoneography, they're simply going to have to do better than this.

But do not despair. If you've reached this far in my ill-conceived musings, then you'll be please to know good design does exist in photography in the 21st century and it's not just consigned to Solms, Germany. A couple of Japanese camera companies even make usable, practical cameras today. Next time we'll look at those.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

They have no ideologue...

Source: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/andrew-bolt-tackles-the-pm-on-the-big-issues/story-fni0ffxg-1226746273889
And so it begins. After the much-hyped "grilling" of Tony Abbott by Andrew Bolt (more a populist love-fest tête-à-tête), Tony has apparently had a few mates over to Kirribilli to celebrate whatever it is conservatives celebrate - other people's misery, I think.

Bolt's interview with Abbott was less of a soft touch than if the Pope was interviewing the Baby Jesus. Of course they both railed against those inner-city leftist media elites at the ABC who dare report the most probable link between global warming and climate change. How the "most read" columnist in the country is not a part of the media elite has not been explained, but I gather he's working on the inside for the betterment of the common man. What was interesting, however, albeit not surprising, was Abbott revealing himself to still harbour his same opinion that climate change is complete crap. Abbott in this interview, described evidence linking extreme weather events with global warming as "complete hogwash". There's a open-minded PM to lead us out of the woods, if ever I've seen one. Heard that one about the earth orbiting the sun? Reading through it, it's hard to see exactly who is in charge of the interview. It's as if Bolt just spews forth guttural noises from his mouth and the Prime Minister repeats them.

How To Democracy has also stumbled across an unpublished extract from the end of the interview:
AB: Oh, mate. That was brilliant. You hang up first.
PM: No, you hang up first.
AB: No, you hang up first.
PM: No, you hang up first
AB: No, you have to.
PM: I will, I will, but only if you do.
AB: You hang up first.
PM: No, you hang up first.
<dial tone>
Of course I would be one of those latté-swilling inner-city elitists if I were to suggest none of this bodes well for anyone with a critical faculty or two. On my list of people I'd like to have over for dinner, Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman would only appear on it if my house was the Space Shuttle Columbia on re-entry (too soon? I would make an inappropriate World War II comparison, but the Tele keeps on beating me to it).

Like Abbott's great almighty hero (no, not Santamaria, the other one. With bushy eyebrows) Abbott seems to have begun a war on opposition thought. Anyone who harbours opposite ideas to the Party will be guilty of thoughtcrime and sentenced to re-education massive reductions in funding, probably on the basis of that "budget emergency", ya know the one Hockey just took out the nation's largest credit card for. Those who agree with the science of climate change, like we agree with physicists on gravity or nuclear reactors, will probably find themselves out of a job. Those who dare not call asylum seekers "detainees" or "illegals" will probably find themselves in the same (irregular) boat.

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by eactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten...' O'Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell.

Despite the usual claptrap of leading for all Australians, it is as likely this Coalition government will be just as divisive and derisive of those who disagree with their views as the last Liberal government. Just wait for the words "Out of touch" or "out of step" with "mainstream" Australians to be uttered by our "leaders". They'll be coming. Then it's time to worry.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Nineteen Eighty-Four

A great cover for a great novel. George Orwell's 1984 gets a creative treatment in the "Great Orwell" series published by Penguin. Designer David Pearson has also crafted new covers for other Orwell books in the series. The result is quite stunning.

The title and author are subtly debossed and graphically redacted. As Sir Humphrey would say, this was a "very brave" choice for Penguin to make. Rarely would a corporate publishing house deliberately produce a cover that obliterates the title, but in this case it is a graphical masterstroke. Pearson's covers for the other titles in the series are graphical homages to both Orwell's texts and to Penguin's history of cover design.
This cover's effectiveness is no mean feat, considering the numerous editions Nineteen Eighty-Four has been published in since 1949. While many of the more the literal photographic covers from older editions have dated considerably, Pearson's cover conveys the dread of the novel without resorting to melodrama. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Would somebody please think of the jobs?

Consumer group Choice has released research claiming that the Low Value Threshold has little to do with the decision to buy online. Currently, GST is not charged on purchases under $1,000 from overseas retailers, much to the eternal chagrin of old-school retailers associations and Gerry Harvey, who claim it is costing Australian jobs.

Choice claims only 12 per cent of those surveyed nominated saving "paying duties and taxes by purchasing on overseas websites" as a reason for shopping online.

Cue the droning of the rentseekers. One of my industry publications, Photo Counter, claims Choice is being "too tricky by half" in their fairly straight-forward survey of consumers. I can't follow Photo Counter's argument, but it's there and if someone else can, feel free to explain it to me. Basically, it seems Photo Counter has merely fallen on Solomon Lew's argument that the threshold is costing jobs.

The Australian business victimhood mindset is well and truly alive. Instead of offering what consumers want, some local retailers continue to ignore the local market, instead sticking to decades-old retail models. Ultimately, these multi-millionaire retail bosses are acting in self interest and are anti-consumer.

The Productivity Commission found that lowering the GST-free threshold would cost Australians more that $1.5 billion (collecting $550 million in taxes, but costing $2 to collect!). This hasn't stopped the Rich List clamouring for change - change that would effectively be a state-funded subsidy to big business. The LVT was judged by the Productivity Commission to be a "minor" component of the competitive disadvantage experience by Australian retailers.

The fact is that, so long as the AUD remains buoyant, imposing a lower threshold would have little effect on the online purchasing habits of consumers. Stuff is still too cheap, even with a 10 percent tax imposed on top.

But let's not let facts and figures get in the way of a good story.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

I Won a Thing

Last Tuesday night, I was announced as the winner of the inaugural Per Capita Young Writers' Prize. My essay, "A New Fiscal Federalism?" is reproduced in full below as it was submitted to Per Capita.

Federalism is hardly a hot-button issue in today's political debate, but it is the underlying basis for much of political exchange in Australia, whether we realise it or not.

Tax, services, health, education, infrastructure; all are vital issues premised on a functioning federal system. 

Alas functioning, our federal system is not.

The basic premise is this: The states are responsible for delivering most of the nation's services, but it is the Commonwealth that raises the majority of the revenue. This leaves the states in a precarious financial position, constitutionally obliged to deliver vital services such as health and education, but having to beg the Canberra for the funds.

I'd like to offer a big thanks to Per Capita, one of the nation's leading progressive think-tanks. Organisations like Per Capita have a big few years ahead of them, helping to shape the national debate and offer an alternative vision for the country. I'd also like to single out Harold Levien for his generous sponsorship of this prize.

Anyway, have a read. Have a think. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Get Rooty-ed

Once again, all eyes are on the suburb/RSL known as Rooty Hill, with the next leaders' debate taking place there tonight. For reasons that are still as yet unclear to me, politicians, especially the Liberals, love returning again and again to this place. Probably because Abbott's particular brand of 'nuanced' politics plays so well to the popular conception of Western Sydney, that is, a xenophobic and uneducated outer suburban backwater. "Stop the boats," and the crowd roars.

Of course there is much more to Western Sydney. It's just that subtle realities don't play particularly well in 6 second soundbites. To label an entire urban slab as an homogenous region is crazy in this day and age, where commuters may live in the 'burbs and commute to the city, and vice-versa. Besides, Western Sydney is "west" by default, because there's a big fuckoff ocean to the east which doesn't make for good living. 

The real debate today, however, will be the one that receives far less coverage. The treasurers' debate between Treasurer Chris Bowen and his Shadow Joe Hockey is probably the one of most consequence for Australians. It might even give us some idea of how the coalition will really act in government. Will it be "end of the age of entitlement" Joe, or will it be generous "Paid Parental Leave" Joe; "Budget Crisis" Joe, or "business tax cut" Joe? Both major parties are harbours of contradiction and paradox espousing a particular view in one breath and taking it away with the next. With the coalition leading in most polls, there should be greater scrutiny on their costings, or lack thereof. Whether Mr. Hockey releases more information today remains to be seen. They'll want as little real scrutiny paid to their costings as possible. The Liberal Party has a right to be in government and they won't be put off by something as trivial as fudged numbers. That's to worry about once in executive power. 

Unfortunately, these paradoxes are unlikely to be on the minds of "undecideds" at Rooty Hill tonight. The questions will likely be framed around, as I've written previously, "what are you going to do for me?" Small business owners, frustrated by the misery of their chosen profession, will ask what government is going to do to make things easier for them. After all, cost of business is rising, having to pay peaky things like wages, taxes and superannuation. As a famous US President once said, "we choose to go to the moon". He also said something else more relevant to today's undecideds, but I'll leave you to find that yourself. 

Some things you really should do for yourself.  

Monday, 5 August 2013

Open House Melbourne 2013 or: let me take a picture of that building with my phone I'll never look at again just to demonstrate I was there looking at that thing I took a picture of

Open House Melbourne has seen yet another rousing success with 2013. Here are some images I took on the Saturday. I could have spent much longer at many of these locations, but moving on and finding another open building is one of OHM's draws.

Cameras were particularly prevalent during the day. Although I had a camera in my hand virtually the entire time, I was either limiting myself to 36 exposures, or ensuring I was taking in whatever was in front of me. Some people seemingly only saw the day through their shitty LCD screens. Oh well.

The foyer of the Urban Workshop, 50 Lonsdale Street

The security barriers at the Urban Workshop

Looking up at the eclectic overheads in the foyer of the Urban Workshop

How many people must have seen Open House Melbourne 2013

Australian Super

The designated room for synergising paradigms and facilitating compelling brand ambassadors to engender core advocacy moving forward

The lifts of the former ICI Building and the offices of architects Bates Smart

Artist's impression at Bates Smart

The exterior of the lift shafts of the ICI Building. Possibly the sexiest thing outside of a Ken Adam design

From inside the Bates Smart offices
Former Shell House with electronic whiteboard and a below-par clock.

Putting the phone in camera phone

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Canberra – Checks and Balances

I recently found myself in Canberra, with a few hours free at the tail-end of a quick trip. I had not visited the national capital for some years, certainly not since the Telecom Tower became the Telstra Tower (and subsequently the generic "Black Mountain Tower"), and not since I had discovered the camera to be more than a familial annoyance.

And what better time to visit Canberra, during the city's centenary year. As the creative director of the celebrations, Robyn Archer, acknowledged last year, "Canberra" has become a byword for politics and politicians. Our contempt and mistrust of the political class has been sadly and inextricably linked with the city they do much of their work in. But Canberra is much more than a bland, planned city. It is a striking city that houses many of the democratic and civic institutions we hold dear. But more than that, it is an expression of Australian confidence and of independence from the sometimes corrupting establishments of Sydney and Melbourne.

For the duration of my time in Canberra, I stayed almost at the foot of Mt. Ainslie at the former Hotel Ainslie, now a Mercure hotel. The hotel has been a Canberra landmark for decades, the original building dating from 1926–27. It is an architectural example of the Arts and Crafts movement, an anti-industrial movement popularised in Britain. The hotel provides an informative book in each room detailing the history of the hotel, detailing the key role it played in developing a social world on the fringes of the nascent national capital. It also provided accommodation for many of the public servants who found themselves employed by the Commonwealth.
1911 contour survey for the new federal capital, competition submission by entrant No. 29, Walter Burley Griffin. Original held by National Archives of Australia
Canberra Federal Capital of Australia preliminary plan, Walter Burley Griffin (1914) – National Library of Australia
The entire city is full of architectural gems. Although Walter Burley Griffin (ably supported by his wife, Marion, one of world's first licensed female architects) won the design competition for the new Australian capital, an unsupportive bureaucracy undermined Griffin at every turn, resulting in the architect being removed as director of Canberra's construction. Griffin subsequently severed all ties to the authority overseeing the capital's construction. The only fully realised Griffin design in Canberra is the grave of General Sir William Bridges at Duntroon. This would not be the last time in Australian history that architectural visions would be compromised by political meddling.

Although the extant civic buildings and cultural edifices are not what Walter and Marion originally envisioned, their fundamental design is remains in the axes and geometric precision of Canberra's layout. Oh, and there's a giant puddle in the middle of the city bearing the name "Lake Burley Griffin".   How Ceasar-like it was for Prime Minister Menzies to reject the naming of Canberra's lake in his own honour when he oversaw its construction...
Lake Menzies Burley Griffin and Kings Avenue bridge under construction – Wikimedia Commons
For an architectural photographer, Canberra represents a rare opportunity in Australia. Unlike the former colonial capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney, the civic buildings of Canberra are given their own space. Rarely do they jut up one against another. Furthermore, though a greater number of Walter Burley Griffin's finished architectural works in Melbourne, they have been subsumed by surrounding development, the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street a prime example. 

The Stripped Classicism of the National Library of Australia is able to exist in its own context, without being overshadowed by adjacent skyscrapers or apartment blocks. Contrast this with the Victorian Classicism of Joseph Reed's State Library of Victoria, where the questionable apartment towers on the former Queen Victoria Hospital site has left the SLV an architectural shrinking violet on its own street frontage. Although the SLV remains a striking building internally – its famous dome the centrepiece – the library façade struggles to compete on its own merits. 
The Stripped Classicism of the National Library of Australia © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The National Library of Australia, however, recalls the classical buildings of antiquity ably standing in its own architectural space. It is a vital cultural building, housing, by law, every book published in Australia. 

Canberra's buildings feature a surprisingly wide-variety of architectural styles. From the post-war art deco to brutalist to whatever style you call Parliament House. The late modern Brutalism of the High Court of Australia building is a personal favourite. It rises from the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in its own architectural idiom. Like the institution it contains, the building is not to be dominated by those that surround it. It is impartial and impressive. 
The High Court of Australia (Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs), 1980 © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
After a brief visit to Questacon (a gift from Japan for Australia's bicentenary) and its requisite giftshop, I was somewhat disturbed to find the walk down to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin consisted almost entirely of car park. Interesting use of lake frontage. In the mid-1950s, much of this area was earmarked to be the centre of government in plans drawn up by British urban planner William Holford, instead the national capital got a large thing nestled into the top of Capital Hill. I'll leave discussion of Parliament House for another time.
Reconciliation Place on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The city's generally lo-rise civic and commercial buildings reminded me greatly of another capital city, the Icelandic capital Reykjavík. The two cities share an extensive road network as well as a reliance on buses for public transit. Fairly large distances separate buildings and sights, making the city almost unwalkable. My 5km walk from the city centre, down Commonwealth Avenue to buildings along the lake's shore is not be recommended with a family in tow.

I would like to leave it not as long until my next visit to Canberra. The galleries and museums (and their respective giftshops) await my visitation. I'll drive next time and pack a sturdy tripod and some slow-speed, low-grain black and white film. Until then...

Entrant No.29 – Walter Burley Griffin (NAA)
Walter Burley Griffin's submission, digitised (Cornell University Library)
Utzon Lecture Series – “100th Anniversary of Walter Burley Griffin: Griffin and Canberra”
Canberra House: Mid-century modernist architecture
Canberra100 – Maps and Markers (PDF)
Canberra100 – The Design Brief (PDF)
National Library of Australia and Flynn Drive © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
Commonwealth Avenue Bridge © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
Commonwealth Avenue, with Black Mountain and its tower in the background © 2013 – Fujifilm X100 & Adobe Lightroom
The new Canberra Airport terminal is befitting the national capital (with reasonable beer prices, too) © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
Forecourt of the High Court of Australia. An exemplar of late Brutalism © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam
National Portrait Gallery © 2013 – iPhone 5 & VSCOcam