Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Found Discourse on Lost Melbourne

Comment script for Lost Melbourne 
<image of old building/infrastructure, now demolished> 
Commentor 1: i remember this. i used to work a few doors up and walk past it every day. it was so nice. now it's been replaced by that new monstrosity [apartments/office building/some sign of modernity]
Commentor 2: why did we demolish this? were the only city in the world that takes a step backwards by demolishing important infrastructure.
Commentor 3: it was rubbish. It should have been demolished years ago. nobody actually used it and when they did it was smelly and uncomfortable.
Commentor 1: this is called the lost melbourne group for a reason. if you don't like it go elsewhere.
Lost Melbourne is one of those social media success stories. The page's administrators, doing little more than posting up old images of Melbourne have garnered over 40,000 likes and an active community of fans and contributors. It's even been featured in mainstream media.

It is a nostalgia trip for many and an interesting reminder of what was. But this is also its limitation. The basic extent of most comments on photographs is "This Melbourne is much better than today's Melbourne" or, "How could they tear down X and replace it with this monstrosity?". 

Contrary opinions are given short shrift by the prevailing nostalgites.

In the aforementioned mainstream media article, a logical but non-sympathetic view of the Southern Cross Hotel was regarded as "not...positive": 
All these people crying in their beers because old buildings got torn down. Yes, you are all right, they are part of our history and it's a shame to see them go. But how can we move forward if we don't make room by getting rid of some our past?
 A valid point is then railroaded by other fans claiming Lost Melbourne is just for old pictures and if "you" don't like it, go elsewhere.

There's a lot to like about Lost Melbourne, but the unbridled nostalgia of its commentors is not one of them. Proper heritage requires balancing the needs for a future Melbourne against that which may be "lost", not uncritical "things were better in the old days" patter.

Proper historical appraisal requires context and research, much more than a "Photo credit: State Library of Victoria" could ever provide.

Still, the page admins should be pleased that they are shining a bit of light into our own history. But a little nostalgia can be a dangerous thing...

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Hijackers or: we call them pirates out here

Oh...WOW! This sounds like a GREAT service! Where do I sign up? Oh. I see...
Federal Attorney-General George "Bookshelf" Brandis has foreshadowed changes to copyright laws. He has stated he may use ISPs to issue graduated warning notices to users, in addition to potentially blocking file sharing websites.

Content producers and copyright holders are naturally delighted with this turn of events.

Sadly, this debate has so far been framed in terms of "pirates" vs. "content creators". Binary demarcations of complex debates seems to be the usual form for this government. What's missing in this debate is any notion of the consumer i.e. the person who might actually buy a film or television programme. 

While industry organisations like Screen Australia are all to ready to refer to Australians as the 'world's worst offenders' when it comes to illegal downloads, no-one is willing to address the most pertinent question: WHY? 

As the recent deal between Foxtel and HBO over Game of Thrones demonstrates, content creators and copyright holders simply don't care about consumers if they're outside of the United States of America. While Americans have wide access to subscription and catch-up streaming, download and Pay TV services to watch their favourite shows, Australians have virtually nothing. 

The only local organisation to have actually created a world-class on-demand catch-up service - the ABC - is perpetually under fire for having done so. The commercial networks are the first to complain about iView, arguing it's outside the remit of the public broadcaster.

But I digress.

Netflix, HBO and Amazon are names that'll be familiar to many Australians, even though their online services remain strictly locked behind an arbitrary internet wall known as "geo-blocking". Even if the geo-blocking wall is lifted by content providers, Australians still often face a much higher price for the same bits and bytes of data than other international markets. As a parliamentary committee found last year, geo-blocking is a "significant constraint on consumer choice."

It is also a bricks-and-mortar anachronism in a digital world.

What's needed is a government response that goes beyond the usual "young people are growing up without paying for anything these days" mindset, and moves towards a more nuanced legal and economic framework. One that is beneficial to both content owners and consumers. The goal should be to maximise the availability of timely, competitively priced legal content which will help minimise the number of illegal downloads. To that end, the government should practice its ideological commitment to free and open markets by banning geo-blocking and helping usher in the next generation of digital culture.

Sure, we won't have an NBN to watch it on, but having the content services is a start.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

This week in Royal Commissions...

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse sitting in Sydney in December 2013. Picture:

While the government has been busy instigating yet another expensive and unnecessary party political royal commission, a commission of substance, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, has witnessed Salvation Army Commission James Condon cry while apologising to victims.

Commissioner Condon said that the Salvation Army was "trialling" a policy known as People First, that places secondary importance on the reputation of the church. "The priority is the survivor, not protection of the Salvation Army," he told the hearing.

Putting people first is sadly a revolutionary concept for religious organisations that have a long history of sexual abuse. These pathetic organisations have no concept of how out-of-touch their responses to abuse have been over the past decades. Some, such as the Catholic Church, continue to be. It is only under the watchful gaze of a royal commission that they may finally begin to act as any reasonable person would expect them to: like human beings helping other human beings in need.

It would be perhaps unfair to call Commissioner Condon's tears 'crocodile', but his response seems a bit rich coming from the leader of an organisation that is still, at its core, an ultra-conservative cult which takes the Bible quite literally and may or may not agree with putting gays to death.

When Archbishop Pell demanded any royal commission into sexual abuse also take into account secular organisations such as the Scouts, he did so knowing full well that organised religions were the most egregious perpetrators of child abuse. He no doubt hoped to distract people from the worst organised religion has to offer (read about Pell's deplorable history of responses to abuse in David Marr's excellent Quarterly Essay). On this count, he's probably failed.

Churches are the only organisations that not only claim possession of the physical child, but ownership of his or her soul for god. Churches are the only organisations that even if they're not physically abusing children, actually institutionalise verbal and mental abuse as part of their doctrines. How many countless children have been mentally abused through the threat of eternal torture promised by pathetic old men who would then go on to physically abuse them?

Of course, these days the churches plead love and life, glossing over the mass murder, god-sanctioned slavery and sacrifice of women to save men that's the core of the book they hold so dear.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Stupendously Stupid

Minister of Defence, the Hon David Johnston MP addresses guests and media during the Centenary of Submarines media launch, at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney. Picture: Royal Australian Navy
Defence Minister David Johnston has gotten his toga in a twist about the ABC. Managing to get his point across and mangle the english language at the same time, he accused the ABC of "maliciously maligning" those brave and seemingly unimpeachable personnel of the Royal Australian Navy.

Somewhat strangely for a Minister of the Crown (and mature adult), he needed time to "cool off" - presumably in his ministerial naughty corner - before commenting on the ABC/Asylum Seeker Burns furore because he was "extremely angry". Now Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has rejoined the fray, arguing Labor has besmirched the Navy's honour by daring to call for an independent inquiry into burns claims. 

The behaviour of the government and its senior ministers has been particularly disheartening and unedifying during this whole affair. First, they attempted to use the story as an excuse to cudgel the ABC through the News Corp All-Stars and talkback radio's enlightened opinion makers. Secondly, they tarred those who don't share the government's views as "un-Australian" - a uniquely Australian word for 'traitor'. Thirdly, they have proven themselves very adept at obfuscation to dodge valid questions. Lastly and most sadly, they've continued the state-sanctioned demonisation of those who come across the sea, with whom we've boundless limited plains to share.

The attacks on the ABC have been so nakedly ideological, it's hard to believe they can be taken seriously by anyone except their instigators. First there was Abbott's attack on the running the "burns" story at all, essentially arguing the ABC is a traitorous organisation. That signalled to News Corp to open fire, attacking the ABC from the high towers of the Australian and swamps of the capital city dailies. They too attacked the ABC for running the story, before turning to the age-old criticisms of left-wing bias, expansion beyond charter and massive inefficiency. As usual without providing any evidence of said transgressions. 

As Prime Minister, John Howard used the military as an exemplar of unimpeachable Australian "values" and "mateship". Image: Australian Defence Image Library
When last in government, the Liberals had a great time attacking and "maliciously maligning" those who dared to hold contrary views. It seems the new government will treat its opponents with same contempt. Whether it be concerning the national curriculum or mass surveillance, the government and News Corp All-Stars command you to share their view. If you don't, you'll be labelled an "out-of-touch" elitist; a latter-day Trotskyite or even a traitor.

Abbott, supposedly the leader of this country put it the terms tailored for Heraldsunland: how can you possibly take the word of those illegals over "our" brave Navy personnel? Contrary to Abbott's Bush-like worldview, the world is not divided into goodies and baddies, or un-trustworthy illegals and brave, valiant naval officers and NCOs. One needs only to look at the defence force's dark recent history to see that.

While the Defence Minister sat in the naughty corner cooling off, the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce was busy deciding whether the 2,400 reports of abuse within the forces warrants a royal commission. Navy personnel have also been linked to a fascist Facebook group, with one alleged naval member stating that they were "about to head out today to deal with fuckers" (i.e. asylum seekers) who were coming to Australia "to jump on Centrelink and get free government housing".

With this in mind, is it beyond the realm of possibility that something other than "gallant" or "exceptional" behaviour occurred out on that naval vessel where both dread and tempers flare? Of course not, even though I find it difficult to believe Australian naval personnel would engage in such an act.

But gut feelings are not good enough. These are serious accusations which, if occurred, essentially amount to torture. They should be treated gravely and not be stonewalled and ignored by the government or Defence. Despite the assurances of the government and Defence brass that nothing improper occurred, the citizens they are meant to represent have not seen any evidence to support their conclusions.

Like most oppositions-cum-governments, the Liberals made the usual noises about improving government "accountability and...transparency", but have done quite the opposite once in government. While this might be disappointing, it's not unusual. Both parties regularly promise big on FoI and transparency while in opposition, but deliver little when in government.

Unfortunately in the federal government's case, this election fluff about improving accountability and transparency has been met with the aggressive concealment of documents that had been hitherto routinely available documents under the previous government. Whether they be documents pertaining to the National Broadband Network, or information on Operation Stop the Boats, the government has stonewalled even the most mundane questions at every possible point.

All this really does is point to the continuing state-sanctioned demonisation of desperate individuals and families who seek for themselves a better life across the seas. Abbott is only the latest in a line of mainly conservative politicians to stoke fears in the community about "illegals". Sadly, Abbott and Morrison have repeatedly used language of war to describe border protection and asylum seekers.

Reasoning on his refusal to discuss "operational matters", Abbott concluded that "if we were at war, we would not be giving out information that is of use to the enemy." The oddity is that, after untying the knot in his toga, defence minister Johnston referred to "on water" matters concerning asylum seekers as a "civil public policy matter". Hmm...

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Plustek Opticfilm 120 Review: Plustek, interrupted

Yep, it's big
A few days back I mentioned I had added a Plustek Opticfilm 120 to my "photographic arsenal". I then managed to share a couple of Hasselblad negs I had managed to scan while learning the ropes of the obscurantist software suite called Silverfast. I was excited to have the ability to scan medium format film with good results.

I continued scanning my Hasselblad black and whites happily until I reached a colour roll where the top half of the image was blue sky. I scanned those negs in and discovered a strange coloured streaking. Initially thinking it could be either at artefact of processing or the camera, I tried another colour roll and the same thing happened.

The streaks, while light, were definitely visible. And they impacted on the whole image.

Coloured streaking running vertically throughout the images, in addition to a large band of discolouration on the far right-hand side
This was alarming. Could my camera be damaging my negatives in some way? Have I been getting shoddy processing since forever?

To eliminate the film as the cause of the problems, I cut out a single frame and rotated it 90º. If the coloured streaking rotated with the film, then it was the film's fault. If it stayed in the same direction as the scanning mechanism, then it sure as hell wasn't the film. Sadly, this was the result:

After cutting the single frame and rotating it 90º, the streaking now runs horizontally. If it had been on the film, it would have stayed in the same direction as the first image
A quick scan (pun intended, sorry) of the Opticfilm 120 Flickr group revealed one other person having the same problem, although apparently being given short shrift by Plustek Germany. Note to Plustek: this is a problem and other customers are having it, so please don't dismiss this fault as "unique" to one person. No, it's not the individual's electricity supply, no it's not the film, no it's not the software, no it's not the alignment of Mercury and Venus at the Autumnal equinox - it's the scanner hardware.

Unfortunately I've now had to return the scanner for a refund. The local distributor suggested I send it back for a service, but after only having a new scanner for 4 days, that's simply not an acceptable option. I'm now waiting, again, for new stock.

The Good
Let me say this first: the initial results I received from this scanner were top notch. My black and white 6x6s looked stunning and were incredibly detailed. My colour images, where sky was not present (or not a large portion of the image) also looked stunning. Even with my (and many others') whinging about Silverfast, I found it fairly simple to get good results from the scanner straight out of the box.

State Library of Victoria - Kodak T-Max 100
Getting a Hold(er) on Things
For once, we have (and I had) a scanner that comes (came) with proper film holders, instead of the crud Nikon sent out with their enduringly popular Coolscans. They are three times heavier and immeasurably more rugged than even the best Coolscan carriers. Plustek's magnetic latch design is simply magic and it's clear a lot of thought went it to them, except for the 6x6 holder which doesn't always fit three frames in perfectly (the middle frame distance isn't adjustable).

But the 6x6 holder is an irritant, a mild irritant that can be worked around. I've worked with NikonScan and shoddy Nikon film holders for 6 years, I know what irritating scanning is like. Unfortunately, I can't live with a fundamentally broken scanner.

Now this might strike you as a bit of a whinge: it's a broken product, I've got a refund, what am I complaining about? Well, it's that I would happily - more than happily - take another Opticfilm 120, but there aren't any in the country and probably won't be for months.

I'm not fussed by a faulty product, that happens all the time. Working in retail, I know that faults, whilst frustrating, do not make or break a situation, it's the response that matters. Plustek's US representative has been very active in discussion forums and social media regarding the problems the Opticfilm 120 has been having. This is to be applauded and more companies should follow this lead (*cough* Nikon D600 *uncough*).

But after various reports of problems on the internets (and yes I know that is rarely an accurate gauge, but in this case I think it's valid) I don't have faith in Plustek's quality control on this product. Plustek has already halted shipments once, after a problem with lens alignment or some such and now, almost 18 months after its initial announcement, it's still yet to come into steady supply.

As I understand it, the initial delay was due to the original CCD supplier (that formerly large company from Rochester, NY) being sold. Not much Plustek could do about that. And credit to Plustek for admitting there was an issue with the lens/focal plane alignment and fixing it. But as quickly as one problem is fixed, it seems another arises.

I've survived almost 6 years with my Nikon Coolscan 5000ED and (NikonScan notwithstanding) it hasn't missed a beat. With Nikon no longer producing Coolscans and second-hand prices going through the roof, there is no one else out there making affordable, quality film scanners.

If I do choose to get another Opticfilm 120, I can test my replacement model to see if it has the same streaking problem straight away, that's not an issue. The real issue is the long term: how reliable is it? Will it be able to be serviced if there is a problem? Will Plustek still be around in almost 6 years' time? Or will I be left with a unwieldy paperweight on my desk?

For example, if I buy a DSLR today, I can be fairly certain if it's broken or lost in 5 years' time, I will be able to purchase a superior replacement. Not so with a film scanner; longevity and reliability is very important. If Plustek QC lets an obvious error through, what other overlooked problems might rear their ugly heads years down the track? When your warranty is toast and your film shooting days rendered over?

That's a frightening thought. I'm almost more willing to play Russian Roulette with a used Coolscan 9000ED at reasonable price (is that an oxymoron?), but hold out hope the Opticfilm 120 will return to the fold.

I'll be back?
There is clearly a great scanner waiting to break out, one which blows away all of the competition currently available brand-new. Credit to Plustek for sticking with this model and producing a product that while has some demand, is clearly not a mass-market product. Photographers appreciate that no-end, Plustek.

Hopefully one day soon, I'll be able to do a full and proper review of this product, but until Plustek get their quality control in order, the Opticfilm 120 is likely to stay an untrusted white elephant.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

By the Numbers

EA Falcon from the Garden State FTW! - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember when number plates were a little piece of civic one-upmanship? Driving the length of the Hume, the Garden State would fight bumper-to-bumper with the First State and the Festival State. Further north, in a fit of unimagined creativity, those wily Queenslanders branded their vehicles part of the Sunshine State

They instilled some sort of small, positive civic pride: the knowledge that Victoria valued its gardens meant its people valued its gardens; South Australia their cultural scene; New South Wales their historical primacy; and Queenslanders...their sun - clearly a meteorological feature unique to our friends up north.  

But since those heady days of garden pride, Victoria's number plates have transforphed into a middling quagmire of automotive blandness. From the Kennett-era hubris of the state On the Move to the Bracksian vagueness of being The Place to Be, the Liberal government has turned our automotive identity into a mobile road safety billboard with Vic Stay Alert Stay Alive.

Insert civic slogan and/or punctuation here - Source: VicRoads

Not only has the government expanded the mind-numbing stream of road safety messages to our number plates, but they've managed to circumcise the name of our very state. We are "VIC" to Australia Post, we are ".vic" to our internet browsers, but we are Victoria to the nation and the world. Alas no longer.

Even though Victoria has recorded its lowest road toll since 1924, drivers are still - by and large - treated like naughty children. 1924 saw 224 deaths on the road and given Victoria's population is four times the size it was in 1924, it's easy to see what an achievement this is. Nonetheless, Victorian drivers get a small pat on the head but a stern warning that one death is one too many. Road safety is, of course, very important, but after years of the vast majority of people hearing and heeding the message, it's becoming a bit tiresome on TV, radio, newspapers, billboards and now the ubiquitous number plate. Surely it can be a place for something a little different? Something that gets people talking?  Something that is truly representative of Victoria?

Assuming kids travelling on the Hume still look out the window of their moving cars and not the iPads given to pacify them, they would be unable to glean anything from the home states of the passing cars except that they value road safety - something as unique and far less fun than Queensland's sun.  

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The ABCs of Ideology

"inner-city"..."inked-hipster"..."communist"..."left-leaning"..."latter-day Trotskyites"... are all adjectives which have appeared in conservative editorials over the past few days
The right-wing's ideological knives are out. As is their wont, they target Australia's publicly-funded national broadcaster, the ABC. After Abbott subtly labelled the ABC left-wing traitors, editorials from the market fundamentalists at the IPA and The Australian have rallied against against the "hysterical" reaction to Abbott's words as well as the usual targets of disaffection: perceived editorial and cultural biases, overreach beyond its charter, operating without oversight, etc, etc. As usual, however, the Right has largely forgotten to find any evidence to support their anti-ABC contentions.

From the IPA's James Paterson:
"As an organisation, (the ABC) has shown itself to be tone deaf when it comes to the legitimate concerns of many Australians, that it leans to the left and is not a welcome home for conservatives or classical liberals – particularly among its salaried employees."
And from The Australian:
"The slip in messaging has given Mr Abbott's critics the opportunity to claim the Coalition believes the national broadcaster...should be a cheer squad for the government and the country... Of course, that is not the view Mr Abbott subscribes to." 
Both talk about the inherent "left" bias of the ABC, without really offering any evidence of it. Some in the Coalition party room, of course, favour yet another government inquiry to root out the ABC's "bias" (so much for small government), even though such inquiries have historically come up empty-handed. All The Australian can do is point to the personal Twitter feeds of a few ABC employees to demonstrate the "clear direction" of personal agendas; its programming driven by the "Greens-Left activist complex".

Jeez. Are these guys for real? Joe McCarthy called, he wants his nebulous all-encompassing fear-mongering language back.

The IPA's and The Australian's editorial shows their inherent bias by scripting an apologia for Mr. Abbott. Instead of pointing out the many factual inaccuracies in Abbott's "feelpinion" about the ABC, the editorial claims Abbott never actually meant to say the ABC was un-patriotic, but rather "(he) believes good journalism is healthy for our democracy." The PM's language was "sloppy", but he didn't actually mean the ABC was traitorous when he said it was, it was merely a "slip".

The fault lies with Abbott's critics' for reacting "hysterically" to the words he said, rather than the words The Australian says we ought to think he said.

As James Paterson says, no media organisation should be above criticism, and how right he is. No reasonable person expects them to be, least of all the ABC. But what Abbott said was beyond "criticism", it was unfounded opinion clothed in the rhetoric of "many people feel that...".

The ABC should be held to the highest account, as should all broadcasters and media outlets in Australia who produce "news", whether they themselves term it that or not. They should not, for example, be able to completely misrepresent scientific evidence on climate change or mislead the public as to the welfare entitlements of refugees. But they do. And they do it frequently and repeatedly. Usually only with the softest of repudiations from ACMA.

Probably the only people who "feel" Abbott's opinion are the market fundamentalists at the IPA and the right-wing ideologues at News Corp. I say that because I have evidence, rather than opinions: the ABC is consistently rated the most trusted media organisation in this country. I guess the public must be "feeling" wrong.

There doesn't seem to be much factual basis at all to what the Right "feels" about the ABC and it's in these wide-ranging editorials that the IPA reveals the real reason the Right's so worked up: "If there was ever a case for a taxpayer-funded state broadcaster," Paterson thunders, "it doesn't exist today".

There you go. Ideologically, the Right just doesn't like the ABC.

I'm sure almost the entire rural population of Australia would disagree with Paterson on there being no case for the ABC, not to mention the vast number of people who watch, listen, download or read the services it provides every single day. The state of media in rural Australia, for example, is what a reasonable person calls "market failure"; the IPA calls it the "free market".

The perceived bias, along with Abbott's "un-Australian" slur are just shit the Right is throwing against the wall in the hope something sticks to the ABC (it very rarely has, far fewer times that its commercial counterparts). There is no smoking gun of bias and there probably won't be. Alas that won't stop the Right's ideological warriors waging yet another war, hosting yet another inquiry into the commie leftie "latter-day Trotskyites" (yep, The Australian used that term) culture at the ABC. Meanwhile, the ABC itself responds to calls it doesn't do enough stories about electricity prices and the things that "matter" to the public (international crises like Syria and marriage equality are so bourgeois) by calling in external auditors to vet its news coverage. Haven't seen News Corp do that...

Of course the issue would be far less vexed if Ausatralia had a strong, robust and diverse commercial media sector. It doesn't. We don't. One need only look at the The Australian's sick attitudes towards democratic parliamentary parties such as the Greens, or the Daily Telegraph's 2013 Federal Election coverage to see the bias that's present and apparently A-OK in the commercial media sector. At least sane people have Media Watch.

But, according to The Australian, the ABC shouldn't even be running Media Watch to look at bias and journalistic howlers in both its own house and in others' because "(the) ABC charter does not veer into the realm of correcting for the biases, real or imagined, of its media rivals".

Hmm. Perhaps a taste of one's own medicine is required.

So there, ABC. Go back in your box and let this nation's commercial media prove with their own words why we need you.