Friday, June 26, 2009

Art makes the world more vivid

Art Makes the World More Vivid
Artist Jeremy Kraemer of Madison painting in Wingra Park. View Large.

Little Oscar and I have been catching up on our short fiction reading in The New Yorker

Little Oscar and I Reading an E. L. Doctorow Story in an Old New Yorker
Summertime is a good time to catch up on our short fiction reading. We browse through old copies of The New Yorker that pile up around the house and look for short stories we missed the first time around when we were too busy with the latest Seymour Hersh and other nonfiction. A raccoon was involved in this one, and a new pair of shoes at the end. It was called "Wakefield" and was in the Jan. 14, 2008 issue (yes, some of the stacks are pretty high). It's Doctorow's retelling (re-imagining, really) of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same title, an account of what Hawthorne characterized as a "long whim-wham." The Doctorow story struck us as the more fully developed; the Hawthorne version was sketchier, more of a speculative idea for a story than an actual story. Doctorow's tale is a story of a disappearance that turns into a furtive, raccoon-like nocturnal existence, which combines elements of Kafka and Cheever, and which follows its protagonist on a quest as deranged and surreal as Cheever's "The Swimmer" undertook so memorably years ago.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Quite a performance by Charlie Gibson last night

Charlie Gibson's Strange Performance Last Night
You have to hand it to Charlie Gibson, the ABC anchor who hosted ABC's healthcare town hall in the White House last night. First there was the deft way he elbowed aside his former GMA colleague Diane Sawyer and turned her into a highly-paid "mike girl" who did little but walk the microphone around and hand it to members of the studio audience. No question about who was in charge. Then there was the selection of the audience itself, filled with just enough ordinary people to provide cover for the ringers like the head of the AMA and the CEO of Aetna.

There was the way that the usual right wing talking points -- we can't afford it, government bureaucrats interfering with our freedom of choice, unfair government competition with private enterprise, letting the market do its job -- dominated Gibson's questions. Nothing wrong with the questions in and of themselves -- the event was set up to give President Obama an opportunity to respond to questions like this, which he did well -- up to a point.

What was remarkable was the way Gibson asked the questions. He seemed personally aggrieved all night long, and he displayed a sour, aggressive disposition. Early on, asking about the affordability of healthcare reform, his tone was irritably dismissive and skeptical. As the night went on, he got edgier and edgier. He seemed to be taking all this talk of reform as a personal attack. By the time they were talking about the "public option," Gibson was visibly upset and wagging an angry finger in the face of the President of the United States.

It was hard not to interpret Gibson's tone and body language as saying something like this:
If the rabble who can't afford healthcare are given access they'll swamp the system and that might affect my medical care. I want things to stay the way they are and the market to sort things out.
Gibson's style seemed so over the top that it made Obama's urbane, reasonable remarks sound all the more intelligent and public-spirited. So why wasn't I feeling better about the night?

Because it seemed like a charade, an exercise in futility. Forget the vague and unspecified "public option." Without single-payer, any reform isn't worth the paper it's written on. By taking single-payer off the table, Barack Obama is in danger of making the same mistake Hillary Clinton made 16 years ago. The Democrats still haven't learned anything. They're still trying to negotiate a compromise with the beneficiaries of a corrupt and broken system, one that makes Wall Street seem like a paragon of virtue and efficiency. I'm worried that it won't work, and that we'll miss a great opportunity.

There are many ways to structure single-payer. It's implemented in many different ways in other industrialized nations. Some of them include a role for insurance companies and other market mechanisms, and some don't. Fine. Compromise on those. But if you give up on single-payer right out of the gate, you risk building a house of cards that will eventually collapse of its own weight. Calling it reform doesn't change that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Turns out Mama is taking my Kodachrome away

Turns Out Mama Is Taking My Kodachrome Away
After hearing Monday's news I paid a visit to some of my old Kodachromes (which I really should get scanned one of these days). After more than 30 years, the whites in this image of a peeling billboard are as pure and pristine as ever, the reds still just as rich and saturated. I'm sure I'll have more to say later, but for the time being I'll just quote from the press release:
ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 22 – Eastman Kodak Company announced today that it will retire KODACHROME Color Film this year, concluding its 74-year run as a photography icon.

Sales of KODACHROME Film, which became the world’s first commercially successful color film in 1935, have declined dramatically in recent years as photographers turned to newer KODAK Films or to the digital imaging technologies that Kodak pioneered. Today, KODACHROME Film represents just a fraction of one percent of Kodak’s total sales of still-picture films.

“KODACHROME Film is an iconic product and a testament to Kodak’s long and continuing leadership in imaging technology,” said Mary Jane Hellyar, President of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group. “It was certainly a difficult decision to retire it, given its rich history. However, the majority of today’s photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology – both film and digital. Kodak remains committed to providing the highest-performing products – both film and digital รข to meet those needs.”
You can read the rest of the release at the end of this post by Josh Root at The film is expected to be available through this fall, and it's at least 18 months till the last remaining processing lab shuts down its Kodachrome line. Josh says its a time, not to mourn, but to celebrate -- by shooting some final rolls ourselves before this film completes its 75-year run next year. I know I will. (Great way to start using my Olympus XA again.)

Checking out the 'contact sheet' photographed with my new (old) fixed focal length prime lens

Checking Out the 'Contact Sheet' for My New (Old) Prime Lens
24mm AF Nikkor f/2.8. Nice lens for street shooting -- with the crop factor, the equivalent of a 36mm prime for my D90. Has a scale for manual focusing, unlike today's modern lenses, and enough depth of field so you can pretty much set it manually for the range you want and shoot away without having to engage autofocus. Much faster. Mr. Cat was a somewhat reluctant but patient model for some test shots.

Today, people aren't usually concerned with DOF but rather bokeh when they choose a fixed-focal length prime. I think it's interesting to note how, in marketing lenses, this bug eventually evolved into a feature. In the stone age before autofocus with autofocus assist lamps, photojournalists all had fast lenses, because the faster the lens, the better the SLR finder brightness, as well as focusing accuracy in low light. There was a price to be paid -- f/1.4 lenses had very shallow depth of field, but few pros shot totally wide-open. Even if shooting available light, they would normally set the camera to stop down to a more practical shooting aperture like f/2.8. Now the shallow depth of field has been renamed bokeh. The bug has become a feature, and people are buying expensive prime lenses mainly for the purpose of throwing backgrounds prettily out of focus.

I'm not immune to the hype, and I keep thinking I should get a faster prime. You don't have to spend a fortune, though you can. Nikon has a couple of good, inexpensive f/1.8 lenses -- the 50mm, of course, and now the 35mm DX lens for digital SLRs.

But every time my fingers get twitchy and start browsing the B&H website, I start to think, "But what would I actually do with it? Would I just leave it home?" Probably. For deliberate bokeh, I prefer a longer lens anyhow. The 24mm (36mm equiv.) is better for street. For available light, f/2.8 is a better shooting aperture. If I need more oomph, I can crank the ISO or rely on image stabilization. And if sharpness in low light is critical (for me it usually isn't, but sometimes it is), there's always a tripod.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

One of the great joys of summer

The Joys of Summer
Does anything feel better on a hot summer day than to ride a bike in sandals, with the wind flowing through your toes? No toe clips for me. Of course, I won't win any races this way, but I'm more of a dreamer and a roamer than a racer anyhow.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer solstice visit to Stephens Falls in Governor Dodge State Park

Stephens Falls 1
Governor Dodge is one of Wisconsin's largest state parks (5,270 acres), and the only big one in the Driftless Area, the geologically interesting southwestern part of the state untouched by the glaciers. Instead of being ground down by the glaciers, the area's hills and valleys have been sculpted by wind and water erosion -- doing for hundreds of millions of years what Stephens Falls is doing today.

Stephens Falls 3We visited Stephens Falls yesterday on our Summer Solstice/Father's Day drive. It's an easily accessible little jewel, nestled into a gorge that forms a natural amphitheater. It's cool and moist down there, and the cliff walls are home to a variety of ferns and other plants that like the micro-climate. The last time I saw Stephens Falls was during a drought, and the falls had been reduced to a little dribble. But there's plenty of water now, what with the recent rains this year and last. The falls are just a 1/2-mile walk from the road, and a rock staircase is built into the cliff. For those who can't climb down, there's a scenic overlook.

See complete Flickr set of images here.