This is not a blog. So sue me!

Crikey, things are looking up!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sufficiently advanced technology 3

Sufficiently advanced technology*

I borrowed Don's camera to take pictures in the back yard. It not only took great shots but the darn thing puts the pictures' meta-data** all rolled into the jpg format. Camera model, date, time, place...more information than I am aware of myself, half the time. Isn't technology wonderful? No more working out "Well that must have been the Thursday before Easter..." or burning a digital date on the "film".

Only a few decades ago you would have needed a lot of money, time and an assistant to carry all the gear to get shots like that. Not to mention processing the "film". I am impressed with the advances in relatively cheap cameras, the software to use and manipulate images and the ease with which a total beginner like me can make pictures that are really quite pleasing.

I asked someone recently, "What is left for the professional photographer to do?"

The story goes like this: when I was young (about 100 years ago and far away) most families owned cameras and would take "snaps". Generally the father of the family did this. Then there was the process of taking the sealed film container out of the camera (some skill needed here) and to the "chemist's" for processing and printing (for some reason, many pharmacists seemed to do photographic processing, probably to do with inhaling dangerous chemicals.) Then everyone waited several weeks. The pictures were good quality (if they turned out) although expensive. There were also camera shops where you could get more expensive processing and better film, if people were interested. When colour film and processing came along, the price increase was so large that many resisted the change for a surprisingly long time.

There were many professional photographers. From the guys who would stand around at seaside resorts taking quick shots of passing holidaymakers, to the wedding album specialists, all the way to the professional photographic artists. There must have been many, many corner store-type processing labs and darkrooms. Mostly this was because the equipment was expensive and the training to use it properly was not that easy. If you were a serious enthusiast, you could buy the tanks, solutions, washing lines, enlargers and suchlike and do a reasonable job, but it took a long time to get good at it and it was tedious. Not for people like me who are into instant gratification.

When I was a teenager there came the mail-order photo "lab" - you sent your film away, and in 2-3 weeks colour prints came back and, they gave you a free replacement film! This impressed so many people so much that they didn't notice that the processing quality was low, the printing was poor and the results pretty awful. What mattered was that it was cheap; half the price of the colour film alternative. Now, 40 years later those pictures have turned a funny orangey colour, when 70 year-old black and white shots are unchanged. The processing and printing was largely automatic and centralized because the equipment was hugely expensive.

The corner store labs died. Some photographic stores went upscale, most closed down. When automatic processing machines became cheaper, some stores bought them and continued working, however the big box stores now built photo labs in their premises. There was still residual send-away processing from small shops in small towns, but the war of technology had reached the clipper-ship technological pinnacle of film: I take my film to a person who inserts it in a machine and a few minutes later out come the prints.

The professional photographers were now the wedding and portrait guys, news photographers, and the artists. Considerable training was still required to guarantee results - you had to capture the shot right there and know that it would work.

Then came digital cameras. Ten years later film has now died. People have moved to using lightweight, forgiving and cheap cameras. We put the pictures on a computer and up-load then to the " so-called cloud." This happens automatically with some 'smart' phones. We print them only if really needed.

The machines are doing the work now. It takes next to no knowledge or training to understand how to do this, especially in the context where many people have some computer access. And you see the results immediately. If it doesn't work, you do it again.

A gifted amateur can do a very decent job of taking wedding photos or family portraits. A professional will do better, but not so much that one is actually needed. The barrier to entry in this field is much lower. Most of this kind of photographer had better have a second source of income.

News photographers were probably next to go. In spite of the excesses of the so-called paparazzi, when the camera-phone is ubiquitous, the price paid for that unique shot is going to be lower, especially when the shot can be cleaned up using software. Enthusiastic amateurs are everywhere and the professional is out of a job. That is, completely apart from the threat that came from decline of print media where every newspaper used to have one or more photographers on staff.

What remains is the photograph as art. Most photographic artists have always struggled. Technology may lower the bar to the making of images and software manipulation does make it a lot easier to implement a vision, but the vision is still unique. We will get many more gifted photographic artists as a result.

Competition will make it harder for anyone to become a full-time artist and get paid, but the ones that make it will probably be better. And the globalization of media means that the maker of any brilliant image can become famous. Here are some artists I find interesting (no particular order):

* Arthur C. Clarke, English science fiction writer:  "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
** meta-data - information about a thing that contains information, that is, a photograph.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Letters to M - February 2013

Dear M,

Great news that you're starting on the new treatment! One day at a time, everyone...

Our cat, Freya, is not having a very good winter as I mentioned before but now there is more to worry about: firstly there is a nasty new grey tomcat in the neighbourhood - whenever he sees her, he chases her and bites her! Secondly, I have started putting out peanuts for the birds, and a flock of blue jays now come to our tiny bird feeder. This is attached to the front window of our house and it's so close, that Freya thinks she can catch the birds. She runs forward to seize them...until she hits the glass!

So she can't go out, for fear of being beaten up (unless we're around - we chase the grey cat out of the yard) and she gets very frustrated at the mocking and laughing of the blue jays, who have learned to ignore her attacking from the inside of the window. Plus it's cold, and snowing and stuff...and our patio door has frozen up, so she can't go out that way...and...and...she can't wait until Spring! It's a sad life being a black cat, stuck indoors, no fun at all.

Except, from time to time, we throw a dried kidney bean onto the floor for her. She just loves to play with one of these...they skitter and spin like little tops and seem to come to life. It almost looks like a small beetle on the floor. Eventually it gets lost under a chair or something but it is hilarious to watch her! So the cat is in Spring training for Summer beetle hunting!

Her other fun thing to do is hide in cloth grocery bags. We got a couple of these from Loblaws in black fabric and for some reason she loves to play in them (Don says it's because it matches her fur). I have to drop the bag on the floor, then lift it up by one handle so that she can get in, and then I have to pick it up (cat inside) and carry her to the other end of the house. She pretends to be asleep. I then put her down, she sometimes gets out and we do it all over again, or, she will stay in the bag and grab at anyone who walks by!

I'm not sure who is training whom, or who looks more ridiculous!

Lots of love,


Good news! Such a relief for you all, but eternal vigilance, as always :-)

Sue & Don.
p.s. Freya is asleep. She is exhausted after a long morning of bird-watching. She was staring out from the patio door for at least an hour while I have my binoculars. She did go out for a walk outside, but was back in 5 minutes crying that it was too cold. Still our feathered friends are a constant source of entertainment. We call it “Cat TV” - we have even made extra wide window ledges on the inside of the windows of our house, so that cats can keep watch.
Do you have a place you can watch for birds, M? II find it an interesting pastime that you can do from inside the house, or you can go out to a park or beach, or to the other side of the world and see birds of all types. My family can be quite irritating when we are out walking together with other people. Someone will be saying something serious and one of us will say "Ooh look! A greater spotted marsh twit! You don't see many of those!" 
You don't need any equipment but some people use binoculars and have books to check on the types of birds. Often people record the birds that they spot. Identifying birds isn't all that hard, except that the most common type of bird is small and brown and can be one of about 30 species!
Putting up a bird feeder can attract quite a lot of birds. In the summer there are hummingbirds who may come to a feeder filled with syrup (or you can grow red or orange flowers that they like). Some people say birds are "living dinosaurs" - they may be their closest living relatives. If you look in just the right way at a flock of geese eating grass in a park, you can imagine that it is a herd of dinosaurs grazing...!
Last year we had the Blue Jays nest in the next door cedar hedge. I hope they return this year. They are noisy neighbours as they seemed to spend a lot of their time loudly abusing the passing cat population. About ten times a day the blue jay (I can't tell the male from the female - they look the same) would sit on the fence shouting "Cat! Cat! Cat!" as a cat, hopelessly exposed with no further stealth possible, crept miserably by. 
Our backyard is now being graced with a new couple, Mr. and Ms. Cardinal. They seem to be getting comfy in the backyard snowball bush - I hope they nest there.  The male is magnificent in his bright red feathers, right now all puffed up against the cold - he looks just like the Angry Birds red bird. And he has quite a temper - he is constantly bullying the flock of little juncos who are always merrily bouncing about in the bushes. They don't seem to mind...they just flutter off a little way and carry on with their games. Meanwhile the female cardinal is quite indifferent to all this excitement. She is calmly pecking about looking for seeds. She has pretty brown feathers fringed in red and definitely looks like a little punk princess with a dyed red mohawk, shaved on the sides and pointy on top!
We will have to keep an eye on them this spring and summer - the backyard is an intersection of the territories for three or four cats - and they have a horrible habit of hunting birds. Freya has caught birds in the past, but she often doesn't seem to hurt them. She will bring them home and, when she had her own cat door, she would release them in the house! Then there was a lot of shrieking (from me) and running about with nets to try and catch the bird and get it out of the house! The bird is usually so scared by then that it poops all over the curtains!
The one time that we weren't home and Freya brought in her catch led us to decide to block up the cat door! Unfortunately the cat had recaptured her prey and there were feathers, and bird poop all over the place...and the poor bird was dead! So now, we make sure that the cat is in the house when we are away, and we let her out only under supervision. She doesn't like this much, but that's the New Deal, the bird killer is sentenced to house arrest! 


St Lawrence Rowing

Test content from SLRC