Thursday, 30 July 2009

R-Wards 3

My reviews blog, R-Views, has just celebrated its third birthday. As is my habit thus far, I publish my look at the reviewing year that was in this blog, too, if only to serve as a promotion tool. At this stage I will mention that this is this own blog's 1000th post, a nice landmark by its own right.
So, here goes...

Trend wise, this year will be marked as the year in which the presentation qualities of watching films at home have surpassed what the vast majority of cinemas can offer, especially in the sound department. The year has been the year of and high definition video: whereas last year’s summary concluded that it’s best to wait before jumping on the Blu-ray wagon, Blu-ray was jumped upon during the middle of the year and I haven’t looked back since (other than when lamenting the lack of good music utilizing the best that Blu-ray can offer). Through a high definition PVR and through upscaling DVDs and downloads, which result in inferior yet similar picture to straight high definition, our picture had never looked better. Gone for good are analog sources like the VCR; by now they are intolerable.
As for future trends, I suspect more of the same. For now, internet downloads and off the air TV cannot compete with Blu-ray due to the severe levels of compression they have to endure. Yes, even high definition downloads dubbed as Blu-ray equivalent are a far cry. Yet with Blu-rays available for rent at $2 a pop or less, I see no problems with the way things are.

Best film:
This had been the first year in memorable life where I have never been to the cinema. To compensate for this absence we got to watch lots of mediocre films just to feel we’re up to date with life; yet in between the banal some surprises emerged.
Most surprising of all was Walk Hard, a comedy that made me laugh very hard. It wasn’t only that the jokes were good; the musical soundtrack is genuinely good on its own.
My best film of the year, though, has been Speed Racer. The way Speed Racer did animation material in real life (with the aid of animation meant to look as real life) was just magnificent; coupled with the fantasy like car racing action, Speed Racer was genuine high quality fun, an oasis of originality amid sequels and sequels of sequels.

Best book:
Two books I have read this last year deserve this title.
The first is Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins' detailed account of the way evolution by natural selection works and its implications is not only well written, it is also quite illuminating. Then again, I expect nothing less from Dawkins. It is also a very important book for our times, times in which religious circles in Australia are complaining that upcoming legislation will prevent them from teaching Intelligent Design; The Blind Watchmaker is the book they should give their kids instead of their regular brainwashing.
I’m sure Dawkins won’t mind me giving the best book title to another book, a book he admitted he should have written himself: Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Demon Haunted World is not "just" another book of popular science, but rather a book dealing with the importance of science itself and the scientific method in particular. In a day and age where humanity is facing one of its biggest challenges ever in the shape of global warming such a reminder is timely: it takes but a short look at the way Australia's attitude to the challenge is shaped by religious prejudice and the power of those that make a killing out of the current way of life to see how much the scientific method is missing from our day to day lives.

Best on TV:
It took us a few episodes to get into the thick of things, but three seasons onwards The IT Crowd has established itself as one of our favorite comedies ever. Its jokes about popular culture (e.g., the Friendface social website), corporate politics, and the geeks vs. the cool are top notch comedy; and I can definitely sympathize with the way its IT people are being treated by "normal" folk.
For the record, my favorite episode comes from season 2 and features our heroes going to the theater. One of them gets into trouble and pretends to be disabled just to be able to go to the toilet, the other gets into trouble and ends up a barman. You have to see it to get it, though.
The only sad thing about The IT Crowd is that being a British TV series, they only make six episodes a season. I really do hope we have many more seasons to come.

Lifetime Achievement R-Ward:
I liked him as an actor, from his Westerns through Dirty Harry and Firefox. But since he turned director Clint Eastwood seemed to be maturing better than quality wine.
Check out his five most recent releases: Between Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Gran Torino only one is not worthy of a five star rating.
He is, by far, my favorite filmmaker. Allow me to be greedy and wish him for more, many more.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

To Be a Rock and Not to Roll?

How can you justify spending your valuable time reading this blog when you can use it to help starving kids in Africa? And why do you indulge yourself in reading books and watching films while wars are taking place and people are left with no shelter?
Look at it whichever way you like, I suspect you will not be able to find some magical ethical rules that explain why reading books is a good thing to do while others are suffering and something can be done about it. No matter what golden rule of ethics you come up with, there is always the fact that we have a limited resource called lifespan we need to contend with, a limit which brings our ideals down to earth. And during our time on this earth we all have things that we like doing, things that make life worth living. Sure, my life is worth living because of the people I live it with, but being able to indulge myself in reading, watching films or blogging sure adds spice to the mix.
For me, one of those extra spicy activities is photography. It manifests itself in many ways: Aside of the obvious kick that comes with taking photos, there is the challenge of being able to contend with new photographic challenges – none of which come in a harder form than trying to photograph a young child. Then there is the editing and cataloging of the photos, and then there is their publishing: While, say, all my friends have the technical ability to do so, I am the only person I am acquainted with who maintains such a vast collection of photographs on the web.
Photography has a special meaning to me. Living life without photography is akin to being a rock and not rolling.

And that is my justification for being an idiot and spending a lot of money on a new digital SLR. And the winner of this greatly debated privilege is none other than the brand new Pentax K-7.
The first question I have been asked, even by the people at the shop in which I bought it, is “Why Pentax?”; you can add on top of that another question, “Why are you leaving Nikon behind in favor of Pentax?”
The answer is complex. First, I have to make it clear that I have no brand loyalty whatsoever. I have been reading photography forums in which it was clear that many people are fiercely loyal to their camera brand of choice, especially Pentax owners that probably feel marginalized by the huge flocks of Canonians and Nikonians. Me, all I can say is that the K-7 is my third SLR, following steps taken before by a Canon A2E and a Nikon D70.
My answer to the above question lies in Pentax’ marginalization. Being that Pentax is small and relatively powerless when it comes to shaping the market, they have to offer more in order to survive; and offer more they do. The K-7 is simply the best value for money in what is known as the “prosumer” camera market. Examples include a magnesium chassis, sensor shake reduction, high definition video, weather proofing, and – most importantly – a good price tag to match.
In contrast, there is the Nikon and Canon approach, which states: we are the market rulers, so we’ll do things the way we want and not the way our users want; we won’t give them shake reduction in the sensor, but rather force them to buy numerous lenses that offer shake reduction. Indeed, one of the reasons why I wasn’t too sad to leave my Nikon behind was that it became obvious my next step with Nikon would be the expensive ritual of replacing my lenses with ones that offer shake reduction (especially in the zoom range).
I do, however, have to add that my purchase of the K-7 has been a bit of a gamble, as my digital photography bible – the dpreview website – has thus far only published a preview for this camera and not a fully detailed review. However, evidence collected thus far indicates this is a worthy camera even if its performance in high ISO settings is rather noisy (a point highly contested by Pentax fans who will have to excuse me when I say there is nothing wrong in admitting defeat).

So what are my first impressions of my new Pentax K-7?

IMGP0022
Originally uploaded by reuvenim

Well, this is no review and I will not pretend to be able to provide a through review. What I can do is compare it to my old Nikon D70, with which I am very familiar, and say this: It’s damn fast! At the time I thought my D70 was fast; the K-7 focuses and takes 5 photos (per second) before the D70 manages a blink. Very important when taking kids’ photos!
The second thing I can say is that the Pentax is really quiet. The shutter shound, while obviously more intrusive than a prism-less compact camera, sounds more like a polite gesture compared to the Nikon’s sharp staccato.
Third, it seems obvious it would take me a long while to master the K-7 to a satisfactory level. At the moment I have to let it decide on too many things when taking a photo simply because I’m at the beginning of my K-7 mastering learning curve. The K-7 offers many more options than the Nikon did; essentially, it can do a lot of the photoshopping in-house, but it also gives you the advantage of doing a lot before taking the photo. For example, you can set it up to tackle extreme contrast conditions the Nikon would not be able to do anything about.
The results of my K-7 escapades have already started creeping up in Flickr (and YouTube, for that matter, with high definition videos). You are warmly invited to enjoy the fruits of my K-7 over the next few years.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Abbottland

The 7:30 Report, ABC’s main current affairs program, interviewed Tony Abbott last night. Abbott is a former federal minister from the Liberal Party and this rather flattering interview definitely boosted the notions that he is being groomed to contend for the party’s leadership. In other words, Abbott may be a future Australian Prime Minister.
The thing I find mind boggling is the way global warming was dealt during the interview. In response to a Kerry O’Brien’s question, Abbott had no problems expressing his personal skepticism regarding man made global warming; he went on to say that in his opinion, the science on the matter is very weak. The thing that hit me about it was that Abbott was able to say what he said on a stage which is supposed to promote him with the electorate; as far as I am concerned, his words were equivalent to saying the earth was flat and then claiming Galileo’s observations are rather weak. To add insult to injury, O’Brien did not make a fuss of Abbott’s argument and just continued on to the next question, as if acknowledging the earth was flat and there's nothing wrong with claiming it to be so.
So let me try and rectify things a bit. While there is definitely room for error in the science of global warming and climate in general, all the evidence is pretty much pointing towards human activities causing it. There is consensus amongst the relevant specialists about it. The only noise you can hear comes from the fringes, usually from those with vested interests. Saying the science behind global warming is weak is therefore the same as lying.
So where does Abbott take his opinion from? That’s simple: his opinion is based on his prejudices. Abbott has formed his opinion on global warming through by applying some logic to his former opinions, a lot of them originating in his firm Catholic beliefs. Question is, do we want a world governed by prejudice or do we want a world governed by an objective arbiter?

To make our minds up on that last question, let us take a short thought experiment (borrowed from Daniel Dennett):
Imagine you go to visit a foreign country, Abbottland, with your family. During the visit your son is gruesomely shot in the head right before your eyes and dies. Plenty of evidence is leading towards a certain local being the killer, and the guy is put on trial. Only that in Abbottland courts do not care for evidence; instead they rely on people’s prejudices.
The trial starts with you recounting the murder. All’s well until the defense starts bringing their witnesses: the killer’s family and friends, all testifying how nice and good natured he is. In the face of their strong arguments the killer is acquitted (and you’re forced to pay their his fees).
Now, do we want our country or our world to be managed this way?
The fact of the matter is that science is the best arbiter society was able to come up with thus far. Bring me a better technique and I will gladly embrace it, but till then I will go with the method that does manage to provide us with explanations on the world around us.
And god forbid us having someone like Tony Abbott and his ways at the helm. Let’s keep Abbottland to the realm of thought experimentation.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Microsoft's Way

Last night my Windows Mobile 6.1 PDA / mobile phone decided to wake us up at around midnight. It persevered with its ringing for a while, increasing its nuisance level by the minute.
Upon examination, it turned out my PDA was trying to alert me about the immanent beginning of my nephew’s birthday. What could I have done without it?
It turns out that with this version of Windows Mobile, which I believe to be the latest until 6.5 comes out, birthday reminders work as follows:
a. You enter a date in the birthday field on one of your contacts.
b. The next time you sync your Windows Mobile PDA with Outlook, it creates a recurring whole day event for that birthday. And yes, it also sets up a reminder for that event; that reminder is set according to Outlook’s default for issuing a reminder 15 minutes ahead of the schedule time, i.e., 23:45 the day before the birthday.
c. If you wish to disable the reminder, you need to remember to go to the event’s setup after the Outlook sync took place and change the reminder’s settings.

Now let me raise the following query. What sick mind in Microsoft came up with the idea that people would like to get a birthday reminder in the middle of the night?
It just goes to show how detached Microsoft is from the needs of its users and how mediocre its products are.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Yearly Pilgrimage

Looking back, it's funny to note which events have stamped themselves firmly into our calendar. One such event is the annual Target Toy Sale taking place around the middle to end of July, a sale famous for generally offering the best price cuts around. "Generally", of course, is a relative term; you are, however, guaranteed to have a thick catalog of toys to choose from at good prices. And it's not just conventional toys but rather electronics and game consoles too, although that's the main area where discretion is warranted.
For three years now I have been visiting the sale on its opening day. Many items, especially the larger ones, run out pretty quickly; which explains why I found myself battling with mothers protecting their territory of shopping trolleys filled up to the roof as they rush to put their hands on more and then some.
Two years ago, coinciding with the birth of our Dylan, the highlight of our purchases was a baby gym and a book fit for really really young babies (it took a long while till he was interested in anything book like, and by then proper books did just as good a job). Last year we got Dylan a trike, which thus far has only been used on dry runs, and a big outside toy incorporating a swing and a slide, which was and still is a big success. Another success story was the baby gate we got for an incredibly good price, a gate we still use to block access to our kitchen.
How did we fare this year? Well, we wanted a trampoline but the one on offer was way too big. Instead we settled on a safety bed rail (or whatever it is you call this thing you put on the side of the bed to prevent your child from falling to the floor). I admit we didn't research this purchase much; we just suspected we'll need one soon and went for the Target model under the assumption that whatever they have in the sale is a major bargain. Since then we learned you can get more sophisticated models that can be folded aside so you can sit next to your child and read them a bedtime story; I guess we'll have to settle with a bedside chair.
Other purchases included a stack of play-doh processing tools, which thus far seem to have been a major success even before introducing the actual play-doh to Dylan (judging by the stains on his clothes, he plays with it at childcare quite often). Especially popular were the play-doh scissors, or as Dylan calls them - "snip snip". Then we got him a big truck (as big as he is) that he can use to transport stuff (and sand) from one side of the house to the other, assuming it would fit in our house; it's just that I had a similar toy as a child (albeit much smaller) and I liked the idea.
The highlight, at least in my book, was the purchase of the complete set of Mr Books. For $45 we got 40 Mr Books, including my own childhood favorites like Mr Apchi (aka Mr Sneeze) and Mr Af (Mr Nosey). I used to love these books as a child, so having the opportunity to read them all is, well, an opportunity. My only problem is that Dylan is too young for these books and by introducing them to him now he might lose interest by the time he's actually able to digest them. Still, given the experience from the Mr Books we already had (they're a popular gift from English relatives), their reading can be quite the theatrical show and Dylan greatly enjoys them.
So read that, English family, and don't send us any more Mr Men books. And as for the future, well, only the gods of Target know what purchases beckon for next year.

For now, I will leave you with the video of Dylan receiving his Mr Men book collection:

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Walking on the Moon

The acquisition of a new Asus Eee PC netbook (which will probably feature the topic of a future post) has prompted a new horizon for my blogging ventures: using the netbook's webcam, I can video myself as I use the PC. Instead of setting up my camera on a tripod and everything that comes with that, as I did in the past, I can just talk to my PC and bitch and moan in video instead of typing my complaints using the keyboard.
So the first ever video I ended up taking this way is a Dylan video (surprise surprise). Google have announced today that a new Google Moon option was added to their Google Earth application (aka Googa Earth), which happens to be Dylan's favorite toy; so we took a video of Dylan admiring the new feature. It felt like it was the right thing to do, given moon anniversaries and Dylan's current love affair with anything celestial, rockets included.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mommy to read a rocket book

I find there is no better way to get to understand the human brain than to see a child learning to get a grip on language and the various phases he/she is going through on their way. The above quote from our two year old, uttered this morning, represents the most complicated coherent sentence he has made thus far (to the best of my knowledge).
The rocket book at hand is a book called Roaring Rockets that we got Dylan last week. Lately, everything he sees is either a rocket or a train; lines tend to be trains, arrows tend to be rockets. He's asking us to "make a train" out of his leftover bread crusts.
The book, by the way, is fairly nice: it tells the story of how the three characters of this machinery book series go to the moon Apollo style, with multi stage rockets, a lunar lander module, and a helicopter pickup upon their return to the earth's sea. Another nice thing about the book is that it's made of lighter materials than kids' books normally are, which means it's light to carry and didn't require the butchering of as many forests to make. We're looking to get Dylan a couple of other books from this series, Amazing Airplanes and Terrific Trains.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Giant Steps

I'm not the type of person to make a fuss of anniversaries, but the first moon landing is an exception. Ask me what is the peak of humanity's achievements, and my answer will probably be putting a human on the moon.
Sure, it was not done for humanitarian purposes but rather as a calculated Cold War move. Sure, by now we have other space related achievements, like taking a spacecraft outside the planets' perimeter of our solar system. Sure, there are plenty of other worthwhile achievements we people have made. Nothing, however, is half as exciting as walking on the moon.
I therefore find it quite annoying to witness how it became cool to pretend the moon landings were an American cheat. It's a part of the "cool to be anti USA" trend, but it's done by the same people who will not blink when they use a cell phone or the internet, but will tell you there is no way the USA has had the technology to go to the moon (essentially, placing people on top of a bucket load of explosives and applying Newtonian set of rules on their trajectory). Go figure.
The Channel 9 morning show I was recently forced to witness hit this nerve again. They had an item on Apollo 11, which is great; but upon its conclusion the male presenter asked the female one, "hey, how do you explain the American flag standing so firmly straight all the time on the moon's concrete like floor?" His co-presenter answered with a "Hey, I don't know". Wow! Isn't it cool to find anti American evidence? Not half as cool as the news that aliens have concreted the moon as a welcome gift to Armstrong and Aldrin, but hey - ignorant idiots (yes, an idiot, because that presenter was actively trying to trigger that conspiracy nerve) can't be expected to do their homework and check what the moon's soil really is like, can they?

Ultimately, the things that frustrate me the most about the moon landings is that it has been almost 40 years since we've last visited the moon and me not having memories of live moon landings.
During those 40 odd years a lot of money has been poured on stupidly useless stuff, like nuclear weapons (or weapons in general, for that matter). Most of our scientific exploration efforts have been made to advance military purposes.
I want to see the conquest of space becoming glorified once again. I mean it: I want to see it happen during my life time.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Right to Discriminate

The headline in today's Age said "Church and state clash over equality laws". It seems like the church and other religious authorities are having a problem with the State of Victoria's proposed anti discrimination legislation. Or, as the article itself puts it:
"At stake, these groups say, is their religious freedom to discriminate within churches, schools and church-run welfare services."
Now, isn't that a nice joke?

Essentially, the case at hand here is religion fighting to keep hold of the special get out of jail card society has willfully handed it: the right to act unreasonably on the grounds of some mystical authority. Yet if that is the case, why can't everyone invent their own so called religion and rule themselves to be the lords of all creation? Limiting this right to existing religions is, well, discrimination.
Special cases which would be affected if religion gets its way send shivers through my spine. For example, relatives of mine who are single mothers or who happened to be gay (and I have several of those) may be discriminated against and not allowed to work for Catholic institutions such as their private schools; yet the Catholic priests who mess about with male kids are free to continue their "church work".
Victoria's proposed legislation should come as soon as possible.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Here we go again

One of the more vivid memories I have from my university student days is stepping out of the bus that took me to uni on a daily basis and recalling C3PO's immortal words from Return of the Jedi, as the gang heads off on yet another suicide mission: "Here we go again". No, I didn't like uni.
Recent events have reminded me of those grinding war of attrition days. The latest one had been the news that my son Dylan's grommets came out again; he already had them done twice, and by now we were sort of hoping he won't need them anymore and we could have the freedom to take him (and ourselves, for that matter) to water based activities without worrying about any getting inside his head.
The hope was premature. Within a week we happened to take Dylan to the doctor following a case of conjunctivitis (that's red eyes, the result of rubbing his eyes with hands that have been in contact with his runny nose). The doctor checked him up and noticed an inflammation of the ears. Yes, it was time for the grommets to be reinstalled.
And so we've made our way to the private hospital our ear specialist operates in yet again. The hospital has been recently renovated: whereas the previous time they checked us into a room of our own from which they picked Dylan up to the operation and into which they dropped him off afterwards for recovery, this time around they put us in this waiting room with all the other patients and their families. The waiting room was rather small, too small for its number of occupants; ventilation was poor, the sort of thing that guaranteed a single person's cold would pass around to everyone in the room; and for entertainment, the hospital settled for really old magazines, one copy of the yellowish Herald Sun, and a large flat screen TV shouting out Channel 9's morning show to dumb/numb us all out. I had my own stuff with me, but that morning show made me contemplate the effects these have on people's brains; sitting there unable to avoid hearing their chatter drove me crazy.
Dylan went through the operation alright, and afterwards we met him at the now common recovery room. Nice refurbishment, isn't it? The hospital may have become more efficient, but the service became significantly inferior. Naturally, this private hospital's pockets net the same bucket load of money they always did, so basically the refurbishment was aimed at them earning much more than before. How lovely! Did I mention the hospital is owned by the Catholic Church?

The illnesses of private health in Australia have been discussed in this blog many times before. What I will say, for now, is that in my views private health is like playing a prisoner's dilemma game and always opting for defection rather than the more constructive cooperation. There is everything to lose with private health, mostly in the shape of the extra money that we have to spend there; the only advantage is that you can jump the queue on those who can't afford private health. Wouldn't cooperation be better for everyone other than the companies running private health? Why can't us voters demand such commonsense cooperation from our elected politicians?
Still, the worst thing about this grommet affair is the stress involved with it all. I know that in medical terms the grommets are no big deal at all; yet it didn't stop me from becoming paralyzed with tension from the time I was told the operation was due and up until we drove Dylan back home. Add the tension and fatigue from our recent flu/cold escapades to the equation, including coping with work demands, and it's getting to the point where we won't be able to take it anymore.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Nothing is worse than an itch you can't scratch

For some years now my main camera has been a Nikon D70 SLR. Trusty and reliable, this camera has had its share of travel adventures, baby photography and eBay for-sale shots. Yet as good as this camera is, I have been growing more and more impatient with it: Lately I have been tending to take my significantly inferior pocket camera with me instead of the SLR. It’s the bulkiness and the weight; between carrying bags of baby stuff I can’t be bothered to carry another awkwardly shaped bumpy bag. Sure, every time I use my pocket camera I curse and complain; nothing beats the level of control and the quick reactions of a good SLR, not to mention the sheer quality of the end result. But in the battle for my attention the undeniable truth is that the SLR is finding itself relegated more and more towards the “special occasion” niche.
There is more to this D70 itch of mine. Given its five years of age I’m sort of tired of it: virtually all SLRs sold today beat the D70 up in performance, although the cheaper ones are not as flexible and do not have many of the professional must haves the D70 has (I’m talking about things like a status screen at the top and a built in motor that doesn’t rely on the lens having a motor).
Ultimately, it comes down to the gadget freak in me looking for greener pastures. I have this itch in my back pocket I cannot seem to be able to scratch. The thing is, my research indicates the way ahead, as far as tools to address my upscale professional photography are concerned, is putting me at a junction where I have to choose one of two very opposite directions. With your permission, I would like to explore this two contradicting options.

The first option, which is also the more classic option, is to go for the Nikon D300 SLR. At around $1800 for a gray import, this is a camera that is aimed at poorer professionals or the rich enthusiast. It does everything you would want a professional SLR to do and does it all very well, thank you very much. Robustly built, this is a no nonsense camera; you don’t get all the stupid idiot shooting modes you get in other cameras, like a special mode for shooting fireworks, a special mode for scenery, and a special mode for taking fart photos. Instead, you simply get what you really need: shutter and aperture control, with total control over other settings that might help you. For example, you can define your preferred ISO range, and the camera will choose one for you so you won’t get blurry photos in the dark but you also won’t get grainy photos in the light.
When it comes to taking photographs my opinion is simple: Sure, the D300 has been in the market for a while now, but it’s still the best. Nothing but the ultra expensive can give you better photos.
Best, period? No. Of course not: The D300 is as bulky as it gets, actually exceeding the bulk of my D70. Not by much, and there are good reasons for its extra bulk, but it is bulkier.

The second option is clearly different from the D300 (as well as the D70, for that matter), because it is not an SLR.
“Hold on”, I hear you saying, “are you seriously suggesting there is the option of getting a serious camera that is not an SLR?”
The answer is yes. The first camera to draw my attention to this new option was the Panasonic Lumix G1: A digital camera equipped with a large sensor (like SLRs have but unlike compact cameras) that allows you to switch lenses (like an SLR) but is still definitely not an SLR. The trick is to do with the folding mirrors SLRs have in order to allow the photographer to view the upcoming shot through the lens; when the “shoot” button is pressed, these mirrors fold up and the light from the lens is poured over the digital sensor instead. These mirrors are responsible for certain things, like the trademark SLR sound of them folding when taking a shot. One of the other things they are responsible for is making the cameras bulkier, for the simple reason they take up space.
And then came the G1. It got rid of the mirrors, replacing them with an electronic viewfinder. Essentially, it’s the same preview you get on your compact digital camera’s screen, but it’s supposed to be of higher quality and more SLR like in feel: you peep through the viewfinder, for a start. Removing the mirrors allowed for additional tweaks, such as the use of lenses that are inherently smaller than the ones SLRs have been using. This turned out to be good as well as bad: While smaller lenses are nice, it meant the G1 is out there in the market with hardly a range of lenses to choose from.
The camera I’m interested in is actually the next generation G1, known as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1. It is virtually the same camera but with a twist: It is capable of taking 1080p videos with auto focus and variable zoom. In order to allow you to do so it comes with a specially tailored lens and a price tag to match: Amazon USA sells it for $2500 (American dollars!).
The GH1 is not without its problems. Doubtless, it is a very compromised design: In order to appeal to those intimidated by SLRs, it is heavy on the gimmickry, rendering it to be more like a toy than a professional tool. Whereas the Nikon D300 boasts seriousness from start to finish, the GH1 boasts stupid options on one hand with not much in the way of long lasting robustness. On the other hand, in order to appeal to traditionalist SLR owners, the GH1 still boasts a mirror bump to house the mirror it doesn’t have.
Compromises aside, one thing is clear: The GH1 is a very capable camera that also happens to be significantly smaller and lighter than commonplace SLRs. Sure, it’s not as robust as a professional Nikon, but does that matter when you don’t intend to own it for decades anyway? In this age of digital gizmos, even the most robustly built toy doesn’t always last long.

My conclusion from the above is that what the world of photography really needs is a GH1 like camera that is professionally oriented. Olympus has made a recent attempt at the formula too, but they failed with the altogether exclusion of a viewfinder and a flash; the real problem is that the undisputed rulers of the professional photography world, Canon and Nikon, have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. For a start, moving to a new standard would mean their advantage of having extra large lens inventories to choose from would disappear, putting them in equal footing with the smaller contenders they’ve distanced themselves from.
Thus until some company decides to be brave enough to come up with a genuine SLR breaking camera I should keep my money at the bank and stick to my trust D70. And work out how to scratch my itch.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Thomas the Tank Engine vs. Shaun the Sheep

Boys seem to have something in their genes that makes them would be engineers. I distinctly remember myself being into cars as a child and being able to recognize any car model from a few light years away at the age of three. My Israeli nephew seems to be pretty similar to me in this regard, and my son Dylan is also going through an undeniable train fetish at the age of two.
It is interesting to note that while my nephew and I went for cars Dylan is a train man; I suspect it’s to do with the environment we grew up in: There aren’t that many trains in Israel, but in Melbourne Dylan is exposed to trains and trams several times a week. Just enough for their sheer size and the whole hoo-ha going on around them (people going in and out at stations, train crossings) to make a bigger impression on a child’s brain than mere cars. Further evidence for this theory of mine is supplied through Dylan being mostly impressed with the bigger cars around, as in buses and trucks.
One train all toddlers growing up in Western culture are exposed to, whether they or their parents want it or not, is Thomas the Tank Engine. I have discussed Thomas’ destructive effect on kids when it comes to consumerism here in the past; what I wish to say now that I have been exposed to Thomas myself is this: Despite his popularity and his image, I consider Thomas to be a very bad role model for kids.
Allow me to explain.

My biggest dip into the Thomas world thus far has been through a kids’ book we’ve inherited from my brother. In this book, Percy (another tank engine in Thomas’ gang) is annoyed with having to push cargo all the time, so Thomas exchanges tasks with him and lets him carry kids instead. Percy promises to deliver them safely, and sticks to his word despite being clogged in heavy rain. He does so because “a promise is a promise”.
Everyone’s first instinct would be to say that teaching kids to keep their promises at all costs is teaching them a good value. I argue differently, though; I argue that we should avoid teaching our kids the world is black & white. What if Percy was to find he could save his dying mother instead of taking the kids home? Should he still stick to his word? What if the fate of civilization as we know it was to depend on Percy not sticking up to his word, a word he gave away rather negligently to someone who turned out to be crooked?
I know I’m stretching things here, but my point is simple: There is no reason for us to use absolutes when teaching our kids. Instead of sticking to a promise at all costs, we should teach our kids to do good and to do their best to stick up to a promise, but to also think to themselves and weigh the pros and cons of sticking up; sometimes not sticking up to your word could be better overall.

Another problem I have with Thomas is to do with the famous Thomas compliment. When someone does good in Thomas’ world, that someone is declared to be a “very useful engine”.
Very useful engine? This reminds me of religion in its classic role. Religion was often a tool used by the upper classes in order to subdue the lower classes' majority. Christianity, in particular, was tailor made for this role by the Romans and later enhanced by medieval European rulers. Most people living in medieval times had it pretty rough, but they were comforted by religion telling them they were going through what it is they were going because it was god’s design. The Church, as it was, was telling them they were “very useful engines” and patting them on the head for that.
Today, in a world of individuality, such praise is far from being a compliment. Imagine a eulogy written about yourself in which your boss praises you for always being very useful at the office; is this the way you want to be remembered?
Thus Thomas turns out to be an archaic out of date role model. Not that it should have taken long for us to have concluded this: The mere fact Thomas is praised for being a steam engine while, say, diesel engines are mocked, is enough. After all, steam engines may be romantic nostalgia, but when it comes to pollution and efficiency they are the worst. There are very good reasons why we’ve stopped using steam engines, and these reasons should still be applied to Thomas the Tank Engine.

You can argue that if I was to disqualify Thomas I would have to disqualify all children books etc on similar grounds, simply because they all aim towards simplicity in the hope that their simplicity would help their message catch on in a child’s developing brain. You may do so, but I will argue against you, armed with examples that clearly show how kids’ stuff can be done right.
The best example I can think of is Shaun the Sheep, the stop motion animation series from the makers of Wallace & Gromit. Despite being a sheep, and thus expected to shut up and be “a useful engine”, Shaun is inquisitive and curious. When he sees something, like a camera, he wants to know what it is and how it works. He questions the authority that tells him cameras are none of his or any other sheep's business. When he does put his hands on the camera he tries to use it in all sorts of ingenious and original ways. Sometimes things don’t work and sometimes Shaun is naughty, but that’s fine; things don’t always work our way too, and we all occasionally err on the naughty side (whether deliberately or not). Besides, if it weren’t for those moments of mischief the series wouldn’t have been as entertaining and funny as it is. The point is to ask questions, think for ourselves and do our best to get to know the world around us, but also do things in a way that would promote our society.
Shaun does all of that, and does it in a very entertaining way while at it. I am happy my Dylan likes him and I wouldn’t mind in the least if Dylan turns out to be like Shaun.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Moments in Life

The weekend that was served as an opportunity for us to have a bit of a rest, having just got out of yet another cold. The main event, though, was someone's second birthday, which was celebrated under the theme of taking things easy.
On Saturday we chose to implement said theme and went for a breakfast at Port Melbourne. There was a nice moment there when we were standing at a street corner and this huge full trailer truck just turned the corner around us. I pointed the truck's awesomeness to Dylan who was in awe, and the driver saw us and did this truck air horn thing. Yes, it was a residential area, but who cares? Dylan didn't.
On Sunday the whole family went together to the Melbourne Museum yet again. Dylan was running around, like the video below shows, but kept on coming back to this far from spectacular model train they had in the "Melbourne of Old" exhibition. If you ask me, that train doesn't look too different to contemporary trains; most of the current trains have been there since the days of Methuselah.



Eventually the master got tired and we went to eat something at the museum's cafeteria, which is far from bad for a museum's cafeteria if a little overpriced. The place was packed, though: it was school holidays, and worse, they just opened their new "Day in Pompey" exhibition; the queue snaked all over the place. Luckily, members like us get around the queue, but we still had to wait at the cafeteria and we decided to postpone Pompey's exploration for now. Dylan has had a jelly for dessert, which he seemed to like even though I'm sure the food colors it used weren't the child friendly ones:



On the way back home Dylan had his afternoon nap in the car. It turned out to be too long a car nap because he wouldn't sleep in his bed afterwards, but at least he survived his birthday celebrations well enough. First he's had his cake, and then there was the unraveling of our gifts. The main event was a wooden train set - an unbranded wooden train set, with no silly Thomas or any other characters to suck parents' money with. Dylan really got the hots for trains now, so the gift proved so popular he wouldn't go to bed without a train; Jo ended up having to calm him down the way we used to when he was a couple of months old so he would leave us in peace and have his sleep.
It never ends!

Friday, 3 July 2009

He Just Smiled and Gave Me A Vegemite Sandwich

A couple of weeks ago my partner overheard people in the lift (aka elevator) talking about a recent work inspection they’ve had. One of them was saying how they had to inspect this Yank, and because “as you know, Yanks are dumb” she and her colleague took on fake American accents and made up stories to amuse themselves on this guy's behalf.
I have to say such attitudes are not unheard of. I still remember how the very first work lunches I have had at my first Australian employer, less than a week after arriving to Australia, seem to have been devoted to discussions on how dumb Americans are and how inferior Poms (Brits) are. Since then my lunches have vastly improved, mostly as I had left what must have been my worst employer ever, but the taste lingers.
Yet I have to admit there is something to the notions I have witnessed. After all, if it wasn’t for Australia’s inherent intellectual superiority, how else could one explain the world standing still while Australia marched on to invent Vegemite?

You know what really pisses me off? Every time I read the latest Scientific American. You know, Scientific American, that incredibly inferior and quite unpopular take on that brilliant and best selling magazine, Scientific Australian.
Every time I read Scientific American I can’t help but notice how Israel is mentioned much more often than Australia. Now, being mentioned in Scientific American is usually the result of some breakthrough in scientific research or the mere publication of scientific research, not – as per regular newspapers – the result of certain people killing other people. So why should Israel, a country with a third of Australia’s population, and a country with vastly less natural resources, get mentioned some two to three times more than Australia when it comes to scientific merit? How come Israel, a country hell bent on fighting things out with its Arab neighbors, a country where so called “defense” budgeting takes up a higher portion than any other democracy, beats Australia up in intellectual credentials?
Australia should take a real careful look in the mirror before anyone dares joking on other countries’ intellectual achievements. Being good with a ball and a bat does not cover for superficiality elsewhere.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Raiders of the Lost Art

I still can't believe it, but less than a week after I felt recovered from my previous illness I became sick again. This time it's just a simple cold, but it's still annoying and I'm pretty much exhausted.
So yet again I stayed at home today. Looking for a way to pleasantly pass the time given my inability to concentrate on anything too complicated, I put on Vangelis' score from Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. Its music is very easy and pleasant to digest, and it features some nice tracks, like my favorite - Alpha.
It was another track from that album, Pulstar, that made me think of writing this post. You see, Pulstar used to be the musical piece announcing the transmission of Odelya. What is Odelya? Or rather, what was Odelya? Well, Back in the early eighties, Odelya was a ship parked off Tel Aviv's coast but in international waters, broadcasting illegally to Israli viewers. Most of the time Odelya would broadcast trash, and repeats were the order of the day; I think their one hour video of a Blondie performance was a daily feature.
As much as a joke that Odelya used to be, I clearly remember one Friday night. My parents went out and I was home alone with my sister. We switched to Odelya as they started their daily transmissions at 21:00, and I couldn't believe my eyes: the film that had just started playing was a film I have just seen in the cinema a few months earlier, a film that thrilled the hell out of me. It was a film that started with two men going for a golden idol in some booby trapped cave. It was Harrison Ford. It was Raiders of the Lost Ark! Not only that, but following Raiders was another recent action hit, James Bond's For Your Eyes Only. Remember - those were the days before VHS, days where one could not hope to see a film again for years after its days in the cinema were over. Thank goodness for Odelya!
Odelya was, for all intents and purposes, a pirate ship. After just a few months of operation the Israeli authorities managed to find a legal way to stop it and Odelya became stuff of legend.
Which brings into mind The Pirate Bay, the flag bearers of piracy today. If you've heard the news today, the people behind The Pirate Bay have sold their company for a few dollars more to a company that intends to turn the enterprise into a legal one. You could say they sold themselves.
In my view, that's a great shame. And the above story about my childhood's Friday night with Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example why: Steven Spielberg & Co did not lose a cent out of me watching their film illegally that night; if anything, the experience has reinforced my affection to their enterprise. Later on I grew to buy more Steven Spielberg films on super expensive laserdiscs than the vast majority of people.
The experience Odelya provided me with was not the experience of piracy, but rather the experience of exposure to information I was otherwise blocked from. With Pirate Bay gone we've lost another such gateway to information, but not just "a" gateway; it was rather "the" gateway, it was the leader of the fight. I genuinely fear for the effect Pirate Bay's sellout will have on society.