Archive for October, 2007

“It’s the only picture we have of him,” said his widow

October 24, 2007 6 comments

Background:  As a former photographer I know all too well the reaction some individuals have against having their picture taken.  At family gatherings and professional studios alike, they complain bitterly, imagining the negative feelings they will have when seeing photos of themselves. Snapshots of them often show nothing more than a blurry head, turning away.

When working professionally I knew it was far more important to connect with such individuals and let them be at ease, than any merely technical aspect of picture taking.  When people refer to a “good” picture of their loved one, they do not mean it has correct exposure and sharp focus; they mean the facial expression is as they prefer to remember that person. 

That expression seldom corresponds to the forced smile of a studio picture, which is why I preferred event photography to studio work.  The difference is what a person is “there to do”.  At a studio, they are “there” to have their picture taken – a process they very much dislike.  At a wedding or reunion, their main purpose is to socialize.  At such events, working without flash and drawing as little attention to my camera as possible I could often produce the only “good” picture ever taken of a camera-phobic person.

This evening I was throwing out some old junk from that time.  One of my services was copying antique photographs using archival-quality materials.  People brought in everything from daguerreotypes to faded color pictures from the 1970’s.  The box I was riffling through contained overprints and test prints to be pitched.  A 5×7 picture triggered the memory…

“It’s the only picture we have of him”, said his widow, handing me his drivers’ license. “I know it isn’t much, but can you get a copy from it?”  He didn’t look a day over 50.

This was in pre-digital days, when the Polaroid license photo machine imaged through the lens directly onto the final piece of paper that would be laminated and carried.  The thick plastic laminate was badly scratched, obscuring the picture beneath.

“Sure,” I said.  I knew how much detail Polaroid photos often preserved.

I cleaned the license and immersed it in a tray of Photo-Flo, a photographic rinsing agent.  Laying the tray on my copy stand I positioned the lights, waited for the liquid to become perfectly still, and made a crystal-clear negative of the image beneath.  The family was thrilled with the result and I wound up making several 5x7prints.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on having your picture taken.  Your face does not completely belong to you; it belongs in some respects to the people who love you.  It is a reminder of you when you are apart, and perhaps a conduit for comforting memories when you are gone. 

Yes, there are annoying aspects to having your picture taken, and some family members can be real pests about it.  But nobody’s perfect, so try to forgive them and just relax.  Pretend they aren’t there and just try to enjoy yourself.  In the long run, it becomes a meaningful gift that no one realizes unless it isn’t there.

Now some advice for photographers: turn off your flash.  Practice using your camera until you don’t have to fiddle with it, and practice squeezing off your shots so you can get a steady shot even in low light.  Once you can use your camera unconsciously, you can pay more attention to the people in front of you.  The trick to getting good people shots is anticipation – use your knowledge of behavior to intersect the moment you want to record, with the opening of the shutter.  You see the moment developing and as it is about to happen the camera is coming up to your eye. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”.

Categories: observations

Do you trust basic physics?

October 23, 2007 2 comments

We learned about a Faraday cage in physics, and we’ve all seen pictures of Nikola Tesla calmly smoking a pipe inside one while a zillion volts streams around him.  But how about your car.  Would it be a good enough Faraday cage?  Would you voluntarily sit inside it while it is being struck by lightning?  Watch while the really crazy guy from TopGear does exactly that.

Now fast-forward a few years.  Your car isn’t made of metal anymore…

Categories: Science & Technology

“Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motorhome”

October 22, 2007 11 comments

My first Steely Dan album was on 8-track tape.  Today I have a dozen+ of their studio albums on vinyl and CD – Becker & Fagen are just phenomenal.  Check out this live version of Kid Charlemagne:.

Bonus quiz questions: why was Kid Charlemagne famous, and what sudden crisis did he face?  What was the proposed solution?

Lots more here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Test Anxiety: “Stand And Deliver”

October 20, 2007 17 comments

  • Check out comment #12 from Lastcall, and leave your own ideas too

Last night we went to see the 1988 film Stand And Deliver, which tells in Hollywood style the story of James Escalante, a math instructor at a failing, poverty-stricken high school.  While fitting in the mold of the standard “education hero” movie (brilliant maverick fights the system, saves the kids, and triumphs over adversity) this one is based on a true story.

The real James Escalante left the Burroughs corporation to teach high school, only to find an entrenched culture of failure.  Over a decade, he built up an AP calculus program that in one year passed 18 students through the state test, which was unusual enough to invite post-analysis and an accusation of cheating from the testing company.  12 of the students took the test again, demonstrating they had not cheated, and had their scores reinstated.  The story made national news, became a novel, and then the inspiring movie we saw last night.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the backstory is more complicated than the Hollywood version, but in most essentials that’s about how it happened. Except politicians and other educators didn’t bother to learn about the complexities or to consider that Escalante’s program was essentially a benevolent cult of personality.  His triumph may be at the root of president Bush’s famous “soft bigotry of low expectations” quote but the substance of what he did was not incorporated into the various programs and initiatives inspired by it. 

The story does challenge preconceptions of what kids and educators can accomplish but the reality illustrates the crab-bucket effect. Fellow teachers and a later principal just didn’t like Escalante.  No doubt he wasn’t an easy person to get along with but when you think about what it meant to the kids, it’s difficult to care about anyone’s personal irritation over a high-achieving colleague. 

Today our public schools are beset by conflicting concerns, ranging from political correctness to religious objections against biology instruction.  Teachers are under tremendous pressure for students to pass NCLB certification tests, leaving little room for innovation.  Textbooks are, frankly, just an expensive racket. School curriculum is a mish-mash of programs unrelated to core skills. Convoluted procedures make it all but impossible to fire incompetent teachers.  It is difficult to imagine a more moribund enterprise. 

The majority of private K-12 schools are not so much havens of academic achievement as refuges from science.  It would be only a slight exaggeration to call them “Christian Madrassas, so they aren’t much of an improvement either.

Of this I am sure: stifling innovation in education is not the solution. No parent wants their children to be the subject of methodological education experiments; we want ‘tried and true’ methods.  But currently our schools are using ‘tried and failed’ methods.  American children routinely score poorly in international tests.  In the 13 October Economist is a 14-page special report on innovation, but I’m not holding my breath for it to get passed around and dog-eared in the education industry.  How can we wake up our schools?  How to get there from here?


Categories: Education

Science Friday: a great resource, notes from all over, and a think-piece

October 19, 2007 4 comments
Department of unintended consequences:
Ban complex drugs for children, official says.  The idea is that multi-symptom OTC cold-meds are inappropriate for the under-six set, because they can cause liver damage and have been implicated in several deaths.  A big problem to be sure, but if the kid-dosed cold medicines are banned, how much you want to bet parents will start trying to measure out adult meds for their sick kids, and even more kids will die?  I’m not suggesting a course of action, only predicting a likely outcome.
Bookmark this: Basic Concepts In Science
John at Evolving Thoughts is keeping a totally bitchin’ List of basic concepts in science covering a range of topics from statistics to chemistry, molecular biology to astronomy – just about everything imaginable.  Written by a growing cast of science bloggers, it’s a fantastic resource for teachers and for any interested person.
Computer evolution: say goodbye to desktop boxes
I’ve been saying for a while, computers that sit on desks while we sit in front of them will eventually be an anachronism.  Instead of us going where the computer is, the computer will go where we do.  The The Nokia N810 is a step in that direction.  It’s only a matter of time before devices like this let you take a large subset of your computing environment with you as a portable utility.  For serious large-scale input, expect wireless contact with full-size keyboards, or even non-physical ‘projection’ keyboards.  Then a roll-out screen of any desired size.
And a trip to the bookstore is in order…
I am so getting Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters, maybe for Christmas.  Geologist Donald Prothero is author, and oh-happy-day, Carl Buell is the illustrator – check out his blog for an amazing sample of his work.
“Hey, stop worring, it’ll be fine” dept:
NASA says no delay in shuttle launch despite recommendations from an independent safety group that damaged panels on wings’ leading edges should be replaced.  Sure, whatever, guys.  One question: is “O-rings” one word, or two?
Think-piece of the week
Can science save the planet?  Previous theoretical modelling has been pretty much single-phenomena modelling, like gravity and insulin.  Now we’re trying to model planetary systems in which every component is interrelated to every other.  This is not exactly a new idea; Thoreau understood it back when.  But stakes are too high to shy away from the hard problems.

27 years today

October 18, 2007 5 comments

We pulled out of the church in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, into an uncertain future. 
Strangers In The Night

Here’s to a bunch more, sweetie!

Categories: Personal

Must be a melancholy moment to throw that switch

October 17, 2007 Comments off

Goodbye to FUSE, the Far ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer.  It was launched in 1999, and was only intended to last for three years.  Researchers figured out ever-more creative ways to keep it going as it rewarded their efforts with a continuing bounty of spectrographic data.

Imagine all the people from Angstrom to present, stretching our ability to know something about the chemical makeup of celestial objects.  And the FUSE crew, refusing to give up as long as data was coming in, finding new ways to keep machines working in space.  Without anthropomorphizing at all, it can be said that machine out there carries a bit of all of them.  With the final, irrevocable failure of a reaction wheel,  it’s finally over.  Until the next launch.

Categories: Science & Technology

Atheist anger, explained

October 16, 2007 9 comments

I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write a post about atheist anger for quite a long while now.  Some of my fellow atheists are really pissed off at religion – not just bible thumpers and jihadists but also the pastor of your local Episcopal church.  There are lots of reasons for this but the most common one is that ‘moderate’ religion provides cover for extremists to operate as destructively as they do.

My writer’s block stems from too much empathy.  I’ve been that guy, but I’ve been the other guy too and it’s made it difficult for me to stay angry for long even at people whom I think are tragically mistaken.  And it wouldn’t be unfair to say that annoys the living hell out of the angry set.  It’s a complicated topic and I have not yet figured out how to boil it down to a single post or even a series of posts.

Greta Christia has done some of the work for me, though, in an excellent post on atheists and anger.  It is lengthy but punchy in a way that lengthy posts seldom are.  She does an outstanding job of illuminating the angry end of the atheist spectrum, then goes on to discuss why she gets especially torqued off at religious people, or even worse, other atheists, who try to tell her she shouldn’t be so angry.  Here’s one short paragraph from the set:

I get angry when believers trumpet every good thing that’s ever been done in the name of religion as a reason why religion is a force for good… and then, when confronted with the horrible evils done in religion’s name, say that those evils weren’t done because of religion, were done because of politics of greed or fear or whatever, would have been done anyway even without religion, and shouldn’t be counted as religion’s fault. (Of course, to be fair, I also get angry when atheists do the opposite: chalk up every evil thing done in the name of religion as a black mark on religion’s record, but then insist that the good things were done for other reasons and would have been done anyway, etc. Neither side gets to have it both ways.)

If the post I’ve been trying to write is a thousand-piece puzzle, Greta’s post is like finding someone has put three hundred of the pieces together for me.  I recommend it to everyone interested in religion or atheism from any point of the anger spectrum.

Categories: Religion

Nokia Dementia

October 16, 2007 2 comments

Chris Clarke at Creek Running North relates a little episode from his day:

I possess rank prejudice against people who use cell phones while driving, and people who speed on mountain roads in SUVs, and he was both of those things, so I eased up on the gas as he passed.

So I was only doing about 50 when he fishtailed and spun his ass-end into my lane about seven lengths up, and then



In my lane.

We were in lane number two, and the lane to our right was empty. I made a lane change. This lane change involved a Δv perpendicular to the axis of the Tacoma, which Δv was significantly in excess of the recommendations of both the Toyota Motor Corporation and the National Traffic Safety Board.

Which means I did a little fishtailing myself. I managed not to hit the Nokia Dementia sufferer in the Escalade…

There’s more – it’s a humorous look into the human mind when faced with death and careless drivers…

Categories: Humor, observations

What Capitalism and Communism have in common

October 15, 2007 8 comments

In What they’re not telling us, Rachel at Mahablog raises the possibility that modern capitalism is making a similar fundamental mistake to that of communism; lousy incentive.

While addressing our declining productivity, she asks, “But at least we’re doing better than lazy ol’ socialist Europe, right?…”

Categories: Economics, Politics