Archive for May, 2012

Not everyone wanted to live in The Space Age

May 28, 2012 1 comment

“RetroFuturist” Matt Novak tells us how baby boomers all think the country was united around the goal of getting to the Moon, and how that’s just faulty memory at work:

The future used to be so much better. At least that’s what everyone under the age of 65 keeps telling me. In the 1950s and ‘60s, people dreamed of—nay, expected—jetpacks and flying cars and colonies on Mars. On Mars!

Legend has it that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to ever orbit the Earth, in 1957, Americans rallied behind the idea of a better, more technologically advanced future for all. This nationwide enthusiasm buoyed NASA’s Apollo program and, as much as rocket fuel, propelled us to the moon. During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the popular idea of the “Sputnik moment” as he implored Congress to invest more in scientific research and education.

So what percentage of Americans in the 1960s do you suppose believed that the Apollo program was worth the time and resources devoted to it? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? In reality, it was less than 50 percent…

SLATE: How space-age nostalgia hobbles our future

I’m not sure who all these people under 65 are, who are telling Matt we really expected to have jetpacks by now.

I’m under 65; I was 12 when The Eagle Landed, just the perfect age to be all dewy-eyed about it under the explanations that follow in Matt’s article. I was a fan, baby, and when it comes to faulty memory, I take second fiddle to no one. For all I know, I really grew up in Japan and just made up my whole childhood digging fossils in the Iowa. So let me tell you how I misremember it…

I do remember Walter Cronkite moved to tears on national television, over the prospect of humans walking on the Moon. But I also remember countless editorials where people said the money should be spent “solving poverty”.  I was an oddly political child, and I remember a divided country, too – over Vietnam, over the space program, over civil rights and nuclear weapons and the environment.

Wait – is it really 2012? It feels like nothing’s changed; like it’s 1970. Only our Vietnam is a mountainous hell instead of a jungle hell now. And the context of nuclear weapons debate has changed slightly – not that anyone in 1970 who thought about it for two seconds didn’t see it coming.

Americans are seldom  - perhaps never – completely united. There were people opposed to involvement in WWII, so I suppose you could write a history that says national unanimity over fighting the Nazis was a myth. But it wasn’t a myth – by and large people put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed. It is good to remember those who were opposed, but history, written by the victors, is a matter of focus. And space-enthusiasts were not the victors in the race to the Moon. As usual, the winners were those who took what we learned going to the moon and did something with it in the marketplace.

Yes, there are people who don’t know that unanimity is rare; perhaps we should take a poll. Then someone can write an article on SLATE about how it’s a myth that Americans were ever united. There’s always been a range of opinion. From what I’ve been able to learn, some people were excited by Sputnik; also large numbers were terrified (which is a kind of excitement I suppose) and quite another large number surely didn’t care in the least.

The future is shaping up some nasty surprises just now. If there is to be hope – any hope at all – it lies in the human imagination and the courage to think about what things would be like… if.  It’s a big “if”, and there will never been unanimity about it. At least, there never has been before.


  • Matt looks like he’s in his 30′s.  Maybe when he’s in his 50′s he’ll be writing grumpy articles about how some whippersnapper won’t get off his lawn.
  • “We should spend the money solving poverty instead” ranks as one of the stupidest arguments against exploration that I can think of. I remember Maya Angelou on television in 1989 using this argument against NASA funding. She was exasperated at her co-panelists but I was exasperated at her. She was not exactly a lone voice in the wilderness, either; people hear “billions” and just react. But discovery has always been our best investment. It’s war and financial speculation that have been the biggest waste in our history.
  • I don’t personally know anyone my age who really wants a jetpack or a flying car. All you have to do is watch ordinary people trying to negotiate the extremely simple rules of a 4-way stop intersection to know why that would be a bad idea.
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How sentimental are you?

May 20, 2012 6 comments

The universe must have elected me to some office I didn’t know about this week. Wednesday evening I got home and there was a smashed animal in the street in front of our driveway. I scooped that up, triple-bagged it, and threw it out. I recognized it as the adorable bunny that’s been nibbling clover blossoms in our back yard.

Dead rat

Dead rat, click to embiggen. If you really want to see a bigger, more detailed picture of a dead rat.

Then Thursday morning as I rode into the courtyard of the building where I work, I noticed a dead rat on the sidewalk. We have some hawks or falcons or some other kind of raptors on campus so it isn’t uncommon to find a dismantled animal there. But this one, while the object of attention for three crows, was mostly intact. The sequence of events was probably raptor, crows, guy on bicycle.

I scooped up the rat, triple-bagged it and threw it out. And my first thought on seeing it was; “Hey, one less rat. And a big one, too.”

Except, on closer examination, I could see this was a mama rat, which had recently been nursing pups. I pictured a litter of tiny ones, eyes barely open, waiting for mama – and she doesn’t come back. Poor little cute baby rats.

Except wait – they’re rats! Shouldn’t I want them dead by whatever means?

Well, no. I can hardly even bear to think about those glue-traps for mice, for example. And the plight of the little baby rats does bring me sadness. But sentimentality is one facet of the 21-sided die that is irrationality. I would never think of killing a squirrel, but they’re basically rats with bushy tails. Well, it’s more than that; instead of skulking around in the shadows and fouling grain elevators, squirrels put on acrobatic shows in the quad outside our building. So behavior matters.

But still… poor little cute baby rats…

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Canon G11 and G1x cameras, compared

May 13, 2012 5 comments
Canon G1x and G11 compared

Canon G1x and G11 compared. Photo taken with iPod Touch.

UPDATE: I have returned this camera. The image quality is fantastic, but the focusing just too problematic. While I am not thrilled with the size of a DSLR, that’s probably my only option at this point.  I may get an EOS Rebel T3i or a Nikon D5100 but I really would prefer a mirrorless camera.

G1x Summary: professional image quality in a super-compact size, resulting in some engineering and performance compromises. Worst feature is slow focus and very poor macro performance. Best feature is high-grade wheel, button and dial controls (essential functions are not hidden in a menu) plus Canon’s fantastic articulated viewscreen.

I’m a huge fan of the Canon Powershot line, and especially of their articulated viewfinder screen. I’ve been using a G11 for a couple years now and it is a damn fine camera. To the extent that if it broke I’d just replace it with a G12 right away, probably.  But Canon (and a lot of other manufacturers) is aware that there’s a whole untapped market of people who want big-camera image capability in a small camera.

My hands are hurting enough these days that holding a big DSLR steady isn’t really an option. And anyway I need to be able to fit cameras into my backpack because I have a very bicycle-centric lifestyle. So when I heard that Canon was going to stuff a DSLR-sized sensor into a slightly hypertrophic G12 body, I started checking out the piggy bank. The G1x was introduced in February, and after reading four months of reviews I ordered one.

In this comparison I won’t be trying to reproduce the fine technical detail of dpreview articles; see the links at the bottom to go read those. Instead, I’m going to write about the subjective experience of using the cameras.

I’ve been shooting for a long time (I got my first light meter in about 1967) and one camera I really miss is my old Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex. I used it for weddings and candids because it allowed you to hold the camera at waist-level and look at the camera while shooting candid pictures. There were two benefits to this approach; you got a child’s eye view, and since you weren’t looking at your subjects they ignored you and just went about what they were doing. The result was wonderful candid pictures.

You can use Canon cameras that have articulated viewfinders in the same way, and also to shoot over your head and around corners. And, they’re superb for macro because (if you’re not as flexible as you used to be) you can look down on the camera to shoot horizontal-angle macro. Or, cat’s eye view for pet pictures; the possibilities are endless. Other manufacturers have articulated viewfinders but Canon has the best design. It’s incredibly handy, and I will hardly even consider a camera now that does not have one.

Both these cameras also have eye-level, optical viewfinders. You will see a lot of complaints about these viewfinders in reviews, but I use them all the time to get quick candids or for very simple shots. Yes the lens is visible in one corner but what of it? I think people need to realize what’s been crammed into these camera bodies. The optical viewfinder is a convenience, and if it were elevated higher there would be more parallax and the camera would be bulkier. Everything in camera design is a trade-off.

The G11 has a tough magnesium body; the G1x has a metal frame (probably also magnesium) with plastic components. As a former camera repairman, this doesn’t worry me as much as it does some people. You can make an incredibly tough object bonding plastic and metal together. It weighs only slightly more than the G11 which is amazing.

Nighttime picture with Canon G1x

Nighttime picture with Canon G1x; click to embiggen

The heart of a digital camera is its imaging sensor. There are a lot of cameras out there with “12 mpx” sensors that are physically very tiny, and the picture quality shows it. All other things being equal, the more pixels you get from a given sensor, the worse problem you have with signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, the shadows get muddy. It’s more complicated than that but when it comes to physical sensor size, bigger is better. And the sensor in the G1x is six times bigger than the sensor in the G11. It’s even bigger than the 4/3 sensor Olympus and Pentax Panasonic are using in their flagship products right now.  This gives the camera’s DIGIC-5 processor more photon-gathering CMOS goodness to play with. The result is super-clean images with non-muddy shadows. Since I like to do nighttime photography, that’s important.

The exposure compensation dial – a real, knurled aluminum dial on both cameras – allows for two stops on the G11 and (joy!) 3 stops on the G12. If you know why exposure compensation is needed, you’ll appreciate that feature not being hidden under a bunch of pesky menus.  It’s fine to use automatic exposure, and cameras are getting smarter about it. But even the camera’s processor is no substitute for your brain.

The G1x autofocus is easier to fool than the G11; this is a consequence of packing in the big sensor. Learn its modes, and pay attention. Stop and check your photos. I turned off the focus-assist light because it annoys people… which makes the autofocus even slower. When your subject is people, use the face-tracking mode. But shut it off when faces are not involved; the DIGIC-5 sometimes suffers from pareidolia. Both cameras have manual focus, but I really wish Canon would re-think how manual focus is controlled. I’d rather have it controlled by the front scroll wheel; manual exposure control could be done on the back panel. One nice feature is an enlarged focus zone that pops up while doing manual focus.

The G11 has celebrated macro capability, but the G1x basically can’t do macro at all. This is not just because Canon decided to be a bunch of ol’ meanies; macro mode gets considerably more complicated (bigger, heavier) as sensor size goes up. As I said earlier, camera design is compromise. Canon makes a two-element close-up accessory lens and I will probably end up getting one. But this is an important difference between the cameras and if you don’t have another way to do macro, don’t get the G1x. Also be aware this isn’t a super-zoom lens – it’s only 4x. Again, compromises… super-zoom lenses lose quality.

Image Stabilization in both cameras is good but the G1x is quite amazing. Check out this picture of Oscar, handheld from 6 or 8 feet away at 1/20 second; it’s sharp as a tack. The DIGIC-5 also recognized his feline face and focused felicitously. Keep in mind that all IS systems are tracking camera movement in real time, so they necessarily lag a bit behind that phenomena. In other words, other things being equal a tripod will always be sharper. I will be writing a more detailed post about IS vs Tripod, sometime soon.

Evening photo result from Canon G1x

The very first evening picture I took with the G1x. Click to embiggen.

The G1x has a pop-up flash but I seldom use flash. It seems to expose accurately and intelligently. There’s a full hot-shoe with connectivity to Canon flash accessories, so if you set up elaborate flash you won’t be disappointed.

Both cameras have beefy connections for wrist or neck straps. You can get to perdition in your own way but I’ve repaired a lot of cameras that were damaged when the neck strap caught on something and yanked the camera off an elevated surface onto the ground. It’s wrist-straps for me. I have often thought I’d like to have a cool-looking leather shoulder-holster for my G11. Or maybe for a Canon S-100.

G11 has an automatic lens cap; the G1x has an annoyingly large clunky clip-on lens cap that can get lost. Again, this is a matter of compromise. But I cannot figure out why camera manufacturers went away from slip-on lens caps. A metal slip-on cap gave excellent protection to the lens and was easy to use. Just drop it in your pocket when shooting and slip it back on when you’re done – easy! Clip-on caps come off in your backpack and allow the lens to get scratched; I hate them. (Are you listening to this random guy on the Internet, camera manufacturers of the world? Fear my wrath!)

Get an extra battery or two – the aftermarket ones are about six bucks. Get the high-speed SD chip, especially if you ever shoot RAW. (Both cameras go RAW). And make it a big high-speed chip. Or chips.

The G1x has better grip, which is mostly a function of it being a little bigger, and its handling is a little bit better (I’ve accidentally triggered menus on the G11). The parentage of G11 and G12 in the G1x is obvious, and if you use one you will feel comfortable right away using the other. This is a non-trivial benefit if you carry both cameras. (You do carry two cameras to a shoot, don’t you? Your client may not know you switched to your backup camera but they’ll sure as hell know if you didn’t have one.)

I never had any complaints about the shutter release in the G11 but the G1x has an even better one. Clearly, Canon considered carefully. Both set focus and exposure at half-press.

I set both cameras to use the custom-set button to grab a white-balance. It saves huge amounts of time in Photoshop or Gimp. Both cameras can shoot video but the G1x shoots high-def video in full stereo with wind-noise canceling and some kind of digital/optical steadicam function. I might play with this sometime but it wasn’t a factor in my purchase of the camera.

The bottom line is that I often take pictures where even the G11 is pushed to its limit – indoor group shots for instance. Because of its huge image sensor the G1x will be able to handle these situations easily. Because they are so similar, I wondered if I might end up carrying the G1x all the time and my G11 would sit at home all forlorn and lonesome. Both cameras are fantastically versatile but each camera has its strengths, and for daily use I’ll probably carry the G11.


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Got tired of carryin’ that coffee-maker part down the street, I guess…

May 12, 2012 3 comments

People throw lots of stuff in my yard – usually beer cans and bottles and McDonald’s bags, etc. But a reusable coffee filter full of grounds? That’s a first.

Coffee filter and grounds in yard

The grounds were still wet.

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Our poster in support of marriage equality

May 10, 2012 4 comments

A couple things happened this week. The President came out in support of marriage equality, after the state of North Carolina voted marriage inequality into their state constitution. And Colorado is – reluctantly – considering a domestic partnership law.

Thank you, President Obama. And North Carolina, you’re on the wrong side of history. I love JT Eberhard’s statement, “the pulpit is the portal through which the moral failings of the first century find their way into ours.”

Anyway, this is our response to both news events. We took this picture last night and I went to to make it into a poster:

marriage equality poster

Our poster in support of marriage equality

I Googled “gay marriage slogans” for ideas. We encourage you to make your own poster and get it out on the web!


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Doom foretold by child’s question

May 5, 2012 8 comments

There was a yard sale at the end of the little street where I live, so I walked on down. Nothing of interest to me but I exchanged pleasantries with my neighbor and headed back up the hill.

Their little boy was playing in the street. As I passed he asked me; “Why are you walking?”


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