Archive for April, 2012

“I’d like a billion dollars worth of Instagram, please”

April 29, 2012 5 comments

My first reaction was “You kids get off my lawn!”

Instagram is a new photo-sharing service that lets you make a digital picture look like an old faded print. One of the more popular filters makes the image look like an old Polaroid camera picture. It does this by changing the color balance, the contrast, and (to my eye) applying a soft-focus duplicate layer on the sharper original. It simulates the low-grade optics of the consumer-model instant camera depicted in their logo.

Technically, it degrades the image, reducing the amount of original information in very specific ways. But a lot of people (who are too young to have ever used an original Polaroid camera) find the result appealing. My grumpy-old-photographer act only raises the question of why the service has been so popular.  And when I say “popular” I mean Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dropped a cool $1 Billion to keep it out of Google’s hands.

Scratching the creative sharing itch

Part of a collage of Instagram filters by Jessica Zollman. Click to see whole image on Wikimedia

Instagram certainly didn’t invent image filters or photo sharing. What Instagram does really well is to combine image filtering and photo sharing in a quick, super-easy system. It pushes the social “hey, cool picture” button and the “wow, that was easy” button at the same time. Its popularity is a direct result of giving busy people  a culturally-approved artistic and social outlet. People are actually taking pictures of everyday situations and objects, and sharing them with the world.

Wait, what? “Culturally approved?”

As the saying goes, Earth without art is just “Eh”.  Yet while nearly everyone in traditional cultures makes some aesthetically-embellished craft, in Western cities most people don’t. We even look at creative people as being a little strange. In the same way that enthusiasm is only allowed in sports arenas and certain churches, creativity must be left to the professionals behind the velvet ropes.

What percentage of people sing, play an instrument, draw, paint, sculpt, or make… anything at all? We are surrounded by factory-made items and art. We’re embarrassed if we don’t sing as well as the professionally trained, digitally-enhanced performers we hear on the radio. Our villages are invaded by expensive, global media talent against which we all measure ourselves.

And when most of us do create anything, we lead with an apology: “It’s not very good”.  This may be one reason people envy celebrities – it looks like it would be fun to act in a movie, paint a picture, or make a portrait of someone just because they look interesting.

Our education system is no help at all, because our curriculum is all about competitiveness.  There is little allowance for the time it takes to become good at making anything just for its own sake. As educator John Holt says, school children are indoctrinated in the terror of giving the wrong answer. No wonder art and music are last in line for funding – it doesn’t fit our cultural model.

I know of no other animal that makes art. Yet we’ve created a consumer culture that denigrates every creative impulse we have. We’ve been trained to make fun of each other when our creative efforts are not “professional”. We even compare our own bodies to those of Photoshop-enhanced, professional models, athletes and actors. This is a tragedy.

There is a widespread human need to create something – anything – and share it with our village. By displaying one photograph at a time, Instagram sets off the image we made and says; “There! This is something I saw. I’ve just elevated it above the snapshot level. Connect with me for a moment, and see it, too.”

That’s a billion dollars, right there. That’s how badly we want to be creative beings, and not just consumers of what others make.

Create something – anything.

What you create has value to you, and that’s enough. Pick up a pencil and do a sketch of something. Then look at it and revel in its unprofessionalism. Do two sketches a day for a month and you’ll surprise yourself. The point is not to match professional work, but to claim your freedom to create.

Sing off-key. Dance a clumsy jig in the office. Take a picture for no reason than you liked what you saw, and share it with someone (on Instagram, if you like). Write a short story. Make a short video that tells the story. Every amateurish thing you do is an act of rebellion against consumer culture. The word “amateur” means “lover” – no other reason is necessary.


  • Wall St. Journal: See some photos before and after Instagram
  • Now that phone cameras are getting really good, along comes Instagram to screw up the pictures. See, that’s what I meant by “grumpy old photographer”.
  • I strive for the most clarity I can achieve in a picture, not only because I like to do technical photography, but because I like the sense of being there when I look at the result. While most people have seen such photos in art exhibits and National Geographic, they may not realize that the digital camera they already own is capable of approaching such results.  All it takes is a bit of knowledge and experimentation.
  • No surprise I like Tromp D’oel painting, either.
  • Edwin Land (the man behind the original Polaroid camera) was a stone genius who worked closely with Ansel Adams to produce some amazing photographic equipment and processes. Back when this was going on they had undergraduate students testing prototypes. My father was one of these lucky individuals; he’d get a case of the new film, and go around the San Francisco area with the new cameras and his Weston light meter, taking careful measurements and notes to bring back with the pictures. This was how he learned photography, seeing instant feedback on his work that almost no one else in his time got to experience.
  • Ansel Adams was a clear-picture and detail person. Along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others, he founded the F64 Group, dedicated to sharp-focus, carefully-framed and exposed photographs. The group was formed in opposition to the Pictorialists, whom Adams derided as seeking “depth through fuzziness”. In spite of this, the Pictorialists… were not wrong to make photographs the way they liked them. Quite the opposite, actually.
  • Mike the Mad Biologist: Slow death of art and music in K-12, another reason why austerity sucks
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Occupy tent falls to arson

April 22, 2012 1 comment

Occupy BloNo was one of the longest-running 99%er protests in the country. I am proud to say that our University protected their free-speech rights – there was no SWAT team here, no pepper-spray, no bullhorns, and campus security kept watch for their safety. When the physical presence ended, organizers received permission from the University to leave one of the tents up as a symbol. While it was a frequent target of vandalism, organizers made a series of repairs.

Occupy BloNo tent falls to arson

Occupy BloNo tent falls to arson 22 April 2012

Last night someone burned down the tent, damaging the University’s plaza canopy in the process. Ironically this morning’s Pantagraph newspaper features an article, Occupy BloNo seeking new vision, with probably the last picture of the tent and an interview with organizers.

The investigation is ongoing. University president Al Bowman said this:

“I was disappointed to hear about two incidents that occurred over the weekend on and near campus. One involved the physical assault of an Illinois State student—the other was a fire that destroyed the Occupy tent and damaged a canopy on Milner Plaza.

While both incidents are still under investigation, they both have the clear makings of acts of hatred, and that is troubling. We all encounter ideas we disagree with and people we don’t like. But responses that involve destruction and violence are unacceptable at Illinois State, a University that holds diversity as one its core values.

With regard to these incidents, I will have no tolerance where crimes have been committed and codes of conduct have been ignored. Meanwhile, I remind everyone that Illinois State is a university that values differences, and I ask that you do your best to put those values into action every day.”

This is a very simple, bright line separating acceptable and unacceptable responses to disagreement. We can talk things out – it might take an hour, or a generation but we can work it out. Violence is a shortcut but it is also a detour that simply loops back into more violence. In the end, it settles nothing.

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A photograph is a moment in time, part 1

April 20, 2012 4 comments

Snapshot, Australia, 1940's. No individual faces are visible. What prompted the photographer to step back so far, and produce this wonderful composition? Click to embiggen.

I want to talk about Instagram, but first some light photo history. About twenty years ago I worked with antique photographs a lot. People brought in old contact prints and tintypes and Daguerreotypes dating back as far as the Civil War, and I made copies for them. I got very good at the technical challenges presented by each kind of image, and at rescuing the most information from the ravages of time.

Once I became accustomed to the historical settings, the people in these images started to look just like the people I see today on the street. Well, mostly not as fat as we are, but they seemed less like historical curiosities and more like actual people. Connecting the images with what I know about history was fascinating.

A typical example: the customer had brought me a group photograph, about thirty people, c. 1890.  She wanted copies to give to her relatives, many of whom were descended from the people in the picture. I took her order and filed it for the next day’s shoot.

Under the lights of my copy stand I could examine the picture closely. It looked like a family reunion, and someone had brought in a photographer. Nowadays everyone has a camera but at the time the photographer’s equipment and process were pretty exotic.  And bulky. And often as not, toxic.

The image was a contact print from a glass plate negative, and under magnification I could see it was fabulously detailed. Images like this one were fun to work with, appealing to the history major in me, to the latent writer, to the armchair psychologist and to the photo technician.

Today we are accustomed to images of people smiling for the camera. But antique photos, especially group photos made before the invention of high-speed films, are blessedly immune to this artifice. The subjects were instructed to “hold still” for the picture. And that, along with the historical setting, is what makes it interesting.

The people in the picture were not living in our past; they were living in their present.  Or even, in the future! They were not wearing costumes; their Victorian clothing and hardware were the height of modernity – the very latest thing. They had every reason to be proud of their achievements, posing for the camera. The photographer would have been standing on a step stool, his large camera on a tall tripod. They looked up at him, stock still, their faces in repose.

A beautiful young woman, a child, a young man. Another woman of indeterminate age, next to a hard-looking man. His hands were gnarled, his face was lined and suggested nightly alcohol. She wore an expression of resignation, as if he might suddenly hit her. His head was slightly down, his lips pursed, as he eyed the camera suspiciously. A child, his face slightly blurred with movement. Was he uncomfortable in the shoes he had been forced to wear for the occasion? I looked at each face in the magnifier. There was a young man, seemingly bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. In the background was a horse, tied to a gazebo or some kind of shelter, and waiting patiently.

Most likely no one in the picture was still alive. They had lived through wars, diseases; the younger ones would live through another war and a depression. The very youngest, yet another war. Possibly some of them lived to see the Russians launch a small radio transmitter into orbit. They had worked and lived and given birth and suffered and played and died and been mourned – or not – a community set floating on the giant river of history. On a tiny planet in trackless space; context is everything.

Got some old photos? Spend some time looking at them. Use a magnifying glass. Most likely their names are not even known today, but they were people as solid as you and I. They harbored private thoughts; try to pick out the one with the terrible secret. What was it? Imagine each adult as a child. Pick a few of the children to die before reaching adulthood. Try to figure out what each of them would be doing the day after the photo was taken. Imagine the young woman’s surprise when presented with her first refrigerator.

Now look around you. Listen. Electric lights, the furnace blower. Internet. Sound of cars outside.

You know what made that trip possible? A box with a lens in front of it, and a chemically-treated plate of glass. We’re still using boxes with lenses in front of them, but we’ve replaced the chemical method with millions of pixels. It doesn’t matter what technology is used: at some point someone sees something and saves it so you can look at it later. We can actually save images! And share them! Representational visual art is unique to humans, so far as I am aware. The invention of the camera, and then of digital photography, revealed that this is something that nearly everyone wants to do.

Next post: Instagram

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Thoughts on Tax Day: I get email

April 15, 2012 Comments off

I remember, with some shame and regret, when we all followed Ronnie Reagan as he said; “Government is not the solution, government is the problem!” Now our country is in debt the likes of which Reagan never imagined, and there is more stratification of wealth than ever. (For those of you just tuning in to our program, this is not a good thing)

Government is the corporation of the people, for the management and protection of the commons. Government and the free market each have their best theater of action: government does what the free market can’t, or what it won’t, when there isn’t a fast buck to be made. Government is precisely the solution for those problems where we need to pull together for the common good.  Unfortunately Reagan’s famous slogan has become a religion fanatically supported by corporations, Conservative think-tanks, and media outlets to the point where it churns out planet-sized absurdities.

It is no accident that there are many examples of government ineptitude. When large chunks of government are controlled by people who hold exclusionary religious faith in the Free Market, there are bound to be spectacular failures. There are also many examples of amazing government successes, achieved by people who believed it could be done, needed to be done, and that a public enterprise was the way to get it done. The commons is not in opposition to the Free Market; it is the foundation of it. If we believe in our country we will be willing to invest in it, and we will see that it is run by people who believe in it – and we will exclude leaders who want to strip-mine it for the few at the expense of the many.

Just got this email from Kent Ashcraft:


How many of you consider yourselves patriotic? I don’t mean in the flag-waving sense; I mean in the original sense of the original patriots. I’m talking about the World War II sense, in which Americans went without most luxuries for years for the good of the nation, or the JFK sense of “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Since today is the infamous April 15, I think this is a subject worth exploring.

This great nation of ours is supported through tax dollars. Without taxes, there would be no United States of America. Yet the subject of taxes is the nastiest and most contentious one in our public discourse. It’s natural, of course, to argue about the specifics of taxes and how the revenue should be allocated, but today there seems to be a widespread mindset that taxes are generally evil, that they constitute punishment, that they suck our hard-earned money down some government black hole never to be seen again. This viewpoint is evident in the fact that political candidates must always promise tax breaks, whether they can provide them once in office or not, as a requirement of getting elected. It’s not a partisan problem – even Democratic candidates won’t propose raising taxes (except on the ultra-wealthy). It’s an American attitude problem.

I propose we would be better off if collectively we changed our view of taxation from a negative to a positive one. That’s not at all radical if we believe we have the greatest system of government in the world – we should consider it a privilege to financially support it, not a punishment. So how have we come from the shared sacrifice of the 1940s to the “me generation” of American history?

Part of the problem is what I call “lifestyle creep.” In 2001, taxes were significantly cut for most Americans. The prudent thing for American families to have done would have been to save at least part of that windfall against the likelihood that taxes would go back up in the future, not to exclaim, “Honey, now we can afford those granite countertops!” But a sense of entitlement is easily acquired and difficult to shed. People traded in their Toyotas for Lexuses without thinking how it would feel to have to do the reverse. For a family stretched to the limit on their mortgage, of course a tax hike is going to hurt, but maybe the time to think about that should have been before they stretched themselves to the limit on their mortgage. Just sayin’.

Of course there are always those who claim the solution to deficits is to cut spending rather than raise taxes. That sounds fine in theory, but everyone wants spending cut in different areas, namely the ones that don’t personally affect them. Do you want deep cuts in defense spending? Bet you’re not in the military. To abolish the Department of Education? Bet you don’t have kids in public school. To trim Medicare and Medicaid? Bet you don’t depend on either of them. With all the competing interests involved, it’s no wonder that as a practical matter, overall spending is very difficult to cut.

We need to stop “looking out for number one,” and start considering the needs of the real number one: Our country, which is deeply in debt. When more Americans return to the self-sacrificing patriotism we used to practice, perhaps I’ll return to the flag-waving variety, but not before.

- Kent Ashcraft

What do you think?
  • Take a look at this visualization of our national budget. Go full screen and be sure to zoom in for small details. Spend some time exploring. (And as an aside I might note that we spend as much on defense as the next nineteen countries combined. But Ashcraft is right that, as a practical matter, cutting that pathological excess down to size is nearly impossible. It doesn’t mean we should stop tracking bird flu or fixing bridges to make room for it. If we paid for things in real time perhaps we’d find a sense of priorities.)
    data visualization (fragment) of the US federal budget
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College students are so idealistic…

April 13, 2012 Comments off

Ahh, you know, the carefree days of college. When you can come out in favor of important social causes like gender equality, stopping The War, Saving Souls (or not saving them) and… NATURAL GAS?

Natural Gas campaign

"Natural Gas: smarter power in our hands"

I wondered if the heart of youth was merely moved by methane, but it turns out that ANGA (America’s Natural Gas Alliance)  has created a contest for college campuses to promote Natural Gas. Conspicuously absent is any mention of hydrofracking, or why the practice is specifically exempt from provisions of the Clean Water Act, or the fantastic amount of water needed for each fractured gas well, or why they won’t say what’s in the chemicals they’re pumping into the ground. If the practice of breaking up rocks underground and pumping in chemicals under extreme pressure is safe, why all the lobbying to shelter it from liability, control and transparency?

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Emergent beauty

April 11, 2012 1 comment

First, this video:

(h/t Hank Fox)

Once I was walking across campus at night and came upon an excavation that had been dug for some pipes or something. There were safety barriers around the hole, and on each barrier was a flashing light. Each flashing light also sounded a tiny beep sound when it flashed. Since the batteries in the lights were at different stages of discharge, the frequency of and interval between the beeps was different for each light. I stood among the barriers, closed my eyes and listened.

From only five barriers, a rich, textured sonic pattern emerged. It must have taken five minutes to cycle back around to the beginning; despite my poor hearing it was Mesmerizing and beautiful.

The word Periodicity refers to regular intervals in a phenomenon. It has countless scientific, industrial and artistic applications. For example network cables consist of four pairs twisted with different periodicity – the interval between twists – to discourage signal induction. A knitted hat may display intricate patterns that emerge from the periodicity of dyed sections in the yarn, as it is knitted into a head covering. Wave interference is used to establish the precision of a telescope mirror when it is ground. Waves coming to shore, if you listen to them long enough, reflect multiple sources.  It shows up in the coloration of butterfly wings and in architecture.

As to why many people find such emergent patterns beautiful, I have no idea. Your thoughts?

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Bad habits, the breakfast edition

April 4, 2012 3 comments

I know eating out is a bad habit, both financially and health-wise. Yes, it would be cheaper and healthier if I’d stay home and make breakfast for myself  Here’s the things from one such breakfast:

Add three shots hot sauce to eggs in bowl, whip to froth. Pre-heat black beans on hot oiled pan. Pour on eggs and put down toast. Cook eggs adding a light dash of salt, some pepper, and some smoked paprika. Fold and add sharp cheddar at last minute; toast pops up about then. "Butter" toast and enjoy. (I forgot to move the hot sauce, oil and spatula into the picture)

Thing is, I’m lazy. I’d rather spend my time before work eating breakfast than cooking it, watching the early morning weather and traffic through the window of a diner with my laptop and infinite coffee besides. Plus then I get a nice bike ride in before breakfast.

So here’s a question MrsDoF raised: we were in McDonald’s having breakfast on Saturday, and she looked around the place was mostly full of older men. In fact, she was the only woman in the customer area. What’s up with that?

Also: of course it turns out The Oatmeal has already covered this one.

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Iron pill

April 2, 2012 7 comments

Anyone know what this thing is? I found it on the sidewalk:

Cast-iron "pill"

"Iron pill" found on sidewalk

It’s made of cast-iron and it’s shaped like a pill. That’s all I know about it.

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