Good Times

So, I’ve resigned (as I’m contractually obligated to put it) from my job at a prominent web advertising network. I’m “pursuing other interests” in, say, unemployment insurance. I’m trying to “spend more time with my family”. I’m another victim of the recession.

Time will tell just how difficult it’s going to be to find a new job just around Christmas with the economy in the state it is — whatever that is. There seem to be a lot of job ads out there, but goodness knows how many are real and how many people are scrabbling for them.

If you look at most social and economic indices the US tends to be an outlier. We spend among the most per person on healthcare and get among the worst outcomes. We are among the richest and among the worst savers. We are more democratic (in the sense of electing more officials) but fewer of us vote and our electoral system is among the most antiquated and undemocratic in its outcomes (in terms of wasting votes).

One such statistic that I encountered a few weeks ago — I’m not sure where, probably The Economist — is that the US is one of the cheapest countries in which to fire people. It’s essentially free.

Singing Babies to Sleep

Well I sang it once, I sang it twice,
I’m gonna sing it three times more,
gonna stay ’til your resistance is overcome.
‘Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep,
well it makes your famous daddy
look so dumb.
Hmm, he looks so dumb.

From St. Judy’s Comet, Paul Simon

Leonard Cohen, 1969 (from Wikipedia)
One song I always knew I would sing to my children, if I ever had any, was St. Judy’s Comet by Paul Simon. Not many songwriters seem to have set out to write lullabies, and it’s great that my favorite songwriter of all time did. Of course he wrote the song for his first son, Harper, so I’ll have to change “boy” to “girl” in a few spots, and of course I’m not famous so I guess it’s “your lazy daddy look so dumb” or something. When the girls are older I can prompt them for suggestions…

I don’t know many lullabies, and the ones I do know are pretty lame, strange, or vaguely threatening. I have, however, had the extremely satisfying experience of singing my babies to sleep, and it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to memorize the lyrics of some new songs.

I don’t know how most people memorize lyrics, but I learned songs in three ways. The first was being required to perform them for some kind of stage production. I can still remember snatches of the Mikaido because we did some kind of “good bits” version of it in primary school.

The next was sing-alongs, which were a class activity from grades 1 to 6 when I was a child. We’d all gather around the radio at a specified time each week with books of songs (which we had to bring $2 to school to pay for at the beginning of the year) and learn new songs and repeat songs we’d learned earlier. I can remember quite a few songs (some of them hauntingly beautiful) from those days, including “Donna Donna Donna” a lament for a calf being taken to market for slaughter, and a song about Norfolk Whalers. Odd that both songs involve cruelty to animals. Anyhoo…

But most of the songs I have learned come from the period from the age of ten or so to the end of college during which I was (a) sufficiently poor that each LP or CD was a major investment and thus was listened to incessantly for days or weeks after purchase, (b) obsessed by popular music, and (c) had time to spend hours listening to albums while reading the lyrics from the back of LP album covers or liner notes or (at the very end) from the little booklets which accompanied some CDs or, in the case of bands like REM, trying to puzzle out rather poorly enunciated lyrics with no help at all. (I remain convinced that in Bohemian Rhapsody, “Beelzebub rides a devil’s motorcycle”.)

So I have a little songbook in my head that contains the complete lyrics of many songs by Paul Simon, the Beatles, Tom Lehrer, a few by the Eurythmics, Suzanne Vega, Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, and so on, and then I can kind of kind of manage half a verse here and there of the rest.

While looking around for possible lullabies the second songwriter I thought of after Paul Simon was Leonard Cohen. I’m a latecomer to Leonard Cohen. I bought So Long Marianne a long time ago because a lot of people (both friends and musicians in interviews) I liked and respected liked and respected Leonard Cohen*. I found the album pretty impossible to listen to. (The title song was lovely, but I hated Cohen’s nasal, whiny voice. A pretty common reaction, I think.)

* It’s fairly well-known that working musicians have far broader tastes than their audiences, and thus listening to the stuff the musicians you like listen to is likely to broaden your tastes in odd directions.

Anyway, my sister spent some time living in the US in the early 90s and came back with I’m Your Man, which immediately hooked me. (It didn’t hurt that I’d heard “Everybody Knows” in the flawed but still watchable Christian Slater movie Pump Up The Volume a few years earlier. I’d liked the song so much I bought the soundtrack album, which is pretty darn good but has Concrete Blonde covering the song versus the original version, which is in the movie.

When Cohen released I’m Your Man he had perfected a new sound that he’d started experimenting with an album or two earlier. Instead of a whiny, nasal voice accompanied sparingly by folk instruments and female backing vocalists he switched to a deep crackly bass voice accompanied by a big, textured, synthesizer sound and (of course) female backing vocalists. The result for some reason brings to my mind the image of honey dripping over coal. This made Cohen a lot more accessible to latecomers such as myself, and eventually I grew to love even his whiny, nasal performances because of his arrangements and phrasing.

I mention all this because I am meticulous — borderline obsessive — about remembering where I picked up my predilections from. I think it’s very interesting to know how you grow to like something, and when, and why. E.g. I still remember who first suggested I read a novel by Ursula Le Guin, and what it as. Or when I first read a “real” Science Fiction novel. Or that I didn’t much care for Blade Runner the first time I saw it, although some snatches of dialogue were brilliant, and haunted me.

A huge proportion of Cohen’s output can do service as lullabies. I think this is because his songs are fairly simple melodies, sedately paced, usually without a bridge (why anyone would put a bridge in a lullaby escapes me), often without a distinct chorus, and are manageable by a singer with a modest vocal range. Oh and the songs are also downbeat and have a lot of verses. Best of all, they’re really good songs with marvelous, evocative lyrics, and what Cohen lacks in terms of what Paula Abdul might call “the colors of his voice” he makes up for in phrasing. (Phrasing is, apparently, something that, along with enunciation, is not learned until after you graduate from American Idol.)

While I’m on this sidetrack, it astonishes me that, on American Idol, anyone picks songs by Queen. The trick, it seems to me, is to pick very good songs best known for performances by mediocre singers, versus mediocre songs best known for performances by very good singers. Even “mediocre” pop singers are generally better at phrasing than the contestants on American Idol, but at least you won’t be forcing the audience to compare your vocal range to Freddy Mercury’s. So, Queen: no, The Police: yes. But I digress. Again.

There are two obvious objections to using Cohen’s songs as lullabies. The first is that the songs invariably feature “adult concepts”. I can happily dismiss this objection because his words are never explicit, so any child who can figure out the adult concepts is probably sophisticated enough to deal with them. In any event, traditional lullabies often feature far worse expressed far more clearly (“Rock-a-bye baby” for example). The second is that his songs often feature religious themes and references — Hallelujah (which has a chorus, also making it less lullaby-worthy) is utterly drenched in the Old Testament. Again, I can dismiss this because, hey, this is Western Society, and it’s better to have your Judeo-Christian references out in the open, and if you’re going to have them, let’s take a look at the tough parts of the Bible (in “Song of Isaac” Cohen tells the story of Abraham from the point of view of the son being sacrificed). If more religious people approached religion the way Cohen does, I might not be so hostile to religion.

Anyway, here’s my favorite adopted lullaby so far:

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow, like a sleepy golden storm,
yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
but now it’s come to distances and both of us must try,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

I’m not looking for another as I wander in my time,
walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
it’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
but let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
yes many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
but let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Leonard Cohen

If you haven’t heard this song, I urge you to listen to it. Cohen’s phrasing is immaculate, managing to make a very slow song sound breathless and stream-of-consciousness. What’s doubly amazing is that while Cohen did this during his whiny, nasal phase, and there are over ten cover versions of it on the iTunes Music Store in the US, only Roberta Flack has managed to produce a version other than Cohen’s versions that isn’t incompetent or simply a poor copy of Cohen.

Final Note

A third objection to Cohen as a lullaby-writer, especially for lullabies to be sung to baby girls, is his apparent misogyny. I actually gave up listening to Billy Joel after paying attention to some of his more sexist lyrics (“I don’t want clever conversation/I want you just the way you are” is obviously unintentionally back-handed, but the song isn’t supposed to be funny, unless I’m missing something). I excuse Cohen’s apparent misogyny for the same reason I don’t have a problem with his religious subject matter — he never takes an objective viewpoint (“women suck”) but always a highly, and explicitly, subjective viewpoint borne of (what I assume to be) deep introspection (“right now, in this bleak mood I am in, I think that women, you in particular, suck”). In other words, Cohen’s occasional nastiness to women is the flipside of Alanis Morrisette’s less occasional nastiness to men. It’s an important distinction, I think. Either that, or just another rationalization. Cohen is, in the end, a better songwriter than Joel.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.

Closing lines of Chelsea Hotel #2, Leonard Cohen

Nikon DSLRs and Lenses, Computer Buying Rules of Thumb, and Twins

There’s a new web page on my site, which is very much under development. You can find it here. As I said, very much under development.

I’ve recently purchased (retail! ugh!) a Nikon 18-200mm lens. This is unquestionably the most jaw-droppingly awesome (cropped-frame) DSLR lens ever, but I’d been putting off buying it because of my general attitude towards digital equipment purchases in general, and DSLR stuff in particular, which has served me well, but cost me in the neighborhood of $150 in the case of this lens. Still, overall, no regrets.

Note: the photo posted above was taken with a Panasonic TZ-3 point and shoot in a dimly lit NICU, so don’t blame Nikon for the image quality. The TZ-3 is a small, cheap camera with a 10:1 zoom ratio optically stabilized Leica lens that can shoot video at similar quality to a MiniDV camcorder. Its successors (the TZ-5) can shoot 720p. And unlke the Canon TX-1 these cameras have good ergonomics and are cheap.

Anyway, when you’ve just had gorgeous twins after four years of trying, you don’t order the camera lens you plan to immortalize them with from the cheapest vendor on froogle, even if it will save you a few bucks, if it means missing their first few days. Or, at least, I don’t.

The Problem with Camera Reviews

The basic problem with online camera reviews is the complete lack of sane standards or criteria. For example, some reviewers such as dpreview and cameralabs (the two best review sites I’ve found) seem to insist on evaluating cameras by using their default settings — which is barely defensible for point-and-shoots, and indefensible for serious cameras — and spending most or all their time looking at JPEGs for cameras that shoot RAW.

Consequently, I’ve yet to see any useful reviews of Pentax DSLRs because they’ve got crappy in-camera JPEG processing and stupid presets. Just one serious review where the reviewer tweaked the settings before writing a “hey this is a pretty good camera with poor presets and JPEG output” review would be nice.

Anyway, the history of DSLRs is such that it’s very hard to really commit to a camera line (i.e. lens line) because everything is in such a state of flux. Consider Olympus who decided to adopt the Kodak-driven 4/3 standard (i.e. standardized vendor-neutral lens mount, smaller sensor) with the tacit assumption that DSLRs would standardize on smaller sensors. Boy is anyone who has invested a ton of money in Zuiko 4/3 system lenses screwed.

Nikon seemed to be sticking to cropped frame cameras too, but then responsed to the Canon full-frame cameras with the D3, which shows us that, in the end, DSLRs will settle on 35mm sized sensors, Olympus will be screwed, and cropped-frame digital lenses will only be useful in special “cropped frame” modes on bodies that ship in 2009 or 2010. Given that most people who shop for camera lenses are used to accumulating their lenses over a lifetime, this means … well just go back to my comment about how screwed the folks who bought into the 4/3 system are.

Note that Kodak has this strange history of trying to popularize retarded film formats. Can you remember 135 cartridges (basically drop in film cartridges that used 35mm sized film but didn’t require tricky threading… but didn’t hold the film flat on the focal plane guaranteeing crap pictures)? How about 110? How about disc film? How about APS? The only “successful” launch they seem to have managed was disposable cameras, an achievement roughly as praiseworthy as the invention of spam (email, not the meat by-product, which is actually useful). Each of these formats was intended to combat the (basically non-existent) problem of loading film into a camera at the cost of sharpness and resolution.

Moore’s Law and Digital Equipment Purchases

The rule of thumb I use to buy all forms of computer (and DSLRs are a computer with a lens mount) are as follows.

  1. Buy the best option that’s substantially cheaper than top-of-the-line
  2. Only upgrade when the replacement is at least twice as “good”
  3. Avoid Vendor Lock-In Unless Absolutely Necessary
  4. Buy only the barest chassis from Apple

Here are some examples:

If you buy a top-of-the-line Mac Pro (ignoring RAM and hard disks) you’ll pay $1600 more for 0.4 GHz of CPU speed. That’s at best a 15% speed improvement for nearly 60% more cash.

If you bought a Nikon D200 instead of a Nikon D80 when they both came out, again you got basically the same camera but in a better constructed box for a lot more money. Sure, it’s less likely to break, but (unless you make your living from Photography, and if you do, you don’t need my advice) you could spend the difference on lenses which (subject to the extinction of cropped frame cameras issue touched on above) won’t go obsolete in the time it takes UPS to deliver your new camera.

The Future Will Be Corrected On-The-Fly

The Nikon D3/D300 are, at least for the moment, a special case. They have the ability to compensate for lens distortion — at least by Nikon lenses — during in-camera processing, so you can shoot JPEGs in burst mode and have lens aberrations corrected on-the-fly. Moving forward, this threatens to turn many characteristics of lenses into software, and thus put optics into digital overdrive. Today, lenses designed and made before WWII compete with anything produced today, making lenses a lifetime investment. But if cameras can correct for lens flaws (chromatic and geometric aberration, falloff, etc.) on-the-fly, then you could basically stick a magnifying glass in front of the damn thing, completely changing the economics of camera lenses.

Some time ago, Panasonic (I think) pioneered digital cameras which continuously took photos and then simply grabbed the one that was taken as you pressed the shutter button. Casio has gone well beyond this with their latest camera which can (in one mode) temporally bracket your shot for 30 frames to either “side” of the point you release the shutter (at up to 60 fps at full resolution). You take a picture, and then select from the 60 frames the camera grabbed for the shot you really wanted. No more missing the point at which the bat struck the ball, the bride’s lips touched the groom’s or whatever.

Aside from having Casio optics, sensors, and ergonomics, the principle is brilliant. A future digital “point-and-shoot” could have a crappy lens whose bad characteristics are corrected on-the-fly by the onboard computer, and temporally shoot “around” the shutter press. Resolution is already high enough to allow composition after the fact (just keep zoomed out a little and you can crop in Photoshop).

Twins!

So I’ve been shooting a lot of pictures of baby girls for some strange reason, using a Nikon D50 with a new 18-200mm VR lens (after being blown away by this thing’s versatility, sharpness, and fast focusing, I must note that the damn thing is heavy, I may end up buying an 18-55mm VR lens for more casual use) and also my TZ-3. The TZ-3 pretty much makes SD video camcorders obsolete, although its video quality isn’t quite as good. I would imagine that the TZ-5 really does stomp SD camcorders.

The Nikon D50 was the first Nikon DSLR that was under $1000 and well-featured. It was, in essence, identical to the D70 (including having a focus motor and top-side display, things the D40, D40x, and D60 all lack). Following my own rule of thumb, I’ve yet to upgrade since there’s been no camera that’s twice as good at roughly the same price, so far. (The D80 has actually hit the price-point, but it’s not “twice as good” and it will presumably be supplanted by a D80x or D90 which will be “twice as good”.)

Going back to my dissing of camera reviews, another major point is that for almost everybody, the real difference between cameras is low light performance, and yet almost no space is devoted to it. E.g. dpreview’s galleries usually only feature one or two pictures taken at high ISO. Given the price differences between cameras with it and cameras without it, image stabilization is simply a must-have. Cameras without it should simply be pointed, and laughed, at. Optical is better than sensor-based. (My TZ-3 shoots like a steadicam.) Electronic is a joke. When reviewing digital cameras, a camera without image stabilization should simply be rated “useless” unless it has some incredible redeeming quality (like awesome high ISO performance).

Of all the photos I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks, only in one case was I shooting in ideal lighting conditions. And, guess what, even disposables shot pretty good photos in “ideal lighting conditions”. Pinhole cameras rock. When you’re shooting hand-held shots without flash at 1/4s in a dimly lit NICU, or at a family reunion, or in a museum, or at a concert, or any of the other zillions of badly lit places most photos get taken, “studio lighting comparisons” and “sample landscapes” are irrelevant. The ability of a DSLR to fire off 3-8 full resolution frames in a second through top quality glass is simply incomparable to smaller cameras.

One of the truly beautiful things about shooting baby pictures with a VR lens at very low shutter speeds is that I can capture the subject’s motion without camera shake. It’s a beautiful thing.

Oh well, feeding time…

Crime & Punishment

My wife and I have repeatedly received calls from someone claiming to be Countrywide Home Loans. These people, who give out the number 1-800-641-5302, are not Countrywide Home Loans (we called Countrywide to be sure, and then we googled the number, which is instructive and highly recommended).

Annoyed by these people (who use a combination of professional sounding operators and polished automated systems, so presumably they’re not exactly operating out of the back of a van, but who knows?) we contacted Countrywide and told them about the matter. There things have rested for some time.

This has continued for some weeks, and when I got another call today I decided to report it to the “authorities”. The recommended course of action is the FTC, but try navigating (a) their website, or (b) their phone system. E.g. after getting several levels into their spectacularly retarded menu system, I was forced to pick between two possibilites neither of which applied, with no way out. I hung up in exasperation.

The do not call list website, for what it’s worth, simply generated an error message saying that their server was having some kind of difficulty. Fabulous.

Next, I tried the local police. By far the most helpful and pleasant conversation (with a local Financial Crimes investigator) got me nowhere. She didn’t even have a number I could call, but suggested I might try the FBI.

So I called the FBI who simply told me to report the activity on a website. This website is designed (a) for people who have already been screwed (we hadn’t because we hung up when we were asked for our SSN) and (b) internet-based crime with phone-based crime as an afterthought.

The site made it clear we should keep hold of any documents (of which there are none) in case the matter ever went to trial, but of course we’ve not suffered any actual loss, and there’s no paper trail. Presumably we can document the fact that the calls took place (assuming the records aren’t automatically erased) but that’s about it.

This is just cockeyed. Here’s a bunch of scammers calling, presumably, hundreds or thousands of people fraudulently, with criminal intent, and giving out a 1-800 number. Surely there’s someone in the FBI who can do a reverse lookup of the phone number, at minimum have it switched off, and at maximum tap the line, record their bullshit, and then arrest them.

If there are any further developments, I’ll post them.

My Wetware Problems with Apple Products

I have to admit this — I’ve been to Apple’s genius bar twice with problems (once with an iPod, and once with a MacBook Pro), and both times the problem was instantly solved by the same thing — I had to reboot.

Dammit, why aren’t Apple’s products completely perfect? Aside from needing to be rebooted sometimes as often as twice a month for system patches, now, apparently, some mysterious problems (such as DVDs not playing) can be solved by rebooting.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting that rebooting has become a blind spot for me when trying to fix a problem on an Apple product. It’s a shame that their products aren’t quite ready for it.