Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gustatory Nostalgia

Some tastes just brings back memories...

Chicken Nuggets and Ketchup: When faced with the abominable lunch courtesy of the school district, as I often was during elementary school and junior high, I'd often run away screaming for my dear life. That's not fair. That compares my lunch to the abominable snowman when he is in fact a much nicer entity. Chicken Nuggets and Ketchup was the only eatable concoction to spew forth from Hell's Kitchen, situated beside the school gym. Everybody would want seconds and nobody would get them. Still, chicken must be an infernal beast because as much as it would be processed, it still tasted passable. And with Ketchup too! What luxury!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Zoom Zoom Zoom

I'm not talking about Mazda, sorry.

I've been lusting after a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera lately to replace my Sony DSC F717. The 717 has served me very very well and I'm rather fond of it as a general media-capturin' machine but the amateur photography nerd in me has become unsatisfied with its speed and response. It has a decently fast lens but somewhat slower focusing and shot-taking speed. It's also not (of ocurse) on an interchangeable lens system so I'm stuck with the one lens.

So a DSLR it is. The problem with most entry level DSLRs (the only ones I can afford at the moment) is that there is a "crop factor." Imagine a piece of 35mm film, the standard against which most other things are relevant. A 1.5 crop factor DSLR camera contains a piece of digital film that is 2/3 the size of a 35mm piece of film. Said in reverse, we have to multiply the area of a digital piece of film by 1.5 to reach the normal size of 35mm film. But what is a "digital piece of film"? It is a rectangular sensor which converts light to electronic signals which are then sent off to be processed into a digital picture. The two main technologies right now are CCD and CMOS and while each has its own advantages and disadvantages, they are both sensors which convert light into electronic signals.

If you take a look at camera prices and specifications, you'll notice that a Canon EOS 5D is priced around $3k while the new (and in many respects much better) Nikon D200 is priced at around $1700. What's the deal and is the Nikon that much of a better camera? Well yes and no. The D200 certainly has a faster burst speed (5 frames per second), for example, but the 5D is a full frame DSLR while the D200 is still at a 1.5x crop factor. This means that for any given lens at any focal length, the D200 will only see the middle 2/3 of what a 5D will see.

This is a disadvantage for the D200 in some ways. Let's say we couple the 5D with a 12-24mm lens. In 35mm terms, a 50mm lens is about what the standard human eye sees, a 12mm lens is very very wide and a 200mm takes the human field of vision and "zooms in" roughly 4 times. On a 5D, the 12-24 is a very wide angle zoom lens. The lens can send the same information to the D200 but the since since all lens measurements are based on the 35mm standard, it is really sending a 12-24 field of vision to a 35mm piece of film. Remember now that the D200 can only see about 2/3 of this "film". The center 2/3 of a 35mm piece of film seeing things through a 12mm lens is about 18mm, hence the 1.5x factor. This is true for any focal length so all of a sudden the 12-24 lens becomes an 18-36 lens. Still wide angle, but not as wide. This is a big disadvantage in buying lenses because really nice, fast, wide angle lenses cost a lot of money. If you just dropped $2k on some kind of wide angle 10mm, you don't want the crop factor to all of a sudden bump it up to 15mm.

The reverse is almost true for telephoto shots. On a 5D, a 70-300mm lens will get you 300mm at full telephoto. On a D200, because of the 1.5x crop factor, you'll get a 105-450mm (!!!) range, effectively. It is not entirely true though because it is like saying you can get the same range on a 5D just by ignoring the outer 1/3 of the frame. However, since, area wise, the D200 has a higher pixel density than the 5D, you'll probably get a bit more resolution with a D200 at "450mm" than a 5D at "450mm".

Most people would probably much rather better wide-angle capabilities than super telephoto capabilities. Why? The more you zoom, the slower a lens gets and the less light it can gather. So at really high levels of zoom, you can only shoot brightly lit objects. A fast super telephoto zoom (such as ones used for sports photography or wildlife photography) is ridiculously expensive too. So in other words, the higher end of zooms aren't useful for most people, even amateur photographers, unless you specialize in sports or wildlife. A wide angle, on the other hand, allows people to get a lot into a shot and then crop as needed. It also solves the problem of not having enough space to "foot zoom" when one is indoors. In short, there tend to be more subjects for the very wide angle lens than a super telephoto lens.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


This post is Not Safe For Buddha.

I must have left some kind of viable source of biological energy out in my flat when I was in China because I've been noticing a bit of a fruitfly infestation these last few days. There's probably at least 10-15 of the little buggers flying around. They're not malicious or anything but I do notice them here and there and it's annoying. I've yet to find a reliable method of eradication though. If I see them in the sink, then down they go with a stream of water. Or I squoosh them if I have a napkin or a paper towel in hand and they happen to be on a flat surface. As phlegmatic as they seem when they're just crawling around on a picture frame or the cabinet door, they're quick little beasts when approached with a squooshing implement.

Interestingly, they also seem to be rather narcissistic creatures as they gather on my big mirror a lot and I've taken to using them as target practice with a whipping-towel. They leave a nasty trail when I'm on target but the mirror needs to be wiped anyway. I'm being a bit heartless towards the little flying nuisances but I don't have any greater plans for them (like for example establishing some basic rules of genetics through toying with them and their offspring) and so they're pretty much useless and just get in the way. In my opionion, drosophila should be like quantum fluctuations: if they spontaneously appear pretty much anywhere, then they should also spontaneously disappear within a few moments, annhilating with their anti-drosophilal selves.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Early Bird

I've been waking up obscenely early in the morning the last couple of days, (no) thanks to jetlag. Vulgar for me is 7AM so last night's record (5PM to 4AM) was pretty much hardcore with bondage and S&M thrown in for good measure. I've always been an evening person: I like dinner, I like procrastination, and I like fire dancing. Something else that the evening affords me is solitude, which I also enjoy quite often. The darkness of the evening surrounds me like a blanket, letting me pretend that I'm alone an insulated from the rest of the world.

But solitude comes in post-crepuscular and pre-auroral forms. Getting up at 4AM, albeit a bit excessive, has convinced me that morning solitude is as good or better than evening solitude. Perhaps it's the novelty of it all but I do feel more ready for the rest of the day with hours and hours to prepare before the start of any obligations or duties. The upshot is that I get home, eat dinner, and by 8PM I'm breathing heavily because my body is screaming at me to shut down. Perhaps 10-6 is a better plan...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

No Haggling This Time

Unlike the way it is with Chinese street markets, you can't haggle with textbook sellers. The best you can do is to get a copy of the book on Amazon but then again, you don't know which book to get until class starts and then it's too late because you'll need those books for homework and such and can't wait for Amazon delivery. This is how I get saddled with a $160 textbook for German. Scheisse. That's twice as expensive than a Canon 50mm 1.8!

It's not that I doubt these textbooks took a lot of money to produce. They're hard cover, they're printed on very nice paper, and the textbook comes with a workbook and a lab manual. But still, I have to wonder about the business side of it. It's well known that new editions of commonly used textbooks are soemtimes issued just to make money. Sometimes, the new editions aren't even all that different form the old editions but the page numbers are juggled a little bit so that users of the new editions aren't compatible with users of the old. The upshot? Everyone has to buy new editions.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to take all the money that students pony up for textbooks and use it to hire really great teachers. $150 per student, 20 students per class (3k), 3 classes per quarter (9k), 3 quarters per year (27k) would make a nice bonus for some deserving language teachers. Or recruit a good TA or two. What about the lack of a textbook then? Well what about it? Why is American education so enthralled with textbooks anyway? I learn more from my wonderful Japanese teacher in class than I ever do from my admittedly wonderful Japanese textbook. Without the book, I would just get a Japanese grammar dictionary instead, which I still have to get anyway.

Monday, January 09, 2006

That's Bad for the Piano!

As far as classical music is concerned, the 20th century has seen a broadening of what can be considered "music." Music is still, in most ways, organized sound but how that "organization" is perceived has changed. Aleatoric music is based on chance but is justifiable as "organized" sound in some ways because there is an organization to the process. It is based on random elements but not completely random. But modern "classical music", including pieces that call for trying to push a piano through a wall, isn't a pioneer of exploring what can be considered music. Early explorers in organized sound surely had broader boundaries for what can be considered music than modern faux zealots who might insist that "rap" isn't music just because it doesn't conform to the most banal examples of a melody supported by harmony all within the equal-temperament diatonic scale system. (And even there, the bassline, hooks, and harmony of most rap is purely diatonic and there is a cadence pattern of highs and lows that can easily be considered melodic.)

An extension, or perhaps parallel, of this kind of intolerance is stipulating how instruments "ought" to be played. Stravinsky started a riot with his Rite of Spring not so much because of the supposed vulgarity of the ballet and its choreography, hump-dancing a virgin to death and all, but because of the way the instruments were being "treated." There was pitch dissonance but also timbral dissonance as ferocious bowings were called for in the strings and obscene and strident blowing (har har har) called for in the winds. The Rite of Spring, of course, prevails as an innovative masterpiece and much of its materials remains astoundingly fresh even today. It explored new ways to produce new sounds from existing instruments and, more importantly, it did it convincingly.

Moving out of the realm of classical music, pop musicians who use instruments that overlap with classical instruments are also often accused of abusing their instruments (though not by the people who actually like their music, of course). One prominent example is Ben Scott Folds of Ben Folds Five fame. He has a pounding style that would be the nightmares of countless classical piano teachers. Yet his talent is indisputable. It's just that he has a different style. He sometimes steps on the piano, he sometimes uses his fists on the piano, and he will sometimes take his chair and pound the piano with the cushion by throwing the chair at the piano almost as a spear. Sure, it's not the best way to keep a piano in tune but if it's done for a reason (and not out of pure lunacy), shouldn't it be fine? After all, isn't Ben Folds just playing triple sforzando tone clusters? And what better way than with feet (broader than the hand) and fists (stronger than individual fingers)?

Of course, those that would balk at stepping on the piano might also balk at modern classical music as being unmusical.


You can say you don't like it and you can say that you don't understand it but if you want to get with the times, never ever quickly label anything as "unmusical". Music is everywhere. Why limit yourself?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The New Year from the Old

The moment that marked the beginning of the year 2006 came andwent like a reality-tv star, fussy and forgettable. My own moment was spent with one of my cousins, drinking some Lagavulin and criticizing a Chinese New Year's special on TV featuring a whole gaggle of finalists from Chinese Idol (female version), half of whom are at least partially tone deaf. The other half appear to be male. It wasn't a rowdy evening as so many others have been when I'm here with my extended family in China but I had thoughts on my mind, was tired, and appreciated a relaxed welcoming of the new year.

As arbitrary as the the beginning of a year may be, it's nevertheless a useful reminder and excuse to think, both backwards and forwards. It's often the case for me that while every year seems to flash by quicker than the last, there also seems to be more happening in the most recently passed year if only I take the time to think about it all in detail. I don't think it's because I am doing more things so much as I am getting better at thinking about them and holding on to valuable experiences better. I've pledged myself forever and ever to immaturity and puerile behavior whenever the opportunity arises but I guess I can't be all kid all the time. Still, if just thinking, pondering, musing, wondering, hypothesizing, and the like were an indication of age, I'd be an octogenarian brat going on thirteen, mental dentures paired with physical braces and all. As it is, I'm happy to be an infant making brief trysts into the realm of coherent thought and it is there that plans for the new year form.

Well, not so much plans. I don't want to call them resolutions either (I've already made one in the last post) because they really aren't actions I plan to keep but more ways of thinking I'd like to develop and encourage in myself. So, a list of vague thoughts then.

1) Look at more facets. Of anything. Segue my stories into inquiries about others. Turn inquiries into stories. Check under the bed and over the next hill.

2) Skeptical optimism. Remain skeptical for the sake of always finding out as much as possible but also remain optimistic. Why worry oneself to death by dehydration about the half-empty glass running out when one could at least drink the half-full glass and go on to searching for more water.

3) Don't begrudge things which are less than relevant in people. So what if he burps, he is great company. So what if she is cheap, she's a great listener. It's a matter of efficiency: get the most out of the good in people and let the bad slide by as long as it's not raping your daughter or forcing you to listen to bad Chinese pop songs.

4) Don't knock it till you've tried it or at least read up on it, as long as it's reversible. I don't think I'd like Goth Death Black Heavy Hardcore Violent War Metal but I couldn't really start getting out my bag of aspersions until I've at least heard it once. Avoiding listening to bad Chinese pop songs, on the other hand, is perfectly justifiable. The psychological damage may not be reversible.

5) Be tolerant of things. Resentment, especially, is something that needs to seeth and fester inside. Why boil the cauldron, toil, and trouble if the only one stoking the fire is you?

Sorry to get all cliche and philosophical. Verbal diarrhea of the more mundane kind will return soon and this chunky crap will all soon be a distant memory, only remembered by annals (I had to) of history.