Thursday, March 26, 2009

Saying goodbye to an old friend

It’s the end of an era. Whether we like it or not.

Last month, my friend Brian (not his real name) who I’ve known since the early 1980's got word that the chain which runs the camera shop he’s worked at as a salesman for almost a quarter of a century was declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This meant that his store would be closing at the end of this week. It not only means that Brian is now among the many thousands trying to set up a livelihood in the current economy, it means that the town his store was located in, a college town with dozens of photography students, will now be without a proper camera store. Consider what that loss means to a student who needs materials or equipment for a project that’s due in a few days, a professional who needs extra gear for a particular job, or anyone who needs technical advice from someone other than the salesman in the big-box store who was selling running shoes or toasters the previous week.

When I bought my first digital camera, I went to Brian’s store. I knew that I’d be paying a bit more than I would if I shopped online. I also knew I’d get something from Brian that I’d never find at, or anyplace else in cyberspace - solid, personal technical advice. Advice from a man who has been working with cameras since his teens, who has observed the transition from film to digital. Who has seen which brands and models of cameras come in for repairs most frequently, who could look at a problem picture and immediately tell you what had gone wrong and what could be done about it. Who knew which kinds of digital media were reliable and which were to be avoided. When my digital camera developed problems with its image sensor, it was Brian who informed me that the manufacturer was recalling that particular model and walked me through the recall process. When I wanted to have my old film camera fixed, he referred me to a local camera repair shop (itself a rare and dying breed).

Lots of chain stores, drugstores and supermarkets still have film-processing labs where you can get prints and enlargements made of digital or conventional photos. Trouble is, the self-service print-making kiosks all operate in idiot mode. They all are programmed to function as if everyone who uses them is a rank amateur who needs to have all of his or her work “enhanced”. This can be frustrating for good photographers who have a certain kind of image quality in mind and don’t want their pictures messed with. The teenaged minimum-wage-slaves behind the counter can’t override the idiot-mode programming and will not hesitate to tell you so. Brian knew how to make the print makers behave. I've had him make exhibition-grade prints for me. Obviously he cannot provide me with that service any longer.

Personal service in retailing is being superseded by “customer service” from a back-office halfway around the world whose employees often know barely enough English to read the printed scripts pertaining to the most common problems. If your particular problem isn’t listed on any of the scripts - lotsa luck. Point-of-sale technical assistance? Forget it. The way things are progressing, genuine technical advice will only be had by logging onto web forums such as No one bothers fixing digital gear when it fails not only because the mediocre build-quality of much of it leaves little “fix” in it but because a new and improved model is always one mouse click away, for less than the cost of the repair. We have finally arrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which it is always better to end than to mend.

Photo Creative Commons 2009 by PMG.
Non-comm, attrib, no derivs.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Can I run Second Life on it?

Just to show that personal computing is a lot older than we think, this ad from the January 1959 issue of Electronics Illustrated magazine offers for sale an analog computer with not much more power than a ten-dollar calculator but which was probably very advanced for its time.

Analog computers you’ll recall were the predecessors to the digital ones we now know and love (or hate with a passion!). Judging by the photo in the ad, the unit handles data using 5 or 6 metal-shell vacuum tubes. Yup, that’s right, tubes, just like the ones in your guitar amp or antique radio. Transistors at the time were just beginning gain mass-market acceptance, and it would be another 11 years before microprocessors as we now know them would make their appearance and put us on the road to personal computing, digital audio and video, and annoying cell phone ringtones.

Can’t find anything on the web about this particular model. The grid of black dots in the picture is probably an array of pin jacks for the patch cords which were used to program the thing, sort of like the way early synthesizers were programmed. The “display” was the analog meter which you see at the machine’s upper right hand corner. A far cry from the machine you’re viewing this blog on, certainly, but a necessary step in the evolution of the digital world we now inhabit.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What is morality? (What is reality?)

Photo Creative Commons 2009 by Pinkmoose.

I haven't got much to post this week. A few items in the can, but they're not yet ready for prime time.

In the meantime, that doesn't mean that I can't bring outrageous, maddening things to your attention. Under the heading of "religious dogma before common decency", I bring you a news report about a situation which sounds like something out of Monty Python.

Declaring that "life must always be protected", a senior Vatican cleric has defended the Catholic Church's decision to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old rape victim who had a life-saving abortion in Brazil. ...

... The controversy represents a PR nightmare for the Vatican. The unnamed girl's mother and doctors were excommunicated for agreeing to Wednesday's emergency abortion yet the Church has not taken formal steps against the [alleged rapist, the girl's] stepfather, who is in custody. ...

The entire story can be read here.

And speaking of Monty Python...

Friday, March 06, 2009

"This is Paul Harvey - Good Night!"

When I was a kid, I used to hear the late Paul Harvey every so often on the only top-40 AM rock station in town (there was only one at the time, but that changed with the advent of FM album-rock). I didn't recall him harping on right-wing topics, but I didn’t pay too much attention to politics back in the day. “Smooth” was not the word for Mr. Harvey. His voice had a jarring, jagged quality which grabbed you the way a car alarm would. Not to say that it was irritating, far from it. What kept me glued to the radio was not merely his selection of unusual, nay, weird human interest stories but his delivery. The man could manufacture the kind of suspense normally reserved for final baseball scores or election returns even when he was talking about something fairly trivial. To me he was not so much a commentator as a storyteller. He worked his magic on everything from breaking news stories to humorous anecdotes. A lot of the things I heard him say would have been right at home around a campfire. Turn off the TV, Paul Harvey’s in the house!

Mr. Harvey was of the old school of radio journalism. Although he was every inch a conservative, and while he socked it to the loyal opposition every chance he got, I remember him taking the high road, or at least a higher one than most right-wing talk show hosts do today. I simply cannot picture Paul Harvey telling a progressive “Shut up, you punk!”, as I’ve heard one such modern-day AM-radio garbage-mouth do. On one of Kermit Schafer's "Bloopers" albums, there's a recording of him reading a particularly risible human-interest story, then totally cracking up on-mic, and never recovering. Can you even imagine Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter or Michael Savage doing that?