Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Photo of the Year


Now comes that time of year when those who have been lacking in probity and/or accomplishment promise to make a concerted effort not to lack probity and/or accomplishment at the arbitrary ticking over of a man-made construct, only to revert to lacking probity and/or accomplishment after the passage of a few man-made hours.

2012 could be made into 2013 with the clever stroke of a pen; 2014 holds no such joys for scribblers.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Handy People I


Images from an ongoing project. See more at Handy People.

Photographs of people almost unknowingly and subconsciously using their mobile phones on the street will at some point be entirely unremarkable. Until that day, here are a few images from the everyday experience.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?

Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst,1622

It's time to think about the important things in life, we're told. Pause, take solace, think about the true meaning of Christmas. 

The story goes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea.

There exists little evidence for this. 

Let us think about that for a moment. The foundation theology of a religion that has dominated the minds and bodies of billions of people for two millennia, abused, persecuted and murdered millions more in the name of "god" and even to this day seeks to influence secular political debate has NO basis in reality. 

The story we tell today through television specials and corporate-sponsored caroling events is actually an amalgam of the interesting bits present in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The other gospels see fit to ignore something as seemingly important and notable as the miraculous virgin birth of their lord and saviour. 

As historical records, the accounts of Matthew (probably not written by Matthew) and Luke (probably not written by Luke) are virtually useless. They were written (probably) by men up to eight decades after the fact about an event none was present at. The birth of Jesus was likely trumped up for theological reasons to ensure the pretty impressive adult Jesus could be retconned as the messiah. 

In a answer to the question proffered in the article title, YES, there may as well have been more than one lobster present. There exists no evidence to the contrary, therefore there were at least two lobsters present.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

I am an art (and so can you)

Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn't

You might have seen this facile semi-graphical maxim kicking around on everything from tea towels to Facebook covers +1 likes from me to Limited Edition Giclée Fine Art Prints® available in the gift shop (visit our Etsy pop-up store).

The above equation (which I've re-created using a bespoke digital imaging process) implies the act of creating art is simply in the doing. It implies merit (I could do that, therefore I will do that ∴ art). It also implies modern art is nothing more than doing a simple thing someone else hasn't already done, or perhaps taking something existing and labelling it "art".

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Holden Closure Blamed on Dodgy Accounting

General Motors Holden is set to close its Australian car production arm after dramatically underestimating the number of cars it had sold.

It is understood Holden executives used a method that counted vehicle production and sales only once cars were on the road. It is believed trained car counters stood on major freeway overpasses tallying the number of Holden badges they saw. This method is not used anywhere else in the automotive world with Holden accounting officer Marcus Carmaker describing this method as a "uniquely Australian innovation".

This alleged disparity between the number of cars actually produced and sold and the number of cars recorded sold is believed to have occurred when Holden's actuaries did not include Commodores that had had their Holden badges removed and replaced with Chevrolet ones.

"We're very embarrassed that our biggest fans have actually killed Holden in Australia," Mr. Carmaker said. But even with the forecast 2017 plant closure Mr Carmaker remains upbeat, "I plan on buying up every surplus Holden badge in existence so I can rebadge the 2018 Chevrolet Impala as a Holden."

Monday, 16 December 2013

Think Generously This Christmas

A Salvation Army band in full swing - http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1484865
As you wander around the streets of any city over the next week or so, you are likely to hear the dulcet (or otherwise) tones of the brass band or singular wind instrument pumping out the old Christmas standards. They will often be accompanied by a tin rattler imploring you to give generously this season. But before you drop that gold, silver or paper legal tender in their tins, have a think about what you're doing.

The most prominent of these en-brassened Christmas groups is the Salvation Army. When hiding behind the veneer of solemn traditional carols and even some post-1907 foot-tapping standards, those Salvos can appear positively perky. Besides, they "do good" in the community and stuff. Helping the homeless and addicts and telling people they can't smoke. Where's the harm in that? It's easy to forget that behind the Christmas cheer is a conservative evangelical church that demands absolute obedience from its members and arguably has many of the hallmarks of a cult.

The rigid military hierarchy seeks to control the thoughts and actions of its "soliders", with acceptance of god and buddy Jesus the only solutions to any of life's infinitely complex problems. You won't be surprised to read the Army officially holds an ultra-conservative outlook on the usual issues such as gay marriage, premarital sex, and abortion. As usual with most "pro-family" organisations, their stance on homosexuality is confused and unconvincing.

After a fracas on Melbourne's Joy FM, where Major Andrew Crabe may or may not have agreed with gays being put to death (whether he did or not is immaterial; his lack of a full and explicit condemnation of the mere suggestion says a lot about "good" Christian folk), the Army's not quite sure what to say.

They have been hard at work trying to reconcile their dogged and almost literal belief in the scripture with the existence of gay people. There isn't even a "positional statement" on homosexuality from the Southern Territory branch of the Army, which is telling. They are apparently having a "healthy and vigorous" debate over how they deal with sexuality that doesn't conform to their ancient and irrelevant text. When finally and vigorously released, I gather it won't be a missionary position.

But of course, you'll say, the Salvation Army does so much "good". Well, of course they do. They provide recovery services for alcoholics and drug addicts, where victims are evangelised at, prostheletysed to and bible-bashed until free of their wicked human sins as part of the rather Orwellian sounding "12-steps" programme (the link's from NZ).

The Salvos regularly rally against evidence-based, socially progressive reforms such as safe injecting rooms, infecting the secular world with their all-singing, no-dancing form of Bible-bashing evangelism. They also ran children's homes where hundreds of wards are known to have been abused, with many other undocumented cases likely. To the Salvation Army's credit, they have apologised unreservedly, but why any right-minded person should think an unreserved apology (accompanied by financial compensation) is something we should congratulate these organisations for, I'll never know (still waiting, Pell).

Of course I would be accused of cherry picking the worst behaviours of these organisations if I didn't mention the extensive other "good" work done by the Salvos, from supporting the homeless to the help offered to victims of drug and alcohol abuse. Their work in these areas is mostly good, although one must question how a good "Soldier" balances their requirement to spread their faith with the help they claim they provide to anyone, regardless of religious or sexual orientation. But this is the friendly face of the Salvos, the seemingly non-evangelical, tuba-blowing tin rattlers who we see this time of year. Why not give them a few bucks for this "good" work, you might say. I'd ask you this: why support an organisation with such extensive ideological and prejudicial baggage when you can just donate to the Smith Family, OXFAM, UNICEF or Médecins Sans Frontières who "do good" for the sake of doing good?

You might agree with the conservative evangelical ethos of the Salvos. If you do, you probably aren't reading this. Go forth and do whatever conservative religious types do - scorning others I think is your main thing. But I have a feeling that if you've read this far and stumbled upon my little web log, you probably don't agree with the Salvo's underlying values. So this Christmas, think a little and put your charity dollars somewhere more in-keeping with your own beliefs and values.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Film Review: Lomography Lady Grey 400


It is my usual form to pour scorn over everything Lomographic, from the brand's retrograde embrace of aberrations to their questionable business ethics. As an analogue photographer, what cannot be criticised is Lomography's unswerving commitment to film. Even if they are predominantly responsible for the inextricable conflation of analogue and lo-fi.

Take it to T-Max
With all this in mind, it was with some trepidation I purchased a three pack of Lomography Lady Grey 400 35mm, having found myself short of my usual T-Max 400. Local film prices (even for those with connections) in Australia just don't make it worth one's while to purchase single Kodak or Fujifilm rolls.

So I examined the Lady Grey box: "Made in USA". Promising. A further bout of googling later brought me to the conclusion that it must be Kodak Tri-X or T-Max, assuming 3M hadn't started up production of film again.

Opening the film box to load up my Leica M4, I noticed the familiar grey cap on the container usually seen on Kodak films. As I took off the Leica's baseplate and fed the film to the takeup spool, I recognised the Kodak purple anti-halation dye layer on film base as it exited past the metolius. I would shoot as if T-Max until end results or Internet told me otherwise.

Lady Grey's Lover
After processing the film (T-MAX RS), the first thing I noticed were the edge markings. Although its sole identification was "B&W 400", the typeface and numbering all revealed itself to be Kodak, without needing Big Yellow's name to appear anywhere. It's the emulsional equivalent of a Toyota Lexcen to a VN Commodore.



Looking at the results, it's easy to fall in love with Lady Grey. Shot with my Leica M4 and Summicron-M 35mm Version 4, there is an undeniable beauty to the film. Tone, grain and contrast, all of it is spot on (exposure errors excepted!). Even then, like all good modern Kodak B&W films, its wide exposure latitude means it's very forgiving of user error.

Kodak Alaris
But to be content with the results of Lady Grey is is to be content with the results of Kodak T-Max 400. While Lomography deserves credit for their ongoing commitment to film, it is the long-term viability of Kodak (now Kodak Alaris) we should be hopeful for.

The recent "open letter" from Kodak Alaris to Lomography - less than the "partnership" some online news pages reported - might be a step in the right direction, although in reality I suspect the letter was little more than a nice PR gesture from Kodak Alaris.
As IMPOSSIBLE has demonstrated, once the massive infrastructure and technical wherewithal required to make film from scratch is gone, it is very difficult to revive production in anywhere near the quantities (and qualities) desired.

While Lady Grey is a stunning film, it is Kodak T-Max 400 that is the real winner. It is indeed a shame that a roll of 135/36 Kodak T-Max 400 retails Australia for around $13, whereas in the United States it can be had for as little as $4.95. A 3pk of Lady Grey, on the other hand, will set you back around $23 locally (around $7.67 per roll).




Friday, 6 December 2013

Remembrance


Many words will be written by those eminently more qualified than I over the coming days, months and years, but I thought it would be appropriate to just jot a few notes down.

Nelson Mandela was a moral hero almost beyond equal in the 20th and 21st centuries, enduring greater pain and injustice than most of us will know in our lives.

Labelled a "terrorist" by those great self-appointed defenders of "freedom" Margaret Thatcher, John Howard and Dick Cheney, Mandela lost 27 years of his life on a miserable rock off the coast of Cape Town (anyone who looks to the recent political right for champions of human rights will be sorely disappointed, bar one apostate).

While comparisons between Mandela and people like Gandhi will likely be made, these are largely offensive. Where Mandela brought a nation torn apart for decades together, the absurdly devout Gandhi helped break one apart, all the while wanting to throw India back to some medieval agrarian spinning wheel-powered state. Mandela's conciliatory actions throughout not only his presidency but his life generally speak to a great moral courage and power that few throughout history have possessed. His legacy should outshine many of those who claim a place in the pantheon of peacemakers.

Mandela's legacy will be no doubt debated for decades to come, but I can be certain that we need more of his kind in our world.


Monday, 2 December 2013

Frame #313

Figure 1: The inconsistent shadows from Lunar Rover indicate a forgery of the Zapruder Film, proving once and for all that Buzz Aldrin is a lizard*.
The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has brought more than the usual cavalcade of television specials and docudramas, each promising "never before seen" footage and claiming "all new" evidence that will solve crime once and for all. One would be forgiven for thinking investigators have been keeping such evidence hidden, waiting for this milestone anniversary to roll around.

But the vast majority of this "new" evidence is based on variations or re-statements of  theories that have been around since 12:31pm CST on the 22nd November, 1963. It's just that now they feature high-definition frame-by-frame digitally remastered state-of-the-art computer animation to "prove" their particular contentions. Despite the existence of numerable photographic and documentary sources, three major government investigations and the release of most of the classified documents pertaining to Kennedy's assassination, the culture of conspiracy that has grown up around the assassination is one that has held the public imagination for five decades.

Innumerable theories and variations on theories have since been postured, first in grimy civic halls with bootleg copies of the Zapruder film. Later moving onto fax modems across the newsgroups of the burgeoning World Wide Web and today favouring 720p YouTube uploads complete with poorly-recorded narration, captions and arrows indicating what the author wants the viewer to see. 

Not the Mel Gibson film

There is an enduring popular appeal to a good conspiracy theory. Their appeal partly lies in their clear division of the world into good and evil. Conspiracy thinking tends to feature a group or groups acting in secret to some nefarious end. As Michael Barkun puts it in A Culture of Conspiracy (2007), a conspiracist worldview "implies a universe governed by design rather than randomness" (p.3).

To some, this is a comforting idea similar to belief in an omniscient god. Horrible acts of violence, the infirmity of the human condition and indiscriminate natural disasters can all be explained away as part of some "greater plan" or, in the case of conspiracy world-view, treated as parts of a master plan by a global cabal of evil-doers. Conspiracy theorists view themselves as possessors of a truth that only they know and make it their lives' mission to get this truth out.

It's interesting to note how many conspiracy proponents of the Kennedy assassination crop up writing about also about the moon landings and more recently September 11, 2001, virtually in the same breath. To them, such massive events are so vast and so intricate that the only reasonable explanation for them involves coercion, deceit and conspiracy. 

The enormity of the events in Dallas on November 22nd 1963 is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. It is easy to question how one loner named Lee Harvey Oswald could alter the course of history. If the President of the United States isn't safe, who is?


Dallas

The conspiracy theories began to circulate almost as soon as President Kennedy was announced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital and on face value, it's little wonder. The doctors who attended to Kennedy in what must have been a blood-soaked frenzy of confusion gave contradictory assessments on what were entry and exit wounds; Kennedy's body was rushed out of Dallas aboard Air Force One before an autopsy could be performed as per Texas state law; Oswald claimed he was "just a patsy", before being gunned down on live television, not to mention the enigmatic character of Oswald's assassin, Jack Ruby...and these were only in the first three days...

The "official" story, as put forward by the Warren Commission did little to dispel conspiracy theories and its little wonder why. Many of the Commission's members did not want to be on the panel, most of the hearings were held in closed (but not secret) sessions and there was little unanimity on the Commission's conclusion of a "lone nut" assassinating the President of the United States. Simply put, its final report was a compromise to please its members, but not all agreed on the conclusions.

After the release of the Warren Commission's Final Report, a group of assassination "buffs" combed the official record for discrepancies and incongruities. In the main, these buffs were self-taught researchers from across the professional spectrum who felt aggrieved by the assassination of their president. Their intent and their goal was an admirable one - to get to the bottom of this very public execution in Dealey Plaza where they felt the official commission had failed. Herein lies another conspiratorial appeal: what could be more alluring than fighting conventional wisdom and established facts by offering a truth only you possess? However, criticism of the commission was not confined to "buffs", the issue of belief in a conspiracy divided the mainstream political left in America for many years to come.

The tumultuous events of the "decade of shocks" from 1963 to Watergate seemed to many to prove the existence of a vast conspiracy involving the government, CIA, FBI, the mafia and/or the military-industrial complex. In the wash-up from Watergate, what people had suspected about the intelligence community's involvement in secret activities domestically and overseas became established fact. With a White House cover-up and history of CIA-backed coups d'état revealed, was it really much of a stretch to imagine a conspiracy to kill the President? The paranoid style of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s suggested not.
Oft-alleged conspirator Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One
"That's what they want you to think"

While there aren't enough column pixels in the world (or pixel hours) to go into detail about each and every conspiracy theory pertaining to Kennedy, most involve an ambiguous mass of shadowy organisations, be it CIA, FBI, Secret Service, US Military or the Mafia. Motives vary from revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, through to the prevention of Kennedy revealing hidden UFO secrets.

The problem (well, a major one anyway) is that conspiracists regard these implicated organisations as monolithic entities where history has shown them to be anything but. The lack of cooperation between the CIA and FBI has placed US national security at risk on more than one occasion. If there was a conspiracy to be found, I'm more than confident that a Deep Throat-esque character would have come forward to reveal the true Kennedy assassins.

The other major problem with the conspiracy world-view is that it is essential unfasifiable. If anyone were to present uncontrovertible evidence of Lee Harvey Oswald firing three bullets from a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in 6.3 or 7.1 or 8.3 seconds from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository - some hitherto unknown film or photograph - it would likely be disregarded by conspiracy theorists as a forgery or fake - the work of the government. To a conspiracy theorist, contrary evidence proves their argument!

Similarly, it's interesting to note how the initial eyewitness statements and media reports form the basis of many conspiracy theories, not only in the context of the Kennedy assassination, but from September 11 also. Barkun calls this "superseded knowledge" (p.27): claims made in the heat of the moment to fill air time or to meet deadlines that have since been demonstrated to be false, yet regarded as fact by conspiracy theorists. Later retractions of these initial reports or eyewitness accounts are seen as evidence of witnesses being "gotten to" by authorities, usually the shadowy forces of the FBI, CIA or the nebulous military-industrial complex. By the way, the majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots and no, the mafia didn't get to them.

Even the Rosetta Stone of the assassination, the 8mm Kodakchrome Zapruder film is not without its critics. Some claim frames 314 and 315 show Kennedy's head snapping back and to the left as a result of a shot from the front. People who know more than me about ballistics have put forward their ideas on why Kennedy's motions are consistent with a shot from behind. Others claim alteration or deletion of frames, or even outright forgery of the entire film using complex special effects, travelling mattes and animation (must have been the same methods developed for Kubrick to fake the moon landings).

The problem with much of these incompatible theories is that if the film is altered or forged, isn't it easier to have no film at all? If a giant conspiracy made use of the most advanced photographic effects techniques to produce a fake or altered film, why produce a film that, at first glance, doesn't support official version of events? Why not have Kennedy's head moving forward from a shot from behind as logic (and the official story) dictate? Because the evidence is real and sometimes things do not occur as we expect them to.

Each of the films and photographs available from Dealey Plaza correspond to each other. As the original conspiracy "buff" Josiah Thompson has said, the films and photographs from the day are self-verifying. Alteration or fabrication of one would mean the same for all. Then it becomes a question of who fabricated the photographic evidence? A conspiracy is only as good as its conspirators and it is difficult to imagine a) a conspiracy so vast as to completely fabricate the photographic record of a particular event; and b) that the people employed (who would have been the best in the business) could keep their collective mouths shut for five decades.

This is where some conspiracy believers should employ some form of Occam's Razor, where the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected until real evidence proves otherwise. There are simply too many assumptions to make with most conspiracy theories pertaining to Kennedy's assassination. While some theories - such as a second shooter - are entirely plausible, others jump the shark as it were. The argument of a complete photographic fabrication is one of those. Unless of course the Men in Black used their neuralisers on the Dealey Plaza crowd, stole all their cameras and edited their own photos...

The Other Z

The issue for conspiracy theorists is from time to time, uncontrovertible evidence supporting the "official" story does appear. In the late 1990s, a retired Kodak engineer Roland Zavada led a team of technical experts on an analysis of the camera original Zapruder film and other photographic records. Uh-oh: experts.

Zavada is the world's foremost expert on 8mm Kodachrome film, having played a key role developing Kodachrome II, Ektachrome Commercial and Kodachrome Super 8 film for Kodak. Zavada and his team spent a long, long time analysing the Zapruder camera original and Zapruder's Bell and Howell 8mm camera. He concluded, in a lengthy report, that the anomalies present in the film are due to camera characteristics. He could find no evidence of alteration to the film.

Evidence, shmevidence. Naturally this exhaustive report by Zavada was deemed rubbish by many in the conspiracy community and herein lies the rub - the unfalsifiable nature of conspiracy theories. There is no level of evidence possible to disprove a conspiracy theory. Any evidence offered will be rejected in kind. Zavada now wishes he never took on the task of analysing the film as his methods and honesty have been endlessly questioned by people like Jack White, whose main qualification is a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When White was asked if there was any level of proof that would alter his belief that the moon landing was faked, he replied that since he believed the landings were faked, any evidence in support of a genuine landing must also have been faked. Down, down and further down the rabbit hole we go...

Beyond Zapruder

If there's a fault with Zapruder's shocking 26 second 8mm film, it's that it is the sole means through which many of us understand this brutal public execution of the most powerful man in the world. As detached viewers, the whole thing has become a sort of carnival attraction from the past, mediated and distorted by popular fiction, pseudo non-fiction and feature films.

What is forgotten is the utter panic that must have gripped both the eyewitnesses and Presidential staff on that day of unprecedented mayhem. How the Presidential detail must not known was whether the killing was an isolated incident or the beginning of something bigger, like an act of war. These were unchartered waters for the Secret Service and the American nation - the rush to ensure the security of LBJ as Jacqueline Kennedy, Kenny O'Donnell and a handful of key Kennedy staffers drove the body of the slain president to an unceremonious arrival at Air Force One.  In many ways, the "official" story is far more interesting than any story that can be concocted. The "what-ifs" concerned boggle the mind - if the weather had been inclement, the plexiglass "bubble" might have found its place on top of the limousine; if the FBI had arrest Oswald for threatening to blow up the Dallas office, he might not have been able to pull the trigger; on and on it goes.

Even with the passage of time, it's unlikely the various theories of what occurred on that day will lose their appeal. Neither will we ever likely know definitively exactly what went down in Dallas that day. The lack of a consistent and precise "official" narrative makes it difficult to discount a conspiracy, but little hard evidence has been produced to support any of the other alternate versions of event. As a former acolyte of every conspiracy theory under the sun, I've come to realise most are based on nothing but the same tired - if creative - ideas. As appealing and schmick as Oliver Stone's JFK is, or as ardent as conspiracy believers are, they are mainly based on supposition, misplaced assumption and conjecture.

As a university lecturer of mine always said if you ever have to choose between and conspiracy and a fuck-up, choose the fuck-up every time. In the case of this seismic event, I think the same can be said until Area 51 reveals its secrets...


*Yes, I know this is a composite. Yes, I know that the lunar image is from Apollo 15 and therefore it is not Buzz Aldrin in the image, rather it is Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who died in mysterious circumstances in a jet fighter crash in 1959, after a failed sub-orbital attempt, and was subsequently sent on a suicide mission to the moon and survived and became American astronaut James Irwin.