Saturday, 31 May 2014

Review: Wetzlar Eisenmarkt by Oskar Barnack (1913)

Wetzlar Eisenmarkt by Oskar Barnack (1913)
Wetzlar Eisenmarkt by Oskar Barnack (1913)
This image is underwhelming*, to say the least. Sharpness and definition is non-existent and the composition is lacking any real poise. If it weren't for the passage of time rendering individuals' clothing an historical curiosity, there would be nothing of note in this image. Additionally, close-up analysis demonstrates too slow a shutter speed was used to freeze motion to any great effect.

Wetzlar Eisenmarkt by Oskar Barnack (1913)
Blurred motion on the gentleman's hand
The gentleman on the right's hand is blurred mid-motion. Perhaps the photographer would do better selecting a higher ISO next time to compensate.

Additionally, the image is exposed partly into the sprocket hole area at the bottom of the image. The photographer would do well to get his camera serviced before shooting images of vital importance.

Sharpness is an issue throughout the image and may be due to sub-standard equipment keeping.
All in all, this is an underwhelming image and the photographer would do well to get both his equipment checked and his compositional skill.

Image exposed on to the sprocket hole area

*This is designed as poorly-written satire. The image, is of course, one of the most well-known and important photographs in history: one of the first images capture by Oskar Barnack with his Ur-Leica which would become the basis for Leitz's domination of small-format photography and all future Leica cameras for the first half of the 20th century. 

Monday, 19 May 2014

"Crisis"


The Abbott government's first budget is a shambolic mess of contradictions and half-measures. Despite what the News Corp prognosticators might say, there is no overarching narrative of cuts and savings for the national good, just a number of cruel an incogruous measures that do nothing to address the real structural problems in the nation's fiscal position.

A lot of people a lot smarter than I am have put forward their analysis of the budget. I'd recommend looking here, here or here for some good pieces. But there are a couple of points I'd like to add.

On the massive cuts to state funding for education and health: as many have mentioned, this is obviously a ploy to get the states to beg for an increase in the rate of the GST. Abbott will pretend to act only if the states "make a case" for an increase, but now it's almost certain to be an election issue in 2016.

The hypocrisy, though, is breathtaking. While self-proclaimed "Infrastructure Prime Minister" Abbott trumpeted the "new" (little of which is actually new) roads spending in the budget, Joe Hockey cut billions from promised health and education funding to the states, saying that it wasn't the Commonwealth's job to run schools or hospitals.

Hmm, the Commonwealth can pick and choose which parts of state expenditure it wants to contribute to. Wow. Liberals do good Federalism well. Good luck budgeting for the future, states and territories.

Second, there is the budget "crisis" the Liberals have been brewing up since 2010. Abbott has run his throat sore arguing Australia is "living beyond our means," blaming Labor for everything from the "debt" to the bad weather. This furphy of a debt argument now occupies much of the central economic narrative of this government. Too bad for them, it's largely not true.

While there is certainly an issue for any budget that runs at a sustained deficit, Australia's problem is largely one on the revenue side (i.e. taxes raised by government and concessions paid by government) rather than spending (i.e. health, hospitals, welfare, defence etc).

Duplicitously, Abbott has picked and chosen his "crises", arguing that while his confected federal budget crisis is real, the states are feigning an "emergency" on the massive health and education cuts. "...we've got three years," to come to an arrangement, Abbott reassured the states, but while the PM is busy with crisis envy in the federal sphere, the states are perfectly right to be afraid.

They have virtually no way of adjusting their revenues to meet the shortfall in federal funding. They have no income tax to levy, no GST to increase. All they can really do is increase vehicle registration fees, speeding fines and take a bit more from the pokies. And with elections due for three states in the next eight months, none will be popular.

This budget looks as if it will be very unpopular in the wider community. What we know from past experience is that voters are willing to accept tough decisions if they are explained clearly and demonstrated to be in the national interest. What the electorate doesn't appreciate is duplicity and radical changes. Abbott would do well to heed this lesson both from his conservative political mentor and Labor predecessors.

(I'll post separately on the egregious waste of money that is the quarter of a billion dollar school chaplaincy programme - it needs space of its own.)

Vox populi vox opinionem pollis...


The voters have spoken. Or at least the pollsters have gathered public opinion that claims to be reflective and representative of the general population.

No one likes the Abbott government's first budget. Probably not even Abbott. Nielsen has a majority of voters, for the first time since these particular budget questions were asked in 1996, believing this budget is unfair (63%). 

Most interesting is the shift in opinion on the previous Labor government's "toxic" taxes. A majority now oppose the abolition of the mining tax (56%) and opposition to the abolition of the carbon tax has softened. 

Why? Because compared to Abbott's pre-election "no new taxes" and "no cuts" rhetoric, both the carbon tax and the mining tax did appear to be severe economic burdens. But having seen Abbott's economic vision for Australia, voters have realised that two taxes targeted towards the big end of town are preferable than massive cuts to health, education and those most vulnerable in the community. 

But perhaps Abbott's playing the long game. The inevitable future "discussion" of increasing the GST has begun. Resistance to increasing or broadening the GST has decreased, perhaps indicating what the electorate is willing to tolerate as revenue measures. It seems voters would rather see wholesale changes to the GST than those most vulnerable in the community left to the whims of the market. There's hope for the country yet...

Whether this budget proves to be "catastrophic", time will tell. What is clear - after two terms of the previous Labor government and 8 months of the Liberals - are three things:
  1. Abbott has (dangerously) vindicated Kevin Rudd's pre-election "cuts, cuts, cuts and more cuts" rhetoric. 
  2. Labor's next election campaign has been gift-wrapped. 
  3. The electorate doesn't mind pragmatism or tough decisions, but they must be clearly explained and justified. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

A few photographs

One of my favourite photography writers (and photographer) Blake Andrews recently published a post philosophising on popularity of content online - why some (most!) content sinks but some swims...and swims and swims and swims. You know, the big spike in page visits due to a particularly popular post. The spike some bloggers and Tumblrers crave:
Popularity! I've joined the cool kids temporarily. Now if only I could figure out what I've done. I've mixed the formula but with no recipe, and I can't repeat it. In a few days the buzz will die and the hump will pass left, leaving a curve something like this. (read the rest of his post)
The humble images below are an example of that effect - the top one keeps on getting "liked" and "reposted". Is it any marker or quality? Nope. The other two I also like, but they have not reached the same number of  "likes" or "reposts". Why? Meh. Who cares.

I realise I'm not exactly in the stratospheric of interweb popularity (and I write this blog mainly for the gratification of hearing my mechanical keyboard clatter), but it does raise an interesting point. Is popularity a decent measure of anything? Why is it that so many artists, musicians, writers etc complain their most popular or well known work is far from their best? 

Would (insert famous pre-internet artist/celebrity here) have been a success today? What happens if the next Beatles were out there right now but decided against using YouTube? Does that mean Justin Bieber has subsumed the next Beatles? Or is this sophomoric and ultimately unknowable line of questioning like a 1960s op-ed writer asking "would the Beatles have been a success if they had decided against using electricity?". Perhaps. Maybe.

Melbourne Street by Richard McKenzie, Leica M4 Summicron-M 50mm Dual Range Fujifilm Velvia 50


Parliament Station by Richard McKenzie, Leica M4 Summicron-M 50mm Dual Range Fujifilm Velvia 50


Erstwhile Camera House by Richard McKenzie, Leica M4 Summicron-M 35mm Agfa Vista 400

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Myopia


I was waiting at Munich airport for my flight back home with a few Euro burning a hole in my pocket. It was early 2012 and I had just caught up on the news that Kevin Rudd had resigned as Foreign Minister, precipitating his first and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to return to the leadership of the Labor Party.

While the politics student in me found it all terribly exciting, I wasn't looking forward to leaving the civilisation and culture of wintry Europe and returning home to the oppressive summer heat of 'Straya (South Bali...or is Bali Far (Far) North West Queensland?).

With time to kill, I wandered into one of the generously-stocked news shops, yearning for Lucky Strikes and some reading material (in that order). There is nothing like the dual cravings of nicotine and intellectual sustenance. It's a craving only satisfied in Europe and best fulfilled at the airport or train station. Being a conceited international traveller, I was drawn to the closest issue of the Monocle through my own inflated sense of worth.

But there was more to it than snobbery. In front of me, in black, white and yellow was Issue 51 of Monocle Magazine with the cover stories "I will call Australia home: A superpower in the South Pacific", and "Aussie Rules". How could I, a reluctant Australian cum conceited international traveller and airport lounge hanger, not purchase a Monocle that put my birth country on the cover?

The answer of course is that I could not not purchase one. Or cigarettes. And besides, there is nothing an Australian loves more than to read the opinion pieces of foreign journalists writing about Australia, quoting Australians, refracted through the prism of international editors, beamed back to us via television or print.

I bought my Monocle and made haste for the New York terrace-inspired indoor smoking lounge (sponsored by British American Tobacco). The shit they still do in Europe. As the ventilation system hummed and hazy, recycled air made its way around the idealised wallpaper skyline of New York, I read with great interest what those lords of high culture at the Monocle had to say about my favourite arse end of the earth.

Look! There was an interview with "Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd" who explained how it came to pass that he got dumped as Prime Minister (which is sort of like a President or something), but was a "happy little Vegemite" as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Wow. What a difference a day made.

There was discussion about Melbourne's coffee and Sydney's harbour (don't mention the war), but most intriguing was the cover story about the "superpower in the South Pacific". I read not because I desired a mid-tier nuclear deterrent for Australia, but how the Monocle would approach the notion of a laid-back, antipodean "superpower".

The article made the point that most of Australia's diplomatic clout is soft power; that the most internationally-recognised Australian ambassadors were its entertainers and sports stars. It discussed how Australia should re-shape its Department of Foreign Affairs to re-focus its soft power to help it act, as is so frequently said, as a "creative middle power". Forget military power, spread democratic values and good old-fashioned hard rock instead. Music to my ears.

Soft power is, of course, incredibly important in diplomacy. It can basically be defined as making someone do something they don't want to do without the threat of force. Britain and Germany have been practising it for decades, China a more recent addition, spending millions building infrastructure in Africa.

But what stuck in my mind was the article's views on the Australia Network. Instead of discussing the probity of the Australia Network tender (as was the style at the time), the Monocle thought it outrageous that the government would even contemplate putting the international broadcaster into private hands.

A broadcaster such as the Australia Network is, for many of our regional neighbours, the voice of Australia, whether it's through rebroadcasts of Home and Away and Blue Heelers, or via the ABC's first-rate news and current affairs. The network was right at the core of the soft power play that would see Australia's influence in the region rise not through military force, but through mutual co-operation and understanding.

Now, to a foreign policy realists and neorealists, all this might sound like a bit of fluff. But to a country like Australia with a small population and limited military resources, it is one of the most practical ways to achieve a place at the table in our region. Countries around the world expend a lot of time, money and effort exercising soft power in their own regions and beyond.

Unfortunately, while other countries have been increasing their spending on "soft" diplomatic issues, Australia has been busy insulating itself from the outside world closing foreign posts, turning boats around, spying on our neighbours and thumbing our noses at the international community.

The Committee of Audit's recommendation to shut down the Australia Network is yet another blow to Australian regional relations at a time when we should be advancing, not retreating from the region. Our neighbours already view us with suspicion and skepticism, what kind of signal is turning off Australia's transmitters into Asia supposed to send? Well, nothing. Nothing but static.

It seems odd that this government finds millions of dollars to spend on international advertising campaigns designed to frighten people from getting on boats and coming to Australia, but can't be arsed spending a few measly bucks to send a positive message of Australia to our regional neighbours. Then again, this all might just be part of the plan to make Australia look as unfriendly and unwelcoming as possible for those who might attempt that "perilous" journey across the seas we sometimes sing of in the second verse of our national anthem. Perhaps the government should just start broadcasting episodes of Game of Thrones or Hannibal into Asia and call them "Australian reality TV". 

It is understood some in the government think the Australia Network's AM, FM and television broadcasts can be replaced with increased streaming of ABC News 24. This is impossible both in theory and practice. For one, much of the material the ABC re-broadcasts from BBC and Al Jazeera is licences for Australian broadcast only - the costs of expanding that licence would surely conflict with the Abbott government's desire to cut until bled dry.

Secondly, if anyone in the government had actually visited our regional neighbours, they would know that in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, for instance, there is only one radio and a supply of Size D batteries between a village of 40 or 50 people. This is their link to the outside world short of hiking four hours to the nearest regional centre. There is no electricity and there sure as hell isn't any internet.

Thankfully the horror of an Abbott government was unknown to me, sitting in the smoking lounge of Munich airport in 2012. But with the Labor Party then continuing its exercise in navel gazing, it's hardly surprising we find ourselves with a government intent on making issues of humanity and conscience into crises to be exploited for electoral gain. Or that we have a government myopically committed to cutting, cutting and cutting some more, cost to the nation's heart and soul be damned. Or that we have a government completely disinterested in the world around it, except where trade deals can be done or administration of human dignity offshored to the lowest bidder.

Comparing today's Australia to the faux New York rooftop-inspired smoking lounge sponsored by British American Tobacco, I think it's pretty clear which one has less of a stench about it.