Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Writing Feedback to Apple


Apple of Cupertino, California have a wonderful feedback portal I have been known to frequent/abuse. Particularly with recent software and hardware releases that have made my mind explode with how obtuse they are, like being on 6-figure salaries automatically makes you unable to understand the basics of UX and UI design.

Apple claims that they "read all feedback carefully", but "cannot respond to the comments you submit". Which is kind of strange considering they ask for an email address...anywhom. I've had enough of iTunes 12.

iTunes used to be one of the preeminent music managers out there, a pleasant minimalist solution among a market dominated by graphical gunk like Sonique and Winamp. Now, however, with the inclusion of the iTunes Store, Apple Music, Podcasts, Music, eBooks and other associated crap no one ever uses, it has become a bloated, engorged, horribly-designed piece of shit mandatory for the Apple ecosystem. I would have done away with it long ago if it weren't for the the iPhone and iPad. So I decided to voice my opinion in the hope Apple will "read all feedback carefully":

Subject: Make iTunes 13 less terrible

iTunes 12 is terrible. It forgoes any logic and rationality that used to be a hallmark of Apple software and hardware. Bring back the sidebar for starters. Separate Apple Music (assuming there are still paying subscribers) and look to Spotify and Netflix for how to do a streaming media application properly. There is a lot else that is terrible, but if you could do this ONE thing, it would go about 12% of the way to making iTunes not suck. Please, please, PLEASE make iTunes automatically remember the last thing it was you were doing or playing or whatever and open from there. Please. Every other application – from Safari to Microsoft Word 2011 to VLC – is capable of this. Please make iTunes do this. It's really not that freaking hard. Don't tell me I can select individual tunes and go "reme

At this point, I had run out of characters. Disappointing to be sure. For the benefit of you lucky How To Democracy readers, I'll complete what I was going to say:

...mber playback position". That is a joke. An absurd joke. Normal media players can do it without changing every. single. individual. track. Why can't iTunes? iTunes used to be cool; it used to be a "killer app". It is now an app that should be killed. [see what I did there?] I hope for Apple's sake, iTunes can be unstuffed, because at the moment it stands for everything that is wrong with a once great company.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: Return of the Movie Title

Star Wars: The Force Awakens banner image based on the theatrical poster – the first time photography has been used for a main theatrical release poster of a Star Wars film, and the first time I can recall a banner configuration being widely distributed because internet.

If you were on the internet today, you may have noticed the release of the (probably) final trailer for the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga. This coincided with the worldwide release of pre-release cinema tickets that caused many a ticket sales server across the globe to crash (I'm looking at you, IMAX Melbourne!!). Although advanced bookings are nothing new for popular films, this is the first instance I can recall it occurring on a global scale. No mean feat.

The trailer was impressive, most impressive. Lifetime Star Wars fans like me no doubt got a little emotional with the whole thing. The thought and precision that goes into trailer creation to elicit responses in an almost Pavlovian manner is actually quite terrifying. But what intrigues me the most is how the episodic titling of the prequel Star Wars films has been eschewed in favour of an actual film name. Except for occasional mentions in the press and among fans, almost nobody associated with the new film has referred to it as "Episode VII". It is The Force Awakens. This is a very good thing.

The godawful prequel trilogy with their godawful subtitles (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) were almost always referred to by their episodic titles, probably in part because their official names were better suited to a 1950s B movie or Scooby Doo episode than a multi-billion dollar blockbuster. This generic naming essentially robbed the prequels of their individual identities (as if they didn't have enough creative handicaps to overcome), unlike the three original films which are almost never referred to by their retroactive episodic titles. 

The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, is an incredibly powerful title that remains a pop culture staple and demonstrates that sequels don't need need to be named [original film] 2. Likewise with Return of the Jedi. The Force Awakens' creators and marketers clearly recognise this and are trying to establish an individual identity for the new film and its sequels, avoiding association with the prequels in name if not in narrative. 

I'm pretty giddy with excitement for these new films. After the disgrace that was the prequel trilogy, I assumed we'd never get to see another new Star Wars release on the big screen. Happily, I was wrong.  Although, I must temper my excitement with the memory that even The Phantom Menace's trailers were awesome. Again, I doff my hat to the trailer people for making even that unintelligible piece of cinematic shit seem exciting. It is with a certain degree of joy I note The Force Awakens' theatrical poster neglects even a passing mention to George Lucas in its credits. This is a very good thing. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

My Kingdom for a Keyboard


Apple announced updates to its iMac lineup this week, along with an overhaul of three of the brands most venerable pieces of hardware: the Magic Mouse, Trackpad and Keyboard.

These three peripherals have always represented the Apple's myopic pursuit of design at the expense of usability. None of them (with the possible exception of the Magic Trackpad) is better than what other manufacturers have on offer.

The Magic Mouse, for example, eschewed buttons as we know them and instead employed a touch-sensitive surface designed to replace them old-fashioned button things. Great in theory, but in practice it sucked. Using Google Maps or a similar page in a web browser usually resulted in unwanted rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs as the mouse detected a scroll command that never was.

The Magic Trackpad goes okay in most regards, however it is very sensitive and, like the mouse, can often trigger gestures you did not intend. And, as a Photoshop user, a trackpad is no substitute for a mouse or tablet. That said, Apple's implementation of the trackpad is the best in the market and a pleasure to use most of the time.

But the worst (or best?) example of Apple's nearsighted pursuit of design for the sake of design is the Apple Keyboard – the worst-designed Apple peripheral since the infamous Apple USB Mouse (M4848), known derisively as the "Hockey Puck".


In an age of touch-enabled devices, the humble keyboard remains the most practical and important human interface device for computers. The vast majority of all computerised communication is carried via letters and numbers entered by fingers on keys, therefore the comfort and productivity of the typist should be of the utmost concern. Unfortunately, Apple – like almost all computer hardware manufacturers – have set themselves on a road to mediocrity with the design and use of their peripherals.

Keyboards used to have bite. They used to announce their presence via the unmistakable clickety clack of mechanical switches. But this was not noise for the sake of noise, mechanical switches provide the best possible typing experience, with a good amount of travel (the distance a key must be pushed down before the keystroke is recognised) and a positive tactile response, that is to say the user knows when a key is hit and can move on to the next keystroke. These two properties, among many, make mechanical keyboards easier to touch-type on, which is why they are preferred by typists the world over.

Unfortunately, the mainstream computer world has largely abandoned mechanical keyboards in favour of rubber domes and other less tactile mechanisms. Apple's last mechanical keyboard, the Extended II (on which this post is being clickety-clacked) was discontinued in 1995 and now mechanical keyboards are largely the domain of gamers, usually tricked out with custom LEDs and a thousand-and-one programmable custom function buttons. "Features" which your average keyboard user doesn't need.

Yes, "design"
Apple's new "Magic" Keyboard utilises all-new scissor switches for its keys, similar to the previous Apple Keyboards and MacBook mechanisms, but with even less travel. At first type, this makes it quite difficult to touch-type on. It is important to note that this new keyboard does not use the butterfly mechanism of the new MacBook – a mechanism that provides so little travel and tactile response that one reviewer wanted "to cry a little", but it is not much better. While the size and design constraints of the ultra-thin MacBook make its keyboard a necessary evil, there is no such excuse with a desktop keyboard, other than the elevation of form over function. Sadly, using the new Magic Keyboard is not that different from the miserable experience of typing on a touch screen.

Happily, the Magic Keyboard does address a number of design issues from previous models. First, the keyboard is now a solid wedge shape, not a thin aluminium sloped casing with little support underneath (although Microsoft could be forgiven for being a little pissed at this). I have a collection of bent and battered aluminium Apple Keyboards, victims of close-run essays and reports.

The keyboard (along with the new trackpad and mouse) also contains an in-built rechargeable battery that can be charged via a Lightning cable (included). This is pretty neat, although it's another USB port that needs to be used on a computer where ports are already at a premium. At this point, I'd like to see an iMac with an integrated Lightning cable, but that in itself would offer its own design problems.

Apple's quick to claim the environmental high ground on its new peripherals with the use of batteries, rightly claiming it reduces use of alkaline batteries that would otherwise end up in landfill. But it also limits the life of the product with the integrated battery not replaceable by the user. Also, anyone who has owned and used the previous iterations of these products would be unlikely to persist with the Sisyphean task of using alkaline batteries – non-rechargable lithiums and rechargeable Ni-MH batteries were a mandatory part of every sale in my time in computer retail.

Still, with all these design goodies, the typing experience has been solely neglected, leaving touch typists to fend for themselves in a world of illuminated gaming keyboards that look more like offensive weapons and are named accordingly (Razer BlackWidow Ultimate, anyone?). This is why I persist with my Apple Extended Keyboards – arguably the best keyboards ever made – acquiring them in all conditions at all times, along with the USB adaptors required to operate them on modern machines.

Apple Extended Keyboard (front) and two Apple Extended Keyboard II
So what are the modern options? Sadly, unless you like your keyboards black and illuminated, there aren't to many options. For Mac users, the best alternative is one of the Matias Tactile series – they bill the Tactile Pro as the spiritual successor to the Apple Extended Keyboards. But good typing doesn't come cheap, a Tactile Pro will set you back over AUD$200 locally, so start saving your cents. You can still sometimes pick up a bargain on eBay by searching for vintage Mac equipment, although listings for Apple Extended Keyboards are both rare and usually expensive. It pays to search simply for vintage Macs that include a keyboard – often that "keyboard" is an Apple Extended Keyboard. Of course you will need an adaptor to get it up and running, but it's well worth it.

What I would really love to see is an Apple mechanical keyboard on the market again. A keyboard with all the nice design of current Mac hardware, but with the added benefit of being usable. A wireless mechanical keyboard with a similar footprint to the new "Magic" keyboard is not impossible. Perhaps call it the Apple Keyboard "Pro" or something. The problem is that as computer users, we have become habituated to mediocrity. We don't think of the keyboard interface as something that should be satisfying or even pleasurable, merely something that is just adequate. Most of us don't know there is something better out there – a keyboard that makes even the most arduous data-entry tasks strangely satisfying. A better keyboard makes us better typists and therefore better communicators. Would it be too much to suggest that a better keyboard makes us better people? Maybe. But you'll never know unless you try.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tear down this wall...

Berlin Brandenburg barriers in use at Berlin Tegel Airport in 2014
...and rebuild it to legal standards.

Berlin's ill-fated Brandenburg Airport has hit yet another snag. Four years (to date) over schedule and €4.6 billion over budget, Berlin's intended gateway to the world has been an unmitigated disaster.

The latest in a long line of design and management disasters is that 600 walls will have to be reinforced or ripped out and rebuilt to meet fire resistance standards.

Originally scheduled to open in 2011, and having missed four opening dates, the airport board have basically given up on putting a completion date on the thing – reports currently say mid-2017 at the earliest.

Like that back patio you started working on when John Howard was PM, it'll be done when it's done. Except, unlike BER, your incomplete patio probably doesn't suck €17 million from your wallet every month in maintenance costs or involve price fixing, bribery and otherwise bad corruption. And while your incomplete patio may not look the best, it does not occupy 1,470 ha of prime real estate in a European capital city and is unlikely to be damaging your city's economy or its international reputation.

Where to begin with how bad this project (Berlin airport, not the hypothetical patio) truly is...

Firstly, the guy hired to design the airport's fire protection system – the single system that has delayed the project the most – wasn't even a qualified engineer...he was a draughtsman. "Everyone thought I was an engineer", Alfredo di Mauro said, "I just didn't contradict them". Oh great. Luckily he wasn't in charge of anything important, like engineering a system designed to prevent the deaths of potentially thousands of people.

Oh. Wait.

The complete ineptitude of di Mauro, his designs AND the people who employed him cannot be overstated. The system he was supposed to implement was designed to funnel smoke below the terminal building in the event of a fire. Just think about that for a second. When you sit in front of a log fire, where does smoke go? Does it go down? Not usually. Not unless you're camping and had faaaarrrrrr too much weed. So here we had the unqualified di Mauro in charge of implementing a vital safety system that defied the laws of physics.

Bravo.

There is some architectural Magic Alex shit going on here, where someone convincingly claims they can build a thing that defies laws of physics, gets lots of money for it and then delivers, unsurprisingly, a system that doesn't work. This would be forgivable if you're a drug-addled rock star just wanting to give peace and 72-track recording studio a chance, but less so if you're planning a multi-billion dollar piece of infrastructure of international importance.

When inspectors tested the fire systems in 2011 – in preparation for a now hopelessly optimistic opening in 2012 – some alarms failed to activate and, goshdarn shockingly, the laws of physics defying smoke extraction system failed to extract smoke. The inspectors then had a closer look and found high-voltage power lines had been installed beside data and heating cables – a potentially disastrous design mistake if ever there was one.

But don't worry, the airport board proposed a most excellent stopgap solution: 800 minimum-wage workers armed with mobile phones – human fire detectors if you will – who would monitor the airport and, in the event of fire, presumably call a supervisor, yell „FEUR“ and direct passengers to the nearest exit. What could possibly go wrong? This "solution" was wisely rejected. And as if more things couldn't go wrong, the company hired to rectify the fire safety system, Imtech Deutschland, filed for bankruptcy in August.

So where to from here? Well, there are awesome tours of the unfinished airport that I imagine must be something like the lads from Top Gear driving chairs. I was kinda sad I missed out on enjoying one of these tours when I was last in Berlin. Something tells me I'll be able to go on one next time I'm there.

I'm not under the slightest illusion big projects such as an international airport are easy to manage. They clearly are not. But while they are complex, they should be feasible. This airport was definitely feasible. Sometimes projects run over budget and over schedule because of too much ambition or challenging engineering considerations – Santiago Calatrava's projects are perfect examples of these. Berlin Brandenburg Airport has none of this. Its design, while impressive, is not revolutionary nor is it construction difficult. Its calamitous errors are due solely to human error and mismanagement.

Add in to the mix the similarly disastrous Stuttgart21 project, and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall and you've got a once-proud (if overstated) international reputation for efficiency and punctuality gravely damaged.

But why am I writing this? I guess because I really miss Germany at the moment, in particular Berlin. It sure isn't a perfect city, but every story that chinks away at the myth of German efficiency is, to my mind, a good thing. Nations are often built around such cultural nonsense which do nothing to enhance actual knowledge of a country. Take, for example, the "easy going" "mateship" of Australia. Just ask an American how "easy going" Australia seems after encountering our finest frontline Border Farce officers when entering the country. Destroying clichés is the first step to real engagement with a nation and its culture. I hope this bit of honesty regarding Germany's current horrendous major projects is a worthwhile glass of truth.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Irrational Exuberance of Papal Fever

Space Pope by lobs2 via deviantart

The United States is in the grips of an outbreak of Pontifcalitis (Papal Fever).

Symptoms include the suspension of rational thought, promotion of wilful ignorance, irrational exuberance, and taxpayer-funded events with a wanton disregard for the First Amendment (or similar local laws).

Papal Fever is common around the world when an old, white, male virgin (the head of an organisation that has, in the past, waged bloody wars and tortured unbelievers and to this day, protects men who rape children) visits a locality and waves to crowds from the comfort of his air-conditioned bullet-proof and blast-resistant vehicle.

He then proceeds to lecture audiences on helping the poor (even though his church is wealthy enough to have literally hundreds of millions of euros "tucked away"), sex (even though he is a virgin) and being nicer to immigrants (the Vatican City is probably the world's most difficult nation to gain citizenship of). The current outbreak of Papal Fever is not only confined to the United States and has been caused by apparent humility and goodwill of the current Pope.

Recommended treatment is some critical thinking and some hard facts:
  1. Despite his positive rhetoric, the Catholic church still actively obstructs non-church investigations into clergy abuse. 
  2. The Church still actively relocates pedophile priests.
  3. On this most recent trip to the US, the Pope praised bishops and empathised with them for their handling of abuse cases prior to meeting with a few abuse victims on the final day of the trip. Additionally, not all the victims he met were victims of clergy abuse.
  4. This Pope is no "radical", he is (unsurprisingly) a very conservative Catholic who says less-bad things than his predecessors and colleagues from time to time.
  5. The Pope stands by bishops' condemnation of abortion and gay marriage. 
If pain persists, use your brain.

Oh, and read this, the last thing I wrote about the current Pope.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

He went extinct for your sins



Download full resolution JPEG version

This humorous composite has been floating around the interwebs for a few years. Sometimes by itself, others with captions such as "Jesus Holding a Raptor – Your Argument is Invalid" or "Sorry, Rex. There's no room on the Ark for you."

Being a faithful Christian Pastafarian and fan of the Jurassic Park films, I thought I would show my commitment to the cause by making this image my Facebook profile picture, but aiii....I could not find any versions of sufficient resolution. So, off I went (well, I stayed exactly where I was, but you know what I mean) to find the original elements of the composite.

Turns out the original composite was done by a b3ta.com user Monty Propps in 2007 for a creationism Photoshop challenge. The original image is a painting by professional Jesus-depicter Del Parson called The Lost Lamb. Tell you what, if I was Jesus I would have skipped pre-literate Judea and skipped ahead to the social media age, but that's obviously just me.

The velociraptor depiction, however, ended up being the trickiest element to find. I cut it out of Monty Propps' original composite in the hope I could Google Image search the image. No luck. So I went with similar images and through some quirk of luck, found a low-resolution version of what appeared to be the original raptor image. I overlaid it with Propps' low-resolution original and found it to be a pretty good match. Turns out it's a promotional image from the aforementioned movie that made me a Pastafarian, Jurassic Park. You know, from when they used autoerotica animatronics instead of shitty CG Chris Pratts. Most intriguingly, I found that Monty Propps' bottom section of the "raptor" was indeed still the lamb, just colour matched with the raptor head and neck.

A couple of pterodactyls, two volcano elements and a few minutes later, we had a higher resolution composite. I am now happy to share it with the world. After all, He went extinct for our sins.

Original image, Del Parson The Lost Lamb
Original composite, b3ta.com user Monty Propps (2007)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A Skeptical Approach to Cameras or: An Ode to the Leica M4-2

Leica M4-2 by Andrew J. Cosgriff via Flickr

Originally published at richardmckenzie.com.au/words

If you've gone hunting for a decent hi-fi setup anytime over the past two decades, chances are you have come across publications such as What Hi-Fi or Stereophile and cooed over their adjective-laden reviews of high-end equipment you've never heard of, "must-have" accessories you'll never have and remastered audiophile albums you don't want to repurchase. These reviewers use the abstract and subjective as if they are measurable and quantifiable values; SI units of auditory measurement if you will. You've already settled for the $899 Panasonic job from JB Hi-Fi, but in the world of high-end hi-fi, dCS, Bryston, Continuum and Audioquest are the names to look out for.

"Audiophile" reviewers wax lyrical about an amplifier's "warmth" and "depth", or the improved "image focus" and increased "coherence" of a $750 USB cable, or a CD player's "righteous sense of musical flow". In this rarified world, it is self-evident that a $1190 RCA interconnect (or audio cable to us mere mortals) will produce "superior detail, clarity, timing precision, and image focus" and that such an exotic product – made from "tellurium-copper alloy" no less – is necessary for the best audio experience.

With seeming full sincerity, a $200,000 turntable is rated as possessing a greater "emotional majesty" that "sings" to the reviewer's heart: "When you hear the music [the turntable] lets escape from the grooves," the reviewer claims, "you, too, will be astounded and swept off your feet".

Except for the tiny problem that the vast majority of these reviews are guff. Non-scientific, non-measurable, emotional guff. While most consumer reviews have embraced the quantifiable and objective to test the efficacy of products (Video Card A runs Game B at 64 FPS; Computer X takes 56 sec to render Video Y), audiophile hi-fi regressed to a pre-scientific world view, preferring untestable subjectivity to measurable objectivity.

In the real world, this is simply not acceptable. A rational person, for instance, wouldn't take a drug because a doctor said it had "a more defined sense of certainty" than another. You would demand evidence of the drug's efficacy in comparison to others before swallowing it. Now, hi-fi might not be a matter of life or death, but many otherwise rational people are all-too willing to swallow the homeopathic audiophile hi-fi pill without thinking.

It was easy for me to laugh at the absurdity of high-end hi-fi's claims. I am a skeptic, and fiercely proud of it...but then I realised I had swallowed similar claims when purchasing my camera...

Leica Virgin

My Leica M4 and Voigtländer VCII Meter

It was 2009 and I was about to purchase my first Leica. Few brands are steeped in the as much myth and legend as Leica. Born in Germany, Leicas are regarded by many as the pinnacle of 35mm photography. As with audiophiles, Leica adherents are renowned for their devotion to the brand despite the many shortcomings of the products. Leica cameras and lenses, so the story goes, possess very special qualities not seen in other cameras. This is not entirely guff; objective measures of image quality often give Leica products close to full marks, but there are other less measurable qualities ascribed to Leica products we should be skeptical of.

When it came time to decide on which Leica M body to purchase, opinions were a dime a dozen, but the consensus from the "experts" was that the German-built Leica M4 was superior to the later Canadian-built M4-2 and M4-P models. Why? Do they hate Canadians? No, because according the experts, the Canadian models were constructed to "looser tolerances". What these tolerances were and how they affect one's photography or the operation of the camera is rarely quantified, but I trusted the "expert" opinion, so I avoided the Canadian models and bought a German-built M4.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, I can now see the whole pro-German M4 thing as little more than a smear on the good name of the Ernst Leitz Canada (ELCAN) factory and its unbelievably talented staff. The amazing inventions and innovations of the ELCAN staff sadly do not receive their due credit in the history of Leica. ELCAN was pushing the technological boundaries of optics at a time when Leitz Wetzlar was focused on merely financial survival. The ELCAN team, led by legendary optical designer Walter Mandler, designed the very first Noctilux lens, envelope-pushing military lenses, IMAX projection lenses and groundbreaking Panavision optics. This was not some second-rate factory, it was the true innovation centre for Leica in the second half of the 20th century, right up until the early 1990s.

The ELCAN M4-2 and M4-P actually saved the Leica M as a product and possibly Leitz (now Leica) as a company. A bit of history: after the successful M4, Leica released the unloved Leica M5. Although it was the most technically advanced Leica M to date, the M5 was a sales flop that caused Leitz to discontinue the M line and focus on SLRs. That's right, the now iconic Leica M product line was discontinued. After the discontinuation, the folks at ELCAN suggested to German management that they could produce a more economical version of the M4 in Canada. Leitz approved a limited number, but demand was greater than expected, thus the M4-2 was born.

So were there actual problems with the M4-2's more "economical" construction? Well, kind of. Like many new products, there were problems with first batches. The viewfinder was more prone to flare than previous models owing to the removal of a condenser, and some metal and brass parts were replaced with plastic parts. In most cases this substitution made no difference, however some parts were demonstrably less robust than their metallic predecessors. Many of the other cost-saving changes were cosmetic or had little effect on the usability of the camera, such as the stamped Leitz name on the top plate (replacing the engraving of previous models) or the removal of the self-timer (I've used mine once).

What of "looser tolerances"? Production methods did actually change. The time consuming "adjust and fit" method of bespoke production was substituted for a more modern and economical production line mode of manufacture. Thus the tolerance claims are true to a certain extent, although the effect on the final product was minimal. This was a new workforce building a new camera on a new production line and what mistakes they made were quickly rectified. And don't forget that all the tooling to build the M4 was transferred from Wetzlar to Canada – that's no small task so it would be more of a shock if there weren't issues. These cost-cutting measures, practical though they were, add up in some minds to the Leica M4-2 being somehow a "lesser" Leica than the German-built models that preceded it, even though today, a well-kept Canadian M4-2 or M4-P operates just as reliably as any other Leica.

I asked a photographer friend of mine, Andrew Cosgriff for his thoughts on using the Leica M4-2 and the German-built Leica M6: "The truth (for me) was that it still felt like everything a Leica was meant to feel like. You could sit there and wind it all day, because it felt so good. I loved how the M4-2 had absolutely no extraneous features, compared to other cameras I owned, most of which seemed to have a few extra knobs and dials that I never found myself using."

And of the obviously superior German-built M6? Did it feel better because Germany?

"Nope. Winding it on felt just as good, and the meter was a convenience (now, 4 years later, a crutch) rather than a necessity. Both of them are still Leicas, and for me they both exude the qualities we’ve come to expect from that name."

And this is where we should take a moment to step back from inherited opinions that are told and retold enough for them to become fact. A photograph is not only the product of a camera, it's the lens, the chosen medium and most importantly, the person behind the camera. It is highly-unlikely that the camera body will be the weakest link in the process that is photography. Sure, you may be affected by the "cost-cutting" roots of the Leica M4-2, that somehow it's not a "real" Leica, but I would suggest that's more in your head than in the product.

Similarly with hi-fi equipment, the biggest change you can make to improve your audio experience is to fix up your listening environment, not demagnitise your discs and replace all of your audio cables with unobtanium-plated interconnects. Alas, there's no $1400 product to sell to support the moving of speakers a few feet one way or another (although I'm sure there are a few less-scrupulous companies out there willing to give it a try...have you heard of the BS Technology Pro Grip Finger Protectors FAP-1020 that discharge dangerous static before coming into contact with your precious hi-fi equipment?).

Above the din of their scorn, many Leicaphiles forget that without the M4-2 and M4-P, Leica might not exist today. ELCAN designed and produced the finest rangefinder lenses and kept the Leica M line alive at a time when its German parent company wanted little to do with such outmoded technology. Yes, there were differences with the construction of the M4-2 compared to previous models and, yes, some of the changes were designed to cut costs, but a good M4-2 is no less usable than a good M4. Leica's focus on SLRs would eventually falter, with their R SLR cameras never achieving the same prominence (or sales) as the Leica M lineup. Leica finally discontinued the R series in 2009; the M series continues strongly to this day. Had Leica given up entirely on the M, the company probably wouldn't be around today.

The more economic methods of production perfected in Canada informed the creation of the Leica M6 and helped allow production to finally move back to Germany in the 1980s. Today, the Leica M forms the core of a resurgent Leica Camera AG, thanks in large part to the foresight and passion of Leitz workers at the ELCAN factory who kept the iconic rangefinder alive.

I've learned my lesson. Next time, I'll be a bit more skeptical of the received wisdom of the internets, of forum users with 10,000+ posts and of claims without assertions. Had I followed this course of action in 2009, I might have saved myself quite a bit of money. Should I need to replace my M4 for whatever reason, I'll be more than happy to "take the risk" with a Leica M4-2 and ELCAN's wares...just like the US Navy did, just like the US Army did, just like Panavision did, just like IMAX did and just like Leitz did.

--

Thanks to Andrew for his musings on the Leica M4-2 and M6 cameras. You can see more of his awesome photography on Flickr.

The inspiration for this article came, in part, from Peter Johansen's post A Brief Guide to Audio for the Skeptical Consumer on his blog Numeral Nine Music and Audio.

For an overview on the amazing accomplishments of the ELCAN operation, take a look at Ernst Leitz Canada Limited on the LEICA Barnack Berek Blog.

Notes: It is incredibly difficult to find advertising materials for the Leica M4-2. I have a few brochures in my collection for the M4-P, but none for the Leica M4-2. The internet wasn't much help either, I could not find a single digitised ad for the M4-2. Sad face.

#LIBSPILL2.0

Before reading the exciting sequel, re-acquaint yourself with the original #libspill

I just wanted to offer a few observations on the events of the past 24 hours. It has been a very interesting time for politics tragics like myself and will only become more intriguing as events continue to unfold...

It Begins and Ends With A Spill
September 17, 2008. The heady days of the Rudd government before future events would irrevocably designate them the "Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years". News was still consumed in printed paper form and available at retail outlets called "newsagents", along with an assortment of magazines, stationary, lottery tickets and remainder paperbacks.

I was sitting in the Knox City Shopping Centre food court before my shift at Ted's Camera Stores reading about the life and times of the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull. Even as a Labor supporter with our very own Teflon®-coated Labor PM in office, I had a certain amount of respect for Turnbull and thought: "damn, he's going to be the next PM."

Hindsight demonstrates this was not to be. Being more young and naive then than now, I assumed political parties to be more monolithic than not, that the Liberal Party would fall in behind Turnbull and that would be that. This is the mistake most people make to this day when discussing politicians and parties: parties are not monolithic entities, they are swirling, amorphous entities led by strong personalities and driven by conflicting ideas.

While complaints were made about Turnbull's non-consultative leadership style, it was primarily his non-flat earther policies on issues such as climate change that proved fatal to his leadership. The "big C" conservatives within the Liberal Party mounted a failed challenge to Turnbull in the party room, before many resigned en-masse from the shadow cabinet forcing a spill that cost Turnbull the leadership.

Labor MPs I've chatted to about the aforementioned Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years talk about the two Rudd prime ministerships as if they were led by different people. Rudd 1.0 didn't want to know you as a petty backbencher. He was rude, abrasive, egotistical and a manic micromanager. Rudd 2.0, on the other hand, could not have been more helpful, eager to appear in electorates and support local campaigns, always available for a chat and generally not a dick. How much of Rudd 2.0 would have survived had Labor won in 2013 is impossible to tell, but there was a very real change in the man who would be PM.

The question Liberal MPs would have grappled with over the past 24 hours is whether Turnbull, like Rudd 2.0, has learned from his previous experience as leader. I suspect Turnbull would have made this pitch to the party, promising to be more consultative and more sensitive to the party. Like with Rudd 2.0, only time will tell whether this promise

Labor's Next Federal Election Just Got a LOT Harder...but there are implications for the Liberals too...
Let's face it: Tony Abbott was the Labor Party's greatest electoral asset. Compared to Abbott, Bill Shorten looked like a leader, a Prime Minister-in-waiting. Turnbull's elevation has changed everything. It's a bit like when you go hiking in the Australian "Alps" and then visit Austria. Sure, Mt. Kosciuszko is nice and all, but until a few decades ago, you could virtually drive to the top of it. The Austrian Alps, on the other hand, offer a plethora of very large peaks, ample ski fields, wonderful scenery and Bergbahnen (mountain trains).

What am I trying to say? I don't know. I like mountains and while Mt. Kosciuszko is big compared to, I dunno, Mt. Dandenong (or Mt. Lofty, or Mt. Coot-tha, or insert localised mountain here), it's nothing compared to the Austrian Alps. Is Turnbull the Austrian Alps of this awkward and poorly thought-out attempt at an analogy, and Shorten Mt. Kosciuszko, lacking in Bergbahnen, wonderful scenery, but otherwise serviceable as a mountain peak? Perhaps. Time will tell, but the hatred for Abbott in the electorate that has so far sustained Labor's two-party lead is likely to evaporate, at least in the short term. Labor will now try and link Turnbull, as senior cabinet minister, to the poisonous legacy of the Abbott prime ministership. This has begun already. None of this, however, should come as a shock to Labor strategists. There was always a chance this would occur and I imagine (and hope) Labor campaign plans have factored in the possibility of a leadership change.

But it's not all smooth sailing for the Liberals. Turnbull is undeniably popular in the electorate, but unfortunately for him, a sizeable portion of his popularity lies with people who vote Labor or Green anyway. The close outcome of the leadership vote reveals a divided party, largely (but not exclusively) between the "big C" conservatives who killed the first Turnbull Experiment and small-l liberals. How Turnbull manages the divide and whether the vanquished behave themselves will determine the success or otherwise of the Turnbull Experiment 2.0. What has been notable is those spruiking for Turnbull have been at pains to point out that he will be a "more collegiate" leader, keen to broadcast a positive message to the party faithful and to place Turnbull on notice that his leadership will be closely monitored.

There is a great deal of risk here to Turnbull. Those in #QANDALand have built up an image of Turnbull as a saviour; a progressive, intelligent and articulate intellectual who will return Australia to some imagined glorious past where leaders loftily debated policies and ideas. Turnbull, even without having to contend with the social conservatives in his party, is unlikely to meet this progressive ideal. By trying to please both the party and the electorate, he runs the double risk of disappointing #QANDALand by not being progressive enough and the conservatives within the Liberal Party by being too moderate.

For every happy burgher of Wentworth interviewed on ABC News 24, there are multiple electors elsewhere, probably unhappy with this leadership "change". I can't see this leadership "coup" being anywhere as damaging to the Liberal Party as Rudd's toppling was to Labor in 2010, which means there should be some "clear air" for the government, so long as everyone behaves themselves.

Self-Interest Rules All
Anti-Turnbull Liberal MPs were faced with two choices last night: continue on with an ideologically-aligned, ultimately hapless leader who would likely lead them to electoral oblivion, or stomach a Turnbull leadership that offered the possibility of electoral success. They chose the latter, with self-interest ruling all.

People Still Don't Understand Our Political System
Cue leadership change; cue the inevitable "person-on-the-street" vox pop and the incessant "I voted for Tony and now he's been torn down by the party". You'd think after three leadership coups, people would have learned how our system works. Come election time, we vote for our local member and not the party leader. The party that wins a majority of seats forms government, and that party's leader becomes Prime Minister. The party leadership is then a plaything of the party, whether we like it or not.

Public understanding of the system is not helped when hot-air populists lecture politicians on, well, politics without actually understanding the fundamentals of the system.



"Not sure about you sitting at home, but we're fed up with this. Have we, the people, become irrelevant? This country has become an embarrassment when it comes to leadership" - Karl#Libspill #Today9
Posted by TODAY on Monday, 14 September 2015

Liberal Conservatives Invoke the "Broad Church" Myth When it's Convenient For Them
I've written previously about the myth of the "broad church", that the Liberal Party accommodates two competing ideological strands, social conservatism and liberalism, in the one party. The social conservative strand has been in the ascendency ever since Howard took the Liberal leadership in 1995. As a result, moderates increasingly found themselves on the outer. Turnbull's loss of the leadership in 2009 on reinforced the power of the "big C" Conservatives within the party.

Now potentially on the outer under a Turnbull prime ministership, noted social conservative and all-round weird churchy guy Kevin Andrews went on breakfast TV today to "remind" certain elements of the Liberal Party that it is, indeed, a "broad church". This time, the "broad church" appeal was directed at moderates to remind them that weird churchy guys like him, who have held sway for two decades, are still there and need a say...even though their leadership over the past two years has been ruinous for the Liberal Party and the country. Watch this space.

Jeff Kennett Has Curiously Non-Existent Sense of Irony
The former Victorian premier whored himself out to virtually every media outlet yesterday to let his feelings known that Turnbull was a wrecker, an egotist and the "Rudd" of the Liberal Party. He did this with a straight face. Anyone who was alive in Victoria in the 1990s knows Kennett is probably the most arrogant, egotistical figure the Liberal Party has ever produced, with only Howard in his last 12 months as PM coming close to Kennett levels of popular disconnect and hubris. This arrogance saw both Kennett and Howard meet their political end at the hands of the electorate.

The NBN Still Sucks
Australia ranks 44th in global internet speeds according to Akamai. For a man who "practically" invented the internet in Australia, Turnbull has done little to improve the situation. Only 2 years ago, Australia was on track to have a truly world-class broadband network. This achievable dream is now in tatters, torn up by the now Prime Minister of Australia, in pursuit of affordable mediocrity that has now suffered a $15bn blowout. This is Turnbull's most visible legacy as Minister for Communications and his biggest failure. This is important because for all Turnbull's popularity and charisma, his policy work in communications was dreadful. One journalist in the know, Renai LeMay of Delimiter calls Turnbull "Australia's worst ever Communications Minister" – quite a claim when the competition includes luddite Richard Alston.

All this is vital, because as Turnbull talks up the "future", using buzzwords like "innovation" and "technology", his ministerial record shows he has done all in his power to ensure Australia remains a technological backwater.

In Conclusion
Watch this space...but not in 4K because internet speeds.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Free Trade? You've VOD to be Kidding


© Magnolia Pictures
Alex Gibney, the noted documentary maker whose impressive oeuvre includes Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has a new movie out today.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine takes what senior Apple executive Eddy Cue called an "inaccurate and mean-spirited" approach to its subject, eschewing the usual hagiographic tendencies of recent book and film profiles of Jobs. In short, it takes a "genius and jerk" view of Steve Jobs that has been only hinted at so far, providing some much-needed critical balance to the available accounts of his life

Impressively, Gibney and the film's producer, Magnolia Pictures, have opted for a same-day cinema and Video On Demand release, meaning viewers have the choice to watch at the cinema, or rent and download in the comfort of your own home. That is, unless, you're outside of the United States. If you're unlucky enough to exist outside the reality distortion field that is the USA, you will likely be presented with this should you wish to purchase the film:

iTunes
YouTube

Amazon.com
Magnolia Pictures VOD


In a regression to the physical world, corporate entities still insist on imposing geographic blocks on content that is downloaded as a bit-for-bit identical copy no matter its physical location. While our politicians hurriedly conclude free trade agreements that claim to have benefits for our farmers and physical exporters, they seem to neglect the trade in data; of discriminatory pricing and access limitations imposed on Australian consumers for digital goods for no good (or defensible) reason. The digital economy, which our pollies love to say "is Australia's future", seems strangely neglected by them when it comes to putting their rhetoric into action.

Attorney-General Bookshelves Brandis and "Practical Inventor of the Internet" Malcolm Turnbull have done little to encourage greater access to the world of digital goods, preferring to impose draconian data retention laws and siding with the movie studios – instead of consumers – on issues of "illegal" downloading. As has been repeated ad nauseum by anyone with a tablet and internet account, making content available in a timely and affordable manner does more to prevent piracy than any demonstrably ineffective "three-strikes" policy ever could. As the long-overdue arrival of Netflix et al. to local shores has shown, Australians are willing to pay for a quality service when one is offered.

My international relations lecturer was always fond of saying "there's no such thing as free trade – only slightly freer trade". This is as true now as then. Free trade deals, as negotiated by our governments, only deal with a very limited number of import/export areas where (usually marginal) benefit can be extracted for both parties. While free trade agreements have been effective at removing (some) tariffs for physical goods, digital goods are largely neglected.

This film is just one example of where our digital world, as advanced as it is, lags far behind our expectations of it, with most of our politicians lagging even farther behind still (honourable mentions to Ed Husic and the other members of the IT Pricing Inquiry) I was a willing customer, ready to pay to watch this film. Unlike some, I believe the creators of our content deserve fair and equitable recompense for the labours...but they're making it harder – not easier – to make this possible.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Unintended Overreach or the Shape of Things to Come?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Australian Border Force (ABF) Roman Quaedvlieg and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton at the ABF swearing-in ceremony at the Parliament House (Source: Australian Border Force)
Unintended overreach of the shape of things to come? This is the question arises from this weekend's now-cancelled Operation Fortitude, a multi-agency operation slated to involve Victoria Police, authorised officers from Metro Trains, Yarra Trams and Taxi Services Commission, the Sheriff's Office and, infamously, the paramilitary Australian Border Force. This operation was intended to "crack down" on "anti-social behaviour" and, as Orwellian as that sounds, seems to be an accepted part of policing today.

But the morning press release that unleashed a torrent of derision and fury on the Interwebs quoted Border Force regional chief for Victoria and Tasmania Don Smith. It said ABF officers would be positioned "at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with".

There isn't much room for ambiguity in that statement. Far from the usual targeted intelligence-based operations undertaken by the erstwhile Immigration Department, this sounded an awful lot like stopping people in the street and asking "papers, please".


Over 3 1/2 hours after the Australian Border Force became #BorderFarce, the agency finally issued a clarifying statement, directly at odds with their illegal, bare-chested first release:


With a press conference (or "media opportunity" as Victoria Police termed it) scheduled for 2pm at Melbourne's Flinders Street Station, a crowd formed to protest the operation. With a spontaneous protest not the best sight to support their message, Victoria Police cancelled their "media opportunity", followed shortly thereafter by the entire operation. People power won.

So what went wrong?

Joint agency operations are not new and usually not that controversial. For example, Operation Rasper, Operation Mermaid and its inventively-titled sequel Operation Mermaid II are joint-operations that involved a range of agencies including Victoria Police, Sheriff's Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, VicRoads, and yes, the Department of Immigration.

Such operations are important for not only catching out offenders, but for building relationships between the various state and federal agencies – just look at the lead up to the 9/11 attacks if you want an example of what happens when agencies don't play nice. Operation Mermaid II, for example, caught up to nine alleged illegal immigrants.

In these operations, the Department of Immigration (one half of today's quasi-military Australian Border Force) ran checks on individuals after they were cited for other unrelated issues. This is a fairly non-controversial use of power and one most Australians would be comfortable with.

But the ABF's initial press release showed no such concern for comfort. It reached into territory that was at best, menacing, at worst, illegal. The ABF has no legal authority to invade a major city and ask for people's citizenship documents. Now, being the generous person I am, we can probably assume that was never the intent of the ABF, but it does raise questions as to why a forceful statement was authorised for release. As the ABF was intended to be a junior partner in Operation Fortitude, perhaps the release was merely designed to capture some media attention? Who knows. No doubt this will be a subject of intense scrutiny over the next couple of days.

So this was just a big misunderstanding then? Maybe. ABF Commissioner Quaedvlieg attempted to explain the whole thing away as a misunderstanding due to a "clumsily worded" press release: "There was never any intent for the Australian Border Force to proactively go out and seek immigration breaches out in Melbourne city."

But he would not be drawn on questionable legality of Ron Smith's quote in the original release, saying that, in context "it makes absolute, perfect, legitimate sense". What? What context? It's a press release, isn't that all the context you need? Nobody was misquoting Smith, the whole purpose of a press release is to provide all the context necessary. In what "context" does it make "absolute, perfect, legitimate sense"?

This is a question that will be asked repeatedly, no doubt, over the next few days. With the government's political capital well and truly in deficit, the secretive Australian Border Force will have little cover from its ministerial masters. Maybe, just maybe, we will get a couple of full and frank answers.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Welcome To Australia, Huffington Post! Please Leave That Pseudoscience Nonsense At The Door


~Originally published at Junkee.com~

The Huffington Post has finally arrived in Australia — and while our mainstream media will certainly benefit from more diversity, we may have reason to be afraid. Not just because of the brand’s infamous embrace of clickbait (we’re all guilty), or even its questionable practice of sourcing content from unpaid bloggers.

No: in a country where the CSIRO’s funding is free-falling, and science is routinely under attack from elected officials, of greatest concern to me is the Huffington Post’s uncritical promotion of pseudoscience and quackery.

Since its inception in 2005, the Huffington Post has provided a platform for anti-vaccine activists, new age spiritualists and other types of scientific illiteracy dressed up as genuine news. While media outlets sprouting the virtues of miracle diets and cures is nothing new, HuffPo’s massive world-wide reach and agenda-setting aspirations made its scientific illiteracy particularly concerning at the time. And although the publication’s embrace of pseudoscience has moderated in recent years, it’s worth taking a closer look at its recent past to be wary of what its Australian edition might bring.
The (Unvaccinated) Birth Of The Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington was a failed gubernatorial candidate and political divorcee when she founded the Huffington Post in 2005. A vanity exercise in the nascent blogosphere, it became a home for liberal politics and vitriolic pieces attacking key figures in the Bush administration. Huffington, formerly a Republican through personal belief and marriage, alienated many of her friends by her political conversion to the left — she even went so far as to ask her daughter Isabella to choose a new godmother (Isabella’s first godmother was appointed Secretary of Labor by Bush).

Shortly after HuffPo’s launch, some science bloggers noticed a disturbing trend in its coverage of health issues. Anti-vaccination activists such as Janet Grillo, Jay Gordon and David Kirby dominated the outlet’s “health” coverage; between them they published pieces supporting the long-discredited “link” between vaccines and autism, scare-mongering over pesticides (“parks and school ball fields are sprayed with chemicals so toxic they should be illegal”), and promoting the “Pharma-Political Complex” that apparently wants to harm all the children (presumably to sell them drugs to make them better or something).

These bylines were soon joined by the doyen of disinformation Jenny McCarthy, an actor and TV host who’s now infamous for leading the anti-vaccination movement, and her painfully unfunny then-boyfriend Jim Carrey. They both repeated the usual claims that “toxic” ingredients of the “lucrative vaccine program” are “causing autism and other disorders (Aspergers, ADD, ADHD)”. Of course there is no credible evidence to support this or any other of their claims; in fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. But in the world of the anti-vaxxer, contrary evidence isn’t valid, because it comes from government health organisations who are ‘in on it’ too.

(A quick debunk of the anti-vaccination movement: the vaccine ingredient anti-vaxxers claim causes autism – mercury – is not present in scheduled childhood vaccines. Thimerosal, a preservative used in some other vaccines, does indeed contain mercury, but in the form of an ethylmercury which is easily filtered out by your body. All this, however, is moot. Even if children are given vaccines that contain thimerosal, there is no known link between mercury and autism. None. The exact cause (or causes) of autism remain unknown, but what we do know is that vaccines are not to blame.)
The Sickness Of “Wellness”

Alas, HuffPo did not confine its anti-science stance to a few ill-advised stories on vaccines. In 2009 they devoted an entire section to “wellness”, edited by homeopath and licenced acupuncturist “Dr” Patricia Fitzgerald. Contrary to her title, “Dr” Fitzgerald was not a licenced medical practitioner, but rather held a doctorate in homeopathy. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop her offering dud medical advice, promoting ineffective “detox” routines while also having nice things to say about Jenny McCarthy.

Then it got worse. “Quantum healer” and self-help millionaire Deepak Chopra became a contributor, as did Kim Evans, who wrote that antibiotics are responsible for cancer, and that all cancers are fungi and can be treated with baking soda. Yep, you won’t believe what THEY don’t want you to know, dear sheeple.

There wasn’t a shred of credible evidence to support these astonishing claims either — only the assumption that Big Government, Big Pharma or Big Pineapple was out to get you. By 2010, the height of HuffPo’s questionable relationship with science, the site garnered around 28 million unique views per month. In 2011, AOL acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million. Since then it has only grown in size and audience to become the most popular blog in the world, claiming to attract some 100 million visitors per month. That’s a big global audience to be selling garbage science to.

But the web fought back. The same internet that helped propagate HuffPo also hosted a new generation of science-literate blogs and websites such as Science-Based Medicine, Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy and ScienceBlogs, among many others. The condemnation from these bloggers was swift, universal and derisive.

PZ Meyers of ScienceBlogs offered this gem:

image: http://junkee.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/huffpo.jpg



Slowly, contributors with science and evidence on their side began to have a regular presence on HuffPo, with the site even launching a science section in 2012. While today’s HuffPo continues to publish articles on topics of questionable scientific validity including acupuncture, immune system “boosting”, detox diets, and anti-GMO food, there are also a few choice bylines with the all-important post-nominals “M.D.” to counter the hokum and provide real actual medical science.

The problem is that the two types of articles sit side by side, and it is very difficult for the lay reader to determine what is a good, evidence-based article and what is pseudoscientific rubbish. While this is great for the free expression of quacks everywhere, it does little to further science in the popular understanding.

Search HuffPo today for “vaccines+autism” and you’ll find a hodgepodge of pro and anti-vaccine articles with vague, clickbaited headlines and questionable contentions. Presenting vaccination as a “debate” with two equal sides is bad journalism at best, and life-endangering at worst. When it comes to childhood vaccinations, there is no debate; there are not two equal sides. There is evidence-based science and there is opinion. As Neil deGrasse Tyson argued on the Colbert Report, science doesn’t care what your opinion is: “It’s true whether or not you believe in it”. Vaccines are the most effective medical intervention in the history of humankind.

Should we hold out hope that the Australian edition of HuffPo will improve on its parent’s chequered past? Perhaps. Right out of the gate, they have published two decent pieces on mental health, one by noted adolescent psychologist Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, and the other looking at a new Beyond Blue anxiety program. They have also published a piece promoting the healing properties of crystals (they help “clear and release old toxic emotions”, apparently). If we can continue this ratio of 2-1 good science-based medical articles to hokum, there might be hope yet.

The methods of science are not optional to understanding our world; they are mandatory. They consist of careful observation and rigorous intellectual honesty, and are the best ways to confront the world’s many and varied problems. In a recent interview with the ABC’s Lateline, Huffington stated that she supports the key tenets of “fairness, accuracy and fact checking” in journalism, along with the scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming. I sorely hope she implores her news sites, with a global audience of tens of millions, to follow the same principles.


Friday, 21 August 2015

IMAX: The Last Picture Palace

IMAX Melbourne, Nikon F100, Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4, Fujifilm Natura 1600

When Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar returns to IMAX Melbourne for one last night this Sunday, it’ll be the end of an era. At the end of the screening, the massive IMAX GT 1570 film projector will be switched off for the last time; the 272kg platter of 1570 film Interstellar occupies packed up never to be seen on these shores again. As part of the third stage of the cinema’s “upgrade”, IMAX Melbourne is removing the film projector, along with the inferior twin-digital projection system, and replacing them both with the new 4K IMAX Laser projection system.

IMAX claims the new Laser (must...resist...urge...to “finger air quote”) system is a “quantum leap in cinema technology” that provides audiences with “the sharpest, brightest, clearest and most vivid digital images ever”. This is all, of course, marketing guff. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. As a film and film aficionado, my customary position is to be skeptical of IMAX’s lofty claims for the new system. After all, technology companies have been promising to make film obsolete since 1981’s Sony Mavica and its video floppy disk system (as if you'll ever need more than 490 lines of horizontal resolution!). It has taken three long decades for digital projection and capture to live up to its own rhetoric and even then, the resolution of 70mm IMAX film exceeds virtually all commercially-available digital capture devices. But I will resist the urge to critique the new system until I see it in action.

Interstellar, one of the boldest and most impressive science-fiction films this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is also likely to be the final feature film (partially) shot and projected in 70mm IMAX. The past few years have seen a number of films, particularly those of Christopher Nolan, utilise the format for key sequences. J.J. Abrams is continuing this trend, shooting at least one segment of Star Wars Episode VII on 70mm IMAX. Whether or not the film is released in 70mm IMAX for suitable screens is moot, Melbourne audiences will be seeing it projected via the new Laser system come December.

If there is to be a future for film, digital projection seems to be an inevitable part of it. Perhaps, for the multiplex, this is the best of both worlds: the organic nature of film capture paired with the adequate consistency of most digital projection. But for the world of IMAX and epic event cinema, the removal of capacity to project 1570 film will leave audiences all the poorer. I understand the practicalities of the situation – a projection system is only as good as the films available to present and there is a dwindling number of drawcard movies being shot and projected on 70mm IMAX film – but I still can't help feeling like something truly great is being lost.

So here's to IMAX and the crazy people who made it possible including inventors Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw; IMAX cinematographers James Neihouse, David Breashears; IMAX director and developer Greg MacGillivray and more recent notables such as Christopher Nolan. The cinema is far richer and more powerful for your efforts and I can't wait to sit down, strap myself in and watch the fruits of your labours one last time.

ELCAN (Ernst Leitz Canada) IMAX projection lens. German-born know-how made in Canada – optics without compromise. Source: For the Love of Film – Interstellar IMAX® Featurette 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

We Shouldn’t Be So Ready To Give Up On Two-Party Politics

Updated version of a previous article as published in Junkee, 30 July 2015

It seems we can hardly go a day without hitting an “all-new low” in Australian politics. The conventional wisdom is that this terrible state of affairs is so terrible that now is indeed the worst period in our political history. Ever.

But while some of this gnashing of teeth is rightly warranted – particularly when it comes down to the demonisation of refugees – it might be beneficial to cool our jets, and look at the situation rationally. Yes, much of the current political debate is pretty ordinary; some of it’s downright shitty. But has Australia ever really enjoyed an era of enlightened political exchange?

I’m going to put forward an entirely unpopular idea: the frightfully unsexy two-party system has provided Australia with largely dependable (if sometimes uninspiring) governance, and should continue to do so. The way to fix our current malaise is not to destroy the two party system — as has been regularly suggested in the subtext of a variety of Junkee articles recently penned by Alex McKinnon and Jane Gilmore — but to reinvigorate it.

Despite loud protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of the electorate still votes for one of the two major parties. Come next election day, you can bet around 80% of voters will mark “1” in the Labor or Liberal/National box. This figure jumps as high as 90% if you include the Greens. Given our alleged distaste and distrust for political parties, you’d expect this figure to have plummeted over the past decade. It hasn’t.

Hardly a system on shaky ground.

But only an ignorant fool would say political parties are in rude health. Hardly anybody trusts them, their memberships have been declining for decades and, as Richard Cooke noted in a brilliant piece in The Monthly, there exists a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country.

Sometimes this separation is a good thing: public opinion was vehemently against Malcolm Fraser’s Vietnamese refugee migration policy, but Fraser thankfully stuck to his guns and ignored the electorate. At other times, the dismissal of public opinion is a bad thing: marriage equality, the Iraq War… Take your pick.

Given the behaviour of Abbott and his band of moral delinquents, it’s completely understandable that many want do away with the two-party system, viewing it as the cause of our malaise. For some, Labor is not a real alternative — but is a parliament untouched by political parties a better solution?

#ALPConf2015: What Progressives Get Wrong About The Labor Party
Full disclosure: I am a paid-up, card-carrying member of the Australian Labor Party, but I don’t work for the Labor Party or any associated entity.

I’m not one of those shiny-suited twenty-somethings that Junkee’s Alex McKinnon described in his ALP Conference coverage last week, who dream of preselection in a safe seat (not that there’s anything wrong with ambition). I am, if there can be such a thing, a common or garden-variety party member who likes getting together with a few mates and talking about the state of affairs.

The ALP National Conference provided a great opportunity to do that. As a first time attendee, it was great to walk among political giants. Walking through the foyer, one is as likely to run into a local branch member as they are a former state premier.

I can understand how some of the party conventions may appear strange or even quaint to outsiders, but to me they’re not really the cause for the public confusion or mass panic that McKinnon was suggesting.

Alex McKinnon argues that, like a totalitarian entity, “[a]bove all, the good of the Party comes first”. This is largely true, but it’s less ominous that it sounds. All political parties — indeed most institutions, private and public — operate this way.

Political parties in government or opposition are next to useless if they’re not united. One need only look at the decade-long Liberal leadership spat between John Howard and Andrew Peacock, or the more recent Rudd/Gillard killing season to understand how destructive broken parties can be. Disunity is death; unity a requirement for success.

Oh, and factions? I could probably write a whole thing on factions, but they’re really not as mysterious as he makes out. The political science literature defines factions as sub-parties within parties. Rather than being the source of constant conflict that is frequently claimed, formal factionalism can be a source of order and stability, public fracas notwithstanding.

Factions are an inevitable part of social life. In any grouping, we find ourselves drawn towards like-minded individuals in order to achieve our goals within the broader organisation. The Labor Party is no different, except that our factions are formalised.

Yes, factional politics can be destructive and they should be kept in check, but Labor’s factional fracas are no more damaging than similar power struggles in non-Labor parties. Arguably, there is more reason to be concerned about the opaque personality-driven factional tendencies within the Liberal Party and the Greens than the nakedly obvious demarcations within Labor — but the public don’t seem to see it that way.

Do not be afraid of the organisational structure of the Australian Labor Party. It’s really not that terrifying or incomprehensible.

Two Parties Preferred: Why More Independent Representatives In Parliament Is Not The Best Idea
Like it or not, two-party politics is the natural state of affairs in the House of Representatives, where government is formed. It has been this way since 1910, when non-Labor parties united to fight the emerging ALP after a period of unstable minority governments. The ALP, unlike other parties of the day, steadily increased its vote through party unity and discipline, forming the first majority federal government in Australian history at the 1910 election.

As we saw from the 43rd Parliament, minority government isn’t necessarily unworkable, but it was clear to non-Labor MPs early in the last century that a formal party structure is necessary to win elections and achieve their policy goals. These two groupings — Labor and non-Labor — have dominated Australian politics ever since.

We often forget that the point of politics is, at its core, to win elections. It may sound cynical, but without power, the best policies are doomed to remain little more than a thought bubble. And while Junkee readers might not agree with specific Labor Party policies, it remains the only progressive party with a realistic chance of winning elections and implementing policies.

This is the fundamental reality of our system. Minor parties and independent candidates, including the Greens, almost never win House of Representatives seats — and without those seats, they have no ability to implement the policies they put forward. Sure, some voters might favour minor parties in the hope they can “hold the government to account”, but this is a fairly abstract and nebulous idea with no guarantee of an outcome, and has almost no effect in electing members of the House of Representatives.

Complain as you might about the electoral system, but it is what it is — and a change in systems, such as proportional representation, isn’t likely to occur. Parties have to work within the framework provided and, for better or for worse, this makes the two major parties our best hope for political change. This reality makes it even more important to have strong, representative parties that reflect the desires of all Australians.

As Jane Gilmore correctly notes, the 43rd ‘minority’ Parliament was a particularly productive one, despite the perpetual droning (and mad running skilz) of the Abbott opposition. Complex and important legislation was debated and negotiated through the House and Senate with remarkable deftness.

In particular, independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Andrew Wilkie (all former major party members) represented their electorates and the national interest with great integrity. Therefore, Jane’s suggestion that we find more quality independent candidates to run is a good idea, yeah?

Hold up there.

Our electoral system tends to favour a two-party outcome, and our hybrid ‘Washminster’ system of responsible government is a majoritarian system. Put simply, our parliament is designed to work best with a clear majority government, and clear minority opposition.

The certainty afforded by our system means the major parties can make policy announcements and promises knowing that they’ll be in a position to implement them should they win government. An independent MP, on the other hand, cannot. Sure, they can make all sorts of promises about sticking it to those out-of-touch latté-swilling, craft beer-drinking city folk, but ultimately they have no way of implementing promises if they win.

Let’s remember, the great nation-building policies of the 43rd Parliament didn’t come from the independent MPs; they largely originated from the Labor government who could count on the power of executive office to implement them.

And herein lies another problem with independent MPs: For every thoughtful and erudite Windsor or Oakshott, there are hardline conservatives like Pauline Hanson or Brian Harradine who find their way into parliament.

Harradine was a Catholic conservative senator who represented Tasmania in the Senate for thirty years, until 2005. He opposed abortion, stem-cell research and pretty much anything that constituted modernity. In a case of the independent MP tail wagging the governmental dog, Harradine ensured the abortion pill RU486 was not imported into the country, and that Australian foreign aid never funded family planning involving abortion advice.

But he was also a conviction politician with Catholic social values, refusing to support the GST, opposing the Iraq War and securing a $350mil payment for Tasmania. Harradine’s curious mix of values demonstrates the challenge of finding suitable candidates. Oh, and need we mention Bob Katter?

Here’s how I see increased independent representation in parliament working out: it would likely be a melting pot of conservatives and progressives, just as today’s parliament is. We can assume they would have campaigned on issues near and dear to them, promising better services, a new road and a school or something, sometimes with no plan to implement them. If elected, these independents might then offer to support a major party to form government in exchange for projects in their electorates. Some might call this pork barrelling.

In order to maximise power, like-minded independents would then be wise to band together to form a voting bloc. Perhaps one MP would offer support for another’s bill in exchange for support on their own. They might lunch together, informally talking about events of the day. Who knows, they might even formalise an agreement and before you know it you’ve got a brand-new political party — precisely of the type this whole idea was trying to avoid.

What would be achieved in such a parliament? My guess is not a lot. Our august parliamentary system is designed around a majority to get shit done. As the 43rd Parliament demonstrated, the electorate doesn’t take well to the horse-trading of minority government. This isn’t Abbottesque fear mongering; it’s a political and constitutional fact. Our two major parties, with a workable majority, therefore remain the best basis for transformation of our political debate.

I share much of Jane Gilmore’s frustration with politics, but it is not the system I am frustrated with: it’s the party members themselves. There is a gap between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. We need to bridge that gap.

Party Over Here
As fellow Labor member Luke Mansillo argued in The Guardian recently, “people need to participate in party politics to get the parties they want … if you want a more progressive Labor party, make it”. While this may come across as terribly naive, it’s actually more pragmatic than you might think. Parties need people because parties are people.

Although our major parties dominate electoral politics, ordinary membership of these organisations has been declining for decades. Neither party publishes verifiable figures, but leaked figures put the ALP’s membership at around 54,000 nationally and the Liberal Party at around 40-45,000 (although the Liberals claim double this). Not much chop considering a couple of local sport(s) teams could more than account for the nation’s major party membership and have enough left over to start another one.

This decline in membership has left the parties without the diversity of membership required to best serve the country. So how can we fix the situation? Simple: go and join a major political party. Instead of signing a Change.org petition, sign a membership form and pay your dues. Go and bolster their terminal membership with ordinary people like yourselves, and ensure that they don’t fall prey to undue sectional and special interests.

GetUp! claims a membership of 800,000 mostly young and politically engaged people. Imagine if even 10 per cent of that group signed up to the Labor Party today? 80,000 new progressive members would reinvigorate the party unlike any drawn out rules committee changes ever could. Hell — imagine if more thoughtful, non-reactionary conservatives (if that’s not an oxymoron) joined the Liberal Party?

Instead of finding many cats to herd across the wilds of this brown land, I plead that you do this seemingly non-radical act. Because while you might not like either of them, the two major political parties are the most viable vehicle for actual political change.

Thanks to the good folk at Junkee for affording me a platform