Flânerie – and the drumbeats of war again?

One of the joys of having control of my time is to become a flâneur. I have always been a generalist at heart, even when I specialised for work. The world is full of an endless array of interesting stuff for an inquisitive ermine to stick his snout into, and learn. I was recently trying to make a cheap Chinese humidity sensor work, and lost myself for a few hours in the curious ways of Cuban cigars and learning why you need a humidor, why they are made of Spanish cedar. I have no expectation of ever smoking, never mind Cuban cigars, but I learned about humidity control and how I can calibrate my cheap and nasty sensor using saturated salt solution.

And now, if I want to chase a knowledge rathole I can, without the feeling in the back of my mind that I should be learning about something useful. What is useful, anyway? The previous experiments with humidity sensors improved our hatching rate on eggs to about 75% from 50% – sometimes intellectual ratholes can be useful in some unrelated field.

Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on...
Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on…

People sell fertile eggs and send them through the post at about £2 a throw, so improving the hit rate was direct gain to the bottom line.

With curiosity in mind I walked into town to take some library books back, and observe, in an active but detached way. That’s flâneur after Baudelaire, who described him as “gentleman stroller of city streets”. I learned something about Britain today. It was a marvellous day, sunny but not too hot. It started well with this tree

maybe it's just be that suspects a face in this tree bark
maybe it’s just me that suspects a face in this tree bark

before I entered the town. Too often when I go to the High Street I find the experience alienating, the clamour of all the advertising trying to sell me something right now. It’s attempting to create a perceived need, to which of course some particular product or service is the solution.

There are signs the economy is improving. For starters there isn’t such a rash of empty shops as there once was. Indeed, I didn’t see any, though the improvement wasn’t that great. For instance, colour me surprised that BetFred are offering you these hideous machines to help you basically flush your money way.

self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?
self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?

Self-service, apparently, presumably so you don’t have to look someone in the eyes as you take the shaft? So much nicer that way, I say. It puzzles me why you have to walk into town to do this job – if you simply want to flush some money away most homes these days have a toilet that will do the job perfectly adequately, and if you want the thrill of the chase I’m sure that there are online places that will debit your credit card for a suitable fee 😉

I’ve lived in Ipswich for nearly a quarter of a century, but never noticed this massive advertisement dating from the 1930s, though presumably I’ve seen it numerous times

Symonds chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well
Symonds for Kodaks. They were chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well

Somehow I don’t think that flâneurs in 2090 will be wondering what just essentials or Chinese herbal medicines were. I’m left wondering if there are planning rules now that limit shop signage to the ground floor, or if this is the invisible hand of the market. After all, it took 25 years and stopping work for me to lift my gaze, maybe first-floor and up advertising isn’t economically viable.

I also recorded the dire sound of people sitting in a darkened room flushing their money away on a different kind of fleece-the-punter contraption – the amusements, which seem to be blighting the High Streets in vast numbers.

Here I ran into one of the banes of the street photographer’s trade – the punk who doesn’t understand what public means. The proprietor/franchise holder objected to pictures being taken of the back door of this place from which this noise was emanating.

[audio: 130827-1226_arcade-money_lost.mp3]

Well, perhaps since it’s air conditioned you don’t need to leave the back door open, and that wouldn’t attract inquisitive ears to find out what the racket is all about 😉 However, since you did leave this door open

the sounds of good monye being thrown after bad emanating from this door
the sounds of good money being thrown after bad emanating from this door.

I’m perfectly within my rights to photograph it, and indeed almost anything and anyone from a public place in Britain. Being followed for a few hundred yards and harangued for intimidating her customers by taking pictures of them and accused of breaking the law was starting to piss me off. I can be charged with crimes against photography, it’s a shit picture, but it didn’t harass her or her customers because there’s nobody in the photograph 😉 It was a record shot of where the noise was coming from.

She was jabbering on about calling the cops so I inquired what particular crime she was alleging had happened, and invited her to go call the coppers if she wanted, but in the meantime I’d be on my way. For some strange reason she didn’t bother to call the cops. However, it is nice to know that the franchisee/proprietor at least feels a little bit bad about what they do, which is basically making a living out of the human weaknesses of their customers. If you open a betting shop or slot machine emporium then some people will occasionally going to say you’re exploiting people. Just like some people say fast food joints serve crap food.If you don’t want to feel bad about basically ripping people off, then here’s an idea. Stop ripping people off?

More foreign wars seem to be imminent

So minor altercations aside a pleasant time was had. Then I get back home and find apparently ‘The West’ has decided to go kick the shit out of Syria. All of a sudden it gets to feel like groundhog day. We get to see this fella again, delivering the usual message – Weapons of Mass Destruction. Must. Kick. Ass.

Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?
Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?

saying Go get ’em, boys, and I start to think to myself, this is the UN Middle East Peace envoy? Let’s just remind ourselves of how that went last time, eh, Tone? You were so enamoured with Dubya that you dreamed up some weapons of mass destruction to go in and get ’em. Okay, things can only get better – at least there is evidence of WMD being used, and at least circumstantial evidence that it was Assad. Let’s hear it from Tone himself

In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy. I detest the implicit notion behind so much of our commentary — that the Arabs or even worse, the people of Islam are unable to understand what a free society looks like, that they can’t be trusted with something so modern as a polity where religion is in its proper place. It isn’t true. What is true is that there is a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.

While I’m uncomfortable with the idea of charging in and telling people what to do, all that is Tone at his silvery-tongued best, it’s here where I really part company with him

In this struggle, we should not be neutral. From the threat of the Iranian regime to the pulverising of Syria to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it.

The evidence from Iraq indicates we just aren’t powerful enough of clever enough to improve things for those innocent people. That roll-call of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths shows it didn’t work there. Intervention did work in Bosnia and in Sierra Leone – well done Tone. It hasn’t worked in anywhere big. I suppose Libya counts as some sort of success because the oil is flowing again and Gaddafi is pushing up daisies which is why Cameron is all gung-ho. But it’s been a long time since the Pax Britannia was non-negotiable.

Now Assad is a sonofabitch, but the trouble with Syria is okay so you do the whole no-fly zone and bomb the shit out some of it, but exactly how is this going to make things better? The whole place seems to be running with people who have some sort of reason to hate each other. After all, in Eye-rack after 10 years of war it seems like 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. So maybe, Tone, and Cameron, and all the others who are gung-ho, you should just take five and ask yourselves the simple questions.

Have we got the resources and will for overwhelming force – which I would say is no. Let’s face it, Cameron preferred to wind down the Navy’s strike capability rather than ask the electorate to be taxed more. The whole point of an aircraft carrier is to, well carry aircraft maybe? So deciding we won’t bother shows where our priorities lie.

If we go in half-assed, is it likely that we will improve the situation in the long run, given that we can’t really see any good guys in this conflict, simply different sorts of bad guys?

In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to remember the Hippocratic Oath

First, do no harm

At least it was possible to understand why Iraq was invaded. There’s oil there. There was oil in Libya.  Just don’t try and pretend to us again that it’s for humanitarian reasons. To be honest Cameron and  Tone don’t give a shit about chemical weapons, other than as a pretext to get into the fight. Is it better to stop another 1300 people being gassed by starting another Iraq war in Syria that will top 100,000 civilians? I’m not so sure the end justifies the means, sometimes there is no good answer and shit is going to go down regardless. You can have more shit, but not no shit. As Cameron very well knows, shit happens. This is a rerun of The Great Game, the players are different 100 years on but it’s the same sort of thing. This isn’t about humanitarian anything, it’s about power.

And Britain is immeasurably less powerful relative to the rest of the world now than it was 100 years ago. It didn’t actually happen on Tone’s watch, but we went bust since taking part in Dubya’s misadventures in Iraq. We have run down our military because we couldn’t afford it. I don’t see how we can ask the British military to fight with what they haven’t got. If we want to go and kick some ass in Syria on anywhere else, it will mean making economies at home. Okay, at least Parliament will be recalled, but it appears that the decision has already been taken.

If you take the Wikipedia entry about the Great Game and swap British-Russian rivalry  for Western/Russian rivalry, and maybe throw in Chinese interests in there somewhere we are following the same path once again. It’s kinda scary that next year will be the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and here I get the feeling the history is perhaps not repeating itself, but it is rhyming…

Yes, looking at it from the personal finance angle war is a great opportunity to buy into the stock market as everybody is scared shitless. But I am human enough that I’d very much rather do without the opportunity if it sees fewer of my fellow humans slain in the crossfire of another Great Game. It took thirty years,  two world wars and a lot of shit to get the various forces into another semi-stable equilibrium the last time the Great Game was played. So for God’s sake, willy-waving macho war-mongers of the West, put a bloody cork in it. And if you can’t, stop lying to us about humanitarian this that and the other. It’s all about power, not humanity. This is not the century of the West. It’s somebody else’s century, We have grown effete and complacent, and we aren’t prepared to put up with the sacrifices that go along with being king of the hill.

In The Decline of the West Oswald Spengler called us out.

A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto- spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualised the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts> states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul. But its living existence, that sequence of great epochs which define and display the stages of fulfilment, is an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos without and the unconscious muttering deep-down within. […]

It was thus that the Classical Civilization rose gigantic, in the Imperial age, with a false semblance of youth and strength and fullness, and robbed the young Arabian Culture of the East of light and air. This – the inward and outward fulfilment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture – is the purport of all the historic ” declines, ” amongst them that decline of the Classical which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us today – the decline of the West. Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. […]

At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.

This is the spell that Cameron, and Tony Blair are trying to breathe life into, wishing themselves out of the overlong daylight.



Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?

In her book Cheap, the high cost of discount culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell observes the increasing polarisation of products. Globalisation is driving most of us towards the Poundland end of the market, with stuff that is cheap, absurdly cheap compared to earlier times, and a very few people who are either fanatics or have a lot of money towards the high end. As a result, the quality and reliability of a lot of products is, quite frankly, crap, though their functionality is pretty good. Nowhere is this more apparent than in electronics. Digitalisation, higher integration of components and Chinese manufacturing have all made it a lot easier to do many things in electronics, in particular adding features and functions. These are pushed relentlessly by marketing departments, and we often fall for it. The entire history of the iPhone is an example of featureitis gone mad. Just as well this makes the product cycle so short.  The vacuum tube kitchen radio my mother had in the 1960s operated from 1960 to 1976 ISTR. None of the replacements have lasted 16 years. There’s no point in making an iPhone last more than 5 years, it will be hopelessly naff by then in the eyes of consumers.

One of the advantages of taking an axe to consumerism is I get off some of this hamster wheel. The recent launch of the iPhone 5 left me as cold as the previous four launches. However, I still have the problem that stuff breaks down, and it seems that this is much more likely for newer stuff than kit I’ve had for a while. It makes me loath to replace something with a more modern replacement if it can be avoided, because capitalism seems to have hollowed out the middle ground. I either end up with cheap rubbish that fails me in my hour of need or top-end products that are often too fancy and too pricey for my requirements.

Demise of a faithful friend

This was brought home to me when my 10-year old Iriver IMP-250 mp3 cd player died. I don’t have an iPod because I don’t do portable music on the move, it’s kind of hazardous as a cyclist, and when I had my car it had a perfectly serviceable CD player 😉 However, the iRiver CD player was nice for the outdoor parties because a MP3 CD would run for several hours, and being a CD player meant we could take other people’s music too. Ipods seem unreliable in this kind of service as well as being a closed box without a computer- I constructed a switchbox to select different people’s iPods but the big problem seems to be iPod battery life plummets as it gets colder when the sun goes down, I will have to run a USB hub from the main battery in future to counteract this.

The iPod doesn’t really like to party after sundown…

All portable audio devices live on borrowed time, due to the hard life they lead and the inevitable drop-tests. Nowadays, to make manufacturing cheaper the connectors are mounted on the main circuit boards, which is a really bad idea. Pretty much anything I make myself uses connectors mounted on the case with wires to the circuit board, because the connectors take a lot of mechanical stress. Fixing the connector to the case stabilises it, and the wires to the board take out any residual strain. However, this is a very pre-1980s constructional style.

Transmitting the mechanical strain to the circuit board flexes the solder joints, which causes micro cracks and ratty intermittent connections. It’s why you should always try and use right-angled audio jacks on portable gear. Presumably Apple provide straight plugs so you break the iPod faster and have to get a new one, leastways the earbuds I observed on people’s iPods all had straight audio jacks.

This 10 year old iRiver was just dead. That sort of fault is good, the ones I hate are the intermittent ones where you never really know if you’ve nutted the problem. I took it to pieces and was faced with this

iRiver IMP250 innards. That’s a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

In previous lives like at the BBC I’d fault find to individual components but that’s not going to happen with this, no circuit diagram and no service manual. You used to get one in the handbook of most consumer electronics until the mid 1970s when people expected to repair things if they went wrong.

Even if I had these there’s no fun in trying to unsolder parts here. That involves magnifying glasses, tweezers, lots of bad language and a fair chance of knackering some other part in the process. These things are assembled in the Far East by automatic pick-and-place robots, though an awful lot of module level assembly still seems to involve humans even on the iPhone 5.

the offending connector, black item on the left

However, there’s a good win in faulting consumer  electronics by knowing that 90% of problems are to be found in connectors or the power supply. Power supply problems are usually associated with smoke and visible damage. Connectors, however, aren’t so obliging. Probing on the circuit boards showed battery power wasn’t getting to the player, and nor was external power, and the problem was traced to the DC jack which switched the battery to the player when the DC jack wasn’t inserted. Or not, in this case. So I unsoldered it, cleaned out the microscopic switch contacts and reassembled the part, and the player came back to life, both on external and battery power.

iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then…

Now I could have bought a current replacement for about £30 at Argos or a little media player secondhand from Computer Exchange for £20-ish. I had been on a previous reccy for that sort of thing but come away empty handed. I have to admit that I hat been tempted by a secondhand DJ CD mixer that looked like it could run off 12V, but then sense prevailed. Not only was I setting myself up for an audio earth loop fail, but in the end I don’t really want to be a live DJ. I want to talk to people at parties and maybe get hammered, not do a Paris Hilton 😉

Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn’t go well, apparently

The price of freedom from consumerism is still eternal vigilance. There is still somewhere in the back of my mind the ad-man’s meme ‘if you just buy this product, your problems will be solved and life will be wonderful‘. No. All I want is what I had before, thanks, it’s worked well enough for  five parties outside, and if I’m going to spend money then I should change the old hi-fi speakers, which are clapped out from being a) overdriven and b) far too small for the job of running outside, which is why they’ve been pushed too hard 😉

Although the repair was effectively paying below minimum wage, I just didn’t want to add to the mountain of e-waste without trying at least to inquire what had caused this faithful old middle-range CD player(it cost about £120 in the early 2000s ISTR) to give up the ghost. Plus I know that once started, it will keep running outdoors past the 11 p.m point where dew starts to accumulate on metal surfaces, because the self-heating of the circuit boards stops the dew forming. It had been a surprise to me that dew forms in late evening and the small hours of the night, I’d always thought it was an early morning thing.

More digital casualties in the pipeline

The digital camera seems to be another terribly unreliable electronic gizmo in the modern world, particularly the point and shoot digicam. Digital SLRs seem okay, I even managed to keep one in good working order until I sold it to a colleague. Digicams, however, are a whole different world of hurt.

I learned photography with film, and one of the great advances in photography in the early 1980s was the autofocus lens. Manually focusing was fraught even with some visual aids and just one more thing to slow you down in capturing the moment. In the 1990s manufacturers made automatic exposure work properly most of the time, and then came digital, which after some early issues sorted many of the residual problems, in particular the running costs and latency of seeing the results. Digital SLR cameras reached a point  in the late 2000s where for the vast majority of people the main improvements were to be had behind the camera, not in front of it or inside it; a rotten photographer will take poor shots no matter how expensive the gear.

My old Canon AE-1P from the 1970s that I bought second hand in the late 1980s is still serviceable, as are the lenses. I’ve had five digicams fail on me with lens jam failures, a Fuji 1700, Canon Ixus 80, an Ixus 950, a Nikon 995, and I will have to take my Panasonic digicam to pieces to remove dust from the sensor which makes the camera useless at high f-stops (in bright light). That’s four down permanently and one fiddly repair job, in the course of ten years. I look at the cost of a digicam more as a two year rental, rather than as a capital investment. One of the advantages of digital was supposed to be you don’t have film costs any more. Looks like you still have the same costs, however, just in a different form as the gear falls apart in your hands as you use it. Money still has to made somewhere 😉

You can make a digicam last if you keep it in a box and only haul it out for birthdays, but the whole point of a camera is you take it to interesting places and put it in front of new vistas. Every time you switch the damn thing on and the lens comes out, it sucks in a little bit of dust and fluff, which eventually gums up the lens mechanism (Canon) or gets dust into the sensor (Panasonic). On a film camera that dust only affected one frame because it was advanced with the film. On a digicam you get this after a while.

dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky

The manufacturing effort seems to go in features rather than fundamentals. What’s so hard about making a digicam that doesn’t suck dust into the camera? It’s so much easier for Panasonic to say hey, this camera has got Face Tracking, than for them to say this camera won’t suck dust into the works so your pictures won’t gets spots after a year or so.

after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.

What the hell does anybody need face tracking for? If you are so drunk that you need the camera to find the face in the shot for you, then either you aren’t close enough or you don’t need to take that picture for uploading to Facebook because a) it might not be the right face and b) they’re probably as drunk as you are.

What face recognition is for. Hat tip to Glenys for sharing with the world

It’s hard to deny the sneaking suspicion of advanced decadence in Western capitalism here. Faced with the choice of making this kind of shot easier, or keeping the dust out of the sky, the obvious choice is sod the dust, help the Facebookers out even if they are a few sheets to the wind. Bless…

It isn’t just the digicams, either. I have a Canon 18-75 IS zoom lens which has developed a stock fault after 5 years. This was something that cost about £350 new ISTR, and I had expected to be a decent middle ground product. Those old Canon FD lenses for the AE1 are still going fine, forty years after they were made… There’s no point in sending off the lens to be fixed if this is a stock fault, it will only happen again. Just how common it is was brought home to me in that the replacement part was only £2 on ebay, however the process of taking the lens to pieces and changing the ribbon cable is fraught and likely as not to break something else. For £2 it’s worth a go, and I’ve become happier with dismantling ribbon cables that seem to be widespread in small gadgets after learning from some videos on Youtube and experience gained with the iRiver repair. If I screw up I guess I just have to take the £600 hit on the 15-85 replacement. Or take an extra £200 hit and go with the 2.8 aperture  17-55 and get closer to the subject at the long end. I was more often short of light than of reach in using the old lens 😉

I really miss the middle ground in many products. The AE-1P was a middle ground camera – it worked well and lasted, but that part of the market is evaporating fast. As a result I end up buying rubbish, just because I don’t think it will stay working. Tools seem to be another case in point –  you can get a set of 50 spanners for a tenner. Just don’t expect a 13mm spanner to stay a 13mm spanner after you’ve used it a few times. Fortunately I still have my old ones from the 1990s, before the Chinese got in on the act 😉 I want a pillar drill. The whole point of a pillar drill is precision, and I know if I buy something for £90 then mechanical precision is not what I’m going to get. However, I don’t need a 1kW three-phase pillar drill for a thousand pounds either. Something in between, say 800W for about £300 would match my usage, but it’s not to be had locally.

Bring back those mid-range products. Not everything is life is black-and-white where you need either something disposable or the very best. Often something well-built but less capable than the best is good enough. I don’t want to be endlessly buying junk, and throwing it out after a few uses. There’s got to be a place between the Trabant and the Rolls-Royce. As Ellen Ruppel Shell asked in Cheap

Why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that all coonsumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so many years ago?

A Close Shave with Consumerism and a Canon G12

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and that applies to freedom from consumerism too. I came close to being had by the old serpent of gadgetitis lately, and it was the good old 30-day rule for new purchases that saved me from an unthinking purchase suckered by marketing. I might even make the purchase after 30 days, but I’ll make it for my own reasons.

I was looking at Everyday Minimalist’s pictures from China which are quite striking. I’ve never been to China so  of course it will be striking because it’s new to me, but I was struck by gadgetitis was when she said

I took each and every shot with my amazing Canon G12 camera.

I will go as far as to say it is the best camera for a tourist because of it relatively light body compared to its packed features, the easy exposure dial on the left to adjust each shot, the amazing flip screen and overall awesomeness.

BF was cursing his heavy “professional” camera the entire 5 weeks, although he loved his wide lens option. He wished he had brought his Canon G11 as well, for quick (amazing) shots like mine.

I know how he feels – I have a couple of SLRs and if you’re going to shoot pictures that will be used in print or of anything that moves then it’s the only way to go – the larger sensor and the fact that the picture gets taken when you press the shutter button rather than some random but noticeable period of time afterwards means a digital SLR is the only way to go – for A4 size and up you need the quality, which is different from pixel resolution,  and to capture the decisive moment you need the speed.

But they’re a bear to cart around, and don’t go in your pocket. Plus for some types of photography like street photography you change the action with a big SLR so you need something smaller, like EM’s Canon G12. Or in my case, my Canon Ixus 950

Canon Ixus 950, somewhat worn

Pocket digicams don’t last forever with me, whereas my SLRs are still going, even my film ones, ‘cos they are in a bag when not actively used. I don’t know how people manage to keep their digicams in the sort of condition where they can sell them, perhaps they don’t take them out with them. I can see how girls have a chance keeping them in a handbag, but as a guy I stick the damn thing in a pocket. The trouble is that if you stick a pocket camera in you pocket, it gets to look like this. After a while, dust works its way into the lens mechanism and you get the dreaded E18 lens error. I’ve already had to dismantle this, taking out a bazillion tiny screws to get dust out of the lens mechanism. The only way I could do this was with compressed air, after which some of the dust lodged in the sensor cell so I get dark spots in the sky on bright days.

I use this one if I expect low light and the aperture wide open, and a secondhand Nikon coolpix 4500 for daytime digicam shots. And in general, the photos I took with those a couple of years ago, or their predecessors five years ago, are better than what I shoot now.

It’s not the camera that takes the picture, it’s you

I’ve read a fair few photography magazines in my time, and the spiel is always the same in both editorial and the ads, if you want to take great pictures, get a better camera. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This advertising was imbibed over many years, all B.F. (before frugality). It still lies there in a corner of my mind, and rises like a snake-charmer’s cobra when I think of wanting to take better pictures.

It’s utter bollocks. The message is always something like:

Psst – wanna take pictures like David Bailey? Use the same camera as he does and you’re away!

[iframe http://www.youtube.com/embed/ckSm10LZauA 425 329]

For most consumer products, it’s true, because they are consumed passively – if you want to get the same features on your phone as David Bailey then use the same phone as him. If you want to look like Kate Middleton then wearing the same dress as her gets you some of the way there if you’re young enough and of her general physique.  Unfortunately if you want to take the same sort of pictures as David Bailey then you really do need to be him. You need to go where he goes, have his contacts, and his vision. Even if I use the very same Olympus Trip as he did, his photos will be better than mine.

At least there is something noble about aspiring to be like a well-known photographer if you want to take pictures, even if it isn’t your camera that will make your pictures great. I detect the strong whiff of decadence in Nikon’s adoption of a well-known generic celebrity to market their current camera line. I had to look him up, because my first reaction was who the heck is Ashton Kutcher, I’d never heard of him? As soon as I saw a picture of him I knew he wasn’t a photographer. Real photographers usually look grizzled and weatherbeaten, rather than some Hollywood pretty boy. Let’s just say that when you Google Ashton Kutcher photography you get a load of pictures of him rather than by him.

I’ve got nothing against the guy, and good luck to him for earning a few more dollars. It’s more the social science of it. Either the ad company was lazy, and generalized the usual ‘if you want to get her look, wear her dress’ ad campaign. I hope so, because otherwise we’re all getting simple, and merely aspire to be minor celebrities by using the same Stuff.

So why are my pictures getting worse then?

It’s not that my camera is knackered. It’s what’s behind the viewfinder that is at fault. I am jaded, I am not living my values. Saving money means I haven’t been anywhere different on vacation for a while, apart from the odd work trip. What you put in front of your camera is half the work of making decent photographs, however, I live in a beautiful county of England and occasionally travel to London for work.

Most cities ramp building height to downtown gradually, but London and LA have planning regs that give this toytown juxtaposition of the old and the gargantuan new. My work mobile did a serviceable job here 🙂

Let’s face it, tourists from other countries come to the UK for its sights and history, so it would be rude to use that as an excuse. And I’ve taken enough magazine features even in the last couple of years, so 40 years of experience is still working for me, I can get the light right and depth of field and all that jazz, and basic composition.

So I thought I’d go out into the pleasant Suffolk countryside and shoot some pictures with my old Nikon Coolpix (it was bright enough the Ixus will have spots in the sky from the dust).

Five spot burnet day flying moth

I ran into this red-spotted moth, it’s a workmanlike record shot of what is probably a five-spot burnet. Or maybe a six. Something bored me about this so I figured I could try a bit better, the bugger’s trying to get out of the frame so it was time to see if I could nail him in context.

Moth with some of the Suffolk countryside t keep it company

It’s better. It’s not a great picture, but it’s a step in the right direction, the moth should be pointing up a bit and shame about the moth antenna in line with the thistle spike. I wasn’t able to see subtleties like that on the screen in daylight.

Further on the light interplayed with the water-starved grain which is a sort of greeny-yellow compared to what I think it usually looks like.

Luminous water-starved Suffolk grain. I'm sure it should be a different colour this time of year

All-in-all the trip served me well. it reminded me that it’s not my camera I need to fix, it’s me. That’s not to say I won’t get the G12, but it’ll be for the right reasons. Not because it will make my pictures better, because only I can do that. But because I’m tired of spotting the dust specks out of the sky with the Ixus in Photoshop, and because the flip out screen will enable me to shoot from lower down or higher up than the usual eye level. Perspective is another key aspect of getting better pictures, and eye level isn’t always the best vantage point for a lot of things – like the moth for instance.

Or I might wait, because the greatest weakness in my image taking system is my own inspiration, which is unlikely to be fixed for a year and a bit. I’m not David Bailey, the fire of photographic creativity doesn’t blaze from my very pores, it burns low at the moment. That’s the trouble with anything in the artistic line, it’s moody, and sometimes creativity just goes AWOL. And I learned the memes of advertising sleep for a long time just below consciousness. That is scary…