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Popular topics on this page:
Would Ansel Adams have used a digital camera?
What is the opposite of pathological hoarding?
Adobe Reader or Acrobat hangs for 10 to 30 seconds opening a file
Quicken interfaces to SunTrust Bank
Can a scientist believe in God?

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Francis Schaeffer centenary

End of month or not, I can't let the 100th birthday of Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer pass unnoticed. (Unfortunately, he didn't live to see it.) Click through to learn more about one of the main influences on my own early intellectual development.

See also Wikipedia, which (as of this moment) has a good, balanced article about Schaeffer. And beware of critics of the Religious Right who claim Schaeffer was the leader of the right-wing cranks. Schaeffer wasn't exactly a member of the Religious Right, let alone a leader. He encouraged Christians to be politically active, but to respect freedom of religion and avoid theocracy.


End-of-month roundup

I'm very busy with other things — getting lots of research done and supervising lots of student research projects — so I'll wind up January now. See you next month!

A person to whom money is not quantitative: Thanks to Sirius Satellite Radio, I don't hear many financial talk shows any more, but part of one of them caught my ear the other day. A woman called to say, in brief, "I want to take such-and-such a trip to see my cousins, and my husband says we can't afford it. What should I do?"

The counselor naturally tried to find out how much money they did have, but more than once she answered uninformatively, saying, "I won't put a price on visiting my family. They're my family."

Well... It is hard to understand exactly what she meant. That family visits never cost anything? That admitting any limitations would dishonor her family? Or could she not understand that only a finite amount of money was available?

The counselor wisely advised her to learn how to communicate with her husband about money, since they were apparently presently operating on the "daddy says yes or no" system.

A defective mental model of a car: The other day an elderly driver put a foot on the wrong pedal and drove right out of a service station, across Oglethorpe Avenue, and into a restaurant (Transmetropolitan Pizza).

How did this happen? When I drive, I start up slowly. If the car is going the wrong direction, or doing the wrong thing in any other way, I'm not going to push harder on the pedal to make it do more of the wrong thing. I'm going to let up on the pedal and try something different.

These "foot on the wrong pedal" accidents puzzle me. The noise of the revving engine should be enough to clue you in that you're pressing the accelerator, not the brake. Not to mention the rapid motion of the car!

But maybe I'm a lot more mechanically inclined than some drivers. Some of them apparently just think "this pedal to go, this pedal to stop," with no thought to the engine, transmission, or tires. (Watch them try to drive on snow.)

Or maybe this elderly driver had been driving for a long time without adequate perception of the state of the car, and had just been lucky.


Covbooks.com is no longer me

Starting very soon, covbooks.com will stop being a redirection to my book page.

I'm giving it to the Evangelical Covenant Church to become part of their set of web sites that begin with cov.

No content is being removed from my web site. You can still get to my books from my front page.


What is the opposite of pathological hoarding?

Everyone who has seen the TV show Hoarders knows that there are people who, because of some psychological problem, fill their houses with useless clutter until the houses are literally uninhabitable.

I've written briefly about the relevant brain science. Apparently, the desire for possessions, and the ability to keep track of them, is a fundamental human trait that varies from individual to individual.

Today I came across an interesting book: Bratiotis, The Hoarding Handbook: A Guide for Human Services Professionals.

An interesting undercurrent of the book is that people dealing with hoarders are cautioned not to be too heavy-handed, for two reasons. First, there have been recurrent cases of old people dying soon after having their hoards taken away. Letting go of possessions is hard.

Second, not everything that looks like a hoard is actually pathological. Would-be helpers are cautioned that well-organized collections are not pathological, no matter how large. Nor is clutter resulting from recently moving or receiving a bulky inheritance.

The defining characteristics of pathological hoarding are lack of organization (the hoarder doesn't know what he has, and doesn't have it ready for any kind of use) and interference with necessities (such as not being able to use the kitchen or the bed).

These cautions to would-be helpers struck a chord with me, because from a very early age, I've occasionally been criticized for having too many possessions. As a small child, I didn't destroy my toys the way other children did, so I quickly amassed more than others who received them at the same rate. Soon afterward, I started to accumulate books, and there were people who couldn't understand why a person would ever have more than two or three books, or why anybody would want to keep a magazine after reading it once. Then there are various kinds of specialized equipment and supplies for various hobbies...

Obviously, a person's quantity of possessions will depend on things like whether he has had to make frequent long-distance moves, and perhaps whether he or his parents grew up on a farm, where storage is abundant. But I think there are pathological anti-hoarders, people whose ability to keep up with possessions is abnormally low. I've written about this before, in connection with last year's mass-media vogue for "decluttering." I think that in some cases it may reflect an unhealthy desire to get away from your own past and pretend that you just arrived, unencumbered, from nowhere. That's not me. I come to you with nearly 55 years of documented history and nearly 10,000 books.

[Addendum:] I think the psychologists also need to make another distinction. Not all unwise or eccentric behavior is brain pathology. It's one thing when a person can't throw away rotten food or a used napkin. It's another when collecting that was begun rationally gets out of hand, or when a strategy doesn't pan out (e.g., objects don't have the salvage value that the person thought when acquiring them). Let us not declare people pathological merely because they have made blunders — much less because their tastes are different from some psychologist's. You run the risk of reinstituting 1950s-style pop psychology: "Everybody has to be a regular guy like me, and nobody is allowed to be Einstein or Picasso."

Would Ansel Adams have used a digital camera?

The two most admired photographers of the twentieth century are probably Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. Cartier-Bresson taught us how to take quick, casual, "decisive moment" pictures; Adams taught us how to control our media. Above you see one of his pictures that happens to belong to the National Archives and thus is freely shareable. It's a fine example of his style.

Adams' theme was total technical mastery as evidenced by control of the entire picture. An Ansel Adams picture doesn't just have a subject in front, with miscellaneous blurry stuff in the background; every square centimeter of the picture is accounted for, controlled, and, if at all possible, in focus.

Not only does Adams control the entire surface area of the picture, he also controls the tonal range from white to black. His great insight is that the exposure of each point on the picture is independent of all the rest. So you don't just expose for the average brightness ("f/16 for a sunny day"); you decide what's going to be black, what's going to be white, and what's going to go on in between. Adams' disciples often use spot meters to measure the exposure for many different points in a single picture. The camera, of course, can only be set to one exposure, but the idea is to know how it would render many brightness levels. This is called the Zone System.

Well... As the acknowledged master of large-format film, exposure, development, and printmaking, would Adams have used a digital camera, or would have have viewed them with disdain?

I think Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography as eagerly as I did, though he would probably have waited until the resolution got up to 12 megapixels or so. That's a large safety margin, because you have rarely seen a picture anywhere that actually made effective use of more than about 3 megapixels. Still, I'll grant him a reasonable wish — the ability to make very sharp 16×20-inch enlargements. A dozen megapixels are gracious plenty for that.

What some traditionalists forget is that Adams' goal was not to use film. It was to make pictures. And digital photography gives the photographer more control of exactly what matters — the brightness range and characteristic curve.

For that matter, part of the Zone System has been built into all good cameras made after about 1995. It's called zone metering or matrix metering. The exposure meter measures more than one point in the picture and computes the best compromise. Minolta implemented a tiny bit of this, with just two zones, in their SRT-101 back in the 1960s.

Today's hipster "lomographers," who revel in the visible defects of film photography — grain, lens flare, light leaks — are not carrying on Ansel Adams' craft. When you look at an Adams print, you can't tell what kind of film or camera he used, except that it worked well for the purpose; he was in control of it. I think he would have been the master of digital photography if he had lived to see it.



Some Kodak trivia

Unconfirmed, but reported on web sites: The reason Kodak's black-and-white processing chemicals are all still available (even paper developer, even though they no longer make black-and-white paper) is that, a few years ago, the manufacture of these chemicals was sold off to another company, and now Kodak only brands and distributes them. Purportedly exact clones of several of them are sold under the LegacyPro brand name — possibly from the same factory?

Also unconfirmed: The reason Kodak didn't take over the digital camera market — given that, after all, they had the first digital camera! — is that their film division forbade it.

(Remininscent of the old saw that the railroads should not have allowed themselves to be killed by the airlines; they should have become the airlines.)

Unconfirmed, but reported in the financial press: Kodak is likely to become a printer company pure and simple — not only inkjet printers for homes and small offices, but also large-volume printers for the publishing industry and for printing on plastic to make product packages and other special products.

(Does anybody remember Kodak copiers? Around 1980 they took on Xerox and built big machines that worked really well. I haven't seen one in a long time.)

Confirmed, but surprising: Kodak Photo-Flo wetting agent is not a detergent. It is a mixture of glycols. The MSDS says so. In all these years, I didn't know that.

(I've been doing photography so long I'm on my 4th bottle of Photo-Flo! A little goes a long way in our soft water. I dilute it 1:300 instead of the specified 1:200.)

Technical question I want to answer: Can you use Kodak and Ilford chemicals together in the same process? Yes, of course. For film, I routinely use Kodak developer, homemade citric acid stop bath, Ilford fixer, a water wash, and Kodak Photo-Flo. Also, you can develop Kodak film in Ilford chemicals and vice versa.


Adobe Reader or Acrobat goes unresponsive for 10 to 30 seconds (or longer) when opening a file


Ever since a recent automatic update, Adobe Reader and Acrobat have both, in my experience, had a tendency to go unresponsive for some time immediately after opening a file. The file opens, you see the first page, you may be able to scroll for a couple of seconds, and then for half a minute you can't do anything else.

A suggested workaround is to go to Edit, Preferences, Security (Enhanced), and disable enhanced security. The explanation is that this is a bug in the new "Enhanced Security" system (antivirus). Some kind of checking is being done for malicious scripts in PDF files, and it's taking too long.

In my experience, this is not a complete cure. It's easy to be tricked because any file that has been opened recently will reopen without the mysterious pause faster, but opening a file for the first time still causes the problem.

Disabling Protected Mode also won't do it.

Task Manager does not show any process taking up the CPU during the delay. Adobe Reader is not spinning its wheels. It's waiting for something that isn't happening — some kind of i/o operation.

I am having particular problems on a machine with Trend Micro OfficeScan. I will investigate that next.

My recommendation: Uninstall Adobe Reader X (10) and download and install Adobe Reader 9.5 (still available from Adobe). Adobe Reader X is not ready for prime time. If you have Acrobat 10 and want to keep it on your machine, you can still install Reader 9.5 alongside it and make it the primary handler for PDF files. Just right-click on any PDF file and choose "Open With" and "Choose Default Program." Reader 9.5 seems as fast as greased lightning compared to either Reader X or Acrobat.


It happened


As predicted, the Eastman Kodak Company is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Something will survive and will be called Kodak, but how much it will resemble the former Eastman Kodak Company, we don't know.

Their competitor Ilford has been bankrupt and has emerged (split into two companies).

What went wrong with Kodak, I think, is that they abdicated their role as a technological leader. They should have been making the best digital cameras and inkjet printers (or at least the sensors and ink for them), but instead they aimed to make the cheapest. By going only for the cheap market, they lost prestige.


A short note about SOPA

Today (Jan. 18), Wikipedia and other sites are protesting a proposed piece of legislation called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act).

I'm against piracy of movies and other copyrighted material as much as anybody. I've even been a victim of it. But I'm against SOPA.

Although I haven't analyzed SOPA in detail, as far as I can tell it is based on a serious misunderstanding of how the Internet works. The Internet is not a TV network with a small group of editors and producers who control what is on your screen. It is an internet, which means it connects computers to each other over a huge variety of paths, and it has no central headquarters.

Arguing for SOPA, Rupert Murdoch said Google "streams pirated movies to you." Google does nothing of the sort. Google may tell you where it found a movie. (Google is a machine, not a court of law, and has no way to know whether a movie is pirated. Google does not have an editor and producer sitting there deciding what to show you!)

When you click through, you are connecting your computer directly to whatever Google found. You are not receiving anything from Google. And Google certainly isn't making money from it — sites do not pay to be listed.

Murdoch's view is akin to thinking obscene phone calls are made by the phone book.

And I don't believe the factoid that, in the past two years, the entertainment industry "has lost half its revenue to piracy." What, the recession had nothing to do with it?

One last remark. I think Hollywood and Madison Avenue are living in a fantasy world. It's not 1955 and we're no longer glued to our TV sets. More to the point, although piracy is wrong, they need to learn what the software industry learned, which is that if you have a serious problem with piracy, your prices are too high. Don't price yourself out of the market and then demand control of the market.

Addendum: Greg Mankiw thinks SOPA may not be all that bad. But he hasn't made a thorough analysis of it either. Has anyone? Like many computer geeks, I judged it by the foolish things being said in support of it. It seems to have enthusiastic supporters who at least think it is something quite unreasonable.


Can a scientist believe in God?

Every so often, people pop up to tell me that, as a scientist, I am not supposed to believe in God. And I remember reading, in my youth, a magazine article titled "Can a scientist believe in God?" I don't remember much of the article, but anyone asking the question must have a couple of possibilities in mind:

(1) Maybe God does not exist, and scientists, more than the rest of us, know the evidence that this is so.

(2) Maybe God exists, but scientists are in some way prejudiced against this belief.

Around the mid-20th century, a good many people also considered an other, odder, possibility:

(3) Maybe believing in God is a purely emotional or symbolic thing, unconnected with any question of real fact.

Over the past few decades, clearer heads have prevailed, and we don't hear so much about option (3) any more. Most people will not say they are actively looking to hold beliefs that other people will consider hypocritical.

So that leaves us (1) and (2). I can find people smarter than me who believe in God and who don't, so I have to evaluate the issue on its own merits, and option (2) is the one for my money. I think scientists are sometimes unduly prejudiced against belief in God.

One reason is of course peer pressure. If you're a scientist, people will tell you you're not supposed to believe in God. They won't say much about why — it's just an expectation.

But, more deeply, scientists are likely to be prejudiced because they largely study things of which our understanding has been revolutionized within the past 200 years. If you're a scientist (and especially if you're relatively young, so that you have not outlived any major theories), it's easy to imagine that people were fools 300 years ago, and all true knowledge is modern in origin.

So if people believed in God 300 years ago, that must mean you're not supposed to now. Right?

Wrong, of course. C. S. Lewis called this attitude "chronological snobbery."


Short notes from all over

I'm too busy to write much, so here are some short notes...

The Economist has a good think piece about why Kodak is dying and Fuji isn't. Bottom line: Kodak lacked agility. A secondary factor that I note is that Kodak completely abdicated the role of being a professional digital camera maker. This cost it prestige, not just income.

From other sources I learn what part of photography died first: Color printmaking. Nobody makes color enlargements by projecting the negative onto color photographic paper. Minilabs may still use photographic paper (cheaper, apparently, than good inkjet media), but the image is put onto it with a laser. And that's as it should be. The color corrections needed for high quality are simply not possible with purely optical equipment (filters).

Meanwhile, pro photographers still use a good bit of color negative film and then scan the negatives and make the prints digitally. Why? Exposure latitude. Film still has a wider dynamic range than the usual digital sensor (as I understand it).

I had to make some flowcharts for a patent application and was glad to find IBM's 1969 flowcharting manual on line thanks to someone in Jena, Germany.

Why don't we make flowcharts today? Two reasons. First, they'd be too big. Today we write much bigger computer programs than people used to. One of mine comprises 300 pages of C# code. That might need 1000 pages of flowcharts to cover it completely.

Second, programming languages are much easier to read and understand. Since about 1975, a major concern has been making it possible to look at a program and see what it does, without requiring any other guide. It really isn't hard to understand code like this:

          if (x == 0)

without a flowchart. In days of yore, the same code might have looked like this:

           IF (X.EQ.0) GOTO 1
	   WRITE (6,2)
	   GOTO 3
	 1 WRITE (6,4)

(That's FORTRAN IV, circa 1970.) For that you might want a flowchart. And programming was much more error-prone — which is why we no longer do it that way.

(By the way, I realize the two code samples don't do the same thing. To preserve the authentic error-proneness of FORTRAN IV, I left my mistake uncorrected.)

According to Mankiw, the era of ultra-low interest rates may be about to end. Then, either the Fed will raise rates, or there will be inflation, or both.


Off and running

My natural language processing course is off and running with at least 11 students, which makes it unusually large. At one point there were 17 on the roll, which made it the largest group ever, but I seem to have scared some of them off.

Until the dust settles, I won't be writing very much here!


Quicken and SunTrust — the state of the art

Many things I've written about using Quicken with SunTrust Bank can be summed up as follows:

  • Quicken's "Direct Connect" interface, which requires you to subscribe to SunTrust PC Banking, is reliable and is supported by SunTrust.
  • Quicken's Express Web Connect to SunTrust Bank Small Business (Online Cash Manager), for business accounts, is, in my experience, reliable although I'm not sure how well SunTrust supports it.
  • Quicken's Express Web Connect to SunTrust for personal bank accounts is, in my experience, not reliable and not supported by SunTrust.

The first of the three uses SunTrust's API. The latter two operate by web scraping — pretending to be a human being, and logging onto SunTrust's web site and downloading data. The business one has served me well for a couple of years. The personal one fails about once a month. It either loses the ability to log on (with false error messages) or stops downloading new transactions even though it reports that it has done so.

My solution? I'm going to stop using what doesn't work. This will involve putting two credit cards out to pasture (but we were not using them actively anyhow). If SunTrust would let Direct Connect see the credit cards, I'd use them. If Quicken would improve Express Web Connect, I'd use them.

But as it is, Quicken is the one that is not entirely on the ball. The setup procedure for Express Web Connect on SunTrust falsely tells us that we must change our password (when in fact we must not) and falsely tells us passwords are limited to 8 characters. I don't fault SunTrust here, except for wishing that their PC Banking were a little more versatile.


Short notes

I've come down with a sinus infection and cough, so not much is getting done... Here are a few short notes.

The alert reader will have inferred that I bank with SunTrust, from whom I am getting very good service, so it's good news that they are doing well.

You've heard of Merle Haggard, the country singer, and moral hazard, the economic risk that someone is tricking you. But have you heard of Merle Hazard, the singing economist of Nashville? Also sample this one.

Here is a remarkable collection of color pictures of World War II — mostly very well-produced pictures of people working in factories.


More darkroom work

Here's a scan of an 8×10 print that I made last weekend. I took the picture with a Nikon F3HP, 50/3.5 Micro-Nikkor lens, and long-outdated Fuji Neopan 400 film. It was slightly underdeveloped in HC-110 (E) and enlarged on Ilford Multigrade IV paper.

I had an amusing hardware failure in the darkroom. I started finding black particles in the stop bath and fixer. They had no particular inclination to adhere to prints, fortunately. On closer examination they were dark blue, or at least left blue streaks when rubbed against the side of the tray.

It turned out that the rubber tips on the print tongs were crumbling. The problem only afflicted the tongs used in the stop bath and fixer. So I sent off to Adorama for a new set, and maybe soon I'll be back to making prints.



What's an interest rate swap rate and why should you care?


If you have any kind of variable-rate loan that has an option to convert to a fixed rate — such as, for example, a home equity line of credit — now might be a good time to check the rates and do the conversion. Let me explain why.

You're looking at a graph of the 5-year interest rate swap rate. Click on the graph to see more graphs from Economagic.com; click here for the latest numbers from the Federal Reserve.

This is a market rate and the government has little control over it. You'll notice at a glance that it's a lot more volatile (changeable) than the prime rate or anything that is heavily influenced by the Federal Reserve.

An interest rate swap is a transaction in which two parties lend each other the same amount of money (which, therefore, need not actually change hands) and pay each other interest on it. One of them pays a fixed rate; the other pays a floating rate pegged to something such as the LIBOR (another bank-to-bank interest rate that is not controlled by the Federal Reserve).

Of course, most of the interest doesn't change hands either; only the difference does. Whichever one is "paying" the higher rate makes payments to the other.

Why would anybody do that? For two reasons. First, maybe one of them has a debt of one kind and would rather have the other kind. By getting someone to do an interest rate swap with you, essentially you convert your debt to the other type. Second, "it's the difference of opinion that makes horse races." Maybe neither of the parties has a debt, but they have different opinions about whether interest rates are going to go up. The one who is more confident in long-term low rates will offer a fixed rate to the other one. This isn't just gambling; it's a real financial service offered to people who want it.

The numbers in the graph are the fixed rates that are used in such transactions at any particular time. For example, when the graph shows 3%, that means people who do interest rate swaps feel that a 3% fixed rate is as good as what they could get on the floating market. (This includes the value of eliminating risk. Because risk reduction is itself valuable, one would expect the fixed rate to be a little higher than the long-term average of the variable rate.)

Now look at the graph. See how it has plunged nearly to zero? That tells us people are expecting floating rates to be very low for the next five years. That's what they're expecting, right now. It is not necessarily what the future actually holds.

And note that it can't go much lower, or the transactions wouldn't happen at all. If my premise is correct that the fixed rate always runs a little high because of the value of risk reduction, it's hard to imagine the fixed rate going below 1%.

But my point is, if you have a variable-rate loan that can convert to a fixed rate, it's very likely to be pegged to an interest rate swap rate. For example, at one time, SunTrust HELOCs defined their optional fixed rate as the 5-year interest rate swap rate plus 3.25%. (I think this is still the case; it certainly matches the numbers I see nowadays.) Until recently, that made the fixed rates too high to be attractive. Not any more.


An important clue in Quicken vs. SunTrust
Quicken CC-503 error, says login information is incorrect


I bank with SunTrust and use Quicken to connect to the bank daily.

I use two kinds of connections. SunTrust PC Banking, which I pay for, works perfectly. It supports online access to my checking account, including bill paying through Quicken.

The other interface, Express Web Connect (i.e., web scraping), is what Quicken uses to get to my other accounts (a SunTrust credit card, a savings account, and a handful of other things).

I use Express Web Connect through two accounts, one to see my credit card and one to see Melody's credit card.

Well... Yesterday one of them stopped working. It gave a "CC-503" error saying the login information entered into Quicken is incorrect, which it isn't.

Today the other one also stopped working, with the same symptoms.

I logged on to each of them through a web browser as soon as the problem appeared, and here's what I saw.

In each case, just before the failure, SunTrust had added the words "Activate Card" to the web page as a new menu item, next to a credit card. Apparently new cards are being sent out. With each account, the appearance of this menu item coincided with the failure.

From this I conclude that Quicken's web-scraping interface to SunTrust is very brittle. Apparently even the slightest rearrangement of the screen, even adding just one word, causes trouble.

Presumably, I could fix this by setting up both login accounts in Quicken again. This time, though, I'm going to see what happens when the new credit cards arrive and I've activated them. That should make the web page revert to its original form.

[Update:] Activating the cards didn't take care of it. I had to set up the web interface in Quicken afresh, as I've been doing every month or so. See further notes.


A good reason not to try to equalize everyone's income

Some people want money more than others, so they choose to work harder, or work in higher-paying fields. This is not surprising; I've remarked on it before; but it's nice to see detailed proof.

Economists usually assume, in their models, that everybody wants money to an equal extent (or at least, everybody who lacks it wants it equally). Now we know that is not true. Money is not an equal motivator for everyone.

Another reason not to equalize incomes, pointed out some time ago by Mirrlees, is that it gives people an incentive to be lazy if they have above-average talents or opportunities. Such people can reach the specified income level with less work than others, and they have no incentive to work harder.

The weird wide world of photography

A handful of links...

First, the death of Kodak is not affecting Fuji at all — look at this for instance, a product line hardly diminished (if at all) since the 1980s. So we're not seeing the death of film, just the death of film in yellow boxes.

Film photography now calls itself analog photography and there are even podcasts about it, sponsored, of course, by Fuji Film.

Traditionally, to demonstrate their skill, home workshop machinists built things like steam engines. Here is a Frenchman who built his own SLR from scratch.

And here is an annoying specimen of what I call hipster photography, all about liking the past for all the wrong reasons, liking what was bad rather than what was good. In this case it's an app for an iPhone that makes you take 24 pictures and then wait for them to be "developed" before you see any of them. (And why 24? They're not anachronistic enough. Until something like 1980, the standard roll lengths were 20 and 36; 24-exposure rolls are a latecomer.)


A rather unusual product-naming scheme

Some of the product names that Kodak used in the mid-20th Century are, to modern eyes, just a bit unusual. Consider the films shown above, all of them very familiar sights in the 1960s or 1970s.

"Pan" is easy to explain — it stands for "panchromatic" (sensitive to the whole spectrum, as opposed to earlier film, which could be developed under a red safelight). And "Kodacolor" is obviously a blend of "Kodak" and "color." So far so good.

What strikes me as odd is the use of the letter X. There was (and, in movie film, still is) a black-and-white film called Double-X. For still pictures it was replaced by Super-XX and then Tri-X. There was also a Plus-X in the series. And improvements to other products, such as Kodacolor, were denoted by appending "-X."

The names remind me of the "XXX" on a moonshine jug, indicating (as I understand it) that its contents have been distilled three times, or aged three times as long as the minimum, or maybe both. And this must have been in the public consciousness when Kodak chose the names. Hmmm...

But these Kodak names have been so familiar to me for so long that I did not think, until today, about how they pair up with "X" in movie ratings — which has meant "pornography" in the USA since about 1968 and in Britain since 1950.

What will people think when they see a cinematographer using "Double-X" film?

And what do people think I want all this "Tri-X" film for?

Meanwhile, among the competitors, Fuji has elegant neo-Latin names (Neopan, Acros, Velvia) and Ilford uses what are obviously catalog designations (FP4, HP5).

The bad news about Kodak keeps coming. In rapid succession we've been advised that they're facing delisting from the New York Stock Exchange, and now that they are drafting a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Kodak, you will be missed.


Soon to be slideless?


While I wasn't looking, Kodak discontinued Ektachrome 200 and all but one variety of Ektachrome 100. That's right — Kodak is now making only one color slide film, in "amateur" (Elite Chrome) and "professional" (Ektachrome) versions that differ only in aging. The professional version is aged to perfection at the factory and then sold with the expectation that you'll keep it in the refrigerator. The amateur version is sold perhaps six months before it's perfectly "ripe" with the expectation that it will age a while before use.

This is more about the death of Kodak than the death of slides, because Fuji is still making five color slide films. [No, actually seven.] But slides are exactly what digital photography competes with — like digital images, slides give superior quality but require special equipment for viewing.

I must have taken ten thousand color slides. I tried a lot of films but settled on Kodachrome-X and Kodachrome 64 in the 1970s, followed by Ektachrome 200 in the 1980s and 1990s. To photograph our honeymoon, Melody and I bought a 50-foot roll of E200 and bulk-loaded it into cartridges. We hand-delivered the exposed film to the Kodak processing lab in Hollywood, and they called us to make absolutely certain that the cartridges contained Ektachrome, because if some other kind of film were sent through a high-temperature E-6 line, it would melt and damage the equipment. We assured them we had never bulk-loaded anything but Ektachrome. Which was true if you ignore the bulk loading of Tri-X Pan that I had done in tremendous quantities while in high school.

So, some time in the next few months, I'm going to use two rolls of color slide film, one in the Olympus OM-1 for old times' sake and one in the Canon EOS 10S for technical optimality. Then I'll either send them to Atlanta's one remaining E-6 pro lab, or possibly buy an E-6 kit and develop them myself.

And that will be the end of the slide era for me.

Late news flash: Kodak is threatened with delisting from the New York Stock Exchange and has issued this alarming statement. Perhaps the spookiest thing about the death of Kodak is that nothing of the sort is happening to Fuji — they are even still making film for Polaroid film-pack cameras!


What it's like to use old cameras

Some film cameras are quite different from others. Now that I have too many, let me share a few impressions.

Nikon F3HP: Too many bells and whistles. To be precise, too many afterthoughts. There are little levers with special functions: double exposure, batteryless shutter release... The camera fairly bristles with them, and nobody can remember what they all are. This is basically an elegantly designed camera to which too many features were added. In spite of its reputation for greatness — and the great success I've had doing film astrophotography with it — I don't enjoy using it casually.

Olympus OM-1: What a classic film camera ought to be; simple and quick to use. Many other cameras resemble it, especially the Minolta SRT series, on which it was supposedly modeled.

Canon EOS 10S: Anachronistic happiness. Using this film camera, I was able to use my new Canon flash and get perfect results. The EOS series was ahead of its time for quite a while. When I first saw Canon EOS cameras in a London showroom in 1998, they mystified me. Now that I'm accustomed to EOS DSLRs, I recognize that EOS film cameras were built in order to pave the way for them. Using one is a very different experience from using a classic film camera. Yet the EOS 10S is actually more versatile, in many ways, than the Nikon F3HP; it has lots of controls; they are in computer menus, where they ought to be.

The picture at the top was captured on film and scanned as a negative.


Darkroom work: Retro yes, hipster no

You are looking at a scan of a silver gelatin RC print that I made just now, from a negative taken with a Mamiya/Sekor 500 DTL on Fuji 400 film that had an expiration date of (gasp!) 2000. It was exposed in 2006 and developed the other day. Despite the outdated film, I think it came out fairly well.

I enjoy darkroom work a lot more now that I'm not under any pressure. I no longer do astrophotography with film — that was a demanding and thankless task. Nor do I use the darkroom when I need pictures — that, too, is a job for digital. I do darkroom work because I enjoy it.

I am at pains to distance myself from "hipster" photography, the cult of low quality that seems to be fashionable in some quarters. The idea is to either use obsolete materials, or creatively misuse digital imaging, to produce "the Tri-X look" (translation: the grainy overdeveloped Tri-X look) reminiscent of the 1970s.

A hipster is someone who likes the past for the wrong reasons, and spends a lot of money trying to look obsolete and poor.

I am the opposite. I enjoy "retro" photography, electronics, and other old technologies for the things they do well.

Yes, I own a Lomo Lubitel. But that doesn't make me a hipster. Ilford gave me this cheap plastic Ukrainian TLR back in the 1990s, and I used it to take beautiful pictures of the moon, which were published by Ilford. The point was the high quality, not the "retro look."

I don't own a Diana (another cheap plastic camera). I can understand that it's extremely useful as a teaching aid, to help people see exactly how a camera takes a picture. It can even be used to create works of art. But light leaks and blurs are not works of art. You're not an artist until you control your medium. And nowadays, you can buy a good used SLR for $20, so why not do so?

You need VueScan!

No matter what software you're presently using with a film or flatbed scanner, throw it away and get VueScan.

I adopted VueScan with my Nikon LS-30 because Nikon no longer makes drivers for it. Starting some work this afternoon, I quickly found that VueScan will do what I say whereas ordinary scanner software is usually so "dumbed down" that I don't have enough control. At the same time, VueScan has reasonable defaults, so without making any settings except a bare indication of what you're trying to do, you'll get good results.

VueScan has a time-saving mode called "Scan From Preview" in which it makes one pass, displays it as a preview, and then saves it as a file, cropped to your specifications.

Since one VueScan license is good for several CPUs, I quickly put VueScan on my other computer to use with my Canon flatbed scanner. Even if all you're doing is copying a document or scanning to PDF, VueScan is the quick and controllable way to do it.


Happy 2012!

Happy new year! I delayed posting this entry because I wanted people to keep reading the one for December 31, which is more important, and I'm glad to say, has gotten nothing but positive responses from Christians and non-Christians alike.

Now I have what you might call a pent-up supply of Notebook material and will be writing a lot!

I'm expecting 2012 to resemble 1972. For me, that is, not for any of the rest of you. Why there should be any resemblance is probably far from obvious, so let me explain.

For me, 1972 was a year of orderly progress. Spanning my second and third years of high school, it was the only calendar year of several in a row that I didn't change schools. Basically, in 1972, I did the same things as in 1971, but did them better.

I'm hoping 2012 will be like that. I'll be at the same job, have mostly the same consulting clients, live in the same house — and we have no weddings or graduations scheduled.


One minor modernization is that starting now, I will write very few checks. I've subscribed to SunTrust PC Banking with Bill Pay, which works very well with Quicken (unlike Quicken's free web-scraping interface, which loses its grip every time there's a minor change in the web page).

The deal is that for $9.95 a month, SunTrust will write and mail all the checks I want. Since mailing a check costs me about $0.75 in stationery and $0.44 in postage, that's a good deal. Behind the scenes, they identify frequent recipients of customers' checks — credit cards and the like — and do electronic funds transfers to them instead.

(In the process of setting this up, I discovered that the payments for my Discover and Capital One credit cards go to consecutive P.O. boxes in Charlotte. Whodathunkit?)

When a check is mailed, it's a paper document that looks fairly normal except that there is no signature. One of my consulting clients pays this way, so I've seen them.

The only remaining reason to write a check myself is in order to deliver it immediately. We'll continue to write checks to the people who help us with the lawn and the housecleaning. And I'll continue to write checks for gifts to my children.

I'm bemused by the way that, while Britain is eliminating paper checks (cheques), we Americans are seamlessly turning them into electronic transactions. Along the way, two other things have happened. One is that an image of the check often substitutes for the check itself — the piece of paper is no longer needed; as Aristotle would say, we're dealing with form, not matter. The other is that you may not know it, but you can no longer endorse a check over to someone else, at least at most banks. This is connected with the idea that a check image is an authorization for an electronic transaction, and the piece of paper doesn't travel around and carry a story with it.

A world without Kodak


Kodak stock price compared to the S&P 500 index of the market as a whole

I don't expect the Eastman Kodak Company to last out the year. In late December, three of the company's 14 directors resigned, and they've started discontinuing film products, though fortunately not many. Black-and-white photographic paper was discontinued a while ago, although, curiously, they're still selling the chemicals to process it. Maybe they had several years' worth of back stock.

The film that they're killing, Elite Chrome 100, is probably the best color slide film the world ever saw. Do I use it? No, because any DSLR is better yet. Do I miss it? yes, of course.

The essence of Kodak is that, back in the 1880s, George Eastman invented film. This made it possible to market a camera to hobbyists that held enough material for dozens of pictures before it had to be reloaded. Earlier cameras used glass plates and generally had to be loaded for each picture, although some would hold small stacks of plates.

That made photography accessible to people who had no technical interest in it but just wanted pictures. Suddenly everybody could take snapshots! And then send the camera back to Kodak for film processing and reloading.

And the Eastman Kodak Company appears to have counted on having a gigantic market forever. Now that film is not the preferred medium for quick snapshots, they don't seem to be able to survive. Smaller film companies, Ilford and Fuji, seem to have done better, although Agfa didn't make it.

I predict that, of course, the Kodak name will live on (as the RCA name lives on) by being sold to someone else. Eastman's chemical company and image sensor company have already been spun off.

If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months.