Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Newest 3rd World Country

We usually think of countries emerging from "3rd world" status. But obviously countries, as a result of a series of events and mishaps, can devolve into that status. And we usually think of 3rd world status as primarily economic condition, with bad government and corruption as secondary conditions. In reality, of course, the situation is often the reverse: decline into economic failure is caused by bad government, corruption, etc.

Yesterday afternoon my wife and I watched Hacking Democracy, an HBO production that left me at once angry, despairing, disgusted and again angry. Yes, I have known about the problems with electronic voting systems in general, and the serious issues with Deibold in particular. But before watching Hacking Democracy, I didn't really know the details, I didn't know how shocking the situation is. And it's not just Diebold; Velousia county in Florida clearly demonstrated that the rot goes all the way to the core of your electoral systems and personnel.

Now I know which country is the latest to "achieve" 3rd world status.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Russians Came

... and left us a gift.

I remember when Fed and Zorki cameras were at least mentioned in Modern Photography or Popular Photography (gee, I really miss Modern) as pathetic alternatives to a Leica or a Contax. OK, they didn't use the word pathetic, but the idea was there. The knock against Soviet photographic equipment was its reliability issues. I.e., make sure your camera was made on a Wednesday, else it was too vodka-soaked to be useful.

There was some merit to that, but it wasn't the whole story. Through my membership at Rangfinder Forum, I have gained a new appreciation with FSU (Former Soviet Union) photo gear. Until recently, however, it was an academic appreciation. Then someone sold me a Mamiya 1000DTL camera with 50mm Mamiya lens, and a Carl Zeiss Jena 135/f3.5 lens as a bonus (made in East Germany during the soviet era) ... the CZJ is a VERY sharp lens:

This shot was form the CZJ mounted with an M42 adapter onto an OM-1n. That setup doesn't allow for infinity focus, only close focus (e.g., "macro) shots. The CZJ 135/3.5 has pretty close focusing anyway, so this is a pretty useful rig, albeit requiring stopdown metering.

As a result of the close focus and large aperture, this shot shows very limited depth of field. But what is in focus is wicked sharp.

Next, I acquired a 58mm/f2 Helios lens, also in M42 (Practica/Pentax) screw mount. My friend Gene Wilburn (Harbourlight on flickr) had posted some shots with this lens that really impressed me. It turns out a co-worker had one that he considered spare, so he gave it to me. Whoo hoo!

One freezing Sunday in January I went out to the High Falls district in Rochester and made a few shots, mounted on the aforementioned Mamiya-Sekor 1000DTL. Most shots were either wide-open or near full aperture. I wanted to see how sharp it was at maximum aperture, as well as gauge the "bokeh", i.e. the characteristics of the out of focus areas.

Some of the blurriness in the last shot is from the long exposure combined with falling sleet. My butt got wet on this shoot.

Film was a private label of Agfa Vista 200. Sadly, Agfa no longer manufactures photographic film. This particular emulsion was a real winner.

The Industar 61 is perhaps an even better lens (albeit slower at f/2.8), so I think I'll have to get one of those, too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hillary's Chances

My friend Decrepit Old Fool (DOF) recently blogged about why he is not enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton as a candidate for the Democratic nomination. This was in response to a private email I had sent him asking why, in a previous post, he had used the word "Ugh" in connection with Hillary as a candidate.

I thought his blog post was thoughtful and pretty interesting. I think it fairly sums up the feelings of a lot of people, at least those who are not irrationally rabid about Ms. Clinton. (Naturally, some of the regulars on DOF's blog chimed in with toss-offs about Hillary. They are mild in comparison to what is to come from the loonie right fringe, of course, but they were "entertaining" nonetheless.)

However, I wanted to respond, with this proviso: I am not supporting Hillary. First of all, I think it is far too early (for me at least) to choose a candidate. There has been no real dialogue, much less actual debate among the Democratic hopefuls. I have promised myself that I will be deliberate and thoughtful before making a personal choice. As if anyone cares.

So, a few highlights from DOF's post, with my comments...

  • "I didn’t appreciate Bill enough while he was in office, but Bush cured me of it."

Right. Pretty much same here. I did like Bill all along, though from time to time I had some doubts regarding policy. (The blue dress incident was a total non-issue to me. Anyone who truly believes the affair rose to the level of impeachment is, IMO, either totally lacking in understanding of the constitution or an outright idiot. Flame on, right wing.)

My suggestion here is that Hillary may really surprise some people, too. Just as so many underestimated her husband, thinking he only won on charisma, don't count out Hillary because she lacks that charisma and warmth. FWIW, my opinion is that she does have some of those characteristics in person. No I haven't met her, but reports from those who have met her/know her indicate she's different in person, it's her people who are remote, aloof, etc. Yes, she has chosen those people, so I fault her there. But still, I do not regard the public media as my lens of choice for critical evaluation. I simply suggest we listen to what she says, and dispense with everything else, at least as much as possible.

Further down DOF writes: "You can make a very strong case that voters always go for the more charismatic candidate regardless of ideology. Bill Clinton has it - he could work around almost any gaffe or misdeed. Hillary does not, and her candidacy virtually guarantees a Republican president in ‘08. I do believe Hillary is smart enough to realize this, which in my mind makes her candidacy self-indulgent and unprincipled. "

I disagree completely. Judging what Hillary does or does not realize is somewhat arrogant, IMO.

Overall I'm understanding of the "no charisma/warmth" POV, but can't award any points, especially in light of the latter judgment.

Oooh, dangerous ground here. Based on this, we'll have to eliminate just about every candidate, Republican or Democrat. I agree that I never bought into the administration's justifications for the war. But being a legislator at such a time is way different. Would I prefer someone who actually voted against the authorization bill? Absolutely. Do I judge? No; not my moccasins. I give DOF half a point here, I guess; he did say "She would probably make a halfway good president, at least compared to the current one, but we can do better."

  • "Then there’s economics: her husband understands the profit motive, and so does Al Gore. They regard taxes and regulations as necessary things, but they also recognize that capitalism is pulling this wagon, and to keep it well fed. What about Hillary?

    “I want to take those profits, and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund...”"
DOF goes on to make the point that such statements hand Republicans ammunition ... they will re-run the words "I want to take those profits" over and over. Well DUH. Finally someone who says it like it is. If the American people are that f-ing stupid to fall for yet more Republican smear tactics and lies, then they deserve the President they elect."

I recently received a "joke" email (from a relative who knows I'm a liberal, yet!) that had a photo of a KFC store whose sign denigrated Hillary based on her thighs. In the text of the email, i.e. not part of the actual "joke", was the admonition "Even if you're a Democrat, you have to admit this is funny." No, it's not funny. When serious political discourse, the choice of the leader of the most potent military force in the world (at this point) degenerates to mean, sexist attacks, it is not funny. I am so tired of attacks (by either side), of meanness, of disrespect, that sometimes it physically hurts.

But beyond that, I have to hope that any Democratic nominee will be able to rise above those attacks; respond in a timely fashion (unlike Kerry), yes, but speak to the real issues, to what is important.

Yes, sliding all the burden of the cost of carbon production solely to the corporations is not the right tactic. But I am reasonably certain that is not Hillary's only plank in her energy platform. More than that, though, is you have to start somewhere, and corporations are a huge part of the production of our carbon burden. Competition and innovation will make sure the cost of becoming more environmentally responsible is not simply passed on to the consumer. Sorry, but that is an old, tired and wrong argument. It is the bleating of the right wing that claims to be "conservative" yet wants to live off the benefit of what amounts to a subsidy. "We produce products in a dirty manner, you the consumer pay the price, thanks to government abandoning their responsibility to protect the common good." If we used the argument of the cost just being passed on to the consumer to prevent regulation of environmental concerns, we'd still be using freon for air conditioning.

I'll grudgingly grant 1/4 point here. I am tempted to go a whole 1/2 point, but I'm not feeling magnanimous.

  • "So what about Obama? He is a constitutional scholar, he respects the conservative world view, he has charisma, he knows history, and he is able to hold his temper under extreme provocation. In other news, I recently found out he smokes cigarettes, which moves him up a notch in my book. Illogical as it sounds, I don’t trust people who appear saintly."
Well, this is a problem. I sort of share this lack of trust, as I've had a similar experience as DOF when it comes to "the saintly" in my life. But really, being quick to trust and being immediately cynical are the same problem, just opposite extremes. I will wait and see what Obama has to say about the issues. Yes, I have yet to dig into the detail on his website. So far, I'm not terribly impressed on energy. He favours an increase in use of E85 fuels. Ethanol as fuel is a net energy loss ... it requires the use of more energy to produce (read: oil) than it yields. The only way to achieve the use of more ethanol is through government subsidy.

Midwest farmers will love that, but it makes no sense in terms of energy. In addition to the input requirements, corn requires huge amounts of water, herbicides and pesticides to produce in industrial quantities. So it doesn't make any sense on other environmental grounds, either.

Obama also favours the development of "clean coal" technology. Huh? We've heard this drumbeat forever, it seems. Turning from one non-renewable source for another doesn't make any sense to me. And the issue of what is "clean" is complex enough, subject to statistical justification, that the average Joe will glaze over and say "Yeah, makes sense" even if it is black magic.

I see nothing in Obama's platform, as published on his website, that speaks to the environment in real terms. And it doesn't begin to address DOF's recommendation:

"Alternative energy research will benefit all Americans, so there’s a good case for all Americans paying for it, not just evil corporations"

The only time Americans will "get it" is when real conservation, real change becomes necessary.

So, does this make me anti-Obama? No. He has just started, I'm sure he will expand and fill out his position on issues. As for Hillary's website, it's pretty disappointing if you want to read position statements, her platform proposals. Apparently all such information is in the transcripts of speeches or in news articles and news releases. It's not very user friendly, IMO. (Oh, and by the way, I'm thinking Hillary is pretty educated on the Constitution as well. Before she was the First Lady, she gathered some pretty impressive credentials, including sitting as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee that handled the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon.)

But still, I would encourage people to not come to conclusions about Hillary until the campaigns have worked their way through the course of debate, caucuses and primaries. And focus on what candidates say on the issues, not just judgment calls on what one infers about their motivation. That's always rocky ground.