Not that I've been posting, but this blog is about to get thrown under the bus by its two software providers. Google, parent of Blogger, my content system, is discontinuing support for FTP updating, and Haloscan, host of comments, is closing altogether. So if this is to continue in any form, I'll need to come up with new technology. If you have recommendations, or want to be notified if this blog ever comes back to life, drop me a line. Beverage at gee mail daht com.
We just got back from Canada, where I did a little survey about health care. I asked anyone who'd talk to me about the Canadian system, and what they think about the current US kerfuffle about reform. This was not a scientific survey, nor were any pundits involved. The people surveyed include waiters and waitresses, shopkeepers, innkeepers, tourists, and fishing guides. Their feedback was unanimous. They love their system, even with the 13% tax on everything that funds it, and they think we're absolutely out of our freaking minds here in the US. The guy who put their system in place back in the day is a national hero.
I'm not saying that everyone in Canada is delighted, but based on my clueless wandering around and chatting people up, it sure seems like most of them are.
The Crunchettes are at sleepaway camp. I try to send them a postcard every day, but it's pretty damn boring around here, so there's not much interesting to write about. I've decided to make stuff up. Today, I sent Schuyler a card about a giant snapping turtle eating all the neighborhood mailboxes, and our 86-year-old neighbor Sam Berman transforming into Giant Robo Sam Berman and blasting the turtle with his nostril lasers. Got any good ideas?
Here are some things I think about the Gates incident:
Prof. Gates should not have been arrested.
Prof. Gates should not have berated the (eventually) arresting officer, Sgt. Crowley.
After a long flight from China to Newark, Prof. Gates was probably not in his most polite and conciliatory frame of mind.
Responding to a report of a burglary in progress probably put Sgt. Crowley in a somewhat less than polite and conciliatory frame of mind.
Whenever I come into contact with police officers, I go out of my way to be polite and conciliatory.
...but I have no reason to suspect that I would be contacted by police for any reason except a legitimate one.
President Obama's remark that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" was pretty clumsy. In fact, I think it's his worst gaffe since he took office. Please note that this opinion has nothing to do with whether the police actually acted stupidly. Note also that the President's subsequent mea culpa was so elegant and perfect that I'm starting to wonder if he intentionally fucks things up sometimes just so he can look masterful putting them right.
Last night, Schuyler, age 9, was Nicely Nicely in her camp's production of Guys and Dolls. She had a little trouble with a couple of her lines, and was upset about it. On the way to camp this morning, I engaged in a little pro-active parenting:
Me: "So what are you going to say if anyone gives you a hard time about your performance last night?"
Concerts seem to be the only times I find myself seriously considering physical violence these days. This is primarily because I live in a peaceful suburb, filled with wimpy technocrats (like me) and their kin. I don't really go to bars anymore, not that I ever did much in the first place. I'm a middle-aged dude with kids, and we as a species just aren't into scrappin' that much.
This all seems to go out the window at rock shows. For one thing, the likelihood of finding oneself in close proximity to assholes rises exponentially the closer you get to a rock show. Last night at Green Day, we had two different sets of assholes near us. Directly in front of us was a group that still has us wondering if and how, exactly, they were affiliated. There was a middle-aged couple, maybe 55 or 60. He was doing the standard old white guy dance, and she was performing the former-hippie gyro-sway-with-clapping, endlessly. They were next to a younger couple, maybe 18, maybe younger. The young guy was wrecked. He'd long ago finished his giant bong-shaped cocktail, and was now brandishing the empty while dancing like a Rockem Sockem Robot. His girlfriend (sister? wife? chick he just met?) would periodically decide she wanted to slamdance during the more up-tempo tunes. He obliged, waving his empty cocktail bong all over the place. I was pretty sure he was going to smack me in the junk with it. Every so often, the four of them would talk. My best bet is that the boy was the son of the two oldsters, and the girl was his, uh, lady. Beefy thought he might be on acid. In the weirdest interaction of the evening, Robot Boy randomly tapped me on the arm and asked if I wanted a hit off his cigarette. I seriously thought he might freak out and start randomly fighting at some point, but I was counting on his putative Dad/Dad-in-law/meth connection to keep that under control. If worst came to absolute worst, the guy's incoherence would have made him a lousy fighter, and we had position, being behind and above him.
Unfortunately, the serious assholes had position on us. You know these guys. A pack of six or seven of them. BC, Northeastern, or UMass Boston, probably, with ballcaps and too tight T-shirts, and cologne, fergahdsake. Not strangers to anabolic steroids. When they weren't busy hooting, dancing like Australopithecus, lighting firecrackers, or throwing beer all around, they were hugging each other and giggling as they celebrated their passionate bromance. They smacked into the lady right behind me so many times that I was sure her great big date was going to freak out, but he kept it to stern words and no fists were thrown. Did I mention they were pretty wasted, too? Oh, yeah. If they'd gotten out of hand, it would have been ugly, if only because there were so many of them. When Billie Joe and the boys charged into "American Idiot" for the first encore, I searched their faces for signs of ironic recognition, but there was none to be found. They could just have easily been singing "Dude Looks Like a Lady."
Anyway, it's nice to be back home safe in the burbs. I'm pretty sure I can take everyone in the house, if it comes to it. Well, the little ones, anyway. Well, OK. Schuyler. Probably. If I have the element of surprise.
We emerge from the motorized walkway on the pedestrian bridge, and I stop at the little kiosk where I insert money and the parking ticket gets validated. So far so good. We walk out into the parking garage. I try to look confident and purposeful, but there's just enough randomness in my path to belie our apparent predicament. It appears that I've lost the car. "4HH! 4HH! I could have sworn it was 4HH." I look at Jennifer. She's been traveling all day, and therefore looks appropriately annoyed.
"Schuyler, what did you do with our car?!?!" I bellow. "*I* didn't do *anything* with it, Daddy," she replies. Hmph. Maybe it's in the next row. I lead the expedition between vehicles into the next row. Still no Hubbercraft. Jennifer spots a blue convertible. It happens to be a Toyota Solara, just the car she's been coveting for weeks to replace her old-and-busted '97 Avalon. Great. For weeks, I've been explaining that new cars cost money, and we don't have enough, and wouldn't we all be better off if she didn't torture me about it. But the temptation is too great for her.
"Look, honey, a SOLARA!" she chortles, delighted at the lucky opportunity to bust my chops both for losing the car AND for making her drive a beater. A twofer!
"OK, goddammit. Everyone shut up! I'm going to beep the remote, and you all listen for the car." I hold the keys up as high as I can, and push the button. Chirp chirp, goes the Solara. All hell breaks loose, complete with shrieking and dancing. That's how it's done, people.
I've got the fricking flu, or *a* fricking flue, or something, so I'm feeling pretty goddamned cranky about everything, which is really the perfect time to write something public on the Internet. Let's just do a list of complaints. Or observations. Well, they're more likely to look like complaints, because I'm not particularly cheery right now. Let's see here. Well, for starters, Older Daughter is in a snit because Younger Daughter and Mamasan are going out to the chippity choppity Japanese place without her. This would be a perfectly reasonable snit, were it not for the fact that she gets Mamasan to herself, with horses fergahdsake, for the next seven days, AND has a birthday party to go to tonight. It's not like she's being systematically discriminated against. This kind of micro-economic scorekeeping is truly one of my least favorite aspects of parenting. I don't have any constructive response to it. I've tried the whole Active Listening Sensitive Reason BS and it doesn't work. I'm tempted to start keeping really close score for Jennifer and myself, too, so that when one of them starts to feel put upon, I can point to the DiamondVision screen showing Jennifer at 1,289,405, me at 802,922, Sophie at eight, and Schuyler at four. Yeah, that will work. Or I could just scream "FUCK!" at the top of my lungs. Let's try that.
Didn't work. OK. Let's talk briefly about Sarah Palin. This puts me in an even worse mood because I'm just so tired of talking about Sarah Palin, but Andrew won't stop, and I like Andrew's site, so I can't help myself. Let me clear everything up for everyone. Palin is quitting to cash in on some sort of media opportunity. Someone at Fox or a satellite network (probably) made her a huge offer, and she suddenly realized that 1) she doesn't like being governor very much, 2) she's not very good at it, and 3) being the new female Rush Limbaugh will pay a lot more. Like a hundred times more, and with less scrutiny of her (and her family's) thirteenth century life choices. Andrew's hung up on how the GOP could inflict Palin on us. Here's how: whatever braintrust is running the GOP these days has figured out that there's nothing their base hates more than coastal elitist wisenheimers. And there's nothing that elicits coastal elitist wisenheimer behavior on the part of the center/left than running someone who's totally unqualified for the job/lacking in skills/possessing a major personality disorder. Or all three. Notice that I didn't say "hick" or "hayseed," or anything like that. Plenty of smart hicks. Look at Wendell Berry. Keeping Sarah Palin in the public eye insures that all of us who live near salt water will keep acting like they want us to act. Which isn't to say that we're wrong...we just have to stop being so damn snotty about it. I'm sure that coming from me, that sounds super plausible.
Sarah Palin: dispensed with. Let's talk Michael Jackson. This whole dying episode is like a rash...not much we can do, except try to keep clean and suffer through it. To all my friends who are saying "He's just a talented singer. It's not like he's a head of state or something," I have to ask whether you remember the 80s at all. MJ finished what Elvis started: he put black music at the center of our national culture. It's still there. This was a 50-year process of white people becoming less hateful and terrified of black people. Obama is President, at least in part, because that process took place. Michael Jackson was a huge part of that. I don't give a shit who pays for his funeral. Why is my opinion about that relevant? Stop sending me Facebook quizzes.
Twitter: I'm sorry, but 140 characters just isn't enough. I don't really even get cooking until the second or third paragraph. If you can g
This is for everyone who sprung for a spiffy digital SLR camera and doesn't understand why photos you take indoors look like crap. My indoor photos used to look like crap, but I figured out why that was, and (with some expert guidance) came up with a relatively inexpensive solution. Now I get many more "keepers" when shooting indoors.
You probably already understand the problem: there isn't as much light indoors, and what light there is can be harsh or lousy. My struggle with this problem became most painful as I tried to photograph church services or youth group functions. Our church is dark. Its basement is super dark. When you're shooting in low light, you can do one of two things: you can use a flash, or you can set your camera to make an exposure without flash.
Before we dive into exposure, let's talk about lenses for a minute. If you're a new DSLR owner, there's a good chance that you're using some sort of kit lens, probably a medium zoom. My Nikon D70 came with an 18-70mm zoom. Great, versatile lens. Here's the problem: it's slow. "Slow," when referring to lenses, does not mean that it operates slowly. It means that its maximum aperture, the hole through which light enters the camera, isn't very big. Small aperture equals less light, therefore requires longer shutter speeds needed to make proper exposures. My 18-70 kit lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5, meaning two-sevenths of the focal length. At longer focal lengths, the aperture gets smaller...shooting with the zoom fully extended, I get f/4.5.
OK, back to exposure. So you're inside at night, let's say a dinner party. You're trying to take memorable pictures with your spiffy DSLR and your medium zoom lens. If you set your camera on AUTO mode, your flash pops. You get a sharp exposure, but it looks like you just blasted your subject with a high-powered strobe light, primarily due to the fact that you just blasted your subject with a high-powered strobe light. Eureka! We've learned something! Using your camera's built-in flash indoors almost always makes for ugly pictures. What to do? Well, you can switch your camera to some other mode, which doesn't automatically pop the flash. Maybe Program mode or Shutter priority, or one of the preset modes with a cutesy little icon. You make a few exposures. Sure enough, your camera happily takes pictures, and they look OK when you check them in your camera's LCD screen. But when you get them home and look at them on your PC, they're not sharp. Phooey.
Why are they not sharp? Because in the low light with your slow lens and no flash, your camera (correctly) chose a long shutter speed to get enough light for what it thinks is a correct exposure. Hand held, I can take sharp pictures down to about 1/30th of a second. Slower than that and camera shake starts to blur things. At 1/20th maybe half of my shots look good. At 1/10th, none do. I could use a tripod, but that only fixes camera shake. If my subject moves, it will be blurry.
What to do, then, if I need to shoot in low light? Flash looks washed out and flat; flash-free looks blurry. What you need is faster glass. A new lens. One nifty option that the camera companies have come up with is what Nikon calls "Vibration Reduction" (VR) and Canon calls "Image Stabilization" (IS). Basically, there's magnets or a gyroscope or a little dude or something inside these lenses which counteracts camera shake. This actually works pretty well...a VR/IS equipped lens will give you as much as three more stops of sharpness in low light. The downsides are weight, cost, and in some cases, quality. Zooms are complicated by design...in order to get sharp exposures over a range of focal lengths, you end up with a lot of glass elements, and gadgetry to move them around. Throw in a vibration reduction mechanism, and you're getting really nuts. If I wanted to replace my 18-70 kit lens with a VR lens, I'd probably go with the Nikon 18-200 VR superzoom. Highly rated lens, but it costs $700. If I wanted to go a little cheaper, I might try the Nikon 24-120 VR, but that's still $500, and has been called One of the Ten Worst Lenses Nikon's Ever Made by one reviewer. There's a $200 18-55mm with VR, but even if it worked well, it would still only help with camera shake. It would't do anything for subject movement.
So let's forget vibration reduction for now. What if we just got fast glass? Something with a f/2.8 aperture or bigger. Fast zoom lenses exist. The problem is that they cost a fortune. Pretty much every professional news photographer in the world carries a 80-200mm 2.8 zoom. $1000. $1800 with VR. There are normal zooms in 2.8...all cost too much.
Have you guessed the answer yet? Fixed focal length, aka "prime" lenses. Nikon and Canon both make a 50mm 1.8 for less than $150. f/1.8 is really fast. My 50mm 1.8 lets in more than six times more light than my 18-70 zoomed to 50mm. That means that a picture I'd have to expose for 1/8th of a second on the kit lens can be exposed for 1/50th with the 50mm. That's the difference between a sharp shot and a mess. As an added bonus, these lenses are simple...not many elements, light as a feather, and super sharp. If you want to go even faster, you can get a 1.4 or 1.2 for more money, but unless you're rich or a pro, why bother?
I hear you. "Waaaah. Waaaaah. I like zoom lenses. I'm lazy. I don't want to walk around or get close to my subjects." I call bullshit. Your legs turn any prime lens into a zoom lens. Use 'em. Then take the $1,000 you saved because you didn't shell out for a fast pro zoom and travel somewhere picturesque.
Note to owners of Nikon D40/40x/60 cameras: Unfortunately, your camera doesn't have an internal autofocus motor, so if you want to autofocus, you'll need to buy an AF-S version lens, maybe the 35mm 1.8.
Note to anyone lamenting the uselessness of their camera's on board flash: There's actually a great, and somewhat counter intuitive, time to use that on board flash...outdoors, in broad daylight. As in bright sunshine. Seriously. Noon sunlight is harsh, and positioned poorly. That's why your subjects will have ugly dark shadows under/around their eyes. Your camera is perfectly happy to take a picture without flash in broad daylight. After all, there's plenty of light, it's just ugly light. So put your DSLR in Program mode and pop the flash up manually. This will give you what's called 'fill light,' which will nuke those nasty shadows.
I tend to flip out about something, in a midlife crisisy kind of way, about once a year. Last year, it was paintball. This year, it's tomatoes. I think it all started when I read a post on some blog, maybe Lifehacker or Cool Tools. A tomato genius named Ray in California invented something called an EarthTainer, which is basically a capillary-action watering system/growing container that you build out of plastic tubs and PVC pipe. I'd never really thought much about growing things, but Ray had a video of putting an EarthTainer together, and all that sawing and drilling seemed like fun. So I built two. The instructions were excellent. My versions came out looking exactly like the ones shown in the video. They're even the same color.
I transplanted some store-bought seedlings into my EarthTainers today. (Yes, I realize I'm about three weeks late for Massachusetts, but you can't time your manias.) Each unit can accommodate two plants. Here are the four varieties I chose, with a little rationale behind why I chose them.
Better Boy. This is a hybrid variety, known for its good flavor, heartiness, and high yields. All over the intertubes, it says that if you want to grow tomatoes and are either lazy, unskilled, or both, this is the variety for you. So this is my bet-hedging pick. If I can't grow Better Boys, I'll probably have to find a new obsession. Some crazy bastid is in the Guinness book for growing 342 pounds of tomatoes on one Better Boy plant. Scale, +1. Oh, the other thing is that they mature in about 75 days, which is pretty quick. I wanted to spread the maturity dates out, so that I wouldn't be picking everything at once. Kind of like laddering bond or CD maturities. That finance reference will probably cause my Better Boys to die, but I guess it's too late. I said it. Now What?!?! (As Sophie would say.)
My next choice, also a hybrid, is the Marglobe. My other three varieties are what's called 'indeterminate,' meaning they grow up and up and yield fruit the whole time. Determinate varieties only grow to a set height, and have one big crop of fruit all at once. I wanted to try a determinate, and that's the Marglobe. It's also old-school. Certified by the USDA in 1925. Medium-sized fruit, with some reports of varying fruit shape and flavor.
OK, with those two out of the way, it's time to talk about the plants I'm most psyched about. Brandywine Red is among the most famous of heirloom varieties. Universally cited as having excellent flavor, this indeterminate plant can have fruit weighing up to a pound and a half. Looks great, too, with purply-red skin and pinkish flesh. Google's probably going to send me some pervs for that description, but there it is. Apparently Brandywines were originally cultivated by the Amish in Pennsylvania, so there's some roots appeal there for me, too. 80 days to maturity, so that should put us in the last week of August.
The fourth and final spot in my EarthTainers went to the Green Zebra. Do I really need to tell you why I picked it? It's the motherfucking Green Zebra, yo. Not clear if it's an heirloom or not. Indeterminate growth with smallish fruit. Tangy flavor, described as lemon-limey. Yellow skin with green stripes, and bright green flesh. Supposed to be great in salads. This is my latest yielding plant, targeted for the first week in September.
My dad, Dick, was a fairly gonzo organic gardener. Maybe in some small way, this is me reconnecting with him. (But the clothes are staying on. Suburbs, ya know.) Anyway, now that the EarthTainerators are built and the tomatoes are planted, what am I supposed to do? Well, water them, but that's only going to take 5 minutes every few days. I may have to make some sort of floating flag dealie so I can gauge the water level from afar. Then I guess I'll have to go play some paintball.