Friday, February 10, 2006

Mental Gumbo

I haven't blogged as much as I should be, so here's some ponderings that have occupied thirty seconds here or there recently, all thrown together.

What on Earth is up with those Muslim idiots who are rioting all over Europe and the Middle East because of a few cartoons lampooning Mohammed? Don't they realize how ironic it is for people who protest the depiction of their Prophet as a man who encouraged violence to go around rioting and threatening violence? I guess if the shoe fits.... And what is up with the Iranian government lauding a newspaper contest that lampoons the Holocaust? Do they think the Jews are going to start burning down embassies in Tel Aviv, or have large protests in Miami Beach or Westchester? I know a few Muslims and, to a person they're appalled at this behavior. When will the rest of the Muslim world grow up? (When the rest of the civilized world stops indulging them and instead tells them this behavior will not be tolerated. What's up with Britain allowing Muslims to march with signs that incite violence? Why weren't all those Muslims arrested?)

I really felt for President Bush and his wife Laura, having to sit there quietly at Coretta Scott King's funeral while Jimmy Carter, the man who is really trying to ensure that Bill Clinton is not the most ridiculous living ex-president, a man whose performance as president was so woefully lacking, and so widely recognized, that he carried only one state in his contest for re-election, a man whose bumbling put the Ayatollahs in power in Iran and allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons unimpeded, impugned his judgement and character. Of course, you have to consider the source: Jimmy Carter loved Yassir Arafat, praises Hugo Chavez, and respects Fidel Castro. On second thought, maybe having Jimmy Carter insult you is a sign that you're doing something right. Question: how do you know if something is a good idea? Answer: If Jimmy Carter is vehemently opposed to it.

I haven't commented on the sordid Senate performance during the Alito confirmation, and this week's hearings on the NSA terrorist surveillance program is equally distasteful. Two months ago the Democrats were giddy with expectations of taking control of at least one house of Congress; today all of that joy has turned to ashes. They haven't got a snowball's chance in Hell of regaining political power at the federal level, and they realize it, and so do their large donor supporters (that's why the DNC has $5 million in the bank as opposed to $35 million for the GOP). But they don't understand why. Sure, they realize that America doesn't trust the Democrats when it comes to national security, but they just think it's a perception problem... that if people really knew in their hearts how the Democratic Party leaders really cared about national security then everything would be okay. They just don't get it, and I believe they're psychologically incapable of 'getting it.' That's why the Republicans, despite their screwups, will most likely win even more seats in both the Senate and House. Remember, you read it here first. What about the Abramoff scandal, you ask? That's going to die down, because the Republicans have Kryptonite in the form of two simple words: "Harry Reid." Glass houses and all that....

How about New Orleans? Mayor Nagin's on a roll... first declaring that the city must remain "chocolate" and then threatening to get aid from other nations, among them France. Someone needs to get the recall petition drive in high gear before the Mayor makes even more of an ass of himself... if that's possible. The Democrat-controlled city and state governments deliberately held back food and water to increase the suffering of those trapped at the Superdome immediately after Katrina in the belief that it would motivate them to want to leave New Orleans as quickly as possible without resistance... and they got what they wanted in spades. Here's what Nagin doesn't seem to understand: you have a lot of "chocolate" ex-New Orleaneans who don't want to go back because what they left wasn't all that great in terms of quality of life, opportunities, or respect. They've lost everything, and this seems like as good a chance as any to start over somewhere, perhaps in a city where they're not stereotyped as "chocolate" and can aspire to something besides low-level service jobs in the tourist industry. It will be decades before New Orleans recovers, if ever. And, by the way, if Nagin is waiting for France to bail him out... well, just ask Saddam what happens when you place all your hopes in the French.

And finally, Iran. What can I write about Iran that I already haven't (here and here)? A showdown's coming, because Iran wants a showdown. The ayatollahs really think we'll fold when the pot gets too big; in fact, they're counting on it. They don't understand America, and Americans, and George W. Bush. The Chinese thought we'd fold, too... and lost a million men including Mao's son in a year's combat in Korea (that's why they didn't get involved in Vietnam). Saddam thought we'd fold, twice. I can understand the first bluff, but after we totally kicked his butt in 100 hours one would think he'd learn not to underestimate the Americans. Didn't he also realize that, while the French and Germans could be bought, George W really didn't give a fig what they thought? And, the jury's still out on WMDs, by the way. I think he had 'em, and either they're still buried (likely) or that the Syrians got 'em (likely). Saddam didn't have tens of thousands of chemical weapons suits and nerve gas antidotes stockpiled for nothing.

Back to the subject at hand. Iraq is going to do their durndest to get a nuke as quickly as possible. The lesson they learned from the two wars in the Gulf and watching North Korea was that the only way to keep the Americans out of your country was to have a nuke to threaten us with. But, they don't get it either. The very thing they're trying to stop (us attacking them) is what they're provoking. They don't seem to understand that the US, now joined by the EU, realizes that if Iran is allowed to develop a nuke without serious consequences, then every dirtbag country with a two-bit dictator is going to want one. The West has drawn a line in the sand, and we have to stand up now and back up our words with actions or accept the fact that backing down means we will suffer a nuclear attack in the near term.

In my opinion, things are going to get worse before they get better, but sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Thank God I was born in America!

Friday, February 03, 2006

How Important is the Lens?

If you're into photography, like I am, you will notice that photographers have a tendency to get tempted into believing that the quality of one's equipment has a direct correlation to the quality of one's photographs. Like golfers who are sure that breaking 90 is just a matter of picking up the latest and greatest set of clubs, or who marvel at Tiger Woods and then run down to buy the titanium driver he used to eagle at the Masters, many photographers invest several thousand dollars in expensive cameras and glass in the belief that only equipment separates them from making photographs that will have "National Geographic" beating at their door.

I think this is mostly a male phenomenon, and it is seen widely at sporting good stores, at the Snap-On Tool truck, and at gun shops. Men, as opposed to Man, seem to have a lust for tools that you just don't see in women. I plead guilty as charged; I like fine mechanical objects, and have a variety of expensive gadgets from custom bicycles to beautiful shotguns to expensive fly fishing reels. None of these make me a better cyclist, shooter, or fisherman (none of them make me worse, either). All of them give me extra enjoyment of the activity. It's just nicer to ride along listening to the sound of a well-made derailleur clicking away, or to shoot a round of sporting clays while looking at a beautiful crotch walnut stock, or to pull line from a silky smooth reel.

I've never known a woman who really cared one way or another about her tools. As long as they were functional, they were good enough. The women I've known also don't seem to take care of tools, whether it's being careful to use wooden or plastic utensils with non-stick cookware, knocking the dirt off of gardening tools so they don't rust, or even maintaining a car. I fully expect my fine tools and toys to outlast me, and to look as good decades from now as they do today; any sort of tool or utensil that my wife also uses inevitably ends up dying a premature death from neglect or abuse. It's not a matter of ignorance, either; how many times do you have to replace a skillet before you figure out that using a metallic spoon to stir sauce is suboptimal? Or that screwdrivers and chisels, while superficially similar, are not to be used interchangeably and that neither is a substitute for a hammer. Even a disposable razor displays the difference; the man's lives on for a week or two, being rinsed out carefully with hot water so it dries without rusting, while a woman's is left inside a damp shower and corrodes to dullness in a day or two.

But I digress... back to the subject at hand.

When it comes to photography, 90% of a photograph is the subject and composition. If your images are crummy, then it's probably not your equipment. As the saying goes, "a poor craftsman blames his tools."

However, that remaining 10% is the image quality, and if it isn't there, the 90% is worthless. For example, there are a lot of moon shots on the Internet, taken with a variety of different cameras and lenses. Some are obviously much better than others, and since the subject is a glowing object surrounded by black, composition isn't much of an issue. What is the difference? Image quality.

As we all know, image quality is affected by several things, including the film/sensor size and resolution, the resolving capability of the lens, and the photographer's technique as applied to steadiness, proper exposure, and proper focus. I have found that the secret to obtaining 'good' images is a tripod, a quality lens stopped down a couple of stops, and careful attention to composition, focus, and exposure. Given that everything else is the same, better lenses make better pictures.

How much better is 'better'? Well, I for one can see the difference between my Sigma 18-50 DC 'kit' lens @ f/8, and my Sigma 50/2.8 EX pro-level lens (or my Pentax SMC Takumar 50/1.4) at f/8. The prime lenses are noticeably sharper. The same was true when I compared pictures from my 55-200 DC 'kit' lens @ f/8 and my 70-200/2.8 EX pro-level lens at f/8. You can see the difference that better optics make, even though it's a small difference. (As an aside, I've looked at a couple of full-sized images from Sigma's new 18-125 DC lens, and while the focal length range is compelling, the lens just isn't as sharp as the EX series. It would be great for snapshots... if you're into snapshots... which I'm not.)

Now, I will further qualify 'better' as being a noticeable improvement. Even though the images from the better lenses look better on the computer monitor when viewed full-size, when I make 5x7 prints it's darned hard, if not impossible, to tell the difference. However... I didn't buy my SD10 dSLR to make 5x7 and smaller prints. My personal standard of a 'good' image is one that looks good when sized and printed to at least an 8x10.

Post-processing is important, and it is surprising how much a marginal image can be improved, but nothing beats an image that was 'good' at the moment the shutter closed.

I am also a competitive marksman, and shooting and photography have one thing in common; average shooters occasionally make a good shot, good shooters can shoot up to the capabilities of their equipment, and great shooters are limited only by their equipment. If you aspire to be great, don't let your equipment be the limiting factor when it comes to the quality of your performance. Buy good (not necessarily expensive) lenses!

And, for Pete's sake, take care of your equipment!