Friday, 26 October 2012

What Makes a Good Photographer?

I just bought a new camera. What a rigmarole. Some years ago I found that my old Olympus OM1 SLR film camera (long retired and resident in my attic) had become no more than a pretty-looking rear lens cap. I decided that a digital camera was now a must, so I got a nice little Kodak Easyshare thingummy which had a zoom and a flash and could be kept in a pocket or even stolen without much trouble. It took some good pictures (I had little to do with the process apart from pointing it in the right direction.) But there did come a time when I hankered after something more.

The way to buy a camera these days, it seems to me, is to decide how much you want to spend on one, then triple it. It will still not be enough to buy the top camera, but you have to have something forever unobtainable to lust after or else what is the point of living?

Choosing a camera is not easy. Camera companies are rich and powerful and they are not above bribing all sorts of plausible-sounding numbskulls to extol the virtues of their particular product. There's a thriving industry of persuasion out there. The first task of these "independent reviewers" is to convince you that if you don't have the latest must-have item, then you personally are a totally worthless piece of garbage with no redeeming human features.

This approach I have met before.

Have no fear, noble readers, I am solidly armored against these tactics. I know what I am and I know what I want. Therefore I approach the matter thus:

1) What sort of camera do top snapppers use?
2) Get one like that.
3) If it is too expensive (it will be) get the next one down. (Keep applying rules 2 and 3 until you've got yourself a camera.)

Lastly, beware the imbeciles who continually trot out the mantra that "an expensive camera won't make you a good photographer." Ha! This is patent rubbish. Of course an expensive camera will make you a good photographer: that's what you're paying all that damned money for! And as proof, let me offer this insight: you don't catch professional photographers using the sort of camera I used to rely on.

It Doesn't Matter Who You Vote For ...

I think it was Winston Churchill who once drily observed: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

In the West, by which I mean any country begining with "United" but not ending in "Arab Emirates," we tend to pride ourselves on being "democratic." But how democratic are we?

We don't have "direct democracy" in which each of us has the right to vote directly on issues, instead we have "representative democracy" in which we vote for epresentatives and give them the right to vote on issues on our behalf. (Why we should allow this I leave you to figure out.) Worse still, we have political parties, which bind those representatives to one ideology or another, and threaten them with dire consequences if they do not vote according to the wishes of the party leadership. Thus is "the will of the people", for want of a better phrase, watered down to the will of a political elite.

In the immortal words of Neil Innes*: "No matter who you vote for ... the government always gets in."

( * Neil Innes is an honorary Python - and if that means nothing to you, then you have some serious Googling ahead of you.)

It's That Time Again

I hear you're having one of your four-yearly democracy fests, where everyone troops out and puts their tick in the box of their choice. Well, have fun. Over on this side of the Pond we get to vote every five years, which means, I guess, that you have 20% more democracy than we do.

For a long time as a kid I was confused about politics. I heard a varied lot of stuff pouring out of radios and TV sets, and I jig-saw puzzled the parts together as kids do. I also, on rainy Sundays, liked to watch old black and white movies on TV -- it would have been useless attempting to watch color movies because the TV was in black and white. One of the movies I saw was called "Duck Soup," which showcased the Marx Brothers.

It was then that my young mind made the vital connection: these men were Russians! And they were the ones the TV said were trying to bring down Western civilization!

The thing was: they didn't seem much of a threat, so I blithely forgot about politics for a few years and played with my train set. When I came back to it (politics, not the train set) I was old enough to realize that politics is a reflection of the power urge in human beings, and an arena of competition. Some men (and it is usually men)  seem to have this urge to power in a very serious way. It's hard for me to understand, noble readers, because I have very little urge to have others do my bidding. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, had it in spades. History is full of these peculiarly insane characters who invariably cause other people a lot of pain and suffering before they finally melt away.

As maturity slowly crept over me I eventually decided that the noblest aim of politics should be the discouraging of people who wanted to have power over others. This, of course would leave poltics with a dilemma: how do we design a system to detect and marginalise those pushy devils who are best at getting to the tops of hierarchies? As voters we must refuse to vote for anyone who puts himself forward as a candidate. Perhaps we could introduce a candidate lottery, whereby our representatives are chosen at random. Think how dismissive the political classes would be over that suggestion.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Show Me the Way to Go Home

My last blog was about the class duality found in the English language, the one that comes from its Germanic / Latin roots. What I should have remembered to mention was an old song devised to illustrate these very points.Recall, Noble Reader, the song that featured in Steven Spielberg's "Jaws", which goes:

Show me the way to go home,
I'm tired and I want to go to bed,
I had a little drink about an hour ago,
And it went right to my head.
Wherever you may go,
On land or sea or foam,
You will always hear me singing this song,
Show me the way to go home.

A catchy ditty, if ever there was one, and probably all the catchier due to its use of "low" English. Not much Latin there. But an unknown wit then wrote a parody, which goes like this:

Indicate the approach to my abode,
I'm fatigued and I desire to retire,
I imbibed a soupcon of beverage some sixty minutes ago,
And it went immediately to my cerebellum.
The context in which I perambulate:
Terra firma, ocean or atmospheric vapor,
You can always hear me cantillating this anthem,
Indicate the approach to my abode.

It doesn't scan quite as well as the original, and it makes the singer out to be a very superior personage indeed. In the world of creative writing it's as well to avoid any hint of pomposity, so you may like to bear this in mind when editing your next draft.

The Careful Use of Latin

Hot on the heels of the idea that the message is affected by the medium comes the notion that word choices in English are also going to affect your voice as a writer. If you want to write novels, word choice is an essential skill to master.

The English language evolved over centuries, but was mainly created by the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Famously, the Normans beat the Saxons and so over the next few decades they proceded to turn the latter into a conquered people. This eventually led to the welding together of a Germanic language known as Old English and the Latin-based Norman French. It has left today's English speakers with a duality that is worth noting. English usually has a "low" word and a "high" word for everything. Where a Saxon would "buy" something, a Norman would  "purchase" it. Where a lowly Saxon would look after "sheep" and "cows", the lordly Norman would eat "mutton" and "beef."

This distinction is historically grained-in deep with us, no matter where we speak our English. In England there is actually a "Plain English Campaign" that seeks to unpick the efforts of government officials who try for a note of authority but end up communicating in ludicrously lofty terms that can hardly be understood by the rest of us.

Good style requires the writer to be on the look-out for the appropriate word to use in every context. Back in the day when books were expensive status symbols, writers would pepper their sentences with lots of Latin-derived words -- a sort of high-flown jargon that was meant to exclude the lesser educated person and give the book buyer a snobbish sense of superiority. In these more egalitarian
times, Victorian style often seems almost unreadable -- and it's largely for this reason.

Lacking a sense of word choice is called "having a wooden ear." Be warned: wooden ears produce leaden prose.

The Font of Wisdom -- the Medium Affects the Message

One of the things I discovered long ago when trying to learn the noble art of writing novels is that the medium affects the message.

Suppose you scribble out a hand-written message. Now type it up on a keyboard and print out the words in Courier font -- that's the one that looks like an old-style typewriter. Ask yourself which of the two looks the more authoritative. I bet you didn't choose the hand-written one.

Now try printing the same words in book-style print -- Times New Roman is the choice of champions here. Another leap in authority has been achieved.

When I used to read my favorite authors' books I was affected by their authority, but some of this authority came from the words having been presented in an authoritative way. Professional book designers make a living out of this art. (Most books will contain a note telling you which font has been used -- a detail which shows that book designers are proud of their art.)

Advertising people know all about fonts too, and they use them to persuade you to buy stuff. So next time you go by an advertising board or look at a packet or a can label give the text on it more than just a passing thought -- it has been deliberately designed to snare your mind. 

The Olympics are now over and ...

People who believe, contrary to Olympic doctrine, that there are no prizes for coming second are all around us. We may not see them, but they are there.

A less-than-famous boxer commenting ruefully on his erstwhile career, had the wit to say recently: "In my time I was the second best boxer in the country. I had 120 fights and I came second in every one of them."

But a new sport has arisen in recent years, spurred on no doubt by people whose countries have not done as well as they would have liked in the standard medals table: the invention of alternative medals tables, where teams that come second no longer have to.

"It's not fair!" their inventors cry. "Of course we were beaten by China, they have a billion more people than we do, and probably a lot more that they're not admitting to!" Thus is born a medals table by national population (in which we happily recover our lost prowess.) And there are variants: medals tables by size of team, for example, in which presumably a country which doesn't send any athletes at all will always do very well. Tables weighted according to gross domestic product have been championed in the cause of "fairness", and all manner of other statistical manipulations tried to achieve the nicest possible result. 

I particularly like the sport of examining the medals tables (I prefer the standard ones) for the ratios they yield of gold-to-silver and silver-to-bronze. Proponents of this sport see it as an index of the vigor of a particular nation's attitude to winning. It's obvious, so the theory goes, that if a country's gold-to-silver ratio is high, this is an indication that said country is not interested in coming second.

Well, there's a potential debate, if ever I saw one. But, too late! The Olympics may now be safely ignored for another three-and-a-bit years.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

It's A Bloody Bicycle Race for God's Sake!

Lance, oh, Lance ...

On the Other Hand ...

It is possible to take things a little far when searching for the perfect shot. Have no fear, Noble Readers, this is not your bold correspondent in the picture!

My Photography Mania Gathers Pace

Sometimes you just can't help feeling that the gap between worlds ancient and modern is finally becoming impossible to bridge.

Smile ladies ...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My Connection with the President.

Well, he's not the President now, in fact he died some time ago, but the connection is there anyhow. They say everybody is connected to everybody else by just six steps. I don't know if that's true, but it makes a person feel he's more a part of the world.

What about this: I wrote a novel called "Death Valley Scotty." Unknown to me was the fact that there was once an old TV show called "Death Valley Days". And guess who hosted it?

Ronald W. Reagan.

About as tenuous a connection as there ever was, I suppose, but interesting nevertheless. Ronald Reagan never came to visit the road on which I used to live, but another POTUS did. The 39th. I have a much stronger connection him. I won't mention his illustrious name, just pass the peanuts ...

Well, you know. Family.

Soap -- "Make the Sniff Test Yourself"

Dynamic English strikes again! Here's a word that has adopted another meaning, and one we all use. When a person tells you they've been "watching soaps," you know they don't mean to say they were in the bath all day long.

Today a "soap" or "soap opera" is a drama series on radio or TV. Originally these shows were sponsored by soap manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble, hence the adoption of an unlikely word.

One of the early TV shows was "Death Valley Days." It made the famous "20-Mule Team" brand of borax washing crystals even more famous. That, too, is peculiar. As a name for a brand it's not one that would be recommended by any modern advertising executive.

It'll sell a million ...

Noble readers of this blog will know that I have more than a passing interest in the evolution of advertising. Well, here by way of experiment, are a couple of short sponsor ads from the "DEATH VALLEY DAYS" TV show from way back in the dark ages. Take a look, and when you've finished rolling on the floor and weeping, let me know what you make of it. What were they thinking?