Sunday, 19 June 2016

Nikon Lenses on a Pen F

The 1960s Olympus Pen F half-frame film SLR had a modest range of lenses. I've written about the 25mm f/2.8, the 40mm f/1.4, and the standard 38mm f/1.8 before. The system majored in normal primes and telephoto zooms, with a big gap at the wide end. With the 1.4x crop factor of half-frame the system's ultrawide, a 20mm f/3.5, was only really a 28mm, and furthermore there were no fast telephotos, no fisheye, and no tilt-shift.

Fortunately Olympus sold a range of adapters that could fit other lenses onto the Pen F lens mount. The adapters had some limitations - there was no aperture automation, so you had to use stop-down metering, and the intriguing M39 Leica screw mount adapter was macro only. Judging by eBay's listings the most popular was M42, but there were also T-Mount, Canon FD, Nikon F and Minolta models, even one for Olympus OM lenses. In this respect the Pen F was a distant ancestor of the modern Micro Four Thirds system; the two camera mounts are unusually flexible.

Phototec 100

The Nikon F adapter is particularly interesting because the Nikon F mount is still used today, and until relatively recently the lenses had mechanical aperture rings. I point this out because modern G-type Nikon lenses don't have aperture rings, so although they will mount on a Pen F adapter, the aperture will be perpetually stopped down to f/22 or something equally silly (unless you use blu-tak to hold the aperture pin open).

The lens looks massive; in reality the Pen F is small.

Luckily I have some manual-everything Nikon lenses. For this post I used a Samyang 14mm f/2.8, which becomes a 20mm on a half-frame SLR. Optically it has a lot of barrel distortion and is difficult to focus on an original Pen F, because the camera doesn't have a split-image viewfinder and everything looks far away.

On a physical level it looks silly, and on a practical level the great bulk defeats one of the Pen F system's raisons d'être; it was supposed to be compact. On the other hand, if you want to go wider than 28mm with a Pen F (or faster than f/4 at the longer end) there aren't many other options, and the Samyang 14mm is not unusually large for a 14mm full-frame lens.

Also, off to the Tate Modern, which has grown since I was last there. The last exhibit, Abraham Cruzvillegas's Empty Lot, was a dismal load of cobblers. It has now been replaced by a choir and a twisty building which has grown from one of the Tate's corners. If the intention was to pay homage to 1960s public architecture, they succeeded. There is a viewing platform on the top, a restaurant just beneath that, and exhibition spaces all the way down.

There was a small exhibition of works by Louise Bourgeois. They say that you should never stick your dick in crazy, but arty chicks are often right goers, and I imagine that Bourgeois would have been into kinky sex. I would however sleep with one eye open in case she tried to tattoo my penis or put rubber bands around my testicles or cut open my stomach or something.

The top of the Tate affords a view into the living rooms of all the posh flats that surround the gallery. People want to own property next to the Tate Modern because it feels good. The living rooms looked unlived-in; they were empty and extraordinarily clean, with magazines and furniture dotted around as if they were show homes. I wondered how many of the posh flats were real homes, and how many had been bought as investments. The area around the Tate Modern is essentially empty of all the things that support human life.

The exhibits included some people handing out ribbons, plus some thin intense-looking Europeans making music with air pumps, and if you think about it aren't we the exhibits in some strange way? As we peer at the art, security cameras peer at us; in a control room somewhere there are banks of monitors overseen by operators who ponder our meaning. At least it's nice to imagine that someone is pondering our meaning. The alternative - that no-one is observing us - is too horrible to contemplate.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Various Artists - Ringtones (Touch, Tone 14)

"Instead, join us at number two"

Imagine if mobile phones could play music. Imagine if instead of just going beep-beep-beep when you get a call, your mobile phone could speak, or play any sound at all! Imagine if you could check share prices with your mobile phone, or use it as a map. These things might sound incredible to you, but that's because you're a dull, uninteresting person without even the slightest shred of curiosity or vision. Back in 2001 the clever chaps at oh I can't keep this up.

Let's have a look at an intriguing album from 2001. It's called Ringtones, and it's a collection of audio snippets commissioned by Touch Records for The Mobile Phone of Tomorrow. In 2001 people were still getting the hang of texting, and although a few of the most sophisticated mobile phones had colour screens, mobile internet, cameras, perhaps GPS, on the whole those features were flaky and expensive and didn't work very well or at all.

Brian Eno does not appear.

The best-selling phone of 2001 was the Nokia 3310, which had physical buttons and a three-line black-on-green text display. Nokia sold over one hundred and twenty million of them, and every single one still works nowadays because the 3310 was indestructible. It was however limited to voice and text communication. There was no camera, no media jukebox. If you wanted to listen to MP3s in 2001 you needed an MP3 player, if you wanted to take pictures you needed a camera, and if you wanted to check how your shares in Cisco were doing you needed a computer, although by the time Ringtones came out you probably didn't want to be reminded about your shares in Cisco. It was a simpler age when people multi-tasked with monofunctional devices.

Touch Records imagined that in a few years mobile phones would be able to use any old audio as a ringtone, and the concept seems to have intrigued a lot of people because Ringtones has a diverse set of contributors and it attracted a fair amount of press (including The Financial Times). There are 99 tracks, ranging from joke novelties to genuinely intriguing sound miniatures. Do people still care about ringtones? They were massive in the early-mid 2000s, but nowadays people's phones are constantly active, continually browsing Facebook and Reddit. The idea of taking a call - of waiting for the phone to ring and ignoring it at other times - feels old-fashioned in an age when people have mobile phones glued to their faces, almost literally so if you have a VR headset. There are no longer any empty spaces.

Ringtones came out in early 2002, although the liner notes are dated November 2001, and presumably it took several months to assemble the CD. By the time it came out the boom had peaked and of course a bunch of Saudi nations had demonstrated in spectacular fashion that jet fuel can melt weakened steel beams, so I imagine that the record seemed like a frippery at the time. Whatever coverage it attracted didn't stick, and it fell into obscurity, where it remains today as a curiosity of the period.

What about the music, eh? There are 99 tracks, some of which have more than one sonic event. For example Lary 7's Waveforms 1-8 has eight fascinatingly low-fi buzzing noises, and Aer 7's Conduct Endangering the Safety of Information is a little compilation of audio snippets.

It quickly becomes apparent that very few of the pieces would actually work as ringtones. They're either too low-key or they would blend into the background. Chris Watson's recording of an African Fish Eagle, for example, would be useless throughout much of the Okavango Delta because it would be hard to distinguish the ringing of your telephone from the cry of an actual Fish Eagle.

Similarly, the speech snippets of art duo Gilbert and George have an obvious flaw - what if you were stuck in a railway carriage filled with chatty posh English art fans? What if you were visiting Gilbert and George at home, and your phone rang? Gilbert's voice would blend in with the background hubbub whereas a beepy rendition of Gran Vals would stand out. Gilbert and George must be really old by now. They won the Turner Prize in the 1980s and that was a long time ago.

SND's ..-.-.. sounds like an outtake from Cassette, which is an album made of tiny repetitive minimalist loops (although ..-.-.. itself doesn't loop). Ryoji Ikeda's Unobtainable appears to be the first couple of seconds of 0º::zero degrees [1], from the album 0oC, e.g:

Pita's Ichiban, DA's Stereocellular, and Farmers Manual's Jar: FNN / Snull 2000: snull_cell all peg the volume, which is jarring but perhaps the artists really did intend for their contributions to be attention-grabbing ringtones instead of sonic miniatures.

Along similar lines, Edvward Lewis' four tracks sound a little too close to Windows system sounds for comfort. Regina Lund's Come, Take Me is rude and generated one-half of the press coverage mentioned up the page. Lund is one of a handful of women on the record; the late-1990s sonic arts scene was full of thin twentysomething men who wore t-shirts and had very wealthy parents. Bigert and Bergstrom contribute the first few seconds of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, thus "offering a predictable if entertaining critique of the classical music industry and its kitsch forms, as well as the processing of time under late capitalism", in the possibly ironic words of Sumanth Gopinath, whose book The Ringtone Dialectic has a short section on Ringtones.

New Order is the only chart band on the record. Back in 1982 the band recorded a twenty-minute disco mix of 5-8-6, which was played at the Hacienda and released as a cassette single by Touch. The label presumably still had the rights to use it in 2001, and so Ringtones has three short snippets - they seem to be the only loops on Ringtones, everything else is a one-shot, which limits its use as DJ tools.

New Order's track raises the issue of licensing, which is something that The Financial Times' writer pondered in his article. Nokia's default ringtones were either public domain classical works or original chiptunes, but Ringtones envisaged a future in which actual music could be used as a ringtone - not just beepy covers of music, but actual recordings, which raised a host of legal issues. Ringtones itself is muddled about this. The liner notes encourage listeners to sample and reuse the tracks, and of course you have to make copies and broadcast the tracks publicly if you intend to use them as actual ringtones, but Touch 33's Cool in the North, for example, is a sample of a BBC meterologist, and Bigert and Bergstrom presumably didn't hire an orchestra specifically for their rendition of Vivaldi - they sampled a commercial record, and I doubt they obtained a licence. As a consequence of this I have only played Ringtones to myself, on headphones, whilst wearing a special suit, and if for a moment I thought that my neighbours could hear me listening to the record I would encourage them to sue me. I need to be honest with myself - I'm just thinking of excuses to wear my special suit. Why can't I just wear it, and not feel shame? The special suit.

There's something quite melancholic about the contributors. Ringtones is a snapshot of what was fashionable in 2001. There's The Conet Project, which was a bloke who collected spooky radio numbers stations. There is a homage to Pan Sonic, and a contribution from one of the Pan Sonic men, and some pieces that sound like Pan Sonic. There are numerous Japanese noise musicians who lived in Berlin or Paris, and probably several Berlin-born artists who recorded music in Japan; they are of a type.

Judging by Discogs, most of the artists recorded a few records in the 1990s and early 2000s before stopping. A few continue today but their time has passed. They didn't care about commercial success or anything concrete. They were doing it for themselves and the adulation of their peers. The environment in which they thrived - albeit briefly, and not that the average man in the street would recognise them - belongs to a certain time and place that doesn't exist any more. The artists on Ringtones probably described themselves as belonging to the postmodern tradition, but there is something fundamentally modernist about their work insofar as they actually cared about the progression of art at all. The artists that came after them were truly postmodern, and the likes of Main and Leif Elggren nowadays come across as either very earnest and naïve or as fraudulent poseurs. They really were just well-off kids having fun, which is fine, but that's all they were.

The record has some liner notes, presumably commissioned so that the writers could bulk out their CVs a little bit ("I contributed an essay to Touch Records' groundbreaking 2001 masterpiece Ringtones, which was reviewed in The Financial Times"). I have sent the liner notes to a Korean transcription agency, who have transcribed them. I present them below.

They're an interesting snapshot into contemporary thinking. Like so much futurism of the 1960s the ideas are generally sound but the timing is off. One strand of thought that emerged during the boom was the notion that mobile internet (via mobile phones and PDAs) and thus mobile shopping and banking etc was just around the corner, and that mobile phone companies needed to leap onto this immediately.

Thus when the British government auctioned off the 3G spectrum in 2000 the five leading mobile phone companies spent on average £4.5bn each for the right to have a slice of a pie that hadn't been baked yet. Even at the time this seemed excessive, and the debt burden left very little money to actually develop the network. 3G never really lived up to the early hype and even today coverage in the UK is spotty. By the time smartphones came about people tended to connect to the internet with wi-fi instead, which is another controvery entirely. The auction for 4G, in 2016, raised only one-tenth the money and nobody in 2016 really loves non-wifi mobile internet because the data charges are horrible.

This has nothing to do with Ringtones, by the way. The liner notes:
    "The process of transferring made-to-measure ringtones to your mobile phone is, at present, a fixed casino... Chart hits, cod celebrity voices, action heroes, lame keyboard melodies... so the likelihood of hearing one of these on the 07:34 from the suburbs is, at present remote, although new ranges of mobiles are on hand to promise better things. Anticipating this, each of the included has been composed with exactly this eventuality in mind. They are in one way or another intended to be experienced as isolated, personal interventions: low-res loops, creature calls, in low-res environments... In whichever form you find them here, do sample, reformat and employ these humble suggestions... we assume you already agree that the 'cheep cheep' tones of Nokia, Ericsson and the other leave a lot to be desired. [JW]
    The forecasts were promising. In three years, those connecting to the internet from mobile phones would outnumber those connecting from computers. Market research reported that the number of wireless users in the US with access to Internet would increase 728% from 7.4 million in 1999 to 61.5 million by 2003. And in Europe, e-commerce over cell phones was expected to grow from 323 million Euros in 1998 to a massive 23 billion Euros by 2003. All this was supposed to even have a democratising effect - it was predicted that in developing countries, the majority of people would experience internet for the first time on a mobile wireless device.
    Location awareness would give us unprecedented precision with which interaction could take place. This kind of vision is very instantly retranslated and vulgarised by the industry - to them, location sensitive advertising would be a powerful new way to target individual customers and earn revenue. They even thought of a slick name for it all: m-commerce. With this they tried to create a hype for everyone who missed the boat in 1995 with e-commerce could catch the wave and get rich doing an IPO in wireless.
    Demos abound. A cell phone becomes a remote control for a Coke machine. Dial a number, and the Coke machine in front of you delivers a soft drink. No need to have loose change, it'll appear at the end of the month on your phone bill. The kids are onto this - they parse what the adults don't grok, but are yet susceptible. They want to have that cell phone because it's cool and to show off to friends. But they know very well that if their parents were paying for it, it's because it gives parents a way to keep track of the movements of their children. The kids were right. It's cool stuff, but there's a big catch. And the reality check on last year's forecasts indicate that the telecoms spent so much bidding on the 3G frequency spectrums that they don't have the means or the market to launch a profitable useable system this year.
    In the end, it comes down to a question of how much stuff you can pack into such a small form-factor. In the abstract, they would like you to believe that broadband net access straight to the cell phone opens up new frontiers of rich media communication. If it only means more screen real estate for commodity culture to occupy with their idols and hit songs, the supposed new frontier lacks imagination. We can see only so much on a tiny screen and hear so much on Walkman headphones. But putting this and a wireless net into your hand as you cruise through town could have some more interesting results - community based net-remixes, avatars reflecting real-world movement. Let the imagination go for a moment, free of market constraints. We just have to think of what new forms of sound and image live and flourish in this medium. Atau Tanaka, October 2001
    There is a dark side to the plethora of mobile phones; a massive increase in street crime, and the destabilisation of an already extremely volatile and desperate part of the world. A tragedy is unfolding in Central Africa, where Coltan, a mineral used in all computers and cell phones as an extremely efficient electrical conductor, can be found in large, easily collectable quantities. A bucket of the stuff realises about five dollars, more than most folk in the region can earn in a month. The UN report listed on the website condemns Western Government for propagating the war which has, to date, claimed an estimated 2 million lives; it makes chilling reading. The West, of course, rakes in the profits and watches the slaughter, not only of the people who live there, but also much of the wildlife which stands in the way. Gorillas, already a threatened species, face extinction as their natural habitat is systematically destroyed in the hunt for mineral ores.
    Meanwhile, the same forces of order proclaim that GSN phones allow us to pinpoint criminals and reduce crime by catching criminals red-handed. Primal paranoia of losing one's identity, a classic narrative in our daredevil drama, is far easier now that our identities are umbilically linked to data storage. It acts as a metaphor for our society's loss of collective memory; and as Max Frisch said, in 1957, technology "was the knack of arranging the world so that we need not experience it". MSCHarding, November 2001."
Reading the notes I am taken back to the period (and also reminded of A Brief History of Ambient, which has liner notes written in a similarly breathless style). I worked on the periphery of the boom, in the periphery of peripheral London. It felt like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, with lots of young people who weren't interested in their jobs - or anything, really - but liked having important job titles. In this environment the only things that mattered were status and personal connections, and it's easy to understand how the people became detached from the real world of actual business and making profits. They lived in a bubble where they had never been short of anything, never cared for anything, where they had never been forced to confront anything untoward. For all the talk of new business thinking and agile working, they were unable to deal with changing market conditions and evaporated.

I have always thought that the problem is people. Judging by Ringtones' liner notes, the people of Touch Records wanted the internet to be like Second Life. A boundless platform for the human imagination. But we got Second Life; Second Life existed. And it was immediately turned into a real estate and sex doll e-commerce platform. By people. People were given a boundless platform for the human imagination, and they immediately turned it into a real estate and sex doll e-commerce platform, where most of the users spent hours with their avatars standing in one location playing imaginary slot machines in order to build imaginary money in order to buy imaginary clothes. People are the problem, and until people are eliminated they will continue to mess everything up.

I urge you, dear reader, if you see any people today, tell them to stop. Before they ruin everything.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Unitor 28mm f/2.8: Everyone's Dreaming of All They've Got to Live For

"Smelly tongues looked just as they felt". So sang The Residents on their classic debut album Meet the Residents, which was released in 1974 to general critical indifference and poor sales.

Sometimes I think about The Residents. The band fills me with a profound melancholy. When I was young it seemed that there was an axis of strangeness, consisting of The Residents, Negativland, the Evolution Control Committee, the Church of the Subgenius etc etc, with Frank Zappa as their elderly patron saint, and on the fringes there were Stereolab and the Pizzicato Five and St Etienne - bands who briefly found a way to translate weirdness into record sales.

It was an age of videotape mash-up montages of televangelists and Gulf War footage, and multimedia CD-ROM projects that poked fun at the New World Order of George Bush - the George Bush - and also Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh and lots of other names that mean nothing nowadays. just as your world will mean nothing in a few years.

The axis of strangeness made the world less boring. There was no chance of it overwhelming the industrial might of the allied powers, but as a kid I assumed that it had been around forever and would continue to thrive in the modern world.

Dilworth is a strange and lovely man

Dragons do not grow old, but the same is not true of little boys, and as time went on the axis faded. The individual components of the axis still exist but they are obscurities whose time has passed. In retrospect they seemed more important than they really were at the time because they appealed to music writers, but that generation of cultural commentators has also grown old and retired. The new writers of the purple internet have a different set of idols.

Part of The Residents' mystique was that they were wilfully obscure, and even today they refuse to give out the real names of present and past members. The problem is that no-one cares any more. The Residents no longer have control over their own obscurity.

In the 1990s I imagined that The Residents earned enough money to get by, but over time members left and died, and as I write these words the band is just a sick old man sitting alone in a room with a cheap plastic mask, doing video podcasts. When he dies or gives up there will be no-one left behind the curtain to operate the machinery of Oz. There will be no Residents revival; kids will not seek out vinyl copies of Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats. Meanwhile the Church of the Subgenius left behind a videotape and some books, and not much else. As with The Residents they wanted to be famous for their obscurity, but now they are just obscure.

Think of all the other bands that were on Factory Records. Not Section 25 and Quando Quango - you've heard of them - but Minny Pops and Crawling Chaos. They are not forgotten in the way that Vashti Bunyan is forgotten; they are genuinely forgotten, and today we're going to have a look at the Unitor 28mm f/2.8, an utterly awful lens of no distinction. It's an M42 lens from a long time ago.

The Machinery of Oz would have been a good title for this blog post, shorter and more relevant than the one I eventually chose. There's something about Sarah Cracknell's voice on "Mario's Cafe", though. She has trouble hitting the notes but her voice has charm. That was the idea. She was an ordinary person pretending to be a pop star, just like us. She wasn't an inhuman monster like Whitney Houston. The song itself is warm and evokes an image, although of course it's a sham - there is a real Mario's Cafe, but Bob Stanley had never visited it when he wrote the song. He picked the name because it sounded good.

It's an art form. It's not supposed to be real. Juke box music. You're a fool if you base your life on a lie. I have visited cafes. They are illusions. Real people go to McDonald's, and perhaps in fifty years there will be folk songs about McDonald's. The only people who visit cafes are media types who are acting out a role. Bob Stanley wrote the song in 1991, and even then he was attracted more by the idea of eating in an authentic greasy spoon than by the food; for this writer in 1997, post-Britpop, the act of visiting a cafe was an adventure, not an organic part of everyday life.

I imagine there were features in The Face in the 1980s about cafes. George Orwell probably wrote about them in the 1940s. Rewind to the 1600s and you'll find noblemen visiting cafes for the novelty of visiting a cafe. Did they have fried bread in the 1600s? Yes, apparently so, at least in North America. I bet they didn't have squeezy tomato ketchup bottles. Plastic hadn't been invented yet.

The furry subculture has its roots in human self-consciousness. Unlike other animals we are aware of ourselves as actors on a stage, and some people are unsatisfied with what they have.
And perhaps it is also an echo of Alvin Toffler's concept of Future Shock. As we hurtle into the video age some people want to insulate themselves from the outside world, literally insulate themselves with layers of fur.
I make a point of writing these blog posts in the nude, so that no-one can accuse me of being terrified of The Future; my body is ready.

When was it released? The lens, I was talking about a lens. When was the lens released? I have no idea; it's one of those OEM lenses that was made in Japan and then imported by the rest of the world under a variety of different names. Late 1960s, early 1970s. I have found copies with Vivitar and Carenar badges. Twelve million years ago I got one free with a Fujica ST701 film SLR, and shot some film with it; even with my ordinary film scanner the poor quality of the lens was apparent, but how does it perform on a digital SLR?

There is Brasil. Thank you, Boris Johnson. London will miss you.

Not very well. In its defence, it's possible that something is broken inside the lens, but judging by the very few samples I have seen on the internet it really is very bad. On the positive side it's physically solid and well-made. It's big - so big that my ST701 won't sit flat on a table - heavy, made of metal, the focus is smooth and the aperture blades still work. In fact it's surprisingly attractive, especially the distinctive blue lens coating, but like so many things that are attractive on the outside it is rotten and empty on the inside.

I shot the following on a Canon 5D MkII with an M42 adapter. The lens focuses to infinity without hitting the mirror. Close focus is quite far, at about eighteen inches from the front of the lens. Wide open the lens has strong vignetting. It almost seems like mechanical vignetting, and as per the images elsewhere in this post the lens vignettes even with a slimline polarising filter:

The weather is depressing, even for England. The lens makes everything look depressing. Earlier on I took some photographs of a kitten playing with Cyndi Lauper's debut album She's So Unusual, and the lens made even this upbeat scene feel sick and wrong. Alas I cannot share those pictures with you. In the middle it's soft at f/2.8, sharp-er at f/8 but nothing to write home about:

I used Photoshop's "auto contrast" but no other editing. It's not a contrast lens.

Performance in the corner is suboptimal:

Does it have a use? No. Any modern zoom lens outperforms it. The frustrating thing is that it doesn't even work as a special effect lens, because the corner softness doesn't look attractive, it just looks murky and depressing. Some lenses are soft around the edges but sharp in the middle in a way that draws you in, but the Unitor is just muddy. Indistinct. There weren't many good wide angle options for the M42 system, and the Unitor 28mm f/2.8 is not one of them. It is however a good paperweight and could be used by the military as a simple hand grenade training aid. Perhaps.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


In the comments people say
that there's no place for tanks today
in crowded city streets
dual-warhead RPGs and TOWs defeat
the dazzle and the Kontakt ERA

The footage is in full HD, ten-eighty-p,
and you can see the tank man's torn-off leg
and splintered shin as he attempts
to crawl, and as he tries I urge him on
as if I could project myself
beyond the glass, into the past

What's done is done, and he is done
he stops and does not move on
the past is like a waking dream
you cannot intervene,
the missile hits, the tank ignites
the chopper spins and augers in
the bullets find their mark;
the bodies look like piles of clothes.