Friday, 22 July 2016

Pokemon Go: Ashes and Teeth

I have written about the future course of human evolution before. In the mid-1800s Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species raised a number of uncomfortable questions; if we are animals, and we evolved from the primordial ooze, what place is there for God? Perhaps He created the primordial ooze, but what if that evolved from something even more primordial? How could God have created us in his image, if we did not always look as we do today? Is God made of primordial ooze as well? Are we still subject to the forces of evolution, and if so, what will we look like in a million years?

H G Wells explored some of these questions in The Time Machine, and the first generation of 20th Century science fiction authors continued to wrestle with the implications of Darwin's theories, most notably Arthur C Clarke. In his 1953 novel Childhood's End humanity has reached the limits of its natural potential and is given an evolutionary push by aliens. The same basic theme was explored again in 1968, with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke's idea has always struck me as unsatisfying. If mankind has to rely on alien intervention to improve itself, how can we be masters of our own destiny? If the aliens mould us in their image, what will remain of humanity?

For many years these thoughts disturbed my sleep. If immortality is to have meaning there must be a continuity of human essence, otherwise our descendents are not a continuation of our species; they are instead simply a replacement. Are we just raw material for an alien sculptor? In Clarke’s fiction humanity is forged into immortality on an alien lathe, but I am mindful of Nigel Kneale’s final Quatermass serial, which explored the same idea at the end of the 1970s, in the depths of a deeply cynical age.

In Kneale's story an extraterrestrial force promises a new life in the stars, but it is a cruel lie. Instead of scooping up the chosen people and turning them into Gods, the aliens burn them as fuel, leaving behind ashes and teeth. The idea of false salvation from the stars was the basis of the 1962 Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man", and despite the success of 2001 Clarke's utopian worldview quickly became unfashionable. The New Age ancient astronaut movement of the 1970s sold a lot of books, but no-one took it seriously; it was hate-read as much as it was enjoyed, and by the 1980s UFO fans had aligned themselves with Kneale's dark vision. It is notable that the considerably more cynical Stanley Kubrick directed 2001 in the style of a horror film - as a child, the film scared me. 2001 is, fundamentally, a horror movie.


Since 1968 The internet has transformed humanity. No longer are we disconnected individuals, doomed to die alone; I now have six hundred friends on Facebook and several thousand Twitter followers, each of whom hangs on my every word. The children of tomorrow will never be lonely, especially the girls. Nonetheless I occasionally have doubts. Is Facebook the final killer app that will make everyone happy, or is it just one step up the long ladder to a techno-social singularity? Perhaps not. Let it be remembered by future generations that humanity levelled up in July 2016, for this is the month of Pokémon Go, or just plain Pokemon Go if you want to ensure that your blog post is picked up by the majority of search engines.

I have not played Pokemon Go. I have only read about it. The media is full of poor-quality clickbait stories about Pokemon Go and it is impossible to avoid them. And also Taylor Swift, and Pippa Middleton's engagement ring. Does Taylor Swift play Pokemon Go? Where can I buy Prince George's sweater? Pokemon Go has swept the world so that even police officers and submarine crewmen play it. The astronauts on the International Space Station do not, at least not yet. Like and subscribe Pokemon Go like and subscribe.

And then it struck me. In 2001 humanity is challenged by an impossible object buried on the moon; when unearthed excavated and exposed to sunlight it beams a signal to Jupiter. In real life the space race was sparked off by a need to develop effective, accurate intercontinental missiles and satellite reconnaissance systems; in 2001 a mission to Jupiter is given top priority in order to investigate the monolith's signal. It seems to me that NASA is missing a trick. After landing men on the moon the agency seemed to lose its way, but a few little white lies here and there could soon fix that.

Imagine if it became known that a particular rare Pokemon could be found buried on the far side of the moon! Larry Ellison will be there in a flash, because billionaires like him are highly competitive and he would want to beat Jeff Bezos. Ellison is 71 years old and presumably hasn't got much longer to live; what does he have to look back on? Future generations won't care about the company he founded, Dell or whatever. They will instead respect the first man to unearth dig up the first Lunar Pokemon. Furthermore, as players of Battlefield or Modern Warfare will attest, there are legions of competitive Russian gamers out there - what if they beat us? We can't have that. Imagine a cryogenically-preserved Mewtwo resting in a chamber in the middle of Tsiolkovskiy; but why stop there? Imagine Psyduck paddling happily in the liquid atmosphere of Neptune, where the frozen methane soothes its headache; or imagine herds of Snorunt wandering the cracked plains of Pluto etc.

If I can imagine all of this, so can NASA, and it is only a matter of time before Pokemon Go rekindles our desire to explore the universe. There must be Pokemon on other planets, in other star systems, in other galaxies; the chances that they have evolved only on Earth are minuscule. Earth is just one planet of countless billions stretching through time and space, and I weep to think that we will never capture them all.

Our children might, and that is where my hope comes from. Not salvation from the stars, but instead salvation from ourselves, and from our desire to catch Pokemon. And perhaps on the far side of the Milky Way there are alien children who are also catching Pokemon, and one day we will meet in the middle of the galaxy and swap stories. I will not be there to see it, but it will happen. It must.

Sirmione, Italy

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Yeovilton Yashicamat

In the last post I went off to the Yeovilton air show. Yeovilton is the poor person's Fairford. I took along an old telephoto zoom lens and tried it out, but I also took along my Yashicamat, just for a lark. As a means of photographing aeroplanes in flight a medium format TLR is not ideal, viz this shot of a Rafale:

I think it's a Rafale. It has canards. However the combination of some expired Fuji Velvia 100 and menacing clouds was visually striking, and furthermore the Yashicamat is small and light and not a bother to carry around.

All of these photographs were taken when David Cameron was still Prime Minister.

Why so many shots of aircraft tails? It's the Kim Kardashian effect. Kim Kardashian has shifted the locus of Western society's erotic fixation from breasts to the butt, and that is why I shot so many aircraft tails. I'm programmed by modern culture to be erotically fixated on them. The early-mid 1980s, when I was very young, was all about breasts. It was the heyday of Page 3's mainstream success, an era in which the pendulous breasts of Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi were household names. As the 1980s matured...

Sorry, I mean Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi were household names. Their breasts were not household names. Their breasts didn't have names. As the 1980s matured into the 1990s... at least, not as far as I know. Do breasts have names? I really need to ask a woman, but alas I don't know any.

In the 1990s breasts became overshadowed by overall physical fitness - the post-Jane Fonda plastic hardbody era - and in the second decade of the twenty-first century which is today breasts play second violin in the orchestra of Western society's erotic objectification of the female body to the first violin, which in this case is the butt. They are both violins, but they have swapped around.

Freshly-scanned expired Velvia has a washed-out purple-red colour cast, with purple shadows. As far as I can tell purple is common to all slide films (compare it with the expired Agfa Precisa from this post) but the red is a Velvia thing. Photoshop can fix it, and has been doing so ever since Velvia was new, in 1990. They were both released in the same year, and were almost made for each other. Velvia has bright bold plastic colours and is almost grainless. It scans well, although very dense.

Breasts aren't exactly obsolete. In this century the likes of Christina Hendricks, Katy Perry, and Kate Upton have all shoved open the door to stardom with their breasts, but breasts are no longer the dominant erotic body part.

There is still a place for them, and the competition from butts and toned midriffs has caused them to become more sophisticated. As this surprisingly well-written Imgur post suggests, Katy Perry is differentiated from busty starlets of the past by the quality of her breasts; by the versatility with which they can be presented. They are not so large that she is dismissed as a porn model, but they are however large enough to be the centrepiece of an outfit. Conversely they're small enough to work with formal clothes, and in her original persona as Christian rock musician Katy Hudson her breasts were completely anonymous. Their undeniably natural composition gives her an out in the face of criticism from social conservatives - she can argue that she didn't choose to have breasts.

Instead God chose that Katy Perry should have breasts, which suggests to me that God was a man. Good job, God. You know, when I was young I remember thinking that I should like The Durutti Column, because the idea of The Durutti Column is right up my street. But the band's music never seemed to progress, and within a few years The Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine overshadowed Vini Reilly. In retrospect the likes of Robin Guthrie and Michael Brook were just better, more inventive musicians. There was something uniform and samey about The Durutti Column's music. Given Reilly's recent illness, this sounds mean. Lots of people liked The Durutti Column, although obviously not enough to pay Vini Reilly's rent.

There's something melancholic about old guitarists. They are like retired airline pilots. They've seen things you people wouldn't believe, but without an airline, without an airliner, they are minds forever voyaging.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Tokina 100-300mm f/4 AT-X

We call it flooding; the river calls it freedom. Seventy-five percent of the Earth's surface is covered in water, and from outer space the planet appears blue because the greens and yellows and browns of the land are overwhelmed by the blue of the sea. On an objective level Earth is a water planet with some landmasses. The affairs of man are inconsequential compared to the affairs of fish, because it is their world, not ours. The ocean itself is alive, and has a mind. It is engaged in a constant struggle to obliterate the land. Torrential rains and flooding are the ocean's attacks against soil and rock.

Little does the ocean know that it is doomed. When the sun burns out it will expand, and all the Earth's water will evaporate into space. The dominant substance of the universe is not water, or earth, it is instead hydrogen, the most common element. Hydrogen powers the sun. One day the ocean will learn to split itself into oxygen and hydrogen, and perhaps then it will make peace with the land.

If I was a multimillionaire I would consider opening a fish bar. It would be called Nautical but Nietzsche, and I would only welcome patrons who had rejected conventional morality. Just outside the door would be a doll of a priest that guests would be encouraged to beat with a plastic haddock. The only bands I would book would be Ska bands. There is no meaning in this world, and we are free, and so are fish.

That is why it would be a fish bar and not for example a barbershop or a book store. Today we're going to have a look at the Tokina 100-300mm f/4 AT-X. It's an old manual focus push-pull zoom lens from the 1980s. I decided to try it out at the Yeovilton air show, thus all the images of aeroplanes and stuff in this post.

I put it on the front of a Fuji S5, an ancient six-megapixel SLR with a clever HDR sensor. The S5 is an eccentric choice for an airshow, especially so in 2016. The resolution doesn't lend itself to cropping, and the camera's eight-frame, 1.4fps "burst mode" isn't very good. But the sensor does well with clouds, and I don't have any other Nikon bodies, and why not? Human history is full of wise men who were overruled and ignored by irrational egomaniacs who wanted a golden bicycle, and I intend to make history and have a golden bicycle.

The Sea Vixen had a two-man crew. The pilot sat in the cockpit, the radar man sat undermeath the bulge on the left, where he was safe from seagulls.

Show here on a Pen F, with the Nikon-Pen F adapter from the previous post. I toyed with the idea of taking this to Yeovilton, but the Pen F's vertical framing would be awkward. Also, JCII sticker, aw yiss.

The red ring is a bit embarrassing. Tokina was probably copying the red ring of Canon's FD-era zoom lenses. It was a contemporary of the Canon FD 100-300mm f/5.6L, and perhaps it was designed to one-up that lens - the 100-300mm f/4 is a stop faster. It's about the size of a modern 70-200mm f/4L but has a built-in tripod mount...

...which is adjustable but not removable. It's in the right place balance-wise, although it's much too small to use as a handhold. The push-pull action is awkward because infinity focus isn't quite at the infinity mark, and it suffers from zoom creep. Otherwise it feels very tough. The lens has an internal zoom mechanism, and although mine must be thirty years old it has only a tiny amount of dust. The rear element is fixed in place and perhaps the zoom control filters out dust. Irritatingly the front part rotates when you focus. It takes 77mm filters.

The lens came with a hood that mostly filtered out flare, but not in this case.

What's the performance like? In my experience of old telephoto zooms the best of them were surprisingly sharp, but the colours were washed-out and the last 100mm or so was often very poor. The 100-300mm f/4 is surprisingly good in those two respects. Wide open at 300mm f/4 it's entirely usable. The colours have nothing wrong with them and vignetting is mild. For the following images I stuck it on a full-frame Canon 5D Mk II with an adapter.

The full frame at 300mm f/4, focusing on the gutter, because that is where my mind spends so much of its time. There's a bit of pincushion distortion, but not much, and with a textured backdrop the vignetting is basically undetectable.

Central sharpness is fine - not bitingly sharp, but good enough for 300mm f/4. Highlight edges have purple fringing. At the top the image with no processing, at the bottom some added unsharp mask. Stopping down to f/8 doesn't improve the image to a noticeable degree.

Towards the edge of the frame there's obvious CA and an overall soft glow.

The same image, but with CA correction and sharpening. There's still a soft glow, but at reasonable enlargement sizes you can't tell.

Bear in mind these are 100% crops from a massive 21mp image. For all practical purposes the Tokina 100-300mm f/4 is usable at 300mm f/4. I briefly tested it at 100mm and it was razor-sharp; I'm not going to fill this post with endless shots at different apertures and focal lengths, just trust me that 300mm f/4 is the worst. Bokeh at the minimum focus distance of 2m is a smooth paste. The lens appears to be parfocal, e.g. if you focus at 100mm and then zoom in, it stays in focus. I say "appears to be", because it's difficult to zoom the lens in and out without changing focus slightly.

Does it make sense nowadays? Under optimal conditions the lens performs very well, but life has surface noise. A lens is just one part of a photographic system, which encompasses not only the technology but also the human factor. Throughout my life I have used photography as a means of artistic expression; in the case of artistic photography the human factor is by far the most important element. I have a strong heart, robust guts, muscled legs, firm buttocks, a keen eye, steady hands, and a mind that is complex, well-fed, and endlessly questioning. I stand on the brink of infinity, gazing at the clouds below me. It is this that I try to capture with my photography. The sense of impending oblivion.

Conventional airshow photography, at least on a deliberate level, is all about the photographic system, the combination of lens, camera body, location and timing, of which the lens is just one component. It is also an accidental illustration of transience, futility, and the cold hard grip of the iron laws of thermodynamics, but the same is true of all human endeavour. Car shows, fireworks displays, marriages, they are all doomed to decay. The aeroplanes degrade every time they are flown, and even with meticulous care the metal can only take so much abuse before it fails. Perhaps the machines can be rebuilt, but at some point they become new machines. Each year a generation of photographers visit the show, generating a flood of images that delight the eye for a day and are then forgotten. The state of photographic technology marches on; the slides that wowed Mr and Mrs 1983 are nowadays cute novelties; stills photography itself is a throwback in an age of high-speed 4K footage captures with drones and GoPro remotes. As the saying goes, this year's top fighter prototype is tomorrow's chip paper.

At 300mm the 100-300mm's image quality is fine, but as part of a photographic system it doesn't really work for airshows. It's not long enough, and manually focusing a push-pull zoom while tracking a plane through the sky is difficult. At f/4 it's a stop faster than the typical modern 75-300mm f/4-5.6 plastic zoom at the long end, but plastic zooms tend to have image stabilisation, and furthermore the optical deficiencies of modern zoom lenses are generally easy to correct in Photoshop whereas motion blur is a killer.

The Textron Scorpion is a light attack aircraft that resembles the old Dornier Alpha Jet. It is still under development and might have missed the boat - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down - but nonetheless it has attracted several sales leads.

As a tribute to naval aviation the poor chaps in the back saluted the crowd.

There was a demonstration of an AH-64 blowing things up. After fifteen years of LiveLeak videos it's hard not to think of thermal images of people blown into bloody chunks.

By all accounts the 200-400mm f/4 TC is a superb lens, although I'm not convinced that it's the best choice for airshows, especially not on a full-frame body. On the positive side it has excellent autofocus and image stabilisation, the problem is range. The nature of airshow manoeuvres is such that when the aircraft are closest to the stands, they're turning away, so you need to capture them on the far end of their loops. A 600mm f/4, a 300mm f/2.8 with a 2x converter, or a 400mm f/2.8 with a 2x converter mounted on a 7D all have superior range.
The counter-argument is that you lose the ability to photograph planes that get too close - but they never get too close!

And that was Yeovilton. Last year I took along an infrared camera and photographed the last Vulcan; it no longer flies, so the roster this year was relatively mundane. The Royal International Air Tattoo will have an F-35, which has just flown across the Atlantic. This of course means that we can fly it back across the Atlantic and bomb New York if we want - stealthily. With precision munitions and the F-35, the UK now has the ability to kill any individual walking around in the open in New York and nobody need ever know.

Random observations: it was sunny, and then it rained, and despite getting damp the 100-300mm f/4 didn't break. I know very little about the lens, or for that matter Tokina. Judging by the adverts in Popular Photo it was launched after 1982 and replaced before 1992 by an autofocus version, which was in turn replaced by a second version that is now discontinued. Tokina no longer sells a telephoto zoom. The company still exists but gives the impression it is on its last legs.

Whilst taking pictures I was surrounded by people with weather-sealed lenses, using weather-sealed camera bodies; the moment it started to rain they rushed to put their lenses away and get under cover. There's an old saying that two is company, three is a crowd, but in reality three is a trio, and after the introduction of the Public Order Act of 1986 - which abolished the crime of unlawful assembly - a crowd (at least in the context of riots) is a gathering of twelve or more people. Three people is not a crowd. This has nothing to do with air shows or photography, I just wanted to get it off my chest. The rooster was mundane.