Tuesday, 30 June 2015


Olympus OM-1n

Off to Budapest. I visited back in February but never got around to writing about it. Everybody knows three things about Budapest. The first is that it rotates counterclockwise. Immanuel Velikovsky, in his fascinating but deeply flawed Cities in Collision, argued that this was because Budapest had originally been a comet, violently smashing its way through Europe until it settled in its present location.

Modern science, on the other hand, believes that Budapest was formed in pre-Cambrian times, when a massive earthquake caused the ancient river Mooustak to run with boiling blood. Eventually the tremors ceased, and a new river - the Danube - took its place, splitting the city into two halves.

This post was mostly brought to you by Fuji Superia

On the left, Buda, on the right, Pest. When the citizens of this new city awoke on the morning after the earthquake they found that a spirit force had taken all the women and girls to Buda, leaving the men trapped in Pest. Any attempt by either sex to cross the Danube was blocked by an invisible barrier, and a separate barrier of the heart prevented the people from going around the edge. They were filled with deep sadness whenever they approached the city's boundaries.

And so the men and women of Pest and Buda lined up of an evening on the banks of the new river; the men communicated their love with torches, the women by waving their undergarments. Over time the men tried to solve their plight by digging a huge tunnel, and the women on the mountainous rocks of Buda built a gigantic telescope to study the stars, but it was to no avail. They grew old and passed away. Budapest is thus a city of melancholy founded on the broken hearts of lonely people.

Modern Budapest itself is composed of four zones, Bud, Ape, S and T, which are west east north and south respectively. Budapest is pronounced as if you were Sean Connery, but only on the weekends, and also it's the capital of Hungary. People from Budapest do not kiss, instead they kish.

No, seriously, they don't kiss, or at least no-one ever tried to kiss me when I was there, and neither did I try to kiss anybody. The great thing about Pimms is that you can drink it, and it doesn't taste like drink, but it does get you drunk.

I've never visited a former Eastern Bloc country before. When I was a kid the people of Hungary were poised to attack the UK with nuclear weapons, but today we are friends.

British people stereotype foreigners. Hungary is unusual in that I can't think of a British stereotype of Hungarian people. Historically, our two empires didn't interact very much, and for the last half of the twentieth century Hungary was distant and anonymous, like Austria or Bulgaria. I have a vague idea that Hungarians are supposed to be arrogant megalomaniacs who are excessively proud of their meager accomplishments. Hungary is the nation of the Gömböc, a kind of curved object that only stands upright one way. There was a museum exhibit about this thing. It was discovered in 2006 and hasn't revolutionised human society yet, but there's still time. Think how long it took for carbon fibre and lasers to filter down into common use.

It's Bela Lugosi. He's dead.

Nowadays Budapest is a popular holiday destination for British people because it's cheap, it's cheap, there are lots of McDonalds, and it's cheap. It's like a training wheel version of Croatia or Slovenia, in the sense that it's a little bit Ost without beingHostel e.g. there's very little chance you'll be kidnapped and forced to participate in a sick game where you have to murder your fellow tourists by force-feeding them ground glass until they bleed from every orifice. Hungarians are not yet in the Eurozone, so they have their own currency - the Huf, which is roughly 500 Hufs to the pound.

Some Huf. The coins were shiny and pristine because nobody uses them.

It's also lovely, and the climate is decent and it's cheap. Doubly cheap because much of Budapest's appeal is visual, so that unlike e.g. New York you don't have to spend a fortune on museum entry fees to enjoy it. You can just walk around and point at the buildings and look at the people and imagine kissing them, because the woman are attractive. If Hungary has nothing else to export it could always export its women. Such as Rachel Weisz, born to Hungarian-Austrian parents. With a couple of train journeys I also managed to add Austria and Slovakia to the list of countries I have visited, for four hours apiece. So, Budapest/Hungary, you're highly efficient.

Bupadest has a new museum, The House of Terror. It's a fascinating place that appealed to me because I'm a man and thus naturally drawn to horror and terror and so forth. The museum has been controversial because it glosses over Hungary's role in the Second World War, essentially fast-forwarding to the last year of the war and then fast-forwarding through that.

It's often said that British people are obsessed with the second world war, probably because they have little else to be obsessed about, and this is true, they/we are. Hungary entered the war as a member of the Axis, although I have a sense that Hungary's leader, Miklós Horthy, simply wanted Hungary to be on the winning team, which perhaps explains why he remains popular in Hungary rather than hated and despised.

Horthy raised an army of two hundred thousand men to help Germany invade Russia, because Germany looked like the winning team and Russia would be easy. Most of those men ended up dead around Stalingrad, at which point Horthy decided to cut Hungary's losses and withdraw from the Axis. Hitler then sent troops to occupy Hungary, although Horthy was allowed to remain in charge. In late 1944 he tried to negotiate a peace with the Soviets, but it was for nothing, because Hitler had him removed from office and replaced by the Arrow Cross Party. The House of Terror essentially begins its story at this point, ignoring all of the earlier stuff.

The Arrow Cross Party were a bunch of hopeless Hungarian Nazis who had been around for ages without ever coming close to power. Nonetheless In October 1944 they suddenly found themselves thrust into office by the Germans. At that point Soviet troops were already inside Hungary and the Arrow Cross Party only had control of Budapest and the west of the country.

And then only for a couple of months. Budapest was surrounded by Soviet forces in December and captured a few weeks later, and by February 1945 the Arrow Cross Party was just a lot of scattered militia bands retreating west, killing everybody they didn't like.

The Arrow Cross Party is fascinating. They had propaganda posters and newsreels, and uniforms and flags and parades and meetings so forth, but they must have known they had no future. I wonder what their meetings were like; did their agendas go i) repulse the Soviets ii) kill all the Jews iii) force the Soviets to declare peace iv) invade the moon? Despite futile attempts to present themselves to the outside world as moderates they were just a bunch of disorganised thugs whose reaction to being caught in a hole was to keep digging, furiously.

The House of Terror has very little about this. Instead it moans about the Soviet years, which were probably very hard, but if I was Russian I would not have been too concerned. The 1956 uprising has instead become Hungary's new heroic past, but again the House of Terror seems to gloss over everything that happened after that. What did the Hungarians do in 1972, 1979, 1986?

The 1956 uprising coincided with our involvement in Suez, which overshadowed it here in the UK. There was apparently a very brief refugee crisis, although I imagine this must have been awkward, especially for Britain's socialists. From the point of view of the United States it was all equally foreign, and the Novembver 1956 issue of LIFE magazine covers it in an unusually graphic way EDIT that defies my attempts to embed it in this blog. Suffice it to say that there are photographs of some secret policemen being shot, and then hung upside-down so the crowd can spit on their bloodied corpses! It's striking.

It's ancient history now. What with recent events in Greece and Tunisia and so forth I say to myself "there was far worse not very long ago; we will forget".

The impressive Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art is surprisingly obscure and out of the way. It opened in 2005, although it has the air of something from the USSR. The bookshop had a book about unintentional design, which I now kick myself for not buying.

Jimmy Savile is nowadays reviled, and rightly so, and even during his heyday there was a whiff of something not quite right about him. I think there was an assumption that he was gay or asexual, which in the 1980s was even worse than being gay. But he had the patter. DJs have a patter. Wolfman Jack had the patter. Market traders have patter. Tony Blair had patter and of course so did Hitler. The skill of talking non-stop in an exciting way. Like everything in showbiz it's extremely difficult and takes a lot of skill and preparation and practice.

I often wonder where it came from. Rock and roll radio emerged rapidly in the 1950s, and like acid house and punk it evolved and mutated at incredible speed. Rock and roll was essentially a technological art form that relied upon a huge technological infrastructure of electronic recording studios, electric guitars and amplifiers, electronic record players and of course portable transistor radios. In both the UK and the US there was an element of criminality as well; there were "border blaster" radio stations in Mexico, broadcasting over the border, and we had offshore pirate radio on ships moored just outside UK territorial waters. Early rock and roll radio was a bit like the modern-day app market, or the mid-2000s market for mobile phone ringtones. It was vibrant, shady, driven by an urge to exploit transient micro-trends before they burst. People tuned in for a thrill, to divert their attention from the misery of everyday life.

The few Trabants I saw were probably owned by hipsters. This is Kodak Portra 160VC.

I've never heard authentic old-fashioned rock and roll radio. American Graffiti, set in 1962, tries to recreate the spirit of it (with a guest appearance from the actual Wolfman Jack), and Robin Williams presumably did some research for Good Morning Vietnam, but beyond that rock radio was a transient art form that left nothing behind. The shows were broadcast live, once and never again, never recorded for posterity. Along with home shopping channels and twenty-four-hour news they were not built to last.

Think about all the hours of home shopping television shown on all of the different channels all across the world. In terms of quantity, does it outweigh drama and comedy? Game of Thrones has won awards and has a passionate fan base, and it's excellent clickbait, but in terms of quantity it is not television. QVC and the Home Shopping Network are television.

I have always assumed that DJ patter was part of an arms race for people's ears, and that it evolved in parallel with record production; in the UK it's easy to draw a line from carnival barkers and market traders and music hall to the likes of Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Savile, I assume the US had their own lineage. Now then now then as a DJ you have to talk non-stop in an energetic manner so as to enthuse the audience and drive them into a frenzy, with the ultimate goal of getting the kids to hand over their pocket money, and that's a lot like writing a blog. You have to talk non-stop even when you've run out of things to say about the topic.

Did I mention that Budapest is cheap? Drink is cheap in Budapest. There were far fewer prostitutes than Barcelona. There is an island called Margaret Island, but when I was there (early March) everything was shut. There were crowds of joggers jogging around it in a counter-clockwise motion, no doubt trying to rotate Budapest into the correct alignment.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Asteroids Respond

Even more music, composed while staring intently at Taylor Swift a picture of Taylor Swift while drinking wine, lots of it. If this had been part of an album, it would segue in from the previous track.

Wine isn't sold in pints, or at least you can't go into a pub and order a pint of wine. Also, a good name for a band would be Robert Burns In Hell. I picture them as a Scottish folk-punk band in the style of the Pogues, but Scottish. This track has three basic elements. Firstly, I have always wanted to do a piece of music that just has a pulse beat, along the lines of Aphex Twin's Tha, John Foxx's Kurfurstendamm, or Thomas Middleton's Larynx. Notice how I didn't link Tha, because I trust that you are already familiar with that track.

Secondly, I wanted to play with my Monotron. It's a simple analogue synthesiser that came out several years ago. It's tiny! And very noisy, so you can't use it in a conventional way, not least because you end up amplifying noise. It costs about thirty pounds and there are three of them - the standard unit, the twin-oscillator Monotron Duo, and the Monotron Delay, which has a short digital delay. They can process external audio and although the controls are very limited (and for some reason the LFO is a sawtooth wave instead of a triangle) it's surprisingly versatile. For a simple but punchy kick drum sound, just turn the cutoff down, the peak up so that the filter self-oscillates, the rate to about four pulses a second, and then use the int knob to change the "punch".

The third element is a sample of "Four Loom Weaver", a traditional tune performed by Maddy Prior and June Tabor on their 1976 album Silly Sisters, comma, slowed down and reversed. The British electric/progressive folk music boom of the 1960s and 1970s is fascinating. The likes of Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention are amongst the least fashionable, most-unlikely-to-be-revived-not-even-ironically bands of living memory, and ultimately the only lasting remnant of the period was Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, which is one of those albums that's simultaneously naff and awesome. Wikipedia is not usually a source of great literature, but its description of the movement's demise is worth quoting - "all popular music trends have a generational problem as their audiences grow and might not be replaced, but for folk rock the discontinuity was very acute."

That's quality writing, you know. Discontinuity and acute. It won't be a State-run initiative that murders human expression, it'll be us. And yet for every word that becomes obsolete a new one comes along - nowadays we have bae and cray-cray and TayTay, as in "my bae TayTay is craycray", which is just an example (Taylor Swift is not crazy). You know, when I was a kid "basic" was a programming language, not an insult. And when people talked about hippy crack, they were talking about the bum cracks of hippies. So, yes, everything is in flux. Even folk music is in flux, although folk purists resist change. But in the words of the song, "now your ashes are scattered on the wind".

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Navigating the Asteroid Belt

More music, with Logic Express 9 running on a 2008 MacBook Pro. On the left is a ThinkPad X61 running the wonderful M-Tron Mellotron simulation, and towards the middle is a strong cup of tea. Here's the result (the tea was the most important thing):

A while back I bought an old G4 PowerBook, just to see what OS X was like in the early years of this century. I also wanted to check out Logic, which is the standard Macintosh sequencer. Logic was developed in the 1980s for the Atari ST, and was eventually ported to Windows; for a while it was available for Windows and OS X, but eventually Apple latched on to it and brought it inside the company's walled garden. Now it is an OS X exclusive.

Perhaps because of this it tends to be pooh-poohed by the cognoscenti. The latest version is Logic Pro X, and word on the street is that Apple has tried to dumb it down for the app market as part of a general shift away from the professional market. I don't know. I like Logic; on a conceptual level it's similar to Cubase and Pro Tools, and it has a few irritating quirks, but I don't have a problem with it and it runs well on my MacBook.

My old, circa 2002 G4 PowerBook is very limited, so I decided to try an experiment. My ThinkPad X61 is a traditional PC laptop, but it can be turned into a "hackintosh", and with an afternoon's worth of work I had OS X 10.7 running on it. Logic Express 8 worked fine but the whole experience felt a bit wonky, so I bit the bullet and bought a 2008 MacBook Pro instead. Why not simply buy Cubase for my Windows PC, and cut out the Macintosh entirely? Why indeed.

On the used market, 2008 MacBook Pros are an interesting proposition. The 1440x900 screen is still better than most entry-level modern PC laptops, which seem to have setted on 1366x768. The reliability problems that bedevilled the G4 PowerBooks had been mostly solved, although there are still issues with the aluminium case attracting dents and the internals overheating. Performance-wise modern laptops are undeniably more capable, but over the last few years there has been an emphasis on power-saving and miniaturisation as well, and so the six years of progress since 2008 are not as apparent as the six years separating 2002 from 2008. The 2008 MacBooks have two graphics processors (an on-chip card and a separate unit which kicks in for games) but poor games performance is one thing that definitely separates 2008 from the modern era.

The 2008 MacBooks are easy to work on. I've swapped my MacBook's original hard drive for a cheap SSD, taken out the DVD superdrive, and inserted a second drive bay. Reason being that Logic Express is flakey with OS X 10.10 Yosemite. It runs, but becomes unresponsive for seconds at a time, seemingly whenever I plug in my keyboard. So I bought a copy of OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and installed that on the second drive.

Snow Leopard is the Macintosh analogue of Windows XP - old and sturdy - if Windows XP had been built on UNIX, and part of me wonders if Apple reached a peak with its Macintosh range circa 2008-2011 and has been regressing since then. Perhaps the company no longer cares much for its computers. I often wonder if the failure of the XServe range finally convinced Apple that it did not have a future as a computer company. Still, a 2008 MacBook with Snow Leopard is fast, reliable, and relatively easy to fix if it breaks; the post-2008 MacBook Pros had a non-replaceable battery, and later models progressively became sealed units with everything glued-and-soldered to the motherboard. I have seen nothing in OS X Yosemite that I prefer over Snow Leopard, or indeed OS X 10.4 Tiger.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about the music? Why are you waffling on about laptops and hard drives, why not tell us what was going through your soul as you poured raw emotion from your musical heart? I like to think that good art has a core of humanity underneath it, but in practice the act of creation involves a tonne of hard, uninteresting work. Whenever films show an artist in the act of creation, they imply that it just happens, but someone has to sharpen the pencils, put ink into the typewriter and load the film etc. You have to be quite far up the chain before you have minions to do that kind of thing, at which point you have to master a new set of skills. Until you are the King, at which point you just have to look good in robes.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Olympus Pen F 25mm f/2.8: Tender Cruelty

A while back I had a look at the Olympus Pen FT, a half-frame SLR from the 1960s. At the time I only had one lens, the standard 38mm f/1.8. This bugged me, because what's the point of having an interchangeable-lens SLR if you only have one lens? All you can do is take the lens off, and put it back on again. Take it off, and put it back on again.

The problem is that Pen F lenses are hard to come by nowadays. The system sold decently at the time but was never a smashing success, and Olympus gave up on it in the early 1970s in favour of the OM. Half-frame Pen F lenses were basically useless without a Pen F, and for the next thirty years I imagine that a lot of them were thrown away or left to rot in cupboards and attics and sheds and trunks and suitcases and garages and water towers and hangars and basements and wine cellars and hidden compartments and buried safes and kitty litter trays and saucepans and coffins and dirigibles and trousers and sovereign nations and medicine bottles and oceans and clouds and the pouches of kangaroos and discarded wallets.

What do you get if you make several men wobble back and forth? A mendulum. The system became collectable in the 1990s, if only because the Pen F's sleek good looks were an antidote to the naffness of an age of plastic. The advent of modern rangefinder-type digital cameras accelerated that process, because Pen F lenses can easily be adapted for Micro Four Thirds and the Sony NEX system. Furthermore the lenses look kawaii and perform really well; they're well-built and, because they were originally designed for a sub-frame format, they have a useful range of focal lengths.

Half-frame 35mm is essentially the same size as APS-H, and Pen F lenses were designed with a 1.4x focal length multiplier in mind. They will cover all of the popular sub-frame digital formats, including in theory the APS-H sensor in the Leica M8, although as far as I know there isn't a Pen F - M adapter. The standard 38mm acts as a 60mm on an APS-C camera, a 76mm on a Micro Four thirds camera, and a 53mm on a Pen F.

The Pen F system had a modest range of lenses, stretching from a 20mm f/3.5 wide to an 800mm f/8 mirror, with a pair of zooms, which were novel at the time. The subject of this post is a 25mm f/2.8 that seems to have been introduced slightly after the other lenses. It doesn't appear in the early brochures, which instead talk about the compact 25mm f/4.0 instead.

I have only ever heard good things about the Pen F's lenses. So the story goes, Olympus tried to mitigate the lower resolution of the format by making the lenses super-sharp; at least the standard 38mm f/1.8 I have is perfectly fine wide-open with slide film. Is this hype? Sales gumpfh dreamed up by a copywriter working for Olympus back in 1963, when the Pen F was launched? How do you spell gumpfh anyway?

Adox Silvermax.

For this article I used Adox Silvermax, a black and white film which apparently has a wider dynamic range than other films when developed with Adox's special developer, which I don't have. Instead I splashed on some Rodinal and left it to stand for an hour and a half. Straight from the scanner, the results look a bit flat and grey, reminiscent of Agfa APX, but that's a good thing because it's easier to add contrast than take it away.

It's bumph, isn't it? Sales bumph. Not gumph. Completely different word. Have I been wrong all these years? What did people think of me?

On a Pen F the 25mm acts as a wide-ish 35mm. It has a 43mm filter thread, and so I used a 43-49mm step-up ring for the polariser. How does it cope with flare? I have no idea, I live in England, there's no sun. Looking through these images I can see an extremely mild, almost imperceptible amount of barrel distortion.

I'm not in a position to evaluate the lens' resolution - I was shooting wide-open at 1/60th on an overcast day and the medication was only just keeping the tremors in check, and I developed and scanned the film myself, and focusing with the FT is something of a pain because there's no split-circle focus, just a very fine microprism and the viewfinder is quite dim. Looking at the scans I can't tell the difference between f/2.8 and f/5.6 or whatever I stopped down to.

I can find barely anything about the 25mm f/2.8 on the internet. eBay suggests that the system was far more popular in Japan than elsewhere. The serial number of my lens - 105566 - suggests that Olympus didn't sell very many. Presumably they started at 100000, and if there had been millions, what are the chances that my random example would be in the first six thousand?

Back in 1969 it sold for $99 in the US, which is about $600 today, and the Pen F was not a major mainstream success. The Pentax Spotmatic outsold it eight to one, and my understanding is that SLRs didn't really take off - or at least they didn't become must-have toys - until towards the end of the Pen F's run. In contrast Olympus went on to sell roughly two million OM-1s, at which point hopefully they gave Yoshihisa Maitani a big bottle of champagne.

As always the Pen F is wonderful. If only it had a split-image focus aid and autoexposure. The shutter thunks away with a neat clack and you never have to change film, and because everything is vertical the world seems new.

I often wonder to myself, is there a photographer in China, right now, documenting Chinese industrial buildings in the same way that Bernd and Hilla Becher documented water towers and mines in Germany? Is that man worried about the fate of China's heavy industry, given that rising wages will eventually drive it abroad? Where will heavy industry end up when everybody in the world is paid fairly? Antarctica? Also, if you assume that Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender was recorded at 45rpm, and you slow it down to 33.3rpm, it sounds terrible.