Monday, 30 May 2016

Touch: Ringtones

"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 nationals 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'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 slice 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. 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 controversy 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.

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 a dream of Second Life - a boundless vehicle 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 vehicle 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 contrasty lens.

Performance in the corner is suboptimal, again at f/2.8, f/8:

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, the end.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Games designers pick up tips
and GoPro's staff, they wonder how
to monetise four million views
of Syria's T-72s

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
his broken legs cannot 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.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8: Waves of Fear

"I know where I must be", shouted Lou Reed, "I must be in hell". Back in 1982 critics hailed The Blue Mask as Lou Reed's comeback from a long period of aimless meandering, but nowadays it tends to be overshadowed by his other comeback record, 1989's New York. After Blue Mask Lou Reed released three anonymous, undistinguished albums that essentially squandered all the critical goodwill he had earned. None of them were a disaster on a par with Dirty Work or Press to Play, or Landing on Water or Never Let Me Down, instead they were just bland non-entities.

Wikipedia's entry on New Sensations is illustrative. "New Sensations is the thirteenth solo album by Lou Reed", it says, and that's all it says, because that's the entire article. Wikipedia isn't generally known for the quality of its writing, but I agree with its assessment of New Sensations. It didn't have to be that way. The 1980s was Lou Reed's for the taking. After years of obscurity The Velvet Underground were hip. But when I think of Lou Reed in the 1980s I think of this famous commercial for Honda scooters, which is a tremendous example of its art but did nothing for Lou Reed (or Honda):

"Waves of Fear" is the high point of The Blue Mask. Here's a written description of Robert Quine's fantastic guitar solo: eww-weee-eww-weee / aaa-aaa-yeee-eee! aaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-AAAAAAaaaaaAAAAA wwweeeeee! etc it's skronk, baby. It sounds like animals in the forest fed through a guitar amplifier, today we're going to have a look at the Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8 MC Auto Variable Focusing zoom lens. It dates from the early 1980s, perhaps the late 1970s. Manual focus, available for all the popular lens mounts of the day. Why did I buy it? It's unusually wide and fast for an old zoom lens, and I wanted to try it out on my Olympus OM-1 film camera.

It's a big lens. The purple multicoating was typical of Vivitar lenses. As was the fashion back then it has a complicated load of multi-coloured numbers and lines that indicate something or other.

Mine is for the Olympus OM system. Most of the pictures in this post were taken ages ago with an Olympus OM-1 but I've also used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's a big heavy metal lens with a one-touch mechanism. You push it forwards to zoom in, pull back to zoom out, twist to focus, and as you focus it zooms a little bit and the control ring moves quite a lot. It's awkward.

My example has zoom creep, so if I point it up or down it zooms of its own accord. It's loose, like an old person's sphincter. Imagine trying to have sex, but just as you're getting interested you start leaking faecal matter involuntarily. That's why old people are so angry and crotchety all the time, and also why they smell so bad. They no longer have control of their bodily functions. Who has control? As a baby you do not have control of your own body; as an adult, you gain a measure of control; as an old person you gradually lose control again, and then your body turns on you and kills you. Such is the course of human life. People fight to gain control - over the world, over their tribe, over their families, and over their bodies - but they are doomed to fail.

The 28-85mm wasn't actually built by Vivitar. The company imported Japanese OEM designs and sold them under the Vivitar name, although in the 1970s it took a more active role by issuing specifications for its posh Series 1 range. The 28-85mm was never sold as a Series 1 lens, although it feels Series 1-ish. It was originally built by Kiron and there is a Kiron-branded version with a slightly different body. The same soul in a different body. The theme of gaining and losing control runs through the work of David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick; Kubrick's films are full of powerful men who believe themselves to be in control of their destinies, but are in fact entirely at the mercy of fate, whereas Cronenberg's films concentrate on the visceral nitty-gritty of physical degradation and death. Photography itself is all about control. Control of exposure, of the development process, of the collective cultural heritage of humanity, of future generations' perception of our present. Control and the failure of control in a world where objective truth has been replaced with subjective narratives.

The official Series 1 general-purpose zoom was a 28-90mm f/3.8 model made by Komine. It was sold alongside the 28-85mm for a time. An advert in the Feb 1983 issue of Popular Photography gives a price of $109 for the 28-85mm, vs $139 for the 28-90mm. I learn from the New York Times that $109 in 1983 would have bought four and a half smoked rainbow trout from Murray's Sturgeon Shop, giving the 28-85mm a trout index of 4.5. In comparison, a Nikon F3 body had a trout index of 14.3, and the average new car in the United States in 1983 had a trout index of 416.

Making a comparison with modern prices is hard because Murray's now lists smoked trout per fish (at $17.95) rather than per pound, and the shop sells ordinary trout rather than rainbow trout, but assuming that two prepared ordinary trout equals 1lb of fish meat and given that the average cost of a new car in the United States was roughly $33,000 last year, I conclude that the trout index for a new car in the United States is now 926. That's better, isn't it? It means that trout is much more affordable. So the economy is actually doing very well. Zerohedge is full of rubbish. Thank God they re-elected Reagan. All those agit-prop lefties from the 1980s were liars.

The 28-85mm focuses closely at 28mm and backs off as it zooms in, with a noticeable jump in the minimum focus distance in the last 10mm or so. Optically it's better than I expected, with the caveat that it's larger and heavier than a couple of prime lenses, especially compact OM primes. It's sharp in the middle at all apertures at 28mm, decent in the corners once stopped down; at 85mm it has a soft glow wide open but sharpens across the frame stopped down; wide open at 28mm it has a tonne of vignetting. It benefits from a contrast and saturation boost. For all of the images in this post I was either contra-sun or standing in shade, so I can't judge the flare. I've tried shining a light into the lens from the corner of the image, and although there were flare spots it didn't seem particularly flare-prone which is odd given the large front element. Perhaps the multi-coating is unusually effective.

The spec is advanced for the period. Most first-party general-purpose zoom lenses started at 35mm and f/3.5 or so. I have the impression that third-party manufacturers were more interested in zoom lenses than first-party manufacturers, perhaps because it was an unexploited niche and zoom lenses felt a bit cheap and dirty. Even today, in 2016, zoom lenses still have a slightly seedy air. The stereotype is that gentlemen use prime lenses, the common man has a zoom.

Still, let's see how it performs on a Canon 5D MkII full-frame digital SLR. Here's the vignetting at 28mm. There's a lot:

At 28mm it's basically sharp in the middle wide open, slightly sharper at f/8, but in general there's nothing wrong with the performance in the centre. NB for all of these images I have applied Photoshop's auto contrast, but I haven't added sharpening:

On an APS-C camera it would be a 44-135mm, an odd range that borders on usefulness. In the APS-C corner it has noticeable but correctable CA, and decent sharpness (again at f/2.8 then f/8).

Alas there was nothing interesting in the full-frame corner except some brickwork. As before there is a lot of vignetting wide open and the performance stopped down is okay:

The lens peaks at the middle of the range. At 50mm-ish it's basically sharp in the middle at all apertures, sharp all over at f/8 (again, wide-open and f/8).

At 85mm there's a soft glow wide open, although there is detail underneath the glow. Stopped down to f/8 it's actually very good.

At f/8 the corners improve substantially, although the lens would be outclassed by a decent 80mm portrait lens. The CA is mostly replaced with light purple fringing on high-contrast edges, not visible in this sample:

And that's that. Does the lens make sense nowadays? Not really. The kit lens you got with your digital SLR is probably just as sharp, and although it might not be faster it has image stabilisation. The problem is that unlike old prime lenses, old zoom lenses tend to be very large and heavy, and for video work the 28-85mm's zoom creep is awkward. It would be completely unbalanced on a mirrorless camera, for example.

On the other hand I would have been thrilled with it in the early 1980s. As a general-purpose zoom for 35mm cameras it makes a lot more sense. But then again a 28mm prime and some footwork would have been almost as useful. The lens is however surprisingly good for a nigh-on forty-year-old third-party zoom.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is a talentless old bag who surrounds herself with sycophants, idiots, and paid-for yes men. The syphilis she contracted at an early age has addled her brain. She has been celibate for decades.... the new film Florence Foster Jenkins, a historical comedy-drama starring Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, a famously terrible popular singer of the early twentieth century. At a young age Jenkins aspired to be a pianist, but the syphilis she contracted from her first husband ruined her physical coordination so instead she turned to singing. As a singer she was uniquely awful, but she lived in a bubble where she never had to face up to her incompetence, and by middle-age she was irreparably damaged.

Aren't we all, eh? By middle-age we are all irreparably damaged. My only constant friend has been the bottle. The bottle has never let me down. It doesn't care if I don't shave or if my socks don't match. The tutors Jenkins hired were happy to take the money and go through the motions of helping her, even though she was a lost cause. After years of obscurity she came to the attention of the wider public very late in life. A recording of her voice made its way to the radio, and in 1944 she was given the chance to play New York's Carnegie Hall. The concert sold out.

Everybody in the audience knew she was awful but no-one wanted to spoil the joke, and thus the postmodern age was born. History books say that postmodernism began in the 1970s but they're wrong. It began in 1944 with Florence Foster Jenkins. While the civilised world was engaged in a genocidal world war, Jenkins demolished the foundations of Western art. It took a few years for the building to topple, but eventually it did, and it is but a short step from Jenkins to the likes of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Alas Jenkins was unable to capitalise on her fame, because two days after the concert she suffered a heart attack; a month later she died. She was 76 and had not been expected to live that long. Like The Shaggs and Wesley Willis she is remembered as a pure spirit in an impure world. What if she was right, and we are wrong? History portrays her as a guileless naif who meant no harm rather than a vain, conniving witch, and because of this people remember her fondly today.

Florence, Italy

But what about the film? Is it any good? It's slight. The comedy is mannered and low-key, the drama is perfunctory, and on the whole it comes across as the kind of filler that would have entertained audiences in the 1940s. The film's big drama sequence involves one character's attempt to buy up and destroy every copy of the New York Post, which is the kind of plot element that belongs in an old television sitcom. The film has no bad language, no nudity, and its vision of New York in 1944 is antiseptically clean.

It was actually shot in the United Kingdom, a cost-saving measure that almost works; sadly Jenkins visuals have neither the grit of Taxi Driver or the polished fakery of One From the Heart. The film is instead just bland. On a visual level Jenkins is a technically accomplished television movie. It will not be nominated for any technical awards. Streep has won several Oscars but probably won't win anything for Jenkins. The film isn't weighty enough to work as Oscar bait.

I can see how a serious, substantial film about Florence Foster Jenkins might go down. It would be three hours long, in black and white, and it would be relentlessly bleak and downbeat. Jenkins was a lonely, disabled old woman who was exploited by everybody around her. She had personal charm but no-one in the film seems to genuinely love her. Jenkins inherited a lot of money from her father, and I imagine that throughout her life she never once met someone who cared about her as a person. But isn't that true of everybody? It has certainly been my experience. Alcohol doesn't come to me because I love it, it comes to me because I pay for it. Jenkins had a choice between living in a fantasy world, or confronting the reality of her own impending ill-health and death, with only fakers and conmen for company. In that respect a film of Jenkins' life might resemble Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and that mental image is more interesting than Florence Foster Jenkins. At times the film seems to be willing to go down this route - we have glimpses of how Foster perceives herself - but it pulls back almost immediately.

The film also stars Hugh Grant. He is a failed actor more famous for the company he keeps than for his own accomplishments. In real life, as in his films, Hugh Grant always been overshadowed by women; he plays his role as someone who understands he is trapped in a gilded cage, but is prepared to put up with this because why the hell not. He has the air of a man who believes he will be Edward VIII one day. Does he really love Jenkins? His mask only slips on one occasion, but even then it just reveals another mask. Grant is superb in a certain type of role and is perfectly cast in the film. It's a shame that he is never given better material to work with.

Florence again - Olympus XA, Kodak Portra 160

The third leading role is played by Simon Helberg. He is an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist. His character arc illustrates the film's biggest flaw; he begins as an inexperienced, shy, but talented pianist and remains so throughout the film. He has a mass of tics and is essentially the comic relief, but he doesn't change. None of the characters change. The film is simply a linear, uncomplicated portrayal of Jenkins' last few months on Earth, with no more ambition than that. There is a brief suggestion that Helberg's character might find love, and the film continually implies that he is a player of the pink oboe, but this goes nowhere. John Sessions pops up in a tiny role as a fat doctor. Whereas Meryl Streep wears a fat suit, John Sessions took the method approach to the problem of playing an overweight person. I admire his dedication.

The only other actor who stands out is Nina Arianda, who plays a blonde dame with classy gams. She's a massive stereotype but plays the role with gusto, and also her character looks fun to hang out with and I wish she had been in the film more. Rebecca Ferguson has the thankless role of Grant's girlfriend, who drinks heavily but comes across as a square and boring, which is odd because none of the alcoholics I have met were square and boring, at least not while drinking. I never knew what they were like when they were sober. They didn't like themselves when they were sober. That's why they drank. Sadly, some of them didn't like themselves when they were drunk, at which point where do you go? What is left when you realise that your dreams were shallow and stupid; when you realise that dreams are just flashes in the brain when you unconscious? Just flashes in a piece of meat.

The more I think about Jenkins the less it impresses me. The dramatic moments feel fake. At one point Jenkins is mocked by the audience, but an unexpected ally emerges who silences the critics; it felt fake. As if the filmmakers expected us to stand up and cheer as in the finale of Crocodile Dundee, but they didn't want to get their hands dirty with cheap Hollywood sentiment. Jenkins is a British film, and like all British films it has an air of sneering, unearned superiority about it, an unwillingness to descend to the emotional manipulation of Hollywood films, a sense that it deserves respect not because of its actions but simply because it is the member of an exclusive club, or the seventh earl of somewhere-or-other. This might be justified if Jenkins was unadulterated cinematic greatness, but instead it is empty and bland, like The Mission or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill or Hear My Song or any number of boring empty failed British attempts to create prestige drama.

The glimpses we have of Jenkins' mental delusions of grandeur are hamfistedly unsubtle. And one thing bothered me. The film's villain is a reporter for the New York Post. The film is full of mentally weak people who are willing to be bribed into silence; the reporter is the only honest, incorruptible music lover in the entire film. He refuses to be bribed into silence, and yet he is portrayed as the villain. Grant's character attempts to intimidate his editor into having the review spiked, and the film doesn't have a problem with this. Imagine a version of All the President's Men in which Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed as a pair of humourless killjoys, and Nixon is a harmless old man whose fantasies made a lot of people happy, or at the very least entertained a lot of people.

Not Florence

That would actually be an interesting film. Of course, I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect, but a smarter and more interesting film of Jenkins' life would have dealt with this. Jenkins' life was a slow-building tragedy about a sad old woman who was exploited by everybody around her, until eventually the pillar of lies they built fell apart and killed her. Her singing was awful and her self-delusion was funny, but her life was not a comedy. Imagine a film of Wesley Willis' life that glossed over the abuse he suffered as a child and his paranoid schizophrenia. Even Rain Man dealt more frankly with the tragic aspects of its main characters lives than Jenkins.

The film suggests that the pursuit of a dream is worth dying for, but Jenkins' dream was a delusion; the dream she chased was the product of mental illness, and again this is a more interesting take on the material than Florence Foster Jenkins. I can't tell if writer Nicholas Martin or director Stephen Frears thought of all this and decided that it wouldn't fit in a crowd-pleasing historical drama. Martin is a television writer and Frears is a prolific, anonymous director mostly of historical dramas, who occasionally finds himself as the credited director on films that win awards. I assume they were hired because they could bring the material in on time and budget as cheaply as possible.

The film has one or two decent lines, neither of which I can remember, and one good shot that makes use of the cinema screen (Nina Arianda's character appears in a hallway while some drama goes on in the foreground), but apart from that the script and cinematography are anonymous. For a film set in 1940's New York none of the dialogue feels particularly of the period, but then again real-life 1944 probably didn't sound like the films of that era.

I'm waffling now. The drink has started to write my words for me go away. Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfunctory, dull film with solid performances from a couple of actors who can phone in this kind of thing. There's no reason to see it at the cinema. I went because this weekend it is summer in the United Kingdom, the end.

Cosina CX-2: Sick for a Newer Ghost

"Wrap me in your blanket, dance me around". So sang Buffy Sainte-Marie in "Qu'appelle Valley, Saskatchewan", a classic deep cut from her 1974 album Sweet America. Sainte-Marie's discography is full of deep cuts, notably her 1969 record Illuminations, a pioneering blend of acoustic folk and experimental electronics.

Why I am thinking about Buffy Sainte-Marie all of a sudden? As I write these words Canada has caught fire, which will no doubt lead to a massive refugee crisis. Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a spot of land that had Canada built on top of it, but she is safe from the flames because she now lives in Hawaii. Which, ironically, is a volcano. You'd think that Canada would be too cold to catch fire, but obviously it is not.

As a child growing up in the UK I assumed that Sainte-Marie was a big star, but reading about her life and work I am surprised to find that her albums barely scraped into Billboard's top hundred-and-fifty in the United States. Here in the UK the theme for Soldier Blue was a top ten hit in 1971, and most British people over the age of fifty can put a face to her name, but only her 1992 comeback record Coincidence and Likely Stories actually charted.

She is of course familiar to one and all for her appearances in Sesame Street, which might explain why I recognise her. Like Marxists and Johnny Ball, she knew that if you win over the children, you win over the future. Perhaps her record sales will explode in the 2040s.

The internet has several explanations for Sainte-Marie's poor sales. None of them really convince me. The early 1970s was hot for female singer-songwriters. The likes of Carole King, Phoebe Snow, and even Laura Nyro outsold Buffy Sainte-Marie many times over, and even 60s throwbacks such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez retained a following. Her distinctive deep warbly voice was light-years from Karen Carpenter, but it wasn't that odd, besides which having a deep voice didn't hurt Cher. On a physical level she was good-looking in a friendly way. I'm not an expert on modern America's relationship with its former landlords, but I have the impression that Native Americans were thought of in the 1960s as either non-entities who only existed in cowboy films, or as cute novelties - which is patronising, but it's a lot better than being spat on and treated like an animal.

It wasn't her songwriting. "Universal Soldier" was a peacenik standard, "Until it's Time for You to Go" was a late-period hit for Elvis Presley in 1972, and "Up Where we Belong", which she co-wrote, was a chart-topper that won an Academy Award. By all accounts her songwriting has left her comfortably well-off. She is doing a lot better than e.g. Dionne Warwick, who is bankrupt, and of course Janis Joplin, who is dead. The Blogger platform used to have no problem embedding content from Google Books. Now it frustrates me. There's supposed to be a feature about Sainte-Marie from Time magazine circa 1965 and an article about little cameras from 1981, but I'm worried that as soon as I hit "publish" there will just be an empty space (as indeed there was - ed).

The XA and CX-2 had these cute add-on flash units. The XA's flash screws into the side; the CX-2 has a proper hot shoe. With the CX-11 attached the CX-2 resembles the Minox 35.

On an ergonomic level the XA is superior, although the CX-2 has this neat touch.

Sainte-Marie herself believes that the Johnson and Nixon administrations blacklisted her from the radio. Given that she aspired to be a mainstream pop star rather than an underground hero a la Gil Scott-Heron or Phil Ochs this would have been disastrous.

In 1969 a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island, and in 1973 there was an armed uprising at Wounded Knee, but the Wounded Knee incident was an internal political matter and the Alcatraz occupation fizzled out. Nonetheless there is something seductively plausible about the idea of Nixon trying to squelch Buffy Sainte-Marie. It sounds like the kind of petty thing he would do. I can picture him asking G Gordon Liddy to shut that goddamn woman up, just get her off the fucking radio, she's got to learn that she's an American first and a Native American second YES I KNOW that they were here first goddamn it's our country now I'm not giving it back to a bunch of drunks you hear me Gordon during a bout of paranoid mania.

Furthermore the stereotype of Native Americans as smart, organised guerilla warriors was probably still fresh in the minds of middle-aged, ruling-class America at the time. Whereas the Black Panthers could be dismissed as a rabble who would merely burn down worthless patches of Detroit, the Native Americans were serious. Their cause was easy to understand and sympathise with, but it cut to the heart of all that Western society is built upon; property rights. The state exists to uphold property rights, and will squander its treasure and kill people to ensure ownership of a patch of land.

HMS Belfast's guns are apparently pointed at a motorway service station eleven miles to the north-west. There doesn't have to be a reason.

The thought of armed US Forest Service helicopters re-enacting Vietnam in Alberta and Nevada might have preyed on Nixon's mind. But why did Nixon only target Buffy Sainte-Marie, and not other subversives? In Nixon's world everybody was a subversive. And if he had ordered his underlings to suppress the music of John Baez as well as Buffy Sainte-Marie, how come the blacklist affected Sainte-Marie so badly?

And that's the Cosina CX-2. A small, auto-exposure, manual-focus, electronic 35mm camera from the early 1980s. Released in the wake of the Minox 35 and particularly the Olympus XA. It's essentially a hybrid of the two, with the basic shape of a Minox plus some styling cues from the XA, and a clever twisting lens cover that works surprisingly well (and is more robust than I expected). The images in this post were taken with a mixture of expired black-and-white Phototec 100 and expired, badly-stored Fuji 200.

I owned one a long time ago but sold it; I bought another one. My recollection is that the lens had masses of distortion and wasn't very sharp around the edges, but it was solidly built and the autoexposure system could do really long night-time exposures. Having used one again I haven't changed my opinion. The 35mm f/2.8 lens isn't a patch on the one in the XA but it has a certain amount of charm. The State is like a non-Newtonian fluid. If you hit it with a hammer, it stiffens up and resists. You have to slowly push a knife into it. But as the knife goes in, it dissolves, and eventually it becomes part of the problem. It doesn't matter that the majority of people sit in front of the television doing nothing with their lives. They would do that anyway. It's the tip of the blade that penetrates, the rest merely has to go with the flow.

Cosina is mostly famous as an OEM manufacturer. It builds camera gear for other companies, and occasionally sells stuff directly under its own name - usually cheap autofocus telezooms - or under names it has licensed, notably Voigtländer. The Voigtländer Bessa rangefinders of the early 2000s were very popular with discerning gentlepeople, and modern Voigtländer lenses for mirrorless compacts regularly attract plaudits in the photographic press. Why doesn't Cosina change its name to Voigtländer and start again, hmm?

The CX-2 was sold in a plastic box with a motordrive and a flash unit. There was also an underwater housing, the CX-M, so obviously Cosina tried, but on the whole the CX-2 seems to have sold in very small quantities. Price-wise it was parked in between the XA2 and the more capable XA, which had a head start.

The State exists to enforce property rights - and arbitrary laws that it creates.

The CX-2 was launched in parallel with the cheaper CX-1. They share the same instruction book. The CX-1 had a 32mm f/3.5 lens and no provision for a motor drive. They were also sold under the name of German department store Porst, and Petri, Praktica, possibly others, the end.