Monday, 20 January 2020

Nights of Cabiria

Off to the cinema to see Nights of Cabiria, a classic Italian film from 1957. It stars Giulietta Masina's eyebrows, and also the rest of her, but mostly her eyebrows, which are fantastic.

See what I mean? Nights of Cabiria was directed by Frederico Fellini, who was Masina's husband. Fellini would be one hundred years old today if he had not died in 1993 or any other year before now. As a tribute the British Film Institute has re-released some of his films, which is how I had a chance to see Cabiria on the big screen, at the BFI South Bank. The last time I saw a film at the BFI South Bank an autistic person screeched at Eli Wallach, but that didn't happen this time.

Cabiria has been given a new 4K restoration. I can't comment on the quality of the work - I've never seen the film on a big screen before - but I didn't notice any problems. In common with most Italian films of the period the dialogue was dubbed in afterwards, so the characters often speak without moving their lips, but Fellini's films take place in a fantasy world all their own, so the occasionally wonky dubbing just adds to the charm.

I can confirm that Cabiria enraptured the audience for two hours and got some good laughs. Not polite laughs, but actual spontaneous real laughs. There was applause at the end. Before the film there was a short talk by Carol Morley, who is a film-maker. She couldn't remember the first time she heard about Fellini, and neither can I.

I can however remember the first time I heard about Carol Morley. It was 18 January 2020, and I was reading through the programme notes for the BFI's screening of Nights of Cabiria. I remember it vividly because it was only two days ago.

Our heroine's house.

I grew up in the 1980s, so I find it hard to write about Frederico Fellini, Pier Pasolini, Visconti, Antonioni et al. Grand old Italian film directors of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them - such as Bernardo Bertolluci and Franzo Zeffirelli, who weren't quite legendary enough to be mononyms - were still active and winning awards in the 1980s, but I have a sense that in the age of Spike Lee and David Lynch they were thought of as passé. You weren't supposed to rate them.

Firstly because it was too obvious. It would be like saying that your favourite classical musician was Beethoven, or that your favourite band was The Beatles. Secondly because in the 1980s it was trendy to shit on idols of the past. And thirdly because in the 1950s and 1960s European cinema was sold to Mr and Mrs Ordinary of suburban nowheresville as culturally uplifting. The idea was that Mrs Ordinary would badger Mr Ordinary into taking them both to the cinema to see one of Fellini's films in the hope that exposure to culture would stir something within them.

They would hire a babysitter, because continental films were for grown-ups only. Mr Ordinary would have gone along in the hope that Anita Ekburg might take her clothes off, although he would have been disappointed. On Monday they would boast to their friends that they had gone to see a Fellini film, although inwardly they would have been disappointed by it. What was the fuss about?

Sixty kilotons of bombs were dropped on Rome during the Second World War. It took a while for the city to grow back.

But their disappointment didn't matter, because the distributors got their money. All films are sold in one way or another, and Fellini's films were no exception. In his case, and that of the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, the non-aligned films of Ingmar Bergman and so forth, the films were sold both on their own merits and as part of a movement, and of course by the 1980s the world had changed and some of the illusion had worn off.

There's another factor as well; in the modern age Fellini and Berman get woke points for writing strong female characters, but they are docked several points for the airbrushed whiteness of their films, although Bergman wins back some points because his films are so incredibly white that they almost work as parodies of whiteness. Fellini also wins back a couple of points for gently mocking the Catholic church, but loses them again because he had a habit of filling his films with quote freaks unquote, who were presented as "the other", which doesn't sit well with contemporary sensibilities.

Nonetheless it's hard to hate Fellini, and Nights of Cabiria is a good example of why that is. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Feature, but it's better than that. It's unpretentious, subtle, clever without being arty, good-looking without drawing attention to itself. It was overshadowed by Fellini's later work and I have the impression that it languished in relative obscurity until the late 1990s, when it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, but from that point onward it developed a second wind. It was picked up by blogs, and of course Giulietta Masina's face is magnetic; the posters did the rest. Now it's a classic, the kind of Fellini film that you can talk about in polite company without coming across as shallow. It is Fellini's The Conversation. Fellini's Mirror. Fellini's Drunken Angel etc.

It's the "too obvious" factor again, see. No-like likes to spend time with a boring person. If you say that your favourite Fellini film is La Dolce Vita people assume that you haven't seen any of his other films. If you pick Satyricon or Casanova you actually have to do some work to justify your choice. Nights of Cabiria on the other hand wins instant approval. It doesn't require explanation and everybody likes it.

The film was shot largely on location. This is Rome's central station, Termini, which looks much the same today. How could anybody be mean to Giulietta Masina?

What's it like? What's the film like? It's essentially a kitchen sink drama, albeit that it takes place in Rome rather than Salford, so to my eyes it looks a lot more glamorous than Look Back in Anger or A Taste of Honey. How did Italian audiences react to it? I have no idea. It was shot a few years before Italy's post-war economic boom, so although all of the characters are well-dressed and dripping with sprezzatura they mostly live in abject poverty, dreaming of a better life that, from their point of view, might never come. They are engaged in a race against time to better themselves before they grown old.

It's also a comedy, and parts of it could easily have been adapted for a Carry On film. At one point a handsome man hides his one-night stand in the bathroom so that his long-term girlfriend doesn't find out that he has been playing the field, although Cabiria stands apart from the Carry On films in that it's told from the point of view of the one-night stand rather than the handsome man, who is portrayed as a vain, shallow brute.

Our heroine - she calls herself Cabiria, although her real name is Maria - owns a tiny house made of concrete blocks. It's bleak, but her situation could be worse. Some of her friends have to sleep outdoors, and some of her former peers live in caves. The scene where Cabiria discovers the cave-dwellers was cut from the film before release and re-added when it was restored in 1998. It's not essential, but it helps to illustrate our heroine's fear that she will end up homeless.

Cabiria is, not to put too fine a point on it, a good-time girl. A floozy. The film presents this more explicitly than for example Breakfast at Tiffany's, although this being 1957 there's still at least an implication that Cabiria merely hangs out with rich men rather than sucking their knobs off. The film is essentially a picaresque in which our heroine repeatedly attempts to better herself and fails each time, through no real fault of her own, and in the hands of a different director and with a different lead actress we wouldn't remember it today.

But of course it was directed by Frederico Fellini, and it has Giulietta Masina, who - in the words of the chap who wrote The Criterion Contraption - has a face for the ages. Fellini had a thing for distinctive faces, and Cabiria is packed with them, but Masina stands out. She is a furious ball of compressed energy; her acting is broad and expressive, at times reminiscent of the performance style of silent films, but I'm not complaining.

Fellini's direction is relatively transparent. He points the camera at Masina and lets her do her thing. A few shots stand out, but for the most part he gets out of the way, which is a skill in itself. The film slows down in the second half, and a sequence in which the cast pray for salvation from the Catholic church feels as if Fellini had been asked to pull his punches - unlike Cabiria's other ventures it doesn't end in complete disaster, it merely leaves her feeling unfulfilled - and the finale might have benefited from a less subtle touch, but on the whole it's a terrific film that has aged extremely well.

Back in 1957 Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that "the film runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is too long for the little it has to tell", and I can sympathise, although if someone asked me to cut a few minutes here or there I would refuse to do it. He also felt that the contrast between the bleak reality of the film and Masina's up-beat performance was too stark, but I disagree; I have the impression that the film is presented from Cabiria's point of view, and she is a dust-yourself-off, get-on-with it type.

Cabiria herself is a realistically frustrating character. She is at times her own worst enemy, but she never becomes obnoxious. Like Mr and Mrs Ordinary mentioned up the page she imagines a perfect life that you can only have if you're born to it, and even then it's not enough. It's never enough.

Two examples of Fellini's compositions, which ease the story along without being overpoweringly arty. NB These screen grabs come from the 1999 Criterion DVD, which by now looks a little dated.

Anything else? I don't want to give away the ending, but it's bittersweet. My personal theory is that it's not as bad as it seems, because for the first time our heroine can actually go to the police. Earlier in the film she couldn't, because she would have been arrested for prostitution, but this time she can truthfully say that she did nothing wrong. The police would probably have been useless, but there's an implication that the man who wrongs her is a serial con-artist, so perhaps she might have ended up at least with her money, if not her house. And of course Italy's economy picked up in the 1960s. A few years later Cabiria might have got a job in an office in Rome somewhere. A boring life but with a steady wage. She would have retired in 1980, older and wiser.

Pier Pasolini tarted up the film's dialogue. There's a certain irony about Pasolini. He began writing dramas such as Cabiria in which working-class Italians struggled with poverty. Then Italy's economy improved, and working-class Italians got jobs and bought cars and televisions etc, at which point Pasolini mocked them for being bourgeois. Would he have preferred Italians to stay poor forever? Was he in fact just a self-righteous snob who detested people who he felt were beneath him? If you know the answer to either of these questions I would, as always, like you to write the word "maybe" on a postcard and send it to Sir Iain Duncan Smith care of the House of Commons. Don't include a return address. You are the reason he behaves the way he does.

As mentioned earlier there's the issue of woke points. Several characters tell our heroine that her life is incomplete without a husband and children, which in theory should result in the removal of several woke points, but the dialogue is delivered by crusty old authority figures who are presented as old-fashioned and patronising, so fair enough. Fellini gets to keep those points. The men in the film are almost universally beastly to Cabiria but she still clings to heteronormative behaviour.

BAME representation is also problematic. There are only two (2) BAME characters, both mute, who are presented as a novelty - Cabiria herself is either unimpressed or disgusted by them - so the film should really be banned, but on the other hand the white characters in that scene are also presented as novelties, but then again the implication is that "the white people are as weird as black people", so yes I suppose the film should be banned after all. It should be banned and the negatives burned, or at least not widely distributed among the proles. Obviously you and I will still be allowed to watch it, because we're intelligent enough to resist its evil.

So, in summary, Nights of Cabiria is a disgusting piece of retrograde trash that should be ripped from the projector and burned, and yet I enjoyed it, so perhaps I am the one who should be ripped up and burned. In the next post I'm going to open up an old laptop, just you wait.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Olympus E-PL1

Pink Floyd's The Final Cut (1983) is one of the most unusual rock albums of the 1980s. It's a concept album by a stadium rock band, but instead of being about giant space robots or an Orwellian future society that bans rock music it's a meditative set of ballads about the folly of war, inspired by the death of lead songwriter Roger Waters' father and the broken promises of the nations that came out of the Second World War on the winning side.

It's an unusually personal album for a stadium rock band. I say band. By 1983 Pink Floyd wasn't a band any more, it was a vehicle for bassist Roger Waters. Drummer Nick Mason had developed a taste for classic cars, guitarist David Gilmour was happy to help, but lived a comfortable life and didn't have much to sing about, and keyboardist Richard Wright had been fired during production of the previous album for being lazy.

I know what you're thinking. Why is he talking about Pink Floyd?

Pink Floyd began as a psychedelic freak-out band in the 1960s before mutating into a mostly instrumental space-rock band in the early 1970s. Their songs had lyrics, but the words weren't important. What mattered was the sound. Nonetheless from Dark Side of the Moon (1973) onwards Roger Waters' social consciousness came to the fore, and Wish You Were Here (1975) marked the end of the original Pink Floyd, with the twenty-minute "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" bridging the gap between the two bands. It was simultaneously a piece of epic space music and a personal elegy for a departed friend. From that point onwards the band's music became a backdrop for Waters' lyrics. The band still operated on a grand scale, but their music was tighter, more focused, less hippy-drippy.

For a while this approach worked. Animals (1977) did away with the spacey themes and melancholy of the band's previous albums in favour of tight jams and bitter ranting about social inequality. It didn't sell as well as their earlier blockbusters, and it did nothing to ingratiate them with the punk audience, but it set them apart from their contemporaries. Whereas the likes of Genesis and Yes embraced light pop, Pink Floyd retained at least a little bit of rock credibility. They were cool in a way that ELP and Gentle Giant never were, because they were dark and mysterious. Teenagers love that. Teenagers love melancholy and depression because those things are alien to them, and Animals delivered. It had sarcasm, disgust, anger, self-loathing, bitterness, despair, the works.

Yes, teenagers suffer from depression, but it's just a hormonal imbalance, or a trivial thing that arises from a transient emotional shock. It is a sickness that can be cured. Beneath emotion there is cold, hard truth, and the only rational response to the human condition is horror. Horror that cannot be cured without altering the physical laws of the universe, which is impossible.

An Olympus E-PL1, yesterday.

Animals was followed by a gruelling stadium tour that did nothing to lift Roger Waters' mood, but an incident on the final date of the tour - when a frazzled Waters spat in the face of a noisy fan - provided inspiration for the band's next album, The Wall (1980), which was just as angry as Animals, but with catchier tunes and more of them.

An E-PL1 pictured with some manual focus lenses. A Samyang 85mm f/1.4, which becomes something akin to a 180mm f/2.8 on an M43 body, and a Nikon 20mm f/3.5, which becomes a slightly wide 40mm.

In the late 1970s the Pink Floyd organisation invested most of its profits in real estate, but the band's business partners collapsed in a pile of bad debt, leaving Pink Floyd's members with an enormous tax bill. The Wall was intended to rescue the band from financial oblivion, and in that respect it was a huge success. It sold millions of copies and gave Pink Floyd their first and only chart-topping single.

On a musical level it was a sprawling double album with four or five killer tunes mostly clustered on the first disc. "Comfortably Numb", "Run Like Hell", "Young Lust", "Another Brick in the Wall", "Hey You", and "Mother" went on to become radio staples, but they drained Waters' pool of good songs. He was a lyricist first and a songwriter second, and once The Wall was over he had no more musical ideas.

Why is he still talking about Pink Floyd? It's a gag, isn't it. Like Monty Python.

In the late 1970s the musical climate became inconducive to prog rock. Punk's sputtering rage made prog look self-indulgent and weak; the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had all of prog's technical virtuosity but without the boring bits. Kids gravitated to one or the other. Furthermore long-hair denim-wearing hippies dated badly. In the 1970s it was fashionable to rail against conventional society and mock people who had jobs, but in the early 1980s unemployment became a major political issue, and suddenly the prospect of not having money or a job didn't seem romantic any more.

In the early 1980s kids began to wear crisp white shirts and skinny ties and make jerky, robotic music with synthesisers. Beards fell out of fashion. The New Wave was paranoid and nervous, driven by suppressed hysteria and nameless fear. Pink Floyd may not have worn shirts, but they smartened up, Their new sound struck a balance between the nervousness of New Wave and the bombastic majesty of stadium rock. Of their British peers only Peter Gabriel managed to switch from prog to post-punk successfully, but really only on his third solo album; his later albums went in a completely different direction.

Commercially The Wall was huge, but on a political level it was a disaster. Mid-way through the recording process keyboardist Richard Wright was dismissed, apparently because he refused to cut short a yachting holiday to do some keyboard overdubs. His argument was that Waters was probably going to use a session keyboardist anyway, so what was the point of turning up, but that didn't cut any ice so he was given his marching orders. He was kept on as keyboardist during the album's tour, but only as a paid musician, not a member of the band.

In his defence Roger Waters could truthfully say that he had single-handedly saved the band from bankruptcy, and if Gilmour or Mason had any good ideas he would have been happy to use them, but the result was a band that became a personal vehicle for a man who had used up the last dregs of his musical inspiration. Like the Crusaders many centuries before, Roger Waters took Jerusalem, only to find that he had no reason to keep it.

Women. For millions of years they have been an integral part of the human race, and yet they're still weird and different.

Nonetheless Waters still had things to say. For The Final Cut he used musical ideas that had been rejected from The Wall, with David Gilmour popping in to perform guitar solos on a couple of tracks. Gilmour was uneasy about the material, but he was being paid so he didn't mind. Nick Mason had even less to do with the album. He was replaced on one track by a session player because he had trouble playing to Waters' satisfaction, and the rest of the album was dominated by piano ballads. Richard Wright was long-gone. There was no chance whatsoever that original songwriter Syd Barrett would return, and so ultimately the album was, as the liner notes put it, "a requiem for the post war dream, by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd".

The Final Cut was released within a few weeks of another anti-war album, Yes Sir, I Will, by anarchist punk band Crass. It's fascinating to compare them. They're both about the Falklands War in particular and war in general. Crass were anarchists who wanted to overthrow the capitalist reality in favour of individual self-governance, although I suspect they would have been horrified at the thought of Ayn Rand-style self-interest; like most lefties their politics were incoherent and if put into practice would have resulted in total state control, although they were too full of themselves to admit it.

The interface is a bit cartoony and there's an awful lot of menu-diving if you want to turn on bracketing and the motor drive, but it's generally only one level deep.

In contrast Waters was an old-fashioned conservative-with-a-small-c; a home-owning car-buying job-having hat-wearing semi-detached suburban Mr Jones who disliked Margaret Thatcher and her uncouth bossy ways, who felt that the problem was bad leadership rather than a rotten system. The Final Cut also had a sense of nostalgia for the British Empire and British commercial dominance, which would have horrified Crass. It has to be said that this aspect of the album hasn't aged well. Although the lyrics are written in character, the use of "nips" for the Japanese is jarring, and Waters comes across as politically naive, pining for a golden age that was pretty rotten if you weren't a middle class white British man. He was in his own way just as short-sighted as Crass.

The two albums were directly inspired by the Royal Navy's sinking of the Argentine warship General Belgrano during the opening stages of the Falklands War. Until that point the war had been a jolly adventure, but all of a sudden two hundred Argentine sailors were dead and the war wasn't jolly any more. It was at the time a major political controversy and both albums refer to it directly.

Meanwhile the Soviets were engaged in a slow-motion invasion of Afghanistan, Israel was invading Lebanon, nuclear armageddon no longer seemed like science fiction, and terrorist groups were attempting to push their views with violence. Roger Waters was appalled by all of this. What had gone wrong? He was appalled that forty years after the Second World War, and ten years after the hippie dream for which Pink Floyd had provided the soundtrack, the world seemed to be getting worse, not better.

In contrast Crass were appalled by everything, and whereas The Final Cut is a minor masterpiece, Yes Sir, I Will isn't very good. This is where I'm going to digress slightly. The Final Cut met with mixed reviews in 1983 and is generally ignored nowadays. It's an oddity. Successful on its own terms, but too personal to have widespread appeal and not bad enough to be remembered as a disaster. Floyd fans who liked the old spacey jams hated it.

And then the camera pans along to John Cleese sitting at a desk, and he says "and now for something completely different", and then the titles start.

On the negative side the lyrics are erratic, veering from brilliant to embarrassing, and a lot of reviewers saw Roger Waters as a humourless multimillionaire with a Jesus complex. Half of the songs are imitations of music from The Wall; the other half are filler; the single "Not Now John" is just dreadfully bad. But the album is far more listenable than Yes Sir, I Will. At the very least it had a critical response whereas Yes Sir bypassed the media entirely. The two albums were essentially political essays set to music, but Crass weren't interested in entertaining anybody and they had even fewer musical ideas than Roger Waters.

The problem with Yes Sir, I Will is that it's a declamatory set of political slogans designed to rile up a crowd of converts. No-one's mind was changed by Crass; no-one who was not already a fan of the band bought the album. Young political wonks tend to assume that everyone who is not on their side is a demon, including people who aren't even political, with the result that their political base never expands and they eventually spend most of their time fighting each other. Furthermore Crass had an irritating habit of droning on about how they were unjustly persecuted, because they were very pleased with themselves.

The sad thing is that Crass were essentially correct. War is a racket; there's nothing heroic about it; Empires are not cuddly, they are Mafia-style protection organisations; the Western world is built on the suffering of others. But saying so without adornment wins no-one over and solves nothing. Crass was never in a position to fix any of those problems or provide an alternative solution and I suspect most people in 1983 dismissed them as a bunch of lefties. Furthermore, putting yourself in a position where your political enemies can accuse you of taking the mickey out of Simon Weston is bad optics.

Imagine if, like, the entire episode was just preamble. Imagine if the episode never actually began?

The Final Cut's saving grace is that Roger Waters obviously meant every word, and underneath the seething anger and bitterness the album has a human core. Later in the decade the likes of Sting and Bono were widely criticised for their socially-conscious stance, in Sting's case because it felt like a pose, in Bono's case because he seemed to latch on to other people's causes, but Roger Waters was older than both of them, and perhaps because of that The Final Cut has an underlying air of emotional vulnerability, a bitter passion that eluded his Waters' peers.

Ultimately The Final Cut is a lot like Lou Reed's Magic and Loss. Hard to like, difficult to enjoy, but hard to dismiss. Teenage poetry, but what's wrong with that? What else are teenagers supposed to listen to?

It wouldn't be fair on the audience though. They didn't want to see a camera panning across a beach. They wanted zany jokes and Terry Jones dressing up as a woman.

Crass split up after Yes Sir, I Will and went on to become nobodies, exhibiting awful paintings every so often. Pink Floyd also split up, with Roger Waters going off to an erratic solo career, but a couple of years later David Gilmour and Nick Mason un-split the band, eventually re-hiring Richard Wright, and today we're going to have a look at the Olympus E-PL1, a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera from 2010. It was part of the second wave of M43 cameras, after the successful E-P1 of 2009. It was intended as a cheaper alternative to the E-P1 for people who wanted to try out the Micro Four Thirds system but didn't want to fully commit. It has nothing to do with ELP. That was a band.

I've long been fascinated with Micro Four Thirds, but not enough to spend any money on it. I remember when the E-P1 came out; it was a fresh, new idea. A compact camera with interchangeable lenses and a decent sensor. But the range of lenses was very small, and although you could use masses of third-party lenses with a simple adapter ring the half-sized sensor meant that everything became a medium telephoto. About the only killer lens from the original range was the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, but that was about it.

Remember when Joker was Oscar bait? And then it was an irresponsibly wicked folly? By the time the Oscars come around will it be Oscar bait again?

What is Micro Four Thirds? Back in the early 2000s Olympus was unique amongst the major camera manufacturers in that the company didn't have an SLR system. The OM range was discontinued in the early 1990s, and for the rest of that decade Olympus concentrated on compact cameras and what it called "single lens reflex" bridge cameras with a built-in zoom lens. When digital SLRs became a mass-market phenomenon in the early 2000s the likes of Canon, Nikon, Pentax and so forth had a range of 35mm lenses and camera bodies that they could adapt for digital sensors, but Olympus had nothing.

On the positive side it meant that they could start from scratch, but their first attempt was only moderately successful. It was called Four-Thirds, and it was a partnership with Kodak and Panasonic and possibly Leica and Fuji, I can't remember. Some of the partners dropped out. Four Thirds was based around a relatively small sensor that was quarter-full-frame (with a 2x crop factor). In theory this meant that the cameras could be small as well, but the first batch of Four Thirds SLRs were surprisingly chunky. Some of the lenses were apparently very good, but as with all small-format systems there was only a small choice of wideangle lenses and no fast, wide lenses, and I personally couldn't imagine spending a fortune on a system that seemed so limited.

In its favour Four Thirds introduced Live View and ultrasonic sensor cleaning, both of which seemed like fripperies in the mid-2000s but are essential nowadays. By the end of the decade Olympus found a niche with the E-400 and its successors, which were cute-looking compact SLRs, but on the whole Four Thirds felt like a disappointment with a limited future. Olympus made an attempt to target the professional market with the E-1, but as with the OM system in the 1970s and 1980s professionals avoided Four Thirds because it offered nothing that Canon and Nikon didn't already have. In an alternative world Four Thirds would have died off, leaving Olympus to the compact market, but there was a second string to the company's bow. Olympus teased a compact mirrorless system for several years before launching the E-P1 in 2009.

It was a big hit. It was more or less what the Four Thirds system should have been from the start. It combined a twelve-megapixel Four Thirds sensor with a compact body that was much the same size as a compact camera, but heavier. The mirror box was omitted in favour of full-time live view and the lens-sensor distance was cut down. Olympus called the resulting system Micro Four Thirds, and it's still going strong today. There were ambitious plans for a wave of manufacturers to join in with the M43 system but as of 2019 the only players are Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica.

Photography, ladies and gentlemen. Men and women driven by vanity, greed, and lust. And fear, and a desire to live after death. Lust, desire, and fear. Men driven by dreams of yachts and women, women driven likewise. That's why this blog has such a peculiar name. I was thinking of the things that drive men to pick up a camera, and "lust and fear" was already taken.

The three manufacturers have taken slightly different tacks. Olympus makes cute pocketable compacts and has recently targeted the gentleman street photographer market with the chunky OM-D. Panasonic has instead aimed at the video market. Micro Four Thirds was designed from the start for video recording. The E-P1 was launched with impeccable timing, just as digital SLR videography took off, but Olympus generally left the digital video market to Panasonic. Panasonic's M43 cameras have from the start offered high frame rate recording, direct 1:1 sensor readout for super-telephoto magnification, support for external hard drives and RAW video, etc, and nowadays they're popular with video diarists, or "vloggers" as young people call them nowadays. Something something Leica fill in later.

But let's talk about the E-PL1. It was part of the second wave of M43 cameras, launched as a budget alternative to the E-P2. Ten years later they're available on the used market for pennies, and if you want to really skimp you can buy a body and an adapter ring and use one of your manual focus lenses instead. All the images I shot for my trip to Feltre were taken with an old Olympus OM 21mm f/3.5, which is equivalent to a 42mm lens on an M43 body, e.g. just slightly wide. I'm going to stop writing E-PL1 in bold now. The used E-PL1s I have seen tend to have paint wear around the shutter button. I find that removing the battery zeroes the date, but I'm not sure if this was the case when the camera was new; it seems that Olympus saved money by omitting a date battery.

How robust is the shutter? It has a mechanical shutter. Mine has taken five thousand shots. The camera is essentially disposable, so I'm not too worried about shutter durability. Batteries and chargers were common among the early M43 cameras and are still widely available. The E-PL1 takes SD cards; a single 16gb card will store over two thousand RAW images. The camera uses a USB cable for file transfer, so you might never have to remove the card, but irritatingly the USB cable has a non-standard connector.

The E-PL1 has the same twelve megapixel sensor that was in all of the early M43 cameras. ISO range 200-1600, with 100 and 3200 as software-generated expansions. Higher ISOs are grainy but generally still usable, in particular the camera still captures colour well, and does a good job keeping luminance noise down. The maximum exposure time is thirty seconds, after which it takes a thirty-second dark frame, and even with long exposures the results are clean. There's about a stop of headroom, which leads to one of the camera's problems.

This was shot at ISO 1600, but the shadows have been boosted, so the dark parts are more like ISO 3200 or 6400. There's a lot of luminance noise but the colours are generally true and in black and white it would look a bit like grainy film.

Olympus kept the E-PL1's price down by using a simplified plastic body, and also they cheated a bit by cutting some things from the firmware. For instance there's absolutely no form of remote shutter control whatsoever. The E-P1 had an electronic shutter release, but it's not compatible with the E-PL1, and there's no remote thread on the shutter button. If you merely want a delayed exposure there is of course the self-timer, but if you want to hold the shutter open for an arbitrary length of time the E-PL1 is not the camera for you.

Why is speculum porn so offensive? Not because of the subject but because of the concept - the idea that if men find women's bodies attractive, then internal shots of women's bodies taken with medical equipment will be doubly attractive. Human sexuality isn't that mechanical.

The second problem is that the camera only brackets by a stop in either direction. I mention this because a tiny compact camera with live view is ideal for HDR or astrophotography or night-time photography, because it fits on a tiny tripod and has a boosted live view display that's visible in darkness, but the lack of remote shutter control and bracketing cuts your options considerably. Even worse, if you want to take a three-shot bracketed burst, you have to hold down the shutter button with your finger for the three exposures. You can't simply set the timer and let the camera take three shots independently. If you do, it'll take the first shot and then stop (at which point the next two shots will still be part of the bracketing sequence).

Other problems? The matrix metering is paranoid about highlights. If a scene has some sky, or a window letting in a bit of light, the camera underexposes so that the highlights don't blow. The ISO 1600 image above of the room with a dried-out piece of wood was shot with matrix metering, and I had to boost the shadows. It's a smart idea, but it goes too far. I think the idea is that if you shoot JPEGs the camera will boost the shadows for you, but if you shoot RAW and don't want noisy shadows you have to use center-weighted metering, which works well enough, and yes I know that RAW doesn't stand for anything, it's just that I like to write RAW in capitals because it pleases me and that's all that matters.

The camera also has spot metering and highlight and shadow spot metering, which is a little bit like the OM-4's multi-spot metering, but simpler. Does it work? Dunno, I haven't tried it. If I was that concerned with exposure accuracy I would use manual exposure.

I find that taking photos with a mobile phone is easy, because the depth of field is so huge it doesn't matter what the phone focuses on. Taking photos with an SLR is also easy because I'm looking through a clear viewfinder and bracing the camera against my face. The big problem with a large-sensor compact is that depth of field is a consideration, but you're focusing with a camera held at arm's length using a dim screen in sunlight, so it's a lot easier to miss focus, especially if you're focusing on something off-centre.

Luckily Olympus sells a bunch of digital viewfinders. The VF-3 pictured in this article was essentially made for the E-PL1 - same colour, similar market segment. It's okay. The screen is usable in daylight but looks washed out. The camera has an option to change the colour balance and brightness of the electronic viewfinder, but the effect is subtle. In low light the screen is perhaps inevitably grainy, but on the positive side it gains up so that you can shoot in near-darkness, which is one limitation of optical viewfinders. In daylight you can leave manual lenses stopped down before you shoot and focus with the lens stopped down. It still feels like looking through a tunnel, and I worry that after bracing the camera against my face the viewfinder will snap off at the hinge. The 90 degree tilt was invaluable for the shots of the ceilings of the Doge's Palace.

The E-PL1 has a built-in flash! I've never used it. It also has a hotshoe, which is a surprisingly hardcore feature for such a simple camera. The viewfinder also plugs into the hotshoe so I admit I haven't used the shoe for creative flash work. Flash sync is a disappointingly low 1/160th of a second, although Olympus flash units have a high-speed sync mode. Am I going to spend money on an Olympus flash? No.

Manual focus lenses? As mentioned the M43 system is compatible with almost every manual focus lens ever made, including security camera and 16mm motion picture camera lenses, and with the right adapter you can even use autofocus lenses, sometimes with autofocus. There are speed boosters that act like a magnifying glass, squashing down the image circle of a full-frame lens so that it's even faster on an M43 body. Unfortunately the 2x crop factor turns almost everything into a medium telephoto, which isn't much fun because shooting a medium telephoto with a compact camera is awkward.

Awkward but not impossible. The E-PL1 has in-body image stabilisation, and a bit of experimentation with telephoto lenses suggests to me that shots at 400mm and above aren't impossible. Composing, focusing, and shooting at that length with a manual focus lens is however extremely difficult. You have to zoom in with the viewfinder, focus, then zoom out and hope you don't jog the focusing control, then compose, then take the shot, then check to see if it worked. It's not really practical for sports or anything that involves moving subjects such as airliners. It can be done; people have done it; it doesn't strike me as a lot of fun.

At the other extreme shooting wide is difficult because there aren't all that many ultrawide manual focus lenses. There were a few compact 20mm and 21mm manual focus lenses, but they're not wide on an M43 body. About the widest you can go is 14mm, which becomes 28mm on an M43 body, which still isn't very wide. Off the top of my head the widest full-frame lenses ever made were 11mm (a massive modern zoom lens) and 12mm (an early-2000s Voigtlander rangefinder lens), so if you want true ultrawide coverage with M43 you either have to use native lenses or fisheyes.

Sadly there isn't a particularly good range of native ultrawide M43 lenses, and as with all small-format systems it's difficult to take wideangle pictures with a narrow depth of field. An M43 equivalent of a 35mm f/1.4 would be a 17mm f/0.50 or something similar, which doesn't exist. For this reason APS-C and latterly full-frame mirrorless cameras from Fuji and Sony have stolen some of the M43 system's thunder, but M43 bodies still have small size on their side.

There are only six more paragraphs left, but the last one is just a couple of lines long. You're doing great. You can make it.

Ergonomically the body is generally good. The zoom in button is under my thumb, the shutter is in the right place, it's large enough to brace, small enough with a pancake lens to put into a large jacket pocket. The buttons feel spongy and I worry that they'll pop out, but they haven't yet. The E-PL1's menu has one of those systems where you have to press OK after changing a value. If you change the value and then just back out of the menu, the change doesn't stick.

There's a wide range of JPEG options, including square output if you want to know exactly how your images will look on Instagram, and some art filters that I have avoided because I can always apply them later. You can also shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, which is unusually flexible for a budget camera.

Video is another aspect where Olympus cut some corners. The E-PL1 has two video modes. 640x480 VGA at 30fps, I have no idea why, and 720p at 1280x720, also 30fps. Not 1080p and no other frame rates. It uses a peculiar codec that foxes Adobe Premiere. I have to convert the files with Handbrake. It's not a great video camera and I have barely used it as such. Panasonic's contemporary M43 bodies were much better in that respect.

That's it. The end. If *I* wrote the captions, who wrote the article?

Does the E-PL1 make any sense nowadays? The original E-P1 has a certain amount of historical cachet, but it doesn't support an electronic viewfinder, and it's slightly more expensive on the used market. On a pragmatic level the mini-SLR Panasonic M43 bodies have better video modes and better ergonomics, with built-in viewfinders, and if I was committed to Micro Four Thirds I would have chosen one of them, but ultimately I just wanted to dip my toe into the system.

Image quality-wise I don't have a problem with twelve megapixels, and the tonality even at higher ISOs is surprisingly good for a decade-old compact sensor. In particular the E-PL1 has nice blues, nice vivid Velvia-like skies, and although there's subtle shadow noise even at ISO 200 it's not offensively bad. You may find the grain characterful. Do I have anything more to say about the E-PL1? It's competent, technically limited, good colours, makes for a cheap introduction to the world of M43, but I still prefer SLRs. Paired with the 9mm body cap fisheye lens I wrote about a while back it makes for a good pocketable street scene camera. Some people might not like M43's aspect ratio, which is 4:3, coincidentally the same as 645. I find it dull, but that's just conditioning because I grew up with 4:3 televisions. Kids today probably find it bracing.

Imagine calling a cat Socks. The cat would spend the whole of its short life believing that socks are made out of cats.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Ultra-Long-Haul Air Travel

Let's write about ultra-long-haul air travel. Back in October last year I went to Hong Kong. My original plan was to spend a day sitting around the airport, photographing the big planes that land there, but I was thwarted by an outbreak of democracy. Hong Kong Airport's official spotting area was closed, and although Lantau Island has lots of great views I kept putting it off until it was time to go home.

Hong Kong has always been an appealing destination for planespotters. In the days of Kai Tak it was relatively easy to take close-up photos of 747s and DC-10s as they came in to land because the flight path went directly over Kowloon. Nowadays Kai Tak is gone, and aeroplanes land at Lantau Island to the west, but Hong Kong is still a great location if you want to photograph relatively rare aircraft such as the Airbus A340 and any Boeing 747 that isn't flown by British Airways or Lufthansa.

As of this writing Hong Kong's protests have quietened down, so perhaps I might go again in the near future. After all, what could possibly stop me? The chances of a global pandemic bringing air travel to a standstill are tiny, and Hong Kong's protests are unlikely to flare up again.

But imagine if there was a global pandemic. It would eliminate half of the airliners I'm about to write about, because if the A380 was economically marginal when the world was happy and healthy it would be utterly doomed in the face of a global downturn. Still, at least the Boeing 747 will remain in service. British Airways couldn't possibly eliminate its 747 fleet overnight. Not a chance.

Anyway, 2020 is sure to be an exceptional year for air travel.

Hengsha, from the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Technically not Hong Kong, but come on, it's Hong Kong.

An exceptional year. I wrote the bulk of this blog post in mid-2019, reworked it at the end of the year, and added a bit here and there mid-way through 2020. On the positive side I got to go to Hong Kong. In the narrow gap between the protests and the plague, I got to see Hong Kong with my own eyes, and spend money in Hong Kong. A mixture of local shops, McDonald's, the MTR, and a landlord benefited from my trip, and I like to think that I did no harm.
I didn't see the Hong Kong of legend - that's gone - but I did see a newer Hong Kong. Hong Kong in the act of transformation. Whatever happens, Hong Kong will always have a killer location on its side. No matter how far Shenzhen surpasses Hong Kong economically it will never have a huge mountain just off the coast, or at least it won't unless China dynamites Hong Kong into powder, but let's not go there.

But what about ultra-long-haul air travel, eh? In the past there were lots of different airliners - lots of different types - but nowadays the market has settled on big twinjets that all look the same from a distance. The only major exceptions are the four-engined A340, 747, and A380, but they won't be around for many more years.

We live in an unromantic age. We've measured the distance to the nearest stars, but they're too far away for us to reach. They are dying, just as our own sun is dying. The human soul is an illusion born of our inability to comprehend that the universe was not made for us. Heaven? There isn't one. It's all just particles and waves, collapsing into an undifferentiated soup of quantum noise that will obliterate all record of our passing. There's nothing waiting for us on the other side. We're just animals with complex brains.

Ultra-long-haul travellers in the first half of the twentieth century had to contend with unreliable piston engines and interception by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, but if they reached their destination they became members of an exclusive club. They had been half-way around the world at a time when most people spent their whole lives in one village, without ever going further than the nearest market town.

But air travel has changed immensely in the last hundred years. The first non-stop transatlantic flight happened in June 1919; it took John Alcock and Arthur Brown sixteen hours to travel the 1,900 miles from Newfoundland to Ireland, during which they almost crashed into the sea twice. They had to fly blind through freezing clouds. Their only sustenance was coffee, beer, and sandwiches, and at one point Brown had to climb onto the wing in order to hack ice from the engines. When they reached Clifden in County Galway they crashed into a bog because there was no air traffic control in 1919.

A hundred years later I covered a much greater distance in only twelve hours, and I didn't have to pack any food because British Airways still serves meals on long-haul flights. The greatest danger I faced was deep vein thrombosis; my greatest enemy was boredom; my greatest challenge was timing the toilet breaks so that I didn't upset the other passengers. I monitored my progress with GPS and watched a couple of films on my tablet in between fitful bouts of sleep. Someone on the ground probably followed my aircraft with a flight-tracking website, perhaps planning a trip of their own. Not once did it strike me that I might not arrive.

I grew up in a small village in the English countryside. If I had been born a hundred years earlier my chances of visiting the Far East would have been very slim. I might have joined the Royal Navy, or alternatively the Army, in the hope that I would be sent to one of the British Empire's distant garrisons. The Royal Air Force wouldn't have been interested in a working-class farmboy from Wiltshire, unless perhaps I was handy with a tractor. I would never have been allowed to fly a plane, but perhaps I could have been a mechanic.

However times have changed. The only thing I needed to visit Hong Kong in 2019 was a bunch of credit cards and some deft timing with my online bank account and some leave allowance from work. There were no other obstacles. I booked everything by computer from the comfort of my own home. Before my journey I scouted out Kowloon with Google Street View, and after I landed I used a GPS app on my mobile phone to navigate to the hotel, using technology that would have been a dream in the days of H G Wells.

Did H G Wells ever visit Hong Kong? If he did, the internet doesn't say. A hundred years ago H G Wells and his science fiction chums believed that human progress was inevitable, and that it would only stop with our ascent to the stars or the total destruction of humanity in nuclear fire.

In the event we reached the moon, but no further than that. Our nuclear arsenals remain under lock and key, but on a spiritual level the twentieth century was apocalyptic. Charles Darwin pointed out in convincing fashion that we are just animals. The physicists obliterated the idea of eternity. The artists and philosophers came up with nothing to match the discovery that some metals could be made to explode with the force of a small sun. The nuclear fire that washed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a postmodern invention, not an alternative narrative, it actually happened.

We are still adapting to the horrific realisation that death is the eternal cessation of consciousness. The grim truth has not yet dawned on all of humanity, but truth is immortal and unstoppable. How will we cope? I suspect with a retreat into fantasy, into numbness, into narcotic oblivion.

In the current century the pace of change is still rapid, but in terms of the hard stuff - rockets, jet engines, cars and so forth - we have moved beyond the exciting age of discovery into an autumnal period of refinement. A hundred years from now air travel will almost certainly be more efficient than it is today, but I doubt it will be faster.

Solar-powered drones will allow us to travel the globe virtually, but people will still want to take photographs of themselves standing in front of the actual Grand Canal. The human population will expand and the cost of travel will go down, and perhaps many years from now foreigners will come here and take photographs of us for other foreigners back home, and then we will be the foreigners, but let's talk about ultra-long-haul air travel.

Let's talk about ultra-long-haul air travel. Let's do this. Ultra-long-haul air travel. That's the title of this blog post. Let's concentrate on ultra-long-haul air travel from now on. The future of human society can look after itself. I begin. Ultra-long-haul air travel. Until the 1980s airliners flying from Europe to the Far East had to stop for fuel, but nowadays some aeroplanes can make the trip in one go. There are currently five such airliners flying the skies today, but only one of them is an unqualified success. Of the other four, two are on their way out of service, one is on the verge of a precipitous decline, and the remaining aircraft is used more frequently on shorter routes.

Which one is the unqualified success? Which of the others is mostly a success, but doomed by advances in technology? Read on, dear reader, and in just a few short minutes you will start to skip whole paragraphs and then get bored and read something else, if you haven't already. I have suffered a twelve-hour flight from London to Hong Kong and I want you to suffer as well.

I define an ultra-long-haul airliner as having a range of 7,000 nautical miles or more, or roughly 8,000 regular miles. Aircraft operators use nautical miles for navigational purposes but I'll use regular miles as often as possible because nautical miles are weird. Bear in mind that ultra-long-haul airliners are designed to have more range than strictly necessary in case of an emergency, so ultra-long-haul routes start at 6,000 miles. Modern airliners all fly at roughly the same speed, so that's about twelve hours in the air.

London to New York is 3,500 miles, a typical long-haul distance, but not ultra-long-haul. London to Hong Kong is 6,000 miles, which is ultra-long-haul, and London to Perth on Australia's west coast is 9,000 miles, which sits on the dividing line between ultra-long-haul and publicity stunt. As of 2019 the longest non-stop airline flight is from Newark to Singapore, a distance of 9,500 miles. Qantas has mooted a London to Sydney flight, which would be 10,000 miles, but it's not due to begin until next year and I imagine its existence depends on the state of the global economy.

The first generation of jetliners had ranges of 3-4,000 miles, which wasn't enough to comfortably fly from Paris or London to New York non-stop. Flying from the United States to Europe was slightly easier because pilots could hitch a ride on the eastbound jet stream, but for the most part early jetliners had to land at Gander in Newfoundland or Shannon in Ireland to take on fuel before heading on to their destination.

Early jetliners were also small by modern standards, so when jet travel became affordable in the 1960s and 1970s manufacturers stretched their existing designs to pack in more passengers. They also developed a new generation of "widebody" airliners such as the Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011, which had ranges of 4-5,000 miles. Modern widebodies extend that by 1,000 miles, but that's still not enough, and so until the late 1980s ultra-long-haul travel still involved a stopover, generally in the Middle or Far East.

A Boeing 747-400, courtesy byeangel (CC 2.0).

The very first ultra-long-haul airliner was the Boeing 747, which was introduced in 1969, although it wasn't until the late 1970s that the 747 actually flew ultra-long-haul routes. The original 747-100 prioritised passenger load over range, with a capacity of 360-400 passengers versus 270 for the Douglas DC10. The 747 brought transatlantic travel within the financial reach of more people than before, but the aircraft's great weight meant that it had no more range than competing widebodies.

However the Middle Eastern markets wanted a long-range jumbo, so in the mid-1970s Boeing introduced the 747SP, which carried more fuel than the standard 747 but was shorter and thus lighter. Unfortunately its launch coincided with a downturn in the global economy, and furthermore there was less demand for a long-range-small-capacity 747 than Boeing expected, so Boeing only sold 45 of them. The inaugural customer was Iran Air, who bought four 747SPs and might have bought more, but events in 1979 caused US-Iranian relations to cool somewhat.

Iran's lack of access to replacement aircraft meant that its 747SPs remained in service for a long time, the last being retired in 2016. Only ten are still flying, although none of them are owned by airlines. NASA flies two, a Las Vegas casino owns another two, one is owned by an Ohio-based religious organisation, the rest are either government transports or flying testbeds. If you want to fly on a 747SP today your options are limited.

Ultimately the 747SP was a commercial disappointment. Later versions of the Boeing 747-200 approached ultra-long-haul range, but the first truly successful ultra-long-haul airliner was the Boeing 747-400, which was launched in 1989. It had wingtip extensions and an extra fuel tank, and it was so popular that within two years Boeing discontinued all of the other 747s. As of 2019 it is by far the most common 747 still in passenger service.

The 747-400 was capable of flying even greater distances if it was lightly loaded. In 1989 Qantas used a 747-400 to make the very first non-stop flight from England to Australia, taking off from Heathrow and landing in Sydney twenty hours later. At the time it was a record-setting one-off - the aircraft used special jet fuel and only carried sixteen passengers - but as mentioned earlier Qantas is now planning to launch a non-stop London-Sydney flight. At that point Australia will be flooded with even more tourists than it is today. The people of Sydney will be so happy.

Once the 10,000-mile barrier is broken it'll be game over for ultra-long-haul flight records. The Earth's circumference is only 24,000 miles, so an airliner with a range of 12,000 miles could theoretically reach any point on the planet. In practice the geography of the Earth's land masses is such that unless the elusive Hanoi-La Paz route becomes economically viable there's very little chance that an airline will ever offer a regularly-scheduled 12,000-mile flight.

Instead airlines of the future will compete to bring the cost of long-haul down, or make the journey less environmentally damaging, or both. Average journey times for long-haul flights are generally much the same today as they were thirty years ago. The relative failure of the supersonic Concorde and the high-speed Convair 880/990 demonstrated that all but the most demanding passengers are willing to tolerate longer flight times if it means getting to their destination with cash to spare.

Big airliners aren't the only aeroplanes that can travel long distances. A handful of small business jets can fly ultra-long-haul, notably the Gulfstream G650ER, which has a range of around 8,500 miles. Bombardier is currently developing a pair of long-range bizjets, the Global 7500 and Global 8000, but neither aircraft has entered service yet.

A Quantas Boeing 747-400, courtesy Aero Icarus (CC 2.0)

So, as of 2019 which airliners fly ultra-long-haul? As mentioned there's the Boeing 747, a large, four-engined, long-range jet with a passenger capacity of around 500 people, give or take a hundred either way depending on the interior configuration. The 747 was designed in the late 1960s as a large passenger jet that could also be used as a freighter, because Boeing was worried that supersonic aircraft would take over most of the passenger market. The 747 has a distinctive design, with a short top deck that gives the plane a hump. The nosecone of the freighter version is designed to swing open, so Boeing put the cockpit in the top deck instead of the nose.

The most common passenger version of the 747 is the 747-400, which was launched in the late 1980s and has a longer top deck than its predecessors. People smile when they see a 747 because the proportions are pleasing to the eye, but as a passenger experience the interior apparently isn't all that great. I haven't been on one, but I note that British Airways' 747's don't have in-seat power in the economy section. The latest version of the 747, the 747-8, was launched in the early 2010s, but the passenger version wasn't very popular. The freighter version has outsold it almost two-to-one and Boeing is apparently on the verge of closing the production line. Nonetheless the 747 will probably remain flying well into the 2020s.

A Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-8 freighter. Note the serrated engine exhausts. That's the easiest way to identify the 747-8. Courtesy Windmemories (CC 4.0).

Why is the 747 on the way out? In the past, if you wanted to transport a lot of people over a long distance the only suitable airliners had three or four engines. Twinjets didn't have the power or range to do the job, and long-range aviation rules forbade twinjets from crossing large bodies of water. They weren't allowed to travel more than an hour from an diversionary airport in case one of the engines failed and the pilot had to land in a hurry.

Nowadays engine technology and materials design is such that twin-engined jets can travel almost as far as their three-and-four-engined ancestors, without having to carry the extra weight of more engines and the associated plumbing. In the 1980s a new generation of reliable, high-bypass turbofans prompted the international civil aviation authorities to relax the rules on long-range twin-engined flight, and from that point on trijets and quadjets started to die off.

A Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, courtesy Windmemories (CC 4.0).

Trijets were hit particularly hard, because servicing an engine mounted up in the aircraft's tail is difficult and expensive. The last trijet airliner was the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, which was last produced in 2000. A few remain in service today as cargo aircraft, but the last passenger flight was in 2014. As far as I can tell the final regularly-scheduled passenger flight of a trijet airliner of any kind was in January 2019, when IAA of Iran flew a Boeing 727-200 on the Zahedan-Tehran route for the last time.

A Douglas DC-10, courtesy Amayagan (CC 1.0).

There's another reason for the 747's decline. The 747's great size is awkward for airlines, who generally need to fill their airliners to capacity in order to make a profit. Although long-haul flight is more popular than ever before it's still much less popular than short-haul and mid-range routes, and airlines find it easier to fill several smaller airliners than a single very large one.

I have to admit that the finer details of airline profit margins are beyond me. Along with Battle of Britain fuel octane ratings and the desirability of big-gun battleships in a littoral context the airline business is the kind of thing that makes internet nerds argue amongst themselves, but in general the big four-engined jumbos of the past are dying out and will probably never return. The 747 is in the twilight of its years, but you shouldn't feel sad because it had a terrific run and was a big success for Boeing.

An Air India Boeing 777, courtesy Aero Icarus (CC A-SA 2 G).

Its main nemesis is another Boeing airliner, the Boeing 777. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said that if you don't cannibalise your own business, someone else will, and Boeing successfully applied that lesson with the 777. It's a large, twin-engined, long-range jet with a passenger capacity of around 350 people, give or take fifty either way. It was introduced in the mid-1990s and has become the only unqualified success in the ultra-long-haul market.

The 777 is smaller and lighter than the 747-400, but some models have roughly the same range. At the same time it's efficient enough to be used on high-capacity short-to-mid-haul flights - the same kind of market that the early versions of the 747 were built to service. British Airways flies 777s from London to Hong Kong, but it also uses the same aircraft on two-hour flights from Heathrow to Madrid, presumably packed with masses of drunk people in both directions. The 777 is very popular and its safety record is exceptional. To date there have been only two major accidents, both in 2014, and they were extremely unusual - an unexplained disappearance and a shoot-down respectively.

It's hard to write about the Boeing 777 because what is there to say? The major criticism levelled at it is that it's bland, which is a lot better than being infamous. The quadjets and trijets are gone; t-tails are gone; rear-mounted engines and airstairs are gone; supersonic airliners are gone; those quirky Russian airliners with glass noses are gone; propfans never took off; etc. They were all replaced with twin-engined wing-mounted low-tailed subsonic aircraft that look the same.

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The serrated engine exhausts are a Boeing thing - they're designed to reduce engine noise by disrupting the airflow. Courtesy Alex Wilson - CC 2.0.

I still think of the 777 as a new design, but it's now almost thirty years old. The 777 is likely to remain in production for many years but, in turn, it is slowly being replaced by an even newer generation of long-haul twinjets made of advanced materials. Boeing's most recent long-haul jet is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which entered service in the early 2010s. It carries around 300 passengers over a distance of roughly 8,000 miles, but as with the 777 it's efficient enough to be used on short-haul routes as well. In fact the most popular 787 routes are short domestic flights in the Far East, and perhaps because of this I find it hard to think of the 787 as an ultra-long-haul airliner. It has only been in service for a few years and despite some early worries about battery fires it has had a good record and has sold well.

At this point I'm going to digress a bit. Most of the English-speaking internet is American. All of the major websites are American and most English-speaking people on the internet are American, so naturally the internet loves Boeing. Boeing isn't just an American company; Boeing is America, just as Walmart is America, just as Ford and Standard Oil were once America.

This is unfortunate for the other major manufacturer of full-sized jet airliners. Airbus was founded in the mid-sixties by a group of British, French, and German aircraft manufacturers, although Britain's commitment to the project has waned and waxed since then. The first Airbus was the Airbus A300, a mid-sized twin-engined widebody designed to carry a lot of people over relatively short distances. It was launched in the early 1970s, but sales were slow for several years. Eventually it caught on and by the 1980s it was a big sales success, replacing the ageing four-engined Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. It was the perfect airliner for package tours, with more capacity than dedicated short-haul aircraft and none of the extra fuss of the four-engined medium-haul heavies.

Airbus competes in the same market as Boeing but its aircraft tend to be aimed at slightly different niches. They're usually slightly larger than the direct Boeing equivalent, initially with more modern avionics, although nowadays the two companies have technological parity. Boeing and Airbus have managed to coexist for the last thirty years, but as far as the internet is concerned Airbus is the enemy. A tacky Eurotrash usurper. In the mind of the internet Boeing makes a range of quality aircraft whereas Airbus makes fussy European plastic rubbish. Airbus airliners have electronic fly-by-wire controls because European pilots are wristcels*. Boeing's marketing department fights fair but Airbus is kept afloat by EU subsidies. Airbus affects an air of class but it is run by awful French people who eat baby birds. That is the view of the internet.

* For future reference, a "wristcel" is a person who believes that narrow wrists are the reason for their lack of success with the opposite sex.

I'm British, so I don't have a dog in the fight. I'm neutral. I dislike Boeing because they stole the secrets of our Hawker Siddeley Trident, and also because they had the temerity to compete with the De Havilland Comet, and I dislike Airbus because they're French. Technically Airbus is a European consortium, but they're French really. As soon as the French touch something it becomes French, because their fingertips are coated with bacteria. Boeing and the French conspired to destroy the British aviation industry and as far as I'm concerned they're both equally bad. The Americans with their money and the French with their lies and poor personal hygiene.

The rational part of my brain says that British airliners were underpowered, overpriced, oddly-sized, awkwardly-designed, and hobbled by politics and a small domestic market. The rational part of my brain says that the Comet was too small to do its job effectively, that the money we sank into Concorde was wasted, that the Trident needed a booster engine in the tail to take off from some airports thus making it the world's only four-engined trijet, that the VC10 was too expensive for its marginal superiority over the Boeing 707, that our faith in central planning and our lack of ambition and basic business competence was our own fault, that the aviation industries of Europe and the United States also suffered market failures but bounced back, whereas we gave up, and if Britain was so superior how come we lost, hmm?

The rational part of my brain says that Dassault only managed to sell eleven Mercures and yet Airbus still exists, and that Bombardier and Embraer continue to sell regional jets while the BAe-146 and BAC 1-11 are long-gone.

The rational part of my brain is prone to distressing outbursts. I try not to listen to it and I have never allowed it to take control of my body. I can keep it in check, but I don't want to shut it up entirely because one day its advice might be useful.

I was talking about long-haul airliners. The Airbus A340 is a four-engined jet that was introduced in the early 1990s. It has a relatively modest capacity of around 300 passengers, give or take fifty or so, and was purpose-built for long-haul flight. In the early 2000s Virgin Atlantic painted "4 engines 4 long haul" on their A340s, but unfortunately for Airbus the A340 entered the market just as aviation regulations on twin-engined flight were relaxed, and as a result the A340 was never very popular.

For a while in the 2000s the longest regularly-scheduled non-stop airline flight was flown by an A340, between Singapore and New Jersey, but even when four-engined jets made sense the A340 had a niche market. It was designed in parallel with the shorter-ranged A330 and used the same wing and fuselage, so presumably it didn't cost Airbus a fortune to develop, but even so it's generally regarded as a victim of poor timing. Despite having a two-year head start on the Boeing 777 Airbus only sold 377 A340s versus 1,500 777s. There just wasn't much demand for an airliner that could transport a small number of people over a very long distance.

An Airbus A350, courtesy MNXANL (CC 4.0).

The A340 was replaced in the early 2010s by the Airbus A350, a twinjet that carries roughly 350 passengers over an even longer distance than the A340, although in practice the A350 is generally flown on standard transatlantic-type flights. The A350 is roughly analogous to the Boeing 787 but slightly larger and not as popular. My hunch is that the design is less suitable for short-haul/high-capacity flights, but the two aircraft are still winning orders so we won't know who won for a decade or so.

The A350's main distinguishing feature is its black-painted cockpit window frames. Apparently it's a cost-saving measure for when the cockpit glass has to be replaced - the airline doesn't have to paint the frame to match the rest of the aircraft, it can just drop in the new cockpit glass and that's it, job done.

An Airbus A380.

That brings us to the final ultra-long-haul airliner and the most controversial of the lot. The Airbus A380 is a very large four-engined airliner that entered service in the mid-2000s. It carries 600 people, give or take fifty or so, over a distance of up to 9,000 miles. That's a lot of people. In some respects it's the opposite of the A340, in that the design prioritises passenger load over extreme range, although it can fly great distances if required.

The A380 has two full-length decks and a distinctive appearance, fat and stubby. It's a common sight in the skies over London because almost half of the 230-or-so A380s are operated by Emirates of the Middle East, ferrying Z-list celebrities and premier league footballers from Heathrow to Dubai and back.

Development began in the 1990s but after several delays the aircraft didn't enter service until 2007. At the time it was a big thing. Heathrow Airport's parent company spent around £400m modifying the airport to accommodate it, and the perceived need to support the A380 was one of several factors that slowed down construction of Berlin Brandenburg airport. Looking at articles from around that time there was a general view that the A380 was going to revolutionise commercial aviation, nay that it would revolutionise modern society. Its huge size was expected to bring down the cost of air travel while simultaneously benefiting the environment because there would be a need for fewer flights.

There were claims that launch customers would install casinos, gyms, even shower cubicles in the top deck; the New York Times ran a story, quickly withdrawn, that Airbus planned to sell a standing-room-only version to Asian carriers that would carry 853 passengers propped against padded boards on short-haul flights. The problem is that Airbus' sums only made sense if the A380 was filled to capacity, and as mentioned earlier that's hard to do with giant-sized airliners.

Furthermore the A380 was introduced at a very poor time for the global economy. The recession didn't impact the Far and Middle East as much as it did the United States, and for a while the order book bounced back, but it was only a temporary reprieve. A combination of rising fuel prices and the unwieldy size of the aircraft meant that sales collapsed in the mid-2010s. The A380 is relatively efficient as a short-haul-high-capacity aircraft, but the size means that it can't fly to the same airports as the 777, 787, and A350, and it's not as efficient over ultra-long-haul routes as the 777. In general it's more economical than the Boeing 747-8, and in retrospect it seems as if Airbus became fixated on the idea of beating the 747-8 even though neither aircraft had much of a future.

The sad thing is that the A380 is by all accounts a great plane if you're a passenger. I've been on one and I have no complaints. The interior is spacious, the fittings are state-of-the-art, and to date there have been no major accidents. This doesn't change the fact that from a financial point of view the A380 has been a failure. The running costs are so high that when Emirates retires its fleet the A380 is likely to disappear from service very quickly. Airbus spent around $25bn developing the A380 and apparently needed to sell around 1,000 units to break even, but to date it has only sold 240 and production has slowed to a trickle. Airbus can take solace from the fact that Boeing spent even more on the 787 - around $32bn - albeit that the 787 is still in production and still selling.

The inside of an A380, with two of my favourite things - pretzels and gin.

And that's the current state of the market. The long-established Boeing 777 is the dominant ultra-long-haul airliner, with the 787 and Airbus A350 second and third respectively. The A380 is still theoretically in production, and the Boeing 747 and Airbus A340 are gradually flying off into the sunset or the sunrise depending on the direction of travel, but metaphorically the sunset.

Historically the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, Douglas DC-10, and McDonnell Douglas MD-11 trijets also flew long-haul routes, albeit with stops, but they're gone now, as is the Vickers VC-10, which had four engines mounted on the tail. The Russians had the Ilyushin IL-62, which resembled the VC-10, but it was a rare sight in Western airports. In theory the modern-day Ilyushin Il-96 can be configured as an ultra-long-haul airliner, but only a handful were ever built and it's unclear if any remain in passenger service.

And of course there was Concorde. Singapore Airlines briefly flew Concorde into Hong Kong in the late 1970s, but it was just a publicity stunt and the route only lasted a year. The Far East wasn't a great fit for the aircraft. From Europe the route was too long to fly non-stop, and in any case the flight would have been mostly overland, which meant that the aircraft would have been forbidden from breaking the sound barrier. Flights from Australia or within the Far East itself might have been technically viable, but during Concorde's heyday the market wasn't large enough to support it.

Nonetheless Concorde did occasionally visit Hong Kong as a chartered flight. There is footage on the internet of Concorde landing at Kai Tak, which must have been exciting to watch in person. After touchdown the pilots would have walked tall. The Concorde was touted as Europe's answer to the Apollo Project, and like Apollo it majored on romance over practicality. It entered the market at a time when airliners came in different shapes and sizes, but that was a long time ago. Nowadays airliners are hard to tell apart; they have evolved to fit their environment, with two engines mounted under the wings, a single deck, a eurowhite fuselage, a modest logo on the tail.

So, some of the romance has gone. But air travel is cheaper, safer, less environmentally damaging and more practical than ever before, and with that I must leave you, dear reader. There's no more to say about ultra-long-haul and the hour is getting late. Sleep tight, dear reader, there is nothing on the other side.