Saturday, November 28, 2015

Photo finish

I played around with my camera last week. I tried some video techniques, and I shot some photo self-portraits (a bit more than just selfies). When I looked at them later, however, what I saw isn’t what I expected. That wasn’t all bad, but one part gave me pause.

I shot the self-portraits because I’d watched a YouTube video on some particular studio lighting, and I noticed how the same model, in basically the same position, could create totally different looks and moods simply by adjusting how they held their heads, and the direction they were looking. I decided to be the model so I could see what happened when I tilted my head just so, or changed the point I was gazing at, that sort of thing. While I was doing it, I decided to take one for a new Facebook profile photo (above), and when I looked at on the computer, I was surprised.

I hadn’t realised how tired I looked until I saw the photo on a larger screen. Although the photo above is lightened, as I’d do for any other photo, the bags under my eyes are still very evident. The fact my whiskers need a trim and the dye needs a touch up all made me look surprisingly tired and worn out. All of which may have been much better if I was smiling, which I didn’t do on purpose.

Yesterday, I had a photo taken of me and our niece at her graduation as a fully registered teacher. I thought I looked older, greyer, and fatter than I think I look in real life. I shared it on Facebook, anyway, though, because it was about our niece, not me, so my discomfort with my look was irrelevant (mind you, she looked fabulous, so even if I’d been in a designer suit I’d still come off second best, so that helped me be a bit more circumspect).

The point is, on two different days this week, photos showed me looking quite different from the way I thought I looked, and that surprised me. In real life, I don’t feel as old, tired, worn, or the rest, as I think the photos make me look. I also know that I’m slowly losing weight (emphasis on slowly…), and this week I just didn’t have time to do the whisker maintenance I usually do. So, the photos probably weren’t really a dramatically more accurate portrayal of my typical look than my mental picture was.

Part of the video I shot was of a tree that’s flowering at the moment (which I still may make into a full video). When I looked at the video on my computer, I noticed bees were buzzing around the flowers, something I hadn’t noticed at the time I was shooting the video. So, even that was different from what I thought it was.

In the case of the photos, the difference was surprising, and pointed out areas where I can make improvement. The video showed nature to be far more interesting and active than I’d realised. So, both were actually quite useful.

Still, I think the next time I decide to shoot some photo self-portraits, I’ll make sure I’m well-rested. Don’t want a photo finishing my delusions again.

Winner winner turkey dinner

For a lot of reasons, I didn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner this year. That’s not unusual, of course, and most years I just have a turkey sandwich for lunch (like last year). But each year I also “threaten” to go to Denny’s and have their turkey dinner. This year, I actually did (photo above).

I did that one other time, long ago (I’m pretty sure it was my first Thanksgiving in New Zealand, 20 years ago). And I’ve said every year since that I could always go have that.

This year, it was basically on a whim. Nigel and I had gone to return some Elfa shelves we bought that were too deep for the space they were going, exchanging them for more standard-depth shelves. Since we were out, we decided to go have lunch and, well, Denny’s turkey dinner popped into my head. It turned out the price was exactly the same as the refund we got on the shelves (which then inspired the title for this post).

Denny’s has the turkey dinner as part of their regular menu, and it’s the only turkey on their menu. So, how was it? Well…

I suppose I could just say, “it was as you might imagine” and leave it at that, because it covers both those who would love and hate it—because both are probably correct. But, I’m in a mood to be daring, so, here goes:

The vegetables were nicely cooked and flavourful, but the white sauce had zero flavour of any kind—not even salt. The mashed potatoes were instant, but were actually nice, as was the gravy (together, they reminded me of a church dinner when I was growing up, which is a fond memory). The cranberry sauce was a surprise: I expected it to be sickeningly sweet, but it was actually nice and I could taste the cranberries and their tartness.

But the whole point of the thing was the turkey, which was nothing special. In fact, at first I thought it tasted like smoked chicken. It was processed turkey, of course, so I wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t quite as turkey-ish as I would have liked, and it actually was pretty much what I was expecting (I think the turkey I buy for my sandwich every year tastes more like turkey).

Still, this was about preserving tradition, of a sort, rather than trying to have the best turkey dinner ever. By that measure, it was a raging success.

It is really odd, though, to even think of Thanksgiving when it’s hot and humid outside, as it has been the past few days (it’s pushing the mid-20s here at the moment—which is mid 70sF—and it’s very humid). Over on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page, my friend Andy and I were talking a bit about that in the Facebook share of my previous post. I kind of summed up why thanksgiving as he and I know it can’t work here:
…I think that the REAL problem for New Zealand is that thanksgiving is in the wrong season: Thanksgiving in North America (and most other places) is basically a harvest festival, and for New Zealand that would mean it would happen in May. So, I guess that could kick off the festive Queen's Birthday shopping season…

As near as I can tell, there are no Southern Hemisphere thanksgiving celebrations, and that calendar problem is probably why. I really do feel sorry for Anitpodean retailers who have nothing to hook the start of their Christmas shopping season on, but this is probably not the holiday to do it.
I could add that from my Midwest USA perspective, a summery Christmas feels weird, too, but that’s another story, and one I’ll probably talk about next month (because even after all these years, it does still feel weird to me…).

So, it’s not all that easy to keep celebrating Thanksgiving in a place where it has no meaning, AND in the opposite season to when it’s “supposed” to be celebrated. Against such barriers, a Denny’s version of a turkey dinner is a perfectly reasonable solution and compromise.

But, next year I may stick with my turkey sandwich.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Not a black Friday

Some things from American culture can be imported by other countries without any trouble—fast food, for example. Other things are more problematic, like Halloween. But Black Friday is just plain stupid outside of the USA. Still, I can’t blame New Zealand retailers for trying.

Black Friday is, of course, the day after Thanksgiving in the USA, which pretty much means that by definition it has no significance outside the USA. It’s also supposedly the day on which American retailers “enter black ink”, that is, start making a profit. Personally, I think that if that’s really true, one must wonder about the viability of retail as a valid business model. But, I digress.

New Zealand has a holiday shopping season, of course, but there’s nothing between Labour Day (end of October) and Christmas. So, when, precisely, should the NZ holiday shopping season start? Is Labour Weekend too early? If so, what can retailers latch onto to mark the start of their holiday promotions?

So, I have a lot of sympathy for New Zealand retailers, and I accept their need to try and generate excitement so that people will spend over the holiday season. But I’m just not sure that appropriating another country’s marketing, divorced from context, is such a great idea. Why can’t we have a New Zealand event to start the season? How hard can that be? Wait—I’ve done politics in New Zealand, so I know how nearly impossible that task is. Never mind.

The image up top is from an email I received this morning from a retailer that routinely sends me two or three emails each and every day promoting supposedly amazing deals on their website. I never buy. The image below is from a wine marketer that sends me an email every single day, weekends inlcuded. I never buy from them, either, told them never to phone me again, and just haven’t gotten around to unsubscribing from their email list—but, then, if I had, I’d have no image to share, so there’s that.

My point here is that the whole “Black Friday” thing has nothing to do with New Zealand and it feels forced (especially when some retailers have been trying it on for weeks already). Yet I also sympathise with NZ retailers not having a real start to their sales season. But—and it’s bad form to raise a new point at the very end of a post, but when have I ever cared about that?—why do we even need to be so obsessed with consumption?

I spent today with family. It matters far more to me than I can say, certainly far more than anything I could ever buy at any retailer’s sale, “Black Friday” or no.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Being frugal with outrage

Nearly two years ago, I shared videos, John and Hank Green, talking about, basically, good news. The video above from John Green, is a different look at that idea.

John begins by talking about the changes in crime rates in the United States over the last 25 years, and that leads into a wider discussion of outrage, and how life is getting better in many respects, even as we say we feel that it’s getting worse. He also points out, rightly, that some things may be too complex to generate outrage.

All of which makes me wonder: What’s wrong with us?

There have been times I’ve joked that “my outrage meter is broken”, meaning my capacity to be outraged by something in the news is gone. Over time, despite the occasional lapse, this has remained true, but it’s a battle to avoid that becoming pessimism.

“Pessimism,” I said in another post almost a year ago, “makes us give up, withdraw, opt out and tune out at a time the world needs us to engage.” That’s always a dangerous possibility—that we become so overwhelmed by the negative, by things tat outrage us, that we think maybe everything really IS crap, so why bother caring anymore?

Even so, there’s a difference between being pessimistic and refusing to be manipulated into outrage. Political ideologues of all descriptions, corporations, religions, elected politicians and wannabes, and even the news media all have reason to stoke the fires of outrage, and all will resort to emotional manipulation to achieve that.

I’m not perfect, and I can be manipulated into outrage, too, but here’s what I do that’s helped: I start by assuming that the latest Internet meme is a lie, or, at the very least, an exaggeration or mischaracterisation of the facts. If my outrage is rising, I fact-check what I’m being served. If the facts stack up, I may respond, but by then my outrage has diminished.

What I’m definitely NOT good at is trying to focus the attention of others onto the things they DON’T hear about, but that they ought to be concerned about (but not outraged—that something that I think is best kept for things that truly and literally are outrageous, not merely things that annoy or even anger us).

All of us are only human, doing the best we can with the limited time and information we have available. Sometimes we screw up—becoming outraged over something insignificant, or after being manipulated into it based on false information. We also don’t pay enough attention to the things the news media and politicians don’t want to talk about. Maybe our best isn’t good enough.

However, outrage is often overplayed, exhausting us mentally and emotionally and leading us to become pessimistic. One thing we need to do, I think, is simply be a little more frugal with our outrage, saving it for the things that truly deserve it.

The world still needs us to engage. We all need to learn to do so wisely and effectively.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving explanations

Thanksgiving, probably the biggest American holiday, is this week. So, who better to explain the myths and misunderstandings about the quintessentially American day than the BBC—wait, what? Ah, Anglophenia. Carry on.

Above is the latest video from BBC America’s Anglophenia, this one explaining “Thanksgiving Myths”. I knew most of the facts in the video (and won’t say which ones I didn’t…), so the video’s not really a surprise. But I can imagine how some Americans blissfully ignorant of their own history might find this video, um, challenging.

Not so anyone who reads this blog, of course, all of whom, I’m confident, either know all this or are as happy as I am to learn something new. And learning new things is always a good thing.

Happy (less-mythful) Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Auckland’s big booms

Early Sunday morning, not long after midnight, I was awakened by thunder. And lightning. It was one of the most intense storms I’ve experienced—not just Auckland intense, but intense, intense.

It was a big storm: There were some 10,000 lightning strikes in the northern region, and about 1300 in Auckland. The booms were so loud that they kept setting off a neighbour’s car alarm, and the lightning lit up the bedroom, even with the drapes closed. I estimated that it’s height, the lightning was striking about 10 kilometres (6 US miles) from our house, but it moved off fairly quickly.

I experienced some pretty severe storms in the USA’s Midwest, some of which also produced tornadoes, so lots of lightning and thunder isn’t alien to me. But in Auckland, such intense storms are rare, which made it even more noticeable.

The USA’s Midwest had a continent to help build up the power of storms, but Auckland is on an isthmus, located between two oceans. Normally, this geography mutes our storms (cyclones and weather bombs notwithstanding). We just don’t normally get such intense thunderstorms.

This year’s El Niño effect is quite strong, and may be among the strongest recorded. It will mean a hotter and drier summer than normal, and that extra heat could mean more severe storms—if it rains, that is. However, because it’ll be drier than normal—with drought in some areas likely—it could be that this weekend’s storm will remain among the worst I’ve experienced in New Zealand.

So, I lay in bed awake as the storm raged, seeing the lightning flash, even with my eyes closed, and hearing the loud booms, followed by the car alarm nearby—and Nigel slept through it all.

And then there was another thunderstorm around 5am. But it wasn’t nearly as intense.


A Thanksgiving Miracle

I don’t get to see many of the skits on Saturday Night Live, because they’re often geoblocked. I’m glad this one wasn’t, because it's funny—and I bet some American families could use this Thanksgiving Miracle this year.

The YouTube description sums it up:
There's only one thing that can keep a family (Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Matthew McConaughey, Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer) from fighting at Thanksgiving: Adele.
I hope all my American friends have a great Thanksgiving, with our without Adele.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Flag Referendum 1: The ballot has arrived

Our voting papers for the first flag referendum have arrived. I’ll be voting, of course—I always vote. I’ll also vote in the second referendum next year, of course—I always vote. How I’ll vote, however, is something I don’t yet know for sure.

In this first referendum, we rank our preferred flags one to five, with one being the flag we like the best. Because this is STV (single transferable vote), we can’t hurt our first choice by ranking the others.

Even so, some people have made decisions to not rank all the flags. That’s legitimate if someone dislikes one or more equally, but as long as a voter marks at least one flag with the number one, their ballot is valid.

Which brings me to the anti-referendum types, at least some of whom plan on spoiling their ballot in any one of numerous ways as a protest. That’s fine, and people who feel that strongly against the referendum should do that. However, it won’t make any difference.

Some of the anti-referendum folks seem to believe that if the majority of ballots aren’t valid, the referendum results won’t be binding. Unfortunately, such people don’t know how the law works: The winning design will be the one that has the support of the majority of valid ballots. In other words, “informal votes” will be counted only for turnout, but will have no bearing on the result.

Even now, people will go on and on about how the more than $26 million this is costing us could be better spent on other things, and I agree that the money would have been better spent on almost anything else. However, I actually DO want to see a new flag, so my position is that the whole process was deeply flawed and, frankly, silly. If the process had been a good one, and if design professionals had been on the panel, it would be a different story and every cent would be justified.

But it is what it is: The money is spent, basically, and nothing can change that. The process was deeply flawed, but we have our final designs now, and nothing can change that, either. Maybe the “Red Peak” design shouldn’t have been added, since it wasn’t approved by the panel, or, maybe since it had popular support it was right for the government, with the support of the Green Party, to add it. But all of this—the amount of money, the flawed panel and process, the addition of “Red Peakʻ—all of that is now irrelevant, because the referendum is on.

Most citizens never get a say in their country’s flag, so this is an historic opportunity, and one I take very seriously. I haven’t yet finally decided how I’ll rank the five flags, though I think I’m getting close to a decision. How I vote in the second referendum will depend entirely on which new design the current flag is up against; if I don’t like the winning design, it’s at least theoretically possible that I might make that vote informal. Slightly ironic, I think, given my lack of enthusiasm for people doing that in the first referendum.

There are two things that are certain: I take this referendum very seriously, and also, I will vote. Right now, for me, that’s all that matters.

This video is ‘Something Beautiful’

The video above begins with a simple question: “Why are we so quick to see the ugly… when we stand before the beautiful?” The response is kind of extraordinary, as the son of a famous purveyor of ugliness leads us through a meditation on the things that keep us from embracing the unique wonderfulness of every other person. Hatred, bigotry, prejudice—these are all powerful, but ultimately bizarre human behaviours that make no logical sense, and this video beautifully points that out.

Part of what makes the video so powerful is that the narrator is Nathan Phelps, son of late infamously bigoted preacher, Fred Phelps founder of the notorious Westboro “Baptist” Church. Nathan is now an atheist, regularly speaking at atheist and secular events, and he calls himself an LGBT activist. In a sense, he’s helping to atone for his father’s many sins—although the elder Phelps’ bizarrely vicious confrontational tactics began after Nathan left the church and family.

Even so, Nathan is clearly very well acquainted with the way in which prejudiced people can use religion as a justification for their bigoted actions, as well as their irrational shunning of their fellow human beings, and that made him the perfect person to narrate the video.

Seth Andrews, who produces podcasts and videos under the brand “The Thinking Atheist”, wrote and produced the video. I’ve shared Seth’s work on this blog several times, most recently back in December when I shared his video, “Christmas: Behind the Curtain”.

This and similar videos that Seth has made are simply presenting an alternative viewpoint, and sometimes point out what religions get wrong or, in this case, what they ought to be doing better. Seth can write powerful prose, and I think this video contains a good example of that. Having Nathan Phelps deliver those words makes them all the more powerful.

“Why are we so quick to see the ugly… when we stand before the beautiful?” It's an excellent question. How should we answer?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Internet Wading: Art and history

Time for some more Internet Wading, and this time one thing led to another. And it's all Roger Green's fault.

Roger’s recent post, “October rambling #2: absquatulate” included links to two stories about copyright trolls. Since then, another story was published about the battle over the copyright for Anne Frank’s Diary: “Copyfraud: Anne Frank Foundation claims father was ‘co-author,’ extends copyright by decades". It’s a bizarre story in itself, but also one with very serious implications for all authors.

But following the link in Roger’s post led me following other links to interesting places. For example, “How Changing Your Reading Habits Can Transform Your Health” by Michael Grothaus on Fast Company shows the health benefits of reading. Nice to know.

Even farther afield, “Beautiful, free/open 3D printed book of lost Louis H. Sullivan architectural ornaments”. The files for printing them have been released in the public domain so anyone can have them and print them on their own 3D printer. The “lost” part is that the architectural ornaments were in buildings that have been torn down. Preserving art, and making it easily accessible, is one of the many promises of 3D printing technology—until lawyers and copyright trolls try to ruin it for everyone.

Back in the more traditional art world, I recently ran across “Russia Before the Revolution, in Color” on Mashable’s “Retronaut” It features the photos of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944), who was famous in Imperial Russia for a colour portrait of Leo Tolstoy. It’s a fascinating look at a long-vanished Russia—and yet the photos look eerily modern, too.

Also interesting, and from pretty much the same era, is “After the Quake: Earliest Known Color Photographs of San Francisco” taken about six months after the deadly 1906 earthquake by an inventor named Frederick Eugene Ives. As with the photos from Russia, these colour photos provide a totally different way of looking at life a century ago.

And finally from the same site, “The Evolution of Women's Workwear” over the 20th Century is interesting in itself, but I was also fascinated by the changing environment of office work.. Seeing the evolution of work fashion in the context of changes in office environments makes both more interesting, I think.

Finally this time, a straight-up look at history and how complicated it can be: “The Eichmann of the Confederate South” by Gil Troy on The Daily Beast. It’s the story of Henry Wirz, who had been the commander of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The camp was built for 10,000 but had some 45,000 prisoners, leading to a mortality rate of 29%. How and why it happened is a story in itself, but was Wirz truly the demon he was portrayed as, or was he a victim of sorts, too? History may be complicated, but it shouldn’t be forgotten.

That’s enough wading for now.

Explaining science wins

The video above is by 18-year-old Ryan Chester, and it won $400,000. It was all because he wanted to explain Einstein. We need more like him.

The video, “Some Cool Ways of Looking at the Special Theory of Relativity” was Ryan’s entry in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, “an annual challenge that invites students, ages 13-18, to share their passion for math and science with the world”. Ryan said of it:
"Special Relativity has got to rank up there with one of the most revolutionary theories in physics. I've seen it referenced in science books and magazines for years. It was always mentioned in relationship to the idea that you can travel forward in time if you just move fast enough. Time dilation has been in science TV shows and movies like Interstellar so often that I've just accepted it without understanding why it was true. So when this challenge came around I thought this area was a great one to dig into."
In the YouTube description, Ryan explained what he wanted to do in the video:
“110 years ago Albert Einstein published a theory that revolutionized the way we think about the universe. In this video I'll show you how to prove its two postulates using easy-to-understand real-world experiments, and how even the simplest understanding of quantum mechanics can be used to wrap your mind around why time must slow down the faster an object moves.”
Clearly it worked: Ryan’s project won the $400,000 final prize, of which $250,000 will be a scholarship, $50,000 will go to his teacher, and $100,000 will go to his school to fund a science lab. That’s pretty awesome.

I’ve often thought that one of the major problems facing science—beyond politically-motivated deliberate ignorance—is that ordinary people just don’t understand science or scientific concepts. This is part of what makes it so easy for scheming politicians to use that ignorance to steer people into supporting the politicians’ ideological agendas.

There have long been people who did well explaining science. But sometimes the media has referred to them as “science popularisers”, as if that was a bad thing. This implication is that such people aren’t doing REAL science, that making complex scientific principles easy to understand is somehow cheapening science. Obviously, I disagree.

As I see it, science explainers are kind of like those who translate ancient Greek texts in modern English: They take something I could never otherwise understand and make it accessible. Knowledge shouldn’t be locked up and available only to a few who can understand it.

I don’t know what Ryan plans on doing with his life, but if he continues as a science explainer, it would be a good thing. We need more people who can do that so we can all understand the science that we need.