Goodbye, Cassini

In about twenty hours, the spacecraft Cassini will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn and destroy itself, to protect any potential life on Saturn’s moons. Can’t have Earth-life-tainted space junk floating around out there.

Cassini’s mission has been an astonishing success — with an emphasis on astonishing. It found things that turned some of our notions on their heads, and revealed a small moon with a liquid water geyser(!). It’s going to take a while to figure that one out.

I’ll not go into all the details; there’s actually a pretty nice write-up at fivethirtyeight, and you can get real-time updates straight from NASA.

The scientific instrument I most appreciate is the plain ol’ camera – Cassini sent home some beautiful images. Here’s a low-res markup of one of my favorites: A shot of Earth taken through the rings of Saturn.

The universe is still filled with mystery; we’re barely out of our own back yard and everywhere we turn we find things that astonish us. As we struggle with the trials of having a lot of sentient creatures packed onto the rocky parts of the surface of one small planet, we would do well to take a breath and look up, and be awestricken by what we see.

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Basking in my Own…

A long time ago I published a Chapter One here on this blog called Gravity. It was a little bit that I thought had legs. Eventually I devoted a NaNoWriMo to exploring the character, and today I read much of it. It has some pretty sweet moments, if I do say so myself.

A Jane Doe awakens in a hospital, and feels gravity for the first time. Everything is wrong, even though everything is empirically perfectly normal.

At the core is a battle between Liberty on one side, and Justice for All on the other (that’s how one side frames it, anyway). But it’s really a story of soldiers. Bitter rivals sharing a room, one crippled. Were she not crippled, Benji would have killed her and bragged about it later. But it was Jane’s own side that crippled her, that tore her down. They took her wings. And that is the only thing, the ONLY thing, Benji would never do. She was beautiful when she flew.

Though it would be irresponsible not to consider that Jane volunteered for this mission, confident that her own compass would never waver, even if her memory were erased.

Note: Benji and Jane never become a love interest. Seriously. You can discover respect without wanting to bone someone.

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Patio Life: California

I was looking for something cool and fizzy to sip on the patio this evening, and the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas suggested a Gin and Tonic, with some fancy tonic already cold in the fridge. I’m not ordinarily a G&T kind of guy, but the idea fit conditions perfectly.

Then she said, “Ooo! You want a lime? I’ll go out and pick you a lime.”

 

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Patio Life Returns

Life is good.

Lens Lust: The Phases

One thing about owning a camera whose nature changes when you change lenses — you start looking at a lot of lenses and imagining what you could do with them. Lens lust is perfectly human and even healthy. A few years ago I really started to appreciate what you might call extreme lenses, the lenses that push the boundaries of what is possible.

I even bought one kinda-extreme lens, and I still covet that lens’s even more extreme little brother, a lens made by Canon that cannot be matched on other SLRs because of physics. (The hole on the front of modern Canon cameras is larger, and the size of the hole is one of the things that limits what a lens attached to it can do.) I will own that lens one day.

But after a while, you’ve seen all the great lenses. You’ve appreciated the Noctilux and the latest Zeiss offerings, and you’ve seen that less-than-ten-made gigantic-yet-fast telephoto selling for the price of a modest home. (The perfect portrait lens, if you can get half a mile from your subject.)

Window shopping is about surprise, about finding something new and delightful, and people simply aren’t designing new crazy-extreme lenses fast enough. So now when I go hunting for over-the-top, cost-no-object glass, my response is “oh yeah, that one.” That doesn’t mean I might not linger over the specs, but it’s like I’m re-reading a favorite novel.

Then there is the magical day when you discover a whole new category of lenses to lust after. And this time around, a lot of them are pretty cheap. Welcome to the world of vintage glass. If you don’t mind undertaking the chore of focussing the camera yourself, a whole new world unfolds.

Although I assume technology has changed the way lens makers go about their craft, Zeiss lenses have been very good for a very long time. Others have been trying to knock Zeiss off their pedestal for a long time as well. Pentax made a serious run at Zeiss and produced some optically excellent lenses with superb build quality, and these days you can find those lenses cheap. And while shopping you can appreciate that the radioactive 8-element 50mm (it has thorium in one lens element) is not as good as the 7-element design that followed, with its expensive-to-manufacture curved interface between two glued elements, but that the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar is maybe a little better than the SMC Tacumar that followed. I expect that I’ll have a Pentax in the barn before too much longer.

And then there’s Zeiss itself. It was in the wrong half of Germany and at the end of World War Two and the whole damn factory, engineers and all, was carted off to Mother Russia. Some say quality degraded over time, but you can find some very cheap Russian lenses that are actually improvements on the Zeiss designs — improvements made by the Zeiss people themselves.

Which is all to say when you open yourself to vintage glass, not only do you find some pretty spectacular deals, you find some pretty cool stories as well. Learning the histories of some of the seminal lenses in photography is a special lens-lust bonus.

But while they’re not making enough crazy-extreme new lenses, they are by definition not making any more historically-iconic or secret old-school super-bargain lenses. Lately, when I’ve popped over to eBay to type in sexy lens phrases, I see the same list I always do. My fantasy wish list is becoming more stable; there are no new surprises as some oddball piece of glass hits me from out of the blue. I think there are still some discoveries in the vintage realm; some of the “vintage” lenses I drool over have performance comparable to modern lenses, but farther back in time (and cheaper yet) there are lenses that give a different feel to the photos. I picked up one Russian 50mm for pretty much free that falls into that category, and I will be doing a series of self-portraits with it in the near future.

But finding those lenses doesn’t provide the same visceral rush. You’re not really looking for the gems, the designs that were ahead of their time, you’re just choosing out of a bucket because what you want is the “bucket” look.

s-l500Are there new horizons? New categories of lenses I haven’t discovered yet, that I can drool over and study to learn their nuances? I hope so. There is the category “new lenses that act like old lenses”, discussed under the banner “lomography”, and while some of them are funky, I haven’t found any compelling reason not to just use an old lens instead. In fact, most of lomography is about using crappy old Holgas, pinholes, and plastic lenses, but if you really insist on spending money you can find a funky brass-bodied lens with apertures you slip in through a slot on the side. So… actually, it looks like I’ve already worked that vein dry.

I suppose it’s a sign of maturity, when you’ve taken a passion to where there are no more surprises, but it’s also an indication of why maturity sucks. I guess now I should spend more of my time looking at photographs, rather than lenses. After all, that’s how you become a better photographer. But I’m also an engineer, and I’m unapologetic for my fascination with this interface between art and engineering.

And I’m thinking that lens designers need to get off their lazy asses and make more wacky stuff.

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Another Reason Mexican Television is Awesome

I’m in a local cantina and on the TV there’s some sort of quiz show happening. When the contestants get the answer wrong they get a pie in the face. When they get it right, they get a generous shot of tequila.

“Tequila!” the teammates of the most recent correct answer shouted in unison. Good times.

It Feels Different this Year

I’m a hockey fan, and if you insist that I be more specific I will tell you that I’m a fan of the local NHL franchise, the San Jose Sharks. Almost every year this team makes it to the playoffs. Almost every year they exit early.

Which is mostly just math. Half the teams in the playoffs are eliminated in the first round. By the end of the second round, only four remain. So MOST of the teams that make the playoffs go home early. But you do that too many years in a row, you get a reputation. Even if you go home because of a bizarre bounce in an overtime that shouldn’t have happened except the ref blew a call with 33 seconds to go in regulation.

Right now San Jose is skating agains St. Louis in a titan battle of saints in which God must be careful not to take sides. Like Joseph, Louis has earned a reputation for early exits. One of the two will reach the finals.

Three games in, it’s pretty easy to see that my team is the better of the two. Nashville took it to San Jose a couple of times in the previous round, but the Sharks answered by playing really good hockey. That good hockey has carried into the semifinal round with the Blues.

The Blues deserve to be here. They are a very good team, and they beat powerhouse Dallas fair and square. They beat the Stars by beating on them, and getting under their skin, and making Dallas do stupid things. They came out against the Sharks with the same strategy — and it failed utterly. A dude friggin’ pulled Joe Thornton’s beard and the Sharks laughed it off and scored on the power play. The Sharks, under the leadership of captain Joe Pavelski, just don’t take the bait.

Last game, Newt Gingrich Ken Hitchcock pulled his bullies and agitators and tried to match the Sharks with speed and skill. For a while, it seemed to be working. But nobody plays Sharks hockey better than the Sharks do.

And there’s the thing. Some time around the start of 2016 Joe Thornton started backchecking with energy and the rest of the team stepped up and Burns stopped making stupidly overoptimistic passes and it feels different this year. This isn’t a team getting by, it’s a team offering both an unstoppable offense and a disciplined defense (3 shutouts in the last 4 playoff games) and exposing no weaknesses to exploit. A team like that can laugh when an agitator on the other side tries to lure them into mistakes. Even people on the East Coast are waking up to what a good team this is.

It feels different this year. The Sharks aren’t looking for answers, they aren’t looking for the weakness of the other team. They’re playing their game, and they’re doing it well. It’s up to their opponents to solve the Sharks, and so far none has. Man, it’s been fun to watch.

It’s sports, and anything can happen. I felt confident two years ago when the Sharks went up 3-0 on the Kings only to choke away the playoffs. But this year the Sharks handled the Kings pretty easily, and while Nashville gave them a run for their money the way the Sharks emerged from that series has carried over.

What’s different this year? Maybe the most important thing is the C on Pavelski’s sweater. But don’t forget Wardo, and Donkey, and Jones. Don’t forget old man Zubrus making the fourth line a disciplined unit and a legitimate threat. Hertl’s lovely slap shot to open the scoring last night is now a rarity; under the new management the Czech kid is expected to be a complete player, not just a sniper but a stout defender and a guy willing to mix it up down near the goal. He has embraced the role and thrives on the chaos around the net. “Now I go to net, get rebound and score. Is better.”

The team knows: this is their chance. The older players, Thornton and Marleau in particular, know that time is running out, and this year they’re playing like their legacies are on the line. The new kids are hungry, and skilled, but they are inheriting discipline from the old-timers. It really is a joy to watch. At this time they are still six wins from their first championship, but no matter what happens I thank the Sharks for making it different this year.

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