Damn You, Bauhaus

I’m trying to write an episode that is actually interesting, but it hasn’t been going well. And that was before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came on the TV/Internet/Radio music distribution system.

It all starts with the simple bass line and the clock-ticking percussion, and I get sucked in. Then Peter Murphy takes direct control of my brain. It’s haunting, and even when it’s loud it’s all somehow far away.

It’s over now, and I just have to remember what I was writing about.

Robots and Safety

Earlier this month I mentioned that the streets of San Jose are awash with robot cars (five out of a sample of several thousand along a particular high-robot-volume street qualifies as “awash”).

I mentioned that one of the cars was a test vehicle for an outfit called Nuro, and I further mentioned that almost all the content on their Web site is a big treatise on safety. I went on to say that I had not read that document.

Well, today I was thinking more about it, and I went back to Nuro’s site to poke into their safety information. First impression: A document for non-experts that tackles very complex technical issues, but it seemed pretty legit.

Final impression: Nuro must have some pretty serious cash behind it, to take this long and winding road to achieve public trust.

The safety paper opens with the observation that 20% of car trips in the United States are people going shopping, and another 20% are people running errands. For many of those trips, the human is there simply to ferry stuff around. If robots can accomplish that task, that directly reduces the exposure of people to injury in automobile accidents — they’re not in their cars at all! Instead they are home moving the American economy forward by playing Candy Crush.

Nuro also mentions near the start of the document that 94% of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Remember that number when someone someday says, “30% of all robot-car crashes are due to software failure!

Nuro is creating a vehicle that doesn’t have people inside it. That gives it some very interesting advantages in the safety realm — the vehicle can choose to crash into a light post rather than hit the idiot that ran out in front of it. Self-sacrifice is an option for a vehicle without people in it. And the vehicle itself can be squishy, since it doesn’t have to protect occupants. The “windscreen” is a shiny panel on the front of the vehicle designed to give humans visual cues about the behavior of the car, but it doesn’t have to be layered tempered glass. It’s just shiny bouncy plastic.

Not having an impatient human to appease means the robot can putter along at a speed that increases decision time and shortens stopping distance. I think that’s important… but 25 mph max might be a little too slow for the streets around here, until we can get rid of all the impatient humans.

There are many, many words used in the document about when the robot decides it can’t operate safely and will pull out of traffic until a remote human operator can take over. While I see the necessity of that short-term, I expect with a few improvements to civil traffic control (flagman signs that can interact directly with robot cars springs to mind), that before too long the robots will learn to outperform the human backup.

I chose the word “learn” because there is a sort of cyber-attack I had not heard of before. You have probably heard of machine learning, although it’s frequently (and incorrectly) labeled artificial intelligence. Many companies have developed sophisticated systems that, after exposure to countless examples, are able to generalize information. It’s super-slick.

Nuro’s cars work that way. They are constantly gathering data from the environment and using that to refine their behaviors, and they share that information with the rest of the fleet.

But when your data comes from the environment around you, assholes can manipulate that environment to teach the machines falsehoods. Sometimes yield signs are octagonal and red, things like that. (Although to be successful the false data would have to be about something subtler, I suspect. I can easily imagine college-me arranging traffic cones differently every time a Nuro vehicle passed by. It’s an obvious parallel to my “yeeech” experiment, which shall not be documented in this episode.)

Of course there’s all the other usual stuff to keep the vehicles from being hacked, and one advantage of “safety as a priority before the first line of code is written” is that security also can be built in at the ground level.

Also mentioned more than once: the “whole widget” concept. If the software and the hardware are developed together for a single focussed purpose, it will work better and be safer. Steve Jobs would be proud.

And if you consider air quality to be a safety concern, then something like this makes everyone safer.

Nuro recognizes that the biggest obstacle to their success is social. Will people seeing Nuro’s placid robot cars poking along through the neighborhood think good thoughts or bad thoughts? Will appreciation of reduced traffic congestion, better air quality, and a more convenient life outweigh the fear of a robot uprising, and perhaps even worse, the fuming rage of being stuck behind a little robot car doing 25 in a 35 zone?

Just Another Commute in Silicon Valley

Today as I used public transportation to go to work, I saw five robotic cars, operated by three different companies.

Three of the five cars were Urban Automated Driving vehicles operated by Bosh and Daimler, running (human monitored) robot taxi service along the same corridor my bus takes. The Mercedes c-class vehicles are equipped head-to-toe in lidar units (lidar is like radar… with lasers!) and if I loaded the app I could ride in one. Which… is tempting, for purely journalistic reasons. My biggest question: How bored is the human monitor? Super-bored means things are going smoothly; super-bored also means that the human will never spot the emergency in time.

The second company was Nuro. The vehicle was a Toyota or whatever with sensors all over it, but what the company is actually developing is an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t have seats in it at all. Their dream: order your groceries and have the robot bring them to you. The vehicles are electric and since there is no need to account for human comfort, they could theoretically be much, much cheaper. It is easy to imagine that many companies that sell stuff would be interested in having something like that. Nuro’s Web site doesn’t have a lot of information, except for a pdf with a major discussion of safety (that I didn’t read).

There was a third, but my most humble apologies, dear readers, I don’t remember the company name painted on the car. It was not Google; I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Apple, should they even still have experimental cars, would keep them anonymous (which, as I think about it, would be just as definitive as putting a neon logo on the side — no other company would operate vehicles with a bunch of extra gear strapped on without missing the chance to brag about it).

As cities go, San Jose and the rest of the unplanned, disorganized sprawl that is Silicon Valley is… meh. And the cost to live in meh is staggering. But one thing I do enjoy is that it feels like we are just a little bit closer to the future here. And there’s nothing like Bay Area traffic to make you really, really, look forward to the day when people are not in control of giant deadly machines.

“It was CRAZY up there!”

I remember a time, long ago, walking along a beach that had a huge amount of rotting vegetation. My friend commented on the stench, and I wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps my sense of smell just wasn’t as good as most people’s. This week I got my answer.

If you have been around me for any amount of time at all, you know that I will sometimes sport a lingering cough that goes on for weeks. During the course of my malady my lungs are clear, but there is a steady stream of grot flowing down my sinuses and into my throat. Even when I don’t have a cough, I have an irritated throat most of the time.

In general, those coughs have been triggered by sinus infections. I recently began to wonder if there might be a structural issue in my face that made me more susceptible to infection, and made the infections linger beyond all reason.

So at last, after about 50 years of just rolling with the problem, I went to see a nose doctor.

Dr. Carter, who is a hoot, peered up my nostrils and said, “Yep, your septum’s deviated to the left.” I was a little surprised at that, only because in general it is the right side of my face that is more constricted. Dr. Carter then ran fiber optics up my nose and down into my throat, looking around. “This is gonna feel really weird,” she said as she guided the camera into my head.

She scheduled me for a head scan and when the results came back, I sat with her and we went over the image. It turns out my septum started to the left, but then veered back to the right and hammered directly into one of my sinuses.

I think perhaps to make the insurance justification easier, Dr. Carter first started me with a regimen of medications and shooting saline solution through my nose. But finally it was time to get the sumbitch fixed.

I mentioned I was having the procedure to a few friends, and two of them immediately set out to temper my expectations. Sure the results were great eventually, but both my friends warned me that the recovery could take a long time — even months.

Eight days ago I checked in at the surgical center and, after a delay, I was wheeled from a crowded pre-op holding pen into the gleaming, science-fiction-worthy operating room. As is procedure, the OR staff chatted amiably with me while the anesthesia did its magic. Vacations was the topic.

… and then I was somewhere else, not in pain, but profoundly uncomfortable, with unrelenting pressure behind my eyes. I reached up and began to massage my besieged eyeballs, really working on them, when someone said in an alarmed voice, “Don’t rub your eyes!” Apparently that was not the right thing to do.

That post-op time is a little hazy for me, but the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas got to meet the esteemed Doctor Carter, and was also impressed. OSMR&HBI reports that Dr. Carter used the phrase “all kinds of wonky in there” to describe the state of my under-face, but also she said that the surgery had gone well.

In my nose at that point were two splints, tied together by a suture through my septum. The splints had airways built in, but let’s not fool ourselves — all that blood and mucus was going to get in there and plug those suckers.

[Get-poor-quick aside: how hard would it be to create a tool to allow the patient at home to safely clear those airways? It would have made a huge difference to me.]

Home, I settled onto the couch, propped myself up, and that became my home base for the next four nights. For the first two nights, sleep was pretty much impossible. I could put my head in a comfortable position, but when I dozed off my tongue would block my airway and I would wake up after a few seconds in a suffocation panic, or I could tilt my head back, cpr-dummy-style — but them my throat was so open I would dry out after a few breaths and begin to cough (I wasn’t supposed to cough).

Eventually the inflammation lessened and I was able to get at least some air through my nose. That resulted in a suffocation emergency after a few minutes, rather than a few seconds, and that made a big difference. Never was I so glad to get two hours of sleep in a single night.

In the kitchen three days ago, I opened the container for my traditional second cup of the morning, a blackberry and sage infused tea, and… I smelled it. I mean, I really smelled it. Even with my nose stuffed with plugged-up hardware, I smelled it. Later, I ate a very-ripe banana and it tasted weird. Like no very-ripe banana I had eaten before. I almost chucked it when I realized that it wasn’t the banana that was different.

I got pretty excited. I had just been looking forward to breathing better and maybe not having a wracking cough 10% of the time. I had not considered that my actual sense of smell might be enhanced.

I mentioned that to my boss via chat, and his response was, “You should grab an IPA, really test that baby out.”

Which tonight I have done. I went in to have the splints removed this afternoon, and Dr. Carter regaled me with stories of just how messed up my nasal structure had been. “It was crazy up there!” she said. She described bony masses, chiseling, sinuous septums, and a bunch of other stuff. “How have you made it this long without having that fixed?”

I shrugged at that. How was I to know that breathing could be so easy?

Because holy dang, when the splints came out, the breathing commenced. And the smelling just got better. And the IPA? Magnificent.

The Places I’ve Made

If I could get paid for the settings I’ve imagined, I’d be retired now. I’ve spent more than one November bouncing around a world I’ve imagined, looking for a story.

Remembering Topstar

Perhaps the most extreme example of that was Remembering Topstar. The setting is awesome. It’s a planet, you see, that’s quite a bit warmer than ours, so that only the poles can support life. At one pole there are people. They don’t know day and night, they only know seasons. Eventually they start to wonder what (or who) might be at the other pole.

I wrote it as an adventure story, and I think that was the right call. But it never found its mojo.

Setting details:

Metal is rare (a colleague suggested the planet’s sun be a red giant, an older star, which would mean there was less iron around when the planet formed). The traveling party brings with it a massive Foucault’s Pendulum to measure their latitude, and it represents an immense investment, comparable to us building a Superconducting Supercollider.

As the party moves south, wind and rain and jungle and creatures that live in the jungle get very, very, nasty. Then there’s the entirely devastating moment when the scientists with their pendulum tell you that you’ve barely left your front porch.

What a great place to put a story! Maybe I need to imagine that setting, then imagine Jules Verne growing up in that setting, and then write the story he would. A science fiction adventure story written by someone who lived on that world.

Glass Archipelago

Then there is Glass Archipelago. Miami, not long from now, when southern Florida is under water. Some of the towers have fallen, providing breakwaters protecting the remaining ones from the ravages of the superstorms that sweep across the Atlantic. Each tower stands as a city-state, ruled by a feudal overlord.

The oceans are almost completely dead of complex life; algae blooms have grown to just be the new normal and the water has no oxygen. While you might think aquatic mammals would still be all right, none of them are vegetarian, not even baleen whales. They all are gone.

The buildings make their living harvesting algae and sending it off to processing plants on the new US coastline, hundreds of miles away.

Setting Details:

Not too far under the ocean’s surface the city of Miami still exists, and there’s a good living to be made scavenging. There is another culture, the rafters, who live on giant rafts and make a living skin-diving for loot.

There are naval bases, nuclear power plants, medical research facilities, and on and on, all now lying under the ocean. Also, some of the algae produces serious hallucinogens.

My attempts at a story in this setting so far centered on a rafter, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good vector. Special bonus: living in the open on a raft her whole life, she’s got pretty serious claustrophobia.

Math House

Which brings us to Math House. Isaac Asimov once imagined a science he called “Future History”, in which the movement of large enough populations could be predicted statistically. The great Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire and using Big Math created the conditions for the following dark ages to be as short and benign as possible.

But what if the Galactic Empire had discovered Future History first? Would they not use it as a tool to prolong their dominance? Would not statistics become a tool of the oppressor?

Yeah, that’s probably not a hypothetical anymore. In the Math House world, math unsanctioned by the government has been outlawed. When math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.

There are the titular math houses, underground hideaways where the art is advanced. When the cops bust them, they do their best to convince the authorities that they are just watching the (required) television and doing drugs. Drugs are not legal, but they are sold by extralegal government arms, and not buying drugs will put a red flag in your file.

The math houses advertise themselves to potential members by posting elaborate puzzles embedded in graffiti. The clues will be scattered all over the city and it will take some serious math to work it out. If you can solve the puzzle and get to the right door with the right greeting, you have proved yourself worthy.

There are tiers to the math houses; finding the truly elite houses requires “publishing” through graffiti something new or innovative.

The best part of this world is that the cops who hunt the math-heads have to learn a lot of math. Eventually each of them realizes that their own success puts them on the suspect list.

Seems like a story in this world almost writes itself. Apparently not for me.

The End

I’m not sure this one belongs on the list. The world is blasted. The Armageddon wasn’t (entirely) nuclear, it happened when wizards went into a bare-knuckle brawl and wiped each other out, along with the planet. Now there is almost no fertile soil and crazy-ass creatures roam the spaces between, starved to the point of insanity.

Now there is just pain hunger and the occasional artifact, showing up when it is least welcome.

I did start to put a story in this setting, or at the very least a character study. The narrative gets rolling with what I have only now realized is the only actual human in the story dying.

Everything is poison. Everything is dead. Everything wants to kill you. Which is all just the way of things, no big deal, unless you are motivated by love.

The Garden

This year’s effort. Although I found some story possibilities late in the process, this is one of the most complete worlds I have ever built. Earth is gone (probably), and the last of humanity are really expensive hitchhikers riding alien battle fleets.

The core observation is that reptiles are much better-suited for interstellar space travel than mammals are. In this world, reptiles can be put into cryosleep, allowing them to slumber through the years of interstellar travel, while mammals, and humans in particular, must live through those years.

It creates an entirely different view of time between the two allies.

Why do the reptiles go to the extravagant expense of having humans on their ship? Because when shit gets crazy the mammals can burn brightly and reveal solutions. The reptiles, with their long view, are consumate strategists, but humans are the master tacticians. Decades of planning will go into each battle, but once all the shit is going down, having a mammal in charge is an enormous tactical advantage.

Historical Interlude:
I’ve been led to believe that George Washington was a great planner and logistics guy. However, word on the street is that he really sucked at adapting his plans as the battle unfolded. In my story, the lizards are like George Washington, and the partnership with humanity has given our favorite reptilian conquerors a massive advantage over their also-George-Washington rivals. The humans bring a fluidity to battle they have never known before.

Every human on those boats is there to help their hosts win battles, and negotiations, and perhaps, (unofficially) political rivalries. Every human is measured by the service they can provide to the ship. Perhaps fifteen percent of conceptions reach adulthood, and that’s just the way it is.

As a setting, it’s a tight, closed world where tiny things become big things, and so the powers that be work overtime to prevent the tiny things. Seems like a volatile world to write a story in. Volatile means interesting.

In conclusion

If you need a place to set your action, call me.

Programming and Pocket Universes

Programming is an odd activity. The goal of the exercise is to build something completely abstract that somehow does something useful. To build this abstract network of symbols and interactions, one uses a rigidly-defined set of linguistic constructs.

On many occasions I have declared, with a level of absoluteness proportional to my blood alcohol level, that good programmers are spatial thinkers. That programming is inherently visual. But the thing is, it’s not visual at all, because physical vision is bound to the real world.

Geeks corral the abstract concepts and in their heads build fantastic frameworks that only they can “see”. The deepest part of the programming is often done with boxes and lines on a whiteboard. The implementation is just details.

But those flat whiteboard representations don’t fully capture the life of the system. And we talk about the “problem space”, which is a rough definition of the world this software is supposed to improve, and a host of other spaces that aren’t like the space Captain Kirk flies through, or even the space Martin Short navigates. It is a space entirely in the heads of the people working on the project, and maybe not even all of them see it.

But it is beautiful in its own way. That space is not bound by physical al law; it is bound by the requirements of the project: rules created by some guy in a suit who wants to sell more used cars or by some lady in jeans who wants to identify people at risk of heart attacks. For each problem the programmer builds a world, a new space, unbound by that old, “traditional” space that has finite dimensions and entropy all those other distractions.

Programmers create small, specific universes. Pocket Universes. Most of those universes would be pretty boring to you; as you listen to Jane Geek at your class reunion go on about how she streamlined insurance claims, remember this: even if Jane Geek didn’t create a new universe, she sure as hell improved on someone else’s crappy universe (there are myriad crappy universes now). She is right to feel proud. How many Universes have you improved lately?

1

Gimme Swift

As a computer programmer, I live in a familiar cycle: Write some code, then run it repeatedly to work out all the kinks. There is a moment when you hit “run” for the first time, already anticipating what the errors might be, thinking about next steps when the error inevitably presents itself.

It’s been weird writing server-side Swift. I do my hacking, adding a feature or refactoring or whatever, I make the compiler happy, then it’s time to get to the nitty-gritty. I roll up my sleeves, start the program… and it works. Just like that. I run the tests against the other systems. It works.

It’s like you’re all ready for a fight and the other guy doesn’t show up. NOW what are you going to do?

Swift can be annoying with how hard-assed it is about certain things, but that picky compiler that sometimes forces long-winded syntax is like that really picky English teacher who you realize after the fact gave you a command of words you didn’t have before. If you have a null pointer in Swift, you went out of your way to create it.

Programming languages exist for the convenience of humans, not machines. So if you can make a language that makes it harder for humans to make a mistake, why wouldn’t you?

Man I enjoy writing code in Swift. Of the four languages I use regularly, Swift is hands-down the one I’m most productive with, even though I’ve been using the others for far longer. And just today I remembered that functions could return tuples, and I was like, “Damn!” all over again, thinking how I can shrink my interfaces.

That and a performance profile comparable to C (each is better for certain sorts of operations), and you have a language with some mojo. This ain’t JavaScript, homey.

Most of my days are consumed writing code in other languages (at least for now), and what strikes me every day is that the mistakes I make would not have been possible in Swift. Think of that!

3

My Visit to One of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Most of the top ten most expensive buildings in the world are opulent resorts or mighty skyscrapers. There is a nuclear power plant in the mix, and then there’s Apple Park. The new headquarters for my company doesn’t soar up to scrape the ionosphere’s belly, and it doesn’t drip with ridiculous lavishness. The cost came not from coating everything with gold but from building to design tolerances that the construction industry simply doesn’t do.

To make everything fit so tightly in earthquake country first meant resting the whole damn thing on shimmy-shake pads. Thinking about that puts the scale into perspective: The building is a ring; the whole of the new football stadium for the San Francisco 49’ers fits in the “garden” inside the ring.

When I first got through security and walked up to the building, the soft morning rain and the sun at my back produced a rainbow that seemed to emerge from the middle of the giant ring. One prone to symbolism might find that portentous. I took a picture, but I can’t show it to you. (I might have cheated but the picture’s not that great.)

Inside, it feels like the future. Like the fictional sets of many, many science fiction movies, but real, and… functioning. Considering that this whole thing was built on so many simulations, so many never-been-done-but-it-should-work-probably ideas, the whole thing has come together quite nicely.

I was on the third floor and I stepped out of the elevator to see the treetops of the cafeteria. The cafeteria was indoors at that moment (there are stunningly massive sliding glass doors — four stories tall — to open the cafeteria to the outside on good days), but it still felt arboreal.

One thing that enhanced that feeling was the near invisibility of the fence at the edge of the balcony looking down. Glass, clean, almost invisible, making me feel like I was floating over the space below. Happily, I am not prone to vertigo.

It is a building that glorifies glass. The stories you may have heard about distracted employees running into walls is true. Glass and pale cool stone define this quiet world.

I walked through the center of the ring, the path making satisfying crunching sounds beneath my feet. I saw places that had not been ready for the recent rains, standing water on top of newly-planted ground cover. And there is no place in the area built with Apple’s beer bashes in mind. (*WHAAT?*) Yet, there was a serenity in those rolling hills that I really enjoyed. I can imagine a monastery feeling that way.

When we started our stroll through the center of the ring the sky was offering a gentle sprinkle, but by the time we got to the path to the duck pond it was dumping rain and I was more inclined to get back inside. From the organic chaos of grass and trees and rain to the quiet, controlled world of glass and stone once more.

The people I was meeting with — now residents of this place — pointed out spots where trim was missing or small finishing tasks were incomplete. I imagine it will be a year or more before the miles-long to-do list is completed.

My group will not be moving to the new campus; even before ground was struck Apple had outgrown its new headquarters. It holds something like 13,000 people — similar to the Hewlett Packard campus that was razed to make room — but where the old buildings stood between parking lots, the Apple Campus leaves much of the real estate for parkland which I look forward to exploring. Apple was named for the local orchards; in part it was Apple’s success that destroyed them. Nice to see at least a few acres of them come back.

I may not work over there, but I will be finding excuses to visit.

2

So, I’m Married Now

Yep, my best friend in the whole world, my sweetie, my soul mate and I tied the knot today. I’m more than a little pleased by that.

18

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.

2

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.

4

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.”

 

1

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.

3

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.