The great review of Great House

Rebecca Goldstein reviews Great House in today’s New York Times Book Review.

What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of “The History of Love”? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. So, for example, here is George Weisz describing how, when his clients speak of their lives before the war, “between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. . . . I see his mother’s legs move about the kitchen, and the crumbs the housekeeper’s broom missed.” Those crumbs are an artist’s true touch. They demonstrate how Krauss is able, despite the formidable remove of the central characters and the mournfulness of their telling, to ground “Great House” in the shock of immediacy.

40mm Leica Summicron-C: The best cheap Leica lens

Steve Huff recently posted his choice for the best budget Leica lens, the 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M. It’s the second least expensive lens in Leica’s current lineup, and I agree that it’s the best bargain new M-mount lens you can get from Leica.[1. The company’s least expensive new lens, the 50mm Summarit-M doesn’t quite render as nicely as the 35mm version from this line. However, it’s still a bargain, and you find find used copies of the 50mm Summarit for as low as $600 on eBay.] However, one of the great things about shooting Leica is that there’s a robust secondary market for lenses. And for the price of a new 35mm Summarit, you can purchase a faster f/2.0 used 35mm or 50mm Summicron. You can even get the pre-ASPH version of the 35mm lens that people refer to as the “Bokeh King.” In fact, there are several used Leica lenses you can purchase for the same cost of or less  than a brand new Summarit.

My favorite, and what I believe to be the best bargain lens for any camera system is the 40mm f/2.0 Leica Summicron-C. This lens was made for the Leica CL, and you can get used copies for $250-$400 depending on condition. (Note that the 40mm Minolta Rokkor-M is, essentially, the same lens with its own nickname, the “water lens.”) However, it will, contrary to what you might hear, work on any modern M-mount body. It renders very much like the 35mm Summicron but can be had for about 75% less. Put it on an M8, and it effectively becomes a 50mm lens with the 1.33x crop factor. The only problem is that most M bodies do not have 40mm framelines. However, it’s simple to modify the 40mm lens to bring up the 35mm framelines, which are more accurate and even precisely so on the original M8.

Moreover, the 40mm is probably the lightest, smallest lens Leica has made in the past 40 years. Mounted on a camera body, it makes for a very small, perfect package. The filter size is a little odd; a modern 39mm filter won’t screw all the way in, but it attaches well enough, and I’ve never had any problems with my filter coming loose or falling out. Finally, this lens works quite well as a portrait lens with the 2x crop factor of the Micro Four-Thirds system. If you’re looking to purchase a copy, check eBay and KEH. They both often have these lenses available, though you may pay a premium on KEH.

Here are some sample photos from the 40mm Summicron-C.

Against metrics, for art

Jed Perl’s piece in The New Republic is too short, but makes all the right points about why the arts matter and why being interested in things you know nothing about matters. It also reminded me of how so much media, so much of the online world assumes that its audience is stupid and incapable of handling or enjoying difficulty.

Rediscovering film with the Leica M7

Six years ago I gave up shooting film entirely and made my transition to digital photography complete. In the process, I moved from an SLR with nice lenses to a series of point-and-shoots whose convenience, I thought, compensated for their subpar image quality. Eventually, I gave those cameras up and moved on to more robust digital cameras…a couple of which have inspired me quite a bit. So last week when I had the chance to shoot a couple rolls of film with a Leica M7, I wasn’t expecting much, having not shot any film since 2004.

I took the camera to cocktail night at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a fun event where admission gets you unlimited drinks and appetizers from some of the best bartenders and chefs in San Francisco. This is the organization that puts on the event, and I encourage everyone to attend, if they do another one.

Before I could go or shoot anything, I had to load up the film, which is quite easy. Some people complain about it being more difficult than it is in other cameras with a rear door that flips out. Perhaps, this matters for critical jobs where you need to reload film very, very quickly, but it didn’t bother me at all, nor did I find loading the film slow in any way. I’ll have a video of the process up later.

A few years ago in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane described the sound of a Leica shutter as a seductive kiss. I had never handled a film Leica M series camera before last week, and I have to say that Lane’s ostensibly cheesy observation is dead-on. After I loaded my first roll of Kodak Portra 400VC in the camera and advanced it a couple frames, I thought there was something wrong with the shutter. “Why isn’t it making more noise?” I asked myself. Seduction begins with a little mystery, I suppose.

Handling the camera was great, especially with one of Gordy’s wrist straps. It just feels absolutely right when you’re holding it. And I had mounted on it my favorite lens of all time, Leica’s 50mm f/2.0 Summicron. To test it out before going to the Ferry Building, I took it to Elite Sports soccer store on Haight, where Boone and I watched Spain defeat Germany in the World Cup.

One of the great things about the Leica M cameras is that you can shoot them at very low shutter speeds—even with the 50mm lens, I can reliably get shots as slow as 1/10 second. It’s like having a faster lens or better high ISO performance or just, generally, an extra stop! This comes in quite useful indoors where light is usually low. With the exception of the first shot below on the street, I don’t think any of these were taken at speeds above 1/50 of a second. Normally, on an SLR with a 50mm lens mounted, that would be the minimum shutter speed that someone could expect to use—here, it was my maximum shutter speed.

Another thing I like about the M7 is the viewfinder. It’s bright and the focusing patch is fairly easy to align in most conditions. The camera I was using had a viewfinder with 0.72x magnification. As I don’t find much use for wide angle lenses, I think a 0.85x viewfinder would suit me even better.[1. I tried out someone’s M3 last weekend. It has a 0.92x viewfinder, which means that things appear nearly life-sized when you look through it. That would be perfect for shooting 50mm lenses.]

Looking through the viewfinder, I was able to wait until I saw something I wanted to photograph, whether it was someone walking through the frame or an already framed subject looking towards the camera or smiling. The viewfinder is easily the brightest on any camera I’ve ever used, so I feel like my perspective on a given scene is not particularly compromised even though I’m looking through it. Conversely, when I’m looking through an SLR’s viewfinder, I feel less a part of my surroundings. When I’m looking at a liveview LCD viewfinder on the back of a digital camera, I feel like I’m somehow watching a cropped, delayed, and pixelated version of what’s really happening in front of me. Not so with the M7.

Because I was shooting film—expensive film that would need to be developed at additional cost—I was patient waiting for shots I was anticipating. I tried to avoid wasting a single frame, although I inevitably did because of user error, though not user intent. I spent more time thinking about what I was doing rather than blindly snapping away.[2. Okay, I admit I took one shot from the hip. It didn’t work out so well, and knowing the odds that that would be the case, I regretted it almost immediately.]

The big advantage of the M7 over other M series cameras is that it has an aperture priority mode. I found this quite useful, as I could focus my concentration on controlling the depth of field and framing of my shots. Some Leica purists eschew the aperture priority mode, but I think it’s a nice convenience. Not using it or overriding it is easy on the M7, which has Leica’s traditional shutter speed dial.

Shooting, with a Leica, as many others have noted, makes you slow down. It makes you more careful about composition and exposure. And shooting with film compounds those effects. In general, I’ve spent the past few months trying to regain two abilities I feel I’ve lost in the Internet age—that to be patient—to delay gratification—and that to concentrate on something for an extended period of time.

Digital photography conditions us to expect instant gratification, providing us with instant previews of our images. In some cases, this is useful and helps us get the shot we wanted. However, more often it’s simply a distraction from doing the thing we should be focused on—taking photographs. Is there any other activity in which people so immediately evaluate their performance with such scrutiny as photographers checking the LCD image previews on their cameras? It’s like watching an instant replay of yourself walking down the street. Perhaps, it’s useful if you’re, say, recovering from an injury, but, probably, it will just make you miss the door that’s about to open right in your face.

When I had the M7, all I was thinking about was taking pictures. I was fully engaged with the process because it’s all the M7 could do. I couldn’t change the ISO or the saturation or the scene mode, and I definitely couldn’t review my images. How difficult it has become to engage so fully with an activity, to limit yourself thus! And yet, who would disagree that doing so is more valuable and memorable than not?

Moreover, the M7 makes this process entirely pleasurable. It’s small enough to take anywhere, and, combined with one of Gordy’s wrist straps, can stay in your hand for hours at a time, unlike an SLR. It feels like a well-made object because it is one. Everything from focusing the lens to advancing the film and releasing the shutter feels completely, wonderfully satisfying in a way that no other camera I’ve used before does. The shutter is the quietest I’ve heard. Approach a scene, lift the camera to your eye, focus, frame, kiss.

It isn’t just the process that blew me away; the results were awesome. I waited with anticipation for the local lab to develop and print my film. What would it look like? What surprises lay in store? I can say that I felt my patience was rewarded. Even though their content is boring, the prints I got back from the lab had a contrast and vividness that makes them look not only unlike digital images, but cinematic in a way that I absolutely love—rich, textured, almost tactile. Unfortunately, getting to that result means paying a lab for developing and printing, which is why I don’t think I can shoot exclusively on film. My digital color management and workflow isn’t quite yet at the point where I can use film scans to produce prints that are as good as those I received from the lab.

Despite the costs, the joy I had shooting with the M7 and the cinematic quality of the prints I got from the roll of Portra have convinced me that film still has a place in my photography. Now to find a suitable M-mount body for myself—[3. The Zeiss Ikon and the Leica M6 both seem like viable options.]

Here are some images I scanned with my Nikon CoolScan. Unfortunately, this line of film scanners from Nikon is no longer available, and prices on the secondary market are high. My friend CK over at 39 East Photography uses the Epson V700, which he highly recommends and which can can larger batches of negative strips than the Nikon, saving you time. And we all know that time is money.

Next time I’ll share my thoughts on the Leica S2, which I was able to borrow from Leica for a weekend when I was in France earlier this year.

Here’s Lori waiting for the bus to go downtown.

Boone and Eric at cocktail night. The print of this image had a very cinematic feel to it, which I liked.

Boone at home.

I even liked the images that showed more of the film grain.

This bruschetta was very good.

Some of the drinks contained odd ingredients, such as sausage, beef stock, mango, and sandwiches!

This man sat next to me to watch the Spain vs. Germany game at the soccer store on Haight.

This boy watches his team get dismissed from the World Cup moments after his mom had purchased a Germany soccer jersey for him.

I even shot a roll of Kodak Tri-X, and made this print in the darkroom. Unfortunately, I was too lazy to do the work necessary to make a more contrasty print.

One final image of the M7.

How to show invisible files in Mac OS X

If you ever need to view invisible files in the Finder, open the Terminal application, type the following, and hit enter. If you want to hide invisible files again, repeat the process and change YES to NO.

defaults write AppleShowAllFiles YES


Barriers to entry and start-ups

I’ve sat through more start-up pitches than I would like to admit over the past two years, and there’s one question that invariably comes up during every one: “What are the barriers to entry?” In other words, What will prevent someone else from doing exactly what you’re doing? It sounds great, right? Like, barriers to entry should be a good thing that every business should strive for. The problem is that the entire concept is premised on businesses operating in a monopoly environment. What people are really asking is, “Will you have a monopoly over your market?” And we all know monopolies are bad, right?

Look at industries with high barriers to entry and compare their stocks with those of other industries. You’ll find that those industries with high barriers to entry—automobiles, airlines, pharmaceuticals—have consistently underperformed the American stock market as a whole in recent times. Compare these industries with Internet businesses, which have fairly low barriers to entry. Could it be because the absence of barriers to entry drives competition, which drives innovation, which drives growth, which drives—well, you get the idea.

If you’re evaluating a business with high barriers to entry, you can almost assume that it’s doing to be slow, boring, and not particularly innovative. Fortunately, what many venture capitalists mean when they ask about barriers to entry is, “Do you have a patent?”

Let’s take Apple and the iPhone as an example here. The iPhone has been successful because Apple did something better than anyone else. They weren’t the first to make a smartphone or to make a phone with downloadable apps or email or maps. They just did it better. That Apple holds patents for things like multi-touch doesn’t mean that HTC and other companies can’t make smart/app phones. It doesn’t mean that they can’t design a new category of personal communication device that’s even more compelling and desirable to consumers than the iPhone. In fact, it suggests the very opposite—that to compete with the iPhone, you’ll need to make something better. This is not a barrier to entry, it’s an invitation to innovate.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-06-12

Too much Sex (and the City): a review of SATC2 featuring Susan Sontag

There are many cringe-inducing moments in the second Sex and the City film—the poor jokes, the cheap moralizing, Samantha waving around condoms and giving the finger to an angry mob of locals in Abu Dhabi—but the one that really got me came at the very end of the film when Carrie places her latest book—its subject is marriage, and the New Yorker pans it complete with a cartoon drawing of Carrie Bradshaw—on a shelf next to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation in her apartment. It’s the same Picador paperback edition of the Sontag book hat I purchased when I was fresh out of college and living in New York. It’s an excellent collection with two very well-known essays, the first of which I’ll mention is “Notes on Camp.” The appearance of the Sontag volume finalized what was already obvious: SATC2 went too far—it was Camp that acknowledged itself as such, it went beyond Camp so as to be meaningless.

Sontag’s most famous lines on Camp: “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” and “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” The HBO series of SATC always had some qualities of Camp about it. The characters, while developed over time, remain, with the possible exception of Carrie, archetypes. The jokes and situations were often clichéd and predictable. But the show always had what Sontag considers an essential quality of true Camp: it was dead serious. And that it maintained that seriousness throughout six seasons is what allowed audiences to love it unequivocally, to feel connected to and care about the characters.

I confess to the potentially unforgivable sin of being a straight, white male who fell for the show. I appreciated Carrie’s outfits as much as someone in that position could, which is to say that I thought she looked interesting and I now know the name Manolo Blahnik, but I wouldn’t stand a chance of picking a pair of his shoes from a lineup even if the other suspects came from Nike. Although I’ve lived in New York City twice, SATC probably did more than any other media to shape my idea of New York—the way I think about the City when I’m not there. I mentioned clichés, and it occurs to me that there are good and bad ways to employ clichés in art: you can use them out of laziness because you can’t come up with anything better to resolve a conflict or a silence or you can use them to give a universal quality to some experience, some emotion. SATC the series did both, but more often it did the latter, and sometimes it did so extremely well—nailing the perfect pitch of a line or a break-up or a fight that you, as an audience member with a history of relationships, couldn’t deny of its elemental truth. Yes, sometimes SATC was Camp, but sometimes it wasn’t, and when it wasn’t it was real and relatable and brilliant.

In the show and into the first movie, there were real things at stake for the characters. Sometimes they were disappointed: think of the end of season four—Carrie’s engagement has ended and Big has decamped to the other side of the country, Miranda has become a mother on her own, Charlotte is divorced, and Samantha’s boyfriend has cheated on her. A happy ending was, by no means, assured, and so we watched on for two more seasons.[1. I actually haven’t seen most of these seasons, but I feel I’ve seen enough to have a perspective.] Even in the first movie, it was unclear whether Big and Carrie would ever marry or see each other again after he left her at the altar. It might have carried the prefix of melo-, but this was dramatic tension. Perhaps, as a novice fan, my viewing here is naïve. That, I’ll admit. But I heard the biggest gasps produced by the second film’s plot, and they came when Carrie accidentally left her passport in the stall of a shoe vendor in Abu Dhabi. Did anyone ever doubt she would get it back?

As for the film’s plot, there isn’t much of it. Each character begins the film with a dilemma: Can Miranda have a fulfilling career and her family? Has Carrie’s marriage become staid and stale? Will Samantha maintain her sex drive and sanity with the onset of menopause? Is Charlotte’s husband cheating with their bra-less nanny? That said nanny turns out to be a lesbian at the movie’s conclusion tells you everything you need to know about how low the stakes are in this film—for the characters and, consequently, for the audience.[2. The absence of plot doesn’t bother me. In fact, I tend to find plot cheap and distracting from character development. However, the absence of any sense of risk in this film is inexcusable.]

Before that and other similarly simple resolutions, the girls spend the bulk of the two-plus-hour film in Abu Dhabi thanks to Samantha and a potential hotel client of hers. They stay in a $20,000 per night suite and have individual, chauffeured Maybachs to drive them around until things go wrong and they offend the locals—at least, Samantha offends the locals. Excess is an understatement. Excess is up, but because seriousness is out, the film misses the mark of being even Camp—it’s too awful to be good.[3. Cf. Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” She might as well have cited Carrie’s gold Louboutins in SATC2.] Carrie runs into her ex- Aidan in the souk, they have dinner, they kiss, she runs away. The kiss is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it feels entirely inconsequential. She confesses it over the phone to an impassive Big, but of course he takes her back at the end shortly after she returns to New York and moments before she puts her book next to Sontag’s.

Other reviewers wrong-headedly interpret the placement of Against Interpretation as a nod to the women’s liberation movement, in embarrassing contradiction to the film’s message, as they see it. First, if you read Sontag’s journals, it’s obvious that she was just about as dependent as anyone alive on love and affection and relationships. Second, the title essay of Against Interpretation argues against the marshaling of film and literature and art to serve political causes and for experiencing art as what it is and not what one thinks it might represent. Therefore, I find many of the discussions about SATC and feminism to be entirely off base, especially when it comes to this second film.[4. Jessica Bennett at Newsweek takes this the farthest: “But it’s still sad to see the characters go from trailblazers to conformists, suddenly telling us that work and child-rearing actually don’t mix, that it’s a bling on a ring finger that will prove a union to the world, and that we must worry—no matter how stable a marriage—that a husband will cheat. It’s fiction, we know. But these characters, like the lubrication they inspired, helped legions of women embrace their own fierceness—and here they are, 12 years later, nothing more than stereotype and cliché.”] Yes, three of the girls end up married and yes, the other, Samantha—big surprise!—is on her back at the end of the film. But to focus on this is to miss the point of the film: it’s an extension of the SATC brand.

And perhaps, it’s unfortunate that such a lackluster screenplay will still succeed at the box office by trading on that brand name.[5. Cf. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American Public.”] But for a certain set of fans—those who liked the show more for the clothes than for the content—there’s evidence that this film is actually enjoyable. And by evidence, I mean the oohs and ahhs emitted by girls in the Marina theater on the film’s opening night each time the characters appeared in new outfits—or, to appropriately place the emphasis: new outfits appeared on the characters.[6. When Lori and I left the theater, there were more girls lined up outside for the next showing, girls who would inevitably ooh and ahh in unison at the same scenes because that is what people who stand in line for a film will do. The Marina seems to attract these sorts of people, whom we find hilarious, which is why we went there.] And there’s nothing wrong with a little fun, it just that this sort of fun isn’t really for me.[7. I recently heard Sarah Jessica Parker recount, in an interview, the story of HBO’s refusal to produce the first SATC film. She was convinced, however, as she proceeded to shop around the concept, that the film could be an event for people to get together. Is this a complete dismissal of any artistic value or is the community that the SATC brand created, at the very heart of artistic value? Is it not the very thing that a director or a writer aspires to, to bring people together around her work?] Or rather, I care little about clothes and a lot about character; if it were the inverse, I might have found this film something other than a disappointment.

One day a week: Ann Curry on photography

I watched this segment when it aired on the Today show a couple months ago. In it, Ann Curry discusses her passion for photography and gives the best advice you’ll receive all day: “All of us can find peace even in the chaos of our own lives if we can find that one thing we care so much about that it helps us breathe more deeply. For me, it’s taking pictures.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that she shoots with an M9.


Listen to Tracey Thorn’s new album, “Love and Its Opposite”

This new record from Tracey Thorn will be replacing Katell Keineg’s At the Mermaid Parade in my stereo for at least the next week. Click here to order a copy. Or click here to hear an interview with Thorn on NPR. I was thrilled to see Sasha Frere-Jones’ review of the album in this week’s New Yorker and a gardening column by Thorn herself on a blog called Caught by the River.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-20

  • "…these days, it seems, the really unhappy people are working in offices." #
  • This video's form mirrors my personal motto: "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" (via @GinaGarzaNYC) #
  • On @MLBNetwork John Hart just said Kenshin Kawakami has "Asian hesitation" and that the Braves bullpen is full of "Irish rogues." #racism? #
  • Michael Lewis's The Big Short is the biggest disparity of great writer, awful paper.What were the colleagues of @norton_fiction thinking?;-) #

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-13

  • Is there a translated work of literature that readers consider to actually be better than the original work? #
  • It's a testament to Sushi Zone that its waitresses waited 30 minutes for seats at the bar on their day off tonight. #
  • “[It] is in failure and through failure, that the subject constitutes itself." –Michel Houellebecq #
  • Tracey Thorn's "All the Divorces" from her new album isn't a pop song, it's a panorama of adulthood's disappointment: #

Hear Tracey Thorn’s “Oh, the Divorces!” from “Love and Its Opposite”

More than, perhaps, any other songwriter, I’ve found Tracey Thorn’s songs from the past three decades to be consistently evocative. Every album has something that ignites my memory or feeling, and her new one is no exception. Love and Its Opposite is due in May, and its first track, “Oh, the Divorces!” isn’t a pop song; it’s a panorama of adulthood’s disappointment. Click here to download it as an MP3.

Tracey Thorn / ‘Oh, The Divorces!’ by buzzinfly

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Yanidel street photography Aperture presets


I’m a big fan of Yanidel’s photo blog of his street photography in Paris. I’ve long tried to get a similar look to his photos by decreasing the desaturation slider and then selectively increasing the saturation of colors or spots in my photos. However, I’m nowhere near as good at it as he is. I recently posted on DPReview’s forum about this issue, and Ian Wood responded to me by creating a few Aperture presents that achieve a baseline for Yanidel’s look. You can download the Yanidel Street Photography presets for Aperture. I tested them out tonight, and you can see the results here.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-03-06

  • What a comeback by Finland in the Bronze Medal game! Nice to see Selanne still out there. #
  • Where are the technologists who oppose this personal branding trend? #
  • That was the best hockey game I've ever seen. (No, the perfect ending didn't hurt.) #
  • RT @paidContent Mags To Their Digital Units: Drop Dead (This is a deliberately provocative + misleading headline.) #
  • My friend Russell did a much better job than @paidContent in covering the "Power of Print" campaign: #
  • Before today, this was clearly the best hockey game I had ever seen: #
  • This is my favorite Neil Young song. #ClosingCeremony #
  • The USPS complains about its losses and yet hires Accenture, BCG, and McKinsey. There's its problem right there. #
  • I just finished reading Patti Smith's tremendous and tremendously beautiful memoir, "Just Kids," from @eccobooks #
  • My photos from yesterday's protest at the Civic Center in San Francisco. Lots of @atcal kids were there! #march4 #

Adam Gopnik on Canada’s gold

I’ll be writing about Canada’s hockey victory at the Olympics shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this piece and the following line by Adam Gopnik on the subject:

Anything that depends on a single bounce or giveaway, though it can fairly be called victory, can’t really be called a triumph. But anyone who didn’t understand the role of hockey in Canadian life at least got a glimpse yesterday.