Monthly Archives: July 2005

Camera club at a turning point

Hemlock Gorge, NewtonLast year I went to California Dreamin’: Camera Clubs and the Pictorial Photography Tradition, an exhibit at the Boston University Art Gallery. The period it covered, about 1910-1930, was an interesting time for American photography. Pictorialism — the self-conscious style so popular at the turn of the century with its gauzy ambiance, classical references, and overtly artistic aspirations — was being replaced by “straight photography,” with its modern, formal, occasionally deadpan images that embraced the camera’s ability to render reality in sharp detail. Looking at the pictures in the exhibit, I was struck by a tension between these two styles that must have made for interesting discussions in some camera clubs and shattered others.

Though the Newton Camera Club is nowhere near splintering, it’s clearly at a point where change is inevitable. As with the transition from pictorialism to straight photography in the ’10s and ’20s and the later transition from a black-and-white photographic tradition to color in the ’50s and ’60s, our group is feeling the effects of changes in technology and photographic sensibilities.

The NCC mailing list has been almost aflame recently with discussions of whether and how to continue the monthly slide competitions, how to incorporate digital photography into club events, and how to cope with manipulation and “truth” in digital imaging — essentially the role of a modern camera club. To paraphrase Marshall, photography and our camera club are big tents that can accomodate many diverse viewpoints; but that doesn’t mean we all enjoy doing the same things, which has led to some dissatisfaction.

On the whole, though, I think our club is quite resilient and will weather the challenges. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any film purists in the club who disparage digital, even though many of us still use film; we’re beyond that very 1990s debate. After a couple of years of borrowing digital projectors from various members’ companies, we’re starting to ponder seriously how to afford a projector with good color fidelity. We’re talking about the value of competitions and whether they still fill a need in the club. Lately there’s been an intense (but genial) discussion of whether anything goes in competitions with respect to manipulations, if Photoshop creates an unfair playing field between film and digital, and some rather existential discussions about truth in photography. As someone who thought the club moribund at a number of points over the last couple of year, all this Sturm und Drang is quite refreshing.

The issue of photographic truth — even more than the disruptive technologies of digital imaging — is, in my opinion, driving the slow (sometimes glacially slow) progression from “modern” straight photography to a more “postmodern” style that borrows the sharp, deadpan qualities of straight photography but infuses it with an ironic acknowledgement that our art is, in many ways, a manipulative lie not unlike a very good joke or urban legend.

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Marshall’s blog

Readers might be interested in Marshall Goff’s blog. Marshall is quite a good photographer and is turning into a superlative printmaker; and on many occasions we have shared confusion about how to drum up sales. If you have ideas, let us know.

Everyone’s blog deserves a little free publicity now and again.

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Mongolia

After reading the Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, it does sound like an interesting place to visit — especially if you’re into spending a week on horseback or mountain-biking into the hinterlands without a guide or sleeping in a yurt. Getting travel insurance is highly recommended.

Even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (which I read is of rather low quality there) it sounds like Mongolia could be fun for two reasons: the country sounds beautiful and they’re still smitten with Genghis Khan.

Other tidbits:

  • In 2004 Mongolia’s left and right had a statistical deadheat in the election. Did they form a coalition government and rule together? Yes. Did the parties and their adherents see this as a reason to become more partisan and petty? No. Did they try to divide themselves into Red and Blue people? Perhaps, but I doubt it.
  • Mongolia’s GDP is US$1840 per capita, putting it 175th out of 200 countries. Yet they have a literacy rate of 98%. But they do have an unemployment rate of 12% in the country and 30% in the cities.
  • There are thirteen horses for every person.
  • “Survival phrases” (translated into English)
    • Hold the dog!
    • Does your hotel have heating?
    • Are your sheep fattening up nicely?
    • I would like to ride a calm (nonagressive) horse.
    • Is there any food available?

Fun things to do (from my perspective) include riding a camel on the Khongoryn Els sand dunes; watching brawny guys take on all comers at the Naadam Festival in Ulaanbaatar; digging for dinosaur bones in Guruan Saikhan; hiking in scenic Khovsgol Nuur, Tsambagarev Uul NP, and Altai Tavan Bogd NP; seeing the canyons and ridges of Bayanagovi; stepping out on the ice-covered gorges of Yolyn Am in the summer; stopping in Amarbayasgalant Khild, the “architectural highlight of the country;” and roaming with the nomadic herders.

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Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey on Outsourcing

Last week I posted about a Times editorial on outsourcing. Today the commonwealth’s Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey came to The MathWorks to present us with a proclamation and thank us for being a good Massachusetts business.

(You can add her to the list of other American politicians I’ve seen in person — strangely, all Republicans: then Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, then Wyoming Congressman and now Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas, and then Vice President and now village idiot . . . J. Danforth Quayle.)

During her remarks, she made her own comments on outsourcing. She was careful to acknowledge the high cost of homeownership in Massachusetts as something that drives people away from relocating their families here — they have a plan for that, don’t you know — and (in typical small-government fashion) suggested that there was too much bureaucratic overhead contributing to slow new job growth. All rather tame and factual.

But then she said that companies like The MathWorks have realized that outsourcing is counterproductive for a very obvious reason: “Employees in Massachusetts can think better than people overseas or in the Midwest.” I caught myself from groaning aloud.

It’s true that brain-drain doesn’t happen in the commonwealth nearly as much as it does in Iowa and Wyoming and India. And as the Bay State’s principal cheerleader, it shouldn’t be surprising that she’s hyping Massachusetts. But perhaps she should read the writing on the wall . . . or at least the website:

Our customers are 1,000,000 of the world’s leading technical people, in over 100 countries, on all seven continents. These technical people work at the world’s most innovative technology companies, government research labs, financial institutions, and at more than 3,500 universities.

Massachusetts does attract a large number of well-educated researchers and engineers from around the country and the world, but we don’t have a lock on brainpower.

Ms. Healey did admit that we need to get better at teaching our students math and science. Of course, she also joked about how bad she is at mathematics and told the Natick city councilmen present not to expect much additional state aid in coming years.

Update, 19 January 2006: Gov. Romney proposed increasing the amount of state aid to cities and towns for education last night in his state of the state address.

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Automatic update notices

Do you wish you could get an e-mail everytime I create a new dispatch? A nifty little service called RMail will use the RSS feed. To use the service, enter your e-mail address and this RSS feed address: http://www.jeffmatherphotography.com/dispatches/index.rdf.

I personally don’t have news updates sent to me for most sites. There are just too many RSS feeds for sites that interest me. Instead, I use the Abilon news aggregator, which keeps track of a bunch of different RSS feeds and displays updates of different sites all in one place. Once you’re in the habit of looking at it regularly — or one of the many other aggregators out there (such as the web-based BlogLines) — you’ll keep up-to-date without cluttering your inbox.

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Reflections on religion

Thoughts about how to write this entry have been running through my mind quite frequently for the month that we’ve been back from India. But now feels almost like the right time to write about it. It’s Sunday, after all.

(I fully suspect that some folks will be offended by or dismissive of this post — whether atheist, Indian secularist, Hindu nationalist, Christian fundamentalist, etc. Before reading, know that I’m neither Hindu nor Christian, though I deeply admire the ability of people to have faith in something that I don’t apprehend. Deep breath . . . .)

Traveling through India it’s hard not to notice religion. With over 900 million Hindus, 135 million Muslims, and millions of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Parsis, Baha’is, and Jews, this should hardly be surprising. The Hindu mandirs (temples) are all marked by flags, red for a female deity and white for a male god; on the train up to Shimla it seemed that every prominent hilltop had a building with flags waving. On the way to seeing the Taj Mahal, an enormous consecrated Muslim site in Agra, we passed an enormous Vishnu statue standing beside the highway.

On the way to Agra, I asked our Sikh driver to clarify something: “Are Sikhs Hindu?” He pointed to his turban. “Turban, Sikh. No turban, no Sikh. Hindu!” I asked a similar question to our Hindu guide in Jaisalmer after we went into a Jain temple. “Oh sure! Jains are Hindu. Sikhs, too.” Many Hindus also claim Christians, Muslims, and most other people of faith. (Nimmi reminds me that it’s just as dangerous to generalize about Hinduism and its various beliefs as it is to lump all Christians — or even all Protestants — together. There is even monotheism of sorts within certain branches.)

Religion pervades public and private life. Holy symbols — the Om (ॐ) and the swastika — adorn buildings, rickshaws, bumpers sickers, and clothing. While we were photographing outside the temple to Lakshmi in Jaisalmer, our tour guide ducked inside. On a few train platforms we saw saddhus, lifelong pilgrims who travel India penniless. At Nimmi and Jay’s wedding a contingent of a half-dozen priests and holymen conducted the ceremony, and we all traveled to the temple during the engagement.

Looking through the paper, I came across a number of articles mixing religion and science. Perhaps some irony was present in the Economic Times article that started by saying “If Lord Rama blesses the Punjab with a good monsoon, the harvest will be good again” and then went on to explain the scientific modeling of the seasonal rains; but if it was there, I completely missed it.

By and large, India — the world’s largest democracy — seems at ease with being the world’s largest pluralist society. The prime minister is Sikh. The head of the ruling government, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian-born Christian. Statistically, this would be like the U.S. having a Jew for president and a Muslim heading the GOP. (Okay, that kind of made me chuckle…)

Of course, during our travels we mostly met Hindus, and I got the sense that Muslims lived “over there” out of sight in the poorer sections of Hindustan and Rajasthan. It’s also easy to misattribute the tensions between India and Pakistan to religious differences between the nations; while I do think Indians are nervous of the risk of theocracy next door, lingering ill-will because of the 1947 partition, the continuing war over Jammu and Kashmir up north, and occasional attacks by Pakistani-supported militants within India proper play a much bigger role.

Religion and nationalism are further conflated in Indian politics, as we got to see firsthand. Just after we arrived, LK Advani, the head of the BJP — India’s major Hindu nationalist party — said that one of the major architects of the partition between India and Pakistan (Jinnah) was, in fact, a great secularist nation-builder. The ensuing flap caused crisis within the BJP and led to a fair bit of national debate about the future of the BJP, the peace process in Kashmir, and relations in general with Pakistan. It’s quite like a soap opera…

Actually more of a tragic opera sometimes. A couple of weeks after we returned home, militants attacked a Hindu site in Ayodhya. The site used to be a mosque until LK Advani allegedly incited a riotous mob to destroy it in 1992, ushering the largest wave of deadly sectarian violence since partition.

By and large though, Indians seem to go with the flow concerning both religion and politics. “Traditional values” seem to play a much bigger role in shaping Indian culture than religion, per se. I have to confess that I sometimes have trouble telling the border between these two, but most Indians regardless of religion (as far as I could tell) seemed to share a similar set of values regarding social interactions, members of the family, the role of women, and tradition in general. This perception was reinforced as I read Sarah MacDonald’s book Holy Cow. The vignettes of an Australian who followed her fiancé to India and embarked on a tour of India’s religious communities made for interesting reading on the train and during our afternoon siestas.

In Madras I needed a new book — Kipling’s Kim kept putting me to sleep — so I decided to read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven : A Story of Violent Faith, which a number of colleagues recommended to me. Even though it was about Mormons, it seemed to have a lot of relevance to the collision of tradition, modernity, religion, fundamentalism, and extremism that is happening in several places in south Asia — and sadly is exported through violence to the U.S., Spain, the U.K., and elsewhere. Though I personally find the extremists’ positions abhorant, after being in a rather tradition-bound culture for a few weeks and experiencing mild culture shock myself after returning home, I can begin to understand just how different and aberrant American/European culture might appear to others.

So now I’m back in a slightly less religious country (by percentage of the population) with fewer primary religions. As in India, religion permeates daily life on both the personal and public levels, so I wonder about the perception that many religious people in America have that religion is under attack, especially a religion that 85% of Americans claim as their own. Religious pluralism in America sounds like a happy, almost believable dream based on the legal principle of religious tolerance but which is caught up in the reality of a tradition that is overwhelmingly Christian.

Perhaps the right way to end this rambling entry is with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Ten Commandments in public places that they issued a week after we returned. Other than thinking the court made a rather half-hearted legal attempt to “split the baby,” I was unexpectedly unmoved by the decision. The majority of the country claims to accept the decalogue as instructions from God on how to comport their lives, so I have no problem seeing them posted in public — especially since the highest civil law in the land says I’m free to believe them or not. But I couldn’t help thinking that the people who want to erect more of these religious monuments in the midst of a secular nation (which is becoming ever more pluralistic) are acting a bit like the old LK Advani, inciting their followers to relentlessly pursue a national religion that doesn’t value others.

Posted in India, This is who we are, Travel | Leave a comment

Iran

We’ll have to wait a couple years for more, extensive international travel (other than Canada) since we’re short of vacation and I misplaced all of those stacks of money we would need. So I have decided to live vicariously by reading guidebooks to exotic places.

Google searchIf you received the letter we sent, you’ll know we’re partial to Lonely Planet guidebooks. The Newton Free Library appears to lend the entire collection. (Sorry, Milford Public Library. Thanks for the library card, but I’ll make the drive.). So I’ve been going down the stacks checking ‘em out.

Last week’s selection: Iran.

Dave, my father-in-law, said, “Jeff, there are just some places you can’t take my daughter. They cut off people’s heads there.” Lisa isn’t too keen on anyplace that makes her cover her hair, though a chador is a long way from a burqa . . . right? Technically, travel to Iran is possible, but the wimps over at the U.S. State Department don’t think Americans should go.

I’m keen on going but can wait a while. Hopefully we can still travel like kings for $70/day after the reformers complete the transition from “democratic theocracy” to “religious democracy” and US foreign policy in the region is more suitable to travel.

Until then I’ll have to think fondly about seeing the mosques in Esfahan (more); the hillside village of Masuleh, which looks like the Iranian version of Shimla; the architecture in Yazd and Shiraz; the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis; and the “hidden gem” of Kashan.

This week: Mongolia – The only place I’ve heard Globe Trekker’s Ian Wright consistently badmouth — though he claims to love it in his interview.

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments

Times editorial on outsourcing

Today’s New York Times contains an interesting editorial on outsourcing from the perspective of Suketu Mehta, an Indian-American. Basically she he says Americans need to study harder, work harder, and not expect other nations to let us coast on past successes. Learning Hindi might not be a bad idea either.

You can read the article for free (with registration) for a week.

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India as I saw it

My images from India are now online. Go See Them!

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New photography site on the way

Jaisalmer Okay, I’m definitely going digital . . . in about two years when I can afford the camera I want. (Until then I’ll have to settle for avarice.) The relative ease of getting Lisa’s pictures off her digital camera compared to the rather time consuming and tedious process of scanning 35mm slides — I’m writing this entry in chunks while the scanner is producing beautiful eight-megapixel scans in the background — was what it took to convince me that now is the time. I still love the idea of having the slide (a tangible, material artefact) in my collection, but everything I do with images now is electronic.

Time passes . . . I just finished scanning. Soon highlights from the five rolls of film I exposed in India will be online in the next few days (hopefully).

If you’ve visited my photography site before, you will probably notice some differences already. Starting with the home page, I have been ripping up the old static HTML and replacing it with a database-backed, PHP-driven, standards-compliant system. In the near future (hopefully) all of the image galleries will be replaced, too, giving them a uniform appearance.

I have wanted to do this for a while, but it was always easier (if not always faster) to create a new set of static pages. The time is right: the CSS prototypes worked splendidly; the coding of the home page is complete; the database schema for the galleries is done; and I’ll let you know when the India gallery is ready.

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This is a test . . . in Hindi

This is a test. I’m going to try to put some Devanagari text containing a couple of Hindi sentences into this post. I have it working in Microsoft Word. Let’s see if it works here.

नमस्ते । मैं जेफ हूँ । क़्य आप हिन्दुस्तनी हैं?

Yes. That did seem to work very well! (For those of you out there who disparage Windows and Microsoft, you’ll get no complaints out of me for the phenomenal internationalization work they’ve put into their products. Out of the box, Windows XP will display South Asian text and any other Unicode text. And with just a few adjustments, I was able to enter the rather complex typescript above.)

Why is this important? In February I started learning Hindi and the Devanagari script that it and a few other languages use–much like how various European languages use the Latin alphabet. Earlier today Lisa and I wrote a mid-year letter telling everyone about our trip, and I included some Hindi place names in it.

Devanagari is a fascinating script. It has nineteen consonant symbols, eleven independent vowels, and eleven dependent vowel signs. To write a word in Devanagari you draw the consonant symbol, which has an inherent “a” sound, and then change the vowel sound by writing a dependent vowel sign near the consonant. The independent vowel symbols are written when a word begins with a vowel. There are no uppercase or lowercase letters, but there are additional symbols for nasalizing a vowel sound. When you consider that consonants without an intervening vowel sound–such as “st” (स्त) in the word “namaste” (नमस्ते)–have a special “conjunct” symbol, it’s easy to see how hard it would be to make a computer representation of the script containing all of the possible symbols.

But it turns out that it’s rather straightforward to work with Hindi in Windows. The mechanism is ingenious: Using the standard input method, as you type on the keyboard, characters change. For example, you might type the symbol for the “t” sound and then add the dependent vowel to it. Poof! The two letters are rewritten. Or, to make the “स्त”, you would type the symbol “स”, press a special “conjoin” key, and then type the “त” symbol. Poof! They’re joined. Etc.

Language Bar(By the way, to enter Hindi and English text together, Windows provides a “language bar” to facilitate switching input methods.)

All this is rather cumbersome for the nonnative writer, though. Remembering where specific symbols on a “strange” keyboard live is tricky . . . even with the help of the “On-Screen Keyboard” utility.

Enter the Hindi Indic IME (Input Method Editor). This Microsoft utility transliterates “English” text that you enter into Hindi text, with the proper vowel signs, dots, and conjuncts formed as you type the transliterated word.

For example, to type the phrase “वह लर्क हिन्दुस्तनी नहीं है”, I only had to type “vah larka hindustanee nahi hai” . . . which is pretty much how I would say it, too!

Update
It’s worth noting — as I can see now at work — that the support for “complex” fonts is quite dependent on the application. For example on my office machine, IE 6.0 (2005) shows everything correctly including conjoined letters, Netscape 7.1 (2003) displays Hindi characters but doesn’t conjoin them (showing a “halant” instead), and Abilon (a very good news aggregator) doesn’t show the Hindi at all.

For example:
Hindi text in IE
(Internet Explorer 6.0)

Hindi text in IE
(Netscape 7.1)

Now that I look at the text closely, the text isn’t even correct in Netscape. The anuswar (dot) gets lost on मैं (“main”) and हैं (“hain”), and the “i” vowel is incorrectly rendered on “हि”.

I guess it’s finally time to upgrade to a later version of Netscape/Mozilla. No, Netscape 8.0 has the same problem. Alright, enough Netscape bashing. Netscape 7.1 looks okay at home. Clearly there’s a bug in Netscape that only shows itself with the “out-of-the-box” Windows XP support for Indic type. Installing the “complex language” features in Windows seems to resolve this issue.

I’m sad to say that MATLAB doesn’t support entering (or even pasting) Hindi text.

Posted in Computing, India | Leave a comment