Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A message for our time

This arrived in my email today from Fr. Richard Rohr, a man who has earned my respect over several years. Although he writes from a U.S. perspective, his words seem to me to speak to a much wider audience ...

 
Center for Action and Contemplation
 
 

Some simple but urgent guidance to get us through these next months.

I awoke on Saturday, September 19, with three sources in my mind for guidance: Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), the young Jewish woman who suffered much more injustice in the concentration camp than we are suffering now; Psalm 62, which must have been written in a time of a major oppression of the Jewish people; and the Irish Poet, W.B.Yeats (1965 – 1939), who wrote his “Second Coming” during the horrors of the World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

These three sources form the core of my invitation. Read each one slowly as your first practice. Let us begin with Etty:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.

—Etty Hillesum, Westerbork transit camp

Note her second-person usage, talking to “You, God” quite directly and personally. There is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.

Then, the perennial classic wisdom of the Psalms:

In God alone is my soul at rest.
God is the source of my hope.
In God I find shelter, my rock, and my safety.
Men are but a puff of wind,
Men who think themselves important are a delusion.
Put them on a scale,
They are gone in a puff of wind.

—Psalm 62:5–9

What could it mean to find rest like this in a world such as ours? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. 

It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline! We have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize we are living with the catastrophic results of several centuries of what philosophers call nihilism or post-modernism (nothing means anything, there are no universal patterns).

We are without doubt in an apocalyptic time (the Latin word apocalypsis refers to an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs). Yeats’ oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” then feels like a direct prophecy. See if you do not agree:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out, no matter who wins the election or who is on the Supreme Court. We cannot abide in such a place for any length of time or it will become our prison.

God cannot abide with us in a place of fear.
God cannot abide with us in a place of ill will or hatred.
God cannot abide with us inside a nonstop volley of claim and counterclaim.
God cannot abide with us in an endless flow of online punditry and analysis.
God cannot speak inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit.
God cannot be found when all sides are so far from “the Falconer.”
God cannot be born except in a womb of Love.
So offer God that womb.

Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses for these coming months, so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul.

If you allow it for too long, it will become who you are, and you will no longer have natural access to the “really deep well” that Etty Hillesum returned to so often and that held so much vitality and freedom for her.

If you will allow, I recommend for your spiritual practice for the next four months that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to—hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.

Instead, I suggest that you use this time for some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading from the masters, prayer—or, preferably, all of the above.

        You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all. 
        And the world—with you as a stable center—has nothing to lose.
        And everything to gain. 


Richard Rohr, September 19, 2020

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Retro-mechanical



I'm a digital photographer. When it comes to technology, I have always been there waiting with open arms to embrace the new. I think I last shot film about twenty years ago when I started my digital journey with a sub-one-megapixel Kodak camera. But, when someone recently gave me a 1958 Kodak Retina Reflex in working condition, it caused a rethink. Now, some people extol the virtues of film over digital – they like the 'film look' or the experience of developing and printing film. I understand that. And, of course, to use a mechanical camera is to use film; but it wasn't the film that caused my rethink, it was the camera.

Whether mechanical or digital, the fundamental aspects of photography don't change. But, using a mechanical camera again, I realised that digital had distanced me from many of those fundamentals. With a mechanical camera, everything is in your face - from the weight of the camera (heavy) to the need to think carefully about subject, composition, light, juggling f-stops and shutter speeds, and dialling in a good focus. The sheer immersion in the detail of the picture-making process made me feel an integral part of that process – one with the camera and with the act of making a photograph. I had forgotten that feeling.

With digital, if I want, the camera can handle almost everything. My input is only necessary for the occasional circumstance when I needed something quite specific and different from what the camera will automatically provide. What is worse, subject selection and composition – perhaps the most important domain of the photographer -  has been demoted; digital allows me to shoot everything, any way I want, at no marginal cost – choices can be made later. Even Cartier Bresson's "decisive moment" has been reduced to a function of multiple frames per second. In a commercial context, these are all advantages for digital but, for the photographer, they began to look more like separation from the process and a limiter on personal growth and development.



So, this old mechanical film camera requires me to become more a part of the picture-making process - to engage my brain and make several deliberate choices which will either make or break the picture. The pushing of the shutter release is a final commitment to all the choices made, in a way that it seldom is with digital. And I began to wonder if it isn't in the making of all those appropriate choices that a camera-user becomes a photographer? And, if that is the case, then how was digital making me a better photographer? Perhaps it wasn't, and perhaps that is what is behind many photographer's fascination with the next best camera - some of us have needed to get better cameras because our cameras aren't helping us to become better photographers.

I'll keep shooting digital (because, convenience) but I think I might just have found a very good reason to also shoot film, in a camera that requires no batteries. Definitely retro-mechanical.




Saturday, September 12, 2020

Feeling constrained

I'm waiting on an old TLR film camera to come from Japan. It's a hark-back to the days when I owned a TLR Rolliecord and I'm expecting to scratch an itch - what would it be like using a camera from my youth, with the addition of fifty years experience?

But, while I am waiting, I thought I would tackle a self-imposed challenge: Our cameras are so versatile these days, that I've read several photographers claiming that setting some artificial constraints is a good way to challenge yourself and help improve your skills. So, this morning, the sun beckoned and I thought it would be fun to push this type of challenge toward the absurd ...

 

A fish-eye lens, black and white pictures, square format, 12 shots (like 120 film), on foot, 60 mins. Go!

 

Nothing to hang in an art gallery here, but that's not the point - here's what caught my eye, and here's what got captured in-camera (I used Fujifilm's Acros film simulation with a red filter to darken the sky), split-toning applied later.


 

 

 

 

 

 

When the Ricohflex arrives, perhaps I'll take another 60-minute sprint around the town.
Ricoh RIcohflex Vintage Medium Format TLR Camera Overhauled image 0


Friday, May 22, 2020

Gone by lunch-time


Assuming that lunch-time is one o'clock, then Simon Bridges was, indeed, gone by lunch-time. Though, when Don Brash pronounced that famous phrase, he certainly didn't have Simon in mind. Personally, I feel it was the best move. I, and others I know, could not have voted for a National Party with Simon Bridges as its leader. The nation seemed to be of the same opinion if the polls were anything to go by.

Looking from the outside, the problem with Simon was that he appeared to be a 'one-trick pony'. He will blame COVID and Jacinda's wall-to-wall media coverage for his demise, but that was simply the situation that exposed his shortcomings. "My job is to hold the government to account", and other variations on that theme, summed up Simon's self-professed mission. One commentator described him as a "yapping terrier" and that's pretty close.

My impression was of a school-room bully. The guy who, when another pupil gets called to the front, will stick out his foot to trip them up. At times it seemed as if it were the only tool in Simon's repertoire. For a short while there, as head of the COVID committee, it started to appear as if, in the midst of a national crisis, he was taking a more statesman-like role - pulling together for the common good. But, apparently, he couldn't keep it up and quickly reverted to his sniping, nit-picking, bullying tactics. The nation watched it, knew viscerally that they didn't like it, and told the pollsters what they thought.

Yes, Simon, you did need to hold the government to account. But it wasn't your only role, and there are many ways of doing it, aside from looking like the person everyone hated from school. Gone by lunch-time, indeed.

Monday, March 23, 2020

COVID-19 Life (1)


After only two days at alert level 2, the number of NZ infections has now reached 102. Today, the government moved us to alert level 3 and gave notice that we would move to alert level 4 (the highest level) on Wednesday.

At level 4, everyone has to stay at home, all non-essential businesses, schools, and public gatherings are banned and only essential service personnel are allowed to attend their workplace. The level 4 restrictions will be in place for at least four weeks. I believe that the majority of New Zealanders are behind these measures and understand the need for the vast inconvenience that they will cause. Some, of course, take this opportunity to flaunt their stupidity and selfishness by trying to empty supermarket shelves at ten times the usual rate.

I am not sure how I feel about the next four weeks. On the one hand, the thought of being at home for four weeks sounds attractive. On the other, I can’t help but wonder whether, after four weeks of virtual house-arrest, we might all get a little stir-crazy. We are allowed out of the house for exercise, provided that we keep our distance from others, but we are being encouraged not to travel further further than “local”. I guess that a ‘Sunday drive’ isn’t out of the question, provided that we stay in the car and don’t handle a petrol pump.

It is worth remembering though, that shouldering a little inconvenience is nothing compared to the five-year sacrifice made by my parent’s and grandparent’s generations. If I catch myself grumbling at any point, I hope I remember that.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Cosmo at six weeks


My Cosmo Communicator arrived on 18 November 2019 (Indigogo backer #24). It came configured with US keyboard and plug (no NZ/AU plug option). So, a month and a bit later, it’s time for a review.

Out of the box
Straight out of the box, the Cosmo impressed with its feel and build quality. Whereas its predecessor, the Gemini, always seemed a little ‘home-built’ with its squeaky hinge and pop-off panels, the Cosmo looks and feels more solid, with a snappy closing clam-shell and smart-looking front panel. The snappiness continues when it boots into Android Pie; whereas the Gemini always felt a tad hesitant about what it was being asked to do, the Cosmo jumps to attention and just does stuff when asked - due presumably to a better processor and more RAM.

Keyboard
The positive first impressions extend to the Cosmo's main feature - the keyboard, which is now backlit. The keys have shorter travel than the Gemini and don’t have any of the Gemini’s ‘jelly-wobble’ when they are pressed. My typing (two-handed and on a desk) is both faster and more accurate on the Cosmo than the Gemini. Typing long-form articles on the Cosmo is a very doable proposition that, in my view, rivals that of a full-sized laptop.

Front Screen
The front screen on the Cosmo is a mixed blessing. It’s handy to be able to make and return calls without opening the Cosmo’s cover but, on the other hand, it represents an additional vulnerability to knocks and bumps, as well as frequent accidental activations in a pocket or bag. There were some advantages to the robust, metal-clad, exterior of the Gemini - mine even has a small dent on the front which the Cosmo may not have taken with such good grace.
In practice, the integration between the front screen and the main device can also be problematic. At times it appears very laggy and there are inconsistencies - for example, the exterior screen can remain stubbornly locked, while the main device is happy to accept a finger-print or a trust-agent to unlock. Another problem is that the external screen remains active to touch even when the main device is open and the front screen is displaying the Planet logo - this can cause problems with unintentional activations when holding the Cosmo in portrait orientation (like a book). I would expect these issues to be addressed by a future firmware update.

By the end of the first month, I was ready to give up on the Cosmo's front screen. I resurrected a three-year-old Samsung Gear S2 Classic watch and found, to my delight, that there were no key functions of the Cosmo's front screen that were not already present on the S2 Classic (and later Samsung watches) - especially accepting and placing calls, responses to texts and receiving notifications - all these can be done without opening the Cosmo (which was the original justification for a front screen). The smartwatch is, in my experience, a more elegant solution than a fixed screen on the front of the Cosmo and it alleviates the Cosmo's propensity to chew through the battery at a voracious rate (see below).  Be aware though, that not all smartwatches can perform all these functions - Samsung have done more than most at enabling responses to texts and calls from the watch.

Battery
Battery life is acceptable but, as others have observed, with such a large 4,200 mAh battery, we might have expected better. With everything switched on (Front processor, wireless, mobile data, Bluetooth, GPS) over the course of a day, my Cosmo consumes an average of about 4.6% battery per hour - that’s an 18 hour day from full to 15%. However, switch off the front processor and that improves to about 3.0% per hour and gives 28 hours of use before you hit 15% - and that’s similar to the Gemini. There is clearly room for improvement here: Over 40% of the battery is being consumed by the phone radio (even in standby) and a further 30%+ by the device being held awake. It seems that Planet has some work to do on battery efficiency - hopefully, we can look forward to some improvement in a future firmware update. In the meantime, Cosmo will get most users through most days.

Camera
The camera takes pictures. For many people, the 24Mp pictures will be good enough. The camera makes a good job of scanning documents and recording mundane events and places - things that I missed with the Gemini. As someone who regularly uses quality camera gear to produce landscapes and nature pictures, the Cosmo's camera was never going to be good enough for my photography needs. Ultimately, the Cosmo camera suffers from aggressive noise reduction and compression that smudges fine detail (like grass and hair) and can make a blotchy mess - even in good lighting. Things improve somewhat if you install something like Open Camera which, in some of its 13Mp modes using the Camera2 API, produces better images than the native app does at 24Mp. Nevertheless, there are numerous small sensor camera modules available on cameras from Canon, Sony and DJI that produce significantly better pictures than the module on the Cosmo and, in this sense, the Cosmo camera can only be considered a disappointment.

Daily use
I run stock Android and have no interest in fiddling around rooting the device or installing various flavours of Linux. My experience is that the Cosmo (and the Gemini before it) make acceptable Android devices but, judging by the comments of other Gemini users, the experience goes downhill fast as soon as you start messing with rooting and multiboot. Tales of unbreakable boot-loops keep me firmly planted in the Android space - life is too short for that sort of hassle.
The extent of my customisation is to replace the stock Cosmo launcher with the Nova launcher which I have used on various devices over the years. It’s clean, very customisable, and I trust it. With Nova installed, the Cosmo seems to run flawlessly, day in and day out. I run my favourite Android apps but do not use Planet’s supplied email, database or notes. In my view, they are just not in the same league as the best Android apps on offer in the Playstore.
Until, the latest firmware update, the Cosmo would randomly flick back to the lock screen when it was being used. The firmware update has fixed this annoyance and, aside from the aforementioned issues with the front screen, I find that there are no significant problems in daily use.

Not for everyone
Having said all that, the Cosmo, and before it the Gemini, are not for everyone. If you are happy with a slab of plastic and glass for a phone and don’t hanker after a proper keyboard - perhaps because you don't mind carrying a laptop or a Bluetooth appendage - then give the Cosmo a pass. The Cosmo (and before it the Gemini) are aimed at a particular type of user - one who wants a single, pocketable, device for all their day-to-day mobile needs. A device that allows them to phone, message, email, write at length, poke spreadsheets around, listen to a few tunes or watch a movie or two - that's Cosmo.

Think of it like this; If phones were cars, Apple, Samsung and others would make good, solid, daily drivers, but Planet Computers would make something like a Morgan - the Gemini an iconic Morgan 3 wheeler while the Cosmo would be the latest V6 Roadster. Most people wouldn't want a Morgan as a daily driver and most people probably won't want a Cosmo either. But, for those who do… well...nothing is going to put a smile on a driver's face quite as quickly as a drive in a Morgan, or the feel of a real keyboard under your fingers with the Cosmo Communicator. Well done Planet Computers!