Archive for February, 2010

On creativity

Sunday, 28 February, 2010

I, with the help of some of my friends, generate a good deal of creative stuff. Some of it is sprinkled across a handful of websites (linked in the sidebar, so I won’t repeat them), some of it can be found elsewhere. My friends say to me quite often that I am the driving force behind our group – the one who gets things done.

We all come up with ideas. That’s the easy part. In a single lunchtime we often come up with a dozen or more ideas for things we could do. It’s an aphorism I’ve seen repeated several times in various contexts that “ideas are easy, execution is hard” – I saw it again the other day in an acquaintance’s blog. It really is true. Not to take any credit away from my friends – several of them also put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make our collective ideas come to fruition. I believe they just see me as the spur to get them going. :-)

Because as clich├ęd as it can sound, it really is true. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s doing something with them that is the hard work that few people can manage.

We have a sort of rolling conversation in our group about xkcd. There is some professional envy there, of course, since our own webcomics are nowhere near as popular, and it would be cool if they were. But that aside, we do have a genuine respect for Randall Munroe and what he does. it’s very easy for critics to say, “Huh, stick figures and geeky reference gags, anyone could do that.” But the point is anyone didn’t do it – Munroe did. He got off his butt and actually made the comics and made a website to put them on. And he’s continued making them – he didn’t quit after 3 weeks because it was taking too much time or effort.

There are a lot of failed creative ventures out there, where people had a cool idea and tried to do something with it, and gave up after a while because it was too much work. And there are even more where people had a cool idea and simply never got around to doing anything at all with it.

My determination is to actually put in enough effort to see an idea to fruition every now and then. Some of our ideas are non-starters, and some we put some effort into and then more or less abandon. But we keep trying, and some of the ideas do manage to reach a point where we can sit back and say, “Yes, we’ve done this idea.” Or even, “Yes, this idea is now up and running, and we are happy to dedicate some of our effort into maintaining it into the future.”

Someone once asked Harlan Ellison where he got his ideas from. He flippantly replied from a mail order business in Poughkeepsie. If he’d bothered to answer seriously, the real answer is that everyone has ideas. What people don’t have is the drive to do something with them. And because most people don’t do anything with their ideas, they end up thinking they don’t have any good ideas. That’s just wrong. If you have an idea for a story, or a blog, or a piece of artwork, or whatever, invest some time into making it happen. Get someone to goad you into it, if need be. It is hard work, but if you put that work in, you might get somewhere, as opposed to merely ending up envious of other people’s work and saying you could have done the same.

I didn’t intend this post to end on an accusatory downer. I’m sure some of you have put effort into creating something, or even started and then realised just how much work is required to bring an idea to fruition. You should be proud that you’ve achieved something which few others even bother to do. The external success of creative endeavours is determined by whims and the way the wind blows. But the internal success is determined by you and your hard work. Just because your stuff doesn’t become as popular as xkcd doesn’t mean it’s crap. Go! Create! And be proud of the effort you’ve put in. The hard work is what counts, not the success.

Portrait of Audrey

Thursday, 25 February, 2010

Audrey Hepburn by Michael Ochs Archives, copyright Getty Images
This is a great photo. No, I didn’t take, I only wish I had.

Besides the fact that the subject is Audrey Hepburn, and therefore it would be difficult to take a bad photo, this shot in particular is awesome. I came across it because my wife buys a fancy picture calendar every year, and for 2010 she chose to get one with portraits of Audrey Hepburn. So for the month of February I’ve had this gorgeous photo looking at me from the kitchen wall. With a quick flip through, I determined that none of the other photos in the calendar are as good as this one.

I don’t consider myself a very good portrait photographer. I prefer subjects that don’t move around, like buildings and trees and stuff. If I do take shots of people, they’re mostly candids of strangers, simply engaged in whatever they would be doing anyway, as part of an overall scene. I know good portrait photography when I see it, and appreciate seeing it, but I find it difficult doing it myself.

Focus on the eyes, capture an expression, don’t have the subject stare into the camera. Knowing the rules is the easy part. A portrait is a moment in time when you have to capture the essence of a person in a single still image. I don’t know what Audrey is looking at in this shot, but she’s happy and natural and her eyes are clear and bright. There’s a bit of a tilt to the image to give it some informality. The perspective is fairly flat, indicating a mild telephoto lens was used to avoid exaggerating depth features (producing a bulging nose, for example) – although this is standard practice for portraiture and any photographer should know this. The subject fills the frame, leaving no doubt that this is a photo of a person, not what the person is doing or where the person is. The lighting is soft and flattering, with no heavy shadows on any side, but there are sparkles in her eyes. This is difficult to achieve without a professional studio lighting rig. The background is nicely blurred and non-distracting.

Yes, it’s a beautiful photo of a beautiful woman, but technically it’s an absolutely drool-worthy piece of photography. I hope to make a portrait half as good as this one day.

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archive, copyright by Getty Images. Low resolution version included here for editorial and critical review purposes only.)

Left turn on red

Tuesday, 23 February, 2010

I was very nearly in a car collision on the weekend. Firstly, remember for context that we drive on the left in Australia.

I was approaching a crossroads intersection intending to go straight ahead, and had a green light. Normally this means nothing should be getting in your way – all of the traffic in the cross street should be stopped at a red and waiting for the lights to change. Except one of the cars on the left side of the cross street wasn’t. It was creeping out into the intersection. As I was about in the middle of the intersection (with my light still green) and about to enter the ongoing street, the car on my left suddenly accelerated and made to turn into the same street I was heading into. Into the same lane I was in (two-lane street, with the leftmost lane was full of parked cars).

This was so shocking I didn’t have time to do anything. I had no time to brake. I couldn’t even reach the horn fast enough to sound a warning blast. Fortunately the driver of the other car must have (finally) spotted me and screeched to a stop, it must have been millimetres from crashing into the passenger side of my car, and my wife.

There’s absolutely no doubt the other car was facing a red light at the time. The only question is why did it attempt to make the left turn? I know that right turn on red is a common permitted action in North America, and the local equivalent would be left turn on red – but left turn on red is illegal in Australia. Except at a few quite rare intersections where it is explicitly allowed by a sign.

The number of intersections where left turn on red is allowed in Sydney is minuscule. I can think of only two intersections that have the relevant signs, in all of the intersections that I regularly or occasionally drive through. (That number is now three, assuming the intersection in question actually had such a sign and the other car’s driver wasn’t doing something completely illegal.) But the thing is, this is not the first time I’ve been in a near collision at one of those intersections, caused by another car attempting to turn left on red and not paying enough attention to the oncoming traffic.

The problem is that Sydney drivers are not used to this rule. It’s illegal at something close to 99% of the intersections in the city. So when it does appear, it’s unfamiliar, and leads to not being fully aware of all the relevant traffic conditions when attempting the manoeuvre. I’m aware of it myself, when I am caught by the red light and permitted to turn left by the sign – I’m trying to watch the oncoming traffic to see if it’s safe to turn, while also keeping an eye on the light in case it actually goes green, and trying to ignore the idiot behind me beeping at me for being too slow. It’s a combination of attention factors that never occurs at any other intersection in the city, and it makes it difficult to judge when you should go. With the inevitable result.

I’ve felt for years that these intersections are accidents waiting to happen. Now that my near misses at those intersections have gone from 2 to 3 in the past decade or so, I’m convinced of it. Perhaps in jurisdictions where turning on red is normal, drivers are more used to it and so better able to avoid problems – although a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report might indicate otherwise. It finds an average of 84 fatal collisions per year at “right turn on red” intersections across the USA.

The report stresses that the data don’t include details of whether the turning car had a red or green light and wants to claim that the “right turn on red” crashes may therefore be as low as zero – but really, when are you more likely to have a crash, turning right on red when there is a good chance of oncoming traffic getting in your way, or turning right on a green, when there should be nothing else in your way? Weirdly, the report then goes on to say that 84 fatalities a year is peanuts compared to the overall road toll anyway, so “the impact on traffic safety is small”.

I hope someone has a nice job telling that to 84 families a year.

Getting up before dawn

Sunday, 21 February, 2010

Fire and Water
This is the right time of year to get up before dawn and take photos of the sunrise. The sun is rising later as autumn approaches, but we haven’t shifted the clocks back to compensate yet, and the pre-dawn air is still not too chilly. The last two weekends however it was pouring with rain, so I caught up on sleep instead.

Not today, however! We got up at 05:10, gulped down enough food to tide us over until a proper breakfast, and drove out to Dee Why beach and ocean baths. Traffic is really good this early on a Sunday morning! We arrived just before 06:00, a good half hour before sunrise.

Although ocean baths are very photogenic, the problem for dusk photography is that all the ones in the Sydney area are lit by sodium lamps. The ghastly yellow colour plays havoc with your colour balance. I took a few shots with the pool and surrounds in the foreground and the dawn colours on the horizon, but the better shots largely skip the areas close to the sodium lamps. Undeterred by this challenge, two other guys had arrived even earlier than us and were staking out prime territory with their tripods and cameras. As the morning progressed, we gave each other nods, but didn’t stop to chat – there was much more important stuff to do!

After a while, as the sky turned on a gorgeous light show, the first swimmers began to arrive. It’s almost always retiree-aged people who hit the water at the crack of dawn. That’s pretty cool. When I retire, I’m planning to take a sunrise swim every morning. If I’m not out taking photos that is. Because dawn really is the best time of day to take pictures. The light is wonderful, and somehow it always feels fresher and more vibrant than a sunset at the end of a day, when the light is kind of worn out. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s true – for some reason sunrise just is more beautiful than sunset. Anyway, it’s good to get out and exercise the shutter finger a bit. As with everything else, I never have enough time to do all the photography I want to do. But sacrificing a sleep-in for a sunrise is well worth it. More photos from this morning here.

After the sun started climbing into the sky, we headed to a nearby cafe for the decadence of a bought breakfast. To me, breakfast is a simple meal you eat at home. The idea of going out and buying breakfast still smacks of overindulgent luxury to me. Which is why I enjoy it on the very rare occasion we do it! Mmm… poached eggs, bacon, hollandaise sauce… And by 08:00 we’d finished this excellent breakfast, witnessed a gorgeous sunrise, got some exercise, taken some (hopefully) good photos, and we still have the whole Sunday ahead of us! Getting up early rocks!

Mystery Creek 2008 Sauvignon Blanc

Friday, 19 February, 2010

Mystery Creek 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
I swear this isn’t a wine blog – I just happen to have tried another new wine tonight. I was excited about this one because so far I seem to have more of a taste for whites than reds, and I’d read a bit about New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Apparently they make a top class example of this grape style.

Being a Friday, we went out for dinner up the street at the local restaurant strip. We went to Garfish, which is a moderately upscale seafood place, with fish bought fresh at the market that day. M. had the grilled salmon with chips, while I opted for roasted barramundi with polenta. These seemed to complement the wine very nicely.

It was a pale straw colour, nothing too exciting there, and very fluid in the glass – as opposed to the thick streakiness I’ve seen in some wines. It took a while to identify the aroma, but once nailed down, it was quite definite. Tropical fruit – a hint of pineapple, and a stronger touch of banana. Yes, banana. In the mouth it was very different. It was acidic and citrusy, with a touch of lemon, developing into quite a powerful herby flavour. Nowhere near as strong as a herb-based liqueur like Jagermeister, but certainly heading in that direction.

I really liked it, but M. preferred the Chardonnay we’d had a couple of weeks ago at the same restaurant. That one was a touch oaky, which is still a flavour I’ve not yet grown to appreciate. It seems clear I prefer my whites in this clean, fruity, acidic style. Very nice.

Reality and unreality

Thursday, 18 February, 2010

A while back I ran a roleplaying adventure for some of my friends. It was a scenario I wrote myself, with a sort of X-Files vibe to it. The PCs were FBI agents, investigating what at first appeared to be an ordinary case, but which turned a bit weird once they uncovered what was really going on.

At this point the game bogged down a bit. I was ready and waiting for the agents to start kicking butt and attacking the problem with guns blazing. After all, Mulder and Scully would leap right in. But my players didn’t. Instead they did the considerably more realistic thing of sneaking around and trying to gather evidence. It was only when I finally threw a rampaging Unseelie horse at them that one of them fired a shot in self-defence. From there the cat was out of the bag and all Hell broke loose, as I’d been hoping it would for about an hour of game time.

The chaos that followed was a lot of fun. But I was just a little mystified as to why the players took so long to get there. Then when the game was over, a couple of them explained that they went into the game taking their roles as FBI agents seriously, determined not to step out of line and to do things by the book. Which was fine and understandable from their point of view, but not what I was expecting.

My assumption was that the PCs would be “TV style” FBI agents, not realistic ones. I expected them to ignore the rules and get their hands dirty to get the job done. The problem was I hadn’t told the players that. I hadn’t run a game for some time, and it felt really bad to have made such a fundamental mistake. But I’ve learnt the lesson now. Make sure your players know what you’re expecting of them. Surprise and secrecy about what is going to happen in the adventure are vital to a roleplaying game, but more important is making sure everyone’s playing under the same assumptions before you begin.

If I’d just said up-front, “You’re flamboyant, TV-style FBI agents who get away with breaking the rules when necessary” as opposed to “realistic agents who do their work silently and never fire a gun,” the game would have run much more smoothly. Ah well. Here’s to experience, and not making the same mistake twice.

Ketu Bay 2008 Pinot Noir

Wednesday, 17 February, 2010

Ketu Bay 2008 Pinot Noir
I really discovered wine only about 4 months ago. I’ve had a few glasses in the past, but never really got into it until I took a long weekend trip with my wife to the Hunter Valley for our wedding anniversary. We live only a couple of hours from one of the world’s great wine regions, and it was the first time I’d really been there. And being a wine region, I decided it might be time to actually sample some wines and attempt to see what all the fuss was about.

More about that trip later. Right now, and what really prompted me to start this blog, is the desire to record my impressions of the first time I ever tried pinot noir. Pinot noir, as I’ve recently learnt, is a cool climate grape, and makes a wide range of wine styles, but tending towards lighter and fruitier. Marlborough in New Zealand is a cool climate, and apparently produces some decent pinot noir.

My first ever pinot noir is this Ketu Bay 2008 vintage from that region. I was at first surprised by the colour, a lighter, more scarlet red than the merlots, cabernet sauvignons, and shirazes I’ve tried over the past few months. The light passes through this wine like through a raspberry jelly, clear and luminous red. The dominant taste is one of fruitiness, with definite notes of strawberry. It was light and pleasant, and it worked well chilled down a bit. (I’m also learning how to describe wines, so my vocabulary will be simplistic and restricted to begin with.)

From my reading about pinot noir, it seems I still have a lot of variety within this grape to look forward to. I’ll seek some more types out and be keen to compare them. And those, along with all the other things I learn about wine, I plan to record here. (But this blog is also going to cover far wider topics, lest anyone think this is going to be just a wine blog.)

New blog

Wednesday, 17 February, 2010

Testing, testing… 1, 2, 3… testing.

Is this thing on?

I’m still working on the design and layout, so things might look a little weird for a while until I nail down the CSS and PHP files, but otherwise this blog is go!