Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stay away from Sony Ericsson's Online Services

Sony Ericsson does some fairly good telephones. I have one now, and I'm changing it for a new one (an Android-based Xperia) soon. I've never had reason to be displeased with their stuff.

So, as I'm changing phones I noticed that they have an online synchronization service where you can upload all your data, such as contacts, calendar data, bookmarks, personal notes and so on, and have access to it online. That seemed downright spiffy - I could upload my current data, switch phones and download to the new one. Before creating an account, I read through the terms and conditions. Good thing I did.

here they are: Terms and Conditions


If you send any communications or materials to the Site by electronic mail or otherwise, all such communications will be treated as non-confidential and non-proprietary. Sony Ericsson is free to use, without any compensation to you, any concepts, ideas, know-how, or techniques contained in any communication you send to the Site for any purpose whatsoever.

In other words: any of your data (say, your notes, or synched application data), uploaded in any way whatsoever - such as by using the synchronization service - is free for their taking. This explicitly included ideas, concepts, know-how and so on. You had better not synch your phone if you have a patentable idea or research data jotted down, as Sony-Ericsson would now own the right to use it, freely and against your will.

And lest you think this is some bit of boilerplate slipped in by accident, they repeat it, with its own subheading, further down in the document:

Ownership of Submitted Content

By posting Submitted Content, you grant Sony Ericsson a worldwide non-exclusive, assignable, fully paid, royalty-free, perpetual and irrevocable license to use, copy, publicly perform, display, distribute and modify the Submitted Content. This includes the right to prepare derivative works thereof, or incorporate the Submitted Content into other works as well as sublicense the same.

Again, if you let your data into their servers, they grab a perpetual license to use it no matter what you may think.

Now, there's no chance that this would actually hold up in any court, of course. But the attitude towards their customers that it displays is disturbing and I'm keeping well away from any of their online services. Right now I'm having second thoughts on getting a new phone from them as well.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pinhole Camera II: The Daa-a-a-ark Room

In the last post I showed the simple pinhole camera I've made. Very basic, very easy to use - except that you have to load the photo paper in a darkroom and you have to develop it yourself.

A darkroom isn't complicated. It's a room with absolutely no light coming in from the outside. It's not necessarily dark, though; unlike film, paper is not sensitive to red light, so you don't have to be in darkness. A "safelight" that emits red light, and only red light, will let you see what you're doing - you can actually see the image appear on the paper when you develop, which is really cool.

To develop the paper you need three trays for developer, stop (not really necessary) and fixer. A few darkroom tongs are cheap and a good idea since you don't want to get smelly chemicals on your fingers, or accidentally mix them. If you develop your own film you can use the same stop bath (if you use that) and fixer you already have. And if you're just playing around you don't need to be very careful with temperature or time, so a thermometer or clock isn't all that critical. You can see the paper develop so just stop when the image starts looking really dark and solid.

What about developer? Normally you would use special paper developer for photo paper, rather than film developer. Paper developer is a lot more active, giving you good contrast prints, and is incidentally a lot cheaper too. You can use film developer for paper, but it's much slower and will apparently give you low contrast, washed-out looking prints.

But this only applies for printing from a negative. A film negative is low contrast - the difference between the darkest and lightest areas isn't that large. But here we use paper as the negative. We're exposing the real world on the paper, not a low-contrast negative. And the real world is usually really contrasty, with huge light difference between the darkest and brightest areas. So as it turns out, film developer is a decent match for this use, and results in fairly good paper negatives.


A safelight is not strictly necessary, but it'd really suck to have to do everything in pitch blackness. Safelights - light fixtures with a dark red glass front - are available but they're fairly expensive. Safelight red bulbs that you can use in normal sockets are not cheap either and don't last forever. People warn against using cheap red "party" lightbulbs. There's no guarantee they really cut out all unwanted colors, and edges and scratches may be uncovered by the red paint.

Lightbulbs are hot, need mains power and waste a lot of energy, and they're gradually disappearing the world over. The new hot item here is LED lighting, with many manufacturers pushing LED bulbs. Long before the advent of the white LED's that's made this lighting revolution possible we've had red LED's used in all kind of electronics. A red LED is cheap, will only emit light in fairly specific frequencies, can run on low power and lasts almost forever. Perfect.

My first idea was to get an LED bicycle light. But since I can never have too much complications in my life I decided to go for a more DIY solution. In an electronics store I found an LED "brakelight" kit for car rear brake lights, with a circuit board and male socket. I got the kit, a dozen red 1W LED's, a matching female socket1 and a light switch. For power I used an 12v transformer I had lying around.

To keep with a filmy theme I attached the socket to a 35mm film canister, with the cable going through the lid. A second white film canister fits nicely over the light itself and serves as a diffuser. I hang it in the bathroom simply by wrapping the cord twice around the curtain rod over the bathtub. The light is plenty strong - so strong that I hang a towel over it to dampen it a little - and seems to be completely safe for the paper as far as I can tell.

Here's the safelight disassembled. I've soldered the LED's and other components (just a diode and a resistor - it really is very simple), attached it to the socket, attached the male socket to the base canister and done the cabling. Works very nicely.

Making our bathroom really dark turned out to be the most complicated part of this - much more so than making and using the pinhole camera. The room has to be really dark - any stray light from outside will ruin the paper. I tried an elaborate idea with light-proof curtain fabric and a frame made of PVC tubing that utterly failed - on the positive side I now have several meters of tubes and connectors to use for something else. I finally just taped the fabric over our bathroom door (What would I do without gaffer's tape?2). I also close the doors to the washroom outside, making doubly sure I won't have any unwanted light seeping in. Seems to work, if not all that practical.

Darkroom Darkroom (BW)

Here's the darkroom, in color and converted to BW (click to enlarge). There's plenty of space, running water and efficient ventilation, and I get a good-sized workbench simply by using the bathtub covers. If I ever get an enlarger I can place it along the wall out of the picture on the right.

This kind of picture, incidentally, is a perfect task for a digital camera. The light is nearly monochromatic, and getting the exposure right without trial and error is almost hopeless. Had I tried to take this on film for whatever reason I'd had to take a whole roll and probably still not get an image I was happy with.

I've taken two pictures with the pinhole camera so far - you don't get much of a frame rate when you have to return and develop each image before loading the next. I used 13x18 cm Fuji multigrade RC paper, the cheapest one in the local shop. The pinhole exposure calculator specified 1.5 minutes for hazy sunshine but that seems a little short, and even two minutes was not really enough. I'll try three minutes next time.

The lack of red sensitivity means the images become just a little odd - blue skies go very bright while reddish objects, like brick buildings, become dark. The long exposure time means that anything moving, like people, disappear completely. And there is of course no way to judge the composition; you find out what you got in the frame only when you develop the negative.


The first shot, my standard view out from our balcony. I actually got a bit of motion blur here since the box shifted a little halfway through the exposure. But the tonality is nice, and evokes an old-time photography (the lack of red sensitivity is probably the reason; really old films were not red-sensitive either). I especially like the mottled sky that really exaggerates the haziness.


The second shot, with an unfortunate "composition malfunction". I wanted to have the bikes near the bottom with the skyline breaking into the top near the right end. But the wall I used for support apparently sloped a bit without me noticing so instead you get this inspirational study of an Osaka sidewalk. This was stable, and there's more detail than in the first shot; notice that the wheel spokes are clearly visible in the closer bikes, for instance. At the very top you can see how the red traffic signs have turned black. This is a busy sidewalk, by the way, with lots of people passing by, but with two minute exposure there's not even a hint of people in the image.

What's next? I think I'll take a few more shots with this camera but it's not very practical of course. I got lucky recently and found some 4x5 format film holders in decent condition for cheap in a camera store. So I'll build a more solid camera that can fit a film holder; that way I can bring and shoot several exposures before I have to develop them again. And perhaps, instead of a pinhole I'll try using a lens. Even a very simple glass lens is a real improvement on a pinhole, with more detail and much faster exposure. Of course, then we'll have to start worrying about whether and how to focus, and shutter speeds may get too fast to do manually. But those are problems to solve later.


#1 That way I'll save literally minutes of time switching the LED lamp when the this one breaks some forty years from now. How's that for optimizing my time?

#2 I'd have to make things properly instead, I guess, instead of cobbling stuff together with tape.

Pinhole Time

Feeling Negative is a fun new site for film photography enthusiasts, and I can warmly recommend it. They have started a series on DIY large format photography, beginning with a simple pinhole camera and using photo paper for a negative. That has inspired me to try making my own.

A pinhole camera is by far the simplest camera possible. You have a light-proof box with a piece of film, a sensor or a retina on one side, and a small hole (a "pinhole") on the other. No lens, no focusing (everything is equally in focus) and no mechanics beyond a way to cover and expose the hole. In evolution it's an intermediate stage between having a light-sensitive patch and an eye with a lens; the Nautilus is a group of animals that just kept the pinhole eye and never so far developed a lens.

The way a pinhole works is very simple: imagine that you're a spot on the film or a pixel on the sensor. Everything is dark, except for the light from the hole. That light comes from whatever is visible through the hole, so with a smaller hole you'll see a smaller part of the world. Make the hole small enough and each part of the film will get the light only from a tiny spot, making a recognizable picture. Of course, the smaller the hole, the less light you get, so exposure time also gets longer and longer.

If you are nearsighted you can see the effect of a pinhole directly. Remove your glasses, and curl your index finger and thumb so you get a tiny hole in the middle. Put your hand right up to your eye so you see through that hole. As you squeeze your finger the hole will get smaller and you'll see that the image gets much sharper but dimmer1.

You'd think you could make the image as sharp as you like simply by making the hole smaller (and accepting the longer exposure times). That's not possible, unfortunately. Because of diffraction the image will start becoming blurrier again as you keep making the hole smaller. There's an optimal size for the hole that depends on the focal length - the distance between the hole and the film - of the camera. How do you find out the best pinhole size? The easiest way is to use an online calculator such as this one.

My pinhole camera is using 13×18cm photo paper as the film. Why that size? It's small enough to be cheap (a box of 50 sheets costs just a few hundred yen) and still large enough to make a good sized, easy to scan negative. After a bit of rummaging I found a suitable cardboard box with a short side of about 17 cm; that makes for a pleasant, somewhat wide angle of view with this paper. The pinhole calculator tells me that I need a pinhole slightly less than 0.5mm diameter, that it corresponds to an f-stop of around f/350, and that exposure time in clear daylight will be about a minute and a half.

There's several ways to make the actual pinhole. Ideally it should be made in a thin, rigid material, be nearly round and not have rough edges. A good choice is an empty aluminum can - cut out a square from a can, flatten it, then make the hole. I made a small dent in the aluminum with a pen, then used a sharp tool (needle-nose tweezers) to slowly drill a hole in the middle of the dent from both sides. 0.5mm is fairly big, so it was easy to check the size with calipers and a loupe.

Pinhole camera (front)

Large-format pinhole camera. Note the high-quality cardboard, metal from a can of real beer (not cheap happōshu) for the pinhole and the exclusive gaffer's tape trimmings to give it that refined air of executive class - only the very best materials is good enough for us here.

The box is simplicity itself. I light-proofed it by liberal use of gaffer's tape along all edges, and the pinhole plate is taped in front of a hole in the center of the box. Another piece of tape with an edge folded in serves as the shutter - pull the tape to open, then attach it to close again. With a shutter speed in minutes, a few seconds doesn't matter. I cut a flap on the back, taped the edges, then added strips of tape along the flap to close it. The tape along the edges makes sure the flap tape doesn't stick to the cardboard. That way I can open it without ruining the box. The "film holder" is four bits of blue-tack to hold the paper in place. The whole construction, pinhole and all, took perhaps half an hour or so.

Pinhole Camera (back)

The camera from he back. Stick the photo paper to the four lumps of blue-tack, close the flap and seal it with the strips of tape. The blue-tack clings to the paper, unfortunately, but it doesn't seem to affect development. Still, a better way to hold the paper is probably a good idea.

To use the camera you put a sheet of photo paper in the back and close both back and pinhole. Place the camera where you want to take a picture - make sure it's stable - open the tape shutter, wait two minutes or so, tape up the pinhole, then return home. Take out the photo paper and develop it much like you would with film (developer, wash, fixer, wash again, then dry).

Now, the paper is light sensitive. That's why you can use it to capture images after all. Film comes in light-tight rolls or in small canisters and you develop them in special lightproof tanks. But the paper is a bunch of sheets in a box. How do you get the paper into the camera, and how do you get it developed? You need a darkroom. This is getting pretty long already, so I'll talk about that - and show the results - in the next post.

#1 If you're not nearsighted you'll just have to take my word that it works. Don't complain - you don't know how good you have it.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Turing Machine

You probably heard about it if you're the kind of person who appreciates this, but a man named Mike Davey has built an actual Turing Machine, moving tape and all. This is amazingly cool, at least as good as the lava lamp centrifuge I posted a few weeks ago.

A Turing Machine is a theoretical model of computation, an idealized, maximally simplified computer. The Turing machine can theoretically do anything any computer can do. Specifically, you can show that there is a Turing machine that can take a description of any other Turing machine - or any computer - and emulate its operation. So any results you prove about the Turing machine is also true about any real-world computing device. Anything the Turing machine can do, a normal computer can do too. ANything shown to be impossible for a Turing machine (not just slow, but impossible), is also impossible with a real computer, no matter how big and powerful.

For instance, through the Turing machine we know that it is impossible to create a program that will take any program as input and find out whether that program will ever finish or if it will just loop forever (the Halting problem). Why is that important? It's the same thing as saying you can't make an automated test to verify that any real-world program is bug-free or that it does what it's supposed to do. Any testing or verification has to be specific to a program. That has some pretty important real-world consequences for the quality of important software systems and the cost of developing them.

A more fundamental consequence is that it sets important limits on what functions a Turing machine can actually compute. There are a classes of functions that you can express, but that you can't resolve - you can't get an answer - using a Turing machine. And as a Turing machine is exactly as powerful as any real-world computer (speed is immaterial), it means the same restrictions apply to them as well. Before you start gloating too much about the superiority of humans to computers, remember that it's quite probable that we are the same kind of computing devices and are just as unable to resolve this class of functions.

The Turing machine is an abstract tool for people working on theory of computation and algorithms. Building a real-world machine that looks and operates like Alan Turings imaginary machine is perhaps not the most useful thing in the world, but it's hugely, amazingly cool.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No More Elephants

Book Done

I recently finished "Elephant Time, Mouse Time" that I started last year. Took a little longer to read than I thought. Unlike fiction, you want to read popular nonfiction fairly closely so you don't miss anything, and there's plenty of specialty words even in a very accessible book like this. Not sure when I'll have use of words like "echinoderm" (it's 棘皮動物 for those who want to know) but I'm sure it'll come in handy.

So what's next? For now, nothing. Instead I'm trying to read the newspaper. I select one article from the previous evening paper and read it during my commute in the morning. One article may not sound like much - and the first read-through is fairly quick - but with the heavy kanji use and subject-specific vocabulary the second reading is usually slow going. And if I ever finish a piece before I arrive I have a whole paper worth of other articles to choose from.

So far it does seem to improve my vocabulary more than reading a book. Not surprising, as a book is all about one thing throughout while articles are about wildly different subjects. On the downside, a newspaper is a bit large and bulky to wield in a cramped commuter train. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Our master and doctoral students here at NAIST are graduating today1. They're leaving the warm, comforting womb of graduate school to brave the harsh seas of commerce and industry - or, in some cases, the cutthroat gladiatorial games that is a research career. I'm sure they'll do fine.

Big congratulations to everyone!


#1 People all enter grad school at the same time and graduate at the same time here in Japan. Which is certainly different from the "You're done when you're done"-system in Sweden.

The bad part of the Japanese system is that you have to wait for the yearly deadline before you can leave. The good part is of course that you have a definite deadline to induce panic focus your mind - that alone would have shaved six months off my time. And when everyone graduates at the same time it's an excellent opportunity for a party.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

API invokes Godwin's Law

The EU foreign correspondents in Brussels has come up with an interesting notion: Open government and free information access leads to despotism. Yes, we're in "1984" land, apparently, where war is peace, freedom is slavery and openness is repression. You think I'm joking? Here's a quote from the article:

"This is a totalitarian dream," [Mr. Consoli of the API] told EUobserver. "Every dictator who has ever lived has dreamed of communicating directly with the public without questions from a troublesome press."

They seem to believe their own readers are so utterly stupid, so dull, so dumb, so completely bereft of anything resembling analytical thought that they can not see a press release for what it is, and can not be trusted to form an actual informed opinion on their own. Some in the EU press corps wanted to restrict access to press releases only to accredited journalists, forcing all information flow to go through them only; instead they are calling for a mandatory embargo, giving them information ahead of everyone else.

What a heaping pile of dung.

The real reason for this over the top reaction has nothing to do with freedom of information, but with the shrinking number of EU correspondents. They want a monopoly on EU information in order to safeguard their own jobs. Why are their numbers decreasing? After all, if the press corps are doing a lot of valuable legwork and analysis, why would their editors ax their jobs? Partly it's the recession of course. But part of the answer may come from a Australian study showing more than half of all news reports are based on PR - on press releases, prepared media packets and so on.

Of course, taking a press release as a starting point for investigating a piece is fine. But basing your work entirely on competing press material from different interests is not. And that, unfortunately, happens far too often. So perhaps one reason the EU press corps is shrinking is that too many of those people never did enough of that independent reporting and legwork they keep talking about, and instead just repackaged the press material in their own words. When a cash-strapped editor realizes he can get the same material right over the web he'd have a hard time to motivate keeping an expensive foreign correspondent around.

Do I believe journalists in general are lazy or unskilled? No, of course not. Nor do I believe that journalism isn't important, or that it can be completely replaced by hobbyists writing blogs. But while journalists in the abstract do work that is both important and professional, the work done by specific journalists is all too frequently neither. I like newspapers - we take two at home - and I really want to continue liking them. But they're really making it difficult, with distasteful self-serving propaganda like this.

The way for quality journalism to survive is to produce journalism of good enough quality that people want access to it. But this attempt to scare people with a coming dictatorship unless you get privileged access or first dibs on evaluating information is not quality journalism or professional conduct. In fact, this transparent attempt at intimidation smells of exactly the same kind of partisan gutter journalism that is putting me off the paid-for media to begin with.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I'm back after a two-day workshop in Tokyo. Haven't had much time to gather my thoughts - I need to prepare for another meeting in Tokyo next week - but a few observations:

  • Tokyo station is not the easiest place to find your way in at the best of times. It doesn't get any easier when half the station is a construction site.

  • The area between Tokyo station and the palace is so full of luxury shops it's almost a parody of itself. Someone should open a south Osaka-style kushikatsu restaurant there - the cheap, greasy joint would be an instant novelty hit, and there'd be at least one place you could find a decent lunch set for less than a thousand yen.

  • "Hoppy" is a hops mixer for shochu. It's a Kanto speciality - I've never seen it in Osaka - and really good. That drink is one thing I'd be happy to see spread to Kansai.

  • The hotel I stayed in was clean, comfortable and inexpensive. The service was good, breakfast was simple but tasty and plentiful. I would recommend it to anyone - except they started spamming my mailbox with offers and special discounts before I'd even checked out. No free advertising for them here, and I'm certainly not going to stay with them again. Very effective way to utterly ruin your customer experience there.

  • If you're returning from Tokyo on a Friday - especially if it's a three-day weekend - it's a good idea to buy your seat ticket early. Every business traveler in the country is returning home, along with people leaving for the weekend. Most evening train seats were already booked at 8:30; had I waited until evening I'd had standing room only.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Curry Nabe

We're right at the tail end of winter now, with spring erupting in just another few days. The floors are still cold enough in the morning that I use slippers, and the lunch cafeteria hasn't yet removed Oden from the menu. But mid-day is warm and getting warmer, and the air already smells of chlorophyll and new leaves.

So I'd like to look back at the greatest food hit of the winter for us (and apparently for a lot of people): Curry nabe.

Curry Stew

Curry nabe. Japanese interpretation of Indian curry reimagined as an Asian hotpot with north-European style winter foods, finished off with Japanese rice and American-style mild shredded cheese. Goes very well with beer or hot sake.

Curry nabe is a recent addition to the sprawling family of Japanese pots and stews that you cook right at the table. The base is Japanese curry roux, thinned out with stock to become soupy rather than a thick stew. This base goes well with western-style winter foods: potatoes, onion, carrots, mushrooms, chicken, firm fish, scallops, sausages, broccoli, leeks, cabbage...

Precook root vegetables so you won't have to wait so long. Boil up the base on a pot at the table. Meanwhile cut all the ingredients, assemble on a plate and bring to the table. Throw in stuff little by little. Use a spoon to pick out food to your plate and enjoy. This nabe goes extraordinarily well with beer, by the way.

Once all the ingredients are gone and there's only some curry base left, you throw in some cold cooked rice (leftover rice from the fridge or freezer is perfect) and boil up, cut the heat, then add lots of shredded cheese to melt into the mix. The curry base has picked up lots and lots of flavour from all the stuff cooked in it and the rice soaks up all that flavour and thickens the soup. You get an intensely savoury curry and rice porridge with strings of salty melted cheese running all through it - seriously, my mouth is watering as I write this, it's so good. Of course, it's just as healthy and slimming as it sounds like, so you perhaps want to avoid eating this every day.

Try curry nabe. You'll love it. Meanwhile, I think I'm off for an early lunch today.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rollei 35

I wrote, oh, half a year ago about my experience with a disposable film camera. The Fuji camera was really small, light and fun to use. It had a cheap plastic lens, no way to focus and no way to adjust for the light but the results were still surprisingly good. I got the idea that I should try to find a small, manual film camera like that, only with a bit more flexibility and better build. An always-there camera I could keep in my coat pocket. I found this:

Rollei 35

There's a lot of compact film cameras out there. You may think there's a lot of compact digital cameras to choose from today, but camera companies have been churning out compact cameras for as long as photography has existed; of course, what consitutes "compact" has changed over time. There's entire books cataloguing just compacts from a specific company, or from one era, or compacts with some technical feature in common. Most models aren't all that interesting, just cookie-cutter variations on the dominant designs of their era, and they've long since faded into obscurity. But some cameras do stand out.

Rollei 35 S

The Rollei 35 S. Pictures don't really convey just how small and compact this camera is.

The Rollei 35 appeared in 1966 and was the smallest 35mm camera ever at the time. It's still the smallest ever all-mechanical 35mm camera. As you can see above, it's quite literally built like a metal brick: a rectangular slab with controls that only barely stick out from the flat surfaces. The flat, circular knobs on the front set the aperture and shutter speed. The winding lever, lens lock and shutter button on the top, and hot shoe and rewind lever on the bottom are all almost flush with the surface. The lens retracts into the body when it's not being used. The small size and flat surfaces means you can even carry it comfortably in your front jeans pocket.


Rainy day in Wako city. This is the kind of shot that's difficult to get with a large camera. You have very little time, and the rain means you don't want to drop your umbrella and start messing about with a big DSLR, and get all wet, and probably miss the opportunity anyway.

Of course, this design has a few drawbacks. While small, the all-metal build is fairly heavy - it really feels like a small metal brick. And the flat rectangular design makes for some interesting ergonomics. The front wheels have small, hard-to-see markings along the edge (the front-facing labels are just there to help you remember the film you use). The film advance lever is on the left, rather than right - fine by me, but then, I'm left-handed. There's no grip or handle or place to keep your hands.

The hot shoe is on the bottom of the camera, right next to the tripod mount and the frame counter. You'll not be using a flash and a tripod at the same time. Or use a tripod and see how many frames you've shot. Or change the film while on a tripod. And a flash will either light your subject from below, for that spooky flashlight-under-your-chin look; or you hold the camera upside down and trigger the shot with your left little finger. But this is not a tripod or flash-kind of camera, so these are amusing oddities rather than real drawbacks.

The mechanics inside are a marvel of ingenuity, but they add to the quirkiness. The shutter mechanism is designed in two separate parts, one in the camera house, and one in the lens itself. The lens can only be folded in with the shutter cocked, and in fact the camera is designed to be stored with a wound-up shutter. My camera has probably been stored like that more or less constantly since it was manufactured in the 1970's, but the shutter still works fine at all speeds. As you need to wind the film to fold in the lens you can't just close it after taking the last frame as the film won't wind any further. You need to rewind the film right after the last shot; another small quirk.

Lined Up

Yebisu parade in Namba, Osaka. Grainy film, slow shutter speed and just wildly guessing the focus distance. Pictures don't need to be technically perfect to be good images.

This is a guess-focusing camera, like the old Voigtländer Bessa I have. No rangefinder of focusing screen in other words, just a scale on the lens telling you the distance. There's a battery driven light meter that is always turned on - you turn it "off" simply by covering the meter cell. It seems to work well, overall, but my camera has a slow current leak so the battery drains after a couple of weeks. No matter, as I always use an external meter anyhow.

A rectangular, odd film camera with fiddly collapsible lens, no focusing and strange control layout. Sounds horrible, I know, but it's a very pleasant camera to use in practice. First, this is not meant to be an all-in-one camera. It's not going to be used in a studio, it's not going to be used for huge, high-quality prints or slow, contemplative photography - there's better cameras for that. This camera is meant to slip into your pocket and simply be there whenever you feel like taking a quick snapshot of something. And in that role, it absolutely excels.

Saturday, Slow Day

An old man is practicing outside his home in Nishitanabe, Osaka. On my way to my Japanese lesson and I had a bagful of books. Without a pocket camera I'd not have any way of getting this. And the film defects - the grain, the odd color balance - add to the image, I think.

The lens is a high-quality 40mm f/2.8. The focal length is fairly short, and you're not going to make huge prints from the camera anyway, so focusing is usually a non-problem. In daylight with a 400 iso film you can simply set the camera to f/11, set the distance to 4-5 meters or so and forget about it. Everything you need will be in focus. When it's dark you have to open up the lens so you'll need to start thinking about focus, but again, it's not hard. We're not bad at guessing distances, and we can quickly get better if we practice a bit. And getting focus right really only matters close up and with near-open aperture. If you shoot at around 1-1.5 meters at f/2.8 you'll better take two shots just in case. Any other time you'll most likely get it right without even trying.


Black and white is fun too, of course. But this camera came at the time color film was becoming a mass photographic medium, and at a time - the 1970's - when color exploded in media, in design and in fashion. This camera likes color film.

And despite the unforgiving shape and small size it really lies well in your hands. Everything is nearly flush with the body so you can easily cradle the whole camera in the hand without accidentally changing some setting or pressing something. The viewfinder is bright and clear and all the controls feel snappy and distinct. Loading the film is easy when you've done it once, and the small format means you can squeeze a few extra frames from the film; I get 27 or 28 shots on a 24-shot roll (the very first possible shot is just a little cut off).

Last Train Home

Salaryman on his way home on the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen. This is about as bad as conditions will ever get: dim light that demands an open aperture and a slow shutter; flourescent lamps to mess up your color balance; fast-moving train shaking you and your subject; short focal distance and no time to steady yourself to catch that weary, resigned posture before he becomes self-concious about it and you lose the moment.

Using the Rollei 35 means guess-focusing, flare-prone (though good quality) lens, fast film, cheap scanner and - quite often - slow shutter speeds. And as the camera encourages a breezy the-devil-may-care attitude to using tripods or stable handholding, the resulting pictures aren't all that high resolution. The shots I normally get are, in practice, oh, 4-6 megapixels or so. Use a high-resolution film, put the camera on a tripod and measure the actual distance and you can probably get upwards of 10mp, and more than that with a high-quality scanner. But why would I? If I want high resolution I already have other cameras for that. And I enjoy the pictures I get all the more for their grain, slightly off color and motion blur.

In fact, apart from the weight this is very nearly exactly what I was looking for when I wrote about the reusable Fuji camera last year: a tiny, fun wide-angle point and shoot, but with better optics and some way to set focus, aperture and shutter speed. I got all that, and a camera that oozes precision engineering out of every pore (being a Rollei, it of course oozes it in a predictable, reliable, perfectly controlled manner).

A Beer If You Please

Standing bar in Ikebukuro. For whatever reason, people seem much less self-concious about film cameras than digital ones. A digital camera is a nuisance, or even threatening. A film camera is amusing and a little quaint.

A few tips for use:

  • To wind the film you close the cover, pull out the lens and shoot-wind-shoot-wind... until you get to frame '1'. However, in practice the first "real" frame is two frames before '1', so you may want to make use of that.

  • Remember, the lens needs to be pulled out, then twisted to lock. Nothing happens if you forget this. And you can't unlock and retract the lens until you wind the film. If you shot the last frame you can't wind the film any longer, so you need to wind back the roll before you can close the camera.

  • Make sure you don't hold your finger on the shutter as you wind the film; it can accidentally disengage the winding mechanism, so you end up taking a double exposure. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be reliably repeatable (and I'm not sure it's good for the mechanism) so you can't really use it on purpose either.

  • The lens is prone to flare. A hood is a good idea. I got a Rollei collapsible rubber hood with my camera that fits perfectly.

  • The shutter button is not a trigger. It actually holds the shutter open, while the shutter timer is a trigger that closes the shutter again. So if you release the shutter button before the exposure is done you'll close the shutter too early and get an underexposed picture. Keep the finer on the shutter until you're done, in other words.

  • There's no visual indication when you have rewound the roll. Make sure you've really rewound the whle thing before you open the camera. I lost part of my first roll when I opened it halfway.

Would I use this as my main camera? Nope. It's too limited - though what it does do, it does well. Would I recommend it as a beginner's film camera? Umm, no. It's a bit too weird and unforgiving. But I can happily recommend it for those who like using film, who like street photography and who want a tiny camera to take along for those chance opportunities that keep showing up if only you look for them.


Kita Ikoma station, Nara.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Have you heard of "Metal Umlauts", perhaps? When a heavy-metal band wants a name that sounds exotic, gothic and vaguely menacing they will sometimes add an umlaut ("¨" - the two dots in "ä", "ö", "ü" and so on) to a vowel or two. Think "Motörhead", for instance. This can backfire; British metal band "Trojan" famously added an umlaut to their name to become "Tröjan". This means "the shirt" in Swedish, and doesn't really evoke the air of menace the band was aiming for - though I guess it did make for some deliciously self-referential concert t-shirts.

Nerd Coffee, Umeda.

There's a recent café in the Umeda underground that's afflicted with a similar case of Umlautitis. It has a Scandinavian theme - the furniture and decorations are Nordic minimalist, and there was even a long text explaining the Swedish tradition of "fika" - an extended coffee break - in passable but "interesting" Swedish and in Japanese. It looks like a very pleasant coffee shop, and I've been meaning to stop by. The name is "Nördkaffe".

Perhaps the owner has lived in Sweden and got inspired to do a Swedish-style café back in Osaka. I think the real name is "Nordkaffe" ("Nordic coffee"), and indeed, the Japanese transcription uses the "nordkafe" (ノードカフェ) pronunciation. The umlaut (and the second "f") is only there to give the name an exotic touch. But as with "Tröjan", this changes the meaning: "Nördkaffe" means "Nerd Coffee" or オタクカフェ. Unlikely to be quite what the owner intended, of course, but the name is memorable and the place looks very nice. We really should stop by next time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lava Lamp Centrifuge

Short, short link post: Does a lava lamp work in high gravity? One way to find out is to build a centrifuge for the lamp. A gentleman named Neil Fraser went ahead and did just that.

We clearly don't have enough terrifying and somewhat dangerous science-related machinery at home.

Friday, March 5, 2010

City Life

I really love Osaka. Sennichimae is a major east-west thoroughfare through south Osaka, and around Namba it crosses Midōsuji street and cuts right through the south city center, where department stores, train stations and shopping arcades crowd each other for space. Takashimaya, Maruichi, Bic Camera...

But take a turn off Sennichimae, walk ten steps, and you find this:

Chicken Crossing The Road

Side street off Sennichimae. That's a couple of cheap hot-plate eateries and single homes in the background - and, yes, a chicken crossing the road. It has a roost by the wall to the right, so it's not a runaway. Feisty bird - the rats around here are almost as big as it is.

This scene has probably not changed for the past fifty years, and I love that there's still areas like this right in the middle of the city.

Chicken Feet

A girl stopped to see what I was photographing, and on seeing the bird she promptly emitted one of those ultrasonic "kawaiiiiiii!!!"-sounds that young Japanese girls are want to do. The bird itself is apparently quite used to strangers and seemed to enjoy the attention.

Did I mention that I love this place?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Not my desk.
But it could be.

I'm not an organized person. I mean, I'm really not organized. I have "could be useful" emails by the thousands in my inboxes. Most of my documents are completely unsorted, with helpful names like "brain5.txt". There'd be no point in me getting a nice desk as I'd never see it under piles of books, papers, unwashed coffee cups and long-forgotten forms anyway.

It's not just general messiness either. I tend to forget about seminars and meetings unless I get reminded, and I neglect administrative deadlines as a matter of course. I can never remember passwords, so I write them down - but then I forget where. Worse, I recently completely missed a submission deadline (not the one I've been working on), which is not just inconvenient, but fairly serious.

Last week I got the idea that I should try some kind of computer scheduling program. I looked around a bit and found one that's gotten a lot of good word of mouth. Simple and straightforward to use, and integrates nicely with my other desktop tools.

So I try to install it, but get a message to the effect that GTG can't be updated because it's already running. It turns out I already had this idea in January. I'd downloaded an earlier version, started it - and forgotten all about it. I found it open behind some ongoing blog entries, a forgotten instance of Octave and a couple of open PDF files.
So much for that bright idea.