# Missing the Point

This comic was pretty funny, and the age/2 + 7 formula got tossed around a lot by my roommates.

Of course, it gives us the minimum age one can date without being creepy. At 22, it’s [(22/2) + 7], or 18. (I, however, maintain that this discrepancy would, in fact, be creepy.)

But what about the upper age limit? The formula itself is silent on this, but we can easily do some substitution to make it work. If the minimum acceptable age (“M”) is your own age (“A”) divided by two, plus 7, we get:

M = A/2 + 7

We typically solve for M, knowing A. However, the oldest person I could date would have my A as their M, e.g.:

22 = A/2 + 7

With this realization, it’s a simple Algebra 1 question. Subtract 7 from both sides and then multiply by two.

Thus, the maximum age one can date is 2(a-7), where a is your age. For me, it’d be 2(22-7), or 30.

What interests me, though, is that this means I’m allowed to go back four years, but forward eight, within the margin of creepiness.

I built a spreadsheet for people aged 1 to 100 showing this and various other statistics. It’s online here as an HTML document. A few interesting trends emerge that aren’t intuitively obvious working with just the formulas:

• The formula doesn’t make any sense below age 14.
• Age 14 is a sort of ‘identity,’ when you’re first able to start non-creepily dating people, apparently, without breaking any laws of mathematics. At age 14, you can’t date anyone older, nor younger, than 14.
• From there on out, every year you age adds 0.5 to the minimum age you can date, while adding 2 to the maximum age. Thus at 22, I can date 18-30. When I turn 23, my new range will be 18.5 to 32. (At age 100, you can date anyone between 57 and 186. Because dating anyone over 186 would definitely be creepy.)
• As you can see, the two don’t grow at the same speed; the upper age grows four times as fast as the lower age. An interesting side-effect of this is that this means that, as time goes on, your age becomes radically different than the median age. By the time you reach 100, you’re 21.5 years younger than the median age of people you can date.

# I Can’t Take It!

Rusty and I were just talking about the recent decision by the Democratic party and how we’re going to count delegates from the two states, which has left both sides somewhat unhappy.

But then we kind of realized that no one is talking about the real issues? I don’t particularly care how we seat delegates. The whole system sucks, and I hope after 2008 is over we can overhaul the way the DNC works. And I kind of had an epiphany: I feel like I’m trapped in this country, a faded emblem that used to be a beacon of prosperity and freedom.

Let’s talk about some things that actually matter.

• I paid \$53 to put gas in my car yesterday. It’s increasingly tempting to get a hybrid, but they’re in short supply. Not because they’re in high demand (though they are), but because not many are produced. American auto’s only hybrid seems to be the Ford Escape hybrid. (I refuse to count GMC’s “greenest” SUV that gets 20MPG.) A question on Ask MetaFilter today called my attention to the fact that they’re basically impossible to get, with the dealer he went to telling him flat-out that they wouldn’t order one for him. BTW, Ford just announced a \$3 billion plant in Mexico.
• We are the only civilized country in the world that doesn’t have universal health care. Americans are running into massive debt because they got sick. The typical response, beneath it all, seems to be a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that if you get cancer and go bankrupt paying for your treatment, it sucks to be you. Attempts to reform the system are consistently subverted by cries of “socialized medicine” without ever presenting a legitimate claim, just the catch phrase? (And there’s a good point to be made about how this is costing us huge money in less-obvious areas.)
• If you come to see homosexuality as something that isn’t ‘wrong’ or ‘bad,’ opposition to gay marriage seems appallingly bigoted. I really don’t think opposing gay marriage is any different than opposing interracial marriage.
• College is \$40,000 a year. Schools throughout our country are failing. To quote, well, everyone, No Child Left Behind has left plenty of people behind.
• Veterans are returning home and getting next to no support, or staying in ramshackle hospitals. Support our troops! Anyone? Those who oppose sending young Americans—my peers; people I went to school with; maybe me if I was born into a different family—to die in someone else’s civil war are branded as unpatriotic and not supporting our troops by the same people who can’t be bothered to waste money caring for our returning soldiers?
• The United States economy is tanking. It probably has something to do with the fact that our schools are being surpassed by countries around the globe, that our post-9/11 xenophobia has resulted in immigration policies forcing college students who come here from abroad to leave our country, and that our health care costs are through the roof.

The thing is, I really love this country. But all around me I see signs of our great nation crumbling. At times I almost feel trapped. Can we please stop focusing on the things Republicans and Democrats disagree on, and instead work on getting things done? We all love America, want our troops to be cared for, want our schools to be the best, want to get treated in hospitals, and want our economy to thrive. Working with two parties seems to keep us from ever getting anything done, because all we can ever do is disagree. But why does it have to be that way? We all want the same things deep down. Can’t we take our different viewpoints and use them to our advantage, crafting solutions that appease both of us?

# Damnum absque injuria

I was pleasantly surprised by what my little 55-200mm Sigma can do! I’ve noticed that if you’re not exacting in aligning the polarizer, you lose a lot of contrast, BUT it’s very easily fixed in Photoshop. I’ve also noticed that, short of focus problems, most everything is easily fixed in Photoshop. (I’ve stopped thinking of the images out of the camera as the final product, really.)

Shot at ISO 1600, with less noise than I’d expected, even after ‘lighting up’ the shadows a bit in Photoshop. There’s noise if you look for it at high resolutions, but I’d forgotten that 1600 can be quite usable.

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I’ve started doing a lot of post-processing in Photoshop. It’s something I hadn’t really been tuned into until I started doing a lot of photo enhancement, but a lot of images have a sort of ‘haze’ to them. (Shooting through a window, or shooting through a misaligned polarizer, will do this… But some cameras with crappy metering equipment do this on their own.) That’s easily fixed with Levels. Some images aren’t quite as tack-sharp as they should be, which can also be tweaked in Photoshop. Even the best cameras have imperfect dynamic ranges, leaving some details in darker areas obscured, and brighter portions overexposed (“blown out”). So my workflow (that’s a major buzzword right there) is to align images (rotate as needed, and adjust any that have sloping horizons), perform a Shadows & Highlights enhancement (CS2 and newer, I believe, have this feature, which is invaluable!), adjust Levels, and then apply an unsharp mask (I’ve been tending towards Smart Sharpen, 55% over a 1-pixel range, but it gets tweaked as needed.) Periodically I’ll play with Variations to get colors just right, and boost (or tone down, depending) an image’s saturation, but that’s only as-needed.

That’s straight out of the camera. Not necessarily a bad picture, though a bit underexposed for my liking. (I’d gotten a batch of slightly overexposed shots, so I set it to underexpose slightly, which ended up being a mistake.) But here it is after 60 seconds in Photoshop:

It’s a striking difference: the apparent ‘haze’ has been lifted: the image is brighter (properly exposed!) and sharper.

It’s really not a great shot, but I tried the obligatory HDR shot:

It’s an okay shot, but I think it’s a case where HDR really isn’t appropriate. It ends up being a very busy shot, and the very bright (very saturated!) colors in the crowd end up drawing attention away from the batter.

I’m also becoming a fan of panoramas. I’m glad Mr. T recommended Windows Live Photo Gallery or whatever it’s called; it’s worked pretty well. This ended up being a GIGANTIC photo (15297×1263 pixels, and that’s AFTER a very heavy crop, since my images didn’t line up that well, leaving huge black areas on the top and bottom). The downside is that there’s really no good way to view it; Flickr’s next size up (if you click through) is 1024×85 — 1024 pixels is a good width, but an image 85 pixels tall is practically useless. After that is the original, which I don’t recommend unless you have a fast connection and a lot of time to scroll around.

Anyway, it was fun… We left at the close of the 6th inning because it was getting late, but we (Manchester Fishercats) were losing 8 to 14. But I got some good pictures.

# SLRs

I think the best thing about SLRs isn’t their elimination (well, exponential reduction) of shutter lag, nor the support for high ISOs, or even advanced exposure and metering modes. It’s that even at relative high apertures (f/5.6), you can keep a shallow depth of field. Consider this photograph:

(Does anyone know what type of flower this is, BTW?) The photo wouldn’t be half as good if everything were in focus, as a normal camera would have rendered it. But by throwing the distracting (and ugly!) background out of focus, the shot comes out a lot better. I don’t entirely love the depth of field on this one; I wish you could see a little more of the plant clearly (which would have required that I stop the lens down a bit more), but I also wish the background were even further out of focus (which would have required that I open up the lens a bit more). BTW, a little bit of HDR going on here, as it wasn’t the best lighting.

There’s another example. Too shallow, or at least, I should have manually selected the autofocus sensor to use one on the left, so that all the caterpillars were in focus. But the background (green and purple bushes) are pleasantly blurred, keeping your attention on the tree.

Here I totally disregarded the rule of thirds. I like it anyway. The other leaves were pretty nearby, so they’re only slightly out of focus. But again, it draws your attention in closer.

There’s the best example. The trees in the background were across the street, and thus extremely out of focus. The camera focused on the leaves, which are tack sharp.

And now, I’m going to go finish mowing the lawn. There were just too many photo opportunities I noticed… 😉

Although I’m attending a Fishercats game tonight… It’ll be my first time with an SLR there. Let’s see how that goes.

# If I Were Running for President…

…I’d try to arrange a meeting of all the major candidates, in front of the media, where we all pledge to stop this crap. (Obama himself commented that he knew Hillary meant nothing negative, but that after such intense campaigning, he knew exactly what it was like to slip up and say something that sounds really bad but wasn’t what you meant.)

# Central NH Photos

I joined my family today in central/Northern New Hampshire. It was opening day at Clark’s Trading Post, a favorite of my brother. My brother encouraged me to go with them, and the forecast called for a decent day, so I figured I’d tag along. The area’s always been quite photogenic, and I figured it’d be a good chance to continue my exploration into HDR.

That’s the train at Clark’s. This is what I like to think of as a halfway-decent HDR shot: a close inspection will reveal some technical flaws, but it’s normally a difficult subject to shoot well. It’s largely a black train, glossy in parts, matte in others, but it also has shiny metal highlights, plus the sky. This isn’t to say that it can’t be photographed, just that the results are ordinarily less than stunning. What I like about this shot is that your first thought isn’t, “What type of surrealist artwork is this?!” As seems to be typical of my shots, the sky looks kind of wonky, but overall, I’m happy with the shot.

There’s an example of the type of stuff I’m still on the fence about. It’s just kind of jarring in a way, as the colors, while “correct” in a sense, are unnatural. Rather than correcting for the fact that the camera can’t capture the whole scene the same way the human eye might, it goes further and does something even our eyes can’t. It’s a little surreal, but the style is growing on me. (Trivia: look closely and see how many things you can spot wrong. When stitching together multiple photos in which people are moving, things are bound to not quite match up right. They’re fairly subtle in this photo.)

There’s another building, again showing the more “legitimate” aspects of HDR photography in my mind. (Besides the ghostly half-man.) This would ordinarily be a lighting disaster. The building was receiving what was almost direct sunlight, while a dark shadow existed. And the sky was somewhere in between. In this case, I think the blended exposures work perfectly. The same goes true for this shot:

I didn’t know how it’d turn out at first… It looks like a simple shot, but it wasn’t! My typical method is to set my camera up for auto-bracketing, taking three shots in a row, one properly exposed, one too dark, and one too bright, thus increasing the odds that there’s a good shot in there somewhere. Often the main one looks good, but I know that some of the details from the others will boost it when converting to HDR. In this case, though, none of the three worked. If the bottles looked good, the wooden headstones were washed out. If the wall looked good, the grass was far too bright. I had a nicely-bracketed set of three bad photos. Fortunately, Photomatix worked it magic and produced a good shot.

We eventually tired of Clark’s and went exploring the area. Lost River was nearby… I pondered what lens to take, since it wasn’t practical to carry all of them, and made the right choice to bring my wide-angle 18-50mm lens. And here I realized that shooting for HDR, much like switching to using two computer monitors, starting to carry a cell phone, or buying high-thread-count sheets, is a habit that rapidly becomes very hard to break. I’d take a “normal” shot, but realize that parts were under- or over-exposed, so I’d retake the shot as a bracketed set of three, and spent some time in the car ride back home on my laptop merging them.

This is at the Lost River section; hardly the best shot, but a quick-and-dirty example of an ‘acceptable’ use of HDR. The trees are well-lit, and so is the sky. Difficult to pull off with one exposure, but a piece of cake with three and HDR!

As we went along, I noticed various parts of running water. (I thought this was a lost river… Pretty easy to find.) I’d never actually taken the stereotypical long-exposure moving-water shot, so this served as a good opportunity. I set the camera to ISO 100 (pretty insensitive to light, very low noise, but meaning slower shutter speeds), and stopped the lens down to f/22, which gave me about a one-second shutter speed. I set the camera down on a railing and pressed the shutter. Viola!

But I was curious… How would my newfound obsession with HDR play into this? Could you “bracket” that type of shot, and merge them with any success?

I actually didn’t expect this to work, but it ended up being one of my favorite shots from the day. The shots were something like 1/3 second, 1 second, and 2 seconds, so I expected that the water / person would have moved too much. As luck would have it, they didn’t, and the result was that shot. (A nice side-effect is that I rarely remember to stop the lens down for landscapes, but I necessarily did here… At f/22, everything, in theory, is in focus. Although if you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the photo is kind of soft where things got matched up slightly off-kilter.

We then went to the Indian Head Resort, where, in a welcome break from \$15 admission tickets, we paid 50 cents to climb the tower. (In hindsight, they should have paid me to climb that thing!)

Doesn’t it look big and scary? Nevermind that I used a wide-angle lens feet away from the base to distort the perspective, nor that I made it an HDR exposure to boost the ominous dark clouds that really weren’t that ominous or dark.

That’s the Indian Head. For those easily confused like me, the Indian Head, and the Old Man of the Mountain are two separate things. I initially remarked, “It kind of still looks like a face,” before realizing that it was the Old Man that came tumbling down, not the Indian Head.

This was yet another one of those shots that was pretty tricky. I pulled out a polarizing filter for this one to try to boost contrast and get the sky to not look so gloomy; you wouldn’t know from the picture, but it helped. You also wouldn’t know from the picture, but this, too, is an HDR shot.

Facing the other way, I decided to take a series of shots holding the camera vertical, intended to be stitched together into a panorama. Since I have under 500MB free on my hard drive (?!) and since I couldn’t find PanoTools or any of its ilk, I ended up trying Windows Live Photo Gallery, which I installed at Mr. T’s suggestion but never got around to using much. (I also brought the image into Photoshop, where I cropped it and tweaked it.)

I’d like to give it good reviews, as it was very easy and quite intuitive. The problem is that I’m fairly certain this isn’t actually how things looked. The pond looks right, but I’m fairly certain that there were more ‘humps’ off to the left. I’m really not sure what happened, but the end result looks good, so I’m happy.

# New England

Consider the following two statements:

• It is raining outside right now.
• It is very sunny outside right now.

One might assume the two were mutually exclusive. Those of us from New England, however, know better. Indeed, it’s a bright, sunny day here, but I’m watching rain fall on the roof outside my window.

# Jealousy

From NY1:

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is campaigning in Florida today. He’ll be in Connecticut Sunday to deliver the commencement address at Wesleyan University, in place of Senator Ted Kennedy.

Our speaker was alright, but he was no Barack Obama. And why did Wesleyan get Ted Kennedy, when he’s our Senator?!

# HDR

I brought my brother to organ lessons today, which are held in an old (18th century, I believe) church in Amherst. So I brought the camera along in anticipation of some more HDR fun.

This is a so-so interior shot. Note that it’s kind of noisy (grainy), I’ll touch on that in a bit. Also note, just as an interesting tidbit, the green cast on things: it was sunny outside and there were lots of green trees right outside the window. This shot, in my mind, is more about what HDR should be used for: getting ‘appropriate’ results where the camera normally wouldn’t hold up. To get detail in the pews and yet not have the upper third of the image ruined by the windows would ordinarily be difficult.

Here, side by side (I hope) are two versions of the same thing. They were both taken from a set of three bracketed shots. That is, I have the camera take three shots back-to-back, the first “normal,” the second overexposed (too bright), and the last underexposed (too dark). The underexposed one gets the detail in the sky and clouds well, but the foreground is really dark. The overexposed one fills in all of the details that would otherwise be too dark, such as the leaves on the tree.

The problem is that, after seeing both, I don’t like either. The “exposure blending” one looks natural, but very washed out and dull. The HDR one, by contrast, looks absurdly unreal, but is very contrasty, colorful, and preserves all the detail.

That’s a building right next door to the church that burned down. (And has been sitting there in ruins for months.) It’s weird how the tree in the upper left seems almost like it was Photoshopped in because the lighting doesn’t match at all. This is actually a case where HDR helped more than it hurt, though: getting any details in the charred part of the building and the white part of the building, with the sun reflecting off of it, was impossible. Here, HDR helps both co-exist. Of course, the sky looks bizarre (why does it change colors like that?), the purple tree at far right looks unsettling, and the trunk of the car in the lower right of the image exhibits noticeable “ghosting” (or is that a reflection?).

Finally, we have this image. Despite the fact that I was basically shooting into a window with sunlight streaming in, it was quite dark. I shot at ISO 800 and f/3.5, and got 1/50, 1/100, and 1/25 shutter speeds when bracketing. The ISO was fairly high at 800, but the XTi performs well and has negligible noise. UNLESS you try to pull lots of detail out of the shadows, as Photomatix apparently does. At a quick glance, this is an OK shot, but look at the walls and their graininess. If you view it larger, it’s even more prominent. Further, the image came out a bit soft, so I’d like to have applied some sharpening in Photoshop, but that just accentuates all the noise.

So I’ll concede that HDR has some benefits, but that it’s easy to overdo it. And, above all, shoot at a low ISO if you want good results!

# Freedom of Speech

I see two things done a lot that really bother me, because people get very into their arguments, not realizing that they’re entirely wrong. Both happen to concern the First Amendment and freedom of speech. It might be best to begin by quoting it (emphasis mine):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The first thing I see happen is somewhat difficult to concisely define, but essentially, some public figure will make some sort of idiotic statement that ends up causing great offense to one group or another. Some people get upset and request an apology and a retraction of the statement. The person who made the remark, though, refuses to apologize because of his right to freedom of speech.

I suppose they’re right: they do have the right to say offensive things. But it’s utterly irrelevant to criticism? Actually, quite the opposite is true! Freedom of speech is what gives others the right to criticize your freedom of speech! It always struck me as a non-sensical argument, to vehemently “invoke” your Constitutional right when no one was trying to encroach on it in the first place.

I see my second pet peeve even more often! Freedom of speech refers to government actions. If you start yelling profanities in school and the teacher tells you to stop, it’s not violating your Constitutional rights. When you vandalize Wikipedia and I undo your edit, I’m not violating your Constitutional rights. When the (private) school newspaper realizes that your article was plagiarized and bans you from submitting articles for the rest of the year, they’re not violating the First Amendment. If the government’s not doing it, it’s not a First Amendment violation!

It boggles my mind how many people miss these points!