Day 48: A Lockdown Cliché

I’ve never been a serious baker, but in the past I have dabbled a bit with bread making. Mostly I made simple whole grain loaves that were meant to be consumed for daily meals. I came upon a recipe for challah, and remembered how much I liked that kind of bread when I had eaten it at friends’ homes as a kid. It turned out not to be very difficult to make, and I got good at the braiding. I was hosting a New Year’s Eve party to welcome in 1981, and made this as the centerpiece of the food spread:

Happy New Year!

But over the years I pretty much stopped baking, mostly due to time constraints. But this past spring the dual whammy of getting laid off at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown left me with lots of time on my hands.

I have always been fascinated by sourdough bread: using the natural yeast and bacteria in the air around us to not only introduce air into the dough, but to transform the nutrients locked up in the wheat kernel into a form that we humans can digest. In particular, the book Cooked by Michael Pollan (now also a Netflix series) really made me want to learn how to do this myself.

So I googled around to compare different techniques for making a sourdough starter, and settled on one that seemed the best (they’re all pretty much the same, though). Within a week I had a pretty healthy batch of starter, and made my first loaves from it. They tasted fine, but were very flat, and lacked that killer crust that is the hallmark of a good sourdough. I read various articles on different techniques, and what I seemed to be missing was the entire shaping process that builds the structure of the dough. Who knew that dough needed structure?

I watched a lot of videos, and liked this one the best. I’ve made many loaves since then, and they’ve always come out delicious! They look pretty good, too:

Crispy, crunchy crust with lots of flavor!

Besides the taste, I love to see the intricate structure of the bread – it’s amazing to think of the millions and millions of cells that went into generating the gas to raise the bread, and the intricate structure of the wheat to trap that gas. Just look at that detail!

Sourdough close-up

I have taken lots of macro photos of these loaves, and created a gallery on my website called Sourdough Porn that is filled with shots like these.

So while baking sourdough bread during the lockdown is a bit of a cliché, it’s definitely a fun and delicious cliché!

Day 43: Scarcity and Value

How do you price art?

There is one aspect of economics that everyone understands: the law of Supply and Demand. It’s pretty obvious: useful/desirable things will be valued more highly than stuff that isn’t as in demand, and scarce things will cause people to offer to pay more.

I’ve found something
No one else is looking for
I’ve found something
That there’s no use for
And what’s more
I’m keeping it to myself

Wire, Single K.O.

For this discussion let’s assume that the art in question is “desirable”, so that there is a certain level of demand for it. The determinant for price will therefore be how scarce it is.

There is a fundamental difference between a painting, in which the creative effort results in a single item, and a recording of a performance, which can be duplicated and replayed an infinite number of times. The artist can only sell their painting once, but can sell as many videos as people want.

This same issue comes up with media such as photography and print making: there really is no limit to the number of copies of a single art work that can be made. In the days of negatives, the act of making a positive print was itself part of the creative process, because the printer (usually the photographer) had to have a feel for how to balance overall exposure with local dodging and burning. The great photographer Edward Weston trained his son Cole to learn his precise printing techniques, so that Cole could continue to make prints that would be as close to the artist’s vision as possible. So while in theory an infinite number of prints could be made, there is a practical limit.

But digital photography throws all of that out the window. The artist can make whatever corrections or other changes they want to the digital file, which can then be reproduced without loss forever. So how does one determine a price for something like this?

I’ve recently begun to submit my work to several galleries, and have had some success – just yesterday I got notice that one of my photos was accepted for a show! But I’ve seen several Calls for Entry for exhibits that have a requirement that any submitted work be part of a limited edition. A Limited Edition is when the artist decides that there will only ever be a certain number of prints made, and each print is “numbered” so that they buyer knows that they are one of the few owners of that piece.

I call bullshit.

Art’s value is in the piece itself. If it moves you, makes you think, or just is stimulating to look at, it has value. The fact that only a few other people can enjoy that particular piece doesn’t change the experience; it just creates an artificial scarcity to prop up prices that otherwise can’t be justified.

Paintings are scarce, by their very nature. Digital photographs are not.

I’m not playing this game. Sure, this might keep me out of some galleries, but those are probably not compatible in spirit with me. With a calibrated monitor, I can create a digital file that can be printed exactly the same anywhere in the world. If you like my work and want a print, I will sell you a print. I won’t say “sorry, but I’ve sold all the prints I can make of that image. You’ll have to find one from some art dealer or collector”.

The digital transformation calls for new ways of thinking about art. The music business learned that lesson with the advent of the .mp3 file. The photographic business will need to grow to accommodate this new digital reality.

Day 33: Discipline

Recently an online discussion about film vs. digital photography got me thinking. I absolutely love digital photography, and would never consider going back to film. Sure, it’s really tough to match the richness of color of Kodachrome 64, or the detail and subtle gradation of 4×5 black and white film, but to me, those are not the most important things when creating art. Those considerations are more like a measure of craftmanship than critical elements for conveying an idea.

However, I am so grateful that I grew up in the age of film photography because of the discipline it instilled in me. Every time you pressed the shutter button, you were spending money. Period. Contrast that to today, where images cost nothing: take a bunch of bad shots, who cares? Click the little trash can icon, and they’re gone. Doesn’t cost a cent.

If you were a poor, struggling student, as I was at the time, buying film was a good chunk of what was left of your money after paying for rent, food, and other essentials. So if I saw something interesting to photograph, I didn’t fire away, taking several exposures from a few different angles in the hope that one would be what I needed. Instead, I composed the image in the viewfinder, looking at it from various angles, and through this process learned to recognize what was important for the final image. Most of the time I walked away without taking the shot, because on further reflection, it didn’t seem worth it.

What if I had had lots of money to spend? I believe that I would not have developed the visual discipline that I have today, as there would never have been a need to limit what I shot. Without that discipline, I don’t believe that I would have become as good a photographer. Even today, with all my digital equipment, I still shoot as though every exposure means something.

In general, scarcity forces one to become disciplined. For example, when you grow up in an environment where food is in short supply, you learn not to waste anything, and to only eat enough to keep going. Back in the early days of computing, when both disk storage and RAM were expensive, you coded in a way to ensure that your program would fit into memory, and would require as little space as possible when written to disk. That parsimonious approach resulted in the “640K Ought to be Enough for Anyone” quote that Bill Gates never said, but keeps getting repeated anyway.

There’s something to be said for learning how to get through tough times. It’s a delicate balance, though – too much scarcity can damage you physically and/or psychologically. My mom grew up as one of six kids in a family during the Great Depression, and it definitely left its mark on her. She wasn’t a full-blown hoarder, but she definitely had a hard time throwing things away – “you never know when you might need it!” was her refrain. And we were not allowed to be fussy about the food we were served at mealtimes: you had to eat every bit on your plate before you could leave the table. That experience has had an effect on me, as I really hate to throw food out. Maybe it’s my mom’s voice still echoing in my mind.

Day 31: Using etcd As a Mediator

etcd is a database originally developed by CoreOS, and is most famously used as the database at the heart of Kubernetes. It is a distributed key-value store, which in itself is not all that remarkable. The thing about etcd that makes it so attractive is the ability to watch a key for changes.

Other key/value stores, such as Redis, have implemented a similar feature, and may work just as well for you. I’ve been using etcd for years, and it’s worked well for me, so I’ve never had a reason to try these other tools.

For most data stores, the only way to find if a particular value has changed is to poll. You issue a query for that value on a regular basis, and compare it to the last value returned to see if it has changed. This is terribly inefficient, especially with values that don’t change often. It’s also inexact with respect time, because your system’s reaction to a changed value depends on the interval between polls. Longer intervals, while less chatty, mean that more time will elapse between when the value changes, and when your application responds to that change.

Enter etcd. Instead of polling an etcd server for changes, you can watch for changes. This is essentially a pubsub system that requires almost no configuration to work. When a key is written to etcd, if there are any watchers for that key, a message is sent to them with the new value.

This is kind of dry in theory, so let’s look at a real-world application using this system: my photoviewer and photoserver applications. These applications allow me to display photographs on monitors that can be anywhere with an internet connection, and control each of those displays from a central server. They represent the ultimate convergence of my work as an artist and my love of programming.

Each display consists of a monitor (actually a TV, but all I want is an HDMI input) and a Raspberry Pi that runs the photoviewer application. Each display has a unique ID to identify it, and when a display starts up, it registers itself with the server. The server contains the settings for that display, such as the list of photos to display, and how often to change the displayed photo.

Photoviewer running in my kitchen

I have one such display in the kitchen of my home, and like to change the photos displayed on it from time to time. To do that, I go into my photoserver app and change the album for that display. Almost instantly the image on the display changes. How did that happen? The server is a virtual machine running in the Digital Ocean cloud, not local to the kitchen display.

The reason this works is that I’m also running an etcd server on another cloud instance. When I change any setting for a display, the photoserver app writes a new value for that display’s key. The key consists of the unique ID of the display plus the type of value being changed. For example, if I change the photos I want displayed for a display with the ID of 65febdde-3e8a-4c76-ab8f-d8a653e466c7, the server would write a value of a list of the names of those images to the key /551a441f-8aba-44b5-b70b-349af0be5b67:images.

That application uses the etcd3 library to watch my etcd server for changes to any key beginning with /<unique ID>. The watch() method is called with a callback method, and when a new key is written beginning with that display’s prefix, the value is sent to the callback.

The callback method sees that the full key ends with :images, so it passes the value (the list of image names) to the photo display method, which then retrieves the image and displays it. This happens in real time, without any polling of the server needed.

The original version of these apps used the traditional polling method, which seemed wasteful, considering that it was typically weeks between any changes being made. Switching to an etcd watch makes much more sense from a design perspective, and it greatly simplified the code.

Look for cases in your applications where a response is needed to a change in data. Using etcd as a mediator might be a good approach.

Day 7: Equipment

I’m deliberately taking a step back from my more political posts of the last few days in order to mentally process the events of the past weekend to get some perspective. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure I’ll be back to political commentary soon!

When people learn I’m a photographer, one of the first questions is invariably “So what kind of camera do you use?”. This is a perfectly understandable question, and also a completely irrelevant one.

When I first started out in photography, I had a friend who was a staff photographer for the city newspaper. He used a Canon F-1, a black-bodied professional camera. I noticed, though, that he used black electrical tape to cover the words ‘Canon’ and ‘F-1’ that were prominently written in white letters. I asked him about the tape, and he said that he got so sick of people seeing it and saying things like “Canon? Why don’t you use Nikon instead?” that he covered up the identifying marks.

A camera is a tool, nothing more. If you want to improve your photographs, buying an expensive new camera, or switching from Brand A to Brand B is not going to help.

I used to golf a lot, not that I was very good at it – I enjoyed being outside with a task to focus on, the company of other men, and, in retrospect, I enjoyed time away from my (now ex-) wife. Golf equipment companies are notorious for marketing expensive new clubs with the promise to hit the ball farther and straighter. But for everyone but the top professionals, it isn’t the club that’s holding you back; it’s your skill. You would be infinitely better off spending that money on lessons with a golf pro than on new clubs. Yet every year golfers spend their money on things that won’t help them improve.

This holds true in so many areas. New tools won’t make your woodworking better, and buying a vintage Stratocaster won’t help you play guitar better. So what will?

In almost all cases, the two things that will help is a good teacher, and lots of practice. The teacher can get you on the right path, and correct you when you stray off of it. You still have to put in the time, though, if you ever want to improve.

So when should you upgrade? When you’ve mastered that equipment, and its limitations are becoming an obvious hindrance to you. Or when different equipment offers functionality that your current equipment doesn’t (and you truly need those functions).

For photography, where you get the most bang for your buck is from better lenses, not camera bodies. Last year I dropped my camera and broke the mount for the zoom lens that was my main workhorse. When I looked for a replacement, I saw that there was a professional version of the lens that had better optics, a wider aperture, and tougher construction. I really considered it, but couldn’t justify spending an extra $1300 on it. So I ended up getting the same model as the one I broke, because as nice as the pro model lens was, I couldn’t see it improving my images enough to justify the cost. Maybe someday when money isn’t a concern…

The best camera in the world is the one you have with you.

Chase Jarvis

The quote above is from a book about iPhone photography. I found out about this book after I had made a similar statement about my realization that I could create some wonderful images with my iPhone, and one of the people I was speaking with mentioned the book. I don’t own the book, but I certainly agree with the sentiment. You can have all the fancy equipment in the world, but if it’s home in your closet when an opportunity presents itself, it doesn’t do you much good.

Which brings me to the answer to my choice of camera: the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II. I was in the market for a DSLR, and looked around at the different options. I read about a new style of mirrorless camera called the Micro 4/3 system, which was significantly smaller and lighter than the full-sized DSLRs. Since my primary mode of work is walking around looking for images, smaller and lighter were big selling points. I read the reviews, and chose Olympus because of its stabilization system, and the M5 as it was the middle choice that balanced features and price. I’ve been very happy with it, and the images I create with it.