Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Can Stop Any Time

I bought another new camera, but please, don't stage an intervention. It's to replace one that met an unfortunate end at the hands of, um... me. This past December I bought a Panasonic FX37, a great little pocket camera with only two main flaws: luminance noise even at low ISO (lame), and no way to turn off the red eye reduction flash when in slow sync mode (lamer).

Or maybe I should say, those are the two flaws I was initially aware of. But after only about two months of carrying it around in my lint-filled pocket, the camera had acquired a collection of dust inside the lens elements. Not on the surface of the lens, where it could be wiped off, but actually in the lens barrel itself, meaning that every picture had specks all over it. As an example, here's a photo of some contrails:


That doesn't look too bad, but here's what it looked like prior to a little "spot removal" in Lightroom:

Clearly that's not acceptable, which is why I took the camera apart. I was hoping to get the dust cleaned out of the lens, and I did. But I also think I damaged a tiny little ribbon cable connector in there, and when I put the camera back together, it would no longer focus. I sent it to the factory service center for warranty repair. Of course if they look at it at all (or read my blog) they'll be able to tell that I took it apart. But who knows, maybe they'll just toss it on a pile and send me a new one. Here's hoping.

In the meantime, I needed a new camera, but how could I know the new one wouldn't develop the same problem? I've never had this problem with any other camera, and I started to wonder if maybe it was due to the telescoping lens barrel. Every other pocket camera I've owned has had an internally telescoping lens, rather than a lens that protrudes from the camera body. The protruding and retracting lens seems like a likely culprit for dust vulnerability, and most point and shoot cameras today have that sort of lens, so what to do? Other than the dust, I was very happy with the Panasonic FX37, but didn't want to just buy another since the whole point of a "pocket camera" is sort of defeated if you can't, you know, put it in your pocket.

Enter the Panasonic TS1 "rugged" camera.

I've long been intrigued by the idea of having a rugged point and shoot, I think that would really come in handy, especially while traveling. But the options are pretty limited and, until recently, they've all had lamentable picture quality. But the TS1, which became available on Amazon a few days ago, looks pretty decent, with picture quality fairly equivalent to the FX37.

Inner Harbor, Baltimore

George Washington Memorial, Baltimore

So I got one. Theoretically it's dust proof, waterproof, and shock-proof, being submersible to 10 feet, and able to survive a five foot drop without damage. I have yet to put any of these theories to the test, but I have been carrying it around in my pocket with wild abandon.

This is the "Dear Panasonic" part of the post. Dear Panasonic, so far I'm quite happy with your TS1, but I do have a few comments. You already know how I feel about the noise issue and the red eye issue, but the TS1 has some additional problems. Despite being fairly heavy for its size (as one would expect), it should be possible to shoot one-handed with the TS1, but it's really not, due to a series of unfortunate design decisions. Let's compare it to the FX37:

- The FX37 has a nice, grippy, rubberized body. The TS1, by contrast, has a slippery, metallic body. You just want us to try out that "shock-proof" claim, don't you?

- The FX37 has a mode dial which is recessed on the top of the camera, leaving room on the back of the camera to place your thumb. The TS1 puts the mode dial flat on the back of the camera which not only eliminates the one spot you could put your thumb, it also makes it susceptible to accidental turning. I'm constantly pulling the camera out of my pocket and turning it on to discover that it's complaining "mode dial is not in the proper position."

- The FX37 has a raised switch which turns the camera on instantly. The TS1 has a recessed switch (which I can understand from a durability standpoint) which must be held down FOR TWO SECONDS before the camera will turn on (which I can understand only if Panasonic actually hates me and wants to make me sad).

- The zoom button and shutter button being right next to each other and exactly the same size and shape isn't great either, but that's the least of the problems.

To be fair, there are some handling improvements. For example, kudos on the dedicated video button, which allows shooting video at any time without switching the camera into a special video mode.

But basically, it's all about the ruggedness, and I can live with the shortcomings if the durability lives up to the hype. They wouldn't let me jump in the aquarium in Baltimore:

But one way or another I should have some underwater photos for you some day, assuming this thing actually works.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I'm Starting to Get Used to This

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania might not quite be Torrey, Utah, but I still had no reason to expect that anyone I knew would be there. I went to Philadelphia specifically for the Mütter Museum. The Mütter, at the College of Physicians, is a museum of medical curiosities with the tag line, "Disturbingly Informative."

They've got that right. I was already feeling sort of queasy even before I got to the 40 pound colon, and pretty much had to completely bypass the whole section full of wax reproductions of skin diseases. But it was when I was standing in front of the second tallest known human skeleton in the world, seven feet six inches despite the curvature of the spine, that I heard someone say:


Oh yes, that's right. It was my friend Val, also there with her husband, my good friend and former roommate, Alex. I'm tempted to say "small world," but as Alex pointed out, "I guess it's not that weird to find you here." I could say the same for him, that sicko. Alex and Val live in Connecticut, and as it happens, I was scheduled to show up on their doorstep in a couple days, so when we said goodbye at the museum it was, "See you soon."

Incidentally, what is it with museums not allowing photography? That's another thing that's going to change when I'm king. Out of spite, I snapped this picture in the Mütter. OK, so it's not Ansel Adams, what can I say, I snapped it blind while standing about five feet away from two security guards.

In Baltimore I visited the excellent American Visionary Art Museum, which also doesn't permit photography. But there I didn't feel spiteful because I met the museum's founder and director, Rebecca Hoffberger, and she gave me cake, so that's all good.

On a museum spree, I visited Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, which does allow photography, and is also awesome. Specifically, their recreation of a 17th century "Chamber of Wonders" alone is worth the trip. Collections of oddities like this were the seeds of modern museums as we know them.

That last is an orchid carved out of a single piece of ivory. Damn. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Dream of a Three Calendar Breakfast

In his book Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes his method for finding a place to eat while on the road:

There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.

No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.

The thing is, these places don't exist any more, at least not in sufficient quantities that one can count on them for breakfast. Mr. Heat-Moon originally published his book in 1983, and even then was complaining about the grinding and unstoppable erasure of all that is quaint and good. I have spent the past two and a half months driving back roads of America, and though I've encountered the occasional little diner, they've been two calendars max (minus fish trophies), and are almost inevitably a disappointment. More often than not, a small town will have no restaurant at all (or the one restaurant will have a "for lease" sign in the window), and my choice is a McDonald's at a highway intersection, or those M&Ms that I forgot were on the floor in the back seat. In fact, and I realize this is grumpy-old-man talk, and I further concede that my observations are purely anecdotal, it seems to me that there are fewer simple, independent restaurants in small town America today than there were even six years ago, the last time I was driving around the country.

When I was in LA I had dinner with John Schulian, creator of Xena Warrior Princess. No, seriously. That's how I roll. He recommended a book called Roadfood, best described by its subtitle, "The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More." I'd looked in half a dozen independent bookstores between Los Angeles and Louisville, but no luck. I was starting to think maybe I should order it from Amazon (linked at right) and have it shipped to me somewhere along the road.

This morning I was driving along, mentally composing this blog post, and eating M&M's, when I came upon Grandad's Family Diner in Inez, Kentucky.

I sat down at the counter, and Debbie took my order. Here's how our conversation went:

"Hi hon, what would ya like?"

Keep in mind, no one had offered me a menu. I was wondering if I should try saying, "Eggs Florentine, with a side of applewood smoked bacon, and a cup of organic Guatamala Antigua," when she interrupted my train of thought and said, "Special's turkey." I said, "I'll have the turkey."

There was only one calendar behind the counter (with the waitress's weekly schedule written on it - Debbie will be there tomorrow too, if you want to drop by) and to be honest, I don't think I'd have gone out of my way for the meal. I doubt it's in Roadfood. But it did save me from my grumbling, and I was glad that I hadn't stopped at the McDonald's, KFC, or Taco Bell back at the intersection of 40 and 645.

Incidentally, after weeks of almost coast-to-coast failure, I found a copy of Roadfood later this very day, in Charleston, West Virginia. I saw the bookstore from the road and pulled over. I was skeptical about my chances when I saw the four foot high stack of Twilight books by the front door, but a tiny and beautiful bookseller named Kate helped me locate their last copy of Roadfood. Now I have a new tool to use when plotting my route.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

That's a Big Bat

Not feeling too loquacious today, but it's been a while since I've posted, so I thought I'd put up a few pictures.

Near Pecos, Texas.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

Though I had a great time in New Orleans, I didn't get many good pictures, perhaps in part because one of my cameras broke. By which of course I mean that I took it apart and couldn't get it back together correctly.

Trust me, there were perfectly good reasons for taking it apart, it all made sense at the time.

Entering Hot Coffee, Mississippi. There wasn't much to it. In fact, there wasn't even a cafe. Doesn't that just seem wrong?

Near Bardstown, Kentucky.

The Louisville Slugger factory in Louisville, Kentucky.

The factory generates up to 25 tons of sawdust a week, which is trucked into Indiana and used as bedding at a large turkey farm. Really.