Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC

Monday's Memorial Day holiday represented an unusual occasion when the Teleospouse and I both had the same day off from work. I work a traditional M-F schedule but she has chosen to have Mondays and Fridays off to allow her to serve as a touring Docent at the NC Museum of Art. When we both have the same day off we like to plan a day trip to a local North Carolina attraction and for Memorial Day we chose to visit New Bern -- the second oldest town in North Carolina which served as the colonial capitol and, after the revolution, was briefly the State capitol before state government was relocated to Raleigh.

The primary attraction in New Bern's historic district is the Tryon Palace -- the first permanent capitol of the Colony of North Carolina and a home for the Royal Governor and his family. Built between 1767 and 1770 for Governor William Tryon by John Hawks, an English architect, the Palace was built in the manner of fashionable Georgian houses in the vicinity of London. It was regarded to be the finest public building in the American colonies.

Tryon Palace Facade

The building fell into disrepair during the 19th century, serving among other purposes as a dance school and a Masonic Lodge. It was finally demolished after a fire. A road was built through the site and only the stable office building remained when reconstruction/restoration began in the 1950s. Today the Palace has been rebuilt to Hawks' plans and furnished with period furniture using Tryon's inventory as a guide.

A fifteen dollar adult admission ticket gets you a guided tour of the Palace and self-paced tours of several other historic buildings nearby. All the guides and other staff are dressed in period costume and are in character as various real or invented personages from the historical period represented.

Many of the photos here are 180 degree panoramas -- a format that poses problems with my blog layout since horizontal space for photos is at a premium. I have put the panoramic shots in twice -- once scaled to fit the 500-pixel wide space available and once, somewhat larger, in a scrolling display. The smaller image gives a sense of the overall scene and the scrolling image lets you see details not visible in the smaller version. Each of the panoramas is three individual shots stitched together automatically by the Teleospouse's new Kodak V705 camera. Pretty cool, actually, and works amazingly well.


Photo of the Palace from behind the Stable Office. Left to right, more or less, are the Stable Office, the Palace (in the background behind the trees) the Pidgeon House (round brick building with the conical roof, and the Teleospouse sitting by the gerden wall.


The formal garden.


Another shot of the format garden.

The Arbor

Artichokes growing in the Kitchen Garden.

All photos taken with a Kodak V705 camera except for the Palace Facade which was taken with a Kodak P850 which has a longer reach in the telephoto end of the zoom.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Intransitivity of Affinity: Peters, Sondheim and Me

The Teleospouse and I went to a concert over the weekend. Bernadette Peters was performing with the North Carolina Symphony and, knowing that I have always liked Ms. Peters, my loving wife bought me advance tickets as a Christmas present.

Ms. Peters, who will turn 60 next year, can still strut her stuff -- at least for people in the back of the auditorium; I can't speak for the experience from the front row. The little-girl speaking voice is still there, as is the singing voice that can be dialed from Betty Boop at one end of its range to a near-Ethel-Merman bellow at the other. It's that range of dynamics that makes Peters fun. She is very expressive in the quiet parts of a song but can wake 'em up in the balcony when the music calls for it.

My favorite parts of the program were from the first half of her performance. She did a very enjoyable version of Davenport and Cooley's 1950s hit, Fever, complete with lounging on the piano and striking poses on the rim shots. It was great fun. Also fun was her version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Nothin' Like a Dame from South Pacific. Her version of the folk song Shenandoah was enchanting. Both the Missus and I noticed that she had left out the line "Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter" that appears in most versions, a change that makes the song more suitable for a female singer. Such editing is often jarring but with Shenandoah it is, oddly, an improvement. In it's original version (to the very limited extent one can say what that is) the song Shenandoah is a rather pedestrian story of a sailor in love with an Indian girl who he can't get away from her father, the chief. (See this for some representative possible lyrics.) It's such a lovely, sad melody that the more of the lyrics you leave out the stronger the song becomes, transforming from a rather ordinary love ballad to a haunting evocation of displacement, loss and longing. It was beautiful... And, oh yes, when Bernadette Peters sings Shenandoah it has all four syllables -- shen-an-do'ah, not shan-an-doe like most people sing it; there's real artistry for you!

You may have noticed that the three songs I have mentioned consist of two fifty-something year old songs, and one song that is so old that no one knows for sure how old it is, and that these songs all appeared in the first half of Ms. Peters' performance. The newer songs mostly appeared in the second half of her show which featured the songs of Stephen Sondheim. This leads me to a confession and an observation about intransitive operations.

I like Bernadette Peters a lot. I am a fan. Ms. Peters likes Stephen Sondheim. She is a fan, too. You might think that this would mean, arguing from transitivity of operations, that I should be a fan of Stephen Sondheim. But you would be wrong there. I'm not... I know, I know Sondheim is a genius who has dominated the American musical theater scene for the last thirty-plus years. He bypasses the more traditional musical forms to find ways to express ideas and emotions much more directly and forcefully, using lyrics and tonality to give his music an immediate impact that is difficult to achieve within the restrictive formalism of conventional melodic phrasing. His music is difficult to perform but is loved by the performers who can master it -- and by aficionados of the musical theater who appreciate the skill needed to carry it off.

Which leads to my confession. While I appreciate the skill needed to sing his songs I think they are not merely difficult to sing but hard to listen to as well. I am not worthy. To my willfully untrained ear Sondheim's musicals always sound more like recitative than music -- as if he showed up for rehearsal with the lyrics and a few chords but no music. He then gives the the list of chords to the orchestra and tells the singers "Here are the words to sing. The key is F-sharp minor. Make it sound like me."

I have often suspected that the members of the musical theater like difficult music for much the same reason the recording industry likes copy-protected digital music formats. Anyone who has seen South Pacific can hum a recognizable version of most of the tunes after a single viewing. It's a bit like having your own copy of the show right there in your head. Some enCHANTed EVEning, you may See a Stranger, you may SEE a STRANger -- aCROSS a CROWDed roooom... But, if you've seen Into the Woods there ain't much to hum. No one is aLONE... You're NEVer aLONE... something... dah dah dee... the heck with it! If you want to relive that experience you have to go back to the theater again. And when you do, there's nobody who can sing the difficult songs for you better than Bernadette Peters.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sony DH1758 Teleconverter


In a previous posting (Opteka 2.2x Teleconverter) I evaluated a very inexpensive Opteka teleconversion lens that I had bought on eBay for use with my Kodak P850 camera. In the end I decided that the Opteka lens was useless -- at least on my camera -- and I promised to try again with a different (sadly, a bit more expensive) lens and report back. Since then I found a listing for an open-box Sony DH1758 teleconverter on Buying an open-box lens let me pick it up for about half of the usual price (which is still twice what the Opteka would have cost me.)

So, first question: does the extra couple of bucks buy me anything? Let's review. Here is my neighbor's mailbox and a detail shot with the Opteka from my front porch...



... and here is the same thing with the new Sony lens:



The Sony lens is much better than the Opteka, clearly, but the question remains: is it worth having? As I said when I evaluated the Opteka the dividing line between useful and useless for a teleconverter is whether you can get better images with the converter than you would get without it by cropping and enlarging the middle of the image. The Opteka was so far into the useless category by that criterion that the Sony could be vastly better and still not be worth using.

To find that out for sure I set up my tripod on the front porch, mounted my camera on it and pointed the camera towards a minivan parked half way down the block. Here is a wide-angle shot from my porch.

For critical viewing, please click on the photos to view them in Flickr. Thanks.

The red speck on the front bumper of the silver van in the center of the photo is a US Marines license tag. I will be comparing the images I get of that license tag with and without the converter to see if the converter lets me get a better shot of it. Here is the minivan at full optical zoom with no attachment.



Here is the shot with the Sony teleconverter attached (still at full optical zoom).



Here is the result of using the camera's 4X "digital zoom" in addition to the full optical zoom. First without the teleconverter ...



... then with the teleconverter:



Using the digital zoom is approximately the same thing as cropping the image you get with the optical zoom and then enlarging it -- approximately the same, but not exactly the same. As you get into the digital zoom the camera initially holds the image size in pixels the same -- really scraping and interpolating to come up with a few more details from the center of the image sensor. As you zoom futher it admits that there just aren't enough pixels and starts reducing the pixel size and scaling to compensate. By the time you have reached the full 4x digital zoom the mix seems to be about 50/50.

Since the camera does scrounge for detail in the digital zoom range I decided to use a detail of the detail of the digital zoom to characterize my results. Here are two images taken at full digital zoom with (on the left) and without (right) the teleconverter. I have scaled the "without" image to make them the same visual size.


As you can see the teleconverter does help square up the checkerboard and it brings out details of the embossing of the logo. That is to say, it's a keeper.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Cheap Critic: Music and Lyrics


There are romantic comedies that change your life. They are movies that present a view of relations between the sexes that is so compelling and wonderful that it becomes forever part of your idea of a perfect relationship. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert: these are all couples from romantic comedies that one never quite forgets. Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore on the other hand, no so much.


To be fair, the cinema-literate among you will have noticed that, with the exception of Debbie Reynolds, the individuals I mentioned from life-changing romantic comedies have one thing in common: they have all grown old and died. Each and every one of the films that provided my couples is over fifty years old. It would be asking a lot of Grant and Barrymore to expect them to single-handedly restore to its former glory an industry that hasn't turned out much first-rate product since before they were born. And, by the lower standards generally applied to modern romantic comedy, they do just fine.

In the film Grant plays Alex Fletcher, a fading 1980s pop star who has been living off his once-formidable popularity for twenty years and now finds himself playing smaller and less lucrative events to an audience of aging women who remember him from their youth. His faithful and long-suffering agent tries to cast the decline in the most positive possible terms -- Yes, Six Flags has canceled the summer billing but I've got you a high-dollar Bar Mitzvah -- but Alex is quite discouraged. The one piece of really good news his agent comes up with is that Cora Corman, a sexy and very, very popular young singer, is a fan of Alex and has asked him to write a song that she and Alex can perform together on her upcoming tour. The problem is that while Alex can handle the music he has something of a tin ear for lyrics ... and he only has a week to write the song.

From there the plot unfolds exactly as you'd expect. Alex's agent finds him a lyricist with whom Alex struggles, neither of them able to come up with the right lines, until Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), a discouraged young writer who is filling in for the lady who waters Alex's plants, starts making suggestions... From there you should be able to work out the rest of the plot as easily as you can recreate the last line of a forgotten Limerick.

I like Drew Barrymore and she is very good in this part -- cute, likable, with a slightly rumpled innocence that persists despite a bit of wear and tear -- but there is nothing about the role that really calls out for her in particular. Any of a number of personable young actresses could have played the part. The same can't be said for Hugh Grant; it's hard to imagine anyone else in his role. Grant has had a long and successful career in which he has been lucky enough to spend most of his time coasting and the rest not pedaling very hard. He is a big star and an adequate actor but it is difficult to explain his popularity based on anything he has done lately. Paradoxically, this has always been true, and his character's nagging self-doubt resonates with Grant's own somewhat inexplicable success.

Now that the film is past its first release and you are unlikely to find yourself faced with a ten-dollar ticket price I can recommend the film as very much worth seeing. The music video of Alex's old band, Pop, doing their signature song, Pop Goes my Heart, is worth the price of rental all by itself. It is a gentle but highly accurate send-up of the 1980s pop music scene and Grant's (computer enhanced?) portrayal of Alex's much-younger self is fabulous. He does his own singing and he's not half bad. The contrast between the pop music of the 1980s and that of our current unnamed decade is one of the best parts of the film. From Alex's point of view the current music scene, as shown by Cora's odd, self-absorbed eastern-mystic bump-and-grind, is alien and off-putting. He worries that music has changed so much that there is no way he can fit in. The film stays very close to Alex's point of view and in the end, when there is a synthesis between the old and the new music, the result is 1980s pop with a few modern flourishes.

The film is obviously aimed at a more 'mature' audience than many modern comedies. The film pokes fun at older pop music and at current music but the older sensibilities mostly prevail. This provides an element of wish-fulfillment for the baby-boomer generation but the film is even handed enough that it should work OK for today's young people as well.

You should avoid the film if you are looking for surprises (but, if you are looking for surprises in romantic comedies, what's with that? Good luck in your search.) It also may not appeal to people with allergies to excessive niceness. The film has no villains. With one exception we are supposed to like everyone in the end. The exception is a minor fink from our heroine's back-story whose unimportance she ultimately learns to see.

Music and Lyrics won't change your life but its not a bad way to spend a couple of bucks and a couple of hours. It's enough of a chick-flick that you can see it with your lady-friend and she ought to feel she owes you a guy flick -- some sort of stupid shoot-em-up with tits, explosions and helicopter crashes -- she ought to owe you ... but she won't. But that's OK, it's not a bad way to spend a couple of bucks and a couple of hours.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Opteka 2.2x Teleconverter

About two years ago I wrote about an el-cheapo wide-angle adapter I had bought for my camera. (See Teleoscope: Merkury Optics .45x Wide Angle Converter) At the time I gave it a so-so review but since then I have found it to be a valuable addition to my photographic bag of tricks. Someday I will probably replace it with a better one but until then I will happily use it from time to time to get shots I couldn't otherwise get -- such as this one:


In the meanwhile I am looking for a teleconverter to give me a bit more reach at the long end of my zoom. My current camera (a Kodak p850) has an image stabilizer which helps a lot with hand-held telephoto shots and it is tempting to get greedy with magnification for wildlife photos, birds and the like. Once again, the teleconverter I ought to buy costs more than the el-cheapo stuff on eBay so I decided to try one of the cheap teleconverters and see if I could get lucky again.

With a teleconverter the dividing line between useful and useless is the ability to get a better image using the teleconverter than you would get without it by cropping and enlarging (or using the "digital" zoom which is the same thing). So I clicked the "Buy Now" link beside this image in Amazon.


Here are a couple of hand-held photos I took from my front porch. I have used browser magic to scale these to make them fit in my blog layout. This may make them a bit jagged looking. To get a more accurate look at the images go to my Flickr page for this month's photos

Here is my neighbor's side porch at full zoom on my P850 without the teleconverter:


Here is the same shot with the teleconverter:


Here is a mailbox without the teleconverter:


Here it is using the Opteka lens converter.


And without the teleconverter using the P850's digital zoom to get the same shot:


While I was shooting the mailbox a Cardinal perched on it. He wouldn't sit still to get comparison shots in the same pose. Here he is without the teleconverter:



And then with the teleconverter:



He's a bit soft in both shots. In the first shot (without the tcon) he might have been moving or else the autofocus liked the bushes better than the bird. The bushes, at least, are nice and sharp! The shot with the teleconverter is just a mess.

The thing that stands out about the teleconverter is its chromatic aberration. Different colors of light focus at different places. This seemed to confuse the camera's autofocus mechanism which struggled with the converter on and sometimes simply failed to find a focus zone at all. (And, yes, I turned on the accessory lens setting that is supposed to help.)

Since one is always supposed to show a crop from near the corner in a comparison like this here are three crops of the finial from the three mailbox shots above.

Without the tcon.

With the tcon.

Without the teleconverter, using 2x Digital Zoom

Of the three shots above the shot at full optical zoom but without teleconverter is easily the best. Even if you blow it up to the same size as the other two it still looks better. I am not sure why the digital zoom shot is so soft. Maybe the focus was off and maybe the image stabilizer couldn't correct for camera shake. I dunno. But the digital zoom shot, disappointing as it is, is still miles better than the shot using the teleconverter.


Bearing in mind that the dividing line between useful and useless for a teleconverter is its ability to capture a better image than one can get with a "digital zoom" the Opteka 2.2x teleconverter falls well within the useless category. I currently can't think of a situation where one would get a better photo with the lens on the camera than one would get without it. In fact, the only two uses I can think of for the lens is as a paperweight and to incinerate ants on a sunny day. But I have too many paperweights already and the rear macro element of my wide-angle lens does a bang-up job on the ants so I sent the Opteka back.

I will now save a few more pennies to try a better-regarded converter, probably either an Olympus TCON-17 or a Sony DH1758. There is an interesting comparison of these two 1.7x converters here (photos are here) The Kodak 1.4x converter also gets good reviews but the extra bit of magnification is tempting.