03.30.11

Where to buy beer

Posted in Society at 16:59 by RjZ

Colorado is one of five remaining U.S. states that prohibits the sale of normal beer in grocery and convenience stores. The 1933 prohibition law was enacted to limit minor’s access to higher strength alcohol and is currently hotly debated (for the second time) in Colorado’s state legislature.

A friend of mine owns a liquor store and he is very concerned that losing his monopoly on selling craft brews and microbrews will endanger his store and threaten the existence of the over 1600 liquor stores in Colorado, and I am sure he’s right. Even the state’s 130 or so craft brewers are opposed to the change in the law. Take for example, this well argued statement from Left Hand Brewing:

[The legislation,] if enacted, will create an oligopoly (cartel) of big box beer sellers and gas station c-stores in Colorado. Craft beer selection will be reduced and beer lovers will pay more for it. The added convenience of one-stop shopping in a chain or c-store store may not be worth the reduction in the availability of Colorado craft beer.

Indeed, grocery stores, headquartered in states other than Colorado, may not choose to carry Colorado beers and have no attachment to our local community. Well, I won’t say that these craft brewers and liquor store owners are wrong. I haven’t done the research and due diligence to make that claim, but I will pose a question:

The last time you were in a state which did not prohibit grocery stores from selling full strength beer, did you notice a limited selection?

Much as I care about craft brewers and want to trust their opinions, I am opposed in principal to laws and regulations, even those designed to protect things I like, if they limit our freedoms. And frankly, I am not so sure that this doom and gloom prediction is realistic. Liquor stores will definitely be placed under pressure. The ones that survive will likely have to carry exactly those beers that the “cartel” will not, and for that reason, even if they are fewer and farther a field, will still offer a service that the community desires. The grocery stores in other states that I have visited carried an ample selection of local and not-local beers, yet there were still a few specialized liquor stores around that carried more still.

The threat of cartels is a scary one, but as I wrote about some time ago, there’s no reason, especially here in Boulder, Colorado, to assume that we will lose our choice of beer. Whichever way this is decided, a friend made an apt remark while we discussed this over home brew: “isn’t it great that we live in a place where we can have a 45 minute discussion on the availability of beer? Life could be worse.”

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03.23.11

Travel Photography – (UV) filters are for amateurs

Posted in Photography, Travel at 17:44 by RjZ

One of the first things most everyone buys when they get a new SLR camera, often purchasing them at the same time, is a UV filter. One of the reasons you buy an SLR camera is the ability to put these impressive optics on them with their giant (compared to a point-and-shoot camera) glass and the image quality they deliver. Screwing on a UV filter keeps dust, dirt, and your grubby fingers off the optic and the little jewel is forever safe, all with almost no loss in image quality.

It’s too bad that that’s only sort of true. The protection part is obvious, but why would you need a UV filter? Light, particularly outdoor light on clear days, is comprised not only of what we see, but UV light we can’t see. Film cameras used to have a particular problem with this. Glass coatings were not optimized to avoid UV and the film itself is exposed by these wavelengths, washing out pictures and blowing contrast to hell. I read that somewhere–it’s not like I ever used a film camera.

Digital cameras use sensors that are somewhat sensitive to UV, but modern lenses and coatings have mitigated the problem significantly. There is very little washout, even in a bright sky on most cameras these days; just try it yourself. Take a shot with and with out the filter and see if you notice any difference.

Camera shops don’t mention that photo-journalists throw lenses in their duffel bags, with nary a protective filter anywhere. Sure, maybe they’re not paying for their kit, but they know the drawbacks of filters too. For example, they can block some light and change the color cast of your lens. Most good filters have anti-reflection (AR) coatings, but they aren’t perfect and some light is reflected. If this light is wavelength dependent, then, at some angles for sure, your perfectly clear and neutral filter will change the color of light your camera sees. If they don’t change color cast the extra layers of glass often increase lens flair or create it when it otherwise wouldn’t be there. The metal ring around your UV filter can cause vignetting, particularly on very wide lenses, where the corners of your image are darkened or black. Sure, many people are doing this on purpose to the images they take as vignetting can often highlight the focus of your image, but it’s a feature you’d rather have a choice about then try to extract and remove later. If you’re using a polarizer—you are using a polarizer now and again, right?!—UV filters are a huge pain, as you’re really likely to remove them to put the polarizer in its place. After all, you spent all this money on a fancy camera and even more expensive lens, surely you don’t want not one, but two cheaper pieces of glass between you and your subject.

So, why, again, do so many people have UV filters on their lenses? Oh yeah, because the lenses are so expensive, the filter will keep it safe. Let me tell you my story.

I was taking my brand new SLR on its first trip abroad. I had it sitting in my lap on the plane; just in case something exciting happened while flying (if anything exciting actually ever does happen while flying, I can imagine taking pictures of it will not be the first thing that comes to mind). At one point, it slipped off my lap and onto the carpeted floor a few inches below. I leaned over to retrieve it and, with a sinking heart, heard glass slushing around underneath the lens cap.

My eyes bulged. I couldn’t imagine that the lens was that delicate, but I was new enough to cameras that I wasn’t so sure. I carefully opened the lens cap to discover that the ‘protective UV filter’ had been shattered and sliding around between the cap and lens. I carefully poured off the broken pieces into my OJ cup and discovered that the broken filter had scuffed the native AR coating of the lens. Thankfully, the damage is only cosmetic; you can’t see the scuff in any images taken with that lens, but the concern I felt for my lens was real. I can clean dust and finger smudges from my lens, but scuff is permanent.

Before you buy a UV ‘protective’ filter, I have a suggestion for you. If you don’t already have a lens hood for your lens, get one, and if you do, put that thing on your lens. All the time! When you’re walking around with your camera dangling from you neck, you’ll inevitably bump into something or someone probably with the business end of your bulky camera. With a UV filter in front, it’s possible you could shatter it and scratch your lens. With the lens hood there, even without the lens cap, the objective is safely nestled a few centimeters away from danger. My lens hoods are plenty beat up, but all my lenses are still safe. Your pictures will improve too! Lens hoods block stray light that gets to your sensor without creating an image. Stray does more to wash out contrast than UV ever did! Lens hoods come with many higher end lenses and are cheaper than a good UV filter anyway. What have you got to lose?

If you decide to buy a UV filter anyway, check out this thorough review which sheds some light on how much to spend and how much not to spend on your new filter. But remember, you’ll look like an amateur! That doesn’t matter, of course. (right…) but will it really keep your lens safe?

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03.22.11

Coal-fired cars are here!

Posted in Energy, Society at 9:10 by RjZ

They’re finally here! Coal-fired cars. Well, actually, very early cars were coal-fired steam powered cars but today’s newest additions, including the Chevy Volt are powered by almost 50% coal.

Chevy is actually pretty honest about this. Instead of describing this as a CO2 free car, the website says:

…as technology improves in the generation of electricity, we will continue to see reduced carbon outputs. Advancements in electricity production along with reduction in emissions from electric-powered driving could help make our world a cleaner place.

In the United States, almost 50% of our non-transportation power comes from coal. Less than 5% comes from solar and wind and virtually none of that at night or when the wind isn’t blowing, but even if it’s black instead of green electrons that power your plug-in hybrid or all electric car, Chevy’s got a good point. Centralized electricity production has some problems (like distribution losses mounting to over 30%) but it does mean that pollution controls are concentrated in one place and investment in them is more easily manageable.

In fact, all these new cars may provide just the solution that proponents of wind and solar have been looking for: storage. The electricity grid offers no effective way to store electricity for when the sun isn’t shining, but charging your car while it’s parked all afternoon may eventually, once it’s linked to a smart grid that can borrow some of this energy back, be just the storage that’s needed. No one is sure how to connect all this together so that your car stays charged, and yet still provides some power over night, but all those batteries have got to be worth something!

Speaking of batteries, while Chevy Volt goes for over $40,000, what is far from emphasized on their site is how the battery performs over time. In the beginning you’ll enjoy 35 miles of “tail pipe emissions free” driving. (There it is again, tail pipe emissions free doesn’t mean emissions free. Go Chevy for their honesty, even if it is wrapped in obfuscation.) During the eight year warranty period, best in the market by the way, your battery could lose its capacity up to 50% and you’ll be driving only 18 miles on a full charge without gas. A Prius battery costs about $3400, but it’s not clear how much a Volt battery is going to cost. Chevy seems to be taking the Apple route, claiming it will be covered under warranty and implying that in 8 years, you’ll get a new car anyway.

If you get a tax credit on your Chevy Volt you might be able to afford a new battery later on, or even the $2000 home charger that decreases the time it takes to fully charge, but before you do, have a look at your electric bill. Coal-fired power is pretty cheap with wholesale rates as low as $0.02/kW, compared to $0.08 to 0.15 for wind or solar, but that’s not what you pay. Depending on where you live your kW rate could be from about 22 to 35 cents. The Volt uses around 39kW/100 miles, or from $8.58 to 13.65 per 100 miles. My 2000 Subaru still gets about 25 – 27 mpg and, as of this writing the national average for gas was $3.52, which works out to $12.04 for a hundred miles, or, well, round about the same. You’re hardly saving money on gas, and before you say that gas is going up, so is the price of energy. We all want more wind and solar, but alternative energy investments aren’t free and utilities aren’t charities. They will be passing those costs onto you.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s best for the environment to drive your car into the ground. If your old car is coming around the bend for the last time, if its been ridden to the end of its useful life, getting a Chevy Volt would contribute to the United States economy and support energy independence for everyone (even those outside of the U.S.A.). You might even be able to brag about how you’re supporting clean-coal efforts and cleaning up the environment with your plug-in hybrid. My car’s got another 50K miles to go (I hope), I hope the price of these plug-in hybrids drops by then!

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03.20.11

Travel photography-wide angle lenses

Posted in Photography, Travel at 19:30 by RjZ

The first in an occasional series on ideas and observations about traveling with a camera

I was so excited when my wide angle lens showed up in the mail. It’s remarkably small light, but also, remarkably wide, with 100° field of view. Can’t get back far enough to fit the Eiffel Tower in the frame? No problem! This lens can practically look behind you.

My goal was to take environmental portraits where a merchant is surrounded by her wares. We see not only an interesting face, but enough of their world to see just why they were so damn interesting in the first place. Of course, I hoped to take in sweeping landscapes and impressive architecture shots as well. Unfortunately…

Taking wide angle shots is way harder than you might think.

When I am assessing a picture, hopefully before, but sometimes after, taking it, I think it’s helpful to ask “what are you taking a picture of?” With a telephoto lens, the answer to is nearly always obvious; you’ve zoomed right in on it. Whether it’s a portrait, or an architectural detail, or even an abstract texture, there is likely nothing else in the picture to distract the viewer. Look at a rack of arty postcards, telephoto is a simple trick for successful shots.

But with a wide angle there will almost definitely be something in the picture that you hadn’t planned on. A frequent mistake for most of us is to try to capture what we saw with own eyes. Seems logical enough, especially for travel photographers who want pretty pictures, and also want to document what they experienced, but you’ve still got be able to answer that question “what’s this shot of,” or you’ll even wonder yourself–just what was I taking a photograph of here? Wide angle shots encourage this documentation, because it’s so easy to take a picture of everything you see, all at once. Too bad, the result is often a cluttered mess. To make these work, there has to be some subject in the picture somewhere. Often, that means getting close to something in the frame–really close. You’ll have to stick the camera right in a person’s face to make them large enough in the photograph to be interesting. This is no lens for the faint of heart. Until I get a lot bolder, or perhaps just more rude, I won’t have too much success with my environmental portraits, but the lesson is clear, if unexpected: the wider the lens, the closer you need to get.

Or maybe you’d like to take advantage of your ultra-wide lens’ perspective distortion? There’s a good chance that you’ll get a few great shots this way, with crazy skewed angles criss-crossing the image and zooming off into infinity, but ask yourself–how long before all those tilted lines and falling over buildings will become tiresome? Not long, I can tell you! A useful solution to all the tiresome tilting lines is to ensure that the camera is perfectly centered in the geometry what you’re looking at, and perfectly level. This way, you’ll get a beautiful isometric shot that would make any architect proud and won’t make the people watching your slide show want to lose their lunch. Finding the perfect center of a converging row of columns is much harder than expected but you’ll sure notice later if you missed it, even by a tiny amount. Leveling the camera is easier, but you’ll wind up cropping half the shot out, unless you’re as tall as a building or you like the looks of the the ground in at least half of the shot. I hate cropping so much of my wide shots; it makes me feel like I threw away all that field of view I paid for in the first place. You can correct distortion in post-processing with many software tools, but honestly, stretching out all those pixels won’t bring most shots back. Better to watch where you put your camera in the first place and stop trying just to capture everything because you can.

An ultra-wide lens enables you to capture things that most everyone with a camera phone or a point-and-shoot will miss, but, get one long before your next trip–they take lots of practice.

Here are some random samples….

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03.15.11

Would you live in Los Angeles?

Posted in Energy at 16:11 by RjZ

Nuclear power plants are like politics. Nobody wants the government to spend any money, but they sure won’t say no to handouts and nobody wants nuclear power plants, but they sure don’t mind the energy.

The nuclear crisis in Japan comes as a result, not of the 9.0 Mw earthquake; the Daiichi plants survived those just fine, but the ensuing tsunami. The disaster is raising issues and generating renewed protest around the world. This is a already a catastrophe. Heroic people have lost their lives in their efforts to mitigate the disaster at the power plant and radiation has already leaked at occasionally dangerous levels. At least two, and possible three of the units will be decommissioned, with little of value recovered from them, but significant damage to the Japanese economy. If the worse-case scenario were to take place, the fuel rods would melt down and the reactor core would be breached releasing dangerous amounts of radiation that will not simply dissipate in the atmosphere like the material released so far.

The fallout from the Chernobyl disaster destroyed a city, and spread across Europe. The amount of radiation released in the disaster was 400 times the amount released in Hiroshima but 100 to 1000 less than the amount from atomic weapons testing from the 1950s through 1960s. In the region, 237 people suffered from radiation sickness, 31 of whom passed in the first three months. People from the region continue to suffer from effects such as weaker bones and an increase in cancer related deaths. Surprisingly, rivers and ground water suffered relatively little permanent effects of the increased radiation and people can even take tours of the deserted town of Pripyat, but the area is still generally off limits.

The 2011 Sendai Earthquake is being recorded as perhaps the seventh largest quake in history and certainly the fifth largest since the inception of seismological recording began. This isn’t just a hundred year event, it’s more like a thousand year event.

So, would you live in Los Angeles? Ever since I was a child, growing up in Orange County, California, we were told that someday, maybe tomorrow, or maybe a hundred years from now, the San Andreas fault could rupture so badly that half of California would go floating off into the sea. I suspect that just might have been a bit of an exaggeration, but a hundred-year event will return to California and San Onofre nuclear power plant is still sitting there, between San Diego and Los Angeles, just waiting.

Owners of the plant, Southern California Edison, say the plant can withstand a 7.0 quake right underneath the plant and has a 25 foot tsunami wall, but did they design the plant for a thousand-year event? Should they have, or should we just give up on nuclear power because the danger is too great?

If a coal plant is destroyed by a thousand-year, or even a hundred-year, earthquake it doesn’t necessarily just melt down. Tennessee Valley Authority is still mitigating the ash pond spill disaster from 2008. Of course, coal plants emit pollutants and millions of tons of CO2 everyday, earthquake or no.

Before we simply give up on nuclear power, let’s consider Japan’s tragedy in comparison with two other recent disasters. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 230,000 people in fourteen countries. In 2010, 316,000 people lost their lives in Haiti’s earthquake (even though it was a hundred times weaker than the Sendai quake). Meanwhile, perhaps as a testament to the people and their preparedness, Japan’s quake has claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 people. The difference is, perhaps, how developed Japan is compared to the to other regions. Like nearly every other industrial nation, Japan has built nuclear power stations to fuel that advancement.

So, would you give up on nuclear power? Are you willing to live in Los Angeles?

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