07.26.11

A glut of free photography

Posted in Photography, Society at 20:22 by RjZ

I’m flattered by the fairly regular requests I get on my flickr site to use one of my photos. Unfortunately, the flattery wears off pretty quickly when, more often than not, the request is to use the photo for free.

It’s still great that they have the courtesy to ask; after all, anyone can steal any image they see up on flickr, simply downloading it to their desktop. Folks who can convince me to make them a contact get full access to the high resolution images I upload there and could easily print the better ones poster size or use them in glossy brochures if they’re so inclined; there’s nothing to stop them.

Due to this ease of downloading, I’ve embraced a shareware attitude for my pictures, asking a fee commensurate with the use. You can download it for free, but if you really like it, it’d be nice if you paid me something. If someone emails me saying he’d like to print one out and hang it on his office wall, I ask a pretty low price; maybe five or ten dollars (depends on the picture). He can choose to pay me or not. Surprisingly, folks do.

When the art director for, say, an American Express Travel website contacts me to use a photo, I inquire about the expected traffic the site is going to see and for how long they intend to use the picture. They have to pay more, for this professional use. After all, they’re using my photography to bolster their brand. (American Express was kind enough to pay for a picture.)

Still, many more art directors state that it is not their policy to pay for the photos and suggest that I will get exposure to thousands or even millions of individuals. According to Eduardo Porter’s The Price of Everything Google “suggested to illustrators that providing…art [for the new Chrome browser] for free would be in their best interest. ‘[W]e believe these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to display their work in front of millions of people.’”

Sure, but the guy who wanted to hang the picture in his office and American Express were both willing to actually pay me, can’t Google afford it? I described this problem in my lament about the death of travel photography Google and others have little reason not to try this ploy—many, many excellent photos are to be had, for free, simply by asking (or, of course not asking). Photographers are all too willing to devalue their own work in the hopes that exposure will be just the ticket to a professional future.

I’ve probably just been able to pay for my flickr pro membership with the volunteer payments I’ve received from fine honest folks out there, but I am gratified that people would think so much of one of my images to pay for it, and nothing proves that you’ve got something of real value more than actually getting paid. Otherwise, you know, why buy the camera, if the photos are free?

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07.18.11

Shh, we’re on the subway

Posted in Society, Travel at 19:20 by RjZ

Tokyo is a giant, bustling city of over 35 million people (metro area). That many people have a lot going on, which is all the more amazing: You step into the Tokyo subway, filled with other passengers, and you feel obligated to pause your conversation. Nearly everyone has a cellphone or a music player and most everyone is tapping away at them, but you don’t hear any conversations or tinny music leaking out of tiny earbuds. People may be coming out of bars, late at night, and yet still, the boisterous conversation meets a, in my experience, unlikely end in the subway.



Shibuya Crossing

The Japanese people that I met were nothing like the uniform consistency that citizens had described as driving them kichigai (crazy) about their own country decades ago. Young people, especially, are anything but uniform. Fashions are stretched well past what would seem like good ideas considering the weather (extremely short skirts on very cold fall days) or flattering (same skirts on all but a few super models). Today’s Japan, and especially Tokyo, is practically famous for the wackiness on display. (A trip to Hirajuku bridge or the maid cafés of Akihabara ought to convince anyone of how earnest the Japanese are about stretching boundaries.)

Still, an almost other-worldly consideration for others pervades the society. People don’t make noise on the subway because it would be inconsiderate of other passengers. A sardine packed bus can somehow part like hollywood movie effect to let people in the back squeeze out of the front at their stop. Fellow tourists bow and crouch out of the way to make room for photos in front of the most popular spots.

The lovely thing is just how contagious it all is. Racism is directed at Japanese in China for some pretty understandable historical reasons. But that isn’t the worst thing I imagine for a Japanese tourist visiting their giant neighbor. Instead it’s how loud, direct, and generally impossible to offend the Chinese people can be. Where the Chinese can push directly in front of your picture taking to get a better view; can be heard at four in the morning shouting at fellow tourists on their way to view the sunrise; or push passed each other, bumping shoulders like fish in an over crowded pond (even when there is plenty of room to go around) the poor hapless Japanese tourist must wonder what she has done wrong to warrant all this abuse. Meanwhile, back in Japan, Chinese tourists have left their culture at home and are just as kind as everyone else is to each other, and quiet too.

U.S. American tourists, famous for their “HONEY! COME LOOK AT THIS” shouting from across a market, are hard to even identify on holiday in Japan. People often asked where we were from (a common conversation starter in nearly every country I’ve visited) but in Japan there was no “I knew it” smirk that followed the answer. Perhaps they are just characteristically considerate, or maybe, stripped of the obvious clues of behavior seen everywhere else yanks travel, they couldn’t hazard a guess?

I’ve heard that it can be incredibly frustrating for foreigners to live in Japan. They may never be truly accepted into society, seen forever as gaijin; visitors who will eventually grow tired and leave. I can’t speak to that, but I can say that as much as I love to travel, I do find the running around from site to site, attraction to attraction, experience to experience to be tiresome after a time. I would have loved to stay longer in nearly every place I’ve been; there is so much more to see and learn, but in Japan, for the first time, I wasn’t the least bit tired. Could it be all the peace and quiet, while surrounded by 25 million people?

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07.17.11

I shouldn’t be my brother’s keeper

Posted in Liberty at 17:30 by RjZ

Perhaps you’ve already heard about the New York man who died from a motorcycle crash, during a protest ride. The protest group he was riding with maintains “Mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent accidents, the decision on when to wear a helmet while operating a motorcycle should remain with each responsible adult rider.”

How do we pass laws requiring helmets in some places and not in others? Frankly, I agree with the protesters that helmets don’t reduce accidents and they have a right not to wear one. What happens, however, when a driver has an accident with a helmet free motorcyclist who suffers dramatically worse injury or even death thanks to his lack of protection? Who should be at fault? If the uninsured motorcyclist suffers avoidable brain trauma, who should pay for his hospital bills? Mandatory helmet laws may be wrong in attempting to require riders to be safe, but riders cannot also demand that others be responsible for their choices.

Why aren’t the laws like that already? I suspect this isn’t a big enough issue for most folks who have never had an accident with a cyclist and don’t really plan on it, or think about it much. On the other hand, motorcyclists are rather likely to be activists for their freedom to ride without a helmet and thus quite responsive to keeping such a law off the books. They think about the issue each time they get on their bike. It’s about the incentives.

How, then, are there laws in some states that require helmets at all? Here I think that it was an easier sell to propose a law ‘for the public good.’ Many motorcyclists are opposed to such a law, but it’s much easier to convince the rest of a community that a law protecting people is necessary, compared to one which wouldn’t save any lives but only keep us from paying for those who refuse to protect their own.

The biblical invocation that we are not to act like Cain (Genesis 4:9) but must be our brother’s keeper may be an historic motivation for this attitude. For many, the religious inducement for this moral idea is more than sufficient justification for laws that safeguard the community at large. The problem with such laws is that one person’s idea of protection is another’s infringement of rights. What if, for example, the religious-right were to outlaw homosexuality in an effort to mitigate the spread of AIDS?

Insurance companies may only offer their services pending suspension of risky behavior, but governments tread very dangerous ground when they do the same. I may decide to choose a different insurance company, but changing my government is a significantly bigger hurdle. If instead we focus on laws that simply codify responsibility then we can still affect a positive change in society, inasmuch as the majority of society actually agrees.

Surprisingly, one almost never sees a bicyclist riding without a helmet these days, even without a law enforcing them to do so (in Colorado at least). Don’t they have as much interest in freedom as motorcyclists? Or is it simply that people interested in fitness enough to ride bicycles don’t think it makes sense to throw it all away on an avoidable head injury? Seems like that should work the same for motorcyclists too, but who are we to judge? If motorcycle riders understood the risks they are taking and if, aside from the tragedy of losing victims of their own risky behavior, they do no harm to anyone else, then we have reached a reasonable compromise.

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07.13.11

Why there are no atheist politicians

Posted in Society at 10:50 by RjZ

A few polls have suggested that U.S. Americans would rather elect a homosexual or muslim than an atheist to the presidency.

The most often cited reason for this appears to be that a religious president is more likely to share moral views with a religious voter, even if she isn’t the same religion. I’ve already discussed this fallacy of where our morals come from in some detail, but I overlooked another challenge potential non-believers face in the political arena.

In spite of constant onslaught to the contrary (starting at comment number one!), atheism and agnosticism are not religions. The only thing you know for sure about one atheist or another is what they do not believe.

Like Christians, Hindus, and the rest, there are morally good atheists and weak ones. Unlike the religious, though, regardless of their behavior, you can’t really question whether their acts are in tune with their non-belief. What does belief vs. non-belief say about their morals either way? We can’t have any idea what the world-view is of someone who’s only claim (to which we’re referring anyway) is that they don’t accept faith as evidence of the supernatural. When a Christian leader is found guilty of homosexual relations with a drug-dealing prostitute, we can safely assume he’s been a hypocrite to his stated beliefs. Were an atheist politician found out to be engaging in the same behavior we can only be disappointed if he held staunch anti-drug and anti-prostitution positions, after all, wasn’t that the assumption for this evangelical preacher?

This is where the difficulty lies for politicians trying to communicate their position to voting public in a tiny sound-bite. When an Idaho Senator says he’s a Christian, his constituents generally assume they know a thing or two about his morals (and are quite surprised to find out otherwise). He need only state his religion and voters are content that they have an idea how he thinks.

Of course, voters automatically conclude a few things about atheists too. They imagine morally bereft satanists who stubbornly do not believe in God (Yaweh/Allah/Shiva/Buddha) in spite of the obvious evidence to the contrary. Much of this is silly, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, but this lack of a packaged belief system that can be suggested in a 30 second commercial is a huge impediment to the non-believing political candidate and even if folks lose the picture of non-believing satanists they’ll be no closer to knowing what necessarily goes on in one atheist’s head or another.

The problem lies with the voting constituency and not with the religious or agnostic politicians. The difficulty lies in the patently false assumption that what a person says, especially when they employ convenient labels that package whole collections of assumptions, is a fair predictor of their future actions. Lying is a human skill that is distributed fairly equally amongst people regardless of their religious affiliation. Actions and reputation speak louder than words and are a far more reliable guess about behavior in the future.

Potential disbelieving politicians face a challenge in packaging their reputation into a 30 second advertisement but voters would be wise to demand the same from their religious contenders.

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07.06.11

I’ll blow your house down

Posted in Society, Travel at 18:05 by RjZ

Germans are quick to mock the construction quality of houses in the United States. Everything is build out of wood and paper, they say, huffing and puffing like they’re considering blowing down our homes. They are cheap and are not built to last, like many things in the states. They’re right, of course. An old house in the U.S. might be less than 30 where in Germany, you wouldn’t suggest your home is old unless it was well over 100.

German homes are built with brick and cement. They are heavy and strong and you need a special drill and nail just to hang a picture on the wall in many places. It’s easy to argue that this is a good thing, but there are many unforeseen downsides!

The houses, most multi-family dwellings, where I lived in Frankfurt were mostly new, by German standards, built in the 50’s after the war. Back then, few people had a car and so the streets are narrow and the houses cozy up to one another in a friendly way. Of course, there is absolutely no parking anywhere now, and many of the roads have been converted to one way streets just to free up a bit of on-street parking. Razing these homes would be costly and sad, but is ‘built to last’ really such a good idea?

As their standard of living has increased, Germans prefer bigger homes too. So they haves settle down elsewhere. With an excellent train system, many choose to build in one of the suburbs surrounding the metro area. Most will be able to find space, but they’ll need much more money than homes in the United States. Of course, you get what you pay for: they will be getting a master architect and a custom home which will cost at least four times as much. Later if they want to make a change (oops, we didn’t mean to have an extra child! stereos have seven speakers now? where will we put the wires?) tearing down walls or adding them will be extremely expensive.

Meanwhile, I just completed a project to replace all the windows in my home with energy efficient versions. I also tore out a small window and replaced it with a huge bay window to let in more light than the original designers (way back in the eighties) thought was necessary. The project was a success, and I was very happy with my contractors (if you need windows, talk to these guys!) Contractors aren’t always so good in the U.S. Smart homeowners will watch them like a hawk, recognizing that the faster they get things done, the better it is for them, even if it isn’t better for you! In Germany, meanwhile, a contractor will have to be a certified meister with years of training and proof he knows what he’s doing. Sounds great doesn’t it? Well, not if you don’t actually want the very best. Perhaps it’s garage windows, and you don’t care all that much. Maybe you really need windows, but don’t have enough cash for the best right now. This system, a hand-me-down from the age of guilds, ensures top-quality and fair wages for the services, but dramatically limits choice. There simply is no low-end, even when you do prefer it.

Todai-ji: The worlds largest wooden structure in Nara, Japan, built in 1709

Todai-ji: The worlds largest wooden structure in Nara, Japan, built in 1709

The Japanese build most everything out of wood and paper, but their buildings seem to last. Still, German construction probably does last much longer, but it’s quality that is paid for dearly and, really, is lasting so long always such a good idea? Are you so sure that the decisions made today will really make sense in the future?

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