New Olympus Trip 35

# photography

Christmas came early this year. Literally. Claire and I exchanged gifts at home in Glasgow before flying to Canada for the holidays, and I got a new camera.

This is the camera I’ve been using for the past year, the Revue SC-3:

A 35mm SLR camera sitting on a table

Technically, it belongs to Claire. She bought it at Mauerpark Flea Market in Berlin. It was cheap, and it’s fantastic.

This is the camera that Claire gave me for Christmas, an Olympus Trip 35:

A 35mm compact camera sitting on a table

This is a beautiful, small, well-built camera. It’s a compact camera, meaning it doesn’t have all of the settings of the first camera.

The camera automatically sets the shutter speed and aperture. Amazingly, it doesn’t need a battery to do so. It uses something called a “selenium cell,” which is still powering the auto exposure after many decades. The camera will also block you from taking a picture if the light is too low. You manage your focus with generic settings (portrait, two people, group shot, infinite).

This is not a precision instrument. It’s small, light, and effective. It’s really meant for street and travel photography, hence the name “Trip.”

I love the idea of a camera that I can throw in my backpack or my pocket to go out for some street shooting. I also really like that it’s less obtrusive than a clunky SLR, which makes it better for street photography.

I had a roll of film in the Revue. I took the above photo of the Olympus with the Revue, then transferred the film to the Olympus and took of a photo of the Revue. You can see some differences between the two.

With the Revue, I overexposed the photo to compensate for back-lighting, and I used a low depth of field to keep the focus on the camera.

With the Revue, I didn’t have that control. Due to the backlighting, the camera was a little underexposed. And, because I couldn’t control the aperture, the background is less blurry.

However, it’s still a great picture and the focus is quite sharp. Due to the latitude of my film, it’s no trouble to boost the exposure in editing to bring out more detail on the dark camera body.

Afterwards, I had a few shots left in the roll, so I finished them off on a walk around the neighborhood.

A woman standing in front of an empty yard

I was most worried about the focus, but most of my pictures came out sharp. This is in part because the camera defaults to a narrow aperture, making it ideal for outdoor photography, when you have lots of light and want a wide depth of field.

A man walking past a building

The nondescript camera definitely made it easier to photograph passersby. Most people didn’t seem to notice me.

A woman walking past some storefronts

The camera also has a 40mm lens, which captures a wider field of view than the 50mm I’ve been using with the Revue. This creates a challenge, because you can get more action in your shot, but you need to be more careful to avoid cluttering your composition.

A woman walking past an empty storefront

But a wider angle also means you get more environment, like these broad shopfronts.

Glasgow Frost

# photography

On Monday last week, a thick fog bank rolled in off the ocean just as the temperature snapped below zero. Ice immediately covered the streets, and frost clung to everything else.

The following morning I went out for a magic walk through a winter wonderland.

A woman standing in a frost-covered park

No snow had fallen, but a dusty white frost covered everything. The fog lingered for a couple of days, creating an ethereal mist.

Claire and I had gone to see The Snow Queen at the Royal Theatre Glasgow the Saturday prior, and that’s exactly how Glasgow felt — like an enchanted ice palace.

Bushes in the park covered in frost

A leafy plant coated in ice crystals

Everywhere, invisible cobwebs picked up frost crystals, turning into heavy strands of icy yarn.

A plant covered in frozen spiderwebs

A signpost covered in frozen spiderwebs

A fence covered in frozen spiderwebs

Queens Park is so-named because it is the battlefield where Mary, Queen of Scotland and pretender to the throne of England, fought her final battle against the soldiers of Elizabeth I. She was captured and spent the rest of her life in English prisons.

A sign on a fence, which reads 'The Battle of Langside was fought on this ground on 13th May 1568 between the forces of Mary Queen of Scots and the Regent Moray and marked the queen's final defeat in Scotland.'

I had never stopped to read this plaque before, but I really loved the look of it all decorated with frosty spiderwebs.

Links for December 9, 2022

# reading

I recorded a SvelteKit 1.0 tutorial

Svelte (the fastest-growing web development framework) has finally released their long-awaited back-end framework, SvelteKit. I’m currently building a personal project with SvelteKit, and I love it.

What is an essay anymore?

Here’s a harsh truth: today you can an original generate a college-level essay on any common subject. For free. Instantly.

Will you get an A? No. But we have to face the question: what is the point of an essay in the era of information overload? For time immemorial, teachers and professors have asked students to analyze the themes in 1984. If you ever found yourself writing one of those essays and wondering, What’s the point?, AI is finally forcing the question. As one PhD researcher tweeted:

Why would students want to use essay generation? Because the university is not seen as a place to engage with ideas but has been made into a job factory.

In an essay in The Atlantic, former professor Stephen Marche writes:

I figure it will take 10 years for academia to face this new reality: two years for the students to figure out the tech, three more years for the professors to recognize that students are using the tech, and then five years for university administrators to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

How to do crime good, according to OpenAI

Because apparently I’m obsessed with AI this week: apparently you can bypass GPT’s safety feature with a special encoding, to get back any illicit information, including how to hotwire a car or make meth.

Until I saw this tweet, I hadn’t thought about the intensive censorship that must go into training a model like this; not just for political correctness, but for all sorts of problematic information.

The actors recall Best in Show

Best in Show is one of my favorite movies, and this oral history just helps me appreciate why. In short, there are actually very few jokes in the movie. And the jokes that are there aren’t the funniest moments. The funniest moments are completely deadpan — because the real joke is life itself.

Inflation is corporate profiteering

This is one of those things we already know. But this report in the Calgary Herald explains how corporate profiteering is the main driver of inflation.

Enrollment at Nova Scotia schools is rising for the first time in half a century

The tide is turning on Nova Scotian outmigration.

Around the world, swear words tend to sound like swear words

A study from researchers at the University of London finds that swear words in all languages tend to have fewer “y”, “r”, “l”, and “w” sounds. Furthermore, in most languages you can make a swear word sound less sweary by adding these sounds — think “frig,” “beyotch”, or “darn.”

Let’s talk about advertising pollution

I hate advertising. On billboards. On buses. On packaging. In grocery-store aisles. On news websites. It’s like a gauze that consumes everything.

I often fantasize about a world without advertising, so I was happy to read this article about one person’s experience traveling between the more-subdued marketingsphere of Montreal and the rest of the world.

This graphic explains The Dress

And now it feels a lot less disturbing.

Dry Docks and Wetlands

# photography

On Tuesday, I took a detour on my lunch break. While biking from Glasgow’s Southside to the West End, I stopped at the derelict Govan Graving Docks.

The dry docks were constructed from hand-carved granite over thirty years, up to 1898. A graving dock is historically used for scraping, cleaning, painting, and tarring the hull of a ship, but these ones were built for ambitious repairs on the largest ships in the world.

A dry dock filled with water

The docks closed in 1988. Even after thirty years of abandonment, the granite basins stand strong. Today, they’re open as a sort of ad-hoc city park. There’s no signage for them, just an entryway through a metal fence behind some warehouses. The cobblestone quays are completely overgrown with weeds, bushes, and trees. In some places, it’s full forest.

A city skyline beyond an overgrown pier

Walking through the bushes, you feel like you’re wandering in a wetland, before you emerge and see the Glasgow skyline directly ahead.

A fence barricading an overgrown pier

There are a few barricades fencing off areas that are presumably dangerous, but even in the open areas I watched my footing. There were holes in the ground, slippery ledges into the river, unsteady wooden bridges, and broken guardrails.

A toppled guardrail on a wooden footbridge

It all feels a touch overwhelming. Men here created a monument, and nature has built another on top. Forests on the piers. Wetlands in the dry docks.

A sapling in the sun on an overgrown dock

One building remains on the site: the old pump house. Fences lazily protect it, but there’s a wide opening where a gate used to stand. Whoever maintains this place seems to think that upkeep is futile.

The pump house is an impressive stone building that no longer has a roof, windows, or doors. Between the tall stone walls with huge empty windows, it feels like a roman ruin.

Posters with abstract art hanging in an abandoned building

Inside the pump house, I discovered a treasure: a guerrilla art installation. An anonymous artist had strung up abstract calligraphies between the walls in the main hall. Despite Glasgow’s incessant rain, the papers were crisp and dry in the open air. The artist has just installed them within the last day.

I stood and stared for a long time, absorbing the feeling that I was in a temple. The impenetrable posters felt like hanging prayers — like a secret in a secret place. Who hung these? Who for?

Two swans sitting on a floating dock

Two swans flying over the River Clyde

After a while, I wandered out, passing some community garden plots and a pile of burnt garbage. In the river, two swans rested on a floating dock, heads tucked under their wings. They peaked up for a moment as two more swans flew overhead, traveling west from the city center toward the ocean.

A sign that says 'The Govan Wetlands' painted on scrapwood

Leaving, I paused to look at the sign at the entrance — hand-painted on scrap wood — announcing the Govan Wetlands. The sign stands in lieu of any official signage that might otherwise welcome visitors to a city park, a historic monument, or a future development site. For now, at least, the place has been reclaimed.

The Artifice

# writing

A new “artificial intelligence” tool called “Lensa” burst into social media this week. For $7.99, Lensa will upload a handful of photos of a person and output a collection of stylized avatars. Social media flooded with users sharing their new pop-art profile pictures, making them look like characters in comic books or movie posters. Critics quickly followed, attacking the software that powers Lensa.

“Artificial” comes from the latin ars, meaning art or skilled work — what we might call “craft” today. Artifex means craftsperson. Artificium means skilled work; the adjective form is artificialis, as in artificial. Ars comes full circle in the phrase “artificial intelligence art”: crafting intelligence that itself can craft.

But I use scare quotes around “artificial intelligence,” because AI is a buzzword, not a real thing. When people say “AI,” usually they’re referring to a computing practice more accurately called “machine learning.” Machine learning is a type of computer program that self-corrects based on parameters defined by human engineers, which they commonly call “learning.”

But machine learning never actually learns, because its metrics of success and calibration are always defined by human engineers. To demonstrate this, look at the mistakes that come through in machine learning models like the one that powers Lensa.

Women who use Lensa report that it outputs highly sexualized and even nude images. Women who input only headshots will get back full-body shots with huge breasts and a skinny waist. Some women find that they get more accurate and less sexual images by setting their gender to “male.” Asian users say that the app makes them look more stereotypically Asian.

The old-school definition of AI is a technology that can think for itself. Obviously, Lensa has no power to think. It consistently makes the same absurd mistakes. These aren’t thoughts: they’re the recycled work of the immature white men behind the curtain.

Our definition of AI has shifted over time, largely due to its over-use. Like the word “literal” coming to mean “figurative,” the phrase “artificial intelligence” has come to mean “pretend intelligence.” AI today is technology that mimics human intelligence, which — compared to the promise of technology that can actually think for itself — is a much lower bar.

Is a barometer, which can tell whether or not its raining, an AI? Is a nine-digit calculator?

That’s a pedantic argument, but there’s a real point: we use words like “learning” and “intelligence” to humanize technology. But at its core, most machine learning programming is proprietary software that generates value through cost-cutting by replacing human labor.

When we talk about AI art, we often fall into the trap of whether a computer can produce art. Are the Lensa portraits art? That question misses the point. The rarified ideal of “art” as separate from (and higher than) craft is a relatively new idea — and a strange one.

Art is labor. The creation of art demands skill, time, and effort. And, while some art may seem to transcend the artist, most art is the product of mundane and repetitive work — photo portraits, upholstery patterns, birthday cards, social media avatars. And, work that is mundane and repetitive can be automated.

Computers automate repetitive tasks — even nuanced tasks like painting a portrait. Does that mean that the computer is intelligent or artful? No. A computer has no “artificial intelligence” just like a cotton gin has no “artificial skill.” This isn’t skill or intelligence — it’s a machine that has been designed to mimic the skilled work of humans.

What makes humans different is that we can think for ourselves. And human artists spend thousands of hours studying artwork from around the world to develop their skill and style.

Maybe this is what Lensa has automated: the free and open tradition of artistic inspiration. After all, the greatest outrage over Lensa is how the company trains its model on billions of source artworks — many copyrighted, none credited. The company has sucked up the collective knowledge of mankind (with an apparent over-representation of white male fantasy comic book artwork) in an attempt to establish a sort of ownership.

Lensa claims to bring art to the masses. In truth, they’re taking art from the masses. They offer nothing new or superior in the world of pop-art portraiture. Instead, they compete by undercutting the human craftspeople who make their livelihood as portrait artists — turning the production of art into a factory process.

It reminds me of the textile artisans who lost their livelihoods through the 18th and 19th centuries as new technologies arose to produce bolts of cotton cloth by the mile. The factories turned cloth into a cheap consumer good. Undercut by industry, the artisans lost the market for their goods, lost their livelihood, and lost their traditional craft. They protested in the streets, but the police and government responded with gunfire. Across Europe, rebellions failed and textile craft disappeared.

Though Lensa hasn’t created a thinking machine, I think they have created something new. They might be the first company to sell “artificial intelligence” as a cheap consumer good. The consumers pays $7.99 in exchange for a few seconds of processing time on the Lensa servers, cutting out the millions of artists whose work built the software. Like the weavers centuries ago, artists today will lose the market for their intelligence, undercut by a pretend intelligence.

So, no, Lensa does not sell art, and they don’t sell artificial intelligence. But they still sell ars in one sense — that of the artifice: a clever or cunning device used to trick others. You might think you’re buying a computer’s original thoughts. In fact, you’re just cutting the artist out of the art. Call it the art of deception.

Links for December 2, 2022

# reading

People are obsessed with Spotify Wrapped

Spotify Wrapped is an annual visualization of each Spotify user’s individual listening habits. It’s an amusing vignette of your music for the year. And apparently for some people it’s make-or-break.

See Glasgow dressed as mid-century New York in the new Indiana Jones trailer

In the springtime, Claire and I walked around downtown Glasgow when it was done up as a nostalgic American parade route. It’s fun to see the result in the new trailer for the movie.

New music from The Brood

This is the band of my highschool best friend. He was obsessed with bass when we were in highschool. It was probably the first time in my life that I saw someone really committed to something.

The Millennial Pause

When Millennials record a video, there’s a moment where we stare blankly at the camera, waiting for the recording to start. Apparently. According to some Gen-Zedders (who are well-accustomed to the whiplash editing of TikTok, where the subject is often already talking when the video starts) this is the “Millennial Pause.”

Can absolute silence drive you insane?

NYT investigates.


Made me laugh.


# photography

On Sunday, I confronted one of my greatest fears: photographing strangers.

A woman in a leather jacket

The winter sunlight in Glasgow creates a permanent sunset feeling. It was midday, but the faint sunlight painted everything gold. I took the subway to the beautiful West End.

I planned to walk up Great Western Road — a straight line from one subway stop to another. Great Western Road is on top of a hill, so it gets good light. I would stay on the north side of the street, where the light would be stronger. As I walked up the street, I would stop oncoming pedestrians and ask to take their photos.

A couple standing on the sidewalk

The first photo was terrifying. “Excuse me, I’m a member of a camera club, and I’m learning street photography. Could I take your picture?” They were tickled and they obliged me. I forgot to set my exposure, and my framing was off. But I got a photo.

A man standing on the sidewalk

Right away, I felt more comfortable, and I started asking almost every person I passed. The first four or five people were all completely friendly. As I shot, I started getting a handle on the basics.

Two man standing on the sidewalk

Most people were quite business-like. As soon as I took a photo, they nodded and kept walking, leaving no room for re-shoots or chit-chat.

Eventually, I encountered a few people who said, No, but most people said Yes. A few said Thank you.

A man standing on the sidewalk in a soccer uniform, holding a soccer ball, looking at the camera

Most people didn’t pose much. This man barely stopped as I asked the question. When he realized what I wanted, he stopped, stood tall, and looked straight at the camera. Then he immediately kept walking.

A man with white hair standing in the street

This is one of my favorite photos from the day. This man seemed resigned when I asked. He made no attempt to pose, and casually looked around as I framed my photo. I waited for his gaze to fall into the distance.

A young woman standing in front of a greenhouse

This is Camila. For almost every photo, I stuck to my quick speech, Excuse me. Hi there. I’m a member of a camera club… When Camila walked past, I tried something more concise.

Can I take your picture?

Uh, what for?

Oh, sorry! I’m a member of a camera club…

I explained my project to Camila, and she asked some questions about it. It was one of the only actual conversations I had among twenty interactions with strangers.

The exchange confirmed my theory: people need to know why you’re taking the picture. Most people didn’t even seem to absorb my explanation, but the fact that I had one sufficed.

A couple standing in a park

This couple was really friendly, and they were the only ones who asked for my Instagram handle.

A man in a wool coat standing on the street

Great Western Road runs from the art school to the university. I figured that people in the university area would be a little more laid-back than the rest of the city. On my way home, I decided to keep photographing people in my own neighborhood. I was really happy to discover that people were just as welcoming.

An old couple standing in a doorway

This couple gave me my favorite couple of the day. They were very kind and encouraging.

A young man standing on a footbridge

I shot almost a full roll of film on strangers, and at the end of the day I felt great.

Traveling, I meet lots of new people. I also spend a lot of time feeling isolated. When each of these people let me photograph them, they gave me their trust. That feels like an uncommon and wonderful thing between strangers.

Overall, this was really challenging. Even after approaching a stranger on the street with an odd request, you still need to consider framing, exposure, facial expression, converging lines, your position relative to the subject, and the subject’s position relative to their surroundings. I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned a lot too.

Links for November 25, 2022

# reading

Municipality released their new album

My good friends Will and Peter just released their latest album, and it’s great. Check it out on Spotify.

Turkeys terrorize Massachusetts town

“Some days it is frustrating. I’ll be like: ‘Oh my God, there’s an Amazon package’ and I can’t go get it, because the turkeys are there.

Happy thxgiving.

Peppa Pig ‘spiders can’t hurt you’ episode pulled off air in Australia – again

This article is from 2017, but the headline is timeless.

I try to make an infinity pool of soup

And almost succeed.

An interactive guide to Flexbox

On Tuesday I was Googling “flexbox cheat sheet” for the thousandth time. On Thursday I read Josh Comeau’s excellent flexbox explainer. I might not need to use the cheat sheet as often anymore.

Courtney Barnett covers “Everything is Free”

Have you ever heard a cover and thought it was the original? And then heard the original and thought it was a cover? Like when I was a kid and I thought “Big Yellow Taxi” was by Counting Crows, because that was the version I heard on the radio all the time.

Well, until this week I thought “Everything is Free” was by Sylvan Esso, and that Gillian Welch had done a folksy cover. Then I was listening to a playlist of music from the aughts, and the Gillian Welch version came on, which prompted me to search the song and realize that not only is Welch’s the original — a Napster lament — but the song is now enjoying a renaissance in myriad cover versions, now repurposed as a Spotify lament.

I can get a tip jar
Gas up the car
And try and make a little change
Down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job
I done it before
Never minded working hard
It’s who I’m working for

Workers’ complaints never lose relevance. The Courtney Barnett version might be my favorite.

Paris Light

# photography# travel

Paige jumping off a diving board, surrounded by my siblings

I don’t know where my family got the travel bug. There are six kids. Four of us have lived in France (separately), and all of us love to travel.

I think we were partly inspired by our parents. Both of them had formative experiences traveling in Europe. Mom did an exchange to a small town in Germany. Dad did the grape harvest in the south of France, then bummed around the Netherlands. Our family never had much money, but both of my parents saw value in travel, so they encouraged us on our own adventures.

Our oldest sibling, Paige, was the first to go abroad. She went on a trip to London as a teenager. I was in elementary school, and she brought back British candy that made England seem like a magical place.

When she graduated from high school, Paige went to Paris as an au pair. This time she returned not with candy, but with photos.

Photography was part of my upbringing. My mom was deft with her film camera, and she passed the practice to my sister, who started taking beautiful pictures as a teenager. Mom stuffed the bookshelf with albums of family photos. For a family that went through multiple fractures, those albums were one of the things that maintained our sense of wholeness.

Paige’s photos from Paris pushed the envelope. She took black-and-white pictures of people and places that were both artful and playful. She had an exhibition at the Khyber Art Gallery in Halifax of a series of photos of a clown on stilts. I remember that the photos used dramatic angles to make the clown look larger than life.

My family had a running debate about digital versus film. I used digital cameras as a teenager. But for Christmas when I was eighteen, my mom gave me an old film camera — an Olympus OM-1 with a 35-70mm zoom lens: a great kit for street photography.

A train bed filled with snow

The first photos I took were simple observations of my world: objects, cityscapes, friends.

A piece of plastic wrapped around a highway guardrail

Two months later, I left on my first trip. I’m the second oldest child, and I was the second to leave home. I went to Africa for six months and brought my new film camera.

Traveling alone in Africa was profound and also boring. I had the greatest adventures of my life, made wonderful friends, and discovered amazing places. But I was also a confused, tentative eighteen-year-old, far away from home without much money and with little to do. I would go outside and just walk around the block for fear of getting lost. So I took pictures.

A child running down an alleyway in Zanzibar

In 2008, you could still buy film and get it processed almost anywhere. I took hundreds of photos. I learned to photograph strangers. Five months into my trip, my light meter died, and I learned to guess my exposure.

a man on a boat in lake victoria

a child on a bus

Later that year, my 14-year-old brother, Allister, took his first trip: he came with my sister to meet me in Germany at the end of my Africa trip. We backpacked in Europe for a month. Allister had my digital camera, and my sister and I both had Olympus OMs.

me and Allister

We all traded cameras, taking pictures of each other and of fun things in the street.

Allister and Paige on swings

This photo is from a park in Berlin, near our hostel.

Ten years later, when my wife Claire and I moved to Berlin, we ended up in an apartment around the corner. I walked past this swing set all of the time.

Claire also grew up around photography, and so it has always been something we’ve shared through our whole relationship.

But, for a long time, I largely stopped taking pictures. I got busy with school, and then work. Last year, Claire encouraged me to get back to it. She told her dad to get me some film for Christmas, and I started taking pictures again.

A 'No fouling' street sign with a sticker that says 'Vote Enya' on it

As always, I was drawn to photograph funny things in the street. And sometimes those photos are great. But often they feel a little empty. I realized that a human makes a photo more interesting, so I started thinking about how to take pictures of people. I picked up a book on photography, I joined my local camera club, and I practiced.

In Glasgow, I still feel uncomfortable taking pictures in the street. People seem very suspect of the camera. But in Paris, it’s fine. They ignore the camera. So, each time I go to Paris for work, I go out for photo walks.

My sister has always had an uncanny ability to disappear behind the camera. She makes her subject feel comfortable, and gets spontaneous photos. In contrast, I always feel stiff and awkward, like I stick out. For me, taking pictures of strangers is a practice in balancing humility (be unimposing) and bravery (be bold).

A man arranging plants on the sidewalk

Here’s what I’ve tried:

I wear nondescript clothes, including a baseball hat. When I find a scene I like, I stand out of the way and set up my shot. I appear relaxed and stay relatively still, with my camera ready in front of my face. When a person comes into the frame, I casually raise the camera to my eye (if it’s not already there) and take the picture.

Bikes crossing an intersection

At this intersection, I noticed that the bike lane switched sides, so the bikers had to come diagonally across the intersection, creating diagonal movement across the scene. I stood behind a car on the edge of the intersection, positioned my camera, and waited for some cyclists to come through the frame.

A woman walking along the canal

Back in 2008, Paige, Allister, and I stayed in a loft apartment on the Canal St. Martin.

When Claire and I moved to Paris in March 2020, we wound up in an apartment at the other end of the canal. So during lockdown, that’s where we took our walks — up and down the landmark that welcomed me to Paris many years prior.

On one of my photo walks this past September, I walked down the canal. I noticed how nice the pedestrians looked as they walked through the light, next to the calm water. So I stopped with my camera, and waited for a the next approaching pedestrian to come through the patch of light.

I like taking pictures because they freeze these special places in time. But, on reflection, I recognize that it’s not the place that’s special — people make it so. Like in the photo of the swing set, and the canal: they move me because they connect me to people I love.

I think that’s what photography is. Each photograph reminds me of people: mom and her kids on vacation; my sister’s black and white pictures in Paris; my wife giving me tips for shooting portraits; and all of these anonymous passers-by, living their own lives. Each photo tells a story — about the photographer and the photographed. These photos make me feel connected, like those family albums. They foster a sense of wholeness.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023