Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: The Perfect Photo by Rantakrans and Hagberg

The Perfect Photo: 71 Tips from the Top (Rocky Nook)The Perfect Photo: 71 Tips from the Top by Elin Rantakrans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Obviously, The Perfect Photo is mis-named. At a mere 128 pages, this is a pocket book and it is not attempting to be the modern day counterpart of Ansel Adams series on photography or Photography by London and Upton. But what is it? It purports to be a set of simple tips for any photographer, regardless of equipment. However, while the tips are indeed the classic ones that every photographer needs to learn, this book is harder to use for the beginner than it needed to be. It tries to be all things to all people, but it is not enough for a knowledgable photographer, and it skips information that a novice would need to be able to use the good advice effectively. So it fails to deliver to anyone.

The format of The Perfect Photo is similar to what other photographers who are also columnist have used, a set of short articles each on a single subject organized topically. The problem is that while the book is probably best for novices who have not learned these methods, the articles are aimed at photographers with a particular type of equipment, Full Framed system cameras, which are the high end of photography equipment. For example, many of the chapters discuss the use of features that would not exist on point and shoots or compact cameras such as white balancing or the manual controls for aperature and shutter speed. And it does not discuss the work arounds that those who have gotten good at working with these types of cameras have developed to compensate.

More egregarious are the issues with sensor size. While everything they discuss is in terms of Full Frame sensors (24 x 35 mm), they acknowledge something called a half-frame camera. But there is nothing marketed as 'half-frame camera'. There are the digital cameras with APS-C sensors (ranging from 13.8 x 20.7 mm to 19.1 x 28.8 mm depending on manufacturer), there is the four-thirds system, (17.3 x 13 mm) and a few other proprietary formats that are used by a single manufacturer. But none of those is 17.5 x 24 mm , which is presumably what half-frame would be. And while it does mention a few equivalent focal lengths (e.g. that a 50 mm lens will cover the same area on a 'half-frame sensor' as a 75 mm lens on a full-frame camera), they don't go the obvious next step of saying that you can multiply by a factor of approximately 1.5. Even this discussion is not until Tip 22. So in multiple discussions of lens focal length, the novice would not have noticed that there was an issue and they needed to mentally adjust the discussions of what wide-angle, normal or tele-photo are.

And this is my complaint about this. Each tip is oriented towards the novice photographer who is just getting serious and needs to start somewhere. But the individual essays almost require a base of knowledge of photography and the workings of the equipment to understand it fill in the missing details. And worse, the novice would not have realized there was a problem until she tried to use the tip.

Rocky Nook (publisher) offerings seem to be finding replacements for the teaching of photography technique that are useful for the digital age. And this book seems like it was to meant to be the slim fieldbook for the novice who is just starting the road to being serious. But while each tip is good in itself, it needed an editor's hand to pick its audience and focus on it to properly fill this niche.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of The Perfect Photo as part of the O'Reilly Bloggers program.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review: Think Stats by Allen Downey

Think StatsThink Stats by Allen B. Downey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Statistics gets a little respect in Operations research, in part because it gets taught as a bunch of formulas and computer procedures. And the problem with the way that it is taught is that the formulas don't mean anything, and the student may know her way around menus, but that does not mean that she knows under what circumstances to use what method. And everything is learned in isolation, often without practice in getting her hands dirty. Think Stats gives students the chance to get their hands dirty.

Because it uses a programming language (Python) it covers data analysis from beginning to end: viewing data, calculating descriptive statistics, identifying outliers, describing data using the distributions (and explaining what the distributions really mean!). Going through this small book, the goal is understanding and using statistics, not just learning statistics. I have a number of college undergraduate students working on projects. I have started giving them this to work on when they first start with me, both for the programming in Python and to learn statistics and data analysis so they can be useful.

I received a free electronic copy of Think Stats from the O'Reilly Blogger review program.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remembering 9/11 in music

[Originally posted at the Pittsburgh Symphony Blog site] I was listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony concert from September 11, 2011 in Berlin on YouTube. As the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, Washington DC and Shanksville PA, this was billed as a dedicated to the victims of the attacks. But I started to wonder, what does it mean to have a concert dedicated to an event? In particular, there was nothing different about this concert then any other concert on the tour, so it is not in the program. And it is not likely that anyone present was directly related to the attacks. So what does it mean to use music as a means of remembrance, particularly if the music was written with no specific meaning?

At the Chatham University concert commemorating the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Pauline Rovkah commented that the reason we have these concerts is that we have no other way to express what we feel. It is not just that the opportunities do not present themselves, but what we feel is beyond our ability to express them in words.

And the music is not just how we express how we feel, but also how remember later what we feel now. When I was listening to Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach Cello Suite No. 1 - Sarabande in New York for the ceremony at the 9/11 WTC memorial, I remember listening him playing another piece. On July 1, 2007, I was deployed in Afghanistan. That day, the news told us that Tuzla Air Base, Bosnia, had been turned over by the American military to the Bosnia-Croatians. Many people in my unit had deployed to serve in the Balkans during those years, and the turnover of Tuzla Air Base represented the success of that effort. And that day I listened to a recording of Yo-Yo Ma playing The Cellist of Sarejevo by David Wilde. Which was in remembrance of darker days of that conflict, of a cellist who remembered his friends by playing his cello during the Siege of Sarejevo. Music as a reminder of sorrow in the past, and the joy of the day that signified that sorrow was past.

We don't always have words to express how we feel. And the reality is that we sometimes forget what we were feeling in the past as time goes by. But when we want to remember, we can remember the music we used. Yo-Yo Ma playing the Sarabande from Bach Cello Suite #1 in 2011, or Cello Suite #5 from 2002 for the World Trade Center attacks. The Cellist of Sarejevo for those who remember the Balkan war of the 1990s. Or even the trumpet or horn solos from Mahler #5.