Sudoku & Mental Exercise

Tools of the Sudoku Trade

When my family doctor asked me what I did to keep my mind active, I mentioned reading (which didn’t seem to impress him very much) and crossword puzzles (which he liked). Then he said, in his blunt, but friendly, way: ‘Take up sudoku. It’s very good for the brain.’

I was skeptical because, like others I’ve talked to, I thought sudoku puzzles involved math. Curiously in my younger years I studied a lot of math and used it often in my science and engineering classes. I was a B or B+ type math student — competent, but not a math wizard. I liked math okay, but not as much as science and English.

But somewhere over the years I lost touch with math and I was never fond of arithmetic, the daily math most of us use. I’ve never been able to do arithmetic in my head. On paper I’m okay and I can wield a calculator with the best of them, but increasingly my mind doesn’t process or conceptualize math very well. Perhaps it’s an age-related thing. So I avoided the sudoku craze, thinking it was okay for the mathematically inclined, but that I was not among them.

Marion, who had done a few sudoku puzzles herself, and didn’t like them, told me differently: ‘It’s not about math at all. It’s pattern matching and solving.’ With that encouragement I bought a Dell book of Easy sudoku puzzles that included some 6×6 grids at the start for raw beginners. Marion was right — there wasn’t any math involved. The numbers could as easily be icons of chess pieces or Babylonian goddesses — they’re nothing but convenient place markers.

And so I began. I didn’t get it right away; easy 9×9 puzzles seemed to me impossible to solve. I tried the 6×6 puzzles and eventually got the hang of it, after working at them for a couple of days (I’m not a quick learner). After being able to solve 6×6 puzzles routinely, I promoted myself to the big leagues, tackling the easy 9×9 ones. A couple of times I almost succeeded, but discovered I have a brain condition I call ‘spatial dyslexia’. Even when I’m being careful and checking my work, I can unknowingly transpose rows and columns, both in my logic when I’m solving a space, and physically when I’m putting in my answers. To be nearly finished with a puzzle only to discover two 4’s or 8’s in the same row or column is disheartening.

I had to agree with my doc though — this was exercising my brain in a way that was new and rigorous. I stuck with it. I remember very clearly the evening I solved my first 9×9 puzzle: it took me 60 minutes. It was the motivator I needed, and within days I was getting down to 30 minutes, then 20, and often 15. I was (and still am) subject to my peculiar form of dyslexia, but I’ve become a little better at checking my work. Any time I try to solve a sudoku puzzle quickly, I make errors. If I take my sweet time and double check all my logic and then my answers when I enter them, I can usually solve a puzzle without errors. Easy ones, of course.

I got hooked. And in helping me learn, Marion got hooked too, though she still prefers crosswords. I now work on anywhere from two to five puzzles a day. After a couple of months of easy ones, I moved up to medium puzzles. I’ve tried some of the hard ones but I’m rarely able to solve them. I get to a point where, with the logic techniques I know, I run out of numbers I can puzzle out, and I refuse to guess.

I thought I’d be clever and look up some tutorials on the Internet. They’re there all right, but they make my head hurt. All that talk about hidden triplets and quads and x-wing solutions is about as clear to me as particle physics. So I decided ‘the heck with hard’. I do the puzzles for fun after all. Medium, with occasional forays into hard, seem just right to me, at my skill level. They’re challenging, but solvable.

I don’t make notations in my puzzles. All the tutorials recommend it, but the clutter bothers me and makes it more difficult, rather than easier, to see the patterns. Notation also takes a long time to do. I can solve medium level puzzles without notations so I’ve opted to keep it simple.

I must admit though, that it discourages me when I see my son’s girlfriend whiz through the hardest sudoku puzzles in ten minutes or less, completing them perfectly nearly every time. She uses no notation either. Some people are gifted. The rest of us plod.

Goodbye Leica, Hello Bessa

Collapsible Summicron

Bessa R3A

Goodbye Leica, hello Bessa
Some say more-a, some say less-a
I say ‘Phooey’ to the stress-a
And go shooting with my inexpensive Bessa
(with apologies to Allan Sherman1)

The Leica rangefinder camera, especially the classic M3 and M2 bodies, were the icons of my youth. So many famous photographers used them for slice-of-life realism on the street, in shops, at war, that the Leica name took on an image of not just the best-made cameras on earth, but also the coolest. The beguiling images of Henri Cartier-Bresson hover over the Leica name like an unexpurgated spirit. If you were young and excited by photography, you were excited by the thought of owning a Leica some day. They were, and are still, very expensive to buy new. Worse, for years even the used ones became collectibles, keeping the price out of the range of all but those most determined to own one.

Then came a sea change. Digital photography marked the start of a new era of photographic imaging and, slowly at first, then gaining speed rapidly, the price of fine film cameras began to plummet. In the past two or three years, even a good-condition M3 or M2 could be had for under $1000, then closer to $500. Like many who’d shared the dream, I bought a good M2 user. It had a little wear and a few scuff marks that prevented it, thankfully, from falling into collectible status.

It was everything it had been cracked up to be. Solid, with a deep feeling of precision and longevity, it made me feel like I’d joined the big leagues. The mystique held, for awhile.

Of course none of my images bore any resemblance to HCB or any other famous photographer. I don’t have vision nor am I a street shooter. I simply like to walk about with a camera and take photos of things that catch my eye. They’re usually things that would not interest many others. Not being a commercial photographer or having any aspirations to being an ‘art photographer’, whatever that is, I never minded this part of it. The camera itself was a pleasure to use. Mostly.

Then, as I worked my way through recovery from a heart attack and a couple of angioplasty/stent procedures, I began to feel the weight of gear in a different way than I had as a younger photographer. Every time I took out the Leica, it felt heavy to me.

I was also getting spoiled. Enjoying the bottom-feeder’s prices of film gear, I began collecting some Nikon SLR film bodies and I realized how much I liked built-in metering and swing-back loading. I picked up a Bessa R screwmount rangefinder and found myself actually preferring it to the Leica, even though it wasn’t nearly the same build quality. Moreover, when I went shooting with the Bessa, I didn’t feel the weight of history bearing down on me. It was just a good shooter, no more, no less.

I vowed to thin down my increasing collection of film cameras to just a few I enjoyed shooting the most. This applied particularly to rangefinder cameras. After a few years of shooting with them I had a handle on what I liked: bayonet-mount lenses, mostly 35mm or 50mm focal lengths, built-in metering, and swing-back loading. I never once enjoyed bottom-loading the M2 and I tired of carrying a separate meter. The Leica, I decided, had to go.

I opted for a fresh start, selling as much existing rangefinder gear as I could, and buying a brand new camera to take me through the next few years. I thought about the exciting Bessa R4 with its built-in framelines for wide-angle lenses, but with rangefinder cameras I shoot with my CV 21/4 infrequently while I shoot with 35/50 about 90% of the time. That tipped me towards the Bessa R3 series with its 1:1 viewfinder for both 40 and 50mm lenses. To top off the purchase I decided to get the CV 40/1.4 Nokton as my primary lens. I also chose the convenience of aperture-priority metering, with optional manual metering, hence the ‘A’ in my new Bessa R3A.

Regrets? None. In fact, I’ve never regretted selling any camera. I don’t get sentimental over cameras or lenses. They come, they go.

The Leica went to an especially nice home; a long-time member of the Rangefinder Forum purchased it from me. I know the M2 will continue to be appreciated, and that makes me feel good.

I really like the Bessa. It’s not too heavy or too big, and I intend to carry it around a lot. Of course it has to compete with my Nikon SLRs and DSLR for my attention, but I always want to have one decent rangefinder in my kit.

It’s a lovely thing to be able to live out a dream. Perhaps it’s even better to realize that the dream belonged to a younger version of yourself. At this stage of my life, I’ll take my ‘vernacular’ pictures and let someone else be haunted by the spirit of HCB.

1 Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (Wikipedia article)

Lighthouse in Snowstorm

January 1, 2008, got off to a great start photographically. Because it started snowing heavily, with a high wind, I took along my best bad-weather camera: Nikon FM10 with E lenses, each covered by a UV filter. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the snow out of a TLR.

I met up with photobuddies Andy and Richard in the parking lot beside the Port Credit lighthouse and we slogged through the wind and snow taking what pictures we could. We walked over to Saddington Park and made a loop of the perimeter before calling it quits and walking back to the lighthouse, then across the street to Starbucks, which opened late on New Year’s Day.

A cup of coffee, lots of laughs, and some good frames for our efforts. I can’t think of a better way to start the New Year.

Orton Technique

Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

My first ‘new’ learning in 2008 started when I joined the Orton group on Flickr. They have two tutorial links on Orton technique, an article-based tutorial and an excellent video-based tutorial. Armed with these tutorials, I was able to get started.

As Darwin Wigget says in his article on Orton:

Early in my career as a professional photographer, I came across an article by Michael Orton in Popular Photography that literally stopped me in my tracks. The images included with the article were landscape and nature photos unlike anything I had seen before. The photos were painterly, ethereal, and romantic.

And ethereal they are. They were originally invented by Michael Orton who created them by shooting one slide overexposing a scene by 2 f-stops, then shooting another slide of the scene overexposed with the lens defocused and set to its maximum aperture. The two slides were then sandwiched together.

Obviously it’s much easier to do this with a digital image (taken with a digicam or scanned from film) and any photo editor that can do layers.

To date I’ve done three Orton images and intend to do more when I have the right kind of subject matter. I’ve created an Orton Image Set on Flickr where I’ll post my attempts.

Welcome to 2008

To the tune of Howdy Doody, “It’s res-o-LU-tion time, it’s resolution time …”

1. Shoot more film, especially medium-format B&W. My first photoshoot of the year is first thing New Year’s Day and I have my Minolta Autocord TLR ready to go, if the weather’s not inclement. If it is, I’ll switch to my Nikon FM10 with ‘E’ lenses.

2. Write more. During PicoWriMo in November I averaged nearly 1000 words a day in my journal and I wrote one short story and started another. The pace fell off in December and I want to increase it.

3. Explore more Linux programs. I have a new entry-level Dell laptop on order specifically to turn into a Linux portable so I can further explore open-source software while sitting in a comfortable chair or couch.

4. Trim the waistline. During December I shed ten pounds. I grew up as a thin, skinny guy and for cardio reasons, if for no other, I need to return to being that guy. Marion and I are following a Weight Watcher’s regimen of calorie counting. It works.

5. Laugh more. 2007 was a hard, serious year. Too hard, too serious. Life’s a dance.