On Reading In Cold Blood

When I visited the library last Friday to pick up a novel, I had in mind genre fiction such as sci-fi or mystery. Or the closely aligned forensic detective fiction. I’d just finished reading Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, which was bleak, spare, and powerful and Asimov and Silverberg’s collaboration Nightfall, a novelized version of Isaac Asimov’s classic short story that I found interesting but that contained some rather bad writing and a weak plot.

I noticed a prominent display called Raves & Faves that contained multiple copies of some readers’ favourites. Intrigued, I browsed the shelf and was surprised at the mix of material, newer and older. Among the offerings was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As I looked at it, I decided I was finally ready to read it. I’ve been reading and watching darker things lately, like the often gory novels involving forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, by Kathy Reichs, Season Six of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Season One of Dexter. Not to mention a couple of decades of murder and crime fiction.

But of course In Cold Blood is not fiction, though it employs fictional techniques. It details the 1959 slaying of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer from Holcomb, Kansas; his wife, and two children. The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested not long after the murders, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. It is considered the originator of the non-fiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement.1

I’ve felt antipathy for this work since it was first released in 1965. At the time I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, young, callow, naive. I was appalled by the subject matter and thought it disgusting that it should become a best seller. Worse, Capote became a frequent guest on late-night talk shows and I disliked him instantly. Flamboyantly homosexual and acerbic, he seemed full of venom and despite. Worse, he seemed so full of himself — not simply egoistic, but egomaniacal. I resolved that although I held what seemed a minority opinion about the work, I would never read In Cold Blood.

Of course that was foolish. To judge a person’s literary work by the person’s personality and a shallow understanding of the subject matter is downright irrational, not to mention immature. Mea culpa. Thank goodness we grow up.

As soon as I started reading In Cold Blood I was scarcely able to put it down. It is really well written, although a bit dated in style. Capote brings the stark Kansas landscape to life, and gets you into the head of the townspeople, the victims, and the two parole violators who committed the murders. Employing the techniques of fiction, Capote gives the work a story arc, a fleshing out of character, and a dark ambiguity that withholds judgement, although it is obvious from the writing that Capote abhorred capital punishment. Both of the accused were eventually hanged.

When I finished the work, I looked up some criticism to see what had been said about it. Undoubtedly Capote, along with Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, changed journalism with their creative nonfiction styles. It’s been pointed out that they’re not the first to employ novelistic techniques in nonfiction, but they certainly moulded it and popularized it.

One part of the story I didn’t know is that when Capote went to Kansas to research the story, he brought along Harper Lee, soon to become famous for To Kill a Mockingbird, as a kind of research assistant. They had been friends since childhood. It was Harper Lee, evidently, who broke down barriers to communication with the locals who were highly suspicious of Capote himself.

Something that nagged me throughout the reading, though, was that I had no way of knowing if Capote was always accurate in the things he wrote. Evidently he never took notes while interviewing people, bragging on TV that he had a superb memory that allowed him to remember 95% of what people told him. There are no footnotes in the work, or end notes. Some of the locals depicted in the work have gone on record to say that they’d been misquoted, misrepresented, or that certain scenes, like the book’s finale in the graveyard, never actually took place.

Nonetheless, the book rings true. There may be discrepancies and a little fictionalizing, but I could imagine the final scene taking place, even if it didn’t. It was in character. I think creative journalism has tightened up since Capote’s time with more attention to accuracy and more focus on citations but for the first of its kind, the work is remarkable.

I’m glad I read In Cold Blood, and I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to do so. I not only enjoyed the writing, I learned from it. Whatever else Capote was, he was a superb writer.

1 Wikipedia. “In Cold Blood

D300, First Week

First Monarch (by StarbuckGuy)

I’ve just had my first week of Nikon D300 photography and so far I like it! I haven’t begun to explore all its features yet, but I’ve had a chance to shoot with it using both manual and auto lenses. So far there haven’t been too many surprises — the D300’s feel is very similar to the D200 I traded for it.

Heft it’s got. Fortunately now that I’m three months past my bypass operation, the heft no longer bothers me. For awhile I could only carry the lightest gear but lately I’ve been bearing up well under heavier loads. Not that I want to get ridiculous about it. The D300 body and up to three not-too-massive lenses is all I’d ever want to carry while walking.

Image quality is lovely. The main reason I upgraded was for the improved sensor in the D300 and I’ve not been disappointed. Images are still highly usable at ISO1600.  This allows me during most of my shooting to use the D300’s auto-iso feature, letting the camera bump up the ISO between 200 and 1600 depending on the amount of available light while I simply concentrate on composition and framing.

But as with all the digital cameras I’ve used, getting good images on bright, contrasty days is tricky. Sensor performance is still more like slide film than C-41 film. Highlights can easily be blown while detail disappears in the shadows. Like most photographers, I’m willing to live with this limitation. There are ways around it of course. Shooting in RAW allows more detail to be extracted while photo editing. HDR (High Dynamic Range) composite exposures can be sandwiched together either from a single image, or from several taken at bracketed exposures. For best results this requires a tripod. I’m not against tripods — I simply don’t use them. Not often anyway. I don’t like carrying the extra weight and an awkward piece of gear.

One aspect of the D300 I hadn’t anticipated is the very large size of its .NEF files (Nikon’s RAW format). They’re huge. Worse, my favourite image browser, Irfanview, chokes on them. I like shooting RAW but have confined most of this week’s shooting to .JPG so I can use my established workflow for now. JPEG quality is very good and by using the D300’s Active D-lighting set to Low, I preserve more shadow detail and have fewer clipped highlights. If I shoot RAW, or elect to shoot RAW+JPG, I’ll need to invest in a larger CF card. Sheesh, and not long ago I thought my 4GB card was a BIG one.

I own a lot of good, older Nikon lenses but I don’t have any fancy modern glass. Not yet anyway. I’m highly pleased to see that, like my D200 before it, the D300 plays well with my older manual-focus AIS Nikkors. The images I’ve taken with them have been very sharp (when I get the focus right). Metering works well with these lenses.

I own two AF primes: a Nikkor AF 24/2.8D and Nikkor AF 50/1.8D. Both are fast focusing and beautifully sharp on the D300. My Tamron AF 28-75/2.8 XR Di makes a good carryaround lens,  and my cheap, but decent AF 70-300G zoom focuses faster than I expected.

The biggest problem I had was trying to figure out how to use LiveView. I read the manual and kept trying to figure it out, but I couldn’t get the view to appear on my LCD screen. I may be a little slow, but in part I blame the manual. It says something to the effect of “now lock up the mirror”. Yes, but how? The photo shows pressing the shutter release. I’d push, halfway, and nothing would happen. It took the better part of an hour and much looking through shooting options that didn’t apply before I finally, in desperation, pushed the shutter button all the way down. Bingo! I can’t say it was intuitively obvious — I’ve never seen LiveView demonstrated. This section of the manual could use a little rewriting.

My biggest challenge all week was finding good times to get out to shoot. It wasn’t my schedule that was the culprit — it was nature’s schedule. We’ve had at least two weeks of highly unsettled weather with frequent rains and thunderstorms both day and night. The rainy periods have been so random it’s been hard to know when to venture forth. Fortunately I only got caught in the rain once. The D300 itself is weather sealed, but my clothing isn’t.

Although I have much yet to learn about this camera, the D300 is all I’d hoped it would be. If only digital could do B&W as well as film, I could see myself switching exclusively to digital, as many other photographers have already done. I can get good B&W’s if the lighting is just right, but B&W film still looks better overall and I find it more consistent. Nonetheless, I’ll conclude with the best B&W shot I took with the D300 this week: a female swan and her cygnet.

Mama & Child (by StarbuckGuy)

Distraction vs Concentration

Lost in a Maze of Reflections (by StarbuckGuy)

When is the last time you memorized a poem or a speech? Even something modest like Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” or e.e. cummings’ “Buffalo Bill”? If you’re like me, it’s been a long, long time. The last time I was required to memorize something for school was in the seventh grade, when each student in the class had to memorize and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As an undergraduate at university I would sometimes memorize poems simply because it was fun.

That was a different age. I wonder what a modern student would think if you were to suggest they memorize a poem. I suspect you’d just get one of those funny looks that says more eloquently than words how out of touch you are. Why memorize anything when you can look it up on Google in seconds?

Forget memorization then. When was the last time you read a long, important novel, say like Joyce’s Ulysses? If recently, good for you! Or how about a lengthy essay on a subject of interest. These are things I used to do but find I can’t do anymore. Memorization, lengthy reading of serious material — I find it too difficult to concentrate on anything for that long. I thought it was old age creeping up on me until I read the Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr. When he described what was happening to him, I felt I’d met a kinsman:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

After referring to some anecdotes about others who have confessed to similar states, including a blogger who admitted he had quit reading books altogether, Carr then cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf says “We are how we read.” Worried about the style of reading promoted by the Net, she says that when we read online we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. (see Carr above for additional material on Wolf)

This theme was highlighted again a couple of days ago in a Times Online article by Bryan Appleyard, “Stoooopid …. why the Google generation isn’t as smart as it thinks:
The digital age is destroying us by ruining our ability to concentrate”
, that begins with a caution from David Meyer.

David Meyer is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In 1995 his son was killed by a distracted driver who ran a red light. Meyer’s speciality was attention: how we focus on one thing rather than another. Attention is the golden key to the mystery of human consciousness; it might one day tell us how we make the world in our heads. Attention comes naturally to us; attending to what matters is how we survive and define ourselves.

The opposite of attention is distraction, an unnatural condition and one that, as Meyer discovered in 1995, kills. Now he is convinced that chronic, long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. In particular, there is the great myth of multitasking. No human being, he says, can effectively write an e-mail and speak on the telephone. Both activities use language and the language channel in the brain can’t cope. Multitaskers fool themselves by rapidly switching attention and, as a result, their output deteriorates.

The article then lists a chorus of writers who are articulating concerns and fears about what is happening to our brains and our culture through widespread chronic distraction.

Some of this is likely hyperbole or outright fear mongering. Whenever a topic like this starts to become a swell, my skepticism kicks in. Nonetheless, there’s something in this I feel inside myself and that I don’t dismiss outright. I’m particularly concerned when neuroscientists can demonstrate the effects of distraction in the brain. Using a cell phone while driving, they’ve observed in lab tests, is on a par with driving impaired with alcohol.

Fortunately it’s not all doom and gloom. The brain is malleable. Just as it can be conditioned to be distracted, it can be trained to pay attention. We can be taught how to focus and concentrate. We can even learn to ignore the ring of a cell phone.

I don’t know about reading Ulysses, but I think I’m going to go off and memorize a short poem, or a favourite song lyric.

Further Reading:

Jennifer Anderson. “Neurology Study: Brain Too Slow For Cell Phone Use While Driving”, Ergonomics Today.

Mark Bauerlein. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Tarcher, 2008.

Maggie Jackson. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Prometheus, 2008.

Sharon O’Brien. “Improve Your Concentration with Brain Fitness Activities”, About.com: Senior Living.

Newest Camera on the Block

Nikon D300 (by StarbuckGuy)

The store where I purchased my wonderful Nikon D200 last summer offers a ‘halfback’ option on all new cameras and lenses sold. It’s a kind of consumer protection. If you decide, beyond the initial refund period, that you no longer want your current gear or that your gear has been replaced by newer and better technology, you can return your purchase anytime within the year and receive half of what you paid for it against your next purchase.

With only two days left on my D200’s halfback, I decided to upgrade to a D300. My only disappointment with the D200 was its rather noisy image quality above ISO800. I thought about upgrading to the new D700 FX body, but at this stage of my photography I don’t require a full-frame DSLR. I don’t use a lot of wide-angle lenses and I use telephoto lenses often. The DX bodies are better for telephoto work.

So, on Wednesday, July 16 I brought in my D200 and all the bits that came with it, plus the used Nikon  18-55mm kit lens I’d picked up later. I left the store with a brand new D300 and a brand new 18-55mm VR kit lens. The kit lens is mainly intended for my Nikon D40, but I thought I’d upgrade both at once.

I’ve not had much chance to shoot with the D300 yet, but it feels very like the D200 in setup and use. It’s more sophisticated in certain areas and the sensor is definitely cleaner at high ISO.

Today, despite the hot, humid weather, I took a photo walk with the D300 and three prime lenses: Nikkor AF  24/2.8D, Voigtlander 40/2 Ultron, and Nikkor AIS 105/2.5. All three lenses worked well on the body. The AF 24mm was the most fun to use because manual focusing on a DSLR is fussy work, but the 40mm and 105mm manual lenses turned out excellent images.

Baby Redwings
Baby Redwings (by StarbuckGuy)
Nikkor AIS 105mm f/2.5

Roses Beside the Marina
Roses Beside the Marina (by StarbuckGuy)
Voigtlander AIS 40mm f/2 Ultron

Buying Lunch
Buying Lunch (by StarbuckGuy)
Nikkor AF 24mm f/2.8

Once the weather cools down, I hope to introduce the D300 to several of my other photo haunts.

Turning 100

Explore 100 (by StarbuckGuy)

Not 100 years, but 100 images that have been featured at one time or another on Flickr’s Explore pages. For those of you who don’t have accounts on Flickr, the Explore pages feature 500 photos selected from Flickr’s membership each day, based on the criterion of something they call Interestingness.

No one knows for certain how “interestingness” is assessed, but it’s done algorithmically based on some unknown combination of hits, groups photos are posted in, and perhaps a little crescent of the moon factor thrown in to smooth out the ratings. People who have a large following on Flickr and who consequently receive a lot of hits end up in Explore more frequently than those who don’t. Unfortunately, in some ways then Explore is something of a popularity contest.

For folks like me, who have a very moderate following of friends and acquaintances, getting into Explore always seems like voodoo. Why was this particular image selected, but not that one? Many of my images selected for Explore are ones I particularly like, but others make me shake my head. In particular, shots of gear — like my ongoing “camera and coffee” images — tend to reach Explore more often than my other work. Is there a geek-factor gearhead bias in the algorithm?

I’m not knocking Explore. I’ve seen some stunning images there. I’ve also seen a lot of images that didn’t seem more than average, or images that were cliches. So I don’t really know that it’s an honour to appear in the pages.

But, being human, I can’t help but feel validated by having 100 of my images appear there. I’m weak.