My old camera

I wanted to revisit my old gear tonight, so I dug up my trusty EOS 550D, coupled with the BG-E8 battery grip and the classic, Canon 70-200mm f4L USM lens. The Friendly Cat provided again the modelling services.

I was immediately reminded by the obvious strengths of this older, bigger camera body: the ergonomics are just so much better when you can really hold the camera comfortably and steadily in your hand, and have large, mechanical control knobs that you can quickly and effortlessly experiment with.

On the other hand, the limitations were again also immediately obvious; in particular, the mirrorless digital camera (EOS M50) that I am mostly using these days allows one seamlessly move from using the viewfinder to the live view in the rear display, while making the composition. 550D also has rear display live view, but you need to specifically switch it on, and it is slow and imprecise, and the autofocus in particular is just terrible when shooting with it.

The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is excellent, and the very limited nine (9) AF points do their job just well enough for this kind of slow “portrait” work. The low maximum ISO of 6400 also does not matter when taking pictures under the bright evening sun, and sharpness of that old Canon L lens fits nicely the 18-megapixel image sensor’s resolution capabilities.

Thus, if I would think about a “perfect camera” for my use, I would be happy with current M50 image sensor resolution (24,1 megapixels), but I would be really happy for a bit more capable autofocus system, and for more low-light performance in particular. The single most beneficial upgrade could however be a body with larger physical dimensions, with better/larger mechanical controls for selecting the program mode, aperture, and making the other key adjustments.

While the new EOS R series Canon cameras provide exactly that, the issue for me is that those are full frame cameras; and I am very happy in taking my photos with APS-C (the “crop sensor”). Full frame lenses, and new Canon RF lenses in particular, tend to be both large and expensive to a degree that does not make much sense for my kind of “Sunday photographer”.

There are alternatives like Fujifilm, with their excellent APS-C camera bodies (X-T30, X-T4, for example), and their sharp and relatively compact and affordable lenses. But I am deeply invested in the Canon ecosystem – it would be so much easier if Canon would come up with a well-designed camera like Canon 7D Mark II, but updated and upgraded into current, mirrorless sensors’ and image processors’ capabilities. One can always make wishes? Happy weekend, everyone!

Chilis 2020, update

Hainan Yellow Lantern
Hainan Yellow Lantern pod

There were originally 12 chili saplings that I decided to cultivate further this season, summer 2020. There was only one fatality: a freak summer storm suddenly completely broke and killed my single Pimenta da Neyde (C. chinense), This was a sad loss, it would have been interesting chili to grow. But it is now August, and I have still 11 chilies growing: in the greenhouse 7: 2 x Lemon Drop + 2 x Hainan Yellow Lantern (these are in the hydroponic system, still looking forward to the main crop), plus one Bolivian Rainbow, one Purple Bhut Jolokia and one Chinese 5 Color (these three grow in fertilised soil cultivation). Outdoors there are 4 chilies: the ornamental chili peppers Buena Mulata, Filius Blue, Numex Twilight and the very pretty “Kanon Pepper F2” (C. annuum) cultivar. I have yet to start seriously testing the tastes of this season, but e.g. in Lemon Drops there certainly is the lovely, very fruity and aromatic (medium-hot) taste I like so much; in the two Hainan Yellow pods that I have tested so far there were great differences (both were quite aromatic, but were tasting very different, and the other was very hot, the other very mild – I need to study this crop more, later). I have not tasted many of the ornamental chilies yet, but e.g. Buena Mulata (C. annuum) was hot indeed.

Operating systems: now and then, what next?

Ubuntu on HP Elitebook x360 (screenshot).There are multiple operating systems you can operate. Some are feature-rich, some not so much. While those who are enthusiastic and passionate about these kinds of things continue to be passionate, the actual differences between systems where you can operate are growing less and less important, year by year.

The basics of digital environments are today “good enough”, pretty much everywhere you go.

There are certain significant differences still, of course. Windows has the legacy of great popularity over decades in highly heterogeneous, work and private use contexts. It has a huge backlog of software and hardware that has been created or supported in Windows computers. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It is very difficult to produce a new version of the OS that would not conflict with some software, or some driver-hardware combination out there, as the recent hurdles of Windows 10 upgrade installations have proved.

Apple Macintosh users have more often been left in the cold, as there has been many devices which never came with drivers to make them work with a Mac. There has been arguably a lot of high quality, professional software available for Macs, but in purely numeric terms, Windows software ecosystem is order of magnitude larger.

A bit similarly, iOS (the operating system for Apple mobile devices) is limited by design: there are many restrictions for modifying and customising the default operation and setup of an iOS system. On the other hand, the software developers can rely on highly standardised environment, and users get a very reliable (even if unified and rigid) experience.

There are thus obvious pluses and minuses with the various philosophies that operating systems have adopted, or have been based on.

The current leader, Windows 10 is overall strong in diversity, meaning here particularly the software and hardware support. Be it business software, services or games, Windows is the default environment with most alternatives. On the other hand, a Windows user is challenged by certain loss of control: both the operating system and much of available software and system add-ons and drivers are proprietary. The environment is effectively filled with black boxes that do something – and the user can in most cases only hope that what goes on is based on the right and correct principles. And as there are multiple actors in all Windows installations, the cumulative effects can be surprising: there is Microsoft, trying its best both to introduce new functions and technologies, while at the same time maintaining backward compatibility with their long history of legacy systems. Then there is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), like Dell or HP, who typically configure their Windows computers with their own, custom-made tools and drivers. Then comes the user, who also installs various kinds of elements into this environment. There is the saying “tårta på tårta” in Swedish – cake upon cake. No-one is capable of carrying responsibility of how the entire conglomerate operates in a Windows computer. In many cases the results are good enough, and the freedom of choice and diversity of support for multiple use cases is what the users are looking for. On the other hand, there is also a well-documented history of bugs and problems related to the piling up effects of the sprawling and ineffective software ecosystem.

As the leading open-source alternative, Linux is known for rather effective use of computing resources. A typical Linux distribution runs well on even ageing computer hardware, and on modern, powerful systems one can really experience what a fast and reliable OS can mean. There are (of course) certain downsides to Linux, as well. The main challenges in this case lie in the somewhat higher threshold of learning. While there are increasingly easy distributions that come pre-configured with graphical tools that allow the non-expert user to take hold of their system, and configure it to their liking, the foundation of Linux is in command-line tools and text-format configuration files. Even today I find that after a new, out-of-the-box Linux distro installation, I feel the need to spend perhaps an hour or two in command line, hunting and installing the various tweaking tools, add-ons and other elements that are lacking in the default installation. But Linux is getting better. Particularly the support for new hardware is now much better than what it used to be ten years ago. While the laptop computer user of Linux in the past would in many cases find out that most of the controllers, special keys and other elements of one’s device would not work at all, or only after considerable efforts, today the situation is different. Most things actually work, which is great. But if something does not work in a Linux installation, one is mostly left to one’s own devices (and for hunting for help in the various community websites online). However, as an alternative example, Lenovo recently announced that they will certify their entire workstation portfolio to run Linux – “every model, every configuration” (see:

I myself recently configured two laptops with a dual-boot, Windows/Linux setup: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and HP Elitebook x360 1030 G3. I considered both more challenging devices from a Linux perspective, since these are both two-in-one, hybrid devices with touch screens, which means that they most probably rely on many proprietary drivers to keep all their functionalities running. There were certain challenges (in BIOS/UEFI settings, in configuring the GRUB2 system boot menu, and in the disk partitioning), but Linux itself actually did handle both devices just fine. I was using the most recent, 20.04 release of Ubuntu desktop distribution, but there are several other alternatives that could work just equally well, or even better. Elitebook x360 is my main daily driver, and while my Windows 10 installation makes it run burning hot, fans blowing, Ubuntu is snappy, quiet and cool. And I actually can operate both the touch screen and touchpad with gestures that I have fully customised to my own liking, the active pen is also working fine with the screen, and there are only a couple of things that fall short of Windows 10. The special keys for controlling brigtness do not work (I use control sliders instead), and probably neither does the infrared camera (for facial recognition & login) and the LTE modem (I have not tested it though). One thing that I noticed is that this system sounds currently much better under Windows – the sound system is Bang & Olufsen certified, and they have probably configured the sound drivers and equalizers for optimal sound delivery, as the audio quality of music under Windows perhaps the best of any laptop I have used. But there is a highly detailed software tool, called PulseEffects, available for Linux that allows one to create a customized audio profile – if one is ready to dedicate the time and effort for tweaking and testing. That is the reality of Linux still, for good or bad; but luckily most of the essentials for work use will run just fine, directly out-of-the-box.

As a complete opposite of the high “tweakability” of Linux, iOS/ipadOS systems limit the user possibilities to a radical degree. The upside is then that an iPhone or iPad is very easy to use, one can always find the same settings from same places. It used to be that Apple mobile devices had excellent battery life and system reliability, but could only do one thing at a time. With the launch of iOS/ipadOS 13 (and coming version 14), multitasking became a certain kind of option in iPad Pro devices particularly. One cam also buy (a premium, and rather expensive) “Magic Keyboard” add-on to iPad Pro, and it will come with really nice scissor keys, plus a touchpad that allows mouse-and-keyboard style control of iOS. With iOS 14 there will be some more user-configurable elements added, such as (Android-style) widgets into the desktop. There are inevitable complications related to the added capabilities. iPad Pro which is constantly polling the touchpad (or, burning the back-light in the keyboard) does not have as long battery life as one without it. The multitasking and various split screen modes in ipadOS are rather clumsy and hard to control without considerable dedication into learning new gestures and skills of touch control.

Thus, I would say that we are currently in rather good situation in terms of having several good alternatives to choose from. I myself prefer to have both Windows 10 and Linux installed in my main computers, and keep them updated to their most recent versions. But I also use iOS, ipadOS and Android daily, and all of them have their distinctive strengths and weaknesses. If something does not work in one environment very well, it is often better to try something different, rather than trying to force the operating system out of its own “comfort zone”. I suspect this basic situation will remain the same in the foreseeable future, too.

PC Build, Midsummer 2020

I have followed an about five-year PC upgrade cycle – making smaller, incremental parts upgrades in-between, and building a totally new computer every four-five years. My previous two completely new systems were built during a Xmas break – in December 2011 and 2015. This time, I was seeking for something to put my mind into right now (year 2020 has been a tough one), and specced my five-year build now in Midsummer, already.

It somehow feels that every year is a bad year to invest into computer systems. There is always something much better coming up, just around the corner. This time, it seems that there will be both a new processor generation and new major graphics card generation coming up, later in 2020. But after doing some comparative research for a couple of weeks, in the end, I did not really care. The system I’ll build with the 2020 level of technology, should be much more capable than the 2015 one, in any case. Hopefully the daily system slowdowns and bottlenecks would ease, now.

Originally, I thought that this year would be the year of AMD: both the AMD Zen 2 architecture based, Ryzen 3000 series CPUs and Radeon RX 5000 GPUs appeared very promising in terms of value for money. In the end, it looks like this might be my last Intel-Nvidia system (?), instead. My main question-marks related to the single-core performance in CPUs, and to the driver reliability in Radeon 5000 GPUs. The more I read, and discussed with people who had experience with the Radeon 5000 GPUs, the more I heard stories about blue screens and crashing systems. The speed and price of the AMD hardware itself seemed excellent. In CPUs, on the other hand, I evaluated my own main use cases, and ended up with the conclusion that the slightly better single core performance of Intel 10th generation processors would mean a bit more to me, than the solid multi-core, multithread-performance of similarly priced, modern Ryzen processors.

After a couple of weeks of study into mid-priced, medium-powered components, here are the core elements chosen for my new, Midsummer 2020 system:

Intel Core i5-10600K, LGA1200, 4.10 GHz, 12MB, Boxed (there is some overclocking potential in this CPU, too)

ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports DUO – Red, processor cooler (I studied both various watercooling solutions, and the high-powered Noctua air coolers, before settling on this one; the watercooling systems did not appear quite as durable in the long run, and the premium NH-D15 was a bit too large to fit comfortably into the case; this appared to be a good compromise)

MSI MAG Z490 TOMAHAWK, ATX motherboard (this motherboard appears to strike a nice balance between price vs. solid construction, feature set, and investments put into the Voltage Regulator Modules, VRMs, and other key electronic circuit components)

Corsair 32GB (2 x 16GB) Vengeance LPX, DDR4 3200MHz, CL16, 1.35V memory modules (this amount of memory is not needed for gaming, I think, but for all my other, multitasking and multi-threaded everyday uses)

MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Super ARMOR OC GPU, 8GB GDDR6 (this is entry level ray-tracing technology – that should be capable enough for my use, for a couple of years at least)

Samsung 1TB 970 EVO Plus SSD M.2 2280, PCIe 3.0 x4, NVMe, 3500/3300 MB/s (this is the system disk; there will be another SSD and a large HDD, plus a several-terabyte backup solution)

Corsair 750W RM750x (2018), modular power unit, 80 Plus Gold (there should be enough reliable power available in this PSU)

Cooler Master MasterBox TD500 Mesh w/ controller, ATX, Black (this is chosen on the basis of available test results – the priorities for me here were easy installation, efficient air flow, and thirdly silent operation)

As a final note, it was interesting to note that during the intervening 2015-2020 period, there was time when RGB lights became the de facto standard in PC parts: everything was radiating and pulsating in multiple LED colours like a Xmas tree. It is ok to think about design, and aim towards some kind of futurism, even, in this context. But some things are just plain ridiculous, and I am happy to see a bit more minimalism winning ground in PC enthusiast level components, too.

Specializing or diversifying?

Pikkutylli (c) Frans Mäyrä, 24/5/2020.

Having more ambition in photography often translates into developing some specializations: becoming expert in some topic, developing a unique and personal style. On the other hand, if there are no professional ambitions or pressures in one’s photography hobby, one can just continue diversifying: having fun in creative experimentation and testing one’s hand and eye in multiple different topics and styles.

2020-05-20 19.53.08
My photobook experiment, Spring 2020.

While the latter path can have a certain vague and drifting effect on one’s photography, there are also the positives: total creative freedom, constant possibility for new directions, and the sense of discovery.

Tiny spider (macro photograph, (c) Frans Mäyrä, 9/5/2020)

My own experiments during the past month alone have included some insect and macro photography, testing the design and curation for a hardback photobook of my own, bird photography, black and white landscapes and nature photos. And it has been definitely fun, and this free-roaming style of hobby has also the benefit of being easy to adapt within changing conditions, such as the pandemic restrictions of this Spring.

Winter plant telephoto (c) Frans Mäyrä, 26/2/2020.

Chilies 2020: Plan B

2020-04-13 08.32.20My original plan was to move into full hydroponic gardening setup in our greenhouse early this year. However, during the Easter weekend, we got again a “takatalvi” (a cold spell with snowfall) in Tampere, and the greenhouse will stay closed for a long time, still. Thus, a Plan B.

I had both twelve chili saplings of different varieties, and twelve small “self-watering” plant pots – these are Orthex Eden 12 cm models, meaning that they have only 0.3 L water reservoir, and 0.8 L for the hydroponic substrate (or soil). I had also a 45 L bag of Gold Label HydroCoco 60/40 substrate in my stash, so I proceeded to make a “passive hydroponics” setup using what I got. I washed the pots (they had spent the winter outdoors), then buried the rockwool cubes (with saplings sticking out) into the substrate in each self-watering pot. The nutritient mix is again based on Canna Coco A+B.

I multi-purposed a Bosch workbench from our garage as the growing table, and positioned the Nelson Garden LED growing lights hanging close above the plants.

2020-04-13 09.51.07This system should make do for some time now. The only downside is that small water reservoir in all of those 12 pots. I have no idea how fast the small saplings will drink that amount, so it might be that soon I will be mixing nutritients and filling in 12 pots every day or so. Let’ see: the maximum amount of liquid these pots can take is under 12 L, so if I will prepare a large 10 L bucket of the nutritient solution per each “serving”, this should be pretty straightforward. Canna, the nutritient manufacturer, instructs to use 19 ml of A solution and 19 ml of B solution per 10 L of water in the starting & rooting phase, and then add the dosage into 23 ml + 23 ml, when the plants have entered the early vegetative, growth phase. When we’ll have a bit larger plants (2-4 weeks-old saplings), the recommended nutritient amounts are 27 ml + 27 ml, per 10 L water.

Let’s hope for warm weathers to return, too!

2020-04-13 09.58.30

Art of Photography: Vivian Maier/Ted Forbes

One of the vloggers that I regularly follow is Ted Forbes, the creator of “The Art of Photography” Youtube channel. He is a welcome alternative among all nerdy, pixel-peeping camera and lens technology focused voices there, as he actually is discussing photography as an art form.

One of Ted’a videos that I watched during this weekend was discussing Vivian Maier. This was originally published already six years ago, in March 2014, but remains interesting for reasons relating to Maier, Forbes, and to several questions of photography and as art more generally.

While listening to Ted talk about Vivian Maier’s work, it soon becomes clear that he is in a way struggling here – trying to be polite and repeatedly acknowledge the skill and significance of this self-educated, amateur photographer’s work, while also suggesting that there are reasons why he does not place Maier particularly high in his canon of great photography artists. These fundamental and underlying reasons are nowhere very explitly stated aloud in this video, though.

My interpretation is that there are two main reasons behind the hesitation of Ted Forbes – and probably many other art professionals who have somewhat similar backgrounds as Ted has. As listed in his short online cv, Ted Forbes has been educated in the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Texas, and he has also spent several years as a professor at Brookhaven College, and as the Head of Digital Media at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other things. His perspective is thus not only coming from a photography aficionado, but one who has been educated in the history and practice of the arts, and who has long served both as an art educator and a gatekeeper for an art institution.

Vivian Maier is an interesting borderline case for anyone holding up the more “serious” and professional, institutional perspective into arts, since she never aimed to display her photos in art galleries, or anywhere else, publicly, and kept her practice as a secret to herself alone. It was only after her death, when certain collectors (most notably John Maloof from Chicago) bought her negatives from an auction, and started publishing them, first online, then in exhibitions and printed art books.

The first hesitancy about the photography of Vivian Maier as works of art (as expressed by Ted Forbes) relate to the fact that Maier herself had not edited and organised the photo negatives into prints, exhibitions and books herself. There is a subtle undertone of authorial intention in play here: if the person taking the photos did not conceive her work as (institutional) art, and did not complete the necessary steps involved in submitting and getting accepted as a published artist, then it is questionnable whether the photos in question are indeed art. There is sort of “other half” missing: the final process of selecting, editing and filtering the abundant raw materials (captured in estimated 150,000 surviving negatives) into actual artistic ‘oeuvre’ – cohesive vision and flow of expression as a practicing artist.

The other question mark implied by Ted Forbes’s video review is sort of extension of the first one. He repeatedly says that while he acknowledges Vivian Maier as a talented photographer (though probably into the category of “talented amateur”, rather than a “proper photography artist”), he is putting a lot of doubt over the expertise and intentions of collectors (John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein are explicitly mentioned), and while he tries to put it nicely, he evokes questions about non-professional, non-talented, non-artistic people having produced the “Vivian Maier as great photography artist” as a phenomenon by making sensationalist claims for maximizing publicity and their opportunities for commercial exploitation.

I have zero role these days in official, institutional art world (just to disclose, I used to study art history, among other subjects, and worked for an art museum in Tampere, during my student years). So, I do not take any stand in the debate about the status of Vivian Maier as a proper artist and the artistic value of her work. There are many art professionals and critics who have taken a more positive stance towards Vivian Maier’s work than Ted Forbes, though. It was also interesting to compare the Vivian Maier video to another one which was also dedicated to posthumous reconsideration or “rediscovery” of a photographer’s work – in this case that of Daan Hansen, an enthusiast photographer / photo hobbyist from Utrecht, who died in 2013, but whose work was published in a large-format, self-published book just before his death. In this case, Ted Forbes is in his video openly emotional and enthusiastic about the range, diversity and value of Daan’s work, even while it is obvious that (somewhat similarly to Vivian Maier), not all of Hansen’s photos are of similar artistic quality. Ted is of course also honest that Daan being both an online and offline friend of his, no doubt somehow affects his reactions to seeing Daan’s published work after his death.

One could perhaps conclude, that for people who operate within, or at some of the multiple frameworks of “art world”, the question of how something becomes valued and valuable as “art” is not a simple one. The person and personal circumstances of the artist affect deeply the perception of their work – even decades after “Biographic Fallacy”, or “Death of the Author” were first introduced into the art criticism. Also, the conditions and processes of publishing and displaying of something as art, do play an important part, as some of these kinds of processes are more prone to adding “authenticity” and value into works of art, whereas others can appear questionable and lead into overall negatively tilted evaluation – as seems to have happened for Vivian Maier, at least to a certain degree, in eyes of a critic like Ted Forbes.

Chilies: germination 2020

My final chili seeds selection, season 2020.

Due to having a lot of other things in my mind and life this Spring, I am rather late in my chili pepper project – but as Juice Leskinen said “Kuule istuta vielä se omenapuu”. I will plant my plants.

As I wrote in January, because hydroponics make chilies grow so fast and tall, it is actually probably good to start a bit later, in any case. That way, the plants should hopefully still be of manageable sizes, when I am able to move them into the proper hydroponic setup in our greenhouse. Handling a full hydroponics system in my small basement “office” is really not that feasible, even under the best of conditions. I hope that this time it will be a warm and early summer (fingers crossed).

As said, I have two themes this year: taste and colour. Into the taste category, I finally decided two chili varieties: Hainan Yellow Lantern and Lemon Drop.

Placing the seeds – handling rock wool with gloves, due to it causing skin irritation when touched.

In the more exotic section, where interesting looks are the main criteria, I chose (finally in a pretty random manner) the following: Buena Mulata, Pimenta da Neyde, Chinese 5 Color, Kanon Pepper F2, Filius Blue, Numex Twilight, Bolivian Rainbow, and Purple Bhut Jolokia.

Since I do not have room to grow into large, fruit-bearing plants nowhere that number of chili peppers, I conceive this as a sort of speedrun style competition: those plants that germinate fastest, and produce promising saplings, will get into my AutoPot 4Pot system. I do not know what to do with the rest – maybe I will just put them into regular flowerpots with soil outdoors, and see if any of them will survive, too.

The germination follows pretty standard procedure again, except that IKEA had stopped selling accessories for their old hydroponic products (shame on them!) So, I picked some standard rock wool cubes from the local hydroponic gardening shop (luckily, I did this long before the coronavirus epidemic), and then just installed them into the covered water-tray system – which is on top of the electric heat mat, and under the LED lights. Let’s see how long it takes before the first plants will appear, this time.

I placed two seeds inside each rock wool cube. Let’s hope that it is enough for the most varieties time time, too.

All my chili seeds are coming from Fatalii this time. Here are some short characterizations of his, about these chili varieties:

  • Hainan Yellow Lantern: “This variety comes from Hainan island, China, where it’s actually quite commonly used for mainly a tasty hot sauce. Very prolific variety that has a strong chinense aroma, very similar to Harold st. Barts and few other yellow Capsicum chinense varieties.” (Link.)
  • Lemon Drop: “Lemon Drop represents hot, non-sweet,  slightly lemon-flavored types of baccatum peppers (as opposed to sweet, low-heat or only moderately hot Ajis). The plant is relatively compact and produces lots of bright yellow fruit even in non-ideal home conditions.” (Link)
  • Buena Mulata: “Very old heirloom variety from 1940’s. This plant looks absolutely gorgeous with all great colored pods! The flowers and pods start from purple and ripen to very beautiful colors!” (Link)
  • Pimenta da Neyde: “One of the strangest chile peppers I’ve ever seen! Mature pods won’t change the color, but stay purple instead.” (Link)
  • Chinese 5 Color: “Fantastic, very colorful ornamental chili pepper which is also quite hot with a decent taste to be used for cooking.” (Link)
  • Kanon Pepper F2: “This beauty is still unstable meaning the results growing this one will vary, which is a good thing when you want to find your favorite among them.” (Link)
  • Filius Blue: “So very pretty ornamental chili pepper which ripens from beautiful blueish purple to red with some fancy color stages in the middle! Quite hot.” (Link)
  • Numex Twilight: “An ornamental chile pepper that is so insanely pretty you simply can’t miss it. If you like to grow useful chile peppers that are a true eye-candy!” (Link)
  • Bolivian Rainbow: ” The dark green leaves will turn shiny deep purple, almost black. The cone-shaped, erect pods go through colors of green, purple, pink, yellow and orange before ripening bright red!” (Link)
  • Purple Bhut Jolokia: “One of the most amazing looking super hot varieties there is! Ripens from green to purple to red. Very heavy producer and the pods taste very good when ripe.” (Link)
Seeds, cubes, water, light, suitable heat – everything should be in place now.

Looking very much forward to the summer.

On remote education: tech tips

A wireless headset.

The global coronavirus epidemic has already caused deaths, suffering and cancellations (e.g. those of our DiGRA 2020 conference, and the Immersive Experiences seminar), but there are still luckily many things that go on in our daily academic lives, albeit often in somewhat reorganised manner. In schools and universities, the move into remote education is particularly one producing wide-ranging changes, and one that is currently been implemented hastily in innumerable courses that were not originally planned to be run in this manner at all.

I am not in a position to provide pedagogic advice, as the responsible teachers will know much better what are the actual learning goals of their courses, and therefore they are also best capable of thinking how to reach those goals with alternative means. But since I have been directing, implementing or participating in remote education over 20 years already (time flies!), here are at least some practical tips I can share.

Often the main part of remote education is independent, individual learning processes, which just need to be somehow supported. Finding information online, gathering data, reading, analysing, thinking and writing is something that does not fundamentally change, even if the in-class meetings would be replaced by reporting and commenting taking place online (though, the workload for teachers can easily skyrocket, which is something to be aware of). This is particularly true in asynchronous remote education, where everyone does their tasks in their own pace. It is when teamwork, group communications, more advanced collaborations, or when some special software or tools are required, when more challenges emerge. There are ways to get around most of those issues, too. But it is certainly true that not all education can be converted into remote education, not at least with identical learning goals.

According to my experience, there are three main types of problems in real-time group meetings or audio/videoconferences: 1) connection problems, 2) audio & video problems, and 3) conversation rules problems. Let’s deal with them, one by one.

1) The connection problems are due to bad or unreliable internet connection. My main advice is either to make sure that one can use wired rather than Wi-Fi/cellular connection while attempting to join a real-time online meeting or get very close to Wi-Fi router in order to get as strong signal as possible. If one has weak connection, the experience of everyone will suffer, as there will likely be garbled noises and video artefacts coming from you, rather than good-quality streams.

2) The audio and video problems relate to echo, weak sound levels, background noise, or dark, badly positioned or unclear video. If there are several people taking part in a joint meeting, it might be worth thinking carefully whether a video stream is actually needed. In most cases people are working intensely with their laptops or mobile devices during the online meeting, reviewing documents and making notes, and since there are challenges in getting a real eye-to-eye contact with other people (that is pretty impossible still, with current consumer technology), there are multiple distancing factors that will lower the feeling of social presence in any case. Good quality audio link might be enough to have a decent meeting. For that, I really recommend using a headset (headphones with a built-in microphone) rather than just the built-in microphone and speakers of the laptop, for example. There will be much less echo, and the microphone will be close to speakers’ mouths meaning that speech is picked up in much clear and loud manner, and the surround noises are easier to control. But it is highly advisable to move into a silent room for the period of teleconference.

Another tip: I suggest always first connecting the headset (or external microphone and speakers), BEFORE starting the software tool used for teleconferencing. This way, you can make sure that the correct audio devices (both output and input devices) are set as active or default ones, before you start the remote meeting tool. It is pretty easy to get this messed up and end up with low-quality audio coming from the wrong microphone or speakers rather than the intended ones. Note that there are indeed two layers here: in most cases, there are separate audio device settings both in the operating system (see Start/Settings/System/Sound in Windows 10), and another, e.g. “Preferences” item with other audio device settings hidden inside most remote meeting tools. Both of those need to be checked – prior to the meeting.

Thus, yet one tip: please always dedicate e.g. 10-15 minutes of technical preparation time before a remote education or remote meeting session for double-checking and solving connection, audio, video or other technical problems. It is sad (and irresponsible) use of everyone’s precious time, if every session starts with half of the speakers missing the ability to speak, or not being able to hear anyone else. Though, this kind of scenario is still unfortunately pretty typical. Remote meeting technology is notoriously unreliable, and when there are multiple people, multiple devices and multiple connections involved, the likelihood of problems multiplies exponentially.

Please be considerate and patient towards other people. No-one wants to be the person having tech problems.

3) The discussion rules related problems are the final category, and one that might be also culturally dependent. In a typical remote meeting among several Finnish people, for example, it might be that everyone just keeps quiet most of the time. That is normal, polite behaviour in the Finnish cultural context for face-to-face meetings – but something that is very difficult to decode when in an online audio teleconference where you are missing all the subtle gestures, confused looks, smiles and other nonverbal cues. In some other cultural setting, the difficulty might be people speaking on top of each other. Or the issues might be related to people asking questions without making it clear who is actually being addressed by the question or comment.

It is usually a good policy to have a chair or moderator appointed for an online meeting, particularly if it is larger than only a couple of people. The speakers can use the chat or other tools in the software to make signals when they’d want to speak. The chairperson makes it clear which item is being currently discussed and gives floor to each participant in their turn. Everyone tries to be concise, and also remembers to use names while presenting questions or comments to others. It is also good practice to start each meeting with a round of introductions, so that everyone can connect the sound of voice with a particular person. Repeating one’s name also later in the meeting when one is speaking up, does not hurt, either.

In most of our online meetings today we are using a collaboratively edited online document for notetaking during the meeting. This helps everyone to follow what has been said or decided upon. People can fix typos in notes in real time or add links and other materials without requiring the meeting chairperson (or secretary) to do so for them. There are many such online notetaking tools in standard office suites. Google Docs works fine, for example, and has probably the easiest way of generating an editing-allowed link, which can then be shared in the meeting chat window with all participants, without requiring them to have a separate service account and login to do so. Microsoft has their own, integrated tools that work best when everyone is from within the same organisation.

Finally, online collaboration has come a long way from the first experiments in 1960s (google “NLS” and Douglas Engelbart), but it still continues to have its challenges. But if we are all aware of the most typical issues, dedicate a few minutes before each session for setup and testing (and invest 15 euros/dollars into a reliable plug-and-play headset with USB connectivity) we can remove many annoying elements and make the experience much better for everyone. Then, it is much easier to start improving the actual content and pedagogic side of things. – Btw, if you have any additional tips, or comments to share on this, please drop a note below.

Nice meetings!

Valokuva, taide – taidevalokuvaus?

”Jänö” (Frans Mäyrä, 24.2.2020)

Ystävä kutsui pohtimaan, mikä tekee valokuvasta taidetta. En sen enempää seikkaile tässä taideteorian alueelle, mutta koetan vastata kuvaparilla. Molemmat ovat eilisen iltapäivän “kamerakävelyltä”: jänön kuvasin ensin, erään naapurin puutarhassa, marjapensaan alta mietiskelemässä. Toisessa kuvassa olen kuvannut teleobjektiivilla ojanpenkalla olevia ruohoja ja sammaleita – makuuasennosta, jotta sain tämän (oudon/uhkaavan) leudon helmikuun matalalta paistavan iltapäiväauringon valon muotoiluominaisuuden ja lyhyen syväterävyyden hyödynnettyä. Molempia oli ilo kuvata – ne siis tuottivat itse luomisprosessillaan iloa ja tyydytystä.

”Tutkimaton tie 3” (Frans Mäyrä, 24.2.2020)

Painotukset olivat kuitenkin hieman erilaiset. Toisen kohdalla oli ennen kaikkea mukava kohdata arka villieläin ja onnistua teknisesti saamaan suht terävä kuva siitä; pensaiden välistä siilautuva valaistus ja sommittelu ovat tietysti iso osa kuvaa, mutta tässä otoksessa ei juuri ole mitään erityisen kokeilevaa – sen estetiikassa dokumentoiva funktio on keskiössä. Sen sijaan tuon ojanpenkan kuvan kohdalla syttyi hieman enemmän nimenomaan oivalluksen iloa. Valokuva taidemuotona on aina tietyn hetken ja olosuhteiden luoma jälki käytetyssä välineessä (filmissä, valokuvapaperissa, digitaalisella kuvasensorilla), ja sen luovat mahdollisuudet elävät kiinnostavassa jännitteessä toisaalta itse kohteen ja olosuhteiden tarjoaman tilanteen, näkymän – ja toisaalta valokuvaajan luovan panoksen kuten kuvakulman, sommittelun, rajauksen, syväterävyyden, valitun sävyjen ja värien maailman kaltaisten tekijöiden välillä. Likaiseen ojaan makaamaan ryhtyminen ei olisi jotain mitä tavallisessa arjessa tekisin – eikä ojanpenkan kuivat ruohot ja hiekansekaiset sammaleet ole jotain mitä oikeastaan päivittäin pysähtyisi kohteena ihailemaan tai ihmettelemään. Kun siis siirryn itse dokumentaarisuudesta hieman taidevalokuvauksen suuntaan, siirrän painopistettä kuvassa oman luovan panokseni ja kohteelle itse antamani merkityksen puolelle.

Olen joskus miettinyt, että “taiteella” on itselleni aina kahtalainen luonne: toisaalta se on jotain kulttuurista ja jaettua, jolloin voidaan keskustella esimerkiksi taiteellisista arvoista ja arvottamisesta yhteisöllisesti muodostuvien kriteerien kautta. Mutta itselleni vähintään yhtä tärkeää on taiteen tekemiseen ja kokemiseen liittyvä yksityisen kokemisen ulottuvuus. Näillä kahdella on varmaan jotain kosketuskohtia, mutta ainakin omalla kohdallani melko usein jokin (esim. institutionaalisen taidekäsityksen näkökulmasta hyvinkin arkinen, vähäpätöinen tai mielenkiinnoton) asia onnistuu synnyttämään henkilökohtaisen taide-elämyksen. Tässä on vähän ehkä samaa henkeä kuin vaikkapa ITE (“Itse Tehty Elämä”) -tyyppisessä, kouluttamattomien taiteentekijöiden naivistisessa tai “arkitaiteellisessa” luovuudessa.

Tai, toisessa suunnassa, vaikkapa situationistisen taidekäsityksen vallankumousajattelussa: taide pitää irrottaa kapitalistisen yhteiskunnan tuoteajattelusta ja galleriataiteen kahleista, ja nähdä se ainutkertaisina elämyksinä, tapahtumina, kokemisen tapoina ja performansseina – jotka kuuluvat kaikille, kaikkialla, arjen esteettisyyden ja merkityksellisyyden elämistä syventävinä ulottuvuuksina.

Niinpä tuossa “makaan ojassa ja kuvaan epätarkkoja sammaleita auringon laskussa” -jutussa on itselleni merkittävänä juurikin itse performanssin ulottuvuus: että pistän itseäni edes hieman, tämän verran likoon, ja katson jotain pientä ja vähäpätöistä ilmiötä hieman eri silmälaseilla kuin rutinoidun arkikiireen keskellä. Toisaalta näin itse näissä sammalissa jotain hieman sadunomaista – ehkä hehkuva ruoho ja sammal ovat oikein tarkoin silmin katsottuna sittenkin suunnattomia asioita? Ehkä ne ovat osa loputonta ja ääretöntä metsää, luontoa, olemassaolon käsittämättömyyttä, jolle vain jokapäiväisessä elämässä yleensä on sokea?

Ja ehkä valokuvataiteen alueelle siirtyminen itselläni voisi merkitä juurikin tällaisia oivalluksia, tilaisuutta nähdä ja kokea toisin, syvemmin, kuin yleensä.

Mutta kyllä minä silti aion kuvata noita jänis- ja oravakuvia ihan tyytyväisenä myös, edelleenkin. Kun jotain asiaa tekee harrastuksena eikä vakavana ammattiprojektina, on helpottavaa juurikin että voi siirtyä rekisteristä toiseen ja leikitellä – välillä tehdä jotain pienimuotoista, tai täysin tavanomaista, käsityönomaista – välillä irrotella, tai tuottaa vaikka vitsejä jotka eivät avaudu välttämättä kenellekään muulle. Ja olla siihen tyytyväinen. 🙂