Saturday, December 4, 2021

Family Shibboleths: a Glossary of Albert-isms

Last week I hosted my mom, two brothers, assorted nieces, and a nephew for Thanksgiving. My niece Laura brought this custom-made Bingo card:

(A little explanation: CAlbert means a California Albert; WAlberts are the Washington state Alberts; and the Wollenhaupts are other relatives from my mother’s side that came for lunch the next day.)

I dig this family Bingo concept. It’s a nice way to celebrate the little idiosyncrasies and oddities that make a family feel close. We didn’t actually compete at family Bingo; that would have required fourteen unique cards and people would have had to carry them around the whole time. Instead we just had the one card, posted to the fridge. As you can see, we fell just short of getting a complete blackout.

I think there’s room to refine this game and make it a tradition. First, we could have a card for each person, up on the fridge, and anyone could mark things off (that’s right—helping one another try to win). Second, we could improve on what goes in the squares. “Cats are unusually mean,” for example, could never apply in this household, because a) we have just one cat, and b) what counts as “unusually” mean, given that all cats are asocial predatory beasts? 

Meanwhile, “NPR plays in the background” could apply to many a Bay Area home, but not mine—I dislike talk radio of any kind and there’d be no way to hear it over the din of this many Alberts anyway. 

(As for the final missing square, apparently the only reason this didn’t happen was that my nephew Peter couldn’t come; I’m told he “seems to make it his mission to make a sibling or relative laugh explosively while drinking, hoping that said drink will spew out of said relative’s nose.” Peter stayed home as he was required by his megalomaniac coach to attend basketball practice on Thanksgiving Day, just to kiss the ring and demonstrate that sport comes before family. But I digress.)

The family Bingo game got me thinking about why family gatherings are so enjoyable. For one thing, we get that comforting sense of belonging, of being among our tribe. The quirky, idiosyncratic lingo we tend to throw around helps cement this. (Of course my family isn’t alone in this; Roz Chast recounts here how she polled her friends to learn what term their families use for picking thru the fridge instead of cooking a meal; in her household they call this “fending.”)

I think of such linguistic peculiarities as a family shibboleth. In case you haven’t heard this term, Wikipedia defines it as “any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another.” Of course, I mean shibboleth in a good way; the origin of this word, from the Old Testament, is actually pretty dark: after a battle between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, any Ephraimite refugees who were intercepted were challenged to pronounce “shibboleth,” because in their dialect it sounded like “sibboleth.” Anyone who pronounced it this way was identified as the enemy and immediately killed.

Clearly this isn’t the point where family gatherings are involved; naturally we want everybody well-versed in our lingo. Generally our members pick it up easily enough. For example, early in the visit when I asked my youngest niece, age nine, if she liked butter, she looked puzzled and said something like “um … sure,” instead of the right answer which is, “yeah …. mmmmmbutter” … but when I asked her again three days later she responded correctly. Notwithstanding her swift adaptation, the family lingo can certainly be bewildering to a newcomer, and my niece Laura, recently engaged, asked me to create a family glossary for her fiancé’s benefit. Any time somebody asks me to write something, especially on the subject of words and wordplay, I find the prospect irresistible (as you can see here and here).

And so, I’ve compiled a glossary of Albert-isms, replete with etymologies. What does this have to do with you, the lay albertnet reader? Well, for one thing, if you’re reading this, you’re probably my mom, or perhaps one of my brothers. And even if you’re not, you ought to find these amusing. Moreover, I’ve witnessed family gatherings where people were too quiet or seemed lacking in family shibboleths, so I hereby give you permission to totally steal these and introduce them into your own family dialogue. (If any of my family members don’t like this, they  can complain in the comments area below, or on their own social platforms).

I’ve grouped these into general categories, starting with food-related terms, since family gatherings tend to center around the kitchen. Next are the cinematic references my family is so fond of. The last section comprises the truly weirdest utterances, many of which celebrate important bits of family history dating back decades.

Culinary Albert-isms

  • Jukebox – microwave oven (origin: Kitchen Confidential; until my older daughter went off to college, she had no idea that this term, and the next three, weren’t ubiquitous)
  • Microbe – see “microwave oven”
  • Nuke – to heat in a microwave oven (e.g., “I don’t feel like cooking, let’s just nuke some leftovers”)
  • Radar love – the process of heating via microwave oven (e.g., “this isn’t hot enough, give it a little more radar love”; origin: Kitchen Confidential)
  • Bell’s seasoning – the key to Thanksgiving and thus the subject of much discussion
  • Tranja (pronounced “TRAHN-ya”) – any tasty beverage, including energy drink; often used in the statement, “Drink—it’s tranja. I hope you relish it as much as I” (origin: StarTrek)
  • Pretty yum – delicious (origin: five-star Yelp review of a Dim Sum restaurant in San Francisco, ca. 2015)
  • “Do you like butter?” / “Yeah, mmmbutter.” – standard verbal exchange whenever butter is present (origin: my friend Pete’s home-ec teacher back in, like, 1983, responding spontaneously when randomly asked if she liked butter)
  • Lekker – see “pretty yum” (origin: from Dutch Alberts)
  • Splaula – spatula, especially a rubber spatula (origin: what my daughters and I thought my wife had written on her shopping list years ago, due to her encryption-like handwriting)

Cinematic Albert-isms

  • “You’re not the quarterback here, Mike!” – Say this whenever somebody is overstepping or attempting to have too much influence. Do not substitute your interlocutor’s name for “Mike.” Always say “Mike.” (Origin: Breaking Away)
  • “Cutter started it!” – Trot this out whenever you’re chastised for pointlessly bickering. It’s not important who actually started the argument, of course. (Origin: Breaking Away)
  • “It’s a crazy world.” / “Someone oughtta sell tickets.” / “Sure, I’d buy one.” – Whenever you encounter an instance of the world being, in fact, crazy, you should say so, and then wait for the correct response, which is the bit about selling tickets. If this response is not received, pause a few beats and then say, “Sure, I’d buy one” anyway, to inspire your interlocutor to do better next time. (Origin: Raising Arizona)
  • “Say, that reminds me.” – Use this whenever changing the subject, or even when continuing on the same subject, or whenever harmless verbal garnish is desired (source: Raising Arizona)
  • “I’m defecatin’ you negative!” – This is a more family-friendly way of saying, “I shit you not.” It avoids both the profane word and its common synonym, “poop,” which is of course far worse. (Origin: Raising Arizona, with “defecatin’” substituting for “crappin’” which is still too risqué for the youngest Alberts)
  • “I guess that’s why they call it a Way Homer.” – Say this whenever one of your jokes bombs. If your interlocutor replies, “Why’s that?” then you say, with much hilarity, “Cause you only get it on the way home!” Ideally, the next response will be, “I’m already home, Glen” (even if your interlocutor is not at home). This will have been a perfect volley. (Origin: Raising Arizona)
  • “Does the pope wear a funny hat in the woods?” – This simply means “yes” or perhaps “hell yeah.” (Origin: combination of a quote from Raising Arizona and the expression, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”)
  • “Two dollars! Two dollars!” (while walking like a zombie) – This one is a bit tricky. You have to walk slowly with your spine totally erect, your head back, your eyes fixed on a distant point on the ceiling, and arms outstretched (i.e., like a zombie), while chanting “Two dollars!” over and over. Do this when you don’t know what else to do; for example, if somebody is explaining why he or she went gluten-free. (Origin: Better Off Dead, combined with some random zombie-walking which my young Dutch nephew Max first encountered around the same time. He somehow conflated the two, having probably never even seen Better Off Dead, and his father later complained that Max was staggering around like a zombie chanting “two dollars!” pretty much nonstop. Thus this is a tribute to youthful enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre.
  • “Good luck … we’re all counting on you.” – Say this whenever anyone is embarking on anything. This is one of those lines that somehow improves with age and repeated usage. (Origin: Airplane)
  •  “Vaal is pleased.” – This is shorthand for “I am the eyes and ears of Vaal, and Vaal is pleased.” There’s no perfectly prescribed situation for using this; just exercise your best judgment. (Origin: Star Trek)

Particularly idiosyncratic Albert-isms

  • Duh-huh or tuh-huh – just kidding. (Origin: when I first moved to California, I lived and worked with my brother Geoff; we biked to work and back together; we socialized together; in short, we were practically inseparable, and sometimes got a bit tired of one another, which could result in witty verbal exchanges that sometimes became caustic or acerbic. To soften this, we took to formally indicating the jocular nature of a comment by attaching “duh-huh” (which Geoff reckons is spelled “tuh-huh”) at the end. For example, we’d say something like, “Wait, you traveled three hours for this bike race and didn’t bring your UCSF license? Why would you think they’d let you register ... your good looks? Duh-huh!” Astonishingly, almost everyone we knew adopted this usage, including this one kid, Dave E, who couldn’t even say it right so it came out “duhhhht.” More than thirty years later, this is still standard usage among Alberts, across generations.)
  • Mmmmmyello – this is how to answer the phone (origin: our friend Davey’s mom back in like 1980)
  • Brrrowh – I don’t know (origin: contraction, over time, of “I dunno”)
  • “Huh huh … no” – basically either “just kidding” or “scratch that” (origin: uttered by my friend Chris, as we were looking at VHS cassettes at the video store; he had suggested, “Let’s get Blame it on Rio” and then—realizing that his young lust was obviously the only possible motivation for wanting to see such a drippy movie—he got embarrassed and uttered the now immortal phrase, “huh huh … no” to try to retract it)
  • “I need to drop some friends off in the toolit” – use this when you’re excusing yourself to go do a, uh, download. (Origin: the euphemism “drop some friends off at the pool,” warped unintentionally by a very young Albert, and spoken with a redneck accent for no clear reason)
  • Micturate – urinate (this is certainly not an Albert coinage; it’s unclear how this became the family’s preferred term, given how seldom it’s typically used)
  • “Okay, Christmas is canceled” – This is trotted out annually as a (so far empty) threat. (Origin: our mom said this repeatedly during our childhood, out of sheer exasperation at our awful behavior and/or her (and eventually everyone’s) contempt for the rampant commercialism of the holiday)
  • Motherfrockle – motherf**er. (Origin: my niece Rachel, when very young, was verbally abused by another kid, and told her father but didn’t want to use the actual word, so he asked her to whisper it in his ear, and she put her mouth to his ear and whispered, “He called me a frockle!”)
  • “I don’t wear contacts because I care about my eyes” – Say this whenever somebody mentions contacts, or puts them in, or takes them out, as a way to pass judgment. (Origin: our dad pompously declared this when he first learned I wear contacts; he followed it up with some long diatribe about how some lady friend of his, who had like the first generation hard contact lenses, slept in them and then they were stuck to her eyes; never mind that this was over forty years before and she was an idiot)
  • EUx (Evil Uncle Dana, Evil Uncle Max, Evil Uncle Geoff) – All three uncles get the “Evil” moniker, and the standard abbreviation (e.g., EUD, EUM). (Origin: my brother Bryan was the first to have kids, and the last to become an uncle, so the rest of us got this label, mainly due to our actually being pretty much evil or at least a bad influence)
  •  “What we need here is a Physics major.” – Say this to insult a sibling. You can substitute whatever college major you need; for example, during an argument about grammar you could say to me, “What we need here is an English major.” (Origin: during a long, complicated scientific discussion, which included possibly all his sons and definitely Bryan, our dad said this, as if to deny the very fact of Bryan’s major, which was indeed Physics.)
  • “You are real lucky.” – Say this to any family member who seems even remotely lucky or successful, or who has avoided failure or cataclysm, as a way to deny that his or her good fortune has anything to do with character, pluck, or effort. You can also tell yourself this several times a day, as a way of feeling gratitude. It’s especially useful if, like me, you actually are real lucky. (Origin: our dad said to me, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage,” in angry response to [what he evidently perceived as] my utter incompetence, when I did some very minor damage to my car. Details are here.)
  • “You’re not very bright, are you.” – Say this to any family member who says or does anything even slightly incorrect or questionable. (Origin: our dad famously, though perhaps apocryphally, said this to me after I rode 130 miles over the highest pass in North America without proper food or even a jacket and got caught in a thunderstorm; details are here.)
  • “I’m going out there, don’t try to stop me. / You fool, you’ll be killed!  / I must do this … alone.” – Whenever you leave the house, utter the first statement. Your interlocutor should utter the second, and then you close out the dialogue with the third utterance. If your interlocutor neglects, or refuses, to provide the second statement, pause for a few beats and deliver the closing line anyway to inspire your interlocutor to do better next time.)
  • “All over the place spaced-out BLEAAAH!” – This is a nice way to point out that a family member, particularly a teenager, has totally dropped the ball. (Origin: back in the ‘80s, our mom once completely lost her shit and delivered a powerful, thundering harangue including several instances of this very useful expression. The “BLEAAH!” part should be deliver with extreme gusto and high volume, ideally with your eyes practically bugging out. Note: do not deliver this diatribe in a library or museum.)
  • “Bundle up Billy!” – Say this to any family member heading out into the cold, especially if you wish to advise and also demean the person (e.g., if you are talking to a teenager who finds the idea of a jacket, not to mention protective parenting, highly offensive). Do not substitute any other name for “Billy”—always use Billy. (Origin: actual quote concerning our friend Bill, whose loving mother said this to him and which we all took to saying to him constantly, all winter long, ad infinitum. Interesting aside: Bill now lives in Perm, Russia which isn’t technically Siberia but is halfway there; the average high temperature there in winter is just 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Bundle up, indeed!)
  • “Come and get it or I’ll throw it out!” – what you say when the family meal is on the table (origin: one of those Time Life Old West books, probably The Cowboys; I read this aloud to my mom and brothers back in like 1975 and it just stuck)
  • Landlo’ – our mom’s second husband (origin: he actually was her landlord, and when he got greedy and said she either needed to buy the apartment or move out, she slipped between the horns of the dilemma by marrying him and thus moving in with him, which was a huge mistake as you can see here)
  •  “Bye” – Obviously this word itself isn’t a family shibboleth, but we say it in a very specific way, waving annoyingly by opening and closing a hand, which is held up right next to our face, which wears an expression of utter disgust and dismissal; useful whenever a family member departs but particularly through a car window as the family member drives away. (Origin: this is how one of us, or perhaps all of us at one time or another, were kicked out of Green Scene, a go-kart track, for reckless driving, in the mid-‘80s)
  • Slaap lekker – sleep well (origin: literally, “sleep tasty,” this is a standard Dutch expression brought to us by the Netherlands branch of the family)
  • Don’t let the hmm-hmmms bite – don’t let the bedbugs bite (origin: this is what our brother Geoff used to say to his son Max because he was very young and the idea of bedbugs terrified him)
  •  “You know, I really like [x]. I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’ … heck, we all do. But for me, I think  it goes far beyond that.” – This is really useful, every time you encounter something you like. It’s a way of expressing gratitude very formally and passionately. (Source: a “Far Side” cartoon)
  • “Outta my way, mother daughter!” – This expression gets nearly constant use: pretty much whenever a wife, mother, or daughter is in your way. I have two daughters, a mom, a wife, and at least eight nieces, and thus say it probably 700 times a year. (Origin: during a violent dispute with my brother Max, then a teenager, my dad fled down the hall, with Max in hot pursuit, ready to beat his ass; our brother Bryan was squarely in the way, either to intervene or as a pawn caught in a deadly game, and Max yelled something similar to this, except that what he said was decidedly more profane, along the lines of “outta my way, motherfrockle!” Granted, this is a pretty dark memory to be dredging up all the time, but perhaps by saying this jovially we’re neutralizing that old trauma, or at least owning it.)

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Wrestling Tournament Frequently Asked Questions


With kids back at school and certain pandemic-related restrictions easing, lots of varsity sports are going again. If, like me, you suddenly have kid on the high school wrestling team, and want to know what it’s like to attend a tournament, read on.

How much lead time will I have before the meet?

Your mileage may vary, but don’t expect a lot of notice. Not all kids wrestle in all tournaments, and you may receive so many emails with so much information you may struggle to process it all. If you ask your kid, she may or may not know, or might deliberately mislead you. These are teenagers we’re talking about, remember.

It’s easy enough to find the high school, but how do I locate the gym?

Good luck with that … it’s not like a high school mountain bike racing course that you can see from space. Google Maps could help, if the school is important enough to have nice little building outlines, but one large building (e.g., gym, auditorium) looks a lot like another. Probably you’ll have to walk laps around campus, ignoring advice from other would-be spectators who are likely even more lost than you.

Is it possible every single entrance will be locked?

Anything is possible during the pandemic, but more than likely there will be a single gate open somewhere, amidst many dozens of locked ones. Don’t worry, you probably won’t miss your kid’s first match. (Actually, you probably will. You should have left earlier.)

That dude who climbed the fence … was that smart?

Yes, you should have followed his example. He probably saw your kid’s first match.

Does attending an indoor event like this present a significant COVID-19 risk?

Of course! Half the people won’t have masks, and half of those who do will be wearing them around their chins, and it’s chockablock up in the bleachers and pretty much everywhere else. Also, your kid is huffing and puffing in her opponent’s face, and each kid faces anywhere from three to like, I dunno, ten opponents? She’s bringing that viral load home with her!

What is the riskiest thing about the tournament, from the COVID perspective?

That would be the unmasked coaches shouting instructions at their wrestlers at 130 dB to be heard over the ambient noise.

Is that worth the added COVID risk?

Of course not. There’s no way the wrestlers are paying attention, and if they haven’t started following their coaches’ advice after countless practices, they’re not going to suddenly start now. This is just the coach equivalent of backseat driving.

If I let my daughter join the wrestling team and attend one of these meets, and she comes down with COVID, am I going to Hell?

Let’s look at the facts: most schools have wrestling teams; most teams attend tournaments like these; most of these tournaments are held indoors; and all kinds of families allow their children to participate. Thus, there’s nothing uniquely reckless about attending the meet. Think of it this way: if your kid went to play tennis at a public court, and was shot by some lunatic, would you think, “I never should have let her play tennis!”? No? Well, how is this any different? We’re in a pandemic and, despite vaccinations and (mostly) wearing masks, some people will get COVID and that’s just the way it is. So no, you’re probably not going to Hell (at least, not for this).

The meet is like nine hours long and my kid is only wrestling three matches. How will I know when it’s her turn?

If you keep an eye on the mats, you’ll see her wrestling, but by the time you get there you will have missed half of it. It’s better to keep your eyes glued to her the whole time, from across the gym. If you see her put on the anti-cauliflower ear protection, it is definitely GO time. Of course, you could be waiting hours. In fact, you will.

I plan to attend the tournament with my wife and other kid. Is it a good idea, from a COVID standpoint, to take shifts watching for the match while the others wait outside?

Yes, that’s a fine idea, though the way time stretches out in such situations, there’s bound to be a bit of resentment over perceived unequal surveillance duty.

I just saw my kid eating. Since nobody would eat right before a match, she must not be up for quite a while, so I could go for a walk or something … right?

Don’t be so sure. These kids don’t necessarily have any idea what’s going on either. I heard several kids, asked when they’re up, respond, “I have no idea.” I mean, think about it: you are completely obsessed with trying to make sense of the situation, because you’re an adult, but these teenagers are, as my mom used to put it when haranguing my brothers and me, “all over the place spaced-out BLAH!” Your kid’s mouth may very well be bulging with food when her coach says, “You’re up in five!”

I find it really nerve-racking trying to keep tabs on my kid at the meet. Could anything make this even more stressful?

Why, yes! They could have a whole other gym you didn’t know about, where other matches are going on! Meaning you can’t be sure you’re not missing her match simply because you don’t see her on one of the mats. The second gym means you have to keep track of her all day long!

If there are, in fact, two gym buildings where matches are being held, can I be reasonably confident my kid’s third match will be in the larger gym, given that her first two were?

I asked a member of the wrestling team this very question, and she replied, “You won’t know until you know.”

Are wrestlers commonly given to tautological utterances of this type?

I wouldn’t know … I have only one wrestler in my family and she’s new to the sport.

When I’m scanning the bleachers, the throngs of wrestlers, and the random spectators distributed throughout the gym, because I’m looking for the only kid whose whereabouts interest me (i.e., mine), I feel like I’m playing some kind of real-world “Where’s Waldo.” Is that a good analogy?

No, “Where’s Waldo” isn’t a good analogy because Waldo always wears the same red-and-white cap, red-and-white striped shirt, and round glasses—a combination few other wrestlers would be sporting. Your kid, meanwhile, is wearing the same colors as the rest of her team, which is the same color scheme as several other teams. Meanwhile, for some reason these wrestling teams don’t congregate at these events … they’re widely distributed throughout the building(s) so you can’t just look for your home team. Another thing: Waldo stays put, whereas these wrestlers are always on the move, constantly dipping and diving and disappearing, so it’s like a shell game from hell. You’ll experience extreme disorientation, like when you were at the public swimming pool a decade ago, trying to keep an eye on both your children as they sprinted off in different directions, one into the water and another vanishing into the crowd. So it’s less like “Where’s Waldo” and more like being trapped in a kaleidoscope.

Is it true that “Where’s Waldo” started in the UK, where his name is Wally, and that his name was changed to Waldo for the American market, Charlie for the French, and Walter for the German?

Why yes, that’s absolutely true!

Is it normal for a wrestler to have a doppelgänger who continually throws her parents off the scent?

I think you can pretty much count on that … I’m pretty sure it’s a corollary of Murphy’s Law. In my case, my kid’s doppelgänger—same braided hair, same fair skin—happens to be a dude. Only the bulging biceps gave him away, which is less helpful than you might think because the whole experience is so overwhelming, especially if your eyesight is poor and the air is permeated with sweat, like a rank mist, so everything is a blur.

During my daughter’s match, her rival totally had her in a hammerlock, which is apparently allowed(!). I asked my daughter later if that hurt, and she insisted it didn’t. She went on to say, unbidden, that her rival was “nice!” Is my kid out of her mind?

You might want to get her checked out … that could be a symptom of a concussion.

If my kid tells me her next match isn’t for at least an hour and encourages me to go take a walk, can I step out for thirty minutes without having to worry about missing anything?

No. If you step out for thirty minutes, you will miss her match … meaning you just waited around for two-plus hours for nothing. Just go home at that point.

Are you speaking hypothetically, or did this actually happen to you?

I’d rather not talk about it.

Has it ever occurred to you that the wrestling tournament might just be an elaborate psychological experiment?

God yes.

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

From the Archives - A Rather Hostile Letter


I am very careful in these pages to respect people’s privacy. I don’t quote people, even anonymously, without permission. The only exception so far has been in the case of my late father because I can’t ask him, obviously.

The person quoted anonymously in this post is also now dead. Thus I feel I can now post this curiosity from my archives.

A rather hostile letter – October 22, 1990

Dear Miss W—,

I had a verbally abusive boss whose favorite phrase seemed to be “pure, unadulterated bullshit.” And your recent letter, Miss W—, reeks of it. Let’s have a look at that first sentence:

“Your father read part of your recent letter aloud to me.”

The first couple of times I read this I unconsciously transposed a couple words, which created a different, probably more accurate version of the sentence:

“I read part of your letter to your father aloud to him.”

I rather doubt my father read the letter, or all of it anyway, because he’s never been able to make sense of my correspondence. This is not an intellectual lacking on his part; as we both know, he seems to be some kind of genius. That’s kind of the problem: he has always felt there are better things to do with his great brain than to try figuring out what I’m trying to convey in my letters. Am I just sucking up, or trying to imply some kind of affection? It’s too much hassle to try to decipher so I’m not surprised he located a secretary figure and in some very carefully worded and tactful manner said the rough equivalent of, “I don’t wanna deal with this shit; here, you do something with it.” (This is the same message I used to get from that old boss, but I respected him for it. After all, he was usually blowing off a creditor or something, not his son.)

But that’s just conjecture; perhaps my dad did read my letter; perhaps you didn’t. But what’s not in question is that you, the lady friend, did respond instead of him. I suppose you might expect me to be grateful, since you did take some trouble. But really, how warmly did you think I’d receive your letter, as a substitute? And did you think you’d endear yourself to me with your insulting tone? Consider Exhibit A, this quote from your first paragraph:

I decided I would respond to your mailbox woes, which I have known, too, that kind of hurt anger you’re not sure whether to direct at your so called loved ones, or at the mailman, or at the stupid box, itself.

Wow, “mailbox woes.” I guess you and/or my dad construed my letter as a self pitying plea for attention. Well it wasn’t. It was a plea for money. My dad is supposed to deposit money in my bank account every month (not because he’s generous but because he’s required to, according to a clause my mom wisely wrote in to their divorce contract). So the “hurt anger” you might think you know seems very different from mine. I have never been confused about where to direct my anger. My mailman is reliable and my mailbox is an inanimate object. I guess an elementary school student with a good imagination who reads about The Little Train Who Could might buy your cutesy personification but I don’t.

Most of your opening paragraph merely insults my intelligence, but its final sentence, “So consider this a pen pal note,” actually insults my feelings. It does not hurt them, it insults them. It insinuates that I’m just some poor lonely dork who sulks a lot about not getting any mail, a guy who would be just thrilled to carry on a correspondence with anybody, even his dad’s lady friend he’s never even met. My letter, if you’ll look closely (I’m sure you’ve got it right there), belabors the fact that since I never get letters from Dad, our relationship has become a purely financial one in which I simply write whenever I need money. It is this very specific relationship that I’m disappointed in. Building a new one, with a stranger, cannot replace or amend it.

It’s possible you just didn’t understand my letter, and thought the money part was just an aside. It’s also possible that you know exactly what the letter meant but you don’t want the old man to give away any more of his money because you’d like to get your hands on it instead. If this is actually the case, then I underestimated you. Perhaps you said to my dad, “Oh, don’t worry Harry, the lil’ bugger just needs a lil’ ol’ pen pal to write a lettery wettery to him. He’s just a lil’ lonely, that’s all.” My dad, pleasantly surprised that no action (such as a bank transfer) is required, settles back into his blissful ignorance and reminds you how wonderful you are, at which point you take a victory lap by writing me a transparently disingenuous letter, just to rub my nose in it. If this is the case, congratulations. You’re a real operator.

But it could be that both these theories are wrong. Maybe it’s you who feels lonely, which is totally believable if you’re counting on my dad for companionship. Even in these early courting days you must get the feeling his mind is somewhere else, such as some technical problem at work or some mathematical flight of fancy that is simply more interesting to him than anything you, an elementary school librarian, might have to say. Perhaps, seeing as to how we’re both liberal arts types, you think we could carry out a literary correspondence of high intellectual value. Based on your letter, you seem to be an expert on Romeo and Juliet. You’re absolutely right, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” is not a question of spatial location, but rather a question of Romeo’s name. What tipped me off to that is that “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” I don’t know that I’d have described this as a “dense obscurity,” but perhaps I’m not quite reading it on as deep a level as you. But what I can’t understand is why, later in the letter, you wrote, “I’d better get back to work here or people will begin to ask, ‘Wherefore art thou, librarian?’” It’s as if you yourself were now using “wherefore” to mean “where.” Was this just a goof? Or was it a subtle dig at the baser intellects of the school kids, who are still on Curious George?

Speaking of Romeo … how are you and my dad doing? Has it crossed your mind that you might be Rosaline instead of Juliet? Perhaps not—perhaps Dad’s still on his best behavior. Well, every dog has his day and I guess you’re having yours. Live it up while you can, it won’t last. Once he starts to think of you as family, he’ll take you for granted just like the rest of us. Just ask either of his past wives. S— probably has infamous status in your estimation by now. Has he told you the sordid tale of how she made him fat by feeding him too much pasta? I’ve heard that about half a dozen times by now. Actually, I lived at their house one summer, and as far as I could tell, the mayonnaise burritos he made on the sly had more to do with his weight gain. The real reason he’s lost weight since she left him is that he’s too cheap to buy groceries, other than buckwheat flour, millet, and soy lecithin (cheaper than eggs, you know). And of course he always trims down when he’s on the make.

Now, if you have designs on marrying my dad, and taking over as my stepmother, bear in mind you have a tough act to follow. I liked S— for a number of reasons, one of them being that, as custodian of Dad’s finances, she put money in my account with the same regularity that my landlord expects from me. Now I have to deal directly with my dad, who thinks my financial affairs are all conducted in play-world, like I leave my money-woneys under the gub-gub tree for the billy-willy bird and if I’m late, it’s nothing but goop-whoop soup for a week!

I wish you could see my dad’s dismissiveness of me in its proper context, that being the truly magnificent repentance speech that he gave after S— bailed on him. This time it was gonna be different, this time he was gonna pay attention to those close to him, he would stop forgetting birthdays, he would start writing letters. I did get one letter since then, but it was a mass-mailed form letter boasting about his business trip to Hawaii. As for my birthday, he didn’t send a card because, he later explained, he didn’t know if I would be home to receive it.

It is because people like my dad will never change that it would be useless for me to mail this letter, and in fact I never intended to. I’m just blowing off steam. Your intentions in writing me were probably good, and I guess I can’t blame you for thinking I’m a sad sack who just needs a pen pal, since you don’t know me at all. How could you fathom the tortured relationship I’ve had with my dad, when he surely never talks about me (or my brothers)? How were you to grasp that my dad’s suggestion of you writing me was simply a way to get around depositing the money I asked for? You’re just a pawn in our stupid chess game. I thought I had my dad in check, but he marched you all the way across the board and made you a queen. I always hated that rule.

So yeah, you’ll never see this letter. I could send it to Dad, but that would be worse. First of all he would just get all twisted up and confused again, which oddly enough would make me feel kind of cruel since the guy just doesn’t get it, he can’t. When he decides to engage he can be a hell of a guy, so at times we get along well. I had a great time touring the Berkeley campus with him last spring break, for example, so it’s a shame I had to bring in all this unpleasantness around wanting the money he’s supposed to give me. Too bad this letter has no audience … I guess I’ll just put it in the archives, and maybe someday when I’m dissin’ my kids they can shove it in my face to show me what a fool I am.

Oh yeah, you wanted to know about my pets and their names. Sorry, I have none. No cats, no dogs, no goldfish, nothing to name. I know, it’s terrible, I’m so lonely. And yet even still, I will never be your pen pal.

Your pen pal (not),


Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Ask a Northern Californian

Dear Northern Californian,

Is it true you Northern Californians say “hella” all the time?

Margo F, Bozeman, MT

Dear Margo,

Yes, it’s absolutely true, we hella use that word here. (See!?) A UC Berkeley linguist asserts (as reported here) that the term originated in the Bay Area, probably in Oakland. I first encountered it as a student at UC Santa Barbara; someone had written “Lisa C is hella good to me” on the blackboard and my TA said, “‘Hella’? What’s ‘hella’?” I wondered the same thing (and also wondered, “Who is Lisa C?”). When I moved up north I started hearing “hella” a lot, and liked it immediately. I was particularly enchanted when I first heard it used to mean more than just “very” … for example, “I ate hella chips.” This term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002.

Since I’ve lived in Norcal for so long, I can’t be sure “hella” isn’t used everywhere, so I asked my brother Max, in Boulder, Colorado, if he hears it out there. He replied, “It is very rare that someone says ‘hella.’ When that is uttered here, it is answered with consternation, as though it threatens to upend our privilege.”

Dear Northern Californian,

Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?

Becky Mills, Columbus, OH

Dear Becky,

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid. Of course I’m aware that earthquakes happen around here, and they can kill people, but it’s not a particularly significant risk. As Hans Rosling et al report in the excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, deaths from natural disasters have plummeted worldwide in the last eighty or so years, from 453 per million annually in the 1930s to just 10 per million today. That’s about a tenth of the risk of dying in a car accident.

I’m kind of more afraid of wildfires, but not enough to live somewhere else. The Midwest has tornados, the East Coast has hurricanes, the Great Lakes region has mosquitoes the size of Chihuahuas … nowhere is totally safe.

Dear Northern Californian,

Is the French Laundry worth the hype?

Chase L, Portland, OR

Dear Chase,

I cannot say, as I’ve never eaten there. You have to be very wealthy, very organized, very well connected, and/or have naked pictures of God to get a table at French Laundry. Because it is such an utterly elite place, it is nonsensical to assume that just any Northern Californian would have any experience with it. Go ask Lance Armstrong.

(Here’s a photo I didn’t snap.)

Dear Northern Californian,

Do you get offended when people call San Francisco “San Fran”?

Melissa M, Provo, UT

Dear Melissa,

I don’t get offended by that, and in fact I’m even pretty mellow about “Frisco.” The reason is, like many locals I like to refer to San Francisco as “the city,” which I know would cause any New Yorker to burst a blood vessel. In exchange for being tranquilo about people saying “San Fran” and “Frisco,” I also take the liberty of calling Sacramento “Sacto” (though you can hear the quotation marks in my voice).

Dear Northern Californian,

What would you say is the biggest difference between NorCal and SoCal?

Rebecca S, Seattle, WA

Dear Rebecca,

I would have to say that SoCal’s love for the automobile is the biggest difference. Driving is a way of life down there, even with all the gridlock, sprawl, and road rage. Consider a city like Irvine where every street is a six-lane thoroughfare and walking is practically illegal, and compare it to Berkeley, which according to this article has the highest rate in the nation, among cities of 100K or more, of people who bike to work.

Dear Northern Californian,

Is it “the I-5” or “The Five” and why are you so wrong?

Lydia L, Portland, OR

Dear Lydia,

Neither. Interstate 5 is referred to as simply “I-5” (no “the”) by every Northern Californian I’ve ever heard. In general, SoCal folks say “the” before a freeway name (e.g, “Get on the 101 and head south), and NorCal folks do not. If that makes me wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

Dear Northern Californian,

What do you think of this recent exodus of Californians—especially Northern Californians—to Texas?

Bill G, Palo Alto, CA

Dear Bill,

First of all, I couldn’t care less how many leave the state … humans aren’t exactly scarce here. Second, if people wish to “escape” our high taxes, our regulations, and our politics … well, Texas can have ‘em. Consider this declaration, from Mark Duggan, the co-author of a report on this (as quoted here): “Right now market forces are telling California, ‘Get your s—together. This exodus thing—I think it’s a risk.” What a douchebag. Doesn’t he remind you of the blowhard in the bar who invites you to punch him in the stomach as hard as you can? Well I’d like to. Duggan is the director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy research, and (like so many Stanford types) he’s obviously a tool.

I think it’s speculative realtors driving much of this hype, such as Marie Bailey, mentioned in the same article, who “cruises around the Dallas suburbs in her bright pink Tesla Model S with the license plate ‘MOVE2TX’” and who “moved four years ago from Orange County to a 2,000-acre housing development in Prosper, Texas, then started running party bus tours for other prospective California transplants.” Bright pink Tesla with a personalized plate? Bus tours? Texas can have her, too, and all her SoCal pals.

I’m certainly not alone in believing rumors of the migration to be greatly exaggerated. According to the results of a survey conducted by UC Berkeley, “Residents are moving out of state, but not at unusual rates.” UCB’s research “draws on many data sources to investigate the so-called exodus: public opinion data, the U.S. Census, consumer credit histories, home ownership rates, venture capital investments, and information from the Franchise Tax Board.” The study also noted that “California’s economy attracts as much venture capital as all other states combined,” so anyone who thinks Austin will be the new tech hub will be sorely mistaken. Oh, and one more thing: Shiner beer is weak.

Dear Northern Californian,

What are your favorite cuisines that feature in NorCal? Is there any place on earth with better food?

Max A, Boulder, CO

Dear Max,

It’s tempting to blather on about how California Cuisine was invented at Chez Panisse, which is walking distance from my house; and how I’ve also had great meals at Tadich Grill (the oldest restaurant in California), the Cliff House (third oldest), Sam’s Grill (fourth), and the Union Hotel (sixth oldest), all in NorCal; but those places aren’t what get me really excited. I think our specialty is the taqueria. I’m in good company here, as the famous food writer Calvin Trilling, writing in The New Yorker, has paid homage as well, calling the San Francisco burrito “so good that at times I've been tempted to put it on my list of favorite dishes that rarely seem to be served outside their place of origin.” This might sound like faint praise, but remember, this is coming from a New Yorker. Even to his daughter, whom he was trying to lure back to New York, he admitted that the food in San Francisco was “O.K. for out of town.”

(Here’s a photo I snapped at Taqueria Cancun, my favorite place in San Francisco.)

As far as your second question, I am not personally aware of a place with better food, but that doesn’t mean much. I haven’t eaten out in Paris, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, or Vietnam so I’m not exactly a world expert. And I will confess that NorCal falls short in at least two culinary realms: 1) you’ll likely have better fish taco options in SoCal, and 2) you can get definitely get a better bagel in NYC.

Dear Northern Californian,

You weren’t even born in California. Who are you to field these questions in the first place?

Brandon H, San Francisco

Dear Brandon,

In a way, I think being a transplant almost makes a person more quintessentially Californian. According to the Sacramento Bee, among American-born California residents, only about 64% are natives to the state. Besides, I’ve been here in NorCal for over 31 years … doesn’t that make me more of a Northern Californian than any California native under the age of 31? 

Dear Northern Californian,

Isn’t northern California a mecca for tax-and-spend liberals?

Eddie Koskinen, New Ipswich, NH

Dear Eddie,

I’ll tackle the “liberal” part first: it doesn’t appear to me that NorCal is actually more liberal than SoCal. The following map, from Wikipedia, shows voting behavior as of 2018. The horizontal line is how California is typically divided into north and south—more on this in a moment. (Map created by Kingofthedead; details here.

The only red county in SoCal is Kern County, population ~900K, so it’s only about 2% of the state population and thus pretty much irrelevant.

Now, about that NorCal/SoCal dividing line: it’s more historical than geographical. According to Wikipedia, “Pro-slavery politicians initially attempted to permanently divide northern and southern California at 36 degrees, 30 minutes, the line of the Missouri Compromise. But instead, the passing of the Compromise of 1850 enabled California to be admitted to the Union as a free state.”

As for taxation, I can say that Albany, the city where I live, has among the highest sales tax in the country, at 10.75%. The first time I noticed this on a receipt I started to get upset, and then remembered that I’ve voted for pretty much every tax increase I’ve ever seen, including the last sales tax hike. The proposition said something like, “We want to raise the sales tax again because we need to buy some stuff.” I thought about it for a second and decided that seemed perfectly reasonable.

On the other hand, our (at least locally) famous Prop 13 keeps our property tax from going up very fast, which as a homeowner I must admit I enjoy even if it depletes our state coffers. Those who move to Texas are sure going to miss Prop 13 in the coming decades. But, according to this article, “California’s higher income taxes on wealthy earners helps allow the state to generate and spend about 60% more than Texas each year.”

Dear Northern Californian,

What is the dress code in NorCal?

Lauren N, Ashburn, VA

Dear Lauren,

The dress code here is casual yet chic. Just kidding. (My wife once phoned a pricey restaurant in Washington, DC to ask about the dress code and that was their pompous response.) As far as I can tell, in NorCal you can dress pretty much however you want. I do see more style here than I remember from my SoCal days, but they were brief and long ago.

As I’m no expert on fashion, I did a little research on this and found this handy article in Condé Nast Traveler magazine. The photos in the article confirm what I already suspected: that you can get away with wearing whatever you want here. For example, you could hella wear an outfit like this:

One caveat: it’s not always sunny and warm in the Bay Area, so don’t run around in shorts and a tank top and expect to be comfortable. I learned this the hard way as a kid, when we came here on vacation and I froze my ass off.

Dear Northern Californian,

I tend to think NorCal people are a bit smug, so tell me: what embarrasses you the most about your region?

Well, I’ll confess I was tempted to bag on Marin County for its long opposition to vaccinating children, but then I figured I better fact-check myself, and you know what? They’ve really come around. As described on the county’s website here, their lowest vaccination rate was 77.9% back in 2011, but they’ve been steadily improving and are now at 94.3%, just below the state average. It helps that California passed a law in 2016 prohibiting personal belief exemptions (PBEs).

As annoying as anti-vaxxers are, though, they’re not nearly as damaging to society, worldwide, as Facebook, based here in the Bay Area. I would be utterly, completely, overwhelmingly relieved and stoked if those heartless, amoral Facebook bastards relocated their headquarters to Texas.

A Northern Californian is a syndicated journalist whose column, “Ask a Northern Californian,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, October 29, 2021

How to Select a Camera - Part 2


In my last post I explained why it still makes sense to buy a real camera, notwithstanding (and partly because of) the sophistication of smartphone cameras. I described the main types of modern models—the point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR (aka “sand-filled”) cameras, and concluded that most (hypothetical) albertnet readers should probably go with mirrorless. In this second and final installment I’ll quote two experts in describing the technical differences in features among two models, and what these differences mean.

Advice from the mavens

My friend John and my brother Bryan take great photos (but I won’t be sharing their albums here so you’ll just have to trust me). Bryan got a lot of photography lessons from our dad (perhaps using up our dad’s patience since I never even got a real camera, much less a lesson, but I’m not bitter). I emailed John and Bryan links to my two front-runners, the Olympus PEN E-PL10 and the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV, and this handy link to a comparison page on the B&H Photo website.

John advised, “I think for Lindsay, finding a camera that ‘speaks to her’ rather one with the best specs on paper is the thing. I’ll admit that I bought Sony cameras because I thought they looked cool. And I think the PEN cameras are super cool looking too (and they are well regarded).”

This is a good point, and freed me somewhat from worrying too much about the specs … though I’ll admit I can’t resist sifting through the minutiae.

My brother Bryan took some time to walk through some of the more salient feature differences. Here are his observations, with my reactions and some other commentary.

Bulb mode

Bryan explains:

Bulb mode is where the camera keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button down (or perhaps by some other mechanism?). One uses it for making long exposures, so if that’s something Lindsay would like to play with, this might be a benefit of the OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. When might she play with such a feature? One thing that comes to mind is that young people these days love to take pictures of star trails because they’re so cool.

I don’t know about this one. Bryan might overestimate how much kids, or other people, are into astronomy. (Or perhaps he’s being facetious?)

Sensor size (resolution)

Bryan expounds:

Sensor Resolution of 16.1 MP versus 23 MP – Obviously, the OMG camera [his jocular nickname for the Mark IV] has the bigger sensor, which means higher resolution pictures, which means better zooming and cropping possibilities. It also means that if you want to make prints of your photos, they will look much better. It’s like comparing your old VGA monitor to your modern tablet with its retinal display. On the down side, these bigger pictures take up more space on your computer’s hard drive and so on.

I have read in various places that simply looking for high megapixel count won’t help much. That number can be high due to pixel density, but sensor size is more important. Assuming these cameras have the same pixel density, the more expensive one really does have the superior sensor. I guess it comes down to the old adage: size does matter.

Image Stabilization

More analysis from Bryan:

3-Axis Sensor-Shift verses 5-Axis – When it comes to making sharp photos, it’s all about holding the sensor still while the light is exposing it. You can do this with a tripod, by holding really still like a sniper, by buying lenses with active elements that move to absorb some of your shaking, or, like Pentax did years ago and other companies are apparently doing now, actively moving the sensor around to compensate for your shaking. The more axes the better... I’m not sure which axes the PEN camera operate on, probably x, y and rotate? The irony of course is that it’s the PEN camera that needs more stabilization, since it’s the one you’ll be waving around at arm’s length while taking pictures.

This is one of the main reasons I kind of think the bigger, clunkier camera might be worth it. Lindsay holds the camera fairly still but not perfectly … I kind of cringe at how much the camera is still twitching. Maybe that’s just me being a dad, though…

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter

Bryan writes,

I had to research this... apparently there’s a phenomenon called “shutter shock” where the mechanical clanking of the shutter mechanism (the mechanical curtains that hide the sensor until it’s time to expose it to the light) can shake the camera enough to blur the image at certain camera settings. It can cause what would otherwise be a perfectly sharp picture to be blurry when zoomed in, even when the camera is otherwise stable, even on a tripod. There are actually two curtains involved in covering the sensor, the front curtain and the rear curtain. The front curtain slides out of the way at the beginning of the exposure, exposing the sensor. After the set amount of time has elapsed, the rear curtain slides over the sensor, hiding it from the light, and the exposure is complete. Only the front curtain can cause the blurring, since the rear curtain’s movement comes after the exposure is complete. The solution, then, is to move the front curtain out of the way early and begin the exposure electronically, by starting the sensor read at the beginning of the exposure. (There are things I don’t understand about this, but that’s for another time.) Here is a good article, with a link to a cool movie that shows the curtain in action. All this to say, if she ends up really pushing the envelope, this might be a cool feature to have and learn about.

Wow, this is kind of amazing! You know what it reminds me of? That second set of eyelids that Vulcans have, that saved Spock’s vision in the “Operation – Annihilate!” episode of Star Trek!

Diopter Adjustment

Bryan writes,

This is the adjustment on the viewfinder to correct the image so that you don’t have to wear your glasses while looking through the view finder. Obviously, this applies only to the camera with a view finder ... more on this later. If you weren’t wearing your glasses, you might not make as good pictures because you can’t see what you’re doing, either on the screen or the viewfinder.

I have this on my Lumix point-and-shoot camera and I totally dig it. At this point, though, Lindsay is not very keen on the viewfinder … when she borrows my camera, which is frequent these days, she always uses the big LCD. Man, kids these days…

Media/Memory Card Slot

Per Bryan:

I didn’t research it, but the PEN camera only supports UHS-I, whereas the OMG supports UHS-II. Obviously UHS-II has two I’s instead of one, so it must be better. Seriously, though, the higher standard probably means that you could buy a faster card to handle the higher data transfer rates of the fancier features. Maybe it just makes the camera faster overall.

Bryan’s synopsis

Bryan completes his comparison of the two cameras:

The more expensive, bigger OMG camera [shown at the top of this post] is better in every regard except for one: it looks kind of like a big DSLR camera, and some people just don’t want to look like a tourist. I think that Dad got to that point, which is strange when you think about it. It looks like the cameras are actually similar in dimensions, the OMG is just five millimeters wider, but 16 mm taller and 10mm thicker. But the PEN camera is designed to look very stylish, and I believe that it does, and that could be very important to a young lady. I agree with John on this one: if she is embarrassed about the looks of the camera, she may never bond with it properly and it may just end up in a drawer, and she will have lost the opportunity to learn all about photography and make beautiful art.

If, on the other hand, she doesn’t care about the stylish nature of the PEN camera and is more moved by the sexy pretend pentaprism hump on the top of the OMG camera and all that it represents, then by all means, it is the better way to go. I happen to be a firm believer in the viewfinder for many reasons, some of which I shall enumerate. First of all, if you hold the camera properly while peering through the viewfinder, you will get superior pictures because they won’t be blurry from motion-blur. A professional photographer taught me this. I frankly can’t understand how phone cameras manage to get such sharp pictures when their owners are waving them about like pom-poms while taking photos. There must be some incredible processing going on there... in any case, holding the camera up to your face allows you to pin your arms against your body, which, being quite large, doesn’t shake around as much as your extended arms. This effect will be less with Lindsay, but the principle is sound.

I agree 100% with this, and by the way the phrase “pretend pentaprism hump” does more to sway me toward the smaller camera than anything else I’ve read, because it’s just so cheesy to build a cosmetic hump there, and while I’m on the subject, wouldn’t “Pretend Pentaprism Hump” be a great name for a rock band?

More on the viewfinder

Bryan continues,

Another reason that the viewfinder is superior is that you can see better. With your eye up against the camera, it’s dark in there and you can see the screen clearly. This allows you to frame things better, focus better (if you’re into the manual focus thing or are telling the camera where to focus), set the exposure better, check out your depth of field better, and so on. Though I haven’t really used one, I understand that the modern EVF (Electronic View Finder) allows for all sorts of extra data to be displayed in interesting ways. Some of these data can be displayed on the screen, but probably in less detail.

Finally, when it comes to serious photography, you just don’t see real photographers waving their cameras around, shooting photos like an action hero shoots a gun, holding one in each hand, with the barrels pointing away from each other, alternating bullets from left to right. Boy, that sure looks cool, especially if they’ve just flown through a glass wall of a skyscraper and they’re shooting and shooting as they fall, but real gun people don’t shoot that way, they hold the gun very carefully with both hands, arms extended, and they sight down the barrel so that their bullet has a chance of actually hitting the bad guy. Photography is kind of like that. If you want crappy, blurry shots, go ahead, wave the camera around. John and Erin [his son and daughter-in-law] take a whole lot of photos, and really good ones at that, and they use the huge, sand-filled DLSR cameras and they almost always use the viewfinder. There are probably other reasons for using a viewfinder that I haven’t thought about, but this has gone on long enough.

OMG, I can totally picture that movie poster of Chuck Norris shooting in two different directions at once, with his eyes looking at you, the viewer of the poster, rather than at either of his ostensible targets.

I have to admit, when I take a photo, I mean a real photo and not just a snapshot of my cat (for which I emphasize quick set up, kind of stealing the shot so the cat doesn’t see what I’m up to and stop being so cute), I do like to pretend I’m a sniper actually shooting somebody, and not like the bullet-spewing action hero but like a real freaking sniper, and I happen to know a bit about this because I have two friends who are super talented sharpshooters, both ex-military and one of whom had a job sitting up in the guard tower and shooting would-be prison escape artists at the California Men’s Colony prison. (He was never presented with the opportunity to shoot anybody, but the stress of knowing he might have to eventually got to him and he quit.) Both sharpshooters assured me that you almost never fire more than one shot, because a) the guns are so accurate you don’t need to, and b) if you actually sprayed bullets like in the movies the heat would warp the barrel. Anyhow, I guess with modern cameras and the capacity of these memory cards it’s reasonable to just flail the camera around like you’re a human semaphore or something, clicking away all the time, knowing that among the several hundred shots you’ve taken, one or two will be amazing, but man, I just hate wading thru all of those unsuitable photos, giving myself arthritis deleting them, since it’s always my phone or camera that the flailer (i.e., my wife or daughter) used and they leave all that photographic detritus around like so many plates and forks after a dinner party. Heck, maybe I like the viewfinder simply because I’d rather be a sniper than a dishwasher. Maybe it’s an ego thing.

The camera mavens’ conclusions

Bryan summed up his analysis with this:

All that being said, buy the camera that she will actually use. If she really likes the PEN camera, good on her; if she really gets into it but finds that she’s being hampered by the camera, because it doesn’t have a viewfinder or is missing features or whatever, she can always sell that camera (or hand it up to someone) and buy something fancier. If she goes all in, she’ll probably want to buy a full sized DSLR or whatever anyway. You never know!

John agreed and added:

The more I look at photos, the more I think that the tech is less important. I have two Sony APS-C cameras: one is old and has less resolution and no image stabilization and usually has my older, slower, crappier lenses on it. But sometimes that is the camera that is in my hand, and I tell you: I am still impressed at the good images I can get with it. Sure, the newer one gives me better assurance that I will get a good image in one setting or another, but a good photograph rarely has much to do with how awesome your camera is.

My ultimate choice

Obviously I favor a camera with a viewfinder for myself, but after all these emails I was leaning toward the PEN. After all, Lindsay doesn’t use the viewfinder on my camera anyway, and this camera is for her, not me. And getting back to that (probably hollow) pretend pentaprism hump … it just turns me off. Is this a camera, or a prop?

What clinched the deal is that I was on the B&H website, grabbing links for this very post, and noticed that the price for the PEN E-PL10 body bundled with a M.Zuiko ED 14-42mm lens had somehow dropped by $100 since the last time I visited it. This was (oddly enough) $50 less than the camera body by itself, $100 less than the price on Amazon, and now a full $250 less than the E-M10 Mark IV, which is enough to put a stake in its heart.

Surprised by the price drop on the B&H site, and thinking the price might go back up, I spontaneously snapped up the PEN E-PL10. After going through the checkout process I tried to get back to the original product page for it, and discovered—to my great surprise—that B&H has now discontinued this model entirely. I got the very last one!

I hope my daughter likes it. If so, perhaps I’ll paste some of her photos into this post. And if she doesn’t like it … well, I may just keep it for myself. My point-and-shoot is looking pretty humble right about now…

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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How to Select a Camera - and Why


I have a perfectly good point-and-shoot camera but I’m in the market for a new one anyway—not because I’m a consumerist sucker, but for my kid. For her eighteenth birthday, she is very clear that she doesn’t want a smartphone (like her sister finally got), but a proper camera. Now that I’m up to speed on modern cameras, I’m ready to help you get there too.

“But wait,” you’re thinking. “Cameras are obsolete!” No they’re not. In this post I’ll explain:

  • Why you want a camera (or should)
  • The main types of camera (point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR) and how to choose among them
  • Other arcana around viewfinders, sensor resolution, shutter speed, image stabilization, bulb mode, front curtain shutter, and why the most expensive cameras are filled with sand

Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Also, my typical ignorance won’t be infectious … I’ve consulted two actual experts and will quote them as necessary.

Why buy a camera?

It’s certainly true that modern smartphones take really great photos, and they’re always at hand when that perfect subject presents itself. Factually, most of the pictures and videos I get nowadays are from my phone. In particular phones do a great job with low light … they somehow make do without needing a flash.

The problem is, their tiny lenses tend to be very wide-angle, and often produce startlingly warped results. Case in point: I was having a beer with my boss a couple months back and he suddenly said, “Smile!” and snapped my photo with his iPhone. As I discovered later, he emailed the pic to our whole team … which would be fine except, being caught off guard, I was wearing a huge shit-eating grin. Okay, that’s on me, but even worse, the photo was totally warped so my head looked like Charlie Brown’s. My ears looked almost as far apart as my shoulder blades. I looked like a damn bobblehead. I’d totally post the photo here to prove my point, but it’s so awful I’m actually too vain. It’s bad enough for my colleagues to get a good laugh at my expense—I’m not letting you as well.

But here’s an example I’m not afraid to post, of my nephew and his grandma. Look at this, it’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland:

I’ve got lots of examples of these, from various modern phones.

I also have an issue with how phone cameras reproduce color. It’s not that they’re bad at it; it’s that the colors often seem “enhanced” by the software. I feel like we’ve reached the point where you can’t really trust these cameras—it’s like when you see a photo of a Big Mac and the tomato looks properly red, like the kind of vine-ripened tomato you’d never get at McDonald’s, and the cheese looks like plastic (which it probably is). Smartphone cameras and their associated apps seem more keen to please narcissistic Instagrammers than they are to produce accurate photos faithful to their subjects.

Here is Exhibit B, showcasing this software impulse toward brazen tampering:

I snapped that shot accidentally while cycling, and in the process I somehow invoked this automatic retouching feature where the camera suggested an enhanced version. It gave me a little slider so I could preview the “improved” photo, which as you can see fixes a number of flaws. The app evidently decided my skin was too pale and my razor stubble too unsightly, my skin too gooseflesh-y … in short, that I’m not attractive enough to warrant all the selfie-photo sharing I was surely about to do. So it showed me what my face is supposed to look like, if I were someone else … someone good. What the hell is wrong with modern society, other than everything?! And (more to the point), how much are these camera apps doing without asking us? I prefer a device that reproduces reality as faithfully as it can—you know, like an old film camera would do, and which modern cameras still do.

My daughter, who has the critical eye of an artist, has been borrowing my smartphone for years to capture priceless moments “on film,” and lately she’s grown more and more frustrated with it, and increasingly borrows my (albeit nine-year-old) proper camera instead. I can’t wait until she has her own, vastly superior to mine, so I won’t have to hunt for mine anymore. Plus, I’m excited to see what shots she will get with a truly fine instrument.

So what kind of camera should you get? Let’s walk through the types, in ascending order of price.


In reality, almost all modern cameras could be described as point-and-shoot, in the sense that you don’t have to set the aperture, f-stop, shutter speed, or anything else, nor do you have to focus. Several times (pre-pandemic) I’ve been in a group of friends and somebody has handed me a super fancy Nikon DSLR camera and asked me to snap a group shot, and I’ve learned I don’t need to ask how to use it. “Just press this button” is all the instruction I’ve ever needed—or gotten.

So what point-and-shoot really means is “basic, cheap camera that doesn’t allow you to swap out lenses.” Point-and-shoots can be pretty sophisticated and/or expensive and can even be fairly bulky, with telescoping zoom lenses. My Panasonic has a 16X zoom, which is way better than the zoom on any smartphone including the so-called 30X zoom on my Samsung. (Phone cameras have so-called “optical zoom” which is more like cropping a picture than actually seeing farther.)

Since these point-and-shoot cameras have bigger lenses than a smartphone and (in my experience) don’t tend to warp photos as much, I suppose they’re worth buying … but then, if you’re going to carry around a whole extra device, why not step up to something even better, that solidly trounces a phone camera? Let’s look at the next category.


I’ll bet you never knew your point-and-shoot camera had a mirror in it! Well, guess what: it doesn’t. So this second type of camera should perhaps be called “also-mirrorless” or “the other mirrorless.” Pretty weird, isn’t it, to define something by what it isn’t, or hasn’t got? Imagine if boxer shorts were called “strapless underpants.”

The mirrorless camera gets its name from the fact that the next step up, DSLR cameras, do have a mirror in them, like the (film) SLR cameras of old. (As if we all knew that, or cared.) The actual difference between mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras is that the former generally have bigger sensors (more on this in a second), and you can switch around among variety of different lenses, which gives you something else to buy (in a good way).

So what’s all this about the sensor? Well, since cameras don’t have film to expose to light anymore, they have sensors, and the bigger the better. (You can spend $10K on a mirrorless camera, and its giant sensor is the main selling point.) The sensor isn’t the only important thing, though; you also want a lens big enough to let in more light. Mirrorless cameras have these traits, and thus are what the cool kids are using, I’m told. They take really good pictures (as my friend John’s photo albums would attest if I saw fit to violate his privacy by linking to them here).


The digital single-lens reflex camera is the really expensive version that some people—that is, the ones who look down on us—simply have to have. (Single-lens reflex probably started out “single-lens reflects” but “reflex,” like all words with an “X” in them, seems cooler somehow.) All SLR cameras have a mirror and a pentaprism in them, so that whatever image the lens “sees” is reflected right into the viewfinder, aka eyepiece. Here’s how it works:

Does that looks fancy and sophisticated? Damn right it does. And that comes at a cost.

But what is the practical advantage of this? Well, two things. One, what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what the photo will capture. Thus, you avoid the “parallax error,” and though I don’t understand exactly what that is, it just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Next time you look at a photo and think, “Damn, that dude’s head looks like it’s about four feet in circumference,” you might be encountering a parallax error (unless it’s actually encephalitis). I’m not saying you are seeing parallax, since I’m not some kind of scientist or optics expert or anything, but I’m just sayin. 

Now, the other advantage of the SLR camera is quite simply that it costs more, and discerning people will not skimp. I mean, why the hell should they? Do you think James Bond would use a mirrorless camera? Hell no. He’d use a Leica. In fact he did. A real one, not just the Leica lens built into a point-and-shoot camera like mine, which is a sellout if there ever was one. (Could you even fit a mirror and pentaprism into a camera that looks like a bow-tie? Of course not, but then a wristwatch that shoots laser beams isn’t very realistic, either.)

So, if you’re the kind of person who must have a DSLR, the rest of the hairs I’ll split in this post probably don’t apply to you. You should just throw as much money as you can at a camera, preferably on a top brand like Nikon, and you can’t go wrong. Your photos will  be better due to the automatically superior features you’ll be getting, and higher-end materials, and because you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people who feel themselves automatically drawn to you … unless you’re on safari. Then you’ll get great shots because you’ll have a lackey supporting the four-foot-long telephoto lens you’ll be using, which enables you to peer right down the throats of mighty lions. You DSLR people can stop reading right here … get yourself over to B&H Photo and start shopping!

A final note on DSLRs: you might hear these referred to as “sand-filled” cameras. Believe it or not, this moniker was coined by my brothers and me. The origin is something famously said by our dad, who was a great photographer (though he had the annoying habit of using only slide film, so you could never see his pictures unless he did a slide show, but he was too cheap to buy multiple carousels so he would have to load each set sequentially so the shows took hours, thus he almost never did them, and I have thousands of slides we’ve never seen before, which I only discovered after his death and which are now in my garage waiting to be digitized). He was all into the classic old-school SLR cameras that take different lenses, etc., and teaching my brothers how to use them (but not teaching me, as he was too disgusted by my brothers’ stupidity and/or was insufficiently confident I could learn and/or simply got bored of parenting). Oddly enough, at some point during his retirement he suddenly turned his back on the classic technology and took to poo-pooing DSLRs. He was talking to Bryan and me once (as I recall, Bryan had his pride and joy, a Pentax DSLR, hanging around his neck at the time, and if our dad had been better read he’d have compared it to an albatross, à la “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and he (Dad) scoffed, “There’s no reason these fancy DSLR cameras need to be so big and heavy. It’s obvious that the marketing people got involved and influenced the design teams, just to fool all these consumers into thinking there’s something special about these giant cameras. They’re probably full of sand.”

How to choose among mirrorless cameras

O gosh, you could go crazy researching this stuff. When purchasing anything, I have a tendency to narrow down my investigation to just a couple of brands, right off the bat. And how do I filter out the others? Well, there are luxury brands (e.g., Leica, Nikon) that probably aren’t a good value. And then there are obscure ones (e.g., Paper Shoot, HamiltonBuhl) that seem like a gamble. Then there are brands known for other products (e.g., Vivitar, HP) which would be like buying Ralph Lauren housewares or Porsche sunglasses (lame!). So if you have any brand loyalties, like to an old school camera you had in the past, start there. And if some friend you trust has a recommendation, don’t ignore it.

My first digital camera was an Olympus, which I bought back in 2001, when digital cameras were fairly new technology—new enough, in fact, that I bought mine at The Sharper Image. It was $750, and the memory card (which might hold up to one modern photo) was probably at least another $50. It would be easy to take shots at that camera (sorry, pun intended) based on how primitive it seems by modern standards, but it actually took some really great photos, like this one:

When it was time to replace it I had gobs of choices and a friend recommended a Panasonic Lumix, with the Leica lens I mentioned earlier. I took his advice and since then I had several of these; between me and my kids we have tended to drop (and thus break) them.

Her ageing father’s brand loyalty aside, my daughter had her eye on an Olympus PEN mirrorless like her friend has, and when I started looking I realized that, while most mirrorless camera brands will only take their own lenses, there’s one exception: Olympus and Panasonic lenses are interoperable. That seems pretty cool to me, given my luck with both brands. Plus, I was looking for an excuse to settle on a single brand, so Olympus it is.

Of course, you have to choose among the models available, and that’s where the B&H Photo website is pretty handy, with their Compare feature. (Yes, other websites have this too, but they don’t do a very good job with it.) Poring over the differences is a fun rabbit hole to go down—almost as fun as Alice’s descent into Wonderland (“curiouser and curiouser!”). Consider this comparison of the Olympus PEN E-PL10 vs. the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. There, side by side, are all the technical specifications so you can totally geek out.

But what if you’re not a camera geek? That’s when you have to call on a friend or two … and surely you have at least one friend who’s a camera maven? This is what I did, with my friend John and my brother Bryan offering great advice.

Ah, but I see I’ve run a bit long here. I’ll save the rest of this post for next week. Check back because I’ll go into bulb mode, sensor size/resolution, image stabilization, front curtain shutter, and the all-important viewfinder…

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.