photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography


well it’s more interesting than photography…

in GAS , Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A couple of months ago I had two blog posts playing around in my head, on the twin topics of “Software” and “Hardware”. “Software” got published, and here, belatedly, is “Hardware”.  I know: gear isn’t important, it isn’t interesting and it has nothing to do with Art, or indeed Photography. But, hey, it sure gets clicks.

The idea really is to get this stuff behind me once and for all. To choose a solution on both fronts that I’m comfortable with, and from then on just do the photography stuff. I might still browse through gear reviews and those crazy, crazy forums on the train or wherever, but only at a distance. And actually, on the Software side it seems to be working. I did have a bit of a glitch a month or so back, when my faithful Epson 3800 printer finally decided to throw a hissy fit. I replaced it with an Epson P800, and thanks to my investment in ImagePrint, it just slotted in and was immediately productive. In the past it would have taken me weeks, months even to get to grips with a new printer, but with ImagePrint handling everything it is completely seamless.

So, printing, that’s kind of halfway between hardware and software. The real hardware is the glitzy black boxes covered with dials and knobs with big tubes sticking out the front. Since I got into digital, I’ve been a faithful (or maybe lazy) Olympus user. My current “default” camera is an Olympus E-M5 MkII which I actually bought on impulse at a crazy low ex-demo price as a backup to take to Antarctica.  By the time I returned it had become my main camera, and although the shutter count is still some way short of my near-retired E-M1, I’m sure if I could record how long I’d carried both for, the E-M5 would win easily.

My last major outing with the E-M5 was to Madeira, where I was seriously surprised by the wealth of photographic potential. I had just the E-M5 with the 12-100 lens with me, having taken a fairly casual approach. What I sorely missed was a polariser, but still, the combination generally worked very well.  Where it did fall down is on something I’ve noticed before: distant fine detail, especially in vegetation, has a tendency to turn into an unsightly mush, which is noticeable even at A4 print sizes - well, it is to me, anyway. This impression has been confirmed to me by an acquaintance who is a professional Olympus user, and just has to be considered to be a limitation of the relatively small sensor and low-ish 16Mpix resolution. But it really only strikes in very particular circumstances - for example in urban photography I never notice it.  But anyway, this leaves an itch when it comes to some types of landscape photography.  Other than that, the Olympus m43 system fits me just fine. The lenses are just superb, and the bulk / weight, or lack of both, are very welcome.

But still, I wanted a “high quality” solution.  I’ve been seriously toying with the idea of Medium Format mirrorless, the Hasselblad X1 or Fuji GFX.  I briefly tried out the GFX and felt that it was a very nice camera, even if I prefer the aesthetics of the Hasselblad.  But the prices ... especially of the lenses ... I really cannot justify. If I was a professional, maybe, or even if I was a good enough photographer to do either justice, but I’m neither of these, so no. I’d rather spend the money on a trip to Greenland, but since I don’t actually have that kind of disposable income anyway, that’s not an option either.

But there’s another option lurking, which any readers of my past writings on gear might well see coming: Sigma. I’ve been dithering about this for ages, and typically, the death sentence of the Sigma SA lens mount and associated cameras bought about by Sigma joining an alliance with Leica and Panasonic was just the trigger I needed to grab a Sigma sd H Quattro while I still could. I’ve been a strong fan of Sigma cameras since the DP2 Merrill, and have got some very satisfying results from the ultra wide angle dp0 Quattro. But these are fixed lens cameras and rather specialist. The sd is a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, albeit one compromised (in some senses) by taking Sigma SA mount lenses designed for DSLRs.  The Sigma Art lenses are optically fantastic, on a par with the best Olympus can do, but O.M.G are they huge and heavy.  Initially I got the 35mm f1.4 Art, and supplemented it with the 24-70mm f2.8 Art.  I doubt I’ll be adding to the collection.  Being used to micro Four Thirds (or even non-micro Four Thirds), and indeed Sigma “compacts”, I’d largely forgotten about camera weight. The Sigma sd H itself isn’t heavy, but add a lens to it, and it takes me back to the nightmare days of my Canon T90 with solid lead telephoto lens bolted on the front. It’s going to have to really produce the goods to stay off the shelf.

Although people rave about the resolution of the Sigma Foveon sensor, rightly so, my attraction is more to the crystalline clarity and luminance of the photos it produces.  It’s as close to film as I’ve ever seen from a digital camera - indeed much closer than any other. The colour output has a similar character to Kodak Portra, although unfortunately with a dynamic range more like Fuji Velvia.  But in the right circumstances, both the Merrill and Quattro variants of the sensor really sing.

So there we have it - Olympus m43 for general use, Sigma sd H and dp0 for when I need something a little different. I decided to take the sd H, with the 24-70 lens, along with the E-M5 and 12-100 lens for a short trip to Venice last week, thinking I might dedicate a little bit of time to some side by side testing.  Of course I could do side by side testing in our back garden, but I actually need interesting subjects to motivate me to “test”, and our garden, welcoming as it is, doesn’t really qualify, especially not at this time of year.

It all went wrong. Of course it did. The 24-70 lens arrived at the last moment, so I decided to take advantage of an hour between trains to try it out at Milan Central station, and to review the files on the way to Venice.  Then in Venice I took it out in the late afternoon to just do some more familiarisation shots.  The battery ran out at about 70 shots, probably because it wasn’t fully charged to begin with, but also because the lens has an optical stabiliser, which doubtless sucks up power. No problem, I just reached into my pocket to swap in the spare battery, only to realise that I’d bought the dp0 spare, not the sd, and they’re very different.  And of course I’d brought the dp0 charger as well. So the wonder-camera turned into a temporary very heavy doorstop.

Not haven taken any really challenging shots, or indeed been all that careful, and no comparison shots at all, I don’t have much to base an opinion of the sd H in an urban setting on, but to be frank, what I do see doesn’t really blow me away.  It’s early days yet, but I have a nasty feeling that the perfectly matched fixed lenses of the Sigma dp series play a bigger role than I’d realised.  I did, however, take a few landscape shots in December when I first got the camera, and they were promising. We shall see.

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Venice, by Sigma sd H Quattro with Sigma Art 24-70mm f2.8 lens

The kind of embarrassing thing though is that I also had my Ricoh GR II with me, and due to the lack of power for the Sigma, and also an unfortunate accident with the E-M5, it got pressed into service far more than I expected. And not only did I really enjoy using it, but the “image quality” is actually quite breathtaking. Of course I already knew this.  Waaaay back towards the end of the last century it was the original film GR1 which shocked me into realising what a difference a great lens can make, and the descendants of that camera have maintained the tradition of optical excellence. In fact, I’m loathe to say this, but the GR, at least at 28mm, may be every bit as good as the Sigma. Ouch.

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Venice, by Ricoh GR II with Ricoh 18.3mm f2.8 lens

The Olympus E-M5 did its job efficiently and reliably, and I certainly enjoyed using it.  It doesn’t quite have the wow factor of it’s two companions, but it provides a far greater degree of flexibility than either, and remains my no 1 choice.  Unfortunately, on a night time shot, I was carrying it on my Gitzo Traveller tripod, and the assembly holding the ballhead to the centre column fell apart just as I was heading home.  The E-M5 hit the paving stones - well the 12-100 lens did so first - rather abruptly. The mount on the lens was visibly skewed and the lens was unusable. Fortunately there was no other visible damage, and the camera seems fine.  The lens has gone off to Olympus for repair, and I’ve ordered a new centre column from Gitzo through gritted teeth. I do sometimes - ok, often - wonder just how much Gitzo actually really deserve their reputation.

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Venice, by Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus m.Zuiko 12-100mm f4.0 lens

So, that’s the hardware story.  I did cast around a little, I looked at the new Nikons, I even looked at Panasonic, but finally I decided that Olympus backed up with Sigma and Ricoh are a pretty good comfort zone.  Actually, if only Ricoh could expand their philosophy to a somewhat wider range (yes I know about Pentax, but no thanks) I could be very happy with just that. The Sigma sd H may turn out to be a big, heavy mistake. But the dp0 is a gem.

Oh, and about film cameras? Yes, well, they’re all sitting on a shelf, along with a drawer full of film. I haven’t used a film camera since last September, and right now I feel absolutely no urge to do so again.  Things may change, but I may, just possibly, finally be done with film.  Anybody want to buy an XPan ?


Photokina Fallout

GAStrology time again

in GAS , Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The recent avalanche of new camera announcements (albeit most of them vague promises for 2019) have once again stirred up doubt and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. As a committed and long term user of Micro Four Thirds, and Four Thirds before that, I might be wondering if all this rush towards “full frame” somehow invalidates my photography. It’s a stupid reaction, but not uncommon, and let’s face it, I’m just me against the relentless onslaught of marketing and Internet pseudo-peer pressure. Every telegraph pole out there has a raven perched on it, croaking “Micro Four Thirds is dead, nevermore!”.

I have to confess some of the offerings look tempting. The Nikon Z7 seems pretty nice in theory - I saw one in the flesh yesterday, alongside the Olympus E-M1.2 and Lumix G9 MFT cameras, and the Nikon looks about the same size as the Olympus and actually smaller than the Lumix, despite housing a sensor that’s twice the size. Then again, boy is that Nikon ugly! And not even in a quirky way.

The standard defence of MFT would be that the cameras and especially lenses are smaller and lighter. Well, although there are smaller and lighter variants in the MFT world, honestly if you want reasonably fast, weather sealed lenses, and a rugged body, in many cases you may wonder if the smaller, lighter bit starts to get a bit marginal.

I’m not so bothered, in general, about “image quality”, whatever that means. Generally any modern camera is good enough for everything except very special cases. But nevertheless, recently I have been starting to get frustrated with a certain lack of resolution of high frequency detail in the far distance. Close up, there’s no problem, the Olympus body/lens combinations can deliver all the resolution I’ll ever need. I can understand that MFT might impose too many limitations on, say, outdoor portrait or wedding photographers, but for my mixed urban/landscape stuff, generally it’s not the limiting factor. I rarely need to go over ISO 1600, indeed I’m not that often over 200, and I tend to be scaling for more depth of field, not less.

Anyway, to try to get a handle on the realities of the situation, I decided to make a small series of prints from Olympus files (all 16 Mpix) at the largest size my printer offers, A2. And, frankly, they worked out just fine. They stand up very well to high quality scans from 120 format film, and in some respects to Sigma Foveon files. Honestly, I can’t see me ever needing to print bigger - I have no actual use even for A2. If ever I did, I’m sure I can find professional printers who can go up to A1.

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A2 Prints from Olympus 16Mpix files

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Detail of above A2 Prints

I then started to think about a couple of future trips I have planned, which involve flights with very restricted weight limits. That’s when the apparently marginal weight advantage of MFT starts to kick in. For example, the marvellous 12-100 f/4 lens is practically on a par with any Olympus prime, even the f/1.2 series, and at a push could work as the sole lens for most trips. It weighs 560g, and with Dual IS offers unbelievable stabilisation. There is a 24-120 f/4 Nikon lens that weighs 710g and has less range (yes, I know all about depth of field, but for me this is at best irrelevant, at worst a downside). If we move up to the equally fabulous Olympus 40-150 f/2.8, which weighs 760g, then the closest Nikon I can find is the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which weighs 1.5kg and is significantly more expensive and bigger. It’s at this longer end that the MFT weight advantage really kicks in. And if you’re willing to compromise a bit on aperture, then you can find very good MFT lenses that hardly register on the scales.

Certainly “full frame” sensors have an attraction and certain advantages in noise threshold, dynamic range, and resolution. But frankly, these advantages are often not much different from trivial. I’ll take the possibility of carrying an extra 150mm of focal length reach over a 0.5db increase in dynamic range.

Olympus didn’t announce ANYTHING at Photokina, which was another sign that the sky is falling on them, apparently. Well, it might not be the best news for Olympus, as new product drives sales (I suppose), but it’s fine by me: I’ve pretty much got everything I need - although that 300mm lens is sort of tempting. I don’t even have the latest body, the E-M1.2 - it doesn’t really offer me anything over my E-M5.2 or E-M1.1, and it’s noticeably bulkier. What I would like to see Olympus work on, personally, is a range of optically excellent medium aperture primes, along the lines of Leica Elmarits, and a high-end medium aperture medium zoom, within the 14-35mm range. But then again, the “low end” lenses they already offer in this range are really far from poor.

So, in summary, the grass is actually a perfectly nice hue of green on my side of the fence, and I’m sticking to it. I did vaguely hint at the one Photokina announcement that really did have me clutching my wallet: the L-Mount alliance. The thought of a full frame Sigma Foveon camera interchangeable with Leica and Panasonic bodies, all three taking each other’s lenses is really interesting news. Certainly not a solution for weight-constrained trips, but otherwise, I can see this paired with my Olympus kit as the ultimate solution - for me.


Been a long time comin’

Linhof 612 PC in da house!

in GAS , Monday, June 12, 2017

Back in December 2000 I was traveling around New Zealand, with my new XPan, and new girlfriend. I’ve still got them both. I’d been eyeing the XPan for a few years, but up until earlier that year I couldn’t afford it. However, an upturn in my fortunes allowed me to buy the camera and full set of lenses. I was pretty much smitten by the XPan, and still am, but little did I know that I was about to get a serious case of grass is always greener syndrome.

At some point during the trip I picked up a book of landscape photography by NZ photographer Andris Apse. The luscious, classic panoramic photography within its pages is exactly what I was into at the time. Reading the introduction, I was quite surprised to discover the existence of something called a “Linhof Technorama”, and even more by Apse’s reasoning that the relatively restricted 6x12 field of view was the sweet spot. His photographs provided (and continue to provide) strong justification for this. Suddenly I had doubts about my XPan.

However, on returning home to Switzerland, I investigated a little more, and both the price, and the challenges inherent in using the Linhof convinced me that the XPan was good enough for me. Naturally I then went and did something totally irrational and bought a Hasselblad ArcBody, which first, uses a square format which I never really got on with, and second, makes the Linhof look like a Point & Shoot. Looking back, I really regret not buying a Technorama 612 at 2001 prices.

Over the years my interest in the Linhof waxed and waned, and I continued using the XPan. Indeed, I even destroyed my original copy and had to buy a new one. But I also discovered the rather unique feature of the Linhof, its “permanent shift” lenses. This seemed to adress a shortcoming I’d always felt that the XPan suffers from, which is the need to vertically center the horizon to avoid obvious distortion. This isn’t always a problem, but in some situations it is a bit of a showstopper. The “permanently” part of “permanent shift” gave some food for thought, but still, it was nagging at me.

Anyway. I’ve got one. After years of lurking on eBay, finally one came up at a reasonable price, sold by an actual working photographer as opposed to some anonymous combine in South Korea or Japan (seems about 75% of the production run ended up in South Korea. Perhaps they throw them at the Norks), and just down the road in Milano. It’s an original model (not a PCII) with 65mm lens. It’s not so easy working out the vintage of Linhof 612s, as there seem to be quite a lot of minor variations over time, but I suppose this one must date back to the late 1980s. In any case, it was built to last, and it certainly has. I’ll write some more about what I’ve been able to work out about the production history of the Linhof 612, since I can’t actually find this anywhere else.

I did have an option of buying a brand new PCII from Linhof, with, apparently, the very last production 58mm lens in the factory, but the price, which has inflated way over inflation over the last decade, was just too high. Having said that, a German eBay seller is/was offering a new PCII kit for around €10’000, which really is ridiculous. Sadly it seems that Linhofs have gained the same attraction to collectors as Leicas these days. Ten or so years ago, the same kit would retail at about €5’000, which is already quite enough for a fully mechanical camera with no lightmeter. Then again, people pay more for a Leica M-A and lens.

The build quality of the Linhof is awe-inspring though. Not so much built like a tank, more like carved out of a tank. And it’s not just a box. It has a high precision film transport, and a series of interlocks which by and large stop you doing anything stupid. For example, you can’t remove the lens when the dark slide isn’t inserted. It’s simple, but extremely well designed. It makes the Lomography Belair look very, very stupid.

I’ve got 3 developed rolls from the camera so far, so 18 frames, and operationally speaking it seems fine. I did repeat 3 shots because I was convinced I’d left the lens cap on - I hadn’t. I took one shot by accident, when I had the shutter lock off. And so far, inevitably, it’s my favourite.

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“Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention” - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Finally, my Plustek OpticFilm 120 has got something to really get its teeth into. I realised pretty quickly that scanning at 5300dpi wasn’t a terribly good idea. A print from such a file at 300dpi would cover half my house. The Schneider 65mm lens seems pretty sharp, although I’m slightly unsure if it focussing correctly at infinity. I’ll need a few more disciplined shots to be sure. So far it’s mostly handheld!

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Receiver - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Well, I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this. I’ve been waiting 16 years to get my hands on this camera, and I fully intend to enjoy it.

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Carry that weight

but not quite so much

in GAS , Sunday, November 06, 2016

A couple of years ago, I went off for a 5 week trip around Argentinian Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, fitting in a 12-day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. Apart from the fact the the photos from that trip, in particular those from the Argentinian part, are still languishing neglected in my archives, one thing that keeps nagging at me is the ridiculous amount of gear I burdened myself with. I've whined quite a lot it here - here, and here, for example. I should have known better.

So, with a sort-of repeat experience coming up at the end of the month, have I learned my lesson ? Well, perhaps. I've worked out that even neglecting things like filters, batteries, film, and all the other paraphernalia, in December 2012 I set off with a backpack weighing over 10kg. And actually, I also had a Domke shoulder bag with a Ricoh GRD4, but I was relieved of this by a helpful Argentinian in Buenos Aires. This time, largely thanks to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, and swapping the Sigma Dp0 for the Hasselblad XPan set, I have a very similar set, but weighing under 7kg. It's still noticeable, but manageable. The difference between the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sets is a significant contribution:

Camera weights

The range of focal lengths is a bit different. I left the 4/3 7-14 f/4 lens at home last time, because it was just impossible. But the m4/3 version is much lighter (and faster). What I am missing in my 2016 packing list is a long telephoto. In 2013 I took a non-mirrorless E-System kit with me, and the fabulous Zuiko Digital 150mm f2/0. Attaching this to a 2x convertor turned it into a 300m f/4, a pretty powerful tool. Coincidentally, Olympus now sells a very highly rated 300m f/4 for Micro Four Thirds. Forgetting the cost for a moment, this weighs in at 1.2kg, only 100g lighter than the old ZD 150. My Lightroom catalog tells me that in 2013, out of a total of 1108 photos taken in the Antarctic, only 89 were taken with this cumbersome and restrictive 150mm. However, those 89 include several of my favourites. But anyway the conclusive point is that there is no room in my backpack for a 300mm lens, so I'll just have to be more creative with what I've got. And anyway, I'm not really a dedicated wildlife photographer, so a 300mm prime lens really would be a little extravagant.


A pretty psychedelic penguin, rather an extreme shot taken with the Zuiko 150mm f/2 wide open


And a somewhat psychotic penguin. This time with the 150mm f/2 tele-converted to a 300mm f/2

Very recently Olympus introduced a new lens, a 12-100mm constant f/4 zoom, which would be really ideal for travel like this. The 12-40mm f2/8 is really excellent, but it is a little restricted in range, and a 12-100 would really help to avoid a lot of lens swapping, which in typically Antarctic Peninsula weather is really no bad thing. The new Olympus camera, the E-M1 Mk II, would also bring a lot of benefits. Unfortunately neither of these will apparently be available until 2 days before I return. Not being a Famous Photoblogger, there's no chance of getting my hands on them. Oh well, what I've got will work just fine.

Actually, weight is less of an issue this time, as the trip basically consists of a glorified taxi ride into (hopefully) the Weddell Sea, but still, it counts. One issue is of course ever stricter carry-on baggage restrictions, so that too needs to be taken into account, but there is also the point that too much gear can drastically interfere with photography.

Hopefully I won't end up whining so much this time.


Some Guy bites back

large pinch of salt absolutely mandatory

in General Rants , Tuesday, October 04, 2016

This stuff I wrote the other day was picked up by Andrew Molitor on his blog "Photos and Stuff" (hmm, sounds familiar), and put forward as an example of what happens when a photographer lacks a firm goal. He’s put it in a benign enough way - God help me if I should get on his wrong side - but I think maybe he’s hung his coat on the wrong nail. I don’t lack a firm goal - the problem is that I have far, far too many goals.

I could say taking my Iceland photography as the focus is not the best idea. To be honest, for me photography is just an excuse to spend time in Iceland. But since recently I have actually evolved a framework that I might be able to drape some Icelandic photography over, let’s leave that aside. Generally, the problem I was rambling on about the other week is not that I don’t know what I want to express.The problem lies in the detail of how to express it. And by extension, coming up against seemingly diametrically opposed advice on how to do so.

There is something slightly odd about advocating someone to study photo books (you should see my bookshelves) read about Real Photography (ditto, and a pretty broad selection) but at the same time advising them to steer clear of anything that smacks of technique, especially, God forbid, post-processing. Technique doesn’t make you a good photographer, but lack of technique - applicable technique, that is - can prevent a good photographer from emerging.

Certainly it is all too easy to go overboard on technique - the web is overflowing with examples of dangerous idiot savants who’ll sell you their useless advice - but that does not invalidate technique in itself. It would be like saying that a writer has no need of vocabulary or grammar. And that is a useful analogy: I often feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of stories to tell, pictorially, but I don’t quite have the technique to tell them. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking that too literally - of course there is a storytelling aspect to photography involving the sequencing of and relationships between photos. But there is also a storytelling aspect to single images, and the language to tell that story has verbs like dodging and burning and nouns like micro-contrast and tone. It’s hardly a new observation. So just because I may be having some trouble reconciling apparently contradictory advice on how to apply the language of post-processing doesn’t mean I haven’t got a clue about what I’m trying to express.

There’s another trap easily sprung - Andrew picks up on the not uncommon advice to flip a picture to study the balance. It comes naturally to view camera photographers who see the world upside down on the ground glass. The trap Andrew stumbled into is this: he exclaims “Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture”. Well, yeah. But, er, who said anything about it being anything else ? The point is the trick frees you up to consider the balance. It doesn’t say, anywhere, that the balance has to be “right”. It just IS. Balance can be harmonious, and serene, or it can be tense and uneasy. If you “don’t give a shit about balance” then honestly I wonder if you give much of a shit about photography, finally. But I’m pretty sure Andrew assumed balance, in this context, means nice pretty blue skies with unicorns jumping over perfect rainbows. His reaction to my mention of this idea, by setting up and demolishing a straw man, somewhat tainted the rest of his argument. Actually I think he’d rather enjoy reading David Ward’s philosophical treatise on landscape photography, “Landscape Within”.

I suspect anything hinting at Landscape Photography is a bit of a red rag to Andrew. Landscape has become the stamp collecting or transporting of photography. It’s what socially inept people in smelly anoraks do, which lets them conflate their longing for shiny toys with wanting to impress the girls by being creative (we’re pretty much all boys). Well, anyway, that’s a view which Andrew sometimes gives me the impression he may subscribe to. He’s hardly the only one, but this idea that Landscape Photography is just a crutch for DPReview or 500px denizens and not something real Real Photographers do is pretty prevalent. Hell, it’s not far from the truth. But it’s a generalisation, and generalisations cloud vision.

To quote another bit “So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland?” - well, actually, I’ve done that. Quite a lot. It’s scattered all over this blog, and it’s starting to coalesce.

(note, all this is in good humour. Andrew Molitor seems like the kind of guy I'd be happy to buy a drink for). Read his blog - he's definitely wrong about one thing - I'm not an "an occasional reader here", actually I read pretty much every word he writes.

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