Friday, March 6, 2015

Miscellany: March-already? edition

Thing practiced: just endorsing things I like again

The Slate Political Gabfest

There are regrettably few things in my life I do religiously—hit the gym: no; practice violin: no; post in my practice blog: definitely not. But at 10:30 every Friday morning, I am guaranteed to be listening to the Slate Political Gabfest.

Every week, the stars – Emily Bazelon, David Plotz, and John Dickerson – discuss three noteworthy current issues, all in a deliciously incisive way. The show is a delight: it’s both ultra-conversational (the hosts banter, jab at each other, and digress) and deeply thoughtful. Without being nerdy or inaccessible, the hosts place ongoing events within larger historical and political currents—which is a nice reprieve from the fleeting news-bite-y nature of most political coverage.

The Employee of the Month show

Speaking of podcasts, Catie Lazarus puts up a show that’s hilarious, heartening, hard to explain, and highly recommended. Start with Rachel Maddow in 2013, Jon Stewart a couple weeks ago, or anyone else on the list whose work you might’ve seen or admired.

Canon’s excellent 24mm and 40mm pancake lenses

I’ve always favored inexpensive-but-high-quality gear, and to my taste the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 and EF-S 24mm f/2.8 pancake lenses are perfect. They’re tiny – not much thicker than a lens cap – but have superb optical performance: amazingly sharp, no color fringing, almost no distortion, no ghosts. And they cost $149 each, which counts as spare change in the lens market.

lenses on a table

Build quality feels great: these lenses are tough but still light, unlike the dinky-feeling kit lenses or nifty fifty. Macro performance is sharp and close; autofocus is fast and near-silent; bokeh are smooth; portability is unparalleled.

Some sample shots with the 40mm on a 1.6x crop sensor:

And with the 24mm:

The 40mm (unlike the 24mm) works on full-frame Canon cameras and would probably make a fine walkaround lens there.

Where these lenses fit most beautifully, though, is in assembling an inexpensive but excellent photography kit around a Canon crop-sensor DSLR. The nicest images you can buy for $800: Canon Rebel SL1 ($399; the smallest and lightest DSLR available) + 24mm pancake ($149) + 40mm pancake ($149) or 50mm f/1.8 ($115) + a monopod or mini-tripod. Cheap, portable, functional.

Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections

Stephen Jay Gould’s writing has the odd effect of making me feel both intelligent and extremely dumb: intelligent, because he clearly respects his readers’ intelligence and so never patronizes or trivializes complex concepts; profoundly dumb, because he draws from a seemingly infinite bank of data and ideas in illustrating his larger themes, showing a multifaceted erudition that makes me, at least, feel like a nitwit. Luckily, this is a feeling I relish. (My recommended first read: Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.)