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Mike Spinak
Nature photographer, author, and big softie
Nature photographer, author, and big softie


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I've often enjoyed the beauty of the varied, intricate patterns which form in the scum that floats to the top of dirty dishes full of soapy water, and I've wondered what causes them. I just figured out that these patterns come from high frequency, low strength vibrations traveling through the counters and floors from the refrigerator, microwave, and ventilation fan.

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"Google is turning Street View imagery into pro-level landscape photographs using artificial intelligence"

Those who know me can probably figure out my take on this, after reading the article:

By "pro-level landscape photographs" they apparently mean "pretty and / or striking photographs." However, the project does not seem to be making (nor even trying to make) meaningful photographs. I wouldn't be surprised if the people involved with the project, and Mr. Maggio who wrote the article, don't even realize there's a difference, nor even realize that's that "postcard shots" are merely the lowest hanging fruit.

I'm not deriding the project nor the people involved with it. The project still seems potentially very productive and worthwhile. I'm just saddened at the state of photography that the project researchers, or at least the journalist writing about them, are seemingly unaware that a picture can have substance, and they implicitly equate professional photography with merely making a picture dramatic looking, rather than with making a picture that has something worthwhile to say and says it powerfully. Something significant.

I've been using a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus for a little over a week, having switched from using an S4 for about 4 years. Here are some of my first impressions, for those who are interested. I hope this helps some of you who are considering the S8 or the S8 Plus.
The screen is outlandishly large for the overall size of the phone, going pretty much all the way from the left to right edges, and covering most of the top to bottom. The borders are tiny, making a very large screen fit into an only slightly large phone. I like it.
The screen is also stunningly high resolution and outstandingly bright, which I also like. The amount more detail that is visible in things like photos, videos, and phone games, is readily noticeable — more than I expected. The screen is bright enough to be visible without trouble in direct sunlight. I've heard that said about phones in the past, but this is the first one I've seen where that's really true. The screen is quite contrasty, which might fit your taste and uses, or might not.
The phone screen has curved edges on the sides. Personally, I'm not fond of this. It looks very high tech, but it's functionally questionable. There's usually some reflective glare along the edges when you are viewing the screen, except in the dark. My fingers are more prone to slipping off the edges when doing things like making digital paintings or playing games. I'm fairly sure the screen's more fragile, and it's certainly harder to protect. I'd rather have a flat screen, but it's not really a big deal.
The camera is excellent, both in terms of the hardware and the software. The camera in my S4 was pretty good, but this one blows that one away. Curiously, the S8 camera is about 12 megapixels, while the S4 camera was about 14 megapixels. That's not a problem for me; it's just surprising that they decreased the megapixels in a 4 year newer camera.
The panoramic photography feature on my S4 was perhaps my favorite thing about it. On the S8 Plus, it's very similar, but even better. The phone stitches the panoramas really quickly, giving up to 360 degree panoramas that are a little under 100 megapixels, with quite decent detail throughout. Even used handheld, there are few visible stitching errors. With a tripod, there are often none.
The regular camera takes lovely pictures. The dynamic range is better than you'd expect. It takes somewhat less noisy pictures than I thought it would in low light, though probably not good enough for serious use. The autofocus point and the exposure are easy to adjust. The detail is more than adequate for a handheld snapshot camera. While it's not a pro camera by any stretch of the imagination, I have no doubt that I'll be using some of the pictures I take with this professionally. The colors are nice. The camera is also quite responsive and speedy. It takes a picture the instant you tap the button, and it can keep instantly taking pictures as fast as you can tap it. It understands and responds to verbal commands more reliably than the camera on my S4. It autofocuses lightning fast. The ISO goes lower than I expected (down to ISO 50, it seems). The slowest exposure time I've encountered, so far, is 1/10th of a second. Many of the auto-exposed fast exposure times are weird. Looking through some recent pictures ... 1/1924th of a second; 1/1928th of a second; 1/2272nd of a second; 1/1508th of a second, and so on. Whatever... the software seems to auto-expose well.
The front facing ("selfie") camera is 8 megapixels, which is quite decent. The dynamic range, detail, etc., are way better than I expected. Even in relatively low light at higher ISOs, it's not bad.
The built in HDR feature in the phone's camera is unimpressive. It's slightly better than without, but not good enough. If you want HDR, you should still use a third party app that takes several exposures and blends them.
The headphones that come with this phone are surprisingly good. The ones which came with my S4 were good, but the ones that come with the S8 Plus are a lot better. Seriously.
The phone is very fast at everything. If I command it to navigate me home, it loads up and starts navigating in less than a second. When I download big apps, it downloads them really fast. When I charge it, it charges quickly.
I've heard the battery life on the S8 Plus is only so-so, but I'm finding it much better than I expected. I can use it out and about for a heavy day of photography, navigation, picture reviewing, watching videos, surfing the internet, etc., without running the batteries down. It only loses a few percent overnight while I sleep.
I expected the speaker on my S8 Plus to be worse than the speaker on my S4 (because the S8 Plus is waterproofed), but the speaker is actually much louder and clearer. It's by no means a top-notch speaker, but it's not bad at all.
This phone doesn't have a built in hygrometer nor thermometer (as far as I can tell), like the S4 did. Perhaps I was the only one who appreciated those features. Oh, well, their loss is minor, I suppose.
From what people have said when I talk to them, the phone's microphone seems good.
The phone software is pretty nice, but I'm not sure how much of that is because I'm using the S8 Plus, and how much is due to changing phone carriers. Anyway, it now allows me to make or receive normal phone calls through the internet, which means that I can use the phone normally where I live, despite having no phone signal out in the woods. The phone also offers video calling as part of its normal phone features, so long as I'm calling someone whose phone also has those capabilities.
"Bixby" is only half-baked, and should be considered bug-ridden, barely-functional beta-ware, rather than a great new feature. It's obnoxious that Samsung tries to make it impossible to turn off, and tries to make the dedicated Bixby button impossible to re-map for other uses. Fortunately, app developers have outsmarted the Samsung software engineers. Maybe Bixby will eventually become useful, though it seems like even if it were functioning properly, it's just an inferior clone of Google's assistant — which is already freely available on your phone.
I've heard people complain that the placement of the fingerprint sensor is too close to the camera. In my estimation, that is true. I don't care, because I don't use the fingerprint scanner, anyway.
There will be more to come, as I get more familiar with it.
Overall, I'm happy with the S8 Plus, so far.

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Here's a phone snap from a stroll on Mount Saint Helens, today. The wildflowers are splendid right now.

For the theme #SaturdayScenes , here's a small excerpt from a book I'm currently writing, tentatively called Theist Questions, Atheist Answers. As the title implies, it's a book wherein I answer many questions I get from theists, from my atheistic perspective. Since the 4th of July will soon be upon us, here's a question and answer pertinent to the principles of the United States.

What do you think of the United States motto, ‘In God we trust”?

It’s unfortunate.

The previous de facto United States motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ — ‘Out of many, one’ — originated in Pythagoras’s conception of how voluntary societies form, and thereby signified the formation of such a society. This first motto was resonant with themes about diverse people coming together, common causes, teamwork, and synergy. By contrast, ‘In God we trust’ is as vacuous as a ‘God is my copilot’ bumper sticker, and making it the official motto amounts to the state defacing its own currency, license plates, police cars, and other paraphernalia with inane sound bites. Whereas ‘E pluribus unum’ was proactive, expressing an intention to act on our own behalf by multiplying our strength through consolidation, ‘In God we trust’ is inactive, expressing that we’re impotently adrift on the seas of fate, just hoping someone out there will work things through for us.

The reason this was officially adopted as the U.S. motto in 1956 — for the United States to distinguish itself from those godless commies promoting atheism in the Soviet Union during the Cold War — was asinine.

It goes against the principle of separation of church and state. Using publicly funded or owned resources, or exercising state powers, toward any theistic expressions and practices, is beyond the legitimate scope of a government. Making this the official motto oversteps proper government bounds. Furthermore, the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In clarification of this clause, in 1962 the Supreme Court ruled in the Engel v. Vitale case that, “... the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of a religion must mean at least that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people…;” and in 1985 the Supreme Court ruled in the Wallace v. Jaffree case that any statute, “... must have a secular legislative purpose. The first Amendment requires that a statute must be invalidated if it entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion. … the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” In my estimation, officializing ‘In God we trust’ as the U.S. motto violates the Establishment Clause and is unconstitutional.

Making this the official motto has been a small but consequential dominionist encroachment upon secular government. Religious zealots are quick to capitalize on it in two ways. First, they point to this motto to bolster false claims that the United States was founded on Christianity and is a Christian nation. Second, they use it as a reference point of allowability to try to excuse other infringements and build new ones — i.e., “ if it’s OK to have ‘In God we trust’ as our motto, then it’s OK for ‘under God’ to be in the official Pledge of Allegiance,” “If we can have ‘In God we trust’ as the national motto, then let’s try putting crosses on police cars,” and likewise with opening legislative sessions with prayers, swearing upon the Bible for Oaths of Office and for court testimony, installing the Ten Commandments in courthouses, exempting churches and mosques from taxation, instituting prayer in school, teaching creationism in school, displaying nativity scenes on government property, disallowing gay marriage, and so forth.

Around ten percent of the United States population are atheists. There’s also a substantial number of Hindu polytheists, non-theistic Buddhists, ancestral pagans, merely nominal and cultural Christians, “nones,” and various other types whom ‘In God we trust’ doesn’t apply to. This motto misrepresents dozens of millions of upstanding American citizens who pay their taxes, join the armed services, vote, perform jury duty, give to charities, and volunteer humanitarian aid. And when Congress says that we the people of the United States trust in God, the state is treating these people like noncitizens in their own land.

Putting trust in God is delusional when we have no sound reason at all to even think this being exists. We should strive to move toward rationality, not away from it. We can do better than manifest our core principles and purposes with bronze age superstitions.

All of that said, I consider the issue trivial. I’m more concerned about the endless religious warfare between Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, and on and on. More concerned about missionaries going to sub-Saharan Africa in the middle of an AIDS epidemic and preaching that using condoms is a sin. More concerned about many millions of children subjected to genital mutilation every year in the name of Islam. More concerned about religion’s roles in recent genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, and the Central African Republic, and the current or probable near-future religious genocides starting up in Syria, Sudan, and Iraq. In context of so many major issues, a lousy motto barely registers on my radar.

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Miss B's graduation! Now, on to high school.

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My sister used an entire can of styling mousse trying to make my hair into a mohawk. Apparently, my hair is just too thick, curly, and full-bodied to cooperate.

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My sister! ♡

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Here's a phone snap of snow over the Sierra Nevada range (King's Canyon area?), today.

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Thanks for starting this forum for fairly moderated discussion. I was banned from the other G+ forum named The Bible, in an instance of what I consider unfair moderation. Here's a post on one of my blogs, in case you're interested in the details of my ban from the other bible forum. Cheers.
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