About a year before the corona pandemic, I suddenly developed a very rare progressively paralyzing auto immune disorder that destroyed the myelin in my peripheral nervous system to the point that I was rendered tetraplegic, and my breathing was also affected to the point that I came close to requiring ventilation. It took doctors about two months to finally figure out what was going on, and progression was finally halted (just in time) with high dose steroid treatment. A slow, painful process of uncertain recovery then began in a clinical rehabilitation centre. Fortunately, I managed to recover enough to awkwardly hobble out of there, limping on crutches. It then took me at least another three years for further recovery, with two relapses along the way. But I was lucky: most in my situation do not recover to this extent, and I was told by the neurologist in charge of the medical specialists treating me that I would likely never recover fully. Indeed, I was told over 90% of the people in my situation remain disabled to some extent. But thankfully I beat the odds. I guess I was just lucky… in a way (of course, truly lucky people don’t get sick like this to begin with.)
Then the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic happened. Not so great timing, as the treatment for my disease (prednisone and rituximab) left met quite immunocompromised and more vulnerable to covid-19 than most. Twitter then became a very useful resource for information on covid vaccine development, new treatments, and just any kind of scientific knowledge on this new infectious disease. There was a veritable explosion of scientific papers. Many good papers, but also many bad papers. Even with my background in biology, it became very helpful to get feedback from leaders in relevant scientific fields to be able to sieve the torrent of publications. Known experts in virology and other relevant medical fields started taking to Twitter to communicate with each other, discuss current literature, and to inform the public about the developments. I started following many of their Twitter accounts. At much the same time, however, a few ‘scientists’—along with many people with absolutely no background in science at all—also started posting misinformation on Twitter.
It then became painfully apparent that the world was woefully unprepared for a crisis like covid. We never really understood just how little the general population knew of science, but this pandemic sure was a wakeup call. The vaccine side-effect monitoring system VAERS, for example, was suddenly widely misinterpreted and misused by anti-vaccine activists. Vaccines and evidence based medicine in general were eschewed, while all kinds of quacks started prescribing unproven vitamin treatments and medicines. Even the then president of the United States of America (Donald Trump) during a press conference bizarrely suggested scientists should investigate injecting bleach into the human body as a potential treatment. It was utterly insane, there was sometimes just no limit to the stupidity. Governments called upon social media to take self-regulation action and help protect public health by limiting the spread of blatant medical misinformation from quacks and covid conspiracy theorists. Finally, rules were implemented by Twitter et al. that forbade, or at least pretended to limit, the spread of medical misinformation surrounding covid-19.
Twitter remained messy, even with the anti-misinformation measures. It usually took great effort and lots of users repeatedly reporting accounts to get Twitter safety to take action. With considerable effort, however, a few notorious covid-misinformation spreading accounts were ‘permanently’ banned from Twitter. Then Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, and all that changed. Since then, many of those banned quacks and grifters have had their accounts restored on Twitter, basically turning the platform into a totally worthless cesspool. The unchallenged publication and widely shared anti-vaccine pseudo-documentary “died suddenly” represented a particularly historic low-point.
Even before Musk, Twitter was often a bit of an open sewer. But it seemed, at least, that there was some kind of equilibrium, that there was still some balance. But post-Musk Twitter has now effectively become the internet’s primary echo-chamber for extreme right-wingers, racists, anti-semites, homo-/trans-phobes, anti-vaccine covid-deniers, and conspiracy theorists. For example, I have recently reported a user on twitter who posted a WWII picture of an apparently obese Jewish prisoner in a Nazi camp along with messages suggesting that the photo proves Nazis didn’t starve Jews, or posted trans-flags arranged in a swastika pattern. Such utterly perverted mixtures of anti-semitism, ironically combined with calling human-rights activists Nazis, have increased noticeably. Twitter ‘safety’ (ahem…) ruled that no violation was detected in both cases I reported. I wasn’t surprised. Since Musk dismantled the moderation system of Twitter by firing most of the employees, virtually no measures remain in place to stem the tide of hate speech, or the deliberate, financially motivated ‘dezinformatsiya’, or plain, ignorant, misinformation. More recently, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists have even gone so far as to resort to stalking and harassing medical scientists and posting the video evidence of their criminal behavior on Twitter, as recently happened to professor Peter Hotez. That was the tipping point for me.
When you can barely tell the difference anymore between Twitter and right-wing platforms like Truth Social or Gab, you know Twitter is done. That, combined with Twitters apparent open support of people spreading just the kind of harmful misinformation that affects people with my medical history, was the final straw. I downloaded a backup for archiving and then deleted my account. Time to move on.
When you buy a high-end camera system, you’re not just buying the camera; you’re committing yourself to the whole lens eco-system of that particular camera. That is because not all lenses work with all camera’s. If you don’t want to use an adapter, then Sony E-mount will only work with Sony, Leica L-mount only with Leica/Panasonic/Sigma, and Canon RF-mount only with Canon. You would think that means you’re stuck with ONLY the lenses that your camera’s manufacturer sells. But thankfully, that is often not the case.
For just about every camera system, you will find that you can get lenses from third-party manufacturers, like Sigma, Samyang, Viltrox, Tamron, etc. These lenses are almost always cheaper than the lenses made by your camera brand, and often compare favorably in terms of build quality and image quality. But the quality of third party lenses does vary greatly; some are just too cheap and really not worth the money, others rival or even exceed the quality of ‘original’ lenses, at a fraction of the cost. Nevertheless, it’s nice to at least have the choice. The competition from third-party lens manufacturers also forces the camera companies to innovate and produce increasingly better quality lenses to justify the extra money you pay for them. Being able to choose between lenses from different manufacturers at different price-points and levels of build quality and image quality, is simply a Good Thing™ for everyone.
But apparently, Canon doesn’t agree with that. At all. Their new RF mount was launched in 2018, but they still don’t have RF versions for some of their older EF ‘L’ lenses, such as the 24mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/1.4, meaning you have to buy the EF to RF adapter and just use the older lenses for now. So wouldn’t it be great if at least there where at least some third-party lenses to choose from? That would attract new customers to your camera system, right? But Canon doesn’t care. They have actually threatened legal action against third-party lens manufacturers if they sell auto focus lenses for the RF-mount. Korean lens maker Samyang was already selling a well reviewed and very competitively priced 85mm portrait lens for the RF system, but removed it from the market after Canon’s bullying. So as a result, you can now only get third-party manual focus lenses. Fun fact: one of Canon’s MAIN SELLING POINTS for their RF cameras is the advanced autofocus. And there is no way you can use a manual 85mm f/1.4 lens (for example) on any moving subject and expect to nail focus manually. Not unless it’s the Titanic moving along as slow as a drifting iceberg. As a result, we are essentially forced to buy only Canon lenses, or mess around with adapted lenses.
I only I had known this when I bought my Canon R6… Because of Canon’s bad attitude, I now mostly shoot with EF lenses using an adapter. I bought a new 28mm f/1.4 Sigma lens for wider shots, and a secondhand Canon 135mm f/2 EF L lens for portraits. Both those lenses were well under $1000, which is nice. But both those lenses are also older design, and because they require an adapter stick out about an inch further from the camera body. That makes a difference with heavy lenses like these, because it makes the camera more front-heavy and thus more awkward to shoot with—though I do have to say that they still produce great photos.
The only Canon RF lens I own is the cheap plastic 50mm f/1.8 (a.k.a. the ‘nifty-fifty’) that I bought with the camera. The massive f/1.2 version of that RF lens is over one order of magnitude more expensive, but the quality of the photos certainly isn’t more than 10x better. Something that I have also heard reviewers of camera equipment mention on YouTube. I also doubt the 85mm f/1.2 produces images that are 5x ‘better’ than Canon’s f/2 version of that focal length. Of course, if you make your money with photography and you want to deliver the absolute best quality to your clients, then I would get an expensive lens like that too. After all, just one wedding is enough to earn you the money back that you paid for it, and every job after that the lens will just make you money.
But not every Canon shooter is a pro. What about photography enthusiasts? Or someone learning about photography, but not ready to take on jobs yet? There is a giant chasm between Canon’s entry level lenses, and their ‘professional’ lenses, that could easily be filled by third-party manufacturers. Not to mention to be able to buy focal lengths that Canon don’t even produce. Like a fast 28mm prime, for example. That is why I bought the Sigma EF lens. But thinking back, if I had known it would be so problematic to get lenses for my Canon camera, I would definitely have gone for my second choice: the Sony a7 IV.
Looking at the number of lenses available for Sony… it is just NO competition. My favorite camera store shows a total of 160 prime lenses available for Sony E-mount, about 150 for EF-mount, but only 70 for RF-mount. What about zoom lenses? There are only 14 options for RF-mount, compared with 35 for E-mount and 49 for EF-mount. Keep in mind though, that the new third party E-mount lenses often produce better image quality than the ‘older’ EF versions of those lenses, and new EF lenses are no longer developed. So the lack of choice is just going to increase in the next few years, as EF is gradually phased out.
But I’ve made my choice so now it’s too late… right? Well, actually maybe not. Because my Canon EF lenses are highly adaptable, I could just get an adapter and use my EF lenses on the Sony body if I switched. I’d only have to sell my Canon R6 with the cheap 50mm. And then all my other future lenses would be E-mount, and I could eventually replace the EF lenses too. And then I doubt I would ever go back to Canon during my lifetime. I am reminded of the saying: “You date your body, you marry your lenses.” If there’d been a good RF lens selection today, I would have owned only RF lenses, I would’ve been 100% invested in the system and I wouldn’t even have thought of switching to another camera brand. Funny, isn’t it?
It’s actually rather interesting how Canon appears to have implemented a policy that increases their customer’s frustration with the RF-mount, forcing some of them to invest in EF glass instead, and in so doing made it easier to switch another camera system. As a consequence—unless of course Canon comes to their senses and changes their ways—the Canon R6 will be both the first and last camera I buy from that company. If you are currently considering investing in a new camera system, then I would suggest seriously considering the availability of third-party lenses in your buying decision.
The Godfather trilogy, Festen, Akira, The Matrix… these are just a few of my favourite movies. One an epic crime story, one a groundbreaking example of Dogme 95, another an exquisitely crafted apocalyptic anime set in a dystopian world, and one famous for it’s use of the most innovative cinematography for its time. Each of them gems worthy of inclusion in any hall of fame. There are a number of movies like that. And yet, for all their brilliance there is still for all of us at some point in our lives that one movie. The one you keep returning to, the one that stands out above all others. For me, that one movie is the Japanese Oscar winning animation ‘Spirited Away’ (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Spoilers ahead, go see the movie first. And watch it in original Japanese audio, not the dubbed version.
It first appeared in theaters in 2001, and last year marked its 20th anniversary. ‘Spirited Away’ already garnered rave reviews when it came out, but film critics still seized the opportunity to reflect on how incredibly well this movie aged, and to again sing its praise. One of the most beautiful aspects of this movie, I think, is its ability to appeal to both children and adults. A very rare talent. And I’m not just talking about a few cleverly masked inside jokes that you’d only get if you’re a parent, for example. This movie is much more than that. For not only is Spirited Away a truly masterful mixture of magical entertainment for children, but it’s actually also a very well executed intellectual commentary on modern society in Japan. I highly recommend the thorough and insightful analysis by Ayumi Suzuki, which is so good that most of what I write is either directly or partially related to that piece.
Most of the movie is beautifully hand drawn, frame-by-frame, computers only assisting in rendering a couple of scenes. Hayao Miyazaki, the famous director of studio Ghibli, is known for preferring this classical style of animation and is not likely to switch to computers, unless he has to. When Zeniba makes a hair tie for Chihiro, she uses no magic to drive the spinning wheel, commenting that it’s better without magic. It is tempting to speculate that this is a reference to Miyazaki’s own preference for the traditional methods in animation, without the aid of computers. What also stands out about Miyazaki’s animation style is the frequent moments where nothing really happens. In previous interviews Miyazaki has stated that this is intentional. It is the Japanese concept of ma, which the director compared to the silence between each hand clap in an applause. Without that silence there would be just an overwhelming cacophony of noise. Thus, the occasional contemplative ’empty’ scenes in the movie function much like rest points in sheet music.
Another stylistically beautiful element that stands out to me, is the moment when Chihiro begins her perilous journey along the staircase on the side of the bathhouse. There is a wonderful scene in the beginning where both the bridge of the main entrance, with the spirit guests noisily walking on it, as well as Chihiro on the side of the bathhouse are visible in the same frame. This is a technique also used in other movies, for example when you have a wide shot showing one character in a room in one half of the screen, while on the left side we see another character doing something in a corridor (the breakfast scene in Fargo, for example). Having two separate things happening in the same shot makes the scene more exciting and dynamic. Another example of effective use of cinematic technique is the shot where Chihiro looks at a stone bollard with faces carved in it on both sides, right before she follows her parents into the tunnel. Here it looks like Miyazaki used a very subtle dolly zoom effect, or something like it, to make the scene appear creepy. Spirited Away is just full of great shots like that.
The attention to detail in the movie is just amazing. When Chihiro makes her way up the stone stairs towards the bridge, just before seeing Haku for the first time, she does so revealing right-sided dominance, as she always uses her right leg to step up. And as Chihiro makes her way down the staircase on the side of the bathhouse towards the boiler room, the attention to detail on the wall is equally stunning. Every little crack and weathering of the outside wall is revealed. So much love went into drawing all that! When she get’s to the boiler room, we see all the rust, every rivet, hissing steam escaping from pipes, wonky dials frantically rotating back and forth to suggest great pressure. This reminded me a bit of kintsugi, which is related to wabi-sabi. The philosophy that the ephemeral, fragile, imperfect nature of (repaired) objects should be valued, that the damage (with or without repair) of a thing actually adds to its beauty and value, is something that you can see throughout the movie. It also adds an organic feeling. For example, by the time Chihiro meets Kamaji you have the distinct impression that his boiler is alive, with a furnace for a mouth and two pressure dials for eyes. This fascination for machines and mechanical devices, and how they have a spirit of their own, is seen in other Miyazaki’s films, like Howl’s Moving Castle for example.
What I also love about the movie is that the characters are never black-and-white. No one is altogether good, or altogether evil. This is nicely illustrated with the evil antagonist in the movie, Yubaba—the witch who runs the bathhouse—and her twin sister Zeniba (who lives a quiet life in the forest). They might as well have been named ‘Ying’ and ‘Yang’ instead. I won’t go into detail about how Yubaba might represent the rise of Western industrialization and capitalism in Japan, around the fin de siècle of the 19th century. This has already been thoroughly discussed by Ayumi Suzuki. And the same goes for No-Face, the masked black faceless spirit resembling greed who ends up devouring a number of Yubaba’s greedy staff.
Another scene that stands out is the train journey, when Chihiro travels to Zeniba’s house. It is in my opinion one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. It begins with the characters on the train; the passengers and the conductor/machinist are all black, semi-translucent, faceless. I differ from Suzuki’s interpretation in that I think perhaps Miyazaki wanted to simply suggests the anonymity of the public. After all, who remembers everyone you see when walking on the street, or in a bus? Are they not all just as faceless, don’t we sometimes just look straight through the other people? The most beautiful thing about the train journey is that the tracks and surroundings are flooded with water, creating a smooth reflective surface surrounding the train that functions like a great big mirror reflecting the sky. I believe Miyazaki is possibly commenting on the illusion of free will in our ‘journey’ through life, especially in a collectivistic culture like the Japanese that values conformity. We have the idea that the train could go anywhere, but unseen by us are the tracks and switches underneath the surface, constraining its course. In Japan, the pressure to perform well scholastically is immense. One might wonder how free someone born in any culture is, to be fully in control of their own future, but perhaps more so in Japan. Indeed, perhaps in Japan this idea of freedom only exists de jure, not de facto; constrained as its people is by a plethora of societal rules, mores, and high expectations. Similarly, the train has no choice but to follow the tracks, even though the water on top suggests boundless freedom. Thus it makes you wonder; Did Miyazaki merely intend to make a stunning visual, or did he find a very clever representation of an important philosophical concept, of fate and determinism? Regardless of the ‘correct’ answer (if there is such a thing in art), this is not just pretty animation anymore, it is visual poetry.
More comments on Japanese society and ethics can be found throughout the movie. When Haku tells Chihiro that she must find work, or else Yubaba will turn her into an animal, for example. Work, or be nothing. Or take the soot sprites in Kamaji’s boiler room as another example. When Chihiro tries to help one of them, Kamaji warns her that if the susuwatari stop working, the spell will be broken and they will cease to exist. As if Miyazaki is commenting on Japanese modern culture; “Without your job you’re nothing.” In Japan, does personal identity come from within or do most derive it from the context of their work? This idea is also reflected in the fact that Yubaba controls her employees by taking their names away from them—Chihiro becomes Sen, for example—linking their identities to the witch’s bathhouse. That is also why Haku quits his apprenticeship only when he finally recovers his own name.
I also wouldn’t be the first to see the similarities between the many contrasting aesthetic elements (Western modernisation versus traditional Japanese style) in ‘Spirited Away’ and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s classic essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’. Notice for example how incredibly bright the bathhouse is, just the kind of garish flooding by electrified lighting that Tanizaki bemoaned. Even the ferry carrying spirits to the bathhouse is almost as bright as the sun itself! This is contrasted with areas outside of the bathhouse, or at least the main areas visible to the guests, where there are plenty of beautiful shadows. Notice also that Yubaba is dressed in Western clothes, and the top floor where she lives is decorated in Western classical style. A stark contrast with the traditional Japanese style of her employees and their living quarters. This was also noticed by Ayumi Suzuki, whose excellent analysis I again refer to here.
Then there’s the brazen audacity of Chihiro’s parents, who without permission just begin devouring food in an empty dining place, with the father remarking that it’s okay since he has bank cards and cash on him. Why not be rude if you can afford it? Money can almost literally turn people into pigs. Together with other characters like No-Face, and Kamaji—the six-armed spider-like slave to the boilers, symbolising great ability and industriousness—Miyazaki seems to be commenting on the greed, the materialism and hedonistic consumerism in Japan that was imported from the West over a century ago and thrives to this day.
Another magical scene is for example when the hopping lantern guides Chihiro from the train stop to Zeniba’s house in Swamp Bottom. The latern is said to be a reference to Pixar’s famous ‘Luxo Jr.‘ lamp, that comically squishes the ‘i’ in the well-known short animation that precedes the beginning of every Pixar movie. This hommage is done so incredibly well, that it simply blends seamlessly into the movie and convinces fully, even knowing it’s a nod to Pixar/John Lasseter. Another reference is the ‘Stink Spirit’, which Miyazaki has taken from his own experience cleaning up a polluted river. In fact, one strongly suspects that all the gods that come to the bath house do so to be cleansed of human pollution. Again a reference to unbridled consumption and the throw-away society.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the whole movie is mostly a comment on the bad influences of the West on Japanese society. These are just little comments that have been masterfully blended in a great story that stands by itself. Indeed, the adventure of Chihiro remains the star of the show. A true hero whose perfect child-like innocence, perseverance against many hardships—and her love for Haku and her parents—conquers all. She seems to embody all that is good and pure, has great strength and a keen intuition. There should be more examples like her in movies, and Miyazaki is famous for his many films featuring strong female protagonists: ‘Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind’, ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, and others. Indeed, Miyazaki’s movies often have strong feminist themes and can have a very meaningful impact on a person’s life.
As far as Spirited Away is concerned, I will leave with one last comment on the incredible beauty of this film. In the end of the movie, when Chihiro exits the tunnel with her parents, she looks back one last time. In that moment the hair tie that Zeniba made for her sparkles magically, subtly informing the viewer that the whole adventure really happened and reassuring us that Chihiro is forever under its protection. That is where the movie ends and the amazing song ‘Always With Me‘ (Itsumo Nando Demo), performed by Youmi Kimura, begins. The idea that there is value and beauty in damaged things is even reflected in the music, for example:
When a mirror has been shattered, scattered pieces on the ground
Glimpses of new life, reflected all around
This is the most perfect happy ending I’ve ever seen in a movie. Everything in this animation just lives and breathes pure magic, pure love. I am not ashamed to admit the ending brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched ‘Spirited Away’, and the movie continues to move me to this day. For me it is simply the greatest movie ever made.