Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lawrence of America

San Francisco experienced an earthquake in 1906. You know this.

But you may not know about George Lawrence, the man who photographed it.

Lawrence and his associate Harry Myers used a system of kites, various wires, and a half mile of line to lift a 46 pound camera somewhere between 800 and 1000 feet above the flattened city. After checking the camera's orientation with binoculars they used a telephone magneto to trip the camera's solenoid-activated shutter.

The camera captured a panoramic view on a 22 by 55 inch sheet of film. When the exposure was over a small parachute fell from the suspended camera as a signal to the photographer.

Lawrence called his device the Lawrence Captive Airship. It used "a string of seven kites to lift the specially designed cameras to heights of 2,000 ft. Cameras weighing as much as 49 pounds and capable of producing negatives from 10 x 24 inches to a staggering 30 x 87 inches in size. The largest negatives yet taken from any airborne vehicle."

From his San Francisco photographs "he earned a small fortune, $15,000 (more than $300,000 today), selling reproductions of the image." (see Drachen Foundation)

In 2006, at the hundredth anniversary, two groups attempted to duplicate Lawrence's accomplishments.
One group was the Drachen Foundation, "a non-profit educational corporation, established in 1995 and devoted to the increase and dissemination of knowledge about kites worldwide."

It sponsored Bay Area photographer Scott Haefner, and associates, who used kites. Haefner used two cameras, a Hasselblad XpanII with a 30mm lens and a Nikon D70s SLR with a 10.5mm fisheye lens. However the FAA limited the maximum altitude of their kites to 500 feet.

The second group used a full sized replica of George Lawrence's camera. To avoid the airspace restrictions and the unreliability of kites, this group used a helicopter. This option also enabled them to shoot from the exact location that Lawrence had used 100 years earlier.

"Since the same type of camera, lens, and film size were used, the end product produced a photographic image with the identical clarity and dimensions of the original Lawrence photograph. This effect cannot be duplicated with modern equipment," said Ron Klein, leader of this group. (See page.)

Klein is a past president of the International Association of Panoramic Photographers. He also built the camera he used.

You can see this group's results and even buy a copy of their results.

But George Lawrence did more. He also invented and built the world's largest camera. It weighed 900 pounds and used glass plates four and a half by eight feet in size. In 1900 the isochromatic plates for this camera cost $1800 a dozen, if you wanted a dozen. The same company that made the plates also made matching paper for contact prints. Put one of those on your cubicle wall.

The camera even had not one but two lenses, one with a focal length of five and a half feet, the other of 10 feet.

"The camera was so large that prior to exposure a man could enter and dust off the plate as follows: The holder is put in position, the large front board, or front door as it may be called, is swung open, the operator passes inside with a camel's hair duster, the door is then closed and a ruby glass cap placed over the lens, the curtain slide is drawn and the operator dusts the plate in a portable dark room, after which the slide is closed and he passes out the same way as he entered." (See page.)

If you check up on Lawrence's history you'll find even more astonishing facts about him.


Links

The 2006 Drachen kite project: "Recreating George Lawrence's Photographic Feat One Hundred Years Later San Francisco, California"

The 2006 Ron Klein helicopter project: "Lawrence Panoramic Camera Project"

Sketches: "Kite Photography Page, The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake"

Some of Lawrence's ground level views of San Francisco: "LAWRENCE OF AMERICA SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE VIEWS ON THE GROUND BY GEORGE R. LAWRENCE"

Series of articles by Dr Simon Baker with many other links: "Dr. Simon Baker on George Lawrence"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What is Pay. Really? This.

So here I am, about four months late, writing something I thought I'd be knocking off last October. Well I'm like that and I hope you are too, because then I get to feel just as smart and conscientious as you, and that way we can call it a draw.

What is pay? Sounds so obvious, so boring, like one of those things that everyone knows without thinking about it. One of those ideas you have bouncing around in your head every day and take as a thoroughly vetted, completely settled aspect of the universe that always was, always will be, and is therefore right and just.

Pay is complex but simple. Obvious but obscure. Definite but tenuous. Or the inverse.

Pay is not money.

Money enters into the world of pay but it is only part of the story, and a relatively minor part, even if you work only for the money. Because you don't. Even if you do.

And even if you are desperate for it, you aren't.

How arrogant am I? How stupid could I be if I only tried harder?

Hold on -- it's true.

What you need and what I need are those things that the terminally dense recite without thought. Because they are cliches: food, shelter, clothing. That's what money gets us, and a little more. Without a minimum to exist on things are ugly, but it takes very little to get by. More money, more food, your own house, more clothes, maybe a car or two, splashy vacation trips. Then more junk, bigger TV sets, golf lessons, a second story on the house. More stuff in the closet. And then more of the same. And then again more of the same. And then you're dead, but not happier, even just before you died.

"Our profits were above the average for our industry, and our financial statements showed every sign of health. We were growing at a rate of about 20% annually with sales that were strong in our home state. Our quality was high. We were respected in the community I was making a lot of money. And I had a knot in my stomach that wouldn't go away."

Those are the words of Ralph Stayer. They open his article in the Harvard Business Review of November 1990.

"What worried me more than the competition, however, was the gap between potential and performance. Our people didn't seem to care. Every day I came to work and saw people so bored by their jobs that they made thoughtless, dumb mistakes. They showed up in the morning, did halfheartedly what they were told to do, and then went home."

I've been there. Maybe you have too. Maybe you are now.

Mr. Stayer did something drastic. He raised everyone's pay, but not their paychecks.

"The image that best captured the organizational end state I had in mind for Johnsonville was a flock of geese on the wing. I didn't want an organizational chart with traditional lines and boxes, but a "V" of individuals who knew the common goal, took turns leading, and adjusted their structure to the task at hand. Each individual bird is responsible for its own performance."

OK, it's a metaphor. Whatever. Pay attention though. Somehow this business owner was able to realize that both he and his company had a problem, and that no obvious or traditional solution would be a solution.

Instead of cracking the whip or scraping off the lowest-performing 10% of staff every year, or just firing everyone and starting over, he did something else.

He turned the company over to the people who knew how to run it, who were the people who already worked there. They were the ones with the greatest stake in the company's success, because the company was the support for them and their families. Once they were in full charge they were truly responsible for their own destiny.

Years later Mr. Stayer was able evaluate his experiences.

"Everyone at Johnsonville discovered they could do considerably better and earn considerably more than they had imagined. Since they had little trouble meeting the accelerated production goals that they themselves had set, members raised the minimum acceptable performance criteria and began routinely to expect more of themselves and others. The cause of excitement at Johnsonville Sausage is not change itself but the process used in producing change. Learning and responsibility are invigorating, and aspirations make our hearts beat. For the last five years, my own aspiration has been to eliminate my job by creating such a crowd of self-starting, problem-solving, responsibility-grabbing, independent thinkers that Johnsonville would run itself."

That is a good description of pay.

Another person who followed approximately the same path was Ricardo Semler. His company is in Brazil. You can think of his approach this way: "We transfer responsibility to our people. We hand them their freedom."

He has written several books. The one I bought and read was "The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works."

His basic ideas run like this: If work is meaningful then people will do it because it has meaning. If work is fun then people will do it in order to have fun. If the workplace accommodates the lives of people then they will embrace the workplace as part of their lives. If people are allowed to take charge they will do much better than if they are told what to do. And the business will benefit as well.

His business is called Semco. Here is an example of how it runs differently than any place you and I may have worked: Employees set their own salaries.

There are five pieces of knowledge involved, three known by the company and three by the employee. The company has salary surveys so it knows what people outside the company earn. The company also knows what everyone inside the company earns. And the company knows current market conditions and what it can afford to pay.

The employee knows what he wants to make and what his coworkers make.

The company then shares its information with the employee so he can make an informed decision. The types of compensation available are salary, bonuses, profit sharing, commissions, royalties on sales, royalties on profits, commissions on gross margin, stock, stock options, initial public offerings, and sale of business units. (He explains all these in the book.)

How well does this work, then, really?

"The flexible reward system mirrors our philosophy that people will understand that it's in their best interest to choose compensation packages that maximize both their own pay and the company's returns." Because "if workers understand the big picture, they'll know how their salaries fit into it."

Occasionally someone has to leave the company to make what they think they're worth. Occasionally the company pays someone more than he thinks he's worth. Generally, all sides pretty well agree on it though.

There are several companies under the Semco umbrella. They have been sweetly profitable. Most of those who work there stay for decades. But, you may ask, if this is so good, why hasn't Semco taken over the world? Because they have more important things to do.

Because work and profit are not the most important things for Semco.

Not as important as weekends, for example. "If the workweek is going to slop over into the weekend -- and there's no hope of stopping that from happening -- why can't the weekend, with its precious restorative moments of playtime, my time, and our time, spill over into the workweek?"

If you have a job at Semco, and you need to do something outside of work, and you can schedule it, then you go, even if it's a movie on a Tuesday afternoon, or a day at the beach, just because you want to stick your toes into the sand and sit for a while. No one comes around to sniff your chair seat. No one touches it to see if it's still warm. You are expected to act like an adult, and so is the company.

What about the bad times, when you just have to ax people and ignore the blood? That happened too. They decided together. Meetings sometimes go on for weeks there, with people drifting in and out, and hashing and rehashing ideas until they find a reasonable consensus.

It was like that when the company hit the skids some years back. The conclusion for most was to take a 38% pay cut, and make it up later with an increased share of the profits. Some people were spun off with a grubstake to start their own businesses, some retired, some went elsewhere. But there were no massive layoffs.

There was no loss of valuable staff, no slow bleed until the company was brain dead. They all pulled together, and it was their decision as a group of adults. People is all any company has anyway. Staff is all any company is. Without people who know the business, its history and philosophy, there is no business. It's not the buildings or the advertising or the bank statements. It's all people, all the time.

To give you an idea of how much Semco respects people, the company devised a custom email system. It is impossible for the company to read staff email. It was so fundamentally important to them that they wanted to ensure that it could never happen even by accident and certainly not in secret, if anyone was ever tempted to peek.

They are strong cooperative individuals working together in good faith toward a common goal. People naturally want to do, and to do well, and to do well together. That is pay.

Don't believe it? Skeptical about a smallish sausage company and some foreigners you've never heard of?

They aren't alone. There is a good article in "Fast Company" magazine from a few years back, about a company you have heard of.

"Bill Gore threw out the rules. He created a place with hardly any hierarchy and few ranks and titles. He insisted on direct, one-on-one communication. He organized the company as though it were a bunch of small task forces. To promote this idea, he limited the size of teams to 150 to 200 people at most."

So what?

"Pound for pound, the most innovative company in America is W.L. Gore & Associates."

Listen to Diane Davidson. "I came from a very traditional business." At first she didn't know who did what.

"I wondered how anything got done here. It was driving me crazy."

"'Who's my boss?' she kept asking."

"'Stop using the B-word,' her sponsor replied."

"'Secretly, there are bosses, right?' she asked. There weren't. She eventually figured out that 'your team is your boss, because you don't want to let them down. Everyone's your boss, and no one's your boss.'"

At Gore people are free to communicate, collaborate, and to follow up on their own ideas, just because they want to, because something might come of it. The company mixes up people in diverse groups containing researchers, engineers, designers, production workers, sales people and others.

"You're supposed to morph your role over time to match your skills. You're not expected to fit into some preconceived box or standardized organizational niche. Your compensation is tied to your 'contribution' and decided by a committee. The company looks at your past and present performance as well as your future prospects, which takes away the potential disincentive for investing time and effort in speculative projects. Gore encourages risk taking."

People go there, people work there, people stay there, and people make the company successful because they get more than a paycheck. They get true rewards. They are fully paid.

"No one has to follow. You attract talented people who want to work with you. You draw them with your passion and the credibility that you've built over time." Just like that.

In 2004, Gore was a $1.6 billion company. They must know something.

How is your job?

Update January 29, 2008: A Semler talk of September 22, 2005 at MIT called "Leading by Omission" is available at http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/308/


References:

How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead, by Ralph Stayer, (online) and in book form.

Ricardo Semler. His books: "Maverick!", "The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works", "Managing Without Managers"

"The Fabric of Creativity: At W.L. Gore, innovation is more than skin deep: The culture is as imaginative as the products.", by Alan Deutschman, Fast Company, Issue 89, December 2004

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About

Nothing keeps a relationship on its toes so much as lively debate. Fortunate, then, that my girlfriend and I agree on absolutely nothing. At all.

Combine utter, polar disagreement on everything, ever, with the fact that I am a text-book Only Child, and she is a violent psychopath, and we're warming up. Then factor in my being English while she is German, which not only makes each one of us personally and absolutely responsible for the history, and the social and cultural mores of our respective countries, but also opens up a whole field of sub-arguments grounded in grammatical and semantic disputes and, well, just try saying anything and walking away.

So begins Mil Millington's web page. One page, several hundred paragraphs, twenty-eight thousand three hundred fifteen words, plus or minus a few syllables.

It isn't elegant, if you're looking for tips on web design. No JavaScript effects, no CSS. Don't even ask about AJAX or SQL. No subtle colors.

It isn't about that. Did you guess already, then? Good. It's about writing, and Mr. Millington does that well.

He claims that he's writing about his 16-year relationship with one woman, but it's about all of us, even guys like me who have never married and have had not too many more than a couple of dates. Even us late bloomers. It's about life and such, written as though life and such is worth living in an interesting way.

And it's fiction. This piece of work is too good to be true, and that is fine because the point isn't about being precise but about being good. And anyway, true truth gets through more often when one avoids being literal.

I discovered this one great hulking page about a week back, and read it in two sittings.

Toward the end of the first evening I finally collapsed. After maybe two hours of reading and howling the cumulative effect took charge. One passage pushed me over the edge. I was snorting, honking, hooting, choking, spluttering. For a while I could not breathe, almost drowning in my own tears.

One roll of laughter piled on another like waves pushing each other up the beach. The force of them all knocked me down. They squeezed all the air out of my. I could only let my head lie on the desk and try not to die. This continued for five minutes. The walls shook from my noises. A passerby would have heard a lunatic party in my house. But it was all me.

At some point Mr. Millington got tired of doing this, or the page got too long, so he stopped it, and is leaving it sit, but has a mailing list, which he last broadcast to about three months back. It may be a while before I can get more of this. No, wait, hold on -- I've just discovered the guestbook, and the guestbook archives. Good. Now I can die laughing.

Back to the chase. He has books in print. "Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About", which has a catchy title, "A Certain Chemistry", and "Love and Other Near-Death Experiences."

He works for something called "The Weekly," which I haven't quite figured out yet, but it may be worth a try.

The score then: Millington over Everything Else by one to nil.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Digital Monochrome: Waiting for the past

Last time I got into Luige Colani, figuratively speaking. Maybe his camera designs never became actuality but the digital world kept hopping ahead even without the Frog. Now the little hardware-stuffed buggers are everywhere. The cameras, I mean.

One huge hole remains: digital monochrome.

There are books on the subject. Postings at The Online Photographer have covered a few of these books, as have articles at The Luminous Landscape.

A few people such as John Cone have spent a huge amount of time working with desktop printers, developing techniques, software and inks to allow black and white printing from digital images, whether they have been scanned into a computer or directly generated from a camera's sensor.

Pete Myers did something else.

Mr. Myers had an almost unique experience with a purely monochrome camera, the Kodak DCS 760m. He wrote about it twice for The Luminous Landscape, first in "Kodak DCS 760m (monochrome), A Unique User's Perspective" and later, as he was giving up on the camera, in "Enough Already!"

Myers had shot for years with a Leica rangefinder camera and a 35mm lens, doing black and white landscape work in the American southwest. That's "a 35mm lens" in the sense that he used exactly one focal length for all his work, capturing the images on film and then scanning the negatives and taking it from there.

Kodak began work on its digital monochrome camera in the 1990s. Myers got wind of it and managed to serve as an ad hoc consultant in the wild for Dick Pignetaro of Kodak, who was in charge of development.

In September of 2002 Myers spent $10,000 to buy one of these cameras. They were built on Nikon's F5 body. "It is a pure monochrome camera -- not a color camera. It does not 'see' in color, but in black and white," he said. Months of obsessing about it preceded his purchase. He just couldn't avoid having one.

But that was only the end of one story and the beginning of another.

Myers was not happy making the switch from the tiny Leica to the big Nikon/Kodak crammed full of electronics and batteries. He was especially annoyed by Nikon lenses, which thoroughly disappointed him.

"I needed to find the right glass to take advantage of the camera's resolution. Without an anti aliasing filter and no Bayer color matrix, the resolution of a 6 mega pixel monochrome camera is astonishing. In monochrome, 6 mega pixels effectively does what it takes 12-24 mega pixels with a color matrix," he said.

As you might guess, shortly after Myers bought this camera Kodak discontinued it. He had spent about six months trying to get lenses he regarded as usable (older, and better-performing Nikon 24mm and 28mm models). The design of these older lenses required him to remove the camera's built-in infrared filter. That sent him searching for a front-of-the-lens infrared filter.

The result was not one filter but two working in concert. An infrared filter combined with a green one did the trick. The filters hopelessly confused the metering system though, so Myers either had to guess the exposure or use the camera's histogram with a trial and error process.

About this time other photographers began seeing his digital work and wanting similar cameras, but they were no longer available. Then Myers discovered that there was banding across some images, caused by some kind of problem in the sensor, and no one at Kodak cared to talk to him about it any longer.

Eventually this got resolved, but Myers returned to his Leica for most work. He did keep the Kodak handy for the occasional piece of work though.

I believe he later mentioned switching to a digital Hasselblad with a 50mm lens (about equivalent to a 35mm lens on a Leica), and that he had finally found peace, sort of. At that point he had a good camera, a good lens, built-in digital, and advantages like autofocus if he needed them.

Even this setup apparently still isn't the equivalent of a purely monochrome camera, but a purely monochrome camera may be a while in coming yet. I'm sure that we'll get one in one form or another, one day or another, because the trend for the future is toward cheaper electronics and more customized products for more targeted audiences.

Some day, somewhere it will be possible for someone to take mostly off the shelf hardware and combine it into a workable digital monochrome box (maybe assisted by software) to produce first rate results at a reasonable price. Even for a vanishingly small market.

That won't create a monochrome imaging chip, but it's likely that someone will figure that one out as well. Maybe a larger and relatively much cheaper imager of the near future could be reprogrammed to compensate for its (unnecessary) built in color mask and three color sensitivity.

With prototypes of solar cells and even batteries being manufactured on flexible sheets already it might not be too long before we see very large programmable imagers that don't have to be sliced from flawless single wafers of pure silicon.

Meanwhile we have pioneers like John Cone, a bunch of books on digital black and white, a newer generation of printers capable of acceptable monochrome without special inks, and lots of great images from someone like Pete Myers no matter how he manages to produce them.

At least check out his site to see what's possible.