flummox

Oh, flip, you’ve fumbled this one – a flood of flim-flammery has left you flailing like a lummox and you’ve made a right bollix of it. You’re sure to flop and fall flat on your face; you’ve lost your moxie and are in line for full mockery. You don’t know what to do or say. You’re nonplussed, you’re confounded, you’re… words not… um, fail… And your wit and wicked tongue make like a floppy-footed clown all in white gown with flying feathers carrying a full stack of cake boxes, tripping on a filament and falling feet over fundament down a small set of stairs: flummox!

Some are flummoxed by the word flummox. What does it mean? Mainly what I have said: ‘bewilder, confuse, confound, nonplus’. Very often seen as the adjectival past participle flummoxed. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology notes that “The formation seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily.”

That sounds right, doesn’t it? The sometimes fluid but sometimes fluttery and floppy fl, the soft and heavy umm, the ox with its echo of a pointy-horned bovine and its feel of things landing and breaking or dispersing…

Of course, these are the things we’re used to in English. Other languages do not necessarily have the conventionalized feel of fluids or fluttering with /fl/ and the various other overtones throughout this word. Use it with a speaker of another tongue and expect them to be flummoxed.

One particularly fun part of this word is that other so-similar word lummox (naming an ungainly lout). Surely flummox is from the sound of a lummox falling flat or something like that, no? But there’s no evidence of that chain in the formation. Both were formed in England, both have related verbs with –ock instead of –ox, and both show up in the literature in the early 1800s, but lummox showed up in East Anglia (the lump on the lower right side of England, wherein Cambridge and Norwich may be found), while flummox showed up in Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Cheshire, and Sheffield – an arc up the mid-left side of England starting just above London and skirting the Welsh border. In New World terms that may all seem close (the distance of a day trip between two major cities), but the dialectal differences in England are immediately obvious to any listener. And the etymological record is not always replete; in such colloquial cases, it can be quite, um, bedeviling… confounding… erm… yes, flummoxing.

Thanks to Roberto Blizzard for mentioning flummox on Facebook a while back.

dicatspora

This is another word I made up myself from bits that were lying around. It’s a blend of diaspora and cat.

It turns out that I am not the first person to whip up this lexical canapé ex tempore; Georgie Anne Geyer used it in her book When Cats Reigned Like Kings. But she used it to refer to the global spread of cats (and cat adoration) from Egypt. I have something in in mind that is both more local and more universal, for all times and places where there are cats. Every litter – or almost every litter – becomes a dicatspora.

When a cat has a litter of kittens, it is only a matter of time before they are given away (or sold, I guess). They spread to friends, family, neighbours, strangers who answer ads; if you live in the country, they may just strike out on their own. They are dispersed, spread like dandelion seeds on the breeze of human connections: δια dia ‘across’ and σπορά spora ‘sowing’ (related to spore).

This is how we received and gave cats when I was a kid: a friend’s cat had had kittens and we wanted one; it grew up and had kittens of its own, and we gave them away in turn. In some cases we eventually got the cat spayed, but not before our friends were well supplied with quality felines (we kept a few to add to our set as well). We lived in the country, so we could have quite a few – and we could keep them outside as much as inside, which, along with medication, helped me not to suffer too much from my allergy. Never mind Oscar Wilde’s “each man kills the thing he loves”; I simply become allergic to it. It was an early and durable habituation to the idea that there would be things I wanted a lot that I would not be able to have.

It is not so cruel to cats to split up the litter; they are quite independent and tend to disperse in adolescence anyway. I like that, that independence (I too lived away from my parents most of the time starting in mid-adolescence, for educational reasons) and their low-intensity socialization combined with a desire for and expectation of attention on their own terms. They are like an introverted, questing mind, collecting experiences from various and sundry quarters and returning them to the repose of their quiet corner for curling up.

In grad school I was a teaching assistant for a course on intercultural studies. One theme we looked at was diasporas. There are the literal ones, of course, starting with the first to be called a diaspora: that of the people of Israel, across the world and away from the Promised Land. It has a resonance with many of us, Jewish or not; the longing for return can be powerful. The professors of the course took a liking to the idea of what they called each person’s “intellectual diaspora”: the many places the mind and interests had wandered to. I disagreed with this use of the term. Your mind, going to its many diverse interests, does not leave parts of itself in those places, never to return to its first home. Rather, it goes out and gathers things in and keeps them. Diaspora is centrifugal; the active intellect is centripetal, even hegemonistic.

Relative to itself, of course. It is not that a questing and acquiring mind is incompatible with diaspora. The wanderer, moving away from home whether or not by choice, may in the journeys acquire much knowledge and bring it along, keeping it in the moving library of the mind. The body moves away; the mind gathers towards.

Of course, I don’t really know what goes on in a cat’s mind. They don’t seem to have career plans; they don’t seem to desire fame or fortune, even if some of them get it. They rather prefer food and comfort… and exploration: the incessant curiosity for which they are famous, and their quest for superiority, even if literal (climbing high on the furniture). So they too embody the contradiction: each purring pawing part of each dicatspora puts the pet in centripetal.

infenestration

Do this: click “play” on the first video below and then click to skip the ad, and then immediately click “play” on the second video below, so they play at the same time. Watch the second one while the first one provides a backing soundtrack.*

Infestation may be a problem with insects, but with birds, infenestration can be a bigger problem. Especially if the bird or the window – or both – aren’t as resilient as in that video. One time when I was a little kid, we heard a smash and went and looked, and a bird had flown into the high window in our entryway. Neither survived.

Oh, is infenestration not a familiar word? I’m not surprised. Don’t bother looking for it in a dictionary; you won’t find it. But it’s a perfectly reasonable confection of parts. Defenstration means throwing something or someone out of a window: de ‘out’ plus fenestr ‘window’ (root) plus ation. Replace the out with an in and you get infenestration. Logical? I think so, and so does Ken Broadhurst, who – independently – used the same reasoning to arrive at the same word with the same meaning: see ckenb.blogspot.ca/2014/05/infenestration.html:

We have the term “defenestration” meaning to throw someone or something out a window. It’s related to the French word for window, which is fenêtre. We don’t have the word *infenestration* as far as I know. If we did, it would mean to collide with a window. People do it, and birds evidently do it a lot.

Infenestration is an infernal frustration, whether you’re a bird or a homeowner. It’s also a problem for people who have sliding glass doors, especially clean ones. A co-worker told me of a friend who broke her nose rushing inside – or rather, attempting to rush inside through a closed glass door. We have a big glass door on a boardroom where I work, and there have been collisions but no fractures. There’s also one in my apartment, at the entrance to the “solarium” (guest room/spare room/etc.), which is a great place for a sleepy person not to see the glass.

What is a defense against infenestration? In my apartment, there’s a tripod in front of the fixed section of the door, and a sticky note at eye level on the sliding section. Public buildings put dots on glass that people might walk into and paper silhouettes of birds of prey on windows that birds might fly into. Or they put nothing, of course. Dead birds are a common enough sight on the sidewalks of downtown Toronto. The offices leave their lights on at night and the birds try to fly in. They usually don’t get to go back and do it again.

*Intense thanks to Iva Cheung for this.

superior

From an 1827 edition of Paradise Lost. You can tell it’s especially fancy because it has the u. And the comma tells you to expect more – you can always expect more from a superior person.

Superior is Latin for ‘higher’. In English, it is a word for a boss or a bossy person, someone who is noteworthy or a footnote, someone or something that is the greatest, or the highest, or just all wet: upper crust or uppity and crusty, super or spurious. Unlike its antonym inferior, superior can refer to reality or pretension; like inferior, it can refer to physical position or more abstract qualities.

A truly superior person or thing has greater qualities: finer, rarer, nobler, more intelligent, more attractive. A person with a superior attitude simply pretends to such, and is in fact inferior and infuriating. A person may also be a superior: a boss, someone superordinate in the command chain. A supervisor, a manager. Paradoxically, a person may have superior qualities for an inferior position – be very good at doing the work – but inferior qualities as a superior – not good at managing those who do the work. Their superiority peters out, as per the Peter Principle. But we naturally hope that our superiors are persons of superior personal qualities. And sometimes they are.

Superior is the name of a lake, the largest of the great lakes, the farthest north, and the highest in elevation. It has fewer people living on its shores than the others do, however; superior position in this case, as in many, results in less accessibility. It is rough-edged, cold, and deep, qualities that sometimes also come with being a superior person. And it is all wet, just like people who have superior attitudes.

Superior is also a typographic term. It is or isn’t (depending on whom you ask) a synonym for superscript. Even for those who maintain a distinction between the two terms, the difference is small: they use superior to refer specifically to superscripted minuscule letters in abbreviations, such as the th in 9th and the re in French Dre. So footnote numbers and symbols may or may not be superior. But those people who insist that it is incorrect to refer to them as superior certainly are superior – I leave it to you to decide whether by that I mean having superior knowledge or just a supercilious attitude.

Superior is also an astronomical term. A superior planet is a planet that is farther from the sun than the Earth is. Why? Is it that they are more rarefied, or have greater affinity to the empyrean? No, silly, it’s because they’re further up. Up and down really mean ‘away from the direction of gravitation’ and ‘towards the direction of gravitation’. In the solar system, the centre of gravity is the sun. We may think the sun is above us because we’re thinking in Earth-centric terms, but in solar system terms it is below us: it’s the big heavy.

Which is rather funny. If you wish to be superior, it helps to be lighter – and indeed I more greatly esteem people whose levity exceeds their gravity. But in the business world, the person at the top is the big heavy around whom all others revolve, and you don’t want to be seen as a lightweight. But to become a superior, you have to climb your way to the top, and that takes effort, which proves that you’re moving away from gravity.

And towards heaven, perhaps – if you are the mother superior or father superior of a convent or monastery, for instance. Except that the sun is in heaven, and the sun is really below us in the bigger picture. But other parts of the heavens are farther away from the sun, but include suns of their own, many of them much heavier than our sun. Every star up there is a sun, the absolute down in its own system. Meanwhile, the superior planets are towards the darkness, but in our usual thinking light is superior to darkness. And superior letters are light subordinates to the letter or numeral they are attached to: they report to it and it is in that sense superior to them.

The more you look at superior, the murkier and less pure the subject seems to become. The letters and the concepts dance around. It leaves a sour-ripe taste. Does it rise up or get mixed up? Prior use leads only to greater confusion.

Finally we must realize that it is all relative, and the way to superior intelligence is to keep everything in perspective – and to maintain a sense of levity.

Keuka

 

Keuka Lake from Bully Hill

As I mentioned in my tasting of traminette, I spent some time last weekend tasting wines along Keuka Lake. Keuka Lake is one of New York’s Finger Lakes; it’s on the west side of the bunch, and it has a distinctive feature: it’s forked. In fact, it looks not so much like a finger as like your thumb and forefinger and a continuation of their joining down to the wrist. Actually, it looks more like a forked branch you’d use to roast hot dogs or marshmallows. Or, you know, like a lake with a fork in it halfway up.

Keuka would seem a distinctive name, with its two k’s and its echoes of cucumber and cue card and eureka, but I imagine many people get confused between Keuka Lake and the lake two to the east, Cayuga Lake. It’s not that they look similar – Cayuga is longer, not forked, and has much gentler slopes on its sides – but the names sound nearly identical. If you say them slowly, it’s “key you ka” versus “cay you ga,” but who says place names carefully more than a couple of times? In the more relaxed pronunciation, the only real difference is the /k/ versus /g/ in the middle. Coincidence? Not altogether.

It’s not that the two words are really the same name. But they are related. Keuka comes from a word meaning ‘canoe landing’ and Cayuga comes from a word meaning ‘canoe carrying place (trimmed of a final syllable). Canoe see the common element? Of course, in both cases, the names aren’t accurate; they’re really names for shoreline places – the lakes themselves are more canoe rowing places.

Or, today, boat sailing places. Or looking at the pretty water from the shore places. Or, for a lot of people, wine tasting nearby places.

Which is where Keuka comes in for me. A trip down Keuka Lake for me is a trip down memory lane. I went on my first wine tasting trip there about a quarter of a century ago with my cousin Sharon, a wine aficionado (and somewhat older than me). That’s also when and where I first tasted icewine (at Hunt Country, which still makes an excellent icewine, full of brown sugar flavours). I don’t drink too much icewine – just too sweet for me after the first sniff and sip – but I love wine touring. That first experience made Keuka a bit of a eureka for me: it opened up whole new vistas.

Vistas are another reason this isn’t my first return to Keuka. Other Finger Lakes have wineries too – even more of them, in fact – but none are as pretty as Keuka. None have as European a feel. The hillsides sloping into Keuka Lake are dramatic. And there is a high bluff over the fork. With houses on it that look like a stiff rain might just wash them down into the drink.

Ah, never mind the houses, and never mind the canoes, either. I will prefer the drink. The wineries have not improved as rapidly as the ones in the Niagara region of Ontario, but they are catching up now. And I have some more catching up with them to do… next time through.

View from Heron Hill.

traminette

I was off on a little wine-tasting excursion over the weekend. We went to Keuka Lake, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes. Wine has been made in that area for about a century, but it’s been only a half century since Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the area – the kind of grapes usually used in the non-benighted world to make wine. The grapes that had been used in New York before – and are still used for some products – tend to produce what Tony Aspler has called “block and tackle wines”: one drink and you can walk a block and tackle anyone.

The climate in New York can be hard on some varieties of grapes, so the winemakers are always looking to improve their stock with something that tastes good and is also sufficiently hardy. Enter traminette, a pleasant little white wine grape that is now being used by a number of the wineries in the area. It is a hybrid created in about 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign by Herb Barrett. It would be fun if Barrett had been trying to create a kind of urban champagne, but actually he just want to make a nice table grape that had some of the taste of Gewürztraminer. He made it by crossing Gewürztraminer with the hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 (does that look like a scriptural reference?). He sent some of it to the experimental grape breeding program at Cornell University, which is at the south end of Cayuga Lake, which is another one of the Finger Lakes. It has spread from there because it survives and it tastes good.

What does it taste like? Well, I’m not here to give you wine tasting notes. You would do better to go see for yourself. I will tell you that it’s reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but toned down, with some flavours that might remind you of pinot blanc or vidal or just maybe Riesling. Or, if you aren’t a wine geek: it’s a nice, moderately fruity white wine, not buttery and not too tart or crazy, but just a little quirky.

What I am here to give you is word tasting notes. Come on, now: we have the word right in front of us. Let’s taste it together. Say it slowly: /træ mi nɛt/. It starts crisp on the tip of the tongue /t/, with a little rolling release into the liquid /r/; the vowel can be realized a bit harder as /æ/ or a bit milder as /a/. The lips come together softly /m/ as though considering a taste. Then another vowel, which can be high and sweet /i/ or more restrained /ɪ/ or rather subdued, almost dull /ə/. The tongue tip presses in again softly and quickly /n/ to start the ending, which is strong and clear, medium-bright and dry /ɛ/ with a fast, crisp final stop /t/.

The word can’t avoid seeming feminine; it has that ette ending. But such a range of flavours swirl around: a mechanical conveyance tram, with a rough hint of tramp and a suggestion of jam; a tighter, tidier trim; perhaps a girl’s name, Tammy; a net effect that could be an ensnaring mesh or a tennis game. It may bring to mind a stern and hectoring martinet, or a dangling, dancing marionette, and perhaps something to marinate in the interim. Look at its shape on the page and you may get a glimpse of a mitten to make it handle the cold better, perhaps a bit of mint (absent from the wine’s flavour), a questionable marine influence, possibly inert, and a backwards look at the commercial mart. But you will certainly see how balanced it is, with the i in the middle and humps and crosses on either side – to the left one cross and two humps, to the right one hump and two crosses. It even looks vaguely reminiscent of rows of grape vines in an orchard.

Will all this affect how the wine tastes to you? I don’t know. It would be a fun experiment to have a number of wine aficionados taste a new hybrid and tell some of them it had one name – say, merlina – and some another – say, xenoraz – and see if their tasting notes seem to be influenced by the name.

But whether or not it would, it’s best to be conscious of all aspects of what you’re tasting. When you taste the wine, taste the word too.

megapixels

Yes, this is going to be one of my periodic photography rants. But if you ever plan to buy or even think about digital cameras, you’ll want to read this.

Megapixels is a word that sells cameras. “How many megapixels is your camera?” “Mine’s 10.” “Mine’s 12.” “Mine’s 18!” “Wow, that little pocket auto-zoom camera has 18 megapixels! Ossum possum!”

Listen to it for a moment. It would be too much of a stretch to say “mega” sounds like a lens focusing (it doesn’t) and “pixels” like a shutter clicking (it sorta does). But the mega has a soft, muddy sound, and the pixels has a crisp, sharp, keen sound – sort of like the different image qualities due to other effects that can make the actual pixel count irrelevant, as I will tell you about below.

Mega, of course, is a morpheme about big that sounds big and sells big. It’s from Greek for ‘large’ and is used as the metric prefix to mean ‘million’. It reeks of lotteries: megabucks! Yeah! And yes, I’m going to tell you that there’s more than a little bit of the lottery in megapixels on cameras.

Pixel is a word invented just under a half century ago that refers to the smallest bit of a digital picture: pix from picture and el short for element. Reality is always more detailed than a picture, of course; ever micrometre contains not just a book but a whole library of information if you can but read it, but to our naked eyes several micrometres are only the visual equivalent of a single letter, and a photograph may condense even more than that into the equivalent of the dot of an i. Given that i, you have no means of extracting even a full word from it, let alone libraries of information. And so, contrary to what many TV crime shows would have you think, there is no way to “enhance!” a blob of 12 pixels into a detailed face or parking sticker on a windshield. “Enhancing” photos just means smoothing and heightening the contrast of what is there so our brains can parse it more easily (I have another article where you can find out about sharpening and how it’s like language). You simply can’t get more than a pixel out of a pixel.

But never mind that. In many – perhaps most – digital photos, each of those 10 or 12 or 18 million pixels contains not even a whole pixel’s worth of information, actually. The truth is that when dealing with the pixelated (rendered in pixels), you may often find yourself pixilated with an i – a fine old word that means pixie-led, bamboozled, drunk (in this case with fatuous information).

Let’s start, though, with how many pixels you actually need – how many will even make a difference. If you’re printing a photo on 4 by 6 paper, 300 pixels per inch is really the upper limit of what your eyes can generally discern in sharpness (and the printer can output effectively). So 1200 by 1800 pixels. This is 2.16 megapixels. Print it out large, at 8 by 12, and you need up to 8.64 megapixels. You are very unlikely to have a digital display that will come close to that. HDTV gives you 2.1 megapixels; a high-end 4K monitor gives you 8.3 megapixels. So unless you’re cropping tight or printing posters, you will never actually need more than 10 megapixels in your camera. Even 8 will do fine, but almost every current camera does more than that. For most non-pro purposes, even the camera in your phone has enough. (My iPhone 4 has 5 megapixels.)

But then there are the factors that can limit the resolving power of your camera, so that each pixel really is only worth a fraction of what a pixel is worth in a truly sharp picture:

Lens sharpness. Not all lenses are equally sharp. Some produce pictures that are pretty “soft” even to the naked eye.

ISO. We used to call this ASA. It’s the “film speed” – the light sensitivity. The higher the ISO (as required when the camera is getting less light into it), the less sharp the picture, because it’s having to pool light from multiple pixels and fill in as best it can.

Sensor size. I mean the physical size. This of course makes a difference in regard to lens sharpness; a lens that can resolve 3000 lines per inch will resolve 1/4 as many actual lines on a sensor that’s 1/4 the dimensions. But usually the cameras with smaller sensors also have crappier lenses, so you get even less final sharpness. It also can relate to ISO performance: a smaller sensor size with the same number of pixels has smaller pixel sensors that individually gather less light, so they can start getting dodgy at lower ISO numbers. (Sensor technology is improving, though.)

Aperture. A lens has an opening in it that can be wider or tighter, like the pupils of your eyes. This is expressed in f-stops, which are the ratio of the focal length to the opening (aperture): f/4 means the aperture is 1/4 the focal length. Why this affects sharpness is the same reason that we squint to see better, and the same reason it’s harder to see sharply in low light (when your pupils are dilated): the smaller the aperture, the sharper the image and the more of it that’s in acceptable focus: this is called depth of field, because it’s how deep the in-focus area is. But when the aperture gets too small, you lose sharpness due to what’s called diffraction effect. I’ll spare you the details; they’re Google-able.

Camera shake. If you’re taking pictures at too slow a shutter speed – because the light is low and/or your aperture is small (to improve sharpness) and/or your ISO is low (ditto) – the motion of your hand, such as you get when pressing something like, say, a camera shutter, will cause the camera to move perceptibly during the time of exposure, which of course will blur the image a bit.

There are other things you really should consider more carefully than pixels and sharpness:

Colour. Different lenses convey colour and contrast differently, and differently well. Some lenses really wash it out; some make it vivid and contrasty; some are better for some colours than others. This is also true for different cameras.

Lens speed. The “faster” the lens, the lower the minimum f-stop, which means the wider the aperture. Given that lower f-stops make a photo less sharp, why would you want this? Because they let you blur out the background more (see bokeh), focusing in on the subject – a shallow depth of field is quite desirable for many kinds of photos. If it’s a good lens, the subject will still be sharp enough, even at a low f-stop.

Sensor size (again). This also relates to depth of field: the in-focus distance is a portion of the distance between the camera and its effective “infinity,” and its effective “infinity” is determined by the actual focal length of the lens. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the focal length for the same field of view. A 25 mm lens on my Olympus has the same field of view as a 50 mm on a full-frame camera (full-frame means the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35 mm film: 24 mm by 36 mm) and as about a 9 mm lens on a 1/2.33” sensor such as many pocket cameras have, but its infinity is half as far away as on the full-frame and almost 3 times as far away as on the pocket camera. Meaning you get much less depth-of-field effect on the really small sensors. This is also why everything is always in focus on your camera phone: its sensor is less than half the size of your little fingernail, so its focal length is about 1/8 of an inch, so its “infinity” is closer than almost anything you’ll photograph with it.

Ease of use. The camera you have with you will always take better pictures than the one you left at home because it’s too much of a nuisance to carry around, as my dad regularly says. And if you miss the moment because you’re futzing around with the controls, well, that’s not a good picture either. So balance the desire for a large sensor with the effect that will have on your equipment size (see my rant on zoom lens) and consider what you really want and need. I use an Olympus E-PL3, which I can fit in a jacket pocket; its sensor is half the size of a full-frame sensor, but that’s just fine for me.

Because you’re my friend, I took a little time to take a few pictures out my window of the Cathedral Church of St. James here in Toronto, using three cameras, the third of which with three different lenses. These will help you to see why, for most people, with even the cheapest cameras giving at least 8 megapixels, the megapixel count in your camera doesn’t matter; it just leaves you mega-pixilated.

This is the zoomed-in version taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21, reduced to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21 8 megapixel pocket camera, with the lens zoomed in; I’ve reduced the image to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in. Not so sharp, eh? How many pixels in one usable bit of photographic information?

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out to widest. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above. The lens is sharper at this length, but still not so great.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church, which is also pixel-for-pixel size at 72 pixels per inch.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 (10 megapixels, micro 4/3 format) with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels. This is my favourite lens. Sharp and good colour; notice the slightly dreamy effect it has, though.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

See the difference the ISO makes?

See the difference the higher f-stop but higher ISO makes?

Here's with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that cropped to just the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s that cropped to just the church, at pixel-for-pixel.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here's what I get at the widest, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here’s what I get at 42 mm focal length, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's pixel-for-pixel on that.

Here’s pixel-for-pixel on that.

And here's the 14 mm view, shrunk to 500 pixels.

And here’s the 14 mm view from the same lens, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that, cropped down to the church and visible pixel-for-pixel.

Here’s that, cropped down to the church and at pixel-for-pixel resolution.

Scroll up and down and look at them a few times. Which do you like, really? What stands out most? If you’re still thinking mostly about sharpness, here’s a tip: look at the copper-green part of the church roof, to the left of the steeple. Some are mega-muddy, some pixel-sharp. But what about colour and feel? And what really matters when you see it at 500 pixels wide?

Get the point? Ignore all the megapixel stuff on your camera (unless you’re actually a pro or serious large-photo geek, in which case you know all this already). There are much better things to worry about.

But if you want to see what kind of resolution you really can go for if that’s your thing, a while back I scanned in two medium-format negatives at high resolution (they’re 56 mm square – that’s 2¼” on a side). They’re not of the church; sorry. One’s a forest scene in fall, and the other is a city scene at night. Here are the links to the full-resolution images on Flickr. Warning: these will take a minute to load, eat up a lot of memory, and will not fit on your screen (but there are links above the pictures to smaller versions).

Trinity Square at 28 megapixels

Leaves at 28 megapixels