The Digital Journalist
A Letter From Central America: Color Outside The Straight Lines
December 2004

by James Colburn

I've often wondered why Americans accept mediocrity so easily.

A case in point being their choice of motorcycles. I've been a motorcycle rider, off and on, for more than 30 years and I've owned and ridden a few interesting ones. The first was a semi-race-prepped 175cc BSA Bantam (clip-ons, rear-sets, all the boy-racer accessories), but in recent years I've owned a series of BMW motorcycles.

BMWs are, to some extent, "mature" motorcycles offering excellent handling, an excess of power and a quiet (for motorcycles) elegance. The other BMW riders that I've met have been, on the whole, people interested in getting from here to there in the shortest possible time over the most interesting (read: curvy) roads available. I've never really understood the American fascination for the Harley-Davidson brand. They're simplistic, clunky, noisy and don't handle curves all that well. I could never figure out just why they're so popular.

Until I moved to Central America.

And experienced the "Land Of Straight Roads."

Now, Harleys make a certain, twisted, sense.

It doesn't matter if your motorcycle goes around curves with style and grace ... There are no curves. The roads go, for the most part, north and south or east and west. You go west in a straight line for 30 miles, slow down at the intersection, take the left hand, right-angle turn very slowly, then go in another straight line for 30 miles. Take another left hand turn, repeat. Take another left hand turn, repeat and ... you're home. The next weekend, for variety, you can go 50 miles in your straight lines and take right-hand turns. For a very long trip you can get on an Interstate and travel for hundreds of miles, in a straight line, before getting off, turning around, and traveling hundreds of miles back.

So. Harleys make a certain sense. They're like a La-Z-Boy on two wheels. Get on, ride in a straight line, get off. The adventurous (read: stupid) might decide to stop midway and have a beer or two.

Then there are cameras. Specifically, consumer digital cameras.

"Facts" and figures are bandied about with aplomb. This one's smaller but it has that many mega-pixels. That one's got a better zoom lens but only records JPEGs and not TIFFs. The little screen on the back is a quarter of an inch bigger ... Lengthwise.

As someone who hangs out with professional photographers, I know of their fascination for quality. The oohs and aahs occur when Canon comes out with their latest 48 Mb camera (that's 16.7 mega-pixels times three - R,G and B - giving a 47.5 Mb TIFF file, so shut up.) We want to see poster-sized files! We want extreme quality!

But Bob and Harriet don't. All they know is a 4 x 6 print. They might dream of making an 8 x 10 once or twice a year. They have no aspirations to greatness. No desire to crop their photos. They can take a two-week vacation to Branson and shoot 30 pictures. They can spend three weeks touring Europe and shoot 50. A three mega-pixel camera is all they think they need. And, really, it is. They're the same sort of people who buy Harleys and big-ass Buicks to travel in straight lines. They don't want to visit Mexico, or France, or Japan ... because they don't speak English there.

They're boring.

Try not to be boring, will you?

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer