Monday, December 29, 2008

Bringing up Dalek

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Did Blu-Ray kill Playstation?

What is notable about this report on video game console sales is the fact that the once dominant PlayStation brand is no longer worth a mention.

Other reports state that sales of PlayStation consoles are down 19% year on year, XBox and the mighty Wii are both growing.

It is not hard to see the reason, Sony's decision to use the PlayStation franchise as a launchpad for their Blu-Ray format is going to be seen as one of the biggest and costliest blunders in the history of technology marketing. Even though Blu-Ray has defeated HD-DVD, the cost of the battle is is already greater than the potential patent revenue before the value of the PlayStation franchise is considered.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Comcast wants to charge me $5 for not violating my privacy

I just got a letter from Comcast telling me that they want me to pay $4.95 a month for not having my telephone number listed in their directory. Something that takes absolutely zero effort on their part should not cost $60 a year. Companies should not reveal or sell the names and addresses of their customers without their permission.

Yes, I know that this is standard practice in POTS world. But this is VOIP service and until recently my Vonage alternative was working just fine. Now it is cutting out repeatedly and the cause appears to be Comcast dropping packets. In other words it does not seem to be a coincidence that the extortion demand came right after they shut out the competition.

I don't believe Net Neutrality is the solution. That is an attempt to regulate Comcast's behavior and will only work so long as there is an administration willing to regulate. As we have seen in the finance world, from time to time we get a government that would rather not bother with regulating and then pretend that nobody could have foreseen the entirely predictable consequences of not doing so.

The answer here is competition: Force the telcos to open up the local loop as has been required in Europe.

Oh and if anyone else wants to complain about this to Comcast here are their internal numbers.

So does anyone know a good residential DSL provider in the Boston area?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Limits of digital photography

Reading the constant complaints about the need for fast ISO speed on the camera forums, it is time to ask, what is the maximum useful ISO level anyway?

Well one way to decide would be to look at the light levels for the most extreme photographic condition, moonlight is 0.27 Lux.

The other two factors in the equation are film speed and lens speed. We might in theory want to take pictures at 1/8000th but this is not very likely. A more sensible limit would be 1/50th, the longest exposure for which we might take a hand held shot with a 200mm focal length lens with optical vibration reduction.

Lens speed is also somewhat arbitrary. Lets pick f/2.8.

So what ISO speed allows us to take pictures at 1/50th and f/2.8 in 0.27 lux?

Well doing the math from Wikipedia suggests that this would take ISO 174,000, or three stops higher than the top, pushed ISO speed on a Nikon D3.

In other words it should be just about possible today with a D3 at the absolute maximum ISO setting if you have an f/1.4 lens and are willing to accept a bit of noise and do some post processing.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

More Nikon speculation - Global Electronic Shutter time?

Even before their new toy is launched specualtion begins on what is next.

I don't think we are going to see quite the same pace of new product launches that we have been used to in the past. What changes we do see are likely to be directed at cost and weight reduction rather than more meaningless megapixels.

But one change we could see is the replacement of the legacy mechanical shutter system with an electronic version. This has many advantages in budget models:

  • Cost - the shutter is the last major mechanical component in the camera. Dispense with the shutter and the camera can be made cheaper.
  • Video performance - the DSLR wobble is due to the way that the imaging chip is being read out. A global electronic shutter eliminates that problem.
  • Weight - Although the shutter itself is very light, the mechanical support required adds weight and requires space which constrains other components.
  • Cleaning - remove the shutter and you can seal the imaging chip completely with an easy to clean transparent shield.

The downside of an electronic shutter is that it takes up some pixel imaging space that is going to effectively reduce ISO performance somewhat. I am not sure we will see it on the pro-end cameras at first, but there are a few advantages there

  • Space - the space saved means it would be possible to fit a full frame viewfinder and electronic cleaning at the same time.
  • Electronic flash sync at all every shutter speed.
  • Even higher shutter speeds.
  • Noise - turn on live view and the camera becomes totally silent.
  • Make infrared photography possible with a stock body by simply changing the sensor filter.

The last would be fun. There are already several folk who will modify a camera for infrared use. But it is somewhat involved and cannot be reversed easily. Making the filter user swappable would make this area much more accessible.

I doubt we will see it on a budget model. But we might see it on a pro-model.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Security experts reveal details of WPA hack - News - heise Security UK

Security experts reveal details of WPA hack - News - heise Security UK

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Using the CRA to roll back executive orders

As a matter of political tactics, I think the Christian Science monitor is wrong when they opine:

And even the CRA has a downside. It must be used wisely or it may do more harm than good. For one thing, once the CRA has been used to repeal a rule, the agency cannot reintroduce a modified rule on that issue, potentially leaving legislative and enforcement gaps, de Rugy notes.

Newt Gingrich wrote the CRA and he knew what he was doing. He wanted the effect of using the CRA to be to permanently bar future reversal through future executive orders by default. If this was not the intended outcome it can be reversed through a followup bill.

So lets say that Clinton had issued an executive order protecting Yellowstone from logging, if Dole had won the GOP could then have used the CRA to reverse the order and permanently prevent a President from issuing a new one.

The CRA only requires a simple majority and cannot be filibustered. If Congress decides to use a single vote to reverse multiple rules the courts are barred from reviewing the procedure employed. There is no forum where the procedure can be disputed, ergo one vote to disqualify all the rules in one go is fully possible.

So the Republicans have no ability to oppose rule reversals under the CRA and questionable incentive to filibuster a subsequent bill to restore executive rulemaking power. On the contrary, they are more likely to be in favor than the Democrats.

If Bush issues an executive order to gut the clean air act, the Democrats use the CRA to reverse it and the clean air act is safe from future Republican presidents. If the reversal limits Obama's scope to use the clean air act proactively they use their 58+ seats to push through a new bill.

But in practice the Democrats won't use the CRA because they don't need to. Having established that the Democrats have the upper hand tactically, there is no incentive for the GOP to attempt a filibuster as the Democrats can inflict an even worse outcome from their point of view with no need for cloture.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stupid advertising copy

Its small size will fit on top of even the most crowded desk, and it offers wireless access when connected to a Wi-Fi router (via the Gigabit Ethernet port).

Why waste desk space on a device whose entire point is that it has no user interface, no display, no keyboard? The Home Serer lives in the basement, stores data and makes no fuss. That is the point.

I bought the 500Gb version and added a couple of 1Tb drives. These days the 1Tb model is priced better and might be a better bet. Whichever one you get you need to buy at least one extra drive so that you can use the data mirroring function.

There are still some rough edges on WHS. For a start there should be a method of backing it up to an offsite location.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dept of not supposed to say that

If you believe that the main reason for opposing universal health care is the narrow party interest of the US Republican party, it probably isn't very wise to tell people that.

Much better to keep up the agenda denial nonsense of claiming that universal health care is an important goal that would be much better achieved by waiting a year, or two, or until after re-election in 2012. Because there is nothing that voters like better than a politician who makes campaign pledges that they then abandon once in office, despite wining effective, filibuster-proof control of both houses of Congress.

The only reason to delay on health care would be if there was a division in the Democratic caucus that left them without a simple majority. Senate Democrats opposed to universal health care are not going to join a GOP filibuster. And it would not have any effect if they did. Just as the Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly, the Senate filibuster power is simply not sufficient to block a bill when the opposing party has the White House.

But what I find rather more interesting is the fact that the advice these GOP 'experts' give their own side is as bad and as misinformed as the opinion that they give the Democrats (and for that matter relied on to run the country, Michael Cannon from Cato quoting Norman Markowitz:

A “single payer” national health system – known as “socialized medicine” in the rest of the developed world – should be an essential part of the change that the core constituencies which elected Obama desperately need. Britain serves as an important political lesson for strategists. After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party…

The shear ignorance of this statement is difficult to fathom. Now admittedly Markowitz is a Marxist, but the fact that so many right wing bloggers are repeating it as sage advice is instructive. In the first place, the term 'socialized medicine' is unique to US political discourse. The rest of the developed world does not use the term at all. Before Blair's 'New Labour', the British Labour party would have proudly described the NHS as a triumph of socialism and the Tories would have tried to change the subject. But they would not use the term 'socialized medicine' any more than they would use the terms 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice' as euphemisms for pro- and anti- positions in the abortion debate.

As for the idea that religious voters abandoned the Tory party because of the NHS, that is wrong on so many levels. The British Labour party was as much a product of the non-conformist churches as the union movement. The Church of England is sometimes referred to as the Tory party at prayer but it is not a political movement like the Southern evangelical churches are, indeed it is difficult to apply the word 'movement' to the established church.

British clergy do not issue the type of political screed that has become common in some US pulpits. Issues of conscience such as abortion, the death penalty and gay rights are decided on non-party votes. To the extent that the clergy has been involved in politics it has favored the left rather than the right.

The reason for the rise of the Labour party was the decline of the Liberal party. The reason for the decline of the right in the Tory party was their discredited support for Hitler prior to the war.

The closing factual blunder in the statement is that the UK Conservative party did not go into decline after the launch of the NHS. On the contrary, it made up ground in the election following the historic 1945 Labour landslide and won the next three elections. Labour did not win two successive full terms of office for the remainder of the century. Some decline!

While it is true that the Tory party did not try very hard to roll back the NHS along with the rest of 'socialism', that was because the NHS was and is popular. It is almost universally considered to be superior to the US model. The popular demand is for more services from the NHS, not less.

When a political movement is reduced to opposing policies in case they might be successful it is time to call it finished. The Tory party recovered after the 1945 landslide because they agreed not to challenge Labour's reforms. The Tory party continued to respect the post-war consensus right up until the Thatcher government came to power in 1979.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Earth to election scanning machine cos

Why not build a scanner that registers a cross rather than a filled in oval as a vote?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What an end to partisanship is and is not

Since the election the Washington Post editorial page has been filled with op-eds of the form 'Obama was elected on a pledge to do X, but he must be cautious, avoid the mistake Clinton made in moving too fast, now is not the time, better to delay, more debate is needed' and so on.

These are typical agenda denial tactics. The opponents of stem cell research, gays in the military, universal health care and so on, know that they have just lost the debate on the merits. It was called an election. So now they are trying to continue their rearguard action by arguing that it is politically expedient for a President elected by convincing popular and electoral majorities to delay policies that enjoy the support of 60% or more of the population.

When it is pointed out that these policies would all have been passed in the last Congress if not for the fact that the Democrats lacked the votes to override the veto that was certain to be used, the agenda deniers argue that Obama's pledge to end partisanship in Washington obliges him to give the Republican party an effective veto on every policy proposal.

That is not what an end to partisanship means. An end to partisanship means not attacking your opponents as traitors, being anti-American, 'pallin' around with terrorists and the like. An end to partisanship means a return to civility in public discourse and a willingness to listen to policy arguments that are made on the merits.

An end to partisanship does not require election promises to be abandoned because the other side opposes them. That was the reason for putting them in the platform in the first place: so that Obama could claim a mandate for those policies in office.

Every government faces a range of issues. Since Gingrich's 'Republican revolution' the GOP has adopted an approach where the entire party agreed to act in lockstep, deciding issues within their own caucus and then voting as a bloc on the outcome. Obama has signaled that this will not be the model for his administration. He is willing to build a working coalition from members of either party who share his goals.

Friday, November 14, 2008

George Will's confused mind

Following an interview with Mitch McConnell, George F. Will argues that the result of 2008 is not irreversible:

Ninety percent of John McCain's vote was white, and the white percentage of the turnout has fallen from 90 percent in 1976 to 77 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 2008. Still, McConnell believes that although Hispanics, the nation's largest minority, gave Obama two-thirds of their votes, they are entrepreneurial and culturally conservative, and therefore are not beyond the reach of Republicans.

So all the GOP needs to do is to engineer a situation where white voters are 90% of the electorate!

Well actually not, because the decline of the 'white' share of the vote is the result of non-white voters voting in greater numbers. By 'white', Wills seems to mean 'people like me' a rather narrower definition than 'caucasian'. That was achieved in large measure through deliberate disenfranchisement of minority voters in the US South.

A charitable interpretation of McConnell's plan is that he is suggesting that the GOP can attract minority voters to its cause. The thought that does not appear to occur to either is that the reason that only 10% of GOP support is coming from minorities might be the fact that a large portion of the party is quite happy to play the race card.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Following up on my post that no country is center right by definition, I have been thinking further about the claim.

One counter argument made by a friend over lunch is that US institutions are center-right. There is no universal health care, welfare is considerably less generous than in other advanced industrial nations, militarism is tolerated in the political discourse. But using the fact that the US government has adopted policies that are distinctly to the right of the people as an argument to continue to pursue policies to the right of the people makes no sense either.

From 1994 through to 2006 the Republican party has managed to scrape together narrow electoral majorities by fusing Nixon's 'Southern' strategy of pandering to racial hatred, supply side economics and militarism. But throughout this period the GOP has only once managed to win the popular vote in the past five Presidential elections and have only won a majority of the house vote twice.

The GOP really consists of four separate factions, three of which only really care about one single issue and the fourth which only cares about power and is willing to agree to any demands from the other three, to the extent that they are not incompatible.

If the US had a direct democracy rather than a representative democracy, this strategy would simply not work.

Let us accept for the sake of argument that there might have been a national consensus in favor of the supply-side, market fundamentalism that has had the GOP in its grip. In the wake of the sub-prime meltdown that consensus is 100% inoperative. McCain was forced to campaign on 'social issues' and 'national security' as the country simply cannot be convinced that the GOP is credible on economic issues.

The National Security issue was used successfully by the GOP in 2002 and 2004. In 2006 the electorate rejected the Iraq war and the National Security was framed in the 2008 campaign as which candidate could best clean up the mess created by the Republican party.

That leaves 'social issues'. Here the religious right has for years been led on with the promise of a ban on abortion and the overturning of Roe vs Wade. At this point there is very clearly a strong national consensus in favor of abortion rights.

That leaves only same-sex marriage as an issue on which the GOP could credibly claim their party view represents a national consensus. But even there it is a distinctly fragile one. The issue only reached national attention for the first time in 1997 and first legal same sex marriage only took place in 2002.

The first plebiscite to ban gay marriage passed by 67 to 33 in Hawaii in 1998. Ten years later, prop 8 only managed to pass by 52.5% to 47.5% in California, a state with a considerably larger conservative population. During the campaign both sides recognized the fact that should the proposition fail in California, same sex marriage would inevitably be legalized across the whole country.

None of the three wings of the GOP commands a majority of popular support and probably never did. The only reason the coalition worked is that each wing of the party only cared about their particular issue and were willing to sacrifice everything else to get it. The activities of the neo-cons certainly offended the civil libertarian sensibilities of the likes of Grover Norquist but they were prepared to accept a national security state as the necessary price to get lower taxes.

Now that the party has completely lost two branches of government and must expect the third to be put out of reach for a generation, there is little reason for the factions to stick together. Apart from the social conservatives, they can all achieve far more by working with Obama than they can achieve within the GOP.

Paying for the Energy Plan

One of the questions asked at the debates was what promises the candidates might be willing to give up in order to deal with the credit crisis.

While the question was economically illiterate and anyone who knows mainstream economic theory knows that the standard response to a recession is spend, spend, spend, saying this in a debate was not an option. Obama's answer was that it might be necessary to address the energy plan more slowly.

This might actually be necessary. Even though Obama's economic team will be 100% neo-Keynsians who will attempt to spend their way out of recession, doing so will increase the national debt. And if thy are successful the recession will be over right around the time that the build-out of the national renewable energy infrastructure should be ramping up.

One way to pay for the infrastructure build-out is to reduce spending on the military. One of the lessons that should be learned from the Bush administration is that an all-powerful military is simply too dangerous for the country. The real root cause of the Iraq war was not faulty intelligence, or provocation by Iraq, it was George W. Bush's belief that the US military was invincible. Rebuilding the military creates the risk that the next militarist President will make the same mistake and launch another failed war.

Another way to pay for the build-out is to divert resources from NASA. Putting a man on Mars can wait a decade or four, reducing use of carbon fuels cannot. Even if the money was available to pursue both programs, the skilled resources are not. The energy plan is going to need a large number of first rate engineers and scientists. We can't wait to train them, NASA is the obvious place to look.

The US version of British Leyland

US policy makers would be well advised to take a look at the history of British Leyland before deciding on a bailout plan for General Motors.

The problems with GM are remarkably similar to the problems with British Leyland: workforce paid more than its productivity merits, obsolete plant, defective designs.

After a series of government bailouts in which the company shrunk at each stage, Britain's only native volume car manufacturer went out of business completely and the plant was shipped off to China.

The only way to save the company is going to be to shut down a large percentage of the plants. Gas may be back to $2 a gallon, but there is no sign that the SUV fad is ever coming back which means that much of GM's model line, including almost all the profitable models are simply obsolete.

It could have been different of course. Detroit could have invested in fuel efficient vehicles instead of lobbying Congress to prevent fuel efficiency standards being raised. Luxury car makers in Europe have been building high end cars out of aluminum for a decade now. They are lighter and do not rust. The Japanese have been building hybrids. The US makers have been turning 1960s truck designs into cars.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No country is center right by definition

More concern from liberal pundits about the push by Conservatives and the establishment punidtocracy to declare the US a 'center-right' nation.

The problem I have here is definitional. By international standards, Obama and 90% of the elected Democrats in Congress are a pretty conservative bunch. But the argument being made here is that Obama and other 'liberals' need to be cautious because they are to the left of the country and the country as a whole is 'center-right' relative to itself.

In other words, the country is to the right of the country.

Clearly this is a contradiction in terms which is a fairly clear sign that what is presented as conventional wisdom conceals an ulterior motive.

What is even more suspicious here is the fact that the pundits give Obama some advice that any political adviser knows is bad.

Any politician knows that Obama has to deliver change if he is going to hope to be re-elected in 2012. This was very clearly understood in the campaign which is the reason why there is only one big ticket commitment, universal healthcare. Obama has to start on healthcare on day one and deliver before the distractions of the mid-sessional elections. Obama's mandate will never be stronger than the day he takes office.

The idea that waiting until 2013 would be a good idea is so ridiculous that it is hard to understand how any expert observer could suggest it in good faith. The fact that the country is currently in a recession induced by the policies of market fundamentalism is simply irrelevant. The earliest legislation can be expected to pass is fall 2009. It will take at least a year to get the program up and running meaning that 2011 is the earliest date that the program is likely to be costing money, 2012 is more likely. And that is yet another reason to start work immediately.

Either the recession will be over by 2012 or we will be calling it a depression in which case there will be far more voters worried about the risk of losing their employment based healthcare than the national debt.

It is really hard to see how the pundits could give worse advice from a political perspective.

But the bigger failure of the punditocracy is that they consider the issues of politics to be who gets elected to what, not what is achieved. They do not consider for a moment the possibility that Obama might prefer to be the single term President that established universal healthcare rather than the two term President who competently managed the rebuilding after eight years of the incompetent Bush administration.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The future of the Republican Party

One of the traditional passtimes of the winning side in any election is giving unasked for advice to the losers, which by tradition they never take.

Plenty of folk are offering policy advice, dump market fundamentalism, dump the hate plank and so on. But that is not something a party should do right after the election, even if it was possible. Best not to consider policy at all at this point. If one thing is certain in this economic environment, whatever policy is proposed in 2008 is likely inoperative by 2012.

Instead I have a much better idea for the GOP: civility.

Stop calling your opponents traitors, America haters or friends of terrorism. Just stop, and make clear that anyone in the movement who continues the trash talk is out of the movement for good.

Say goodbye to the likes of Jonah Goldberg (Liberal Fascism) and Ann Coulter (Treason). They are making a pretty good living for themselves, the base love 'em but they are poisoning the entire party, right the way up to the top of the ticket.

What was astonishing in the last election was not that the press turned on McCain after his campaign turned nasty, but the fact that they still felt the need to find excuses for him. McCain earned that pass through decades of cultivating a personal relationship with half the beltway press corps. That pass is not transferable. If Giuliani or Romney had tried the same tactics the GOP would have lost at least another ten points.

Using the same tactics in 2012, whether directly or indirectly would be electoral suicide. They would only serve to remind voters of the reasons why they voted against the GOP in 2008.

A second and linked idea is to stop trying to deny reality when it fails to fit with preconceived ideology.

Republicans should start taking the same hard look at the footnotes and citations of their favorite K-street think-tankers with the same skeptical eye as their opponents. It is not so difficult to spot the people who fit the facts to their conclusions rather than the other way round. These people must be shown the door.

The alternative is to continue to base policy on using an ideology of convenience to justify a grab bag of special donor interests. That may have been a winning policy during the Gingrich years, but not when your opponents are outspending you four to one. Special interest donors are simply not going to pay up when there is no likelihood of a return on the investment.

In short, what is important is not so much a change of policy or principles as to change the way that the Republican party does business.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama Family Secret Service Code Names

Hmm, Obama is 'Renegade'. I can't quite see the Secret service assigning that to 'the boss' without asking first. But also note that all the first family names start with R and the Veep names with C. This strongly suggests that they choose their own names from lists supplied by the Secret Service.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama puts the Web to work

Lots of commentators have been writing about Oabama's use of technology in the campaign. What has received less attention so far is the use of technology to create of a whole policy infrastructure to help govern.

This is similar to a two week project that the MIT AI lab ran for Al Gore's 'Reinventing Government' project. The Open Meeting was the fore-runner of modern blog technology.

But there are two major differences. First, the Internet/Web is a ubiquitous infrastructure in 2008, in 1993 it was not. Only a few federal employees were able to participate in the Open Meeting because only some of them had Internet access. Second, and rather more important, the technology is now so deeply integrated into the infrastructure that it can pass without mention.

Obama is not the first President who had a transition team working on policy for the first hundred days. Practically every President does something along these lines. The exception being Bush II who was busier getting the SCOTUS to stop Florida counting the votes in the election.

What is different here is the scope. Previous Presidents simply could not have attempted anything like the policy outreach that Obama has. This is not simply a few hundred people working on the big ticket top level items, it is a vast effort involving tens of thousands of subject matter experts.

This is going to mean a substantial difference in the appointments process. Most administrations come into office with a list of appointments to be made that is considerably longer than their list of qualified supporters willing to take a government post. This administration is going to come in with the opposite problem, which is a good problem to have.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why, Microsoft, Why?

So my Google toolbar just crashed IE yet again. Usually it works fine but every so often it freezes as I type stuff into it. Perhaps time to look into disabling auto-complete.

So I give Vista the three finger salute and up comes the task manager. And I tell it to kill Internet Explorer.

But instead of killing Internet Explorer, Vista waits a while and then up comes a dialog box to ask if I am sure I want to kill a running program. Well that is absolutely the only reason I ever use the kill process command in the task manager so yes I am. And then Vista waits a while and tells me that the program is not responding which again is something I already knew and is in fact the reason I am attempting to kill it.

Why can't the machine just do exactly what I tell it to? I want a process killed, I want it to be like Tony Soprano, I want that process whacked immediately, as in now.

Bringing up the task manager is the big hammer, I only ever use it after the close window command has failed. It really does not need a confirmation prompt.

But more importantly, why are we still stuck with the obsolete 1970s style file I/O interface which lets a process keep a file open for hours on the offchance that it might need to update it. File system operations should be atomic. It should be possible to pull the plug on a machione that has been sitting idle for several hours at any time. Instead, the shutdown process is frequently hung for long periods as some process (Adobe acrobat reader is a frequent offender) shuts itself down.

OS/X does not appear to be very much better in this regard. For some reason MacBooks stop shutting down the minute the cover is closed. So it is not possible to tell the machine to shut down, close the cover and pack it away. Instead you have to tell the machine to shut down and then wait for it. That is broken.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Why did Microsoft break my machine?

Last night my machine was configured completely correctly. I could see all the files on my Windows Home Server from my Vista box and from my MacBook.

Today I can still see the home server from my MacBook but the Vista machine downloaded and automatically installed an 'update'. Now the files on the network drive are visible in the folder view but some cretin has decided that I need to be protected from them.

Needless to say, the machine does not tell me why the access attempt is denied or how to fix it. Thes two questions are part of the critical gap in security usability.

This really exemplifies a naive approach to usability that is unfortunately rather too common. The naive approach to usability assumes that the user's 'problem' is that they are stupid and its the job of the designer to help the poor stupid user by removing as much confusing knowledge as possible.

The result of this approach is systems that often test quite well in controlled lab settings that are designed to test the users reactions over short periods against a series of tasks designed to show the user using the product in exactly the way the designers intended but fail completely whenever an eventuallity arises that the designers didn't think of.

Ask your system administrator is not an acceptable response in a system dialog being presented to someone with administrator privileges.

Update I have now discovered the actual cause of the problem - a printer that had been disconnected was reconnected. This was hardwired to the same IP address as the home server which caused the interference.

But it is still the responsibility of the machine to identify these issues and report them, not the user. The most likely cause of the problem was the last major change to the system - the software update.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lessons in mud-flinging

It is probably not a good idea to attack the academic credentials of your opponent if you are peddling false academic credentials yourself.

Particularly in the case of the Washington 8th district, one Rep Dave Reichert is attacking Darcy Burner for describing a Harvard degree in 'Computer Science with a special field in Economics' as a degree in economics. Burner took five courses in Economics, a straight economics degree requires only seven. The joint degree is considerably harder to get. [Crooks and Liars]

Meanswhile Reichert has been claiming to have a Batchelors degree from an obscure Junior college that wasn't even entitled to grant them until ten years after he left. Methinks the difference between a two year associates degree from a Junior college and a four years batchelors degree is rather greater than the difference between Computer Science with Economics and Economics.

Kind of like Palin accusing Obama of 'Palin around with terrorists' when in fact it was her own party convention that featured a keynote speaker who really did pal around with and help raise millions of dollars in funds for terrorism

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The agony and the exctasy of citations in Microsoft Word 2007

Microsoft Word 2007 has citations! At last, it is possible to use Word to write an academic paper without having to pay for an overpriced, overcomplicated plug in citation manager.

Such a pity then that the actual implementation sucks unless the included citation styles match your requirements exactly

By exactly, I mean precisely that. Want to put your list of references at the back of your paper in a section marked 'references', well you can't. The references section must be called 'Bibliography', that is what Microsoft has decided and if Word 2007 provides a way to choose anything different (other than by converting the references to flat text and editing the result), well I have not found it in many hours of trying.

This is not a minor issue either as a bibliography is not the same as a list of references and in fact many books have both. A list of works cited in the text is almost invariably headed 'References'. The term bibliography is used to refer to a list of works on the same subject matter.

Did nobody in the design team ever ask the folk in Microsoft Research if they could use this citation manager to write their papers? Apparently not as I find it difficult to see how such a basic requirement could be overlooked.

Equally annoying is the instructions given for choosing your references section style:

"Choose the style format that is required by the instructor or the publisher of the written material that you are presenting. When you insert a citation in your Office Word 2007 document, Word provides the correct inline format for your citation. Word then provides the associated bibliography style when you generate the bibliography from the sources that you cited."

In other words, the developers have chosen the styles you are going to use and don't you go thinking that you may change them 'cause you won't. In fact it is worse than that as the styles are all described by name, 'APA - American Psychological Association' and so on.

The style I need for my document isn't listed, which is hardly surprising as in the academic world practically every publisher has their own idea of what a references section shoud look like and they are going to use their own name for it, not 'Chicago' or 'ISO 609'. So even if Word 2007 does support the style you need there is no way of knowing that without trying each of the ten versions in turn.

After several attempts it turns out that ISO 690 seems to be the closest to the style this particular journal requires. But unlike practically every journal I have read, this style uses round parentheses (1) rather than the square brackets [1] that are used in the real world.

Note to Microsoft: nice try but why didn't you try to actually write an academic paper before you released it?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Gigapixel depth of field

Continuing to consider the future of the DSLR: how will future cameras cope with the increasing diffraction limit?

The diffraction limit is a softening of focus that occurs at small aperture sizes due to the physics of waves. The actual point at which a camera is diffraction limited depends on the pixel pitch on the sensor. According to one calculator, a 12MP DX format camera is diffraction limited below f/5.6, while a 12MP FX format sensor is diffraction limited below f/8.

These are not particularly small aperture sizes. In fact my main DX lens is f/5.6 meaning that I have to keep it wide open to completely avoid diffraction effects. Fortunately the effects are gradual and only become noticeable/uncorrectable at f/11 or so and 100% magnification. But it puts a hard limit on pixel resolution for that particular lens at 25MP or so.

Going to larger pixel resolution will require larger apertures which will in turn limit depth of field. That's fine for portraits where shallow depth of field is usually the objective. But for landscapes and architecture, deep depth of field is more likely the desired effect. What is the use of 80MP if you have to use f/2.8? Wide angle lenses help of course, but sometimes the desired effect requires a narrow field of view.

One answer to the problem is to increase the sensor area of course. And that will be one of the reasons that Nikon and others have returned to the full frame sensor format. But that only postpones the problem.

What I expect will be the eventual solution is to adopt a technique used for may years in macro photography: combining a sequence of pictures taken at different focus distances. Today that is a technique that requires the full version of Photoshop or similar. But there is no reason that it could not be applied in the camera.

A secondary benefit that might be made use of is that a potential byproduct of the process is a 3D image map. Its not quite stereo vision (the picture is from a single point of view and does not contain the same information as a two lens stereo vision camera provides, but its close enough to be faked in software.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Deep thought for the day

Tina Fey is better at being Palin than Palin herself.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Utility of a global shutter

The most notable party trick performed by the new Nikon D90 is the ability to capture short high definition video clips.

Unfortunately, the HD video mode, while perfectly functional for certain types of cinematography has a 'wobble' problem. Different parts of the image frame are captured at a slightly different time. If the camera is panning quickly, vertical lines become slanted. If the camera pans forwards and backwards a jelly like effect is created.

The same effect is in fact present in some consumer level camcorders and some are better than others at hiding it. But the only way to eliminate the wobble completely is to implement a global electronic shutter in the image sensor.

The drawback to having a global shutter is cost: an extra transistor or two per image cell. If the image sensor is pushing the limits of the manufacturing process this reduces the number of megapixels that can be squeezed in.

Video is currently an 'experimental' feature on DSLRs. Early results suggest that it is going to be a major success but at the point video mode is not driving DSLR design to the extent that a 10MP camera with good video would outsell a 12MP camera with occasional wobble issues.

But what if a global shutter could be of advantage to still photography?

One obvious advantage of a global shutter is the elimination of a component that is costly to make and ha a limited lifespan. The D300 shutter is 'only' rated for 150,000 actuations. In the film days nobody cared because 150,000 actuations would cost in the region of $50,000 in film. Today a professional photographer can easily take that number of pictures in a year and spend less than $200 to store the results.

Replacing a mechanical shutter with a global electronic shutter also means that a DSLR can finally achieve the type of flash sync speeds that were previously only available with medium format cameras with in-lens shutters.

And as the global shutter is a purely solid state device it should be possible to achieve even higher shutter speeds than 1/8000th. Traditionally, flash was used to 'stop motion'. What if the same effect could be achieved with available light?

Going solid state also means going silent, at least if the mirror is locked up, that is.

A 12MP camera with a mechanical shutter may still outsell a 10MP camera with a solid state shutter. But what about 24MP versus 20MP? Unlike some I do see a real value to going to higher resolution sensors. But it is clearly a case of diminishing returns.

Going a stage further and designing the sensor to allow a sequence of images to be captured in a short time allows for even more interesting effects. Need high dynamic range? Why not take a bracket of shots at different gain (i.e. ISO) settings and compose the results in the same RAW file?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Time for a programmed-ISO mode on DSLRs

Last Thursday I was taking a picture of a sunset when suddenly a policewoman went past on a Segway. So breaking off from the sunset I tried to take a quick snap of policewoman on Segway in the few seconds before she was gone.

Shots like that are always something of a hit and miss affair, this one missed. Even with a VR lens, it is not possible to take decent hand-held shots indoors at ISO-200 and f/5.6 without flash.

Which got me thinking about the fact that the controls on my Nikon D300 are essentially the same as the controls on my Nikon N90s which in turn only added an aperture priority mode from my Nikon FG, now 25 years old. Given a shutter speed the D300 will chose the aperture or given the aperture it will chose the shutter speed or in program mode the camera will set both automatically or neither in manual mode.

But the exposure on a camera, whether digital or film based is determined by three camera settings (and the available light): the aperture, shutter speed and the ISO setting.

On a film camera the ISO setting is determined by your film stock, once set you can only change it by changing the film. But on a digital camera the 'ISO setting' is actually the gain setting on the A-to-D converters inside the camera and that can be changed on every exposure.

In most shots I have a very definite opinion about the aperture: usually either wide open to minimize depth of field or set to the diffraction minimum to maximize depth of field. In certain shots I also have a particular opinion about the shutter speed. The ISO setting does have some impact on the end result of course, but with the introduction of modern CMOS sensor cameras like the D300, this is generally much less of a factor than the aperture or shutter speed.

So here is my question: why not have a new program mode in which the camera uses the ISO setting to adjust to the available light?

The D300 does have an 'Auto-ISO' mode but it is nowhere near as easy to use as the other camera modes. I simply cannot predict whether the camera will adjust to the light level by changing the ISO setting or the shutter speed setting which makes it not very useful.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thank goodness for the tax cut!

With the financial system in ruins we can only wonder what further disasters would have accrued had the Bush tax cuts not ensured that Wall Street CEOs were adequately compensated for their efforts.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

McCain thinks Spain is in Dictator's Chains

Americablog (and much of the rest of the net).

Alternatively, 'McCain's campaign goes lamely down the drain.'

YouTube - Hockey Moms Against Sarah Palin

At this point the 'strange women lying around in ponds distributing swords' method is starting to look pretty good by comparison.

Friday, September 12, 2008

McCain can use electronics, But can't drive a car safely.

The Huffington Post tells us Yes, McCain Can Use Electronics.

But take a carefull look at the photograph, in particular the speedometer which is showing 50mph and the fact that both McCain's hands are occupied with a cell phone.

According to the AP the photograph was taken in Arlington Virginia. The Virginia law prohibiting use of a cell-phone while driving only passed in 2007 so McCain's behavior was arguably legal. But certainly unsafe.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Talking Points Memo | Meme Taking Hold?

If we are lucky, McCain is only lying about Palin's Pork.

But isn't a refusal to face reality as it is the principal reason for the disasters of the past eight years? It seems to me that McCain simply cannot believe that the VP he hired as a pork buster after fifteen minutes of conversation turns out to be an earmark queen.

Getting the mainstream media to believe that McCain is dishonest might be difficult. Getting them to believe that McCain is already living in a bubble, much easier.

Monday, September 08, 2008

No it isn't

We are told that CERN's LHC will re-enact the big bang.

No it will not, not even close. The energies that the LHC will achieve are not unprecedented, they are taking place in the upper atmosphere all the time. The only difference here is that we are able to observe the result.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nikon M1 (Otoji)

As the DSLR war heats up the reaction of Canon management vs Nikon becomes interesting. Nikon are clearly benefiting from the Internet rumor mill. I would not be at all surprised if Nikon PR is the source of many of the leaks. That is the smart strategy if you are ahead. Canon is (currently) behind and they are threatening the canonrumors site with legal action over the use of the name.

Which brings us to the persistent rumors that Nikon is planning to make a medium format camera. In particular the recent Otoji spy shot and hints that 'automatic repositioning of the focal plane of the sensor unit when the adapter is mounted' and 'mirrorless design' are key.

It is an interesting technical puzzle. Given what we know about Nikon's technical capabilities, product line and the general photographic market, what specs would make sense for an MX format camera?

First off, the low hanging fruit. The product name could only be M1. We are told that the code name is Otoji, meaning 'big brother' or 'big uncle'.

Second, price point. I would say that to be really successful Nikon would have to bring the price down to $10K and allow at least some use to be made of F-Mount lenses. Mamiya already have a $10K medium format digital camera (inc lens). Hasselblad have a kit of camera plus lens for $13K. Nikon cannot compete if they are significantly above these prices.

Mirrorless design certainly sounds logical. A reflex action viewfinder would severely constrain the design. An electronic viewfinder would provide much greater flexibility.

The leaked photograph describes a camera that has a 40MP full frame mode with a 12MP FX format crop mode. As others have noted, this indicates a sensor that is 54mm on each side. Full medium format is 56mm.

I do not buy the idea of interchangeable backs. The cost of the camera is in the sensor and the electronics. The electronics are built to match the sensor. Nor do I think that moving the sensor just to make use of an FX format lens makes a great deal of sense. There is no magic to the distance from the mount to the lens, its just where the camera and body join. The mount could be closer to the focal plane or further away. The only significant feature of the mount is that all the light rays have to pass through it. A larger diameter mount for MX format lenses might make sense but not a movable focal plane, not if the same effect can be achieved with a piece of metal.

What might make some sense is the ability to shift the focal plane backwards and forwards in order to extend the covering power of FX lenses to cover the full frame, the effect being similar to using a bellows or extenders. But this would shift the focus point of the lens and the expansion would decrease the effective ISO (there being only so much light hitting the sensor, doubling the area that the light is spread out over will reduce the effective ISO by one stop).

The other big question is whether the camera would have a focal plane shutter or an in-lens shutter allowing for fast sync speeds. I don't see why this has to be either, or. Why not both? Nikon have already gone this route with in-camera and in-lens autofocus motors. A focal plane shutter is going to be essential if F-mount lenses are going to be useful but there is no reason why MX mount lenses could not have an in-lens shutter as well. In the digital age it is quite possible to do both.

The part of the story that has received least attention so far is lenses. I think that we can predict that the initial lens set for the M1 will be a 24mm f/3.5, 45mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/2.8.

The reason for this is that these are the focal lengths of the three new PC lenses Nikon came out with this year, to some surprise since a PC lens is a fairly exotic beast and in the age of Photoshop correction, shift is easier to correct for in post-processing.

But consider the fact that the chief difference between the design of a PC lens and a normal lens is the degree of coverge and suddenly the logic becomes clear. The PC lenses allow for a shift of 11.5mm suggesting a coverage of at least 48mm plus whatever extra coverage is required to support the 8.5 degree swing. If the actual coverage is 56mm we can guess that these these are really MX lenses performing double duty.

Now if you were to add a 150mm f/3.5, Nikon would have already covered half the fixed focal length range of Mamiya. And at the same f-stops! That is more than sufficient for an initial launch. And just as many folk have found that DX zoom lenses have sufficient coverage for FX on the upper end of their range it is likely that the same effect would apply..

So what is the probability the prediction is correct? Well Nikon has the MGM arena booked for a BIG event at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers expo. If the D3x/D4 is launched at Photokina as expected the WIPPI launch is almost certainly a medium format camera system.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Testing Google Chrome Beta

So I downloaded Google Chrome

Some features are pretty neat. The handling of tabs is much more logical than any other browser I have seen, although it is not the first one that allows you to peel a tab from the dock.

Integrating all the 'typing' functions into the address bar makes a lot of sense as well. But I do miss the ability to select different search engines which the google toolbar gives me.

Which comes to the biggest, and most peculiar problem: no support for Google bookmarks. I can import bookmarks from FireFox or IE, but that does not help me as all my bookmarks are in Google.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

An example we should all follow

I agree with Diddy, we should all stop flying our private jets.

Sacrifices must be made.

Marketing strategy in the Web era

It used to be simple, you would develop a product in total secrecy, maybe give a few prototypes to sworn-to-secrecy customers to test, then launch at a major conference.

Today it has all changed, at least if you have a product that people care about. Fan sites like Nikon Rumors avidly parse every scrap of information they find, distilling it to arrive at what have turned out to be largely accurate predictions of the manufacturer press announcement.

I suspect that more than a little of this is deliberately stoked by the manufacturers themselves. But that is not necessarily out of choice. Even if the rumor is false it may cause real customers to put off real purchases.

As a result we can be fairly certain that next month Nikon will announce what will be hailed as the worlds best camera - if you have $5000-$6000 to spare. And we can be reasonably sure it will be called either the D3x or the D3z and it will have a resolution of 24MP.

Nikon Rumors is somewhat less accurate when it comes to lenses rather than camera bodies. This is probably because a camera body requires extensive beta-testing by photographers in the field while lens testing can be accomplished in house.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bad for the environment, worse for developers

Predictably, everyone is complaining about the Bush administration attempt to gut the endangered species act on their way out of office.

But will removing the requirement for agencies to consult with government scientists before approving projects have any effect coming at such a late date in this administration? The earliest date that the changes can come into force is September 30th and the changes are certain to be challenged in court. And even if that decision comes down before the next administration takes office, any decisions made under the new rules will face an automatic challenge from the environmental lobby that is sure to play out the clock till then.

Unless by some further misfortune the net administration takes the same approach to the environment, every decision taken under the new rules will be set aside by the incoming administration. And by the time the dust settles and a working process established again it will be next August and an entire year will have elapsed in which nothing could be approved.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Photographic Phelps

Detroit Free Press on the life of an elite professional sports photographer.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Why was the NBC Olympics commentary so idiotic?

Next time round I am going to install a slingbox somewhere in the UK and watch the BBC feed. The NBC commentary was the most intrusive idiotic drivel ever.

At many times in the performance the commentators interrupted to have personal discussions and to say 'er'.

The other aspect of the performance missing was the scene changes, how do you get 2000 people on and off stage so fast?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

PC World - Apple Can 'Kill' iPhone Apps Remotely, Or Can It?

I have absolutely no inside knowledge concerning the purpose of the Apple iPhone 'kill switch' that allegedly allows Apple to kill an application.

But given the tight control over iPhone apolications, it is pretty clear that at least one purpose of the kill switch (if it works) would be to allow crime-ware such as keystroke loggers etc. to be disabled.

One possibility is that a criminal might create a virus that performs a DDoS attack on the AT&T network or repeatedly calls premium rate numbers or any similar crime with a money motive.

Of course, Apple may have other reasons for introducing the switch and this might not be one of their intended uses at all. But regardless of what their motive is, once the device is sold it belongs to the owner, not to Apple. I predict that any use of the switch would require significant involvement of Apple lawyers.

As it happens, Microsoft can in fact kill any program running on my Windows box. So the capability is not exceptional. But Microsoft have that capability because I run choose to run Windows Defender and I regularly opt in to the 'remove malware' agreement when installing updates.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Court allows DVR system with remote storage -

Very interesting

It might not seem a big deal, after all whats the difference between a disk in the home and a disk at the cable head? But the key thing is that the cable co can provide PVR technology to customers without the need to upgrade their cable box.

What is not clear from the article but likely to be even more worrying to the content providers is whether the cable co has to keep a separate recording image for every subscriber. If they are allowed to share the system becmes much cheaper as one disk can store the Jepoardy image for a hundred households.

On balance its worrying for the content providers but probably should not be as in the end the one thing we can be sure about is that there will be demand for new paid content and thus a business model to support it. My problem with my cable bill is not what I pay, its the fact that almost none of that money goes to pay the content providers I watch. Most of the channels are supported by advertising, not a share of my cable fees.

I pay $1200 a year for phone and Internet. By my reconing it should not cost more than $300 a house to run a last mile cable. So I am buying that cable again and again and again, four times a year.

In Europe I could get real high speed Internet for $300/year or so. Telephone is essentialy free now, its only legacy POTS customers that create cost. I am quite happy to pay the remaining $900 I am currently paying for my 'TV service' to content providers for ad-free content.

Just make it easy for me to buy and I will pay.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Riding a high horse down a low road

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Fauxification of Associated Press

Press reports of how the Web has been destroying their business must have consumed a small forest worth of paper over the years. But while EBay and Craig's list invariably feature in these discussions the fact that the US establishment media is often indistinguishable from a right wingh propaganda machine is not.

What about the 'liberal media' you cry. Well the myth of the liberal media is precisely what you would expect to be used to obscure the fact that liberal ideas and voices have been systematically excluded from the US public discourse. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Rielly can spew hate speech onto the airwaves very single day but Bill Mehers gets fired for a single statement that the right found offensive.

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of Associated Press stories that appear to be little more than McCain campaign press releases. Now we discover that not only do the Associated Press journalists greet McCain with his favorite doughnuts with sprinkles, the Washington Bureau chief considered working for the McCain campaign.

Fournier describes his style of reporting as 'accountability journalism'. By which he means the press holding politicians accountable. But who holds the journalists accountable when they are partisans for one particular side?

Readers do, that's who. Or rather ex-readers. Between 9/11 2001 and November 2006, the US establishment media was falling over itself trying to emulate the Fox News approach of unabashed propaganda represented as news. Now they are discovering that they have lost the under 35 generation and much of the under 45s. They are no longer trusted.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Does a 'modular DSLR' make any sense

Nikon Rumors: continues to debate the 'modular' DSLR.

The first serious camera I used was a modular camera - my dad's Nikon F1 Photomic. But that was built in the days when cameras were mechanical systems. Does a modular camera make any sense in the digital age?

The question is not only relevant to cameras, Norman asked the same question of mobile devices themselves in 'The disappearing computer'. So lets consider where modular makes sense.

Every professional DSLR is modular: lenses are interchangeable. Camera bodies develop over time. Lenses represent a substantial fraction of the cost of a complete camera and necessarily involve some form of compromise with respect to performance, weight, cost and focal length(s) supported. Even if cost were no object, a 14-400 mm f/1.4 constant aperture lens would be undesirably heavy and unwieldy.

Modular makes sense when:

1) Some parts of the system are likely to become obsolete over time but a significant fraction of the value of the system is vested in parts of the system that are likely to retain their value.

2) The suitability of the system for a particular purpose depends on a component supporting a range of functionality that cannot be adequately supported in a single instance using generally available technology.

Both criteria apply to cameras and lenses. Bodies become obsolete every 2 years or so but a lens design generally remains acceptably close to the state of the art decades after it is introduced. Professional photographers queue up to buy new bodies the day they are announced but few would consider it essential to trade in their lenses as aggressively.

So does a modular body make sense with respect to the first criteria? Well lets consider where the majority of the cost goes. In rough order of decreasing cost I would guess the breakdown would be something like: sensor, cpu, calibration, body, display.

The sensor and the CPU are both developing rapidly over time. There is no point in putting a 20MP sensor in a camera with a CPU designed to support a 10MP sensor. Bigger sensors will demand bigger CPUs. There is no particular advantage to using a lower resolution sensor with a higher capacity CPU. Modularity makes no sense on this criteria.

Neither the body nor the display vary markedly in ways that make support for modularity desirable. The design constraint of modularity would almost certainly negate any imaginable advantage here. Moreover each body is designed around a particular CPU and sensor combination. So modularity makes no sense on the second criteria either.

There is however one area where modularity might make sense and that is to allow the CPU capabilities of the body to be supplemented by an outboard CPU. This does not make a great deal of sense for taking still photographs but makes very good sense if one is shooting very high definition video.

I suspect that it is no coincidence that the Sony 12MP DSLR chip supports slightly greater resolution than the ultra-high definition 4K format used in movies. The 8Hz maximum frame rate is very close to the 24HZ minimum for persistence of vision.

Nikon has an unrivaled range of professional lenses. If it developed an F-mount body for cinematography it would probably become the industry standard in a very short period of time. Processing the raw data rate off the chip in real time is probably beyond what current generation processors could perform in real time but well within the capabilities of a high end PC workstation with modern graphics hardware.

If there is a 'modular Nikon' I would expect it to be a dedicated back for shooting high definition video for cinema with the job of capture delegated to a dedicated off-camera processor/storage module. The back would not be a DSLR back at all, it would be a multi-sensor 3CCD back designed to capture the video and perform lightweight compression to allow the resulting RAW feed to be captured to disk over a wired 1Gb Ethernet connection.

Such a device would cost upwards of $10K with $20K being the likely starting point, lenses being extra.

Fist bump for public safety

USA Today is asking if the fist bump might replace the handshake.

Probably not, but think of the public health advantage, handshakes are a pretty good way to transfer germs. So much so that W. Bush has a flunkey whose job it is to carry the hand sanitizing lotion. Its not just the risk that the politician catch a disease that is the issue, its the risk of spreading it too.

We need some research to determine how may germs are passed in each form of contact and the probability that germs from the hand will be passed to the nose, mouth or other area likely to result in transmission of a disease.

Academics should note that this would easily net a publication.

Sounds like a need for an improved security protocol

Rabi condemns release of purported Obama prayer (CNN).

You would think that supreme beings would offer better security arrangements. Or maybe they do and its the people who refuse to take advantage of them.

Since a supreme being is logically capable of decoding any encrypted message in any amount of time (a day is a thousand years/ a thousand years is a day), it follows that the only security concern is to avoid ambiguity. A standard preamble works: "Lord of Lords," or whatever.

So in future encode your messages as follows:

C = E (p0 + p, k) where p0 is the preamble, k a randomly chosen key and E something like AES.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

No, there is a consistent standard

The Obama base visit flap has many wondering if the same standard is being applied to both camps. According to VetVoice, it is.

Obama was denied permission to visit an army base in Germany with news media and campaign staff. And the McCain camp was denied permission to make a similar visit to a US base the month earlier. Looks like the same rules are being applied to both.

It still makes no sense for the McCain camp to attack Obama for failing to visit the base in Germany after permission to make the visit was refused.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What is China up to

I blogged on the Chinese cyber-attacks earlier.

One puzzling feature of the attacks is that they make no attempt to hide their tracks. The attacks come directly from the Chinese ministry of information. What is going on? Some possibilities:

  • The attackers are incompetent.
  • The attack is really coming from another source that compromised the computers in an attempt to frame China.
  • The Chinese are attempting to send a message.

I think that the last is the most likely. The attackers are certainly not incompetent, it is not likely the Chinese would not patch machines after vulnerabilities are detected. The question then is what the message is, some possibilities:

  • The warmongers in the Chinese military establishment would like to engage in a cyber-security arms race with the US and want to send a message to like minded warmongers in the US military establishment so that both can profit from the insecurity they create.
  • Retaliation for a US cyber-attack against Chinese infrastructure.
  • The Chinese cyber-security establishment is concerned that the deniability of cyber-attack coupled with the insecurity of the US information infrastructure is potentially highly destabilizing and want to force the US from an offensive posture to a defensive one.

The first possibility is not very likely. The Chinese military has no difficulty finding resources. The principal concern of the Communist party is internal security, they have no need to engage in an arms race with the US as they can cripple the US economy in half an hour by simply announcing that they no longer intend to buy US treasury bonds.

The second is entirely believable. If the Chinese suspect that they have been attacked by the US, retaliation is a matter of face. An anonymous attack would not meet the need to save face.

But the third possibility might be the most plausible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

National Journal Magazine - China’s Cyber-Militia

If you want to know what gets talked about at closed door meetings on cyber-security, take a look at this article.

What makes the claims convincing to me is the fact that the US military, in particular the Air Force has been boasting of its own prowess in cyber-space offensives. One air force general went so far as to tell a reporter 'we will bury you in cyber-space'.

So now we have a new cyber-security challenge. The attacks are deniable, there is no way to know whether an attack was mounted by China, Iran or an aly. Why would an aly attack? In the hope that the US would make good on its threat of instant retaliation. It need not be the government either, it might be a groop of far right nationalists. Hitler had the Reichstag burned down so he could blame the Communists, put them in prison and pass the enabling act. There is no shortage of groups that might perpetrate a cyber-attack on the US if they thought it might provoke a 'retaliation' against Iran. There are even groups inside Iran that might think they could gain.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Torvalds on security bugs

As a security person I have a lot of sympathy for his position. It is much easier by far to break a system than to design a system that is secure and harder still to implement a secure design securely.

Too much of the security world is dominated by people whose only contribution is to point out flaws in everything. In many cases pointing out flaws that were known and understood by the system designers as necessary tradeoffs if certain goals were to be met.

As a result, much of the security infrastructure we have is overbuilt and unusable as far as ordinary users are concerned. In many cases we are still waiting for a solution to be deployed.

Some flaw discovery is useful and important. The early work on WiFi security for example. And sometimes public exposure is necessary. But people who discover flaws should not think that makes them clever than the people who design systems. Only people who design systems that are not broken have the right to feel smug about other people's flaws, but they are unlikely to do so because they understand how hard getting security design right really is.

But I do take issue with Torvald's depiction of what is a security bug. A bug that causes a system to crash is a security bug. That the machine crashes by accident is just as big a problem as that it was malice. In fact I don't think that any bug at the kernel level is likely to be anything other than a security bug, that is the nature of kernel mode. That is why recourse to kernel mode should be minimized.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Nikon D700 lands

So the D700 is finally here. Is it time for every serious Nikon user to throw out their DX format cameras and stampede to the new FX full frame advantage?

The short answer is almost certainly not unless you are planning to spend at least as much again on fast wide angle lenses to take advantage of it like the 14-24 mm f2.8 zoom.

Somewhat bizarrely, Nikon is packaging the D700 with its 28-120mm kit lens. The 18-70 and 18-135 lenses are smaller and just as fast. They are not pro lenses, but neither is the 28-120mm. It is twice the price however.

The D700 is definitely the best choice out there for landscape work. Besides being $2000 cheaper than the D3 it weighs several pounds less. It is not going to stand up to as many years of hard knocks in the field but even the most active professional photographer would find it difficult to wear out any Nikon before it became obsolete these days. But to make the most of it you need the 14mm prime or 14-28mm zoom at an eye popping $1,340 and $1,550 respectively.

To make the most of the D700 you really need the 'magic three' set of fast f/2.8 zooms, 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200, costing $1,550 each. Add in the price of the D700 and that's $7,650 for the kit.

That's pretty steep when you consider that if you bought a D300 and the f4 12-24 in place of the 14-24 the set would cover the FX equivalent of 18-300 mm for $2,000 less. Moreover, as even the best lenses tend to be sharper and have less distortion in the center of the frame, the D300 kit is going to deliver better results.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The American British Leyland

I have never drvien a Chrysler vehicle that I liked. So it is no great surprise that Chrysler is shutting its minivan plant.

I had the misfortune to rent a Dodge caravan from Hertz once. I was trying to rent a Ford Freestar and got the Dodge instead. For some reason the designers had overlooked the fact that it was unable to go round corners without a sickening lurch to the side. And despite a gas guzzling 3.3l V6 engine that managed only 16mpg there was no acceleration.

The Honda Odyssey we bought instead has the same sized engine but manages 255 hp instead of only 175. It also has an economy mode that shuts off three cylinders on the highway. That 45% improvement in horsepower comes from investment in engine design that Chrysler never made.

Unlike an SUV, a minivan is potentially a very fuel efficient mode of transport - if it is full. Last weekend I took 7 people from Boston to Pennsylvania in one van rather then two cars. It is not so fuel efficient when there is one drive and one child.

Chrysler was the auto maker that lobbied for the 'small trucks' exception to the federal fuel standards that made the SUV boom possible. It would be a fitting end for the company if it was to be the first to suffer bankruptcy now that the era of cheap oil is over and even Americans won't buy its shoddily built, antiquated gas guzzlers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Roger Coghill strikes again

Bad science

A Friedman Unit we can believe in

I just want to be the first to stake a claim to predicting that the situation in Iraq will begin to improve precisely one Friedman Unit after noon July 20th 2008.


McCain Predicts He’ll Overtake Obama ‘48 Hours’ Before the Election - America’s Election HQ

Admitting that you expect to remain behind in the polls throughout is an interesting campaign strategy. Is McCain actually running for President or are they just going through the motions in the hope of securing an honorable defeat?

It is the same story in the Congress. The RNC has written off any hope of regaining the House and its objective in the Senate is to lose no more than 9 seats so as to deny the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority.

Even if the Republicans fail to meet the low expectations they have set for themselves, we can be pretty sure that the establishment media pundits will be telling us how the result is actually good for Republicans.

The Associated Press: North Korea destroys nuclear reactor tower

Why is this being trumpeted as a diplomatic success? North Korea already has its bomb and it isn't going to give up any of the half dozen they have already made. North Korea was never in a position to engage in the type of large scale production of nuclear weapons that the US and USSR engaged in during the cold war.

From a strategic standpoint one bomb is quite enough to deter any power from attempting to remove Kim Il's dictatorship. Six is plenty.

North Korea had stopped production of its plutonium bomb under the agreed framework. When (questionable) intelligence emerged that North Korea had begun a covert uranium program to evade the agreed framework controls the Bush administration immediately took the opportunity to repudiate the agreed framework and engage in their favorite activity - bellicose posturing. In this case the posturing was all words and no action.

Once a state has declared 'we will bury you' they are in no position to state 'we will bury you if you cross this particular red line'. Clinton understood the difference between bluster and a convincing threat. As a result North Korea was contained for eight years. Bush did not understand the damage that his trash talk 'Axis of Evil' speech would cause and North Korea has the bomb as a result.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Further Nikon D700 musings, D400, D800 next?

One interesting question that remains unanswered in the D700 rumor is the choice of model number.

With Nikon churning out new DSLRs at an unprecedented pace the company could well have exhausted the current numbering scheme by 2012. Why not be conservative and go to D400?

The most likely explanation is that the D400 name is reserved for the next prosumer level DX sensor model, probably a 22 MP model. On this basis Nikon would have room to release D500 offering 40MP and a D600 offering 80MP before having to change the numbering scheme, at which point the physical limits of the DX sensor would have been reached in any case. A 160 MP DX sensor might be possible in theory, but why bother?

For the time being the high end FX cameras are going to remain very pricey and next to impossible to obtain. Why not charge big bucks for them when demand outstrips supply? By the time a D600 emerges it might well be an FX frame model. By that time Nikon will be looking for ways to push its newest and bestest range of full frame lenses at the widest possible market.

And why would anyone want all these extra pixels? Well not for using pictures in the ways we grew up using film. But there is much more you can do with a digital image than print it out.

Black MacBook Air

Apple don't sell them in black but ColorWare will paint or anodize them any colour you like.

Even so, it is rather interesting that the phrase 'Black MacBook Air' is apparently so intriguing that it is being used by malware distributors as a hook to lure people to drive-by download sites. Perhaps Apple should take notice and deliver the goods.

Or perhaps most Mac people would be more interested in a bigger screen (15", 17") or the ouboard supplemental battery adapter that anyone with a brain who has used a MacBook Air on like an airplane like the name implies, realizes is the single most important fix that Apple could deliver.

Stakeouts, Lucky Breaks Snare Six More in Citibank ATM Heist | Threat Level from

Interesting article in Wired.

So what should Nikon do next?

As I wrote in my last post, unless Nikon can somehow get the laws of physics changed, scope for future improvements in DSLRs are going to be facing increasingly severe compromises. Nikon returned to the FX format out of need. While FX format cameras will continue to become cheaper over time (if only to allow them to sell another round of lenses), expect future improvements in resolution to come at the cost of low light performance.

Or to put it another way, photography courses have for years taught that to understand photography you have to understand the way the human eye and brain process images. In the future we are going to increasingly face the peculiar consequences of the fact that light is a quantum phenomena.

So what can the camera manufacturers do now that the finish line of the megapixel race is in sight? Well they can make their cameras easier to use for a start.

Ergonomics plays a huge role in camera design of course. One of the reasons I reach for my D300 to take family snaps rather than my D50 at half the weight is that I find it so much easier to use despite the greater number of features. But every camera I have used gives me the impression that thought about ergonomics ends the moment the shutter release is pressed.

Every camera comes with a program to download photos from the camera but none does the job that most people I know actually want. They are all too busy asking me to correct red-eye.

What I want a download program to do is very simple and very limited:

  1. Copy the pictures off the card to the primary storage location on the computer
  2. Make a backup copy to a secondary location
  3. Verify that both copies have been completed successfully
  4. Erase the pictures on the card for reuse
  5. Nothing else

The last is the most important because I don't want the computer to ask me any questions when doing this. I don't want to be prompted for the location to store the photographs, I don't want to be pestered for new file names or the location they were taken.

In the ideal case the camera would automatically upload pictures via WiFi whenever it came into range of a trusted base station. Or perhaps considering the potential drain on battery life it might be necessary to start the process manually (but it should run to completion automatically and switch off the camera at the end).

I still want to sort and manage the files of course, but that is something that I want to do offline at my own pace. And again I want the computer to do as much work for me as possible.

For example: why should I have to enter the location the pictures were taken when my iPhone (or equivalent) can log the information for me and make it available to the picture manager? Or alternatively the camera can acquire GPS location data from the phone directly via bluetooth (and no, Nikon, I do not want to buy your $135 GPS cable that allows me to plug my D300 into the $100 cable sold by Garmin).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Nikon D700, D3x and the end of Moore's law

The folk at the Photography Bay have leaked PR materials for the forthcoming Nikon D700. It is in essence a Nikon D300 with the full frame FX sensor of the D3. Meanwhile the D3 itself is to be replaced by the 22MP D3x.

People like myself who recently bought a D300 might be wishing they had held off except for the fact that:

  • The D700 is rumored to cost $3,000-$3,200 - almost twice the going price of the D300
  • There is no advantage to buying an FX sensor camera unless you are also going to invest in the full frame wide angle lenses such as the $1,500 14-24mm zoom.
  • On past experience, the earliest deliveries of the D700 can be expected is November/December and they are likely to be on back-order for a year or more.

The D3x meanwhile is rumored to cost $6,500, an increase of $1.5K over the already pricey D3.

The digital camera market might well be mistaken for the PC market. But there is an important difference, in the digital camera world the end of Moore's law is already in sight. Cameras work in the visible light spectrum and physics is already limiting designs. Nobody knows exactly where the practical limit will be reached, but the physical limit is set by the wavelength of visible light.

Red light has a wavelength of 740nm, the FX sensor is 36mm wide, or 47,000 or so wavelengths, the DX sensor is 25mm wide, or 34,000 wavelengths. The 12 Megapixel sensors deliver an image 4256 pixels wide which means that each sensor is 11 wavelengths wide in FX format, 8 in DX format. If the physical limit is 2 wavelengths, Moore's law predicts that we will reach it in only 6 years, at which point the DX format will deliver 160MP and the FX format 320MP.

In practice, we are already near to the limit of the optics and the sensors. Nikon moved back to the FX format because the DX format was already starting to appear 'noisy' at high ISO values. Admittedly the noise is nothing like what we used to see on what passed for 'high ISO' in the film days. But expect noise on the 22MP D3x to degrade in much the same way as the D300 when used in hi-res mode rather than the D3. And expect each doubling of megapixels from here on to cost an ISO stop.

All of which means that a sports photographer is unlikely to feel the need to trade in their D3 for quite some time. Any further improvements in resolution will likely come at the cost of speed. If a 160MP DSLR ever arrives it is likely to be of real interest only to the likes of landscape photographers and folk who have to have the whizzyest gadget to brag about.

The current DSLR shootout between Canon and Nikon is then a last rush to sew up market share before the pace of technological advancement starts to slow. Whoever sells the most DSLR bodies in the next few years will be in pole position to sell lenses for them for decades to come. It took Nikon 45 years to roll out its first six generations of professional film body but less than a decade to deliver nine professional DSLR bodies.

Will we see something similar when Mr Moore stops delivering ever faster CPUs?

Welcome Nikon Rumors readers. Some folk might wonder why I am not talking about diffraction as the limiting factor here. The answer is, yes it is a limit but one that can be avoided by using a bigger lens. The other issue that I did not consider when writing the above but came to me later is that noise reduction post-processing can be used to push ISO response albeit at the cost of resolution. Big pixels appear to be less noisy only because the light sample is being averaged over a larger area.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Framed by computer

The guy lost his job and faced criminal charges after a computer virus loaded his laptop with porn

The prosecutors dropped the charges after the virus infection was discovered. But what of the liability for the employer whose negligence caused the employee to lose his job and face criminal charges for over a year? That is a minimum six figure settlement and quite likely seven.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Even dafter than the $499 ethernet cable

The $1900 saw horse bracket

Thursday, June 05, 2008

All I want is a decent telephone handset

The AT&T telephone handsets we bought three years ago are starting to fail. One of the chargers died already and another is showing signs of sickness.

There are plenty of replacements on the market but every one I have looked at is deficient in major respects. I don't think my needs are particularly unusual but none of the products seem to serve. Lets start with the basics:

  • Must not interfere with WiFi on either the 2.8GHz (B/G/N) or 5.0GHz (A) band.
  • Must support at least two lines.
  • Display Caller-ID name if present, number otherwise.
  • Speaker phone, earpiece socket
  • Ability to access voicemail from the handset, base station or externally.

So far, so good, you can get these features but you have to pay extra. Now for the harder ones:

  • Must support at least 10 handsets, preferably having no upper limit.
  • Must maintain a single address book across every handset automatically.
  • Must have at least a NiMH battery, preferably Lithium Ion.
  • Store at least 24 hours of recorded messages.
  • Handsets must not become obsolete, older handsets guaranteed to work with new base stations from the same manufacturer.

These features are all easily implemented using existing technology. But finding more than one of them is pretty difficult. The address book limitation is particularly irritating if you have a lot of handsets.

Ten handsets may sound a lot but with four people living in the house and a guest room you need five phones just to have one handy in the bedroom. I do not like being woken up in the night to pass the telephone. Add in the kitchen, office and living room and you are already at 8.

Now for some pretty simple but currently non-existent features:

  • Mains adaptor built into base station, not a fat plug.
  • Range expander station to provide coverage all around the house and/or garden.
  • Ethernet connection to allow connection to a PC to sync the address book, initiate calls, etc.
  • VOIP base station - if the box has an ethernet it might as well be the VOIP gateway to boot.
  • Double up as a remote control.
  • Open standards based.

These last features might sound somewhat extreme but they are perfectly logical and moreover they are probably more likely to arrive than the second set of requirements. At the moment we have VOIP on the PC and we have the telephone handset plugged into the VOIP box. The two could be the same but they are not. A headset plugged into a PC does not provide a good replacement for a telephone handset.

Over time the computer peripheral manufacturers will catch on to the need for a good VOIP handset and good integration with the PC. Whether the first company to realize this turns out to be a Microsoft, Logitech or Apple remains to be seen. But it is a matter of when not if the products start to emerge.

When they do they will be upper end products at first and have to provide the middle range features as a matter of course.

There is no reason why the telephon handset makers could not build the product people want today, but I doubt that they will. Instead they will continue to reduce the price of the poorly designed handsets they sell today.

Why the superdelegates broke for Obama

The NYTimes gives its establishment view of why Clinton lost support amongst superdelegates as the contest went on: The superdelegates warmed to Obama and were less enthralled by Clinton.

Conspicuously absent from the establishment view is the calculation that in my experience, politicians consider first and foremost: Their own self interest. Backing Clinton early on appeared to be a no-brainer, she appeared certain to be the nominee, Obama appeared to be running for Veep or to put down an marker for 2012 or 2016.

But backing Obama quickly became the cool choice for any politician wanting to definitively and unambiguously break with the Iraq war, to connect with the 18-35 demographic or demonstrate anti-racism street cred. Backing Clinton would only pay dividends if she won the nomination, backing Obama would bring dividends for the endorser whether he won the nomination or not.

Some folk are complaining about the long drawn out concession, unless they are GOP supporters they should not. The primary objective of the Democratic party over the past 6 weeks has been to deny McCain air time. They are in no hurry. Obama comes off best in set piece speeches, McCain is so bad even his supporters could not defend his Tuesday night performance. During the nomination race Obama and Hilary were both receiving at least twice as much exposure as McCain. From Sunday onwards the networks will have to give more or less equal exposure to both.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Titanic find, a cover story.

Titanic Was Found During Secret Cold War Navy Mission

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Odd story of the day..

Given the state in which service was to be performed one might imagine that the whole point was to keep a very close eye on this particular employee.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Where they find these people...

Daily Mail: Muslim fanatics radicalised mentally ill convert into becoming a 'nail bomber'

The second generation of the Badder-Meinhoff gang was recruited from mental institutions as well. And Ulrike Meinhoff had had brain surgery for what its worth.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Think the Democrats have problems?

The Democrats problems don't look anywhere near as bad as McCain's difficulty picking a Veep candidate.

John Hawkins tries to frame the problem as 'who will help the ticket most'. Locking at the picks 'who will do the least damage' might be a better objective to aim for. Amongst the choices:

  • Charlie Crist, hmm, but how then does the GOP play the gay-baiting wedge card with an unmarried candidate for veep who spends his off duty time in a gay bar? I am not prejudiced, but GOP voters sure as heck have been trained to be. Besides which, would Crist accept?
  • Lindsey Graham, might make sense if the general plan was to run against Bush, Abu Ghraib, the warantless wiretapping etc. But still hard to draw bipartisan appeal with a principle figure in the impeachment fiasco.
  • Huckabee, hands the Democrats a 45+ state win for the Whitehouse and possibly enough Senate seats to start thinking about picking up enough seats in 2010 to start impeaching Scalia and Thomas. If only, but won't happen.
  • Lieberman, exactly why would he give up his Senate seniority and join the GOP minority in the Senate in order to join a doomed presidential bid for a candidate hated by his own party? Lieberman would end up locked out of both parties.
  • Rice, would make it somewhat difficult for the GOP to play the race card in the south as they are clearly planning to do. Not because their voters would notice the hypocrisy but because the press would and so would Condi. Plus all the fiascos of the Bush years are rehashed.
  • Tom Ridge, well the DHS is hardly considered a shining achievement is it? And the silly color chart would be revisited ad-nauseam to remind people of how the GOP cynically manipulated fear to win votes.
  • Romney, hated inside the party and cannot carry any state with him.

The other candidates are sitting governors who would be asked to give up a meaningful job to campaign for a negligible chance to win a meaningless one. Can't see Jindal running so soon after being elected.