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