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.