Digital Cameras with Video is the Next Big Thing?

Yes, I know, digital cameras have had video for a while. But I’m serious, people in various corners of the photography-oriented blogommunity (read: ‘blogosphere’, but I’m developing an allergy to that word), are getting excited about video on cameras being the next serious thing. This is because video is just about to break on DSLRs.

There are two advantages that DSLRs have over compact digital cameras, when it comes to video. One is obvious, the other less so.

1. Image quality. Obviously, DSLRs record higher quality images. So a DSLR recording video looks something like professional video, where a compact camera’s video output is more like home camcorders. And it seems the video makers held back putting video capability into their DSLRs until they were ready for real-media-standard 24fps 720p HD. But that’s what you’ll get now.

2. Lenses. There’s a universe of fisheye, long-zoom and every kind of glass in between that you can tack onto a digital camera. The result is creative video, apparently more creative than a lot of what gets shot on conventional movie cameras. Why don’t conventional movie cameras have as wide an availability of creative lenses as still cameras? I don’t know. Maybe they do, but they’re more expensive or something.

The result may be a new day for video in the same sense that ‘fine art’ photography has been either degraded or enhanced by the flood of non-professionals that cheap, easy digital cameras has brought in. Degraded or enhanced depending on who you ask, my money by the way, is squarely on enhanced. If you own a half-serious camera in the near future, you are a semi-pro video crew. Although I expect the skill-gap between a professional and amatuer videographer is even larger than between pro and amatuer photographers.

The most immediate production model video-enabled DSLRs are the medium-medium priced Nikon D90 and the medium-expensive, full-frame Canon 5D MK II. Here’s a slightly dated essay from Luminous Landscape on the topic, here’s some sample footage from the D90 (apparently shot by Chase Jarvis), and here’s some insufferable famous fellow on the 5D2. But for god sake don’t copy his images, or he might come after me.

Aerostich is Making Leather Jackets

And pants. Only $1500 for the complete riding suit.

Transit Jacket

It’s the first time they’ve made anything non-synthetic, although the “micro-perforated”, Gore-tex membraned leather doesn’t sound like it ever really came from a cow. Even the zippers are high tech. Now I have two unobtainable fetish objects to deal with. On the plus side, I received two of my somewhat more obtainable fetish objects for christmas and my birthday.

Rivendell Bicycle Works

I will never buy a bike from Rivendell Bicycle Works, but I like that they exist.

Have a look at their company history (which includes a hard-numbers explanation of their charming financial status) and click through some of the bike models. But don’t ask for a custom unless you really need one. They’re all sculptures anyway.

“The A. Homer Hilsen’s versatility isn’t a result of design genius or high tech breakthroughs. Its versatility comes the way versatility always comes: by means of properly dimensioned tubes and properly located bridges, which lead to the clearances that fenders with medium-volume tires require.
It feels odd to boast about that or even mention it at all, because it’s kind of a boring topic, and it seems as though making forks the right length and putting the seat stay- and chain stay-bridges in the right spot for good clearance should be a given.”

Walnut Creek, California. But they do mail order. If you are ordering by mail, they recommend describing your custom paint colour to them by referencing crayola crayons.

I say I will never buy a bike from Rivendell, and that is true. But there is one condition in which I might: when The Change comes (or finishes coming), and I am shopping for one bicycle that will function as a universal vehicle and survive decades of wear, and assuming that I am living near enough to California or in it, such that shipping will not be prohibitive, then Rivendell is exactly the sort of local bicycyle blackshop I would wish to shop at. And possibly buy (order and wait 3 months) this one, if they have by that time decided to redesign it for standardly available wheels.

Initial Results from the Crew Radio Experiment

I’ve long thought that the on-block work of treeplanting could be better organized if each planter had their own radio. I think I’ve heard this idea arise convergently from other planters as well. Before this year’s season started I speculatively shopped around and discovered that radio technology has finally reached levels of cheapness to allow an experiment. With the approval of my crewboss, I sank 80 bones into a mail-order set of frs/grms-band basic hand held 2 way radios. At about $10 per planter, this is a genuinely affordable experiment. Thank you Chinese manufacturing and cheap global shipping.

Some results:

Benefits: Plenty and strong. Being in constant contact with your crewboss saves both of you a lot of time. Being in contact with fellow planters turns out to be a big advantage as well. I guess these results shouldn’t be surprising. But any new complication added to block workflow needs to justify itself relative to additional complications. I would say (with the caveats mentioned below) that crew radios overwhelmingly do so. On our last planting day we didn’t have a functioning radio network, and it was seriously frustrating to go through the traditional exchange:

person standing on the road: TOOOOOBYYYYY
toby (crewboss, planting in land): WHHHHAAAAAT?
person standing on the road: TOOOOBYYYY
toby (crewboss, planting in land): WHHHAAAAT?
person standing on the road: (walks away to try and figure out whatever it was on their own)

The radios are useful for all the things you would assume they would be: “I’ll be out of land in 20 minutes, where should I go?”; “should I be spacing off cedar naturals, or can I ignore them?”; “I’m low on pine, can somebody bring me a few boxes?”; “um, was I supposed to work right or left from the treeline?”; “when are we quitting?”; “hey my piece is finished and there’s no open land, do you mind if I plant in on your land until quitting time?”. Etc.

Battery protocol: The single biggest issue we’ve run in to. The units we’re using run on 3 AAAs, and aren’t rechargeable unless you’re using rechargeable batteries. We first handed them out to any planters who wanted one, thinking that they would be personally owned and maintained. They were inevitably left powered up in bags over night, and were mostly dead within days. Using cheap batteries they start to drain down to poor functioning within a day. Using brand-name batteries they seem to get something like 20+ hours of use before they start to go flaky. Less for the crewboss radio which is regularly transmitting. The protocol we’re using now is that one of a few people try to remember to collect them every evening and make sure they’re turned off and check the battery status. This is an obvious inconvenience at a time when people mostly want to zone out and sometimes doesn’t happen. AAA batteries aren’t cheap either, and require a trip to the store. It’s certainly worth the cost, but some one person has to actually buy the batteries and put them in the radio, and treeplanters are notoriously lazy off the block. The best option would probably be to have a crewboss with an expense account take care of collecting and battery-ing the radios, but unless the planting company could be convinced of the production benefits of supplying batteries to planters, that won’t happen. Based on the experience so far, I figure planting companies should be buying these things and issuing them as standard to their planters, and supplying batteries for them too, but that isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Critical mass: Of our 8 radios, we’ve only managed to keep 4 or 5 in operation due to battery issues and the general inconvenience of distributing and carrying them. One goes to the crewboss, one to the supervisor (who on our contract in commonly on the block, doing supplementary crewbossing), and the others split between planters. That seems to be a sufficient network, but any less than 4 and it wouldn’t really work. The more people with powered up radios, the more worthwhile the system. The better distributed the radios across the block, the better as well.

Loss: The flagging tape pouches on the front of standard planting bags seems to be a convenient and loss-proof place to store them. Don’t clip them to your straps, trust me (at least not the model we’re using, which seems specifically designed to not be firmly secured to anything). One even managed to pop out of a back bag, which it was rattling around in. Both lost radios were found within 10 minutes of searching. The built-in clip is at least useful for wrapping some flagging tape around, to make them more obvious on the ground. And hey, the one time I lost mine it occured to me that if it took more than about 15 minutes of searching, it was so damn cheap to buy that it would be financially smarter just to leave it lost. A big difference from the $700 dollar business-band company-issued handhelds.

Safety: We haven’t had any debilitating accidents, but if we did a radio could be a different kind of whistle. Less reliable, but also much higher bandwidth. When you hear 3 blasts of a whistle, does that mean drop your bags and run to help a fallen planter, or does it mean there’s an angry bear on the block, and everybody should evacuate? On the other hand, if you’ve fallen off slash onto a stick and punctured yourself, did you remember to put fresh batteries in your radio last night? I figure radios could make a good safety supplement to whistles, but whistles are still where it’s at. And for what it’s worth, my preferred whistle protocol is: if you hear a whistle blast of any kind, go there. Somebody needs help wether it’s a cougar or a fracture. Not that either often happens. Treeplanting isn’t particularly acutely dangerous, whatever some people say. (Logging roads and chronic injuries are, but neither whistles nor crew radios will help you much there.)

Range: The packaging claims about a 5 mile range under “optimal conditions”. Depending on the topography, hill-side clear cuts could constitute optimal conditions (concave blocks, blocks on opposite sides of valleys) or sub-optimal (gullys, convex blocks, blocks on opposite sides of ridges). In practice range has been fine for what we do, spanning individual clearcuts without strain and even once between clearcuts which weren’t within inter-valley sight of each other. The one time we had them on 2 clearcuts separated by about 15 minutes of bad-road driving they had no connectivity, but that isn’t surprising.

Doubling up: I had assumed it would be a significant annoyance to our crewboss to have to carry and monitor both a company-issued hand-held and a crew radio. Turns out the company we’re planting for doesn’t really issue hand-held to it’s crewbosses anyway, so that obviously hasn’t been an issue.

Chatter: There’s been less inane chatter than I had assumed. Most of what there is is at the beginning and end of the day. Which is fine. If larger crews all had them, it might be more of an issue, but turning your radio off is, as a planter anyway, always an option.

Cross-talk: Working in relatively urban area as we are, there is occasional cross-talk from people like surveyors who are also using FRS-band radios. Switching to a more random channel than “1” (say, “2”) solves that.

Conclusions: If we can get the battery and issuance protocol figured out, these babies are golden. We’ve only kept a few working every day, but I figured they’ve already payed for themselves several times over in terms of total planter productivity increase.

On the Sad State of the Modern Compact Camera

The following rant is inspired by the ending of the ’08 Photographic Marketing Association convention down in Vegas, and by all the photographic poking around I did with my recent trip photos. It will be a long time before the reviews are in on the new equipment from the PMA, but frankly it looks like all the same trends taken one year further. Digital SLRs keep getting better (looks like Canon may have taken back the edge from Nikon in the budget SLR category, but it’s an embarrassment of riches all round). Compact cameras get cranked out faster and cheaper, and with more stupid megapixels. Possible exceptions: Panasonic is having another go at the TZ line which could be great if they really have cut down the noise, a number of the ridiculous-ultra-zooms are starting to open up their wide ends (perhaps the curvature of the earth has begun to limit the value of extending the tele end of these zooms much further) and then there’s this bizarre but endearing beast, which if it actually gets out the door this year will be my first impractical purchase after my Carlos Slim heist comes off. You hear that Sigma? I’m waiting on you. With these and a few other exceptions, the increasingly obvious and boringly old problems with the modern compact camera market are not going away. So on to the rant.

Not to blame my tools, but my old camera sure is getting old. The on/off slider is so busted up that just touching the front of the camera while it’s turned on turns it off, and I think the lens is going soft, especially around the edges. Frankly, it’s incredible that it has survived as long as it has, through as much extreme abuse as it has. It’s a testament to the integrity of the Canon design squad that it works at all. It’s a 6 year old model, which is several lifetimes in digital camera years. The sad fact is that if I wanted to replace it today, I would an awfully hard time, despite 6 years of new designs. Compact cameras have become huge sellers in the intervening years, and are the victim of a proportionally grotesque marketing bubble. Certainly, there are lots of new featurey-things that have emerged. Some of them are downright useful (real, physical image stabilization is a giant step forward in hand-held photography, big old LCD screens are a lovely thing). Most of the new features are useless or near-useless, and have just sucked up R&D energy, physical weight and space in camera designs, and consumer’s money. Face recognition? Touch-screen LCD screens? Fake-out “digital image stabilization” modes?

More than feature-creep, the biggest downfall of the compact camera market has been the arms race between megapixels and noise. When I bought my 4 megapixel unit, the prevailing wisdom was that 4 megapixels was okay for most uses and 6 megapixels was plenty for anything but truly professional applications. Today the prevailing wisdom, if anyone bothers to think about it, is that 4 megapixels is okay for most uses and 6 megapixels is plenty for anything but truly professional applications. Yet compact cameras are routinely jamming 10 or more megapixels onto sensors that are physically no bigger than the one in my scratched up silver brick. Because, I guess, people shopping for cameras still respond to “megapixels” as some kind of feature, and it’s one that can be easily interpreted and communicated by a salesman or a sign. You know, more “resolution”, whatever that is. On compact cameras, sensors are tiny, typically thumb-nail size or smaller. Compare that to digital SLRs, which have 10 times or more the sensor area of a compact, and feature roughly the same range of megapixel counts.

The problem is that each pixel on the sensor actually is a physical little object, a sensor in its own right. Sometimes the pixel-sensors are called “photosites” to distinguish them from “sensors”, in the sense of the the entire sensor chip that sits behind the lens and collects the light to produce the image. If you cram twice as many photosites onto a sensor, that halves (quarters? my geometry is a bit weak) the size of each photosite. So given the same amount of time that the shutter opens (and shutter speeds aren’t going up, obviously), that means each photosite is going to get struck by half (or a quarter?) as many photons. From those fewer photons the pixel sensor has to decide what it was pointed at.

Camera engineers have gotten better at making each photosite a little more sensitive, pulling more info from each photon. But not much better. Not enough to keep up with the fewer and fewer photons each smaller and smaller photosite receives as megapixel counts totter higher and higher. Consequently, new cameras have to over-amplify the signal that the sensors record. Imagine turning up the volume on a fuzzy radio station to hear the music better. Sensors naturally produce some electronic noise, and are somewhat inaccurate in how they record the photons they receive. Amplifying the recorded signal means amplifying that noise and inaccuracy along with it. So modern compacts have for years been suffering from an increasing noise problem. That “grain” in your photos can be artsy-artistic sometimes, but usually it just mars detail. And that mottled red-green-blue “colour noise” is just irretrievably lame. Both noise flavours are the direct result of megapixel obsession. In terms of raw image quality at least, compact camera sensors are not getting better. They’re getting gradually worse.

That’s a strange scenario for a category of electronic gadgets, especially one as heavily invested in R&D as digital cameras. Marketing has screwed the cameraperson. There are a few exceptions to the rule. The Canon G7 and G9 come to mind, and of course the Fuji F30 and it’s descendants. But notice that even in those camera lines which have a reputation for low noise, each new model comes with a promise of better image processing to handle noise, and more megapixels, and a net wash or even loss in the noise department.

Resolution is not pixel count. No matter what the guy at the Best-Buy tells you. If your camera has a bijillion pixels, but your lens is too soft and smears the image out on them, or if they produce images which are so noisy they have to be smeared by “noise reduction” processing after the image has been recorded — and despite manufacturer’s claims, there is no noise reduction processing that doesn’t smear details at least some — or if your pixels were just kind of lame to begin with, then you don’t have a bijillion resolution. When I bought my S45, the 6 megapixel S50 replacement model had already been out for a while. Long enough that users had established that the lens on the S45 was sharper, and that the gain in real resolution from the new megapixels in the S50 was lost to the lens quality. So I bought the lower pixel-count camera, and never regretted it. Frankly, it’s been a great little camera.

So why didn’t I buy a G9? Well, my other beef with modern cameras is lens angle. For some reason, almost all compacts these days start at a 35mm “wide end”. I’m not satisfied with the 28mm on my S45, I can’t imagine regressing. Of course, they all have longer and longer zooms, but the wide angle is more useful than the tele for most shots (at least it is for me, and I suspect that’s true for the average photographer, if they thought about it). But again, 6x vs 3x zoom is an easier number to sell on then “24mm versus 37mm wide angle in 35mm equivalent viewing angle”. On the plus side, real wide angle actually does seem to be starting to show up in more compacts. On the other hand, my other other beef with modern compacts is raw image format. Back when they designed the S45, it took 4 seconds to nudge a raw image through the internal chips in the camera, a fair chunk of the memory card to store it, and a long time even for your computer to “develop” it once it came off the camera. Now camera chips are smarter/faster, memory cards are much bigger and computers are that much more capable, but raw has almost disappeared from even “pro-sumer” compacts. I’m looking at you, G9. wtf?

So why don’t I buy a digital SLR? Well, portability and the likelihood that I’ll actually have it when I want to take a photo, obviously. But I think I might just. Unlike compacts, SLRs have been getting better, faster, lighter, cheaper and more feature-crammed every single year. Makes you wonder what they could have done with the compact if they had really tried, doesn’t it?

Lego and Logo: the Simple Joys of Childhood, Revisited

You’ve read all the front-page headlines so you know by now that it’s the 50th anniversary of Lego (give or take a few days). Oh man, hurray! Over at Boing Boing Gadgets, Joel has a list of the 9 lego sets he lusted over most. I remember pining over 7 to 9 too, but I totally had numbers 1 and 2! For a while my folks had a Christmas tradition of tagging the biggest gift as being “from Santa” and parking it in plain sight in front of the tree. I remember coming down to find the #375 castle awaiting me. I also remember my parents reflecting on being up all christmas-eve-night putting the 779 pieces together. I don’t think either they or I really took the santa concept very seriously.

I’m also pretty stoked that this year (give or take a year) is the 40th anniversary of Logo. Logo is a programming language–in fact a legitmate derivative of Lisp, the most revered of computer languages–but they didn’t tell us elementary school students that when we used it. They cleverly told us it was an art tool. I used it extensively for my art-ucation on our family’s Franklin Ace 1000, the Icons at school, and one heady summer when my dad brought an Icon back from his shcool and let me keep it in my bedroom. A computer in my bedroom! It sat next to my lego bins. I don’t use lego very much in my daily life, but I’m still using a version of logo for my graduate research today. I like that.

This video from the Logothings website is great:

Hey look, them kids are hacking in lisp!

The One That Got Away

I own a perfectly serviceable little Marantz 25 watt receiver from some nameless year in the mid eighties. It don’t look like much, and it comes from too far this side of the 70’s to have that legendary Marantz legendariness. But it works fine for my less-than-audiophile .mp3 –> laptop soundcard –> headphone jack playback scenario, and it fits on my bookshelf. And it has big shiny silver knobs and switches, which I think I would greatly prefer to the recessed, black-text-on-little-black-buttons interface so beloved of modern audio equipment design even if I hadn’t grown up with my dad’s 1970s 120 watt Yamaha. (which, by the way, never got turned up above 3 1/2.)

Some day I think I want to invest in that two-martini sound. Maybe get me a 2330 from the month I was born or something. Not right now. Too big for the bookshelf, and for 30 year old audio equipment they don’t exactly go cheap.

But yesterday I was procrastinating on ebay and I watched this adorable little 2015 come and go before my misty eyes. With wood case and gyro tuning and everything. It would fit snugly between my text books and my harddrives and glow blue. And maybe or maybe not have that sound, depending on the state of the aging diodes and such. But they’re heavy little things, packed as they are with the weight of distilled grooviness and decades of accumulated affection, and shipping charges were $45. The final bid was $50 bucks, which sounds so cheap… but $50 + $45 just ain’t. I didn’t even bid, which is a sign of my resolute self-discipline.

woody little gem of a receiver

What a shame. I think it wanted to come and live with me.

Alpha Macs of Europe

According to the first, rather incoherent installment in Stephen Fry’s new Guardian technology column, he was only the second person in Europe to purchase a Macintosh personal computer. I had no idea Stephen Fry had anything to do with technology whatsoever. The whole thing is odd. The first owner of a Macintosh in Europe was Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams and Stephen Fry are two of my favourite Europeans. Coincidence? Yes.

KLRs: The Kalishnakov of Motorcycles

an ak-47a klr 650

There’s no question: KLRs are asskicking motorcycles. No bike has gone so far or done so much. And like the old VW buses, they have a broad, deep community helping other owners restore, troubleshoot, maintain and ride them. I guess it’s because A) they are the closest thing I can think of to a truly go-anywhere do-anything all purpose motorcycle and B) mechanical advice just doesn’t go obsolete, since the design of the 2007 models is practically the same as the orginal 87’s. What a brilliant idea! That kind of manufacturing strategy is stand-out genius. Apparently even the parts are largely interchangeable across two decades of manufacture date. The pressure from the marketing department to upgrade and change and offer the “all new for 1995!” version must have been enormous over the years, but Kawasaki has just kept stamping these things out of the factories. These are the AK-47 of motorcycles.

So why don’t I own one? The first bike I ever looked at buying was a KLR. But I didn’t buy it and I don’t think I’ll be laying out for one in the future. First, they’re too damn tall for me. Maybe you can shave an inch or two off with a custom saddle or something. Still, not too comfortable for my 5’8″ frame. Second, I met a guy in southern Mexico once, who was riding a BMW enduro there, and I asked him how many times he had needed the rough-road capability. He said about 5%. I ride in Canada and the US, and apart from the logging-road possibilities I just can’t justify owning a bike that’s okaybutnotgreat on paved roads for those few off-pavement moments. If I ever go riding in Mongolia or something, I’ll buy a bike there anyway. Third, people love their KLRs and refuse to sell them cheap. That first bike I looked at was advertised as “ugly but special” and the seller was more interested in telling stories about sleeping with it in Mexican ditches than actually quoting a price. When he did, it was hundreds more than other bikes of it’s age and condition. They aren’t collector bikes exactly, because people don’t ride hell out of collector bikes. People just get a little too attached to their KLRs to to sacrifice-sale them. I’ve never seen one advertised for less than $2000, unless it had a serious problem. Too rich for my thin studenty blood. And finally, they sound like somebody banging a tin plate with a tack hammer.

All these reflections on a motorcycle I will not own are inspired by this incredible KLR650 FAQ. This is the best FAQ I have ever read.

James Randi Will Not Back Down

Apparently folks other than I have been concerned that James Randi is walking on eggshells with his challenging of overpriced audio cable paranormal bullshit. Mr. Randi doesn’t seem daunted by our collective concerns.

I must thank those concerned readers who sent me informed warnings about the possibilities of fakery and the actual parameters of audio performance – not wanting me to wander out of my sphere of expertise. As I’ve said before, I know two things with considerable authority: how people can be fooled, and how they can fool themselves. The latter of those is often the more important factor. In designing double-blind testing protocols, I have always seen to it that the security, randomization, isolation, statistical limits, and information-transfer elements are carefully set up and implemented. Designing an appropriate protocol is not outside of my abilities, and I feel quite secure with this. All my life, I’ve been involved in the fine art of deception – for purposes of entertainment – and I daresay that despite my advancing age, I can still do a few dandy card tricks and make a couple of innocent objects vanish from sight, if pressed sufficiently. When that acuity degrades, it will be time to call in appropriate assistance…

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