Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Be careful who you trounce, you might just know them

Tuesday, I had stopped in the town where I've been helping my friend with his family's Chinese restaurant.  They have various stores such as Target and Staples that this town doesn't have and that aren't closer.

After spending some time talking to him, I visited a few stores and finished, ready to head home.  Someone in a Buick SUV was in the right turn lane and decided that I wasn't important, so they cut me off.  Being that we were getting both heavy wind and heavy rain from Sandy, I thought this was an excellent example of what not to do, unless you wanted to have an accident.

There are over 30 miles from there to my house and it was amusing to find that the person turned into a driveway about 2 miles from my house.  I had been following them the whole way since it was also my way home.  I can only imagine that there might have been a bit of panic from time to time.  "Why is that car still behind me?" and "What are they doing?" would seem to be appropriate thoughts.

Drivers of most cars don't seem to care but SUV drivers seem to think that they can do anything they want, without consequence.  I wonder if that person will think twice next time.

Also considering Hurricane Sandy, I had been watching DirecTV's channel 349 where they routed coverage from New York City and Philadelphia television stations.  I was saddened to see that the Atlantic City, New Jersey boardwalk was gone, and that a lot of the coastal areas were close to gone.  Since the hurricane came ashore in A.C., it's no wonder so much was devastated.  They were also talking about Long Beach Island and its million dollar homes.  What I saw of it always looked a bit craptacular but I wasn't looking for the buildings.

I heard and read that New Jersey's main electric utility had to shut down power to avoid electrocuting people and causing complicated damage and fires.  It was a great decision, but of course, there are people without power.  Some people are also getting sick from the generator fumes, but they're probably keeping the generator in the garage so it doesn't get wet.

Having spent eight years in the area, I think of all the people I met and how I hope that they're fine now.  Having spent a good portion of late 2004 with three hurricanes and without power for part of that, I know that people will survive rough conditions.  I know that people in Philly and New Jersey and New York City can tough it out.  I'm keeping them in my thoughts regardless.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

...from sea to shining sea...

I've seen a lot of the U.S.A. and I've enjoyed it.  I've been to maybe 40 of the states in some way, at some time, and I've travelled through many as an adult.

Who knew that driving coast-to-coast could be so exhilarating, as well as tiring?  I drove three, 15 hour days from Central Florida to Los Angeles, California in 2005 and 2006.  Somewhere around 2800 miles one way is an awesome journey.  I would stop on either side of Texas along I-10 because Texas in itself was a 15 hour ride.  Imagine the effort to get to the west coast when the settlers were moving that way.  They did not have roads, but they might have had trails.

I suspect a lot of people never travel far from their home state, unless they're going to Disney parks or Universal parks or maybe even Sea World.  My first year in the U.S.A., we travelled from the San Francisco bay area to Indiana for Christmas with my adoptive mum's family.  We did this in a 1960 VW Beetle over U.S. 40, I believe, since there were no interstate highways at the time.  Imagine the Rocky Mountains in the winter, especially in a car with very little power.  It was actually the best car when there was bad weather.  My adoptive parents used to talk about all the big cars that slid off the road, while they were able to continue.

I would think that a car ride would be better than plane travel, especially after all the new restrictions and security checks.  I just want to be able to stop to photograph something or stop to get ice cream--when I want.  Yes, the price of gasoline is high, but so is the price of jet fuel and because of that, a plane ticket.  Of course, I won't be driving to Hawaii any time soon.  When I first travelled from Japan to the U.S.A., it was on a ship.  I was sandwiched between some Toyota cars and Sony transistor radios.  Okay, so I'm joking about that last part, slightly.  I learned to walk aboard ship, which is probably why I tend to be more steady on a subway train that on concrete.

In the next week or two, I'm heading to Philadelphia and then, to Central Florida.  I'm not sure whether I'm getting away or just trying to resolve the past.  The food in Philly is great, and the sunshine in Central Florida is great.  I can say that I enjoy Philadelphia because the people are genuine.  You know where you stand with people without question.  They don't like you--they tell you.  Here, and in most of the country, I think you find out because three other people know about what that person said.

People in other parts of the country can say bad about Philly, New York, and New Jersey but being open with people is less stressful than keeping it all inside you.  Besides, the food gets a lot of the passion because of it, most likely.  Tell me where there is better (American) Italian food than in that area?  There isn't any.

The whole country is full of great things to see and do.  I'm not talking about the world's biggest ball of twine, but there are so many great people who have done and are doing great things all over the country.  You don't even have to look at dams or steer a raft on the rapids of a river.  Meeting people along the way can be an adventure.  Not everyone is like those people on television or in the movies--even the people in Southern California.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stock Market "Anal"ysts

So, I follow Apple a bit too closely.  I missed out on buying a lot of stock in 1995 when they were at $13.50 per share.  Instead, I bought a Macintosh clone computer with the money.  That was a great choice, yes?

For years, since each quarterly demise of Apple, I watch the analysts predict the outcome--incorrectly.  Apple's CFO has the numbers for guidance in the next quarter and they ignore it totally and provide something unrealistic instead.

What happens?  Apple falls short (of unrealistic estimates but close to their own guidance).

I can only imagine why the "anal"ysts continue to choose their own path when it should be obvious, even to them, that they're consistently wrong.  Does it help them sell stock afterwards when the price drops?  Are they creating the price drop and buying stock?

Wall Street, like so much else, needs oversight.  I don't want big government, but without it, the gray areas overwhelm people and business and hurt us all.  Remember how stock brokerages were still pitching Enron shares when they were deep into their crisis?  If they're so smart, why wouldn't they know that the company was about to collapse?

Of course, the SEC should have been watching a lot of things and didn't.  After we read about Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, why wasn't the agency cleansed?  Federal "workers" who do no work shouldn't be on the payroll, should they?

However, Wall Street is a huge gray area, and these people watching the stock market will continue to take care of themselves, regardless of their customers.  That would seem to be their only agenda, so I still have to wonder why they can't estimate quarterly numbers realistically.  Perhaps, they're working under the influence.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A tale of two tablets

In a few minutes, Apple will start their presentation of several new products including the 7.85 (7.9 inch, actually) inch iPad, if that's actually the size, only they know at this time.  Six days later, Google are going to announce their next Nexus phone and re-formulated Nexus tablets, probably including a 10.1 inch model.

At this point, these tablets may be the only tablets you'll want, unless of course, you're okay living in the somewhat limited land.  I'm a fan of the Kindle Fire HD but it's not for me, as I'm not looking specifically for a book reader.

In the last 10 days, I bought a Nexus 7 tablet--right before the rumours started about the doubled storage version for the same price.  I was impressed by the display and disappointed with the jerky performance.  I could read Japanese and Chinese clearly and that's unusual in a 1280x800 display.  On the other hand, while playing my favourite mobile game, Galaxy on Fire (THD, in this case), the graphics would be flowing smoothly and suddenly jerk, as if different parts caught up with each other.  Had I not been using 3 (2 on iOS, 1 on Mac OS X) other versions of the game, I'd think that the game developers were not very good.

For most people, will this be a problem?  No.  They'll browse the web and handle e-mail and play Furious Pigeons, errrm, Angry Birds splendidly--I never use that word--splendidly.  They'll realize that the Nexus 7 tablet is the best thing since sliced bread and enjoy that they only paid US$249.99 for it.  I would have, except for the one issue--I may again.

Now, when Apple reveals their new tablet, and their enhanced 9.7 inch tablets, they'll have a rush of people buying the new models.  What's new about that?  They always have someone rushing to buy their products after the announcement.

I'm expecting that all tablet models will have agreeable LTE/4G connections in countries where LTE is fairly well populated, especially Australia where the government attacked Apple on LTE that didn't work with their networks.  The "new" iPad will be revised further to include their latest processor (A6X) with enhanced graphics capabilities and overall increased performance.

Rumours in the last few days suggest that the 7.85 (7.9) inch tablet will start at US$329 (correct!) instead of US$249.  I suppose this is reasonable for the increased display area.  Someone has to pay for that extra 0.85 inches.  I'm sure they've tested the heck out of it and performance will be as smooth as the idiomatic hot knife through butter.  Take that Google and announce something that smooth on the 29th!

I'm also looking forward to changes in the iMac, Mac mini, and more today, but most of the attention will go to the tablets.

Update: I'm confused as to Apple's attempt to put us to sleep with the iPad mini.  It's a good tablet but it's made up of older bits that did a very good job when they were new, but it's 2012, not 2011.  The Nexus 7 hardware with iOS would be great.  I'll probably buy an iPad mini when they're refurbished.  Since Google's presentation didn't happen, due to Hurricane Sandy, the new hardware arrived without much notice.  The Samsung-based Nexus 10 is a capable tablet with revisions on the latest ARM designs, and it's beaten handily, apparently in some early testing, by the fourth generation iPad.

Update 2: I returned my Nexus 7 tablet, with much trouble, and ended up buying a new 32 GB model for roughly the same price.  This one seems to have build issues, and the accelerometer seems to dislike calibration.  I really like the size and portability, but what's with making one that works correctly?  Is there so much pressure to grind these things out that few of them are good out of the box?  I saw some drop and water testing and was surprised that the Nexus 7 didn't survive.  Now, I'm doubly careful, and I'm extra careful anyway.  It's obviously not any better than the previous model, except for the storage capacity.  It's a missed opportunity, but perhaps Android 4.2.x will make it better.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Google Nexus my house [and gone, twice]

A few things changed and I drove to Sam's Club and picked up a Google Nexus 7 tablet.  Unfortunately, they didn't have a case or sleeve for them, but they're still relatively new and they also didn't have cases or sleeves for the Samsung Galaxy tablets.

I sat down with a slice of pizza, a drink, and proceeded to start the tablet.  It was easy to set up, and I was in business quickly.  It remembered part of what was me, from the Android-based phone, but because they don't store apps information for deleted but still wanted apps, it couldn't tell me which apps to download or otherwise, help me decide.  (Surprise! They saved my history in the web/desktop version of Google Play and I was able to initiate downloads to the Nexus 7 from there! Well done!)

I went over to Target, thinking that they try to cover all bases (what an idiom!) but they had nothing relevant, either.

The tablet was charging on the way home.  My microUSB-based charger from my Android-based phone (and the previous phone) worked just fine, although it heated up more than usual.  I noticed that the battery has a similar mAh rating as the battery in my MacBook.  That's a lot for such a small device.

After I arrived home, I started downloading some apps, including Galaxy on Fire 2 THD (Total Harmonic Distortion came to mind immediately), which is apparently the nVidia Tegra version.  It must be just me, but it seems strange that you download a tiny (4 MB?) app, and after you start it, it wants to download another 507 MB, I believe.  This was priced as "Free" in the Google Play store but once you get to a certain point in the story, they want payment.

I thought back for a minute to the point where I added my card to Google Checkout about the time I got the Android-based phone.  A week or so later, I received charges on my Visa Check Card, directly affecting my checking account.  I really didn't want to repeat that with Google Wallet or whatever mechanism they're now using.  I'm not sure whether it's safe or not.  I'll likely succumb to the demand, but I won't be comfortable for a while.

The tablet performs admirably and the display is wonderful.  Japanese and Chinese are clearly rendered, which is generally difficult.  The Tegra 3 4+1 core CPU seems to keep things flowing smoothly and I'm sure that Jelly Bean (4.1.2) adds to the favourable experience.  However, I find that Android still seems put together by a committee.  It looks as though they've massaged it here and there and refined it otherwise, but it still seems such a beta test release of software.

Apps work smoothly and are launched quickly, which is a huge difference from my previous Android experience.  As I've thought in the past, version 4 is a good starting point for Android--what should have been the 1.0 release.  Where is the !@#$ screenshot combination?  I use the Power button and the Home button on iOS and I have a screenshot, but nothing on Android but getting a separate app.  Another thing that's bugging me: if they want to get rid of the menu button, why is the menu button still used so frequently, though it's just hidden to the side?

I'm sure it will be interesting in the future, but it's still going to take time to learn to work it correctly and well.  Google and ASUS, you did a good job.

Update: Wouldn't you know it, there are rumors that Google and ASUS will release a 32 GB model for a similar price in the next few days.  That kind of thing has happened more than once.  When I bought a Nintendo Wii, for instance, it was reduced in price 8 days from then.  I returned the Nexus 7 to Sam's Club and the associate asked me if there was something wrong with all of them because they were getting a lot of returns.  I doubt it would be because of the price/new configurations since they have a time window for returns.  They have great hardware but they're just not great with Jelly Bean (Android 4.1.x) so far.  Let's see what happens on the 29th.

Update 2: I returned the 16 GB version, with much trouble, to Sam's Club and they had it a few days later (around the 29th) for $199.99. I later bought the 32 GB version at Staples with their accidental protection plan.  Given that cases are almost non-existent at the moment, anything could happen.  Staples had both the 16 GB and 32 GB versions at $249.99, and the protection plan was not yet priced, so it had a placeholder of $9999.99, a bit much.  The second tablet is a bit creaky, as if it was put together more hastily than the previous tablet I had.  Still, it seems to fit my hand better than the new iPad mini.  I'm sure the iPad mini is a better experience overall, but I'm not expecting revelations with any tablet.  For most of what I'm expecting, the Nexus 7 tablet fits me.

The sad thing is that I returned the second tablet.  It thought I was in Cisco, Texas for some reason, several hundred miles from my actual location.  There were other minor issues with it, but it never worked all that well.  For what it's worth, I still believe it showed a lot of promise and I still have $9.99 in it for a game that was tied to the nVidia Tegra architecture, but oh well.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nikon Opportunities?

I was thinking about equipment options and whether I should give up the ship and switch to Nikon.  The D600 (and D7000) have given me two good options.

I keep reading about how wonderful the variety of lenses are for Nikon bodies and how I could find anything I want and they're inexpensive, also.  I'm accustomed to dust and splash-resistant lenses, so I expect to pay more.  I also want my lenses to be able to be used wide open, not stopped down.

I was browsing the Sam's Club website, which has the D7000 for US$999, a bargain, yes?  The 24-120mm f/4.0 looked good and at US$1299.99, it wasn't a bad price for a premium lens, if it could fulfill my needs.  It could be used on either the D7000 or the D600.

The reviews I've read suggest that it has problems.  Now, I realize that it has a 5x zoom and that's 1-2x more than I usually find optimal.  I current use a 4x lens and a 3.85x lens that aren't priced that high and are quite good wide open.  They're dust- and splash-proof, so I can use them in hurricane weather, which I have.

So, I went to look at other lenses and I was startled to find that most of the premium lenses don't seem all that premium and have many compromises, except for the price.

I was interested in Panasonic's GH3 with the 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses but the 12-35mm had compromises I didn't like.  I'm finding that they're no worse than Nikon or Canon have done.  Besides that, the size is much smaller, so I can carry them more easily.  I could also have one body each and have them both at the ready.

I still would like to have a 135 format-sized body but only for the really wide angle work and maybe, Panasonic's 7-14mm would be enough for me.

I punted and ordered a refurbished version of Olympus' excellent 35-100mm f/2.0 lens.  It's about US$500 cheaper than retail.  It's only about 1.5 times the weight of my current 50-200mm and the f/2.0 should help with swimming photos since the pools appear bright but are quite dark, so I won't likely have to use flash at all.  It's also somewhat faster than Panasonic or Nikon versions covering that range.

As you'll be able to see from the photo, the 35-100mm is slightly bigger than my trusty 50-200mm, and the tripod collar seems permanently attached, although I can loosen it.  The filter size is a whole 10mm more at 77mm.  Update: I just added the excellent 14-35mm f/2.0 as well.  It's amazing how large it is.  It makes the E-5 body look smaller, especially compared to my original "kit" lens, the 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

All of the mirror-less entries have arrived for now

Now that Canon has introduced their mirror-less camera system, we have entries from each major brand:

Canon are the newest with their EOS-M.

Pentax have their K-01 and Q-system bodies; one huge, one tiny.

Nikon have a small format with the distinction of phase detection auto focus.

Samsung have had multiple models but not much success.

Sony have had multiple models and some success but lack good lenses, or many lenses of any quality.

Panasonic and Olympus originated the idea and have a diverse selection with some excellent fixed focal length lenses, but they're struggling with size and weight to bring excellent zoom lenses to the market.

Comparing them casually

To me, Canon's entry is only adequate.  They're coming to market with a mediocre set of specifications and features.  The image quality is quite nice, but they waited so long that you're paying a premium price for performance that's already been done.

Pentax have the most bizarre ideas for mirror-less cameras.  The K-01 is about the same size as their dSLRs and mounts the same lenses, but it also has all the disadvantages of mirror-less cameras with slow operation, and of course, the most unusual designer design.  The Q-system isn't really winning any friends.  It's small but it's not cute.  They could have designed it to match the old Auto 110 SLR (they had a point-and-shoot like that) and it would give people a fond memory on which to purchase the system.  Instead, they gave it a blocky design that looks uncomfortable to hold and use.  Supposedly, it doesn't work all that well, either.

Nikon have done well in selling their 1-system.  I suspect it's mostly their dSLR customers buying into the system but it's small and pocketable and cute.  They're on their second generation, and it's not as bad as it might seem from the specification.

What happened with Samsung?  They couldn't get along with Pentax?  They had worked together as Samsung got into the dSLR field but they just couldn't find common ground?  It seems as though they copied Sony style and specifications (and name, NX vs. NEX?), but came up with something almost no one really wanted.  I've been told that their dSLRs were better than the Pentax branded dSLRs from which they were originated, so why couldn't they work with Pentax so both companies would avoid embarrassment?

Sony keeps coming up with clever bodies to match their electronics focus.  Unfortunately, they made most of the bodies so compact that you need proprietary accessories.  Besides that, the lenses required by the image circle or the APS-C sized sensor have to be rather big and appear huge on the smallest bodies.  Image quality is generally good, but the compromises are high for what they're asking of the user, especially since they have few good lenses and no spectacular lenses.

I'm more inclined to believe in Panasonic and Olympus since I'm a Four-Thirds user, having two high end Olympus dSLR bodies.  They have a number of fixed focal length (prime) lenses that are quite great.  I keep reading that they're even better than those on 135 format camera bodies.  It wouldn't surprise me since Olympus has a history of great lenses.  The zoom lenses are the problem.  Both companies have chosen small and light over excellent image quality.  Panasonic often corrects lens problems in the camera's firmware and Olympus has begun to do this also.  This still doesn't excuse poor designs but for hobbyists, does it matter?  I see a lot who want a US$5000 lens for US$100 but I suppose that's always the case.  What's sadly humorous is that I cannot nitpick the others like this--they don't have the products to nitpick.  The micro Four-Thirds image quality has improved so much that many reviews of the Olympus E-M5 suggest that you need to move to 135 format (full frame, as they mistakenly call it) to see an appreciable difference.

In 10 years, will there even be a dSLR market?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Oil prices and demand

I was watching CNBC earlier and they were talking about the price of crude oil dropping, due to decreased demand.  They couldn't seem to understand why demand wasn't there.

I'm sure the people working for the network have plenty of money, so maybe they don't realize how difficult it is for many people to buy gasoline, heat their houses, etc., and eat, pay bills, etc.?

When the price of gasoline goes higher, I'm less likely to buy.  I'll hold on for a while until I really need to fill the tank.  If I'm away from the town where I live, I can often choose a location with cheaper gasoline or head to a Sam's Club with gasoline.

Of course, once the price of gasoline bottoms (at ever higher prices) and people fill their tanks, the government will report that demand is up, and the vultures will buy oil and gasoline futures again, driving prices up.

I'm thinking that the refiners aren't making huge profits this time, as they were the last couple of years.  I looked back at 2008 and oil (West Texas Crude/Intermediate?) was about $100 per barrel and the price of regular unleaded was running me about $4.15 and 9/10.  (Why are we still doing the 9/10 after all these years?  The stock market finally dropped fractions.  Of course, there was that short-lived change to liters in the 1980s.)  It wasn't that long ago we were over $4.00 per gallon but the price of a barrel of oil was relatively low.

I'm all for companies making a profit and paying their employees well, but why do they need to be pigs, messing with people's lives?  They know that some people need to drive to make money and that their pay check isn't going to increase with the price of gasoline.  It seems as though the U.S. government removing price controls really caused a lot of problems for us all, and free-r enterprise hasn't justified their changes, nor given us the mentioned benefits of increased competition.

Update: 2013.09.02: Funny how we've been through a period where they said that the demand was the lowest since the 1980s (we were struggling then, too) and yet, the prices continue to be high.   Since I've switched to diesel fuel, I'm less likely to be affected since the price doesn't fluctuate much.  Even in California, the price wasn't abnormally high but finding a station with diesel was another matter.  It's easier to find during the road trip than in a neighborhood.

As an aside, I was watching an Indianapolis news station talk about the state's unemployment rate being up a bit, somewhere in the 8.x% area.  There was no mention of the people who aren't receiving unemployment compensation, and those who have given up at all.  Indiana was an unemployment mess in the 1980s but at least, it was more honest about the reality of the situation then.  We knew that those jobs weren't returning.  There was also something on that same station about a union-related picnic and the people who talked just didn't get it.  The unions (IBEW and UAW and Steelworkers) have been responsible for many factories closing in the rust belt, but they take no responsibility, and compromise is still not an option to them.

Too many times now, the choice of food or fuel isn't a 50-50 question for those who work.  They have to go to work, and in small towns, it's not likely they can ride a bus.  In this town, you could walk, but they didn't add sidewalks in most areas since the 1950s.  Even during the expansion of U.S. 40, they left out sidewalks, as though people in wheelchairs could just slog through the mud and snow.  Where we have sidewalks, they finally finished the mandated wheelchair mini-ramps at corners.  Odd that I remember Philadelphia finishing that work in 1996.