Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deep Thought for the Day

Nuisance - that which causes offence, annoyance, trouble or injury.

gNewSense - pronounced nuisance - a derivative of Ubuntu which causes offence, annoyance, trouble or injury by stripping out what few bits actually make Ubuntu usable, all in the name of "freedom".
I posted this almost verbatim as Anonymous on LinuxHaters. It differs by but one very special word. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the original and discover that very special (missing) word.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Olympus E-P1 Very Near Release

Olympus is in the midst of releasing a new camera line based on the µ4/3rds camera standard. The µ4/3rds sensor is the same size and type as in the regular E-series 4/3rds DSLRs (such as my E-3 and E-300), but the lens-base-to-sensor distance has been reduced to make the body smaller as well as the lenses. You can use regular 4/3rds lenses with the newer body buy using an adapter.

The best roundup of news and rumors seems to be 1001 Noisy Cameras. You'll find a whole slew of pictures, images, and links to other stories there. From what I've seen it looks to be a sweet little camera with a power punch. Whether I'll buy one or not is another matter. Because it uses the same sensor as a regular Olympus DSLR the image quality will be the same (as will the image size). The question for me is how would I use it. I've got both an E-3 and E-300, and I'm quite satisfied with both. But I must admit to a little Olympus fanboydom, and sometimes something is worth owning for its own sake.

Update
The new E-P1 will use a SD/SDHC card instead of Olympus' xD cards. That feature removes a big impediment to owning an E-P1. I don't know how many customers Olympus has lost in the point-and-shoot marketplace because of their stubbornness over using their own xD format rather than SD. Perhaps this design decision will ripple throughout their camera lines. One can only hope.

Twitterific Whole Again

Looks like Apple sent a new upgrade to Twitterific in record time. I was able to download a working upgrade midnight last night. Right now it's back to work, and it's in sync with the PC Twitter clients. I'm amazed by both Twitterific and Apple. Thanks guys for working together in a timely fashion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Olympus E-3 System Six Months On

It's been six months since December of last year when I first opened all the boxes on my E-3 and its lenses and equipment. While it isn't perfect (what camera truly is), I'm satisfied with it to the point where I'll give it up when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

System Specifics

With the exception of two lenses (the Zuiko 9-18mm and Sigma 30mm) every piece of equipment was purchased back in December of 2008, when the prices were anywhere from 35%-50% off of MSRP. It was remarkable. Since that time the prices have risen back to reclaim half their mark-off. I wish I'd purchased more, but my budget had a firm fixed limit.

My system is composed of the following:
  • E-3 Body
  • HLD-4 vertical grip
  • FL-50R flash
  • 12-60mm Digital Zuiko High Grade ED SWD 5:1 zoom
  • 50-200mm Digital Zuiko High Grade ED SWD 4:1 zoom
  • 9-18mm Digital Zuiko Standard Grade ED 2:1 zoom
  • 30mm Sigma DC HSM f/1.4 prime
Other bits and pieces include a pair of SanDisk Extreme III 30MB/s Compact Flash cards, Hoya Pro1 Digital Filters for everything but the Sigma (it has none at this time), a Hoya Pro1 Digital circular polarizer (72mm for the 12-60mm and the 9-18mm), extra batter packs (WASABI Power 1900mAh BLM-1 replacements from Blue Nook), all of which is kept in a Kata OC-82 camera bag.

Camera bag: Kata OC-82 Interior

Although the Kata looks large in the picture, it fits easily over my shoulder and the whole kit is light enough and rugged enough for travel to just about anywhere. When I'm out shooting for real I use two bodies, the E-3 with the 50-200mm mounted and my older E-300 with the 12-60mm.

Observations

As I said earlier I'm quite satisfied with the whole system, but it does have its quirks. I'm going to begin to document my observations. I won't get to all of them (after all I want to write more than one post about this wonderful camera). Here goes.
  • General Fit and Finish - Because it was released in November of 2007, there were already a number of very long reviews of the E-3 and many of the lenses I own (see links below). I read each and every one, paying attention to comments about the camera's quality, as well as looking at sample shots. Based on what I read I pulled the trigger and ordered everything on-line.

    When I ordered the E-3 body, I ordered it as part of a kit that included the 12-60mm and the FL-50R flash. The body was the first item that came out of packing and as soon as my hands touched it I could tell immediately that it was a well crafted, precision instrument. Then I unpacked and mounted the 12-60mm and attached the HLD-4 vertical grip. Each component also exuded the same quality feel, fit, and finish. As soon as the lens and vertical grip were mounted and the E-3 was 'complete' it felt like it was molded specifically to fit my hands. Although there was weight and heft to the total package it didn't feel overly heavy, just substantial. After six months of constant use nothing has changed. If anything, my attachment to the camera has grown stronger. The E-3 plus 12-60mm goes with me in my car everywhere I go. As soon as my hand lifts it up the camera system is ready to take any picture I care to take.

  • Battery Operation - I run the E-3 with the Wasabi's, choosing to put the original Olympus BLM-1's in another vertical grip mounted on my E-300. I've discovered that I get the longest battery times when shooting strictly through the viewfinder. Using live view will cut into the time between battery changes/recharges. One way to really kill the battery life is to use the USB port to view images on the compact flash. I don't know why. When pulling images off the card I turn the camera off, remove the compact flash, and use a SanDisk USB 2 reader with Olympus Master 2 to view and post-process the images.

  • Live View - As mentioned above, running Live View can be a real battery killer. And yet, in spite of that, when you need Live View you really need it, and it's worth the cost in battery life. It's just not something to be turned on and left on.

    I use Live View for the odd shot; camera above my head for the downward look, or off to the side, or sitting on a flat surface such as a table or railing for support. To make it most effective I pre-focus so that when it's active I see the scene in focus. That's because autofocus doesn't work until you press the shutter, and the mirror drops down to allow autofocus to work. That's the bad part of Live View as it's implemented on the E-3; when you enable it the mirror goes up allowing the output of the sensor to be seen directly on the back pivoting LCD. It allows you to really see the scene in detail, but when you press the shutter for your exposure, the mirror is dropped down, the camera then attempts to autofocus and set exposure, after which the mirror then snaps back up out of the way, the shutter is triggered for the exposure, and then Live View continues. It's great for thoughtful shooting, but not so much for fast action.

    Live View does have one excellent feature. I can use live view to immediately gauge proper white balance and exposure compensation (if in program mode) or how manually setting shutter speed and aperture effect exposure before taking the shot, even using live histogram through the INFO button on the back of the camera.

  • Auto Focus - Auto-focus speed and accuracy varies with the lens in use. The fastest and most accurate auto-focusing lens I have is the 12-60mm. It is lightening fast and always (and I mean always) dead on. I have never had a problem with autofocus with that lens.

    Autofocus with the 50-200mm is a little less satisfactory. Focus speed is fast, but not as fast as the 12-60mm. Furthermore there has been the rare but occasional time where the 50-200 has refused to focus lock. I shoot single-focus plus manual, so when the 50-200mm starts to hunt I grab the focus collar and manually focus myself.

    The 9-18mm, not being an SWD lens, is much slower than either the 12-60mm or the 50-200mm. But it is as accurate as the 12-60mm. My biggest complaint with it is the lack of weather sealing and its slower f-st0p. But the only really good alternative is the Super High-Grade 7-14mm, and it costs 3 times as much as the 9-18mm. For my needs I can live with the 9-18mm; it's an Olympus and it still produces beautiful images.

    The final lens in the collection is the Sigma 30mm. The Sigma is notorious for suffering from back-focus and front-focus problems, especially on the E-3. I've been lucky in that mine seems to focus reasonably well. But the problem with the 30mm is the knife-thin depth of field wide open. It isn't so much that it front- or back-focuses but that it wrong-focuses. As a consequence I usually put the 30mm on manual focus and just focus the Old Fashioned Film Way with the viewfinder. Every time I hear about how images are out of focus with the 30mm, I'm reminded of the film days when people would complain about out-of-focus or blurry shots made with 50mm f/1.4 or faster primes. The advice given back about how to use those lenses still applies today. In spite of its occasional problem, when it works it works beautifully, producing quality images that stand with Olympus glass.

  • In Body Image Stabilization - It works. Regardless of what you may read on dead trees or in forums, Olympus IS on the E-3 is an image saver, especially when hand-held shooting with the 50-200mm at 200mm (400mm effective 35mm focal length). And because it's in-body it works with every lens attached to the E-3. For tripod work (studio, some outdoor architecture and panorama work) it's not that important a feature. But for all hand-held work I can't stress enough how much it helps get the shot, especially in dodgy light.

  • Weather Sealing - The E-3, the 12-60mm, and the 50-200mm are all weather sealed. I can't count any more the number of times I've been caught out in the Florida rain with my E-3 and 12-60mm. And I mean drenched. All I have to do is dry both myself and my camera off, and every thing's good. The other good reason for weather sealing is the transition from air conditioning to the hot muggy out-of-doors. During the transition from cold to hot all the glass surfaces get coated with moisture. After about a minute the camera warms up to the ambient temperature and I'm off shooting. But the sealing does keep the moisture from building up in the body, for which I am thankful.
There's quite a bit more to write about; each lens in particular and the flash are deserving of their own entry. Suffice to say that it's a great camera, a great system, and it is an excellent value for the money spent.

Links

Olympus E-3 A Technical Review and Reference
Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm 1:2.8-4.0 review
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm 1:4-5.6 review

Twitpocalypse? No, just sloppy design

Ars Technica wrote a little article about how the interwebs were all a-twitter over its belief in a looming Twitpocalypse. Everything Twitter was supposed to shut down because somebody, somewhere, decided to use a signed 32-bit value as a unique key for every tweet posted to Twitter. Once the value rolled past 2,147,483,647 and into negative territory then everything was supposed grind to a screeching halt. And then all those Twits who couldn't tweet would just shrivel up and die. If only.

Well, things didn't turn out as catastrophic as many had feared (unfortunately). I've been experimenting with three Twitter clients. One of them has failed, I would suspect, due to the 32-bit value roll-over. The client that failed is Twitterific on my iPod Touch. The other two clients, twhirl for Windows and the regular Twitter web interface, seem to be cooking right along.



I can't complain too much about Twitterific. The Touch (and by association the iPhone) make a poor Twitter client due to the lack of a real keypad. Typing with the virtual keyboard is painfully slow. And since it was free it turns out to be worth exactly what I paid for it. Nothing. I'm debating now whether to wipe Twitterific off or wait for the long, slow, tortuous Apple process to accredit and spit out a Twitterific update that fixes the problem. Yeah, I think my morbid curiosity in this matter motivates me to hang onto the old and busted just so I can see what happens.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fedora 11

I decided to try out the latest Fedora, 11, over the weekend. The biggest reason is that the company I work for "sanctions" the use of Fedora on corporate machines. Rather than go through the trouble of installing Fedora 11 on my company notebook I decided to take the lazy way out and run the Live CD on europa.

I know that europa is getting on in years; I purchased all the parts to the machine Christmas 2003. Over the years I've upgraded the video card and replaced one of its two drives. The primary drive, the one on which Windows XP is installed, has worked tirelessly since initial installation and power up. If I'm to believe Palimpsest, Fedora 11's latest utility, then that drive has some problems.



Which, I suppose, is to be expected after such a long period of use.

As is usual I've just poked around Fedora 11 a little bit, noting the obvious in-your-face deficiencies. One of the biggest worth noting is the wildly inconsistent default font sizes that come on the Live CD, and I assume, would get installed. Note, as but one example, the poor placement of controls on the Firefox upload image dialog due to the inconsistent default font sizes.



Some may so "So what? Just pick the proper sizes and move on." I answer back that other distributions have solved this problem already. For example, Mint 7 and OpenSolaris 2009.06 don't have this issue. In point of fact the Mint 7 desktop experience kicks Fedora 11 to the curb. And laughs. Fedora 11's default font problems are just another indicator of the sloppy quality in this release.

I'm not the only one to ping Fedora 11 over it's questionable release quality. Ryan Paul of Ars Technica noted in his preview that quality issues "prevent me from giving Fedora 11 the strong endorsement that I have typically given to new Fedora releases in the past."

For now, I think I'll stick with Fedora 10 on my work system, and Mint 7 on the home system. I don't have time or patience to go looking for more trouble.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Let Detroit Die

My Red PriusLike everybody else in the world I've been listening to the drama unfold around the Big Three automakers; Form, GM, and Chrysler. Chrysler has already traveled so far through bankruptcy that it's preparing to come back out as a "leaner" automotive company. GM has just started it's tortuous walk through the process, with GM's spin twisting reality so much they're claiming this "isn't about going out of business - this is about getting down to business."

Horsedung.

GM had the EV-1 in the late 90's. They then worked to destroy the car and any ability to manufacture more, turning instead to SUVs and big trucks. My wife and I wanted an EV-1 in the worse way, regardless of the warts. And we lived in Florida, not California. For normal small cars (i.e. non-hybrid or pure EV), GM had not one but two high-mileage brands, the Geo Metro (via Suzuki) and the Saturn. The Geo Metro was an inexpensive car with gas mileage that stretched up to the mid-40's and beyond. For more up-scale buyers there were the original Saturns. But in the end GM let those wither away as well, preferring to sell the SUVs and big trucks that eventually killed them when $4/gallon gas along with the credit crisis killed the SUVs and big truck market.

But what galls me more than anything else beyond the billions poured into GM and Chrysler is the government's push to have a MPG fleet average of 35.5 MGP. By 2016. Why not now? My nearly-new 2009 Toyota Prius Hybrid gets a practical 48 MPG in usual driving around Orlando (surface streets and highways, rain or shine). When I drove to Tallahassee this weekend, the average MPG at 65MPH up I-75 and west on I-10 was 50MPG. The car this country needs for 2016 is already being manufactured and sold by Toyota in 2009. And the third-generation Prius, to be officially introduced in August, will do even better. Without government mandates and without money poured into the corrupt festering carcases of GM and Chrysler.

We've waited decades to get from the domestics what we can now purchase from the imports. And we'll have to wait another five years to get anywhere close to what we can get now. There is no "risk/reward" anymore in business. This bailout proves that you can do anything you want, including destroying a company, and all you have to do is hold an important sector hostage by your failure and the government will come and bail you out. To hell with citizens such as my wife and I making the right, responsible decision. And buying the Prius was such as right and responsible decision, on so many levels.

Yes, indeed. Say hello to the new president, same as the old president.

Monday, June 08, 2009

OpenSolaris 2009.06 and USB drives

I was asked by Beranger in a comment to the last post if OpenSolaris 2009.06 would detect and automount USB drives. Yes, it will. See the screenshot to the right.

This test was conducted using the LiveCD only. The USB thumb drive I tested this with was an older SanDisk cruzer micro 1GB. It was formated as FAT 32. When plugged in the desktop mounted the thumb drive fairly quickly, then popped up two dialogs; one informing me I had installed an Audio CD and asking what application I wanted to launch, and the other informing me that it contained "software intended to be run automatically. Would you like to run it?" I found the second dialog rather interesting since the application it detected was a Windows executable. This particular USB drive still contains LaunchU3.exe. I've changed the Windows registry on my machines to essentially block this feature and thus ignore it. I find it interesting that OpenSolaris still detects the "fingerprints" of the automatic execution capability of this thumb drive. At least OpenSolaris asked before blindly executing.

I'm beginning to think that perhaps this release of OpenSolaris is worth further investigation. But I've still got way to much life in front of me to waste time or money on installing this. Although perhaps installing a removable drive bay on europa would be a good investment. Hard drives are dirt cheap, and removable media for experimental purposes would be better than trying to create a multi-boot system.

Friday, June 05, 2009

OpenSolaris 2009.06 Live CD

I downloaded and booted the LiveCD version of OpenSolaris 2009.6, more for consistency than anything else I suppose. Europa booted into the OpenSolaris graphical desktop at 1024 by 768, which is too low for the card and the monitor. When I changed the resolution to 1280 x 1024, the screen resized fine but the upper and lower Gnome panels didn't move to fit the new screen size (check screen capture left). Which brings up another nit. Normally on a Gnome desktop hitting PrintScreen will bring up the screenshot save applet. This desktop doesn't do that. Fortunately you can bring it up via the main menu (Applications | Graphics | Save Screenshot). Such are the minor nits to be found after five minutes of very casual use. Oh well.

Is this version fit to challenge Linux? That depends on who you are. If you're a Windows-Hater/Linux-Lover then it won't satisfy you. Not because if any specific inferiority of the system, but simply because ItsNotLinux(tm). At the other extreme, if you're a RealUnix(tm) user, then this release of OpenSolaris should prove intriguing, at least enough to download the ISO and give it a spin.

OpenSolaris is underpinned by RealUnix(tm), not the ersatz implementation of Linux. Because of that underpinning it's a lot closer to Mac OS X in spirit with regards to its Unix lineage (as are all the BSDs for that matter). Even if the userspace environment has been 'polluted' by the GNU tool chain, at least the OpenSolaris kernel is TrueUnix(tm).

I do like the Nimbus-themed controls and window border. I also like how the desktop behaves, especially with regards to dialog boxes and the placement of various buttons. Other nice little touches are the ability to once again open a terminal from the desktop menu, the ability to change the resolution directly from the same desktop menu, and the general fit-and-finish of the graphical desktop (nits notwithstanding). My biggest complaint is the lack of Google's Chrome. Instead we have Firefox 3.1b3, which I'm not too crazy about. I have no clue how the Solaris repository system works so I don't know if it's possible to upgrade to the final release.

Since OpenSolaris is TrueUnix(tm) and not Linux, it can't read europa's existing Linux filesystems from the LiveCD. So any idea of installing and importing existing Linux filesystems is is a non-starter. Again, my personal ignorance of OpenSolaris hinders me from knowing if it will allow for a dual-boot setup with Windows (XP/Vista/Win7). So even if I wanted to just wipe the existing Linux installation and give it to OpenSolaris, I have no desire to risk trashing Windows on europa.

Considered on its own merits this version of OpenSolaris is enticing enough to play around with, if you have gobs of free time to invest. Unfortunately I don't, and my current strong dislike of most contemporary Linux distributions isn't strong enough to motivate me to play around with it either.

As good as it might be, perhaps the critics are right; perhaps it is too little, too late.

Update
Well I'll be damned. It's shipping with Java 6 on the LiveCD. In fact it's shipping with update 13. Considering that update 14 was just released, that's pretty cutting edge. And about time, since it's Sun (a.k.a. Oracle (gag)) that manages development of both. Perhaps OpenSolaris could be considered as a premier Java development platform, especially if Java runs better on OpenSolaris than it does on Linux (on the exact same hardware platform).