2008-08-31

Beware of morons.

I recently read that someone is going to blow a lot of money on research into biometric authentication here in Norway. Specificly fingerprint readers.

This makes me a bit curious as to how research funds are managed. What sort of idiot blows millions on this when there is research to be done that is both more useful and more likely to produce useful knowledge?

Biometric authentication through fingerprint readers is a dead end. Get over it.

2008-08-30

iPhone security problem.

My colleague Matt pointed out that the iPhone has a security problem related to the feature that allows you to make emergency calls. This allows a user to bypass the PIN and gain access to the whole phone by way of the contact list. I don't remember the exact details and I don't have an iPhone myself, but Matt demonstrated the security hole and it was trivial to use. You do not need any special software or to hook up the iPhone in order to bypass the security.

I am assuming that this problem is present in 2.0.2 since the iPhone was purchased about a week ago.

The conclusion is that Apple really need to rethink the way they protect the iPhone and the iPod touch and they need to come up with a solution quickly. Given that it would provide access to your email accounts and other potentially sensitive systems, this makes the iPhone a definite risk factor.

If you lose your iPhone all your email is available to anyone who finds the iPhone.

If you can provide some details on this problem, feel free to leave a comment and if need be I'll update this blog posting to summarize.

"Get out of jail free"-card?

A number of former members of parliament here in Norway have over the years received higher pensions than they were supposed to. None of them spoke up -- and if one is to believe them: none of them noticed. They all accepted way more money than they were due. For several years. And they didn't notice.

Right.

I do not believe them. It is just not plausible that people who think themselves capable of running a country would not notice. And if they didn't, then by their own standards, they should have noticed and they would still be at fault. This is the way ordinary people are treated; and this is the way these politicians deserve to be treated. In my eyes, they are not special. In fact, in my eyes it is of great importance that they be treated the same as everyone else.

If any regular, blue-collar Joe got a few bucks too much on his pension, the various sharp implements the norwegian government uses for forcibly extracting money from people who owe her would be set into motion. You don't want to owe the norwegian government money. They are a pretty ruthless bunch of bullies.

Of course, the politicians in question are wriggling pathetically in the spotlight. It is rather disgusting to me that most of them seem to expect special treatment. Why on earth should we treat them differently from other people? If what they did would have ordinary people branded as criminals then the same ought to apply to them.

At the very least they need to pay back every last øre -- just like anyone else would have to. And they need to start doing it now.

Then it is only fair that they get punished in a way comparable to what ordinary people can expect if they swindle the state. If that means jail-time, I expect the politicians to grow a spine and take it on the chin.

2008-08-28

Artsy.

There's nothing like buying the fruits of someone's creativity and then get an insult for free.

I've got a big smile on my face.

2008-08-23

Opposing views

I recently suggested to a podcaster (whom I am not going to name) that they should have a discussion about an important topic and that I thought it was important to invite people from both sides of the issue. In part because I think it is important to understand why people I disagree with hold the views they do -- and in part because a one-sided discussion isn't really all that interesting. It is mere masturbation.

The podcaster in question didn't seem to be interested in bringing on someone with views opposite of those held by the podcaster and the majority of his audience. The impression I got was that he didn't want to give the opposing view airtime.

How can one defend one's position when one is afraid, or unwilling, to let people who hold different beliefs have their say in an open debate? Indeed, I agree with the positon of the podcaster on the issue in question -- but I still think it is pretty gutless to rule out any dialogue with people one disagrees with.

Belief in humanity today: -1

2008-08-22

iTunes and iPod Touch wishlist.

iPod Touch
  1. I'd like better protection than that offered by entry of a simple 4 digit pin. An iPod Touch may have access to your personal email and other services and the access control should take this into account.
  2. Make it possible to turn off/on the protection for certain apps. The main pain point being that it is unreasonable to have to unlock and enter the pin every time I want to do something relatively trivial on my iPod Touch like turn up or down the volume, skip a track or similar. (Failing that, having a volume, play/pause button and skip buttons in the unlock dialog would help). Fredrik Rodland pointed out to me that you can get the iPod play/pause, skip and volume controls by double-clicking the front button.
iTunes
  1. Make the thing properly multithreaded. The interface should be responsive even though you are downloading, importing or plugging in your iPod.
  2. Solve the IO problems that seem to affect iTunes. When playing a movie while downloading iTunes often gets really choppy playback due to lack of IO prioritization among disk accesses.
  3. Provide a proper console for iTunes to report back what it is doing -- the multi-modal display at the top isn't very good. Make it possible to cancel scheduled activities (like sync'ing a file to the iPod after you've hit Sync, but before iTunes has gotten around to that file).
  4. Make sure the iPod comes up in iTunes as soon as it is plugged in. Don't wait around for network accesses that may have to time out first.
  5. I ripped all my CDs to MP3 many years ago. Many of these (about 1/3 of my collection) mp3s lack good ID3 tags. Please make adding ID3 tags to heaps of poorly og inconsistently tagged mp3s easier. Something that can intelligently derive information from file and directory names would be ideal. Perhaps in conjunction with metadata from the iTunes store (for instance, say I have all the tracks from an album in a directory, it would help greatly if it would make it possible to make educated guesses if I indicate what album it is)
iTunes Music Store
  1. Get movie rentals and TV series sorted out for Europe. I am on Norway. Movies have yet to become available. Please tell the studios that them dragging their feet costs them money. Right now the only way to get hold of movies and TV shows in any timely fashion is to download them illegally. It is not because people are cheap -- it is because the studios do not provide the product customers want.
  2. For the most part, I hate the localized iTunes. I approach music by genre -- not nationality. Marketing people are too hung up on market segments, borders and nationality. I am sure for some customers that is indeed important, but I am not one of them.
  3. OK, so this is a special request, but would it be possible to work out some deal with Formula One Management about distribution of their practices, qualifying and races online? If need be as a rental model? Again, what appears to be the prevalent model is that these are captured from TV and then distributed illegaly over the net. Greed and silly licensing deals is getting in the way of a business opportunity. (Yes, I know Bernie tighter than Ebeneezer Scrooge, but it wouldn't hurt to make him understand he really has nothing to lose).

2008-08-19

Nikon Coolpix P6000; get Canon G9 instead.

I'm a Nikon DSLR owner and as much as I like my Nikon DSLRs, I've been recommending the Canon G9 to people who want a compact camera that gives the user some measure of manual control. Not too long ago I was made aware of the P6000 -- Nikon's answer to the Canon G9 and I was somewhat excited. Mind you, I don't really care about the fact that they've bumped the resolution a bit and added nifty features like a GPS and an ethernet interface.

I just wanted a compact camera that gives me manual control of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, access to RAW images and good image quality. Period.

On the surface the P6000 looked promising, but when I started reading the fine print I discovered exactly how incredibly clueless Nikon are: the RAW support is tied to Windows Imaging Component -- meaning that you can forget about the RAW support unless you are running WIC-based applications. On Windows.

I'm not. Nor is the majority of photographers I know.

I am not sure what process governs how these decisions are made at Nikon, but someone needs to make these people aware of the fact that they are clearly on the wrong path. Also, this is not the first time Nikon do things that end up hurting them. Remember their stupid decision to obfuscate white-balance data?

A few tips to Nikon:
  • Try to understand your users. Your users want access to RAW images and they want to use their favorite applications. They want to use Aperture, Lightroom, Bibble etc. Ignore this at your peril.
  • Nikon Capture is not a compelling piece of software. The fact that I have Nikon Capture but that I never use it should tell you how worthless it is to me: you can't even get me to use it by giving it away to me for free. I still pay to use applications from your competitors.
  • You don't need to own the whole value-chain to be successful. The more choice and flexibility you give your users, the more compelling your camera products are to users. Your software offerings are bad. Make them mandatory and it will hurt parts of the value chain that aren't bad (ie. your cameras).
  • Guess what platform most artists, photographers, publishers etc use. Do you really want to exclude the core demographic in your choice of platform?
As for the P6000, it is a vaguely interesting camera, but with RAW-support being completely bungled, it isn't really worth buying. Get the Canon G9 instead. One can hope that Nikon will eventually grow a clue, but it is more likely that an updated G9 will emerge before Nikon clean up their act.

2008-08-15

4 tips for taking pictures of cars.

A lot of people have asked me how to take pictures of cars. First off I'd like to point out that I'm a hobbyist photographer. After years of taking pictures I only have a rather basic grasp on taking pictures, but I am still learning a lot of new things all the time.

Also, I am not sure I have that much to teach other people about photography, but since a lot of people do ask, I'll try to jot down some tips.

Note that these are just tips. I am going to mention a lot of stuff a beginner doesn't necessarily know and I won' be providing any explanations for most of them because other people have written about these things much better than I can. The idea is that you can use this as a starting point and then look for the things you don't understand on the net. For example, if you don't know what "aperture" means, look it up.

1. Learn the basics

Learn how to use the camera. Focus on understanding aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Forget about everything else and shut off all the automatic gadgetry -- most of it is just useless anyway. Learn how varying the aperture affects the picture. Make sure you understand terms such as "depth of field".
Avoid shooting in program mode ("P") or auto (usually a green setting on the wheel of SLRs I've used). I only use program mode as sort of an emergency setting -- when I know the camera has the wrong settings for the light and the important thing is just to get the shot within the next 2 seconds. But even then you have to know what the camera does. For instance you need to know how the camera calculates exposures. Tip: use spot metering mode and make sure the point you use for measuring is roughly equivalent to 18% gray. Some people use matrix mode. I don't understand fully how the camera calculates the exposure in matrix mode so I avoid it. Use spot metering, learn how to identify areas in your picture that are equivalent to about 18% gray, lock exposure to that measurement and shoot.

Use aperture priority ("A" on most cameras) or manual mode ("M") and take lots of pictures. You don't need to learn what every knob does, but if you can pick up a camera, make some test-shots and end up with good settings in manual mode within just a few seconds, you are going to have a huge advantage. Again, learn the basics. Get an instinctive feel for your camera. You need to be able to adapt quickly to changing light conditions.

2. Choose an interesting angle.

Most people walk up to a car and then snap pictures of it from a standing position. Then they upload their pictures and they look exactly the same as a billion other pictures of the same car.

Try to find interesting angles. Crawl on the ground, go up close, move around the car and look at it. Designers spend billions each year trying to come up with unique designs for cars. Try to figure out what makes a car interesting. Look for details. It is okay to choose odd angles and just take pictures of small details.

For instance, a lot of sports cars have interesting hip/shoulder areas. If you are always shooting the car from the front, three-quarters or the side, you are going to miss out on these details. It is like taking pictures of Elle MacPherson and then ignoring the fact that she has a rear end that'll make your eyes water.

Some cars have dramatic lines that are just too distinct to ignore -- lite the 916 series Alfa Romeo GTV. Look at the razor sharp line that goes from the boot lid all the way down to the front wheel-arch. There's drama and balls to that design. Capture it in the image.

Other cars, like the Alfa Romeo Bertone coupes have a butch front end. The car looks like a real bully of a bulldog. Especially if you take off the front bumper. That's a car that you want to shoot from the front -- but you can be creative about it.

Also, don't be afraid of using wide-angle lenses. I hear a lot of bitching and moaning about how fisheye lenses distort everything and how the result seems unnatural. Utter rubbish. Don't be afraid of taking screwy pictures -- screwy is good.

3. Post-process.

What I have a hard time understanding is the "purists" who insist on not doing any post processing to their pictures. Taking the picture is just half the job. Creative post processing is what breathes life into pictures. What you do is up to you, of course, but most pictures can do with some cropping, sharpening, color adjustments, exposure adjustments, contrast adjustments etc.
Learn how the tools work and be quick about your initial editing. If you take a lot of pictures you want to develop a bag of tricks that can be applied quickly. You want to be able to quickly determine if a picture can be made good -- if you can't think of anything: move along to the next. You can always go back and revisit pictures.
The picture of the Citroen with the camper van sat in my archive for months until I revisited it. The first time around I had no idea what to do with it. Months later I played with it for 3-4 minutes and uploaded this picture to flickr -- I didn't think it was that great but a lot of people really liked it. The first version was just incredibly dull.

I happen to like really saturated colors and harsh contrasts. I also like to use vignetting -- and not just around the eges: sometimes I use Photoshop to draw vignettes to drown out the visual clutter around the car. To focus the image more dramatically on the car.

That isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I think that especially when you shoot cars, colors that are saturated to the point where it almost becomes obscene and color drips off the picture looks a lot better than just trying to keep things natural. Go a little bit crazy.

4. Look at what others do.

It is no coincidence that Top Gear is a popular TV show. Look at the way they shoot cars. Sure, they do video, but the same principles apply. Look at the angles, look at the use (and abuse) of colors. Look at the crazy, odd vignetting they do. These people know how how to shoot cars. They can even make the cars designed by Chris Bangle look good and they even managed to make a Lexus look exciting in one of their episodes (which is no small accomplishment given that almost all cars built by Lada look more interesting than a Lexus).

Also look for what not to do. Look at dull photos of cars and ask yourself what went wrong. Why does the photo not stand out? What would you do differently?


Anyway, I said I didn't have much to teach you. The most important point of them all is "learn the basics". To get a nice picture, first you have to get the shot.

2008-08-13

Italian Day 2008

This weekend it was once again time for "Italiensk Dag", which directly translates to "Italian Day". This is an annual event where people who drive Italian cars and motorcycles meet to show off their machinery, do some laps on the race track and ogle whatever goodies are on display.

And boy were there some goodies on display this year. In particular one car. The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. I have seen a lot of supercars up close and personal. The 8C may not be as wild as the Pagani Zonda or as well-handling as the Ferrari 430 -- but it is a sensual, curvacious beauty of a car. And indeed, she sounds better than her cousin, the Ferrari 430. At low revs, she purrs like an enormous cat -- at high revs she has a wonderful snarl, and when you let go of the throttle she crackles and pops like a race car. I bet the propellerheads at the Alfa Romeo Engine Sound Department worked a lot of hours when tuning the exhaust for this car. And the result is stunning.

When, at the end of the day, the engine was fired up and she rolled onto the track, the whole place fell silent. Hundreds of car geeks who only moments earlier had been prattling on with enthusiasm about rust and nuts and bolts and paintwork suddenly fell silent. The 8C rolled into the pitlane, the clouds parted and (I am not making this up) the sun shon down on the most beautiful car I've seen in a long time.

It was a bit of a letdown that the driver didn't have the cojones to give the car some stick, but I can't blame him -- I would probably have done the same thing.

Hmm, no. Not really.

As for the car I arrived in: Ståle and I spent some late evenings picking apart the old 2 litre Nord engine of our Alfa Romeo 75 and then putting it back together again. Now the old girl has a new head-gasket and instead of producing white smoke, she now billows blue smoke.

In case you are confused: we consider this an improvement.

Especially under engine-braking she produces blue smoke, as I was told after taking her onto the track and spanking her bottom. Blue smoke under engine-braking we have a diagnosis for and it will be dealt with later.

We did a few other things as well, including changing the lower wishbone ball-joint (next time: buy or make the proper tools first) and jury-rigged the rubber thingy that goes around the steering rack. Don't worry, it is a sound solution, but not a permanent one.

All things considered, the 75 did OK on track. She is too soft in the front for my taste, so we need to flatten her a bit in the corners -- hard transitions are a bit of an adventure. Either stronger torsion bars, a stiffer sway bar or both. I also want a bit of negative camber at the front. Oh, and it would help in the wet if the steering didn't have 873265 turns lock to lock. I had a bit of a moment in a corner when I let the back go a tad further than I had anticipated.

That being said: two geeks who have no idea what they are doing took the engine apart, put it back together again, drove her 450 kilometers, drove 80 kilometers on track, then drove her 450 kilometers back again and the car worked all the way.

Lovely.

On the way back we actually opened the windows a couple of times. You know, to get the full aroma of the car. Although still being far from being one, she does have that Alfa Romeo racing smell. The mixture of hot oil, gasoline, exhaust and that lovely smell of hot brakes. Mmm. It may be hard for you to imagine, but I love those smells and what they mean :)

2008-08-01

Goodbye GM?

The writing has been on the wall for many years now and it amazes me that the american car industry has been so inept in anticipating the inevitable changes in consumer demand as gas prices have increased. As sales of large, gas-guzzling, low quality american cars plummet, the sales of small asian and european cars is booming. And the american car industry? They have no response.

They've had years to anticipate this change in consumer behavior. They should have been prepared to scale down production of large cars and scale up production of smaller cars. They should have worked a lot harder at making production of smaller cars more cost-efficient. Why on earth are they lagging so badly behind the rest of the world? Where does the automotive industry find these useless executives? Have they been completely stoned out of their mind the past 7 years? What about the major share-holders? Do they want to lose money?