So I Can Close the Tab

I came across Ken Rockwell’s site the other day, and, as I perused a lot, I came across his interesting mention of the Casio EX-F1. I’ve “graduated” from integrated point-and-shoots to digital SLRs, although this camera costs more than my digital SLR and three lenses put together.

Photographically, it’s mediocre. 6 megapixels. Except you don’t buy this thing for its resolution. You crave it because:

  • 60 frames per second at 6 megapixels. (Note that most movies are shot at 24 fps.)
  • “[S]tereo HDTV movies,” although I confess that I’m not quite sure what that means.
  • Continuous shooting mode, where it’s just constantly shooting at 60fps, and, when you hit the shutter, saves the ones around that time. Thus, you can actually get shots from before you click the shutter.
  • A maximum shutter speed of 1/40,000 second. That is not a typo.
  • 60 frames per second is ridiculous. But if you can take a cut in resolution, you can go further, all the way to 1,200 frames per second at a pitiful 336×96.

Actually, 336×96 isn’t just tiny, it’s a really weird size. I’ve resized (and cropped) a random photo of mine down to 336×96:

336×96 Pixels

In conclusion… 6 megapixel camera, with a long zoom lens equivalent to 36-432mm. And it’s an HDTV video camera. And it’s got the crazy bonus of letting you use shutter speeds of 1/40,000 of a second, and capture low-res video at 1,200 frames/second. I wouldn’t carry it as my main camera (though it would probably be entirely usable for that), but I’d love one of these in my bag for video and such.

I also wonder about the “trickle-down” effect. Although really, more like the “trickle-out effect.” Nikon’s D3 will give pretty clean shots at ISO 6400, something no other camera even tries to offer. It goes up to ISO 25,600. Canon and Nikon are very close when it comes to the frames-per-second rate of their high-end digital SLRs; 7-9 frames/second. (Hint: get rid of the shutter, which is useless on a digital camera where you can just “read” the sensor for a given period of time.) Companies keep focusing on packing more and more megapixels into smaller and smaller sensors. As I’ve said before, I have a 20×30″ print from my 6-megapixel camera. (Cropped a bit, too, actually.) I only “upgraded” to my 10-megapixel XTi because the old one broke and you can’t buy a 6-megapixel SLR anymore. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve seen an end to the megapixel arms race. We exceeded the resolution you could squeeze out of film a long time ago, and now we’re giving medium format a run for its money. When I go to buy a new SLR in maybe five years, I don’t want it to be more than 10 megapixels. But I hope that it goes a lot further than 6 megapixels. And if a “prosumer” point-and-shoot camera does 60 frames per second at full resolution, all of a sudden 3 frames per second on an SLR looks pathetic. Similarly, I’m unaware of any still camera (aside from maybe weird scientific-engineered stuff) that will take a 1/40,000-second exposure, or any flash that’s capable of running at 7 frames per second.

(That said, I’m having a hard time figuring out when you’d need a 1/40,000-second exposure. I only hit my camera’s 1/2,000-second limit when I’m too lazy to stop the lens down…)

The Dream Network

Periodically I come across deals for computers that are very tempting. I’m not necessarily in the market right away: I’m going to keep my laptop until I’ve been working long enough that I can afford something stellar. It’s silly to “upgrade” a little bit. But every time I see these deals, I think of the various ways I could set things up… My “ideal (but realistic) computer” would actually be a network:

  • Network infrastructure: Gigabit Ethernet, switched, over Cat6. 10GigE and fiber are cool, but really not worth the cost for a home network.
  • A server machine. It needn’t be anything too powerful, and could (should) be something that doesn’t use a ton of electricity. The machine would run Linux and serve multiple rolls:
    • Fileserver. It’d have a handful (4-6?) of 500GB disks, running RAID. While performance is important, it’s important to me that this thing be very ‘safe’ and not lose data. (Actually, in a very ideal setup, there’d be two fileservers for maximum redundancy, but my goal with this setup is to be reasonable. What interests me, though, is that I think it’d be possible to use an uncommon but awesome network file system like Coda or AFS, but also have some network shares on top of that service that ‘look normal,’ so Windows could just merrily connect to an M: drive or whatnot, merrily oblivious to the fact that the fileserver is actually a network of two machines.) It’s important that the machine have gobs of free space, so that I can merrily rip every CD and DVD I own, save every photo I take, and back up my computers, without every worrying about being almost out of disk space. It’s also important to be hyper-organized here, and have one “share” for music, one “share” for photos I’ve taken, etc.
    • Internet gateway. It’d act as my router/firewall to the Internet, and also do stuff like DNS caching. It may or may not serve as a caching proxy; I tend to only notice caches when they act up, but then again, it might be quite helpful.
    • Timeserver. For about $100 you can get a good GPS with PPS (pulse-per-second) output and keep time down to a microsecond. Hook it up to the serial port of this machine, and have your local machine sync to that for unnecessarily accurate time. (Actually, it looks like you can do PTP in software with reasonable accuracy?)
    • Asterisk machine, potentially taking in an analog phone line and also VoIP services, and giving me a nice IP-based system to use, blending them all so it’s transparent how they’re coming in. It would also do stuff like voicemail, call routing/forwarding, etc. For added fun, it could be made to do faxes: receive them and save them as a PDF, and act as a “printer” for outgoing faxes. The code’s there to do this already.
    • Printserver. If you have multiple machines, it’s best to hang your printer(s) off of an always-on server. It could speak CUPS or the like to Linux, and simultaneously share the printer for Windows hosts.
    • MythTV backend? But most likely not; I’d prefer to offload that to a more powerful machine, rather than bogging down a server.
  • Primary desktop. Surprisingly, a quad-core system, 4 GB of RAM, and a 24″ LCD can be had for around $1,000 these days. That’s all I need in a system. I have my Logitech G15, which is all the keyboard I need. My concern is with what to run… These days I make use of Windows and Linux pretty heavily. I think virtualization will be mature enough by the time I’m actually going for a setup like this to allow me to get a Linux-based Xen host and run Windows inside of a virtual machine with no performance degradation. (This is actually mostly possible already, but as Andrew will attest, Xen can still have some kinks….) The system should have a big monitor. It’d be interesting to put something like an 8GB solid-state drive in it and use that for a super-fast boot, but the jury’s still out on whether it’s worthwhile. (I guess that some places are pushing SSD under some special name to make Windows boot instantly, but the reviews I’ve heard suggest that it gives a nominal improvement at best.)
  • Secondary desktop. Pay attention for a while to the short bursts of time when you can’t use your computer. The system locks up for a bit, or it’s just unbearably slow while the disks spin up and get a massive file, or you have to reboot, or you’re playing a full-screen game and die and wait 15 seconds to respawn, or….. In this “ideal setup,” I’d have a second machine. It needn’t be anything special; in fact, it could be the cheapest machine possible. It’d basically run Firefox, AIM/IRC, Picasa (off of the network fileserver), iTunes, and the like. For the sake of completeness, it should probably run whatever the other system doesn’t, out of Linux, XP, and Vista.


A cool map of lightning frequency over time across the globe. And a live version for the U.S. Heck, a zoomed-in version on the Northeast for the past 60 minutes. It turns out that you can even buy a small Lightning Detector to map local lightning strikes on your PC. It listens for the signature static crashes from lightning, sometimes called sferics (short for atmospheric noise), much like you can hear on an AM radio during a storm. You can even listen to streaming audio from NASA‘s (Alabama) VLF receiver.

Sit in the Corner

I started a blog post about this, but it talked about terabytes NASs, HDTV DVRs, VoIP / SIP, LDAP, DNS caches, NTP strata, and a bunch of acronyms.

So instead I’ll be incredibly precise. This PC, seemingly sold only at Walmart, is really cool. It’s not that fast. Its specs are bad any way you look at them. Unless you look at power consumption. 20 Watts peak power, 2 Watts average. By comparison, my desktop machine has a 300 Watt power supply. For someone who wants to set up an always-on Linux server, this thing is screaming your name. I’m strongly attracted to the idea of setting this thing up with handful of 500 GB drives, to build a network fileserver with a terabyte or two of capacity. And doing software RAID across them. (I’m fairly certain that the hard drives would draw more power than the whole system… Although you could set up power-saving features, since a home fileserver could surely power down the drives periodically.)

There’s also a cheaper one that seems to be the same, except it comes with 512 MB RAM instead of a gig, and comes with gOS instead of Vista. I’m dying to play with OpenFiler, a Linux-based “appliance” software package for some superb fileserver tools.

Business School

As I’ve mentioned in a few past posts, those of us in business school really don’t think normally. Having found that there are a lot of good jobs in Nashua (versus my previously-narrow search in Boston), I started looking, out of curiosity, at real estate in Nashua. And I stumbled across this place, a home with an attached storefront.

It’s located in a very dense rural area, and seems like it may have a high percentage of renters in the neighborhood. So I thought a laundromat may do well. Of course, you also stock a lot of vending machines. Although labor really isn’t necessary, I’d probably want to employ one person to watch over things, and maybe to do laundry for people who want to drop stuff off, and to help customers who need it. I’ve read that it’s hard to keep good staff, but really, the job requirements are minimal–you have to be able to work a washing machine, be friendly to people, and watch over the store. You’d probably have a lot of free time, too, which could be spent watching TV, surfing the web, or whatever. And I don’t think I could bring myself to pay less than $8/hour or so.

It’s hard to find much information on commercially-available solutions, but a “water recycling” system could help cut costs, too–filtering the “waste water” and reusing it. Additionally, I’d sell plastic “gift cards,” at a small discount. ($50 for $45 or so.) The cards would also help everyone by not being coins, meaning that they wouldn’t have to lug around a pocket full of quarters, and I wouldn’t have to empty huge hoppers of quarters. (Although a lot of coin-based places seem to end up being “closed loops” of quarters–you put your bills into the change machine, get quarters, and put them into the washers or vending machines. So at the end of the week, I go in and move the quarters back into the change machine, and take the bills to the bank.) Selling the pre-paid cards, though, would generate a lot of cash up front, which could be put into a high-yield savings account. If you get a gift certificate for your birthday, how long until you spend it? Especially when it’s a “bulk” item (something you can spent on multiple visits), it may well be six months or longer before you’ve depleted it. Further, gift certificates also get forgotten and lost. Thus, if I sell $5,000 in gift certificates, I might only ever have an expense of, say, $4,500. And that $5,000 is in the bank earning me a decent chunk of interest.

They now make cheap security cameras that do resolutions like 1280×1024, versus the standard 640×480. And with things like ZoneMinder on Linux, it’s easy to set up an excellent camera system on the cheap.

I’d also pull in a cheap cable/DSL line and offer free WiFi for people doing laundry. Hopefully, while waiting for their laundry, they’d also buy some food from the vending machines. (As long as I have someone working there, actually, we could maybe serve fresh, hot food, like hot dogs or pizza!)

And of course, there are benefits to me besides the income. I wouldn’t need a washer and dryer in my home, since I’d have a dozen attached to my home. And I wouldn’t need to buy Internet access, since I’ve already got it at the laundromat. Plus, it’s occasionally a problem to have packages delivered to my house, as no one’s home and they might need a signature. Now I’ve got an employee who could collect them.

Of course, only after developing a killer business plan in my head did it occur to me that maybe I don’t want a home in a not-so-hot neighborood, especially one where I don’t have a driveway.

Awesome Radios

So the Project 25 protocol, with its IMBE CAI digital voice, is being rolled out in huge numbers. Motorola’s ASTRO is the most commonly-used, although several other providers make radios that do the P25 standard, too.

They’re calling it interoperability. When you and the next town over both buy $3,000 radios doing a crappy 9600bps digital audio protocol, your radios can talk to each other! I’m really not sure who fell for this, since the existing strategy, analog voice, worked 100% of the time. They’re switching people over to a new, proprietary (kind of: the voice codec is proprietary, but it’s part of an open standard) digital system so that everyone’s radios can talk to each other. This has never made sense to me.

The other big problem is that there are multiple bands out there. In New Hampshire, VHF is most common. You’ll find police, fire, and ambulances between 152 and 161 MHz. (More or less: they expand a bit on both sides.) Massachusetts is big on UHF, with the police usually being between 460 and 490 MHz. But it’s not quite that standard–some municipalities do their own thing. The 800 MHz band is becoming big, too, especially with trunked radio systems. You find that a lot in big cities. (Indeed, I think Manchester and Nashua are on 800, though I don’t monitor either so I wouldn’t swear to it.) And now there’s a 700 MHz band coming out that’s slowly being introduced.

As a ham, we have allocations on VHF and UHF that are both very common: 144-148 MHz and 420 or 430 through 450 MHz. Since both are commonly used, a lot of ham radios will do both bands. So my ham radios merrily transmit on both VHF and UHF. But, for whatever reason, this never caught on with “commercial” radios, like the ones public safety agencies use. If you want your police cars to monitor VHF and UHF, you put two radios in them. God forbid you work for something like a huge city, or a regional task force, where you may need to communicate on VHF, UHF, and 800 MHz. That’s three radios everyone will need to carry.

Vertex (the “commercial” branch of Yaesu, a ham company) made a dual-band radio. Once. The FTH-2070 came out in the 80s (?) and did VHF and UHF in one radio. It was huge, but for people who needed both bands (lots), it was a huge boost. For some reason, no one ever made a radio to follow in its footsteps, and the radio hasn’t been made for several years.

So it’s actually a grand mess. You have four different bands that a public safety agency may be on. They might be using analog voice, or they might using digital. (And this isn’t even counting wacked-out proprietary standards like OpenSky / EDACS / SmartNet, which are all additional technologies that need their own radios.)

Finally, someone saw the light. Thales has announced The Liberty, a handheld that supports P25 digital (and, of course, analog voice), and covers all four major bands. Pricing is rumored to be around $5,000, but you have to keep in mind that it’s doing the job of four radios that would probably cost $2,500 each. It’s SDR-based, front-panel programmable, and supports several different encryption protocols as well.

Thales previous filled a bit of a niche market. It looks like they do a lot of government stuff, and I seem to recall them being bigger overseas (but maybe I’m confusing them with another company). But this radio has a lot of high-end radio afficionados over here drooling. They not only did a dual-band radio, but they did a multi-band radio. It’s got a big color screen. (What the functionality is remains to be seen.) I think a lot of people, not just me, are hoping that this will lead to more competition, which will lead to more innovation.

Thick & Thin

Kyle has an awesome 22″ LCD. His is probably 6″ thick in the back.

I have a 14.1″ laptop. My LCD is probably less than 1/2″ thin in the back.

Why is this? My first guess was the power supply. But I’ve seen a few LCDs where they’ve taken out the power supplies and put them on the floor. And frankly, you could fold up my whole laptop, glue the power brick onto the back, and it wouldn’t be any thicker than stand-alone LCDs.

Imagine if someone made a 22″ LCD that was 1/2″ thick. Ceteris paribus, I’d buy one.

I suppose one “disadvantage” is that I could probably, if I tried, grip my LCD at each corner, flex with all my might, and ruin the LCD. If I tried that on Kyle’s (don’t worry, I won’t!), I doubt I could. It’s inside a huge frame. But I don’t buy that this is a reason to not provide it.

Steve, I’m counting on you.


I lost the lottery last night. Actually, I never even entered. The drawing was for $270 million (30-year annuity), or $164.3 million cash. The stakes were high, but I still didn’t dare risk life and limb to go buy lottery tickets. Further, I’d have to clear my car off and I was feeling pretty lazy. I hoped it would roll over. Sadly, this was not the case.

But some of us were talking about what we’d do if we won. Not the “I’d buy an awesome house” or lease a 10GigE line. But financial planning stuff. First, we started the debate over whether you take the cash or the annuity. $270 million over 30 years is $9 million a year. Not to knock $9 million, but if I won $270 million, $9 million a year would seem pretty pathetic.  So I pulled out my trusty old financial calculator.

Let’s call the $164.3 million a nice even $150 million. You take $14.3 million off the top to get your indulgences out of the way. At 4% interest (realistic enough for something like a treasury note) over 30 years, you’d make $500,000 interest a month. (Assuming that you took the $500,000 out each month to spend.) That’s $6 million a year, or two-thirds of what you’d be getting if you took the annuity. Except you’ve already paid cash for a house overlooking Hollywood and shared your riches with your friends and family bought a couple cars too. Conversely, if you didn’t take your $500,000 a month out, you’d have just shy of $500 million in the bank at the end of 30 years.

So I’d definitely have taken out the cash.

The other thing I overlooked in the past is the concept of using annuities. I might like to host a scholarship, for example. I’d want $50,000 each year to fund it. Assuming the same 4% interest, you’d sock aside ($50,000 / 0.04), or $1.25 million. And then each year take out the $50,000 accumulated interest.

But, alas, I didn’t win. So no 10GigE to my home (probably not feasible anyway–transit costs are much less than I expected, but the cost of a fiber circuit to your home isn’t accounted for, and I’m not sure you can just call up Verizon and ask for them to light up a 10GigE link to LAIIX for you…)


I’m a long-term radio geek, and I’ve realized that the technology interests me more than actually using it. Having worked with lots and lots of radios (I realized that I have three sitting on my desk, all of which I have used in the past 30 minutes), I’ve concluded that I’d like to start a radio company. Our motto would be, “Our radios don’t suck.”

One of my radios is a ham radio, which is front-panel programmable (FPP), meaning that you can punch in frequencies on the keypad. This is pretty common with ham radios. By contrast, land-mobile radios (things that, say, a police officer would carry) very rarely have FPP capability; in fact, the FCC frowns on certifying radios with that capability, except for certain federal agencies that need to be able to reprogram their radios in the field. However, it’s often offered as a software add-on. But even using the ham radio, it’s really hard to use. Part of the problem is that the radio’s probably a decade old, and the print on the keypad has worn off. So I’m guessing at what buttons do.

There are very few radios with a graphic LCD. Dot-matrix LCDs almost seem cutting-edge in the radio world. By contrast, try to find a cell phone that doesn’t have a big color LCD on it. I have an old Garmin GPS III, and still admire that screen. I think it’s four shades of gray, and fairly high resolution. It’s a nice graphic LCD. It’s so much easier to use, and introduces stuff like the ability to “arrow” around a screen, as opposed to trying to use obscure key combinations. I’d actually love to see something like a 2″ by 2″ e-ink display (which, in addition to looking amazing, would reduce power usage), but it’d be a pain since it’s slow to redraw.

Motorola’s MDC1200 technology is practically ubiquitious in the public safety industry, transmitting a 1200 bps data burst containing a four-digit identifier. This could be so easily improved. Put a little $20 GPS chip in it, and have it transmit GPS coordinates on each transmission. (You could also include stuff like battery level, if on a portable, and information on received signal strength. The latter would be useful to run in the background and plot a map of the radio system’s reach.)

Programming is always a pain. Some of Motorola’s radios are programmed in ways that are so obscure that they border on comical. (I think the goal there is security.) I want to write an XML file for my radio. Put a USB port on the side of the radio. Let me hook it up to a computer, or just plug a thumb drive in and reprogram from that. But consider bigger problems, though. Boston PD switched to an “improved” channel lineup last year. Apparently they worked for weeks to pull radios in at the end of a shift, load up the new set of data, but leave the radios set to old configuration, until all the radios had the new programming in them. And then, at a quiet time one day, they broadcast a message telling officers how to switch to the new configuration. Over-the-air programming is possible, but it’s generally used in some specific situations. (OTACS, Motorola’s Over The Air Channel Steering, to direct a radio to switch to a particular channel, and OTAR, Over the Air Rekeying, to send new encryption keys to the radios.) Why not let the system send out bursts of programming data when the radio system is idle, loading up new programming data in the background, until they’re ready? Obviously, all of these programming things need some security constraints, but that’s trivial to implement.

I’m pretty confident that software-defined radio is going to become ubiquitous in the next decade, but no one’s really making use of it yet, except for uber-geeks in labs. APCO’s Project 25 digital voice (IMBE) has emerged as a standard in digital voice, but it’s meant to be made obsolete in the future by a “Phase II” implementation. Various other technologies have come and gone, such as Motorola’s VSELP. And there exist myriad trunking protocols for larger networks. I want to embrace SDR and use it in everything, “future-proofing” radios. (Of course companies have an incentive to not future-proof their hardware, forcing people to upgrade… But you can still make your money on selling software upgrades!)

Oh, and put an SD slot on the darn thing. Record the audio it receives, letting people play back transmissions they miss. Or host applications. (Or, permit programming!)


LCD and plasma TVs are becoming increasingly popular, costing between $1,000 and $3,000.

If you have that budget in mind, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time suddenly becomes viable: buy a projector and mount it on your ceiling. Of course, only the very high-end projectors will do the 1920×1080 that 1080i and 1080p do, but 1024×768 is very doable for under $1,000, and the difference in resolution shouldn’t be all that noticeable. And then you’ve got something like a 100″ screen. Wow-a-wee-wow!

The caveat, of course, is that few (if any?) projectors include tuners, so you’d have to set up a PC for that, something like a Mythbox. But one can be put together for around $500, and that naively assumes that you don’t already have a spare computer with a tuner card or two.