Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Ming report

Ming (our MiHome robot vacuum) has been with us for over a year now and, along with a stickvac for handing doormats and hard to reach places, has undertaken all our vacuum cleaning duties. In that time, Ming has spent about 55 hours cleaning and has cleaned 3,112m2 in 113 separate cleanups (about two a week). There have been no breakdowns or repairs required, only routine emptying of the dustbin, and cleaning of brushes and filters (just like an ordinary vac). The spare brushes and filters that we purchased with Ming remain in their box unused and the app says our next filter replacement is still 93 hours away.

Ming's performance is very good, though not perfect. Most of our house is carpet and, like any vac Ming sometimes fails to pick up seeds or other items that have snagged in the carpet fibres. This is common to all vacs, but with a manual vac you have the option of going over the item several times until it either picks up or you give up and pick it up yourself. If Ming doesn't get it on one of her two passes, then it stays until you bring out the stickvac or bend down to do it yourself. It's not a big problem and in a clean of the whole house there might be a handful of items left at the end of the clean.

The other area where Ming is less than perfect is on hard floors with small, hard items. Ming has a small rotating side brush that is intended to push edge items into the cleaning path of the main brush. Unfortunately, if an item is hard and loose, the side brush can skitter it way past the main cleaning brush and into an area that has already been cleaned. Again, I am nitpicking here; it doesn't happen much (unless you spill a cearial box!) and the stickvac sorts it out if I am feeling fussy.

Unfortunately we are, I have to report, rather cruel owners. Ming has her own 'dock' in one of the bedrooms. When she finishes cleaning she is supposed to return to her dock and park. But, if you close the door to the room then, when she has finished cleaning, she will roam the house looking for her dock. When, eventually, she can't find it she will give up and tell you (in a rather plaintive voice) that she can't find the dock. It's a bit like teasing a child or a pet, by hiding their favourite toy, only without the emotional damage. (How immature is that?)

Ming has been a great purchase and if she does breakdown at some point, will certainly be replaced with a later model.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Slumming it (photographically speaking)

I've lost count of the amount of money I have spent on photographic gear over the last fifty or so years, but I'm guessing that it comes to tens of thousands of dollars in today's money. There is a fairly high correlation between the cost of camera gear and its quality so, if you want the quality, you generally have to pay the price. But this year I have been 'slumming it', carrying some modest 'point and shoot' cameras that lurk nearer the bottom end of the cost and quality spectrum.

The thing is, there have been some significant advances in software this year that allow even photos from cheaper cameras to end up looking and feeling as if they have come from more expensive gear. Take these five photos; photographically they are nothing special - all of them came from a single one-hour walk 'around the block'. But the final image quality is similar to the quality I would get from my full frame DSLR, rather than a JPG from a point and shoot; which is what they actually are.

This is a very freeing development: To get good quality results, I don't need to carry a heavy rucksack of expensive gear around - just a tiny camera that fits in my shirt pocket. The expensive DSLR? It still has it's special uses; just not so many and not so frequently. Anyway, I'm finding that slumming it is fun.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Dr Who

I was fifteen when Dr Who first hit the small screen. In true time traveller fashion, the Doctor has followed me through my adult life until, a week ago, I started watching the first Dr Who with a female lead.

Perhaps, by the age of seventy,  I should have outgrown Dr Who but no, the new Doctor is just as captivating as it was fifty-five years ago. The basic formula is still the same; weird space monsters, death-dealing organisms from beyond your worse nightmares, and salvation through the trusty old sonic-screwdriver. The Tardis, somewhat surprisingly, doesn't make an appearance until the end of the second episode and, when it does, it has had a facelift fit for a new Doctor.

And new the Doctor certainly is. The combination of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and not one or two, but three, travelling companions (including Bradley Walsh) brings a new, more relational, dynamic to the series. It's as though the old techno-space-fantasy cake mixture has had a few more nuts and cherries added - not enough to be sickly, but just enough to add something special to the flavour.

I like it. It looks and feels very 2018 while staying faithful to the Dr Who heritage. That's not an easy thing to do, but the new series continues the legacy and maintains Dr Who's "cult classic" status for yet another season. Exemplary.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

David and Goliath

Reading the political tea-leaves this week has been interesting; so many half-understood facts slipped noisily into place. I refer, of course, to the Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges saga - a true David and Goliath battle which, in this case, will be memorable for both protagonists being slain.

Bridges completely misread the narrative that was playing out. He was working on the "will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" narrative and, when the expenses leak came to light, clearly thought that the Speaker and the House, in general, would do his dirty work for him - why else make such a big hoo-ha over what should have been a non-issue?

Fortunately, as things unravelled, the Speaker of the House saw the gambit for what it was, cancelled the inquiry and tossed the hot potato back to National. Bridges still fixated on removing JLR, decided to run his own inquiry and pressed on with the turbulent priest narrative. This was a very bad call for Bridges: turbulent priest plays out undercover with mercenary actors who can take the blame (think Saudi embassy in Turkey). JRL however, backed into a corner with only a few pebbles in his pocket, comes out swinging, revealing the underlying David and Goliath narrative.

Bridges now finds himself exposed in the public arena acting out a narrative detestable to the National Party. No one wins here. The David and Goliath story is famous only because it is the one in a thousand situation where the David actually wins. The odds of JLR winning in any meaningful way, are infinitesimal. But Bridges has already lost because this should never have played out in public and the cost to the National Party's reputation is huge. Dead Goliath walking.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Topaz AI Gigapixel - tested

When Topaz came out with their AI Gigapixel (AIG), image resizing product, I was sceptical. Firstly, I had tried many resizing products in the past and had settled on one that worked quite well (within the accepted constraints of resizing). Could AIG, do better than what I was already using? I doubted it.

My first attempt was not good. AIG crashed on first use and clearly didn't want to work with my graphics card. I walked away disappointed but not altogether surprised. I told myself that, anyway, it probably wouldn't have been any better than what I was already using.

I must be a glutton for punishment because when the email arrived announcing an improved 1.1 version, I downloaded it and tried again. This version included a CPU mode, which bypassed the GPU on my graphics card. That should, at least, allow it to run.

It did run, and the first output looked surprisingly good. So I devised a stricter test - I took a 24MP DSLR image and downsized it, in my normal editing program, to 6MP (half the width and height). I then put the 6MP image through AI Gigapixel at 200% to bring it back to its original size. I could then compare the original 24MP image with the enlarged 24MP AIG image and see how different they were.

The AIG image was sharper than the original. AIG obviously adds some sharpening during the resizing process. To compensate, I added some sharpening to the original file so that they were more directly comparable. What I was really looking for was a loss of detail and fat 'jaggy' edges in the enlargement. At 100% I could not see any difference between the two files. Definitely, not the result I was expecting.
Screenshot - Original 24MP file on left - 6MP file enlarged to 24MP on right (click to see full size) 
The screen-shot above is taken at 200% magnification and contains both in focus and out of focus items. The original image is on the left and the AIG resized image is on the right. I am still struggling to see any significant difference between the two images. Not quite believing what I was seeing, I repeated the same test on other images all with a similar result.

As a final test, I took an image from a different camera - a compact with a 1/2.3", 16Mp sized sensor. I enlarged the image by 200% in my image editor, using the bicubic sampling method and then enlarged the same image in AIG and compared the results. The screenshot below, is at 200% magnification and the results are quite surprising - the AIG image has much finer detail (particularly at the edges), texture seems to have been replicated rather than enlarged, and image grain has been suppressed to a far greater extent, leading to a much cleaner image that would be difficult to pick as an enlargement.
Screenshot - Bicubic enlargement on left, AIG enlargement on right (click to see full size)
All my tests with AIG have been at 200% enlargement because that is what I would normally use. But AIG can enlarge up to 600% (though the results may not be so acceptable). The shrink-enlarge experiment indicates that AIG could be an effective substitute for a camera sensor with four times as many pixels (16MP becomes 64MP) or for a longer focal length lens. AIG produces significantly better results when compared with either a standard bicubic enlargement or previous industry-leading enlargers.

US$99 does seem a lot for a single task piece of software. But when compared with the cost of a camera with a larger sensor or a lens with a longer reach, AI Gigapixel may well be a reasonably priced alternative.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Lenovo N23 Yoga Chromebook

Lenovo N23 Yoga Chromebook

A few weeks ago, when our daughter's ten-year-old DEL laptop had a fall and met an untimely end, our three-year-old Acer Chromebook got moved on and a new Chromebook took its place - the Lenovo N23 Yoga.

At NZ$481, the N23 Yoga isn't the cheapest Chromebook around though it was cheaper than our old Acer Chromebook had cost three years ago. We chose the Lenovo, based upon its excellent reviews, physical flexibility (it is a Yoga, after all), ability to run Android apps and its price. We have not been disappointed.

Chromebooks make great family computers. As I write this, I have another family member's Windows 10 laptop sitting on the table. It is only a few weeks old and was driving the user crazy because it had slowed to a crawl. On inspection, it seemed to have slowed because it had started a Windows update. I let it run its course and the update eventually took about six hours - this is not a problem Chromebook users experience.

Having a Chromebook that can run Android apps is a huge advantage. No longer are users limited to a relatively small number of Chrome apps and cloud services, but a vast array of Android apps can be installed and used locally just as you would on a phone or tablet. Nearly all my photo editing is done on a desktop, but, when not in the office, it was great to be able to edit pictures on the Yoga using the Android app "Snapseed" rather than having to upload the picture to a web service and edit it in the cloud.

The Lenovo comes with an ARM processor (as did the Acer). Booting from cold in the morning takes less than 10 seconds and during the day it is instantly 'on' from standby. The battery lasts about 8-10 hours of actual use. Fold the touch screen into tablet mode and it effectively becomes an 11.6inch Android tablet (though a rather heavy and thick tablet). With 4Gb of RAM and 32Gb storage, the Lenovo is no slouch either - even with several Chrome tabs open, it flys along at a more than acceptable pace. The keyboard is a typical chicklet 'button' type, though it is good and responsive and I can keep up a good typing pace.

Chromebooks are great for non-technical users or as a spare device and the Lenovo N23 Yoga is a great Chromebook at a reasonable price.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Gemini at three months

Three months is long enough for the excitement of a new gadget to wear off and the reality of life with the Gemini to make itself known. The first month of Gemini ownership was not all plain sailing; after all, this was a version one, crowd-funded device. However, my expectations were suitably calibrated and, with that in mind, I can honestly say that the Gemini has exceeded those expectations. Now that the initial problems have been resolved, the device has become my day-to-day phone and mini-laptop and I see no reason why that shouldn’t continue well into the future.
Gemini alongside old Psion stylus (doesn't work with Gemini!)
Let me say upfront, that I use the stock Android firmware as delivered (and subsequently updated) by Planet Computers. I have not attempted to root, dual boot or install Linux, Sailfish et al. My days of playing with Linux are long gone – life is too short. Others who have been down the Linux route have reported various degrees of success and failure – one or two with apparently ‘bricked’ devices. Planet Computers have indeed delivered a dual-booting device, but what the user chooses to dual boot into is largely up to them and, as it used to say on ancient maps, "here be dragons".

So, leaving Linux out of the equation, let’s deal with the two biggest issues that people raise in relation to the Gemini as a phone replacement – there’s no external screen and only an optional low-quality external camera.

If you are someone who walks around with your phone in hand watching the screen and occasionally thumb typing on the move, then the Gemini is probably not going to work for you. It works for me because I like to keep my phone in a pocket and take it out only when needed. To stop having to get my phone out at every beep, ding or chime, I wear a smartwatch and have done so ever since Pebble. In effect, my watch is an external screen and so I don’t miss not having one on the Gemini - in fact, I prefer it this way.
Gemini and external screen (Amazfit Bip smartwatch)
When it comes to the poor camera options, I am similarly unconcerned. At the end of the day, no phone is able to do what a good camera can, and I have always carried a camera even when my phone did have one. Perhaps what I do miss (a bit) is the ability to scan receipts and other paperwork with a phone camera and a smart Android app like Scanbot (I don’t have the Gemini’s optional camera). So, how much the lack of a camera (or the low quality of the add-on camera) affects you will depend upon your use

So, parking those two issues; what’s the Gemini like to use on a daily basis? I use the Gemini both as a phone and as a mini laptop. Because of the excellent keyboard, I find myself doing things on the Gemini that I would never have attempted on my previous phones (Samsung Notes). So, I am composing longer emails on the go, drafting reports and longer articles when the ideas come and researching things on the go that would otherwise have required a laptop. This means that I make far greater demands of the Gemini than I used to of my previous phones. This has implications for the battery – although the Gemini battery is larger than most phone batteries, I find that it lasts a similar amount of time and I charge it a bit almost every day.

Receiving a phone call is as easy as checking my watch (to see who is calling) and then pressing the silver button on the side to take the call (without opening the Gemini). Making a call can either be done open and on speakerphone or closed using the silver button and speaking; "call {name} on their mobile". Whichever way works for you.

Durability has been fine. As I say, when not in use, it lives in my pocket all day, every day, for three months and is not showing any signs of distress from its intimate liaisons with keys and coins. The finish is still pristine and, despite many open and close movements every day, the hinge mechanism is not showing any signs of fatigue. I removed the manufacturer’s screen protector after the first week and, once cleaned, the screen is still free of any marks or blemishes. The keyboard has been equally robust, feeling the same today as it did on day one. There is no apparent wear on the keycaps or cap markings. My only complaint of the hardware is that, when open, the edges of the hinge cover are exposed and they are sharp enough to draw blood if I am not careful around them.

On the software front, I don't use the Gemini's "Notes" app nor the "Agenda" app. While they are modelled after the old Psion apps with the same names, the world has moved on since last century and there are apps that are more polished and suit the Gemini much better - JotterPad for notes and Google Calendar for appointments, tasks and reminders. Gmail, serves well as an email client, and Google's docs and sheets do duty for heavier document lifting. Some other apps only work properly in portrait mode and, rather than force them into landscape mode, I find it much easier to simply rotate the Gemini and hold it like a book.
Gemini with full-sized keyboard and library card for size comparison.
There are a couple of minor irritants that remain:
• Bluetooth shuts down at least once every day for no apparent reason. My watch tells me and I turn it back on again.
• The supplied fast charger overheats the battery (I now use a normal 2 Amp charger instead).

I consider issues like these to be part of the ‘crowdfunding experience’ and neither of them is a ‘show stopper’. As an early adopter, I paid about US$200 less than the current retail price of the Gemini and feel well pleased with the deal. Planet Computers seem to have done a remarkably good job of delivering the first version Gemini and, unless something far superior comes along, I expect to be carrying the Gemini in my pocket for a few years yet.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Go on, surprise me if you can ...

I'm sure that every photographer has experienced coming home with what you think should be a really nice shot, working on it for an hour or two, then leaving it while you go and do something else for a while. When you return to the computer, it just hits you - "Nah, that's not it." The picture might be ok but it just isn't as impactful as you had thought.

It's hard to self-critique and walking away allows me to see the work afresh when I return. Having it displayed on a large 43" TV screen, allows it to surprise me (or not) with its presence in the room. This has been part of my workflow for several years and many most shots get culled at this second look.

Today the opposite happened. I had been out shooting around the 'hood because I had an idea I wanted to play around with. No high expectations, just some regular frames that I could experiment with. Came home and processed them and then went out to tea with Annette and Bethany, leaving one frame on the screen. When we got home, it almost lept off the screen at me (it may not leap at you, we are all different)!

Perhaps part of the attraction for me is that they are 'my' hills. They have been the backdrop to a large part of my life, they are what I see when I lift up my eyes and what I have come home to for the last 24 years. Personal aspects aside, the picture also ticks a bunch of photographic boxes that will mean it gets added to my short list of 'keepers'.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Completing the circle

Victoria Park - winter in Rangiora (visible spectrum)
When I first started on the photographic journey, some sixty years ago, it was all black and white. Colour photography was in its infancy and was not suitable for processing at home. By my twenties, that had all changed and colour photography seemed to be pushing black and white into the history books.

Holy Innocents, Amberley (Infrared)
For some photographers though, black and white was still 'proper' photography and for others, like myself who worked mainly in colour, black and white lurked quietly in the background biding its time.

Annette @ Cafe 51 (visible spectrum)
As I look back to the beginning of this year, I can see black and white beginning to make a reappearance and, in the last couple of months, colour seems to have taken a leave of absence. Of course, I am talking about finished pictures; my cameras have not lost the ability to shoot in colour and every shot starts out life as a colour photograph. But once processed, whether it is a normal spectrum or an infrared spectrum photograph, it seems to gravitate to black and white.

Roof-lines, Oxford (Infrared)
Perhaps it's because we are in winter and black and white suits the starkness of the season, but I think there is more to it than that. I think it has something to do with returning to the beginning, bearing all the things learned on the larger journey. It's not so much about leaving colour behind, as it is about allowing all the things learned with colour to speak in black and white.

St Andrew's, Oxford (Infrared)
Who knows, perhaps next month it will be colour again. Or perhaps not.

Amberley Beach (visible spectrum)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Ice and Fire

Fractals produced with JWildfire and processed as 3D images in Pano2VR and Insta360 Studio. Image enhancements using Affinity Photo and Topaz Studio with final video production in ProShow Gold. It's been an interesting journey to get this far and this is the first output that's been worth posting.

I hope you enjoy this journey through a fractal sphere.