Friday, February 15, 2019

Firewood at 1,400rpm

Actually, it was only 750rpm when the wood was all angles and the chips were flying, but it soon got to be round and the speed went up.

Looking back, it seems rather odd that I managed to get to 70 years old without having ever turned a piece of wood on a lathe. But there you go, having given away most of my woodworking gear when I got sick and didn't think I would ever get the chance to use it again, my new lease on life has seen me get an old lathe to play with. One grotty piece of firewood, a fist full of revs and a brand new carbide cutter later, and I have a woodworking mallet (all rather meta, perhaps?)

As a first effort, I'm quite pleased with the result. It's probably the most expensive mallet in the world at the moment, and I have no idea what wood it is made from (firewood?) but it looks good and it felt good in the hand when I cut it off the lathe.

And I discovered something else, woodturning is quite a therapeutic process; almost meditative. It demands your absolute full focus - firstly to manage the tools, secondly to achieve the form you want and third to keep safe. (Not that woodturning is dangerous in the way that jumping out of an aeroplane is dangerous. But wood, turning at speed, can do a lot of damage if it comes loose, so protective headgear is a constant reminder of the risk.) Anyway, I best go and rummage in the woodpile again and see if I can find a bowl, or a platter or a lidded box.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Topaz JPEG to RAW AI

I’m a Topaz fan, but Topaz are over-hyping their latest product, “JPEG to RAW AI”. It’s a deceptive title which has a lot to do with marketing and very little to do with reality. The program does try to make the best of a file in the JPG format, but does it create a RAW file? Emphatically not. Not even close.

This is a shame because, after forcing myself to ignore the hype and stay with the testing, I did find a program which is useful, even though it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Here’s a look at what it can do.

Sometimes, all you have is a JPG file and no amount of wishful thinking or regret will get you the RAW file that you wish for. Some of us develop strategies to get the best out of these JPEG files, some just give up and go take another picture. But now, JPEG to RAW AI does bring something extra to the party. Whether it is extra enough to be worth paying nearly US$100 for is another question.

I did tests; lots of tests. Here is one test that is fairly indicative of them all. The original JPG file was well exposed and taken at a low ISO. Nevertheless, the results are not that pretty - this is a screenshot of a portion of the picture at 200% magnification. As you can see, it’s fairly ‘gritty’ with both JPEG artefacts and noise. On an arbitrary quality scale of 0-5, I’m going to score this at the bottom = ‘0’ (the best sample will score a ‘5’). (You may need to view the pictures larger to see the differences.)

In the second screen-shot, I applied just enough noise reduction to remove the ‘grit’. I used Topaz DeNoise 6 on a fairly low setting and then added a bit of sharpening. It’s better, the grit has gone, but now the grass is turning to mush. This is the typical noise reduction tradeoff and, depending on your personal preference, may raise the quality score to 1 or maybe a 2.

The third screenshot is what I usually do with JPEG files, I use Topaz AI Gigapixel to reduce the file size by 50% which removes most of the grit, and then enlarge by 200% which restores some clean detail using Topaz’s AI algorithms. Finally, a touch of DeNoise 6 deals with any small amount of remaining ‘grit’ while also taking the edge off of AI Gigapixel’s aggressive sharpening. The result is much better all around but, at 200% magnification, some ‘staircasing’ is evident and the very finest of detail has been lost - this is almost invisible at normal viewing magnification. For me, this jumps the quality score up to about a 4 and produces a usable file

Finally, I run JPEG to RAW AI and again, because this deals with JPEG artefacts but not actual noise, I have to add a touch of DeNoise 6, just as I did with the other samples. This deals with all the ‘grit’ in the original file, shows no ‘staircasing’ and retains the finest of detail. This is the best of all the four tests and therefore sets the upper bar of the score table at 5.

Topaz also claim an improvement in highlight and shadow recovery. Quite frankly, I could find no evidence of this beyond that which anyone can get from converting a JPEG file to a 16 bit TIFF before attempting the recovery - and you don’t need expensive software to do that.

All this creates a dilemma; JPEG to RAW AI does do a very good job but I already have AI Gigapixel and can get most of the way there without spending another US$100 on a new piece of software (which, by the way, takes several minutes to process a 20Mb JPEG file). If I can get ⅘ of the improvement without spending a cent more, then is JPEG to RAW AI worth its rather high price for that last little step? Probably not.

And, Topaz, please drop this JPEG to RAW nonsense - it’s just embarrassing and makes you look silly.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Coulsdon - a short Memoir

I was four years old when my family moved to Coulsdon. We lived there through most of the nineteen-fifties, the sixties and early seventies. In the seventies, I got married and moved away and, shortly after, my parents left Coulsdon for High Wycombe. Despite having no current links to Coulsdon, the memories and impressions formed growing up there, endure.
I know that wall!

Prompted by a post on the "Coulsdon History" Facebook page, I climbed into  Street View (I now live in New Zealand) to pay a visit. Street View dumped me in front of a wall - it was a wall I knew well and the young man running past could easily have been me from 1960 (his shoes are smarter than mine were). This is the town-end of Malcolm Road, where we lived. At the other end of Malcolm Road was what used to be Smitham Primary School. The buildings still stand, but one wonders for how much longer before developers get their hands on the site.

What used to be "Smitham Primary Scool"
Almost opposite the brick wall, on the corner, used to be the dairy (now a Waitrose). It was where we went for butter and cheese and was the depot from where milk was delivered to our front door. What is now a carpark, used to be full of milk floats (those slow-moving electric vehicles) coming and going with milk. I have an impression of the shop being a place of cool, white and blue, glazed tiles where little boys handed over a few coins in exchange for some cheddar cheese, which mum would be waiting for, back at home.

The Facebook post which prompted all this nostalgia, was a view from near the old station, asking whether anyone could recognise anything - so much had changed. And from that spot, a lot has changed, but I was surprised by how much had not changed in the last fifty-odd years. Businesses come and go, but Boots the chemist still sits on the main street (and I still have a working photographic light meter that I purchased there in the mid-sixties) and, further along, Coughlans Bakery. The bakery was a favourite, after-school drop-in, as the cakes that hadn't sold that day could be had for one penny, for a large paper-bag full ("a penny bag of 'stales' please") a real treat!

Woolworths, on the other hand, seems now to be a Tesco and my favourite electrical shop, Sparks - where I spent many a Saturday with my friend, Alan Wrigley, searching racks of records for new music - is nowhere to be found (it may have been on the corner of Victoria Road). But the layout of the town is largely intact and I can trace the routs I used to follow as a youngster. Perhaps the biggest travesty is the missing Red Lion - how did such a cultural icon, central to the town, get replaced by Aldi?

Around the corner in Chipstead Valley Road is Coulsdon Home Hardware. That was a later weekend job that had me pumping paraffine in a fume-filled room out the back. Needless to say, that job didn't last long! What did last a long time was my prior employment as a "newspaper boy". Unlike today's free advertising papers, these were the daily and weekly papers that customers paid to have delivered (yes, milk deliveries and newspaper deliveries really were a 'thing').

The newspaper shop was up Station Approach Road (I think, on the corner with Edward Road). Every day at 6:00 am us 'paper boys' would collect a shoulder bag full of newspapers and set out on our delivery round. After proving yourself for a few years, the older boys might be offered a weekend round, which paid better but involved much heavier loads (weekend papers were twice as thick). Also at the top of Station Approach Road, my father had his business "Surrey Sidecars" and, later, a hardware shop located (I think) somewhere where the new flats now stand.
Woodcote Secondary School (as it used to be known).

After a few years of living on the same street as my school, I got sent to Woodcote County Secondary School about a mile or so up the hill. It was certainly a better school than I was a pupil. My lack of academic potential was quickly acknowledged, and I was streamed into the 'D' stream (there was also an 'E' stream but that was reserved for the radically hopeless - their judgement, not mine). Later, in the fifth year, I got promoted to 'C' but that was because all the 'D' and 'E' pupils were expected to leave at the end of the fourth year. It turned out, long after school, that I love learning, just not the way the school system wants it to happen. C'est la vie.

Mr Johns, the principle at Woodcote, was just a name - I never recall meeting him. But there were three teachers that have stuck in my mind; Morris, Williams and Thompson. Morris was a bully. Rumour had it that he taught at borstal but, whatever the case, his reputation went before him and his math classes were something to be feared. Fortunately, I managed to keep out of his way for most of my secondary schooling.

Mr Williams was different. He had a strategy; put the fear of God into the first and second years and by years three, four and five you can begin to build a relationship. Williams taught history and was my form teacher in year five. He was a fine teacher and I ended up liking him a lot. Best of all the teachers though, was Thompson. Thompson took technical drawing and his philosophy was that he was there to help you succeed. I sat Royal Society of Arts at the end of year five, but Thompson encouraged me to step up and sit GCE in technical drawing. I got it and left school to start work in a draughtsman's office. It turned out to be a great start in life.
Up on Farthing Downs

Later, after I had left school, our family moved house, ending up in Fairdene Road. Though this had great access to Farthing Downs (and a girl that lived a little further out) I still think of Malcolm Road as our Coulsdon 'home'. Nevertheless, Farthing Downs was, and is, a treasure. It's not really big enough to get lost on but, for a young boy scout, in the dark, or when the cloud comes down, it is sufficiently wild to stir the imagination. I guess, like a lot of things, Farthing Downs would appear a lot smaller today than in my memories.
"Our house, in the middle of our street" (Malcolm Road)

There's more I remember (lots more) like trying to keep up with the fleet-of-foot Thompson on the way up the hill to school. Or coming off my bike on the way down and waking up in the hospital ("Is my bike ok, Dad?"). Scouts at the Methodist church (which seems to have lost a couple of wonderfully large trees) - I was there at scouts when JFK got shot and hoped like mad that it wasn't "the commies" and the start of another war (it wasn't, but such are the thoughts of a fifteen-year-old).

Will I go back? I doubt it. I have no family there now and good memories are best left as that; not sullied by current realities - I want Farthing Downs to be big and scary, to still find LPs in Sparks, and the newsagent on the corner where I turned up sharp at 6 am each day. Those are the things I remember, that was the Coulsdon I knew.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Luminar 3 (a.k.a. "Luminar with Libraries") came out yesterday. L3's predecessor, Luminar 2018, is a capable piece of software on the Windows platform, but Luminar 3 is not.

I had only been waiting a week or so for this release so my disappointment, though heavy, would not have been as soul destroying as those that have waited for over a year. L3 for Windows should never have been released, it's not even ready for beta testing. </opinion>

Installation was a nightmare. It took four attempts to get it installed in a form that would even start up again after it had first been started and closed. And, in case you're wondering, yes I have a reasonably powerful machine (i7) with plenty of  RAM (16Gb) a modern graphics card (2Gb) and disk space to spare - all running an up to date version of Windows 10. I only got L3 working eventually, by limiting the catalogue to about 2,000 images rather than the 60,000 in my library.

When it did start working, it quickly became obvious that L3 for Windows was nowhere near ready for prime-time. </more opinion> The fact that some features were missing is, perhaps, forgivable (software can be updated). The fact that some necessary functions don't work at all is not. There is, for example, no folder refresh - once L3 for Windows has built the catalogue for a particular folder, it cannot be refreshed or updated without closing and reopening the application. That means that no other applications can put files in that folder and have Luminar recognise them during that work session. Not even Luminar its self!

Another deal breaker is that Luminar has no ability to send files to other applications. Any DAM (Digital Asset Manager) must be able to do this and the implementation of this feature can only be described as trivial. For example, my current DAM (ACDSee) allows me to configure any external editors I wish, and the folders update with changed and added files on the fly. This is all base DAM functionality.

There are heaps of missing features that need to be added and some of the existing functions can only be described as "flakey". Did I mention S-L-O-W, very, very, slow? It all adds up to a broken package that isn't fit for purpose. The combination of ACDSee and the previous Luminar 2018 is still a way better overall solution than Luminar 3 on Windows. Shame on you Skylum.

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.