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.