beautiful distortion

On the few occasions that folks have asked me for photography help, I've had to explain what "ISO" means and how it works. It's kind of a tricky subject, especially since its meaning in digital photography is a little different than its origins in the world of film. What it comes down to, ultimately, is sensitivity.

ISO, in analog photography, refers to a standard for identifying how well film captures light. The higher the number, the more sensitive. Higher sensitivity comes with a trade-off, however; you get distortion. In film this comes in the form of larger crystalline structures on the resulting negative, or "grain." So pictures taken on film with a high light sensitivity look a little coarse and lose some of the fine detail. To many photographers the grain is only a slight trade-off since it can add depth and character to images. Different film stocks from different manufacturers have varying qualities under particular lighting conditions.

In digital photography, ISO refers to the camera sensor's responsiveness to light. When you crank up the ISO to a higher number you can capture more light. But you still have that trade-off; increasing the ISO on a digital camera creates visual distortion, or "noise." The best digital cameras, in my opinion, degrade gracefully at higher ISO settings. The noise looks less like static on a television and more like, well, film grain. I've seen it on certain Ricoh point-and-shoots, Leica's crazy high-end digitals, and even my iPhone 4 (when converted to black and white).

This graceful degradation reminded me, recently, of another artistic tool where distortion isn't all that bad: guitar amplifiers. A great deal of guitar amplifiers have a knob labeled "gain," and this is directly analogous to a digital camera's ISO setting. That's because it's increasing the equipment's sensitivity to the incoming signal (in this case the electrical sound signal from a guitar). If you turn up the gain too high you overload the amplifier and the sound output starts to break up, creating distortion.

Quite a few musicians enjoy their distortion, of course, but have varying tolerances for how easily it kicks in and how evenly it builds. Amplifiers that allow players to crank up the gain without distorting the sound can fetch a pretty penny. Nikon's D3s and Canon's 1D-MkIV, similarly, don't come cheap, because of their respective abilities to crank up the ISO setting with less noise than other cameras. Some amps, on the other hand, are desired specifically for their distortion characteristics, and famous makers such as Marshall, Fender, and Orange, are sought after because of their signature overdriven tones. Likewise, I might choose Kodak's Tri-X film over Ilford's Delta 400 because I prefer the look of one film's grain structure over another.

So maybe this will clear things up if you play electric guitar, I suppose. Or perhaps it will confuse you further. I just hope this makes ISO a little easier to understand for some folks.

solar bulb

I sure wouldn't mind having a few of these solar-charged lightbulbs hanging around.
(via Uncrate)

On a Molecular Level

Incredible! The BBC reports on IBM's research that has led to the imaging of a single molecule and its bonds! Just as fascinating (to nerds like me) is the imaging methodology:

Their version of the device acts like a tiny tuning fork, with one of the prongs of the fork passing incredibly close to the sample and the other farther away.

When the fork is set vibrating, the prong nearest the sample will experience a minuscule shift in the frequency of its vibration, simply because it is getting close to the molecule.

Comparing the frequencies of the two prongs gives a measure of just how close the nearer prong is, effectively mapping out the molecule's structure.


The camera nerd and the part of me that drools over beautiful engineering can’t resist staring at this page for far too long: A pictorial (appropriate, yes) history of Hasselblad cameras used in space.

I, Robot

Tonight I finished reading Isaac Asimov's acclaimed collection of short stories: I, Robot. This is my introduction to Asimov's writing but I enjoy it already. While I enjoyed his style of writing, I was most impressed by the heady concepts which I found pervaded the anthology. Besides the in-depth consideration of the psychology of robotic machines, we're presented with a picture of the human impact of the presence of such technology from its near introduction to its startling potential future.

At a brief 256 pages (or 192 in my 70's edition belonging to my wife's late father) it makes for a quick read of all stories. Now I feel like it's but a small taste to whet my appetite for more of Asimov's work.

Palm Pre

I followed along with Engadget's coverage of the Palm Pre announcement, and I have to say that I'm initially impressed by the screen shots and interface descriptions. I'll reserve judgment, however, until I get a chance to actually play with one in a Sprint store.

I'm not at all feeling a desire to abandon my Apple-shaped ship, but I'd like to see strong competition to the iPhone and its operating system. Only stiff competitive pressure can drive Apple to continue improving and innovating (in my mind), so the more the merrier. At the least, it's nice to see another serious phone OS that has the potential to continue burying the abysmal Windows Mobile.

UPDATE: I'm not an interface designer or a patent attorney, but a LOT of the interface idioms from the OS on the Palm Pre seem straight-up copied from the iPhone OS. I don't know how many ways there are to gesture/display/etc, nor what could be considered "obvious" to the patent office, but check out this demo clip to see for yourself, if you're at all familiar with the iPhone interface first hand.

New Season of Radio Lab

Holy sweet mercy it's about time :-)

One of my favorite radio programs (via its podcast), Radio Lab, has started its new season. Do check it out - it's more fascinating than I can describe.

If You Build It, You May Be Arrested

But I think I'd still like to build my own gasoline powered soda bottle rocket launcher.

(via Coudal)

Stuff Happens, or Why Bill Nye Is Still My Hero

Tonight Valerie and I watched, for the first time, Stuff Happens. Here we have a show hosted by Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) that explores the environmental impact of our everyday lives in an industrialized nation, and the two half-hour episodes we caught investigated the common kitchen and breakfast foods (an apt pairing, I'd say). There a plenty of statistics, demonstrations, illustrations, and so forth, all presented in that down-to-earth and quirky Bill Nye fashion.

I know the distribution of the Science Channel or Planet Green isn't too widespread, but if you have either one, check it out. Entertaining and informative.

Fallout Alarms

Okay, you know I'm a fan of the digital galleries curated by folks at The Morning News.

Well this week's offering is simultaneously nerdy, surreal, and beautiful. Rosecrans Baldwin interviews Cornelia Hesse-Honegger about her strangely pretty watercolors of insects affected by low-level radiation.

Wii Can Make Beautiful Music

This is probably the most brilliant non-gaming application of the Wiimote I've yet seen, and makes me wonder what other excellent possibilities await the patient tinkerer (maybe moving the guitar adjusts delay repeat frequency? Please?).

(via Engadget)

Lost and Found

Check it:

gps device

This device, striking in its simplicity of function, is one of the coolest ideas I've seen an a long time. Bushnell's BackTrack GPS device is cheap ($60 on Amazon) and basic, functioning much like a stop watch for your location. You press a button to mark your location, and you press a button again to start pointing you back to that location. I'd like to see something like this get cheaper and ubiquitous allowing, for example, parents to give one to each child, or travelers on a budget to find their way back to a key location.

This is a very clever innovation in what's fast becoming a crowded GPS market.

When Industry Outsiders Break In

Today John Gruber linked up a Wired article about the Red video camera. I agree with his observation:

The most amazing part is that the core technology didn’t come from a company like Canon or Sony — Red created it themselves.

I think it extends further than the sensor itself. The notion that a guy who sold handlebar grips and sunglasses would go on to create a camera which has Hollywood heavies salivating is incredible. So I figured I'd explore similar situations where entrepreneurs or players in other lines of business break into established or unrelated industries.

Consider, first, the automobile industry. The established competitors spent plenty of money, time, and effort passing off concept electric vehicles citing nebulous timelines for when we could expect to see such cars on the road. Along comes a pair of engineers with the help of some Silicon Valley investment to create the Tesla Roadster. Here we have an all electric car in production. Pricey, yes, but it's only the first model, and more designs are on the way. They sold out of the entire batch of their first production run in advance and have a waiting list.

There is also the now familiar story of Apple's iPhone and the rest of the cellular industry. Industry giants scoffed at the newcomer (well, new to this market, at least) at first. Now with around 12 million handsets in the wild and apparently 45 million more to be produced through August 2009, we see every major handset manufacturer aping at least the full-touch-screen concept, and at worst design cues as well.

It's interesting to see how certain industries become insular after long periods of a few dominant players. I'm always impressed and encouraged when outsiders bring fresh thinking to these arenas challenging conventional business practices. Sometimes they make waves, and sometimes they turn entire sectors on their collective head.

My Next Camera

Well, the Nikon D90 is official. It may not be full-frame, but it's a whole lot of everything else - so much, in fact, that I believe Val and I will pass on the D200 when the time comes.

The ability to use quality photographic camera lenses to shoot HD video (720p at 24fps) pretty much sold me, and the rest of the camera's specs make me comfortable with the choice. Not only would Valerie and I be able to produce quality images in a host of conditions, but I could finally put video on the computer that's better than my crappy point-and-shoot digicam provides :-)

The only question now is how soon I can talk Val into letting us get this thing...We have a destination wedding to attend next summer (possibly in LONDON!), so maybe it'll be an easy sell!

How to Disappear Completely


This may be a long way from a larger scale, usable form factor, but it's still cool as shizzle.

Neil Young, check your ears.

Neil Young is whining about a perceived lack of audio quality from MP3 files and players.

This is humorous to me on a number of levels:
1. I'm no fan of Neil Young's music, but I've heard a fair amount of it in my life because my dad was a fan. Young's work isn't exactly the sort of "music" that would benefit from a higher-grade sound system, and his vocals and guitar work make me question whether he can really hear the difference anyway.
2. Sure MP3 files may not be ideal, but at higher quality levels (like the 256k files from AmazonMP3 or iTunes Plus) any loss from a CD is hardly noticeable to the average ear, especially on the sound systems that the average listener can afford.
3. Young shouldn't blame the playback technology too much either - the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" from computing works in the recording industry, too. An overwhelming amount of recordings are created to maximize volume and even out the levels for the sake of radio singles.

But go ahead, Neil. Blame the technology. I'll keep blaming your tin ear.

Outsourcing Human Memory

There's an article in The Atlantic making its rounds 'round the blogosphere about the affects on the human mind of the Internet and its immediate information availability. The general idea is that with the advance of the Internet the very mechanisms of human thought are changing, affecting our attention spans and memories. Slate recently published two related articles - one about GPS and its effects on learning about our surroundings, and another about how we read online - that support this notion of technology standing in for our own brain function.

On Tuesday, I posted my short quiz about memorized phone numbers because I wanted to emphasize the dulling of this simple ability. I got to thinking about this after reading the Slate articles (but before The Alantic's piece) and wondering just how many people with GPS units forget simple directions after extended use. If this even happens, how long does it take? Is it different because of the different sensory experience that comes with driving around?

Sure, some people have a hard time remembering all sorts of small details, but I bet for most of my (admittedly few) readers, the idea of memorizing a phone number was commonplace before cell phones went everywhere with us. For my part, I used to know anywhere from three or four times as many phone numbers by memory as I know now. I don't personally have a GPS, but I know several folks who do. I wonder if they've found a tendency to rely on that more than an understanding of where, exactly, they are.

I'll be looking out for other ways in which we turn over our own brain functions to technology and other systems. I can only imagine what impacts yet-to-be-developed devices will have on the way we interact with and understand our history, our world around us, and ourselves.

Cashless Vending

I'm currently at a Holiday Inn around College Park, MD, and when I went up the hallway to grab a soda from the vending machine I noticed a credit card reader. This reader accepted both swiped and contact cards, and you could purchase multiple sodas per transaction before pushing the Complete button. If this spreads, it'll be one less reason for me to carry cash :-)

I was first intrigued by the idea when I saw card readers on VCU's vending machines in the student commons, but they only read the VCU cards. I hope the idea catches on a larger scale.

Hydrogen Cars FTW

honda fcx clarity

Honda's first production hydrogen car rolled out today, but my excitement can only go so far since it will initially be available lease-only in Southern California to a select few living near hydrogen fueling stations. Maybe they need to start wide sales of the Home Energy Station...

Corn Juice, Corn Bottle

If you can stand the loung-o-rific snooze tune playing in the background, check out this short video clip depicting the manufacture of plastic bottles from a mixture of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), recycled plastic, and plant sugars:


I researched this a little further and discovered that NatureWorks, the company which produces this plastic, is a joint venture between Cargill and Japan's Teijin Limited. With Cargill's involvement, I bet you can guess where those natural plant sugars come from...

Well just in case you can't, NatureWorks fills in the gap on the home page telling us that corn is used. Okay, so maybe it's not just corn - they say it comes from renewable sources "such as corn," but all their PR-speak FAQs refer to corn. I'm fascinated by the possibility of plastic manufacture from renewable sources, but knowing Cargill's impact on our farms and food culture, I can't help wondering what adverse affects this product would have if it took hold in the packaging industry.


Yeah, I know, it's Earth Day, but I wasn't actually searching for something related to the environment. I was researching the design and manufacture of beer kegs when I came across the ecoKEG, developed by an Australian named Warwick Field.

This keg is made from fully recyclable plastics, weighs about 30 pounds less than a standard keg, and has the potential for keeping beer fresh for longer than metal. It's still a standard size and shape so it's supposed to work with existing beer logistics. There are financial incentives to beer distributors, too, since it's a lower cost of materials and lower risk for lost or damaged kegs.

I'd like to keep an eye on this, because it'd be interesting to see how well they work in practice and whether they make their way to the United States. I'd also be interested to research the comparative polluting effects of manufacturing and recycling polyethylene terephthalate vs. steel or aluminum.

SMS 160, Twitter 140

Speaking of text messages...

Ever wonder why SMS allows 160 characters, but Twitter - intended in part for use with mobile phones - only allows 140? No? Well pardon my nerd, I'm explaining anyway.

It's more realistic to look at this as a limit on the number of bytes in the message. Most phones can only handle 140 bytes, which translates to 1120 bits (8*140). Mobile phones, it seems, use the standard ASCII character set which contains 7-bit characters. This allows 160 ASCII characters in the message. Computers, on the other hand, typically use 8-bit characters, putting us right back at 140 characters.

Now you know. But you probably still don't care :-)

Satellite Asplode

So here's footage of the failed US spy satellite getting "the business" in orbit above earth, you know, in case you like to see stuff like this:


Food For Thought

NPR had a fascinating piece on Morning Edition today; the benefits of a family sitting down to a meal were analyzed, and there were some interesting conclusions linking...surprise!...healthy family interaction to positive child development.

I'm not a strict traditionalist, but I feel like I have experienced a bit of this myself. When I'm fortunate enough to have kids of my own, I plan on having family dinner every night. The conversation will be varied because I'm nothing if not a windbag. The conversation will be interesting, because in addition to being a windbag, I'm an eccentric wacko :-)

One step closer...

Capacity is
doubled now. I'm closer to
wanting an iPhone.