Monday, November 14, 2011

Ancora! Ancora! Ancora!

While there seems to be a temporary lull in Eurozone action, I don't think the developments on Friday and over the weekend amount to a turning point.  Installing "technocratic" elites doesn't make a lot of sense, because it was unaccountable technocrats who created the mess in the first place.  That the specific technocrats have links to Goldman Sachs, which arranged the accounting fraud that allowed to Greece to enter the Eurozone in the first place, doesn't inspire confidence, either.  Stergios Skaperdas has written another op-ed on Greece leaving the Euro.  I wish Greek politicians would read it but, like national-level politicians everywhere, they seem to be tightly encased in their own little bubble.  Even when they make noises about the austerity being imposed on the country, it is to position themselves in the next election, not because they have a better alternative.

The most immediate impact of the change of Prime Minister in Italy has done is given everyone a chance to write about how awful Silvio Berlusconi has been for Italy.  It's not a new topic; people have been writing about Italy's Murdoch+Buffett for years.  A lot of Italy's "structural" problems would have existed if he had stayed out of politics.  And some of the uniquely Italian problems have been around for decades.  But having as Prime Minister someone who was arguably in politics to keep himself exempt from prosecution as much as anything else has taken amoral familism to a new level.

So while having Silvio gone will improve Italy's long-term prospects, in the immediate future the problem is basically one of math.  Unless bond rates come down, and the economy either grows or inflates (a.k.a. currency devaluation), Italy will probably join Greece in exiting the Eurozone.  The problem is that the economy is unlikely to grow fast enough to convince bondholders to accept lower rates.  And the ECB is still the ECB, so it's unlikely to help in one way or another.   That has prompted more calls to end the common currency.  Both a recession in Europe and a collapse of the Euro would affect the United States, something the country can't really afford on top of our own past and potential future stupidity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mio Dio, Cosa Hai Fatto, Silvio?

The ever-wise markets seem to have skipped ahead in their script by a few countries, because today the world woke up to find Italy on the verge of financial ruin.  Or at least that's what everybody is saying the markets are saying.  Unfortunately, as long as everyone believes it to be true, it's likely to come true.

I find it suspicious that right after the Greek mess has been "resolved" that the Italian crisis would suddenly come to a head.  Shouldn't the agreement of the Greek parties to unite to screw the Greek people give everyone else at least a few weeks of relief?  Apparently not.  Nothing else about Italy's underlying financial condition, which isn't that bad, has changed since last week.  But sharply increasing yields means that whenever Italy has to roll some debt, which most indebted countries do on a regular basis, it will have to pay substantially more.  Thus the problem in Italy has become self-fulfilling.

The failure to resolve the crisis is mostly the European Central Bank's fault.  It has basically refused to do the job of a proper central bank, which is to regulate the macro economy for the greater good.  The origins of the crisis are much more structural, which quite a few people still don't understand.  But rather than do the right thing and forgive gobs of debt, or exit the Euro themselves, the core Eurozone countries may be to be planning to kick the GIPS countries out.  I can't see how that would be a good solution economically or politically.  Not only would it create immense amounts of ill will in the region, it would still leave the GIPS countries with their external debt denominated in a foreign currency.  That class of debt is the only justifiable reason for Greece not leaving the Euro that I can see, and forcing the issue on multiple countries at once couldn't possibly help.

If things do really unravel in Europe, which they haven't done quite yet, I think US markets won't entirely collapse due to flight-to-safety inflows.  I could easily be wrong about that, though.  But obviously a breakdown overseas would fall through to front-line jobs within weeks, and that would exacerbate what is already a crisis.

Update 2011-11-09: Italy's problems may very well be Silvio's fault.

Update 2011-11-10: Italy's bond sale was successful but at a rate that is a good deal higher than last year.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More Χάος

News is breaking on an hourly basis in Europe these days, with Greece still being the center of attention.  The latest loop is the sudden appearance and disappearance of plans for a referendum on the bailout and austerity measures being put to the Greek people.  It is quite likely that Papandreou was bluffing his fellow politicians into joining him in sharing the political pain, which he may have done successfully.

As I said over here, I just don't see how the situation can be sorted out while Greece still uses the Euro.  I don't know how much adjustment of one kind or another is necessary to bring Greek labor costs down to where they are in line with the productivity* of its workers, but I suspect it is a lot.  And by a lot, I mean 15-30%.  Deflation by that amount implies that as long as Greece still uses the Euro, its citizens will, on average, have to take pay cuts of 15-30%.  This would be painful but not devastating if individuals and businesses were basically debt-free.  But that's not the case in Greece, though it must be said that they aren't close to being the most indebted.  But debt doesn't automatically shrink when wages and prices deflate.  In fact, the real burden goes up.  And substantially greater real burdens means substantially more foreclosures, bankruptcies, and corporate bond defaults.  That's why devaluation makes a lot more sense, and which would happen automatically in the markets if Greece still had its own currency - provided, of course, nobody is manipulating their currency.

So the mystery continues - why are Greek politicians pursuing such awful policies?

* - saying that Greeks are less productive doesn't mean they don't work long hours.  It just means that for one or more reasons their output is less per hour.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Our Lousy Media

Consider this series of screenshots (via Shawn in comments):

There was an interesting report released this week.
But if you watched Fox, you wouldn't know.
To be fair and balanced, NPR isn't doing any better.
Nothing new here, either.
Elsewhere, there's a fair amount of chatter.
Why is this important, you wonder?
Because the end of the controversy isn't being reported like the beginning.
The false accusations against the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit were widely reported, even in less biased news organizations, despite the evidence being thin.
But the final proof that they were false, and that the observational record that underlies the theory of anthropogenic climate change is solid, is absent from the airwaves so far.

Controversy sells.

Denouement doesn't .

But by not reporting both equally, our media creates false impressions.
And it's one of the reasons our media sucks.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No School like the New School

One of the perennial issues politicians and the media like to take up is How Our Failing Schools Are Failing.  Oh noes!  The problem is, it's not true.  America remains, in aggregate, a well-educated country.  The actual problem is that a subset of public primary and secondary schools are failing miserably, mainly those in poor areas where parents fail their own kids in ways that schools can't entirely fix.  But it's useful to the agenda of the far right for them to say that public schools writ large are failing, and our lousy media dutifully repeats the charge.

Now, of course and obviously, even the parts of the public school system that are doing well can be improved.  One of the ways I believe American schools can be improved is by changing the curriculum to better reflect today's society.  I'm not sure how the six subject curriculum that middle and high schools have traditionally offered began, but the fact that the school day lasted roughly six hours suggests that it happened largely by default.  And it really wasn't six subjects; it was four plus two.  The big four were primary language (English in the US), math, social studies, and science.  The two were health and physical education (through 10th grade) along with one and then two electives of whatever else students or parents or local school board wants.  Sometimes it was a foreign language, sometimes arts, sometimes a second science, and so on.  But having only one or two slots available for all the other things a student might learn just wasn't enough.  Because of this, most high schools have moved to a seven period day so students have more opportunities for electives.

Seven periods still isn't enough, however.  I don't say that simply because I think "one louder" would automatically be better.  Instead, I believe that schools should teach a curriculum of eight subjects, all treated equally1 (at least through 10th grade), because there are eight subject groups that students need to learn.  Those would be the first four listed above, plus health and physical education, a second language, the arts, and technology.  Briefly, here's why each is important.
  • Primary language  - A student should be proficient in the primary language of the country in which they live.  This may or may not be the same as a student's home language, and in some places in some countries may be different from the local or regional language.2  Given the complexity of modern life, a person needs to be able to function in the language of most legal and economic transactions where they live, and anything less than proficiency puts them at a disadvantage.  The literature of the primary languages is also a major component of a country's cultural heritage, and a student should be aware of it.
  • Mathematics - Basic math is very useful in everyday life, and higher math is a necessary skill for large number of disciplines.3
  • Physical sciences - The individual sciences and the scientific method in general are far better at describing the Earth we live on than anything else humans have thought of before.  The sciences also provide the basis for many technologies and industries.
  • Social studies - It is not possible to understand a society without having at least some understanding of how it developed.  History teaches that.  Other classes in the category are more focused on how societies function and compare today.  Taken together they enable a person to understand the governance and politics of their country.
  • Health and physical education - Children need to be active for the sake of their health, and because they usually have the urge to be.  They also need to have a basic understanding of their own physiology in order to better maintain their health as they get older.
  • Second language - Globalization means that people in one country often interact with those in or from another, and knowing a second language enables a person to interact on more equal terms with people with at least one foreign country.  Minor benefits of a second language shown by some studies are improvement in first language learning, and in general cognitive ability.
  • Technology - Humans use a variety of technologies, both low and high, in their everyday life.  Everybody should have a basic understanding of things like how oil is refined, a house is constructed, electricity is generated, a computer is programmed, and so on.  Having a general understanding enables a person to better interact with the technologies and make decisions about them.
  • Fine arts - The arts are usually neglected once a student is ready to do something more than paint with their fingers or play a triangle.  But because visual arts and music are important parts of a country's culture, and many people derive a great amount of pleasure in taking part in them, they should be taught as much any other subject.
Moving to an eight subject curriculum would have a number of practical implications.  The first is that the daily bell schedule would need to be adjusted.  The simplest solution, which would be to jam more class periods into the same amount of time, isn't a good one because of the overhead imposed by class changes.  It is a fact of life that students require a few minutes to settle down after the bell rings, and get restless a few minutes before.  And the intermission, or break, can't be reduced below 5 minutes, or even 10 minutes in really big schools, simply because it takes a certain amount of time to walk from one classroom to another.  Those two factors coupled with an eight-period day would mean that a significant portion of each day would consist of non-productive time.  Instead of eight periods, schools would need to use either a 1+4 or an A/B system.  The 1+4 system has one day of short classes combined with four days with four long periods periods each.  Under the plan, a student would have one set of subjects on Tuesday and Thursday, and another on Wednesday and Friday, plus all subjects on Monday.  An A/B system simply alternates four long periods periods, which results in a pattern that repeats every two weeks.4  The 1+4 arrangement does have one day that has more non-productive time, but some systems see that day as useful for tests and other tasks that would break up a longer day.

The second implication is that the school year would need to be extended.  If the annual calendar was kept the same, dividing the day (virtually) into eight blocks instead of six would reduce the amount of time spent on each subject - unless the school day was made drastically longer.  However, I don't see why the current standard of 9000 minutes (nominal) of instruction annually for each subject should be considered necessary or optimal.  At the same time, if all other things are equal, less time spent on a subject means less learned about a subject.  Increasing the school year by 20 days to 200 would keep the reduction in time to less than 10%, when combined with a slightly longer day.  I think an expansion of the amount of real teaching time that would come from using a bell schedule with bigger blocks would make up for the rest.5

The third implication of moving to eight subjects, which follows from the previous two, is that more teachers would have to be hired.  Assuming they get one free period per day, it would take about 11% more teachers for the same number of students.  Teachers would also want a pay increase, because their annual classroom time would go up.  Since teacher pay is their largest expense, school systems would see a big rise in costs.  I think the extra spending would be worthwhile, because the changes leading to the increase would cause incomes to rise for everybody, especially at the lower end.

This is a graphical summary of the curriculum changes detailed above.  (The specific class names aren't important for this post, so don't get hung up on them.)  It also adds in two other issues not directly linked to expanding the curriculum.  One is that the age where specific subject matter teaching starts should be decreased.  I don't think there is any bright line on when that should happen, but I think it's definitely before 7th grade, which is the typical point in much of the US.  Note that I'm not saying the eight subjects shouldn't be taught in lower primary, just that the point at which subjects are taught by subject-matter experts should be at a younger age than is now the case.

The other new issue is vocational education.  Most of the time discussion of secondary education excludes everyone not on a college track, which amounted to 45% of the people who left high school in 2009.  This includes dropouts, along with those who do graduate but don't attend either a two-year or four-year college right away.6  There are vocational programs for some students, but clearly it's not sufficient.  And more vocational training is needed because a strictly academic model doesn't teach many skills that are immediately useful in the jobs that people with no experience and only a high-school education are likely to take.

However, increasing the number of students on a vocational track would have problems.  The main one is the potential for both explicit and unintentional discrimination.  I don't know of an easy, mechanical way of solving that issue, but it does exist and should be acknowledged.  There would also be logistical issues due to the need for specialized teaching facilities for most vocations.  The exact solution to that depends on the nature of the school district and the economy in the surrounding region, and I'm not going to try to address all of the potential arrangements here.

Regardless of who is placed in each one, the split between the academic and vocational tracks should start in the 11th grade.  I think making the decision sooner would yield more poor outcomes, because students would have not had enough time to develop their interests and academic abilities. On the other hand, while pushing it back a year would be less bad, that would force non-academically inclined students to spend a year in classes that they won't really benefit from.  Academic classes wouldn't be completely eliminated from the vocational track in this model, however.  Even after 10th grade, there are still some subjects that every student should take, and that can't be taught to younger students because of complexity.

None the changes I propose above are radical, though taken together they are significant.  A truly revolutionary change would be to end secondary education at age 16, and move students into a system of "colleges" similar to what Québec has.  The American junior colleges (aka community colleges) aren't quite the same, as many of the programs they offer replicate the first two years of a four-year degree.  In Québec, attending a college is a prerequisite for entering a university, but baccalaureate programs are typically only three years long.  The four-level system has some merits, but at this point I don't see them as being so great that they would be worth disrupting the current education system to the degree that would be necessary to implement the new third layer.

Unfortunately, my proposal won't be considered, and not only because I'm just some blogger on the internet that nobody reads.  As in a lot of other policy areas, the current discussion about schools is just irrational.  Not only is the very real problem of educating poor students not being addressed, we're instead talking about how teachers' unions are supposedly ruining everything.  Until we actually talk about the actual problems the country faces, we'll never make the changes we really need to make.

1.  Potentially schools could offer a curriculum of eight subjects with unequal treatment, but that would make scheduling much harder.  It would also put the less emphasized subjects at greater risk of being cut completely for budgetary reasons.
2.  Language instruction is a touchy issue in many countries, especially where there are long-established minority language regions.  The political outcome is usually either to teach the regional language as a second language, or to teach the full curriculum in the regional language.  In the US, where there are a lot of students who are recent immigrants, bilingual education in all of the home languages would be a logistical problem.  The solution has been to give extra English language instruction for a couple of years, which often isn't enough for older students.
3.  Specific classes aren't too important for this post, but I firmly believe that both statistics and accounting should be taught in high school, and to non-technical students they would be much more useful than advanced abstract math such as calculus.  Adding statistics and accounting means every student would have at least one math classes every year until they graduate.
4.  An example of a four-class day would be: 4x85 minutes of classes, plus 3x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 390 minutes.  An example of an eight-class day would be: 8x40 minutes of classes, plus 7x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 390 minutes.  An example of a traditional day would be: 6x50 minutes of classes, plus 5x5 minutes for breaks, plus 30 minutes for lunch, plus 5 minutes for home room, for a total of 360 minutes.
5.  The percentage depends which of the two schedules is used.  The 1+4 system yields 210 minutes per week per class (40+85+85), and the A/B system yields (on average) 212.5 minutes per week per class (85+85+85/2).  Multiplying those counts by 40, then dividing by 9000 returns 93.3% and 94.4% of the traditional arrangement of 5 periods of 50 minutes per week per class for 36 weeks.
6.  Cumulative enrollment of each annual cohort goes up over time to about 60% because some people delay attending college for various reasons, and others change their mind about attending after being in the workforce.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Long, Long Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

.. a star shone.  Lots of them, in fact.  And somewhat more recently, some people have made it their career to look at them.  That's not a bad choice, if you can hack the math.  However, as science has progressed, the number of sites where cutting-edge research can be done has shrunk, especially at the optical wavelength.  Because the Earth's atmosphere is opaque to much of the electromagnetic spectrum, including light to some degree, telescopes are best located at high-elevation sites.  A site should also be dry, have stable air, and be upwind from large land masses so that the amount of aerosols is lower.  And finally, a site should not have a lot of light pollution.  Those factors limit the number of premier sites for optical astronomy to three, which are northern Chile, the island of La Palma in the Atlantic, and the islands of Hawai'i and Maui in the Pacific.  Southern California would be included in that list, but the megalopolis of LOSSAN gives off too much light pollution.  So the best sites in the US are farther from the coast, in Arizona and New Mexico.  Western Morocco, Namibia, and Baja California are being looked at for potential locations by more observatories as other good sites fill up, but for now they remain mostly undeveloped.

All that is by of way introducing my latest maps, which are of major astronomical observatories in North America and in South America.  Both maps contain all of the "research-class" telescopes that I have found on the net.  Included are all optical (which includes near-UV and infrared) telescopes over 1.0m (40"), many optical telescopes down to about 0.4m depending on location, a number of project-dedicated optical telescopes, most solar telescopes, and most radio telescopes.  Not included are telescopes primarily used for teaching, historic telescopes, telescopes at science museums and planetariums, telescopes used by amateurs for minor planet discovery, and indirect observing projects such as neutrino and cosmic ray observatories.  There's nothing wrong with those instruments, or their purposes.  But either they aren't used for research that will contribute to the body of astronomical knowledge, or they can't image distinct sources.  As always, I have tried to be as thorough as possible, but there are certainly a few inaccuracies.  And since I don't speak Spanish or Portuguese, the South American map is undoubtedly incomplete.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Galaxy-class Assholes

This really takes the cake, a Nobel, several Olympic Gold medals, and as many Peabodys as O'Reilly thinks he has won:
“Who do you think pays the taxes?” said one longtime money manager. “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it. If you want to keep having jobs outsourced, keep attacking financial services. This is just disgruntled people."

He added that he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns. “They need to understand who their constituency is,” he said.
Most of us who talk about pitchforks, tumbrels, guillotines, and the like are joking.  There's not going to have another French Revolution, and the people who want something like to happen that are idiots.  Besides, the government has too much firepower, and employees too many people who actually get off on kicking people while they're down.  But assholes like the one quoted above prove that the Occupy Wall Street protesters have valid reasons to take on banksters.  Not only does he brazenly assert that American legislators should respond to campaign donations, not the voters, which should be enough to get everyone out on the street by itself.   But he also shows that Wall Street doesn't understand the American economy or the role of finance in it, and needs to be beaten down for that reason, too.  A large, continent-spanning country of 310 million people can't survive on a financial sector concentrated in one city.  Only very small countries (less than 1 million people) can.  Even Switzerland, which is basically synonymous with banking secrecy and profiting from illicit wealth, has a large and healthy manufacturing sector (albeit with a higher portion of luxury goods makers than most).  A big country like the United States has to be good at making stuff.  And it is, in some sectors - airplanes and software most notably.  The role of a financial sector in such a country should be to facilitate the rest of the economy.  Instead, Wall Street has taken to profiting from the decline of other manufacturing sectors, and from increasing inequality.  It has both fed and gotten wildly rich from the increasing amount of debt Americans have accumulated in order to maintain their way of life as their incomes have been squeezed.  OWS is an entirely legitimate response to the problem the US financial system poses for the vast majority of the citizens of the US.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Picture This and That: Look at Dat Glass Edition

Photographic lenses, or "glass" in photographer slang, are something a lot of first-time interchangeable lens camera buyers don't really think about when they make their purchase.  But they should.  In a previous post I said, "there is no point in buying a $1000 receiver and $400 pair of speakers" because bad speakers will degrade source material no matter how good the receiver is.  A better analogy would have been, "there is no point in buying a $2000 mixing board and plugging in $15 microphones" because cameras and lenses are visual recording instruments.  There may be times when a person would want to use a low-fidelity input device such as a cheap microphone or a plastic camera lens because of the effect it gives.  But the same effect can usually be done in processing (mixing or editing), whereas upgrading to a clean picture or recording is difficult or impossible.  Photographers usually aim to get the clearest image possible for that reason.

Below are my notes about lenses.

Basic terminology - these are some frequently used terms.
  • Extension tube - mounts between a body and lens to decrease the focal length
  • Fast - a lens with a large maximum aperture, generally considered to be f/1.4 to f/2.8 depending on the type of lens, but exotic (read: expensive) lenses can be faster
  • Filter - blocks a certain portion of incoming light from passing through it; generally screws onto the end of the lens, but some lenses have a filter tray near the middle of the lens barrel
  • Fisheye - a lens with a very wide field of view and exaggerated distortion
  • Fixed-focus - typically used only on very low-end cameras
  • Kit - a lens that comes with the camera, often a 28-85mm zoom
  • Macro - a lens that allows for close-up work, with minimal magnification
  • Macro filter - not a filter; mounts on the end of lens to allow close-up work
  • Portrait - a slightly long-focus lens, with a focal length of 85mm to 105mm
  • Prime - fixed focal-length lens
  • Standard or normal - a lens that gives a field of view similar to the human eye, typically 50mm for 35mm cameras, with a range from 40mm to 55mm
  • Teleconverter - mounts between a body and lens to increase the focal length
  • Telephoto - a long-focus lens that enlarges distant subjects, with a focal length of 105mm or greater
  • Teleside converter - mounts on the front of a lens to increase the focal length
  • Tilt-shift or perspective control - specialty lens used by professionals
  • Wide-angle - a lens that allows for a greater field of view, with a focal length of 35mm or less
  • Zoom - a variable focal length lens
OEM manufactures - Lenses from camera manufacturers are generally considered to be, on average, better than the third party manufacturers.  None make lenses for any mount but their own, but the lenses can sometimes be re-used with an adapter.
OEM/Third-party manufacturers - both of these companies make their own cameras and lenses, like the ones above.  In the case of Leica, which is widely considered to be the best lens maker in the world, its lenses are often used on other cameras via an adapter.  Sigma started out as a third-party manufacturer, and usually is considered the best.  It recently created its own line of DSLRs with the unique Foveon sensor.
  • Leica - S mount and M mount lenses
  • Sigma - SA mount lenses, plus it is one of the "big three" third-party makers
Third-party manufacturers - these companies make lenses with a variety of mounts.  The lenses are mostly manual focus because until recently the OEM companies did not released the electrical specifications for their lens mounts.  Some companies have reverse-engineered electrical specifications, with mixed results.
  • Tokina - one of the "big three" third-party makers
  • Tamron - one of the "big three" third-party makers
  • Samyang - Korean manufacturer that makes lenses for a lot of rebranders
  • Zeiss - high-end lenses
  • Schneider - tilt-shift lenses
  • Hartblei - tilt-shift lenses
  • Arax - tilt-shift and fisheye lenses
  • Voigtländer - Cosina makes lenses under this name
  • LZOS - Russia company selling two fisheyes
  • KMZ - Russia company with several lenses, usually branded Zenitar
  • Belomo - Belorussian company with several lenses
  • Kowa - makes only one telephoto lens that can also be used as a sighting scope
  • Noktor - fast (large aperture) lens made for SLR Magic
  • Rodenstock, Schneider, Fujinon, and Nikon are the main large-format lens manufacturers
  • Congo, Osaka, Cooke Optics, and perhaps other very low volume manufacturers also make large format lenses
Third-party rebranders - these companies generally just re-badge lenses designed and built by other companies.
  • Vivitar - for a long time this was the largest rebrander in the US.  It sometimes even had its own lens designs made by others.  It seems to have stopped making lenses, though they are still available from some retailer
  • Rokinon - lenses mostly seem to be Samyang
  • Promaster - Wolf Camera "house" brand
  • Pro Optic - may be Adorama "house" brand; lenses mostly seem to be Samyang
  • Bower - may be B&H "house" brand; lenses mostly seem to be Samyang
  • Quantary - Ritz Camera "house" brand
  • Phoenix - Samyang captive brand
  • Opteka - may be 47th Street Photo "house" brand; lenses mostly seem to be Samyang
  • Kenko - Tokina lenses are sometimes sold under this captive brand
  • and probably others around the world; historically there have been hundreds of such brands 
  • Sinar, Linhof, and Caltar apparently rebrand large-format lenses
Specialty and novelty manufacturers - several companies offer lenses that create certain retro or low-fidelity effects, or that have limited appeal for some reason.
MSC lenses - this is a chart of lenses available, or announced and likely to appear, for mirrorless system cameras as of October 2011.  It contains all lenses with a native physical mount, though some are not electrically compatible and thus have to be manually controlled.  The Micro Four-Thirds mount has the most lenses available, though a lot of them are rough duplicates because there are two companies making cameras for the mount.  However, at any particular focal length, one of the lenses may be a better than the other, so it is worth looking at the reviews for both brands.  I think it's unlikely that there will ever be any quality third-party lenses for the Q mount, and perhaps the CX mount as well, because of the small sensor size.  On the other hand, the E mount will eventually attract several third-party makers because the NEX platform is likely to be moderately successful, and Sony has offered to license the electrical specification for the mount.  Samsung seems to have realized that as a very minor player, one of the ways it could get more attention is to field a large array of lenses for the NX mount in short order, which it has.  Focal distances are listed both at the native crop factor and as 35mm-equivalent.

MountBrandNameTypeAFFD MinFD MaxEq. MinEq. Max
CXNikonNikkor 10mm f/2.8 Wide
CXNikonNikkor VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6Standard
CXNikonNikkor VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 PD-zoom Super
CXNikonNikkor VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 Telephoto
ERokinon8mm Ultra wide Angle f/3.5 Fisheye LensFisheye
ESony16mm f/2.8
wide-Angle Lens
ESony18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom LensStandard
ESony18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Zoom LensSuper
ESonyCarl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 LensWide
ESony30mm f/3.5 Macro LensNormal
ESony50mm f/1.8 Telephoto LensTelephoto primeYes50507575
ESony55-210mm Zoom LensTelephoto
ENoktorHyperPrime 50mm f/0.95Telephoto primeNo50507575
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario 7-14mm F4.0 Asph.Wide
mFTSamyang7.5mm 1:3.5 UMC Fisheye MFTFisheye
mFTPanasonicLumix G Fisheye 8mm F3.5 Fisheye
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm F4.0-5.6Wide
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2.0 Wide
mFTPanasonicLumix G 14mm F2.5 Asph. Wide
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6Standard
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 IIStandard
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 II RStandard
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 Asph. Mega O.I.S.Standard
mFTPanasonicLumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 Asph. Power O.I.S.Standard
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario 14-45mm F3.5-5.6 Asph. Mega O.I.S.Standard
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario HD 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 Asph. Mega O.I.SSuper
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm F4.0-5.6Super
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital 17mm F2.8 Wide
mFTPanasonicLumix G 20mm F1.7 Asph. Wide
mFTPanasonicLeica DG Summilux 25mm F1.4 Asph. Normal
mFTVoigtlanderNokton 25mm F0.95Normal
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F4.0-5.6Telephoto
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 RTelephoto
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital 45mm F1.8 Telephoto primeYes45459090
mFTPanasonicLeica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm F2.8 Asph. Mega O.I.S.Telephoto primeYes45459090
mFTPanasonicLumix G X Vario PZ 45-175mm F4.0-5.6 Asph. Power O.I.S.Telephoto
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario 45-200mm F4.0-5.6 Mega O.I.STelephoto
mFTNoktorHyperPrime 50mm f/0.95Telephoto primeNo5050100100
mFTOlympusM.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7Telephoto
mFTPanasonicLumix G Vario 100-300mm F4.0-5.6 Mega O.I.STelephoto
NXSamyang8mm F3.5 Fisheye Fisheye
NXSamyang14mm F2.8 IF ED MC Aspherical Wide
NXSamsung16mm F2.4 PancakeWide
NXSamsung16-80mm F3.5-4.5 OIS Standard
NXSamsung18-55mm Portrait Lens Standard
NXSamsungCompact 18-55mm Zoom Lens Standard
NXSamsung18-200mm Multi-Purpose Lens Super
NXSamsung20mm NX Pancake LensWide
NXSamsungUltra Compact 20-50mm Zoom Lens Standard
NXSamyang24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC Wide
NXSamsung30mm NX Pancake Lens Normal
NXSamyang35mm F1.4 AS UMC Normal
NXSamsung50-200mm Telephoto Zoom Lens Telephoto
NXSamsung50-200mm NX Telephoto OIS Lens Telephoto
NXSamsung60mm F2.8 Macro ED OIS SSATelephoto primeYes60609090
NXSamsung85mm F1.4 ED SSATelephoto primeYes8585128128
NXSamyang85mm F1.4 Aspherical IF Telephoto primeNo8585128128
QPentaxFish-Eye 3.2mm f/5.6Fisheye
zoom 5-15mm f/2.8-4.5
QPentaxToy Lens
wide 6.3mm f/7.1
QPentaxStandard Prime 8.5mm f/1.9 AL [IF]Normal
QPentaxToy Lens Telephoto 18mm f/8Specialty


Praise FSM and pass the stuffing.  Okay, there may be as many as 150 directly-employed US troops left, along with 5,000 or more indirectly employed troops and 11,000 other people at the US "embassy" in Baghdad, but the US will officially stop occupying at least one country this year.

After over eight years and nine months, George Bush's entirely unnecessary war will finally end.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Picture This and That: October 2011 Comparison Chart

There have been several new interchangeable lens digital cameras announced recently, so here's a chart of what's available today.  The newcomers are the Nikon J1 and V1 mirrorless system cameras, the Sony A65 and A77 single lens translucent cameras, the Sony NEX-5N and NEX-7 MSCs, and the Samsung NX200 MSC.  Sony, Olympus, and Pentax each put two DSLR models to bed.  Sony still has two consumer DSLRs on the market, but I didn't show them because the SLT technology is clearly the future for Sony.  There are no links this time; if you want more details you can click away in the previous post.

Big 2UpstartLittle 4
Camera categoryBrand
(2010 ILC
market share)
RF-style MSC

price w/ zoom

price w/ zoom

price body only
full frame
5D Mk.II
12.1MP $2700
Flagship action1D Mk.IV
Flagship studio1Ds Mk.III

Update 2011/10/03: All Sony DSLRs have been discontinued in Japan, and the same should happen in the US sometime soon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Another Dismal (Social) Scientist

Via Atrios comes this short column in the Guardian by Stergios Skaperdas that goes into a bit more detail about the mechanics of a Greek default and exit from the Eurozone.  The shorter on the column is: default is better than massive deflation, and default will bankrupt Greek banks, and to recapitalize them Greece will need its own currency, and it will have to institute tight currency and capital controls for a while, and all of that requires planning, which hasn't been started as far as anyone knows.  So, either the Greek government is executing masterfully, as evidenced by there being no indication whatsoever that it is about to default, or it is failing the Greek people.  I'm going to say it's the latter, as governments are failing their citizens all over the place these days.

The Dismal (Social) Scientist

I think Krugman is getting a bit frustrated.  Well, more frustrated.  So frustrated, in fact, he Godwined-in-all-but-name his own column.  Today he also comes about as close to calling the Eurozone elites idiots as is possible within the NYT's civility rules.  He's done so more-or-less explicitly on his blog, but that probably has a readership that is smaller by a factor of 10 or 20.  Maybe a more prominently-place tongue-lashing will have an effect, though I wouldn't count on it.

One reason for Krugman to lash out is that The Big, Fat Greek Depression continues.  The NYT has a good color article today on what the austerity is doing to the typical Greek family.  Real household income for the Firigou family has fallen about 40% between pension cuts, salary cuts, and increased taxes.  But at least they still have income.  Lots of families are undoubtedly doing much worse.

I still haven't found a good explanation for why the Greek government, which is currently controlled by the nominally left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement, refuses to default.  Is it national pride, or are they genuinely worried about private external debt problems?  Those would remain, and get much worse, if Greece defaulted and switched to a new currency.  I suspect most wealthy Greeks have transferred most of their liquid wealth to some other location, so that reason should not be holding the politicians up.  It's a puzzle I can't crack from afar.

ETA: Some schnitzel from Germany expects Greece to suffer for a whole decade?  That will certainly happen if it doesn't default.  On the up side, the Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti is pushing back on Germany's approach pretty hard, at least in that article.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mini to the Max

I just finished upgrading my iPod Mini Gen. 2, and it was a fairly straightforward procedure.  I mangled the aluminum case slightly getting the top and bottom plates off.  But I'm hardly a fashionista, and it never leaves the house, so I don't care.  (I use it with various sub/sat systems positioned around the house.)  I do care that even with the old 6GB microdrive still installed, the new battery boosted play time from 2-3 hours to at least 15.  I haven't tested the play time with the flash card, but it should be even greater.  You don't need a super-fast flash card when upgrading, as the specs on the microdrive weren't all that great.  The battery and the flash card cost about $37 including shipping. There are instructions on how to do this all over the intertubes.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Default Already, Dammit

This is fucking nuts.  The Eurozone is experiencing a self-inflicted disaster, but the perpetrators won't be made to pay.

Update 2011/09/23: Krugman lists some of the perpetrators, and then wonders about the social dynamics inside those organizations.  It's a good question.  It seems to me that in the West, the financial industry has triumphed in several countries, most notably the US and the UK.  And there have been conservative governments in many countries which have appointed conservative-leaning people to those institutions.  Those countries include the US (2001-2009), Canada (2006-present), Germany (2005-present), France (1995-present), Australia (1996-2007), and Italy (2001-2005 and 2008-present).  The UK also had a nominally left-wing but very finance-friendly government from 1997 to 2010, when the Conservatives took over.  Ditto for the US from 1993 to 2001.  The policies and opinions of the international financial institutions (BIS, IMF, ECB, and WB, plus the OECD which is a data and analysis operation) reflect those factors.  The low-inflation, low-regulation leanings of the leaders have filtered down from the top, as well as in from the side, though lower-level channels, from the finance industry, which those organizations deal with on a regular basis.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Our Skies Are Bigger Than Our Wallet

Today, NASA announced its plan to develop a heavy lift vehicle (aka rocket) called - rather uncreatively - the Space Launch System (SLS).  It would use many parts and technologies from the Space Shuttle program in an effort to save money.  But despite that, the cost is huge: $3 billion annually through the first test flight in 2017, for a total of $18B.  That's too much, as far as I am concerned, especially in light of the fact there is no defined need for it.  There's plenty of hoped-for missions amongst human spaceflight supporters, such as to the Moon and to Mars, but those are entirely unfunded at this point.  If the cost was lower, then I would support the program despite its speculative nature.  But at $3B per year, the funding will definitely eat into other programs.  I have no idea if the $18B price tag is justified in terms of the manpower and materials needed to accomplish the task, or if that number is bloated due to too much contracting and sub-contracting.  I do know that making the SLS man-rated will add to the cost, and as I explained before, there's no reason to do so given the parallel development of commercial capsules and the availability of the Russian Soyuz vehicle (though the Soyuz launch system had a small problem last month).

At this point the best option for a heavy lift vehicle is the Falcon Heavy, which has a test launch scheduled in early 2013.  It will only have a maximum capacity of 50,000 kg to low-earth orbit, as compared to 70,000 kg for the first launch of the SLS, which is intended to have a maximum capacity of 130,000 kg.  But the Falcon Heavy will be available much sooner, at a much lower cost, and, again, as of now there is no defined need to lob something that heavy into orbit.  If for some reason a larger spacecraft is needed, it can be assembled in orbit, just like the Space Station has been.  That would add costs to a mission, but probably not so much that the $18B SLS program would become justified.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tenth Aniversary Pre-buttal

I'm tuning out for the next 24+ hours, because it's been a shitty decade, and all the talk about service and sacrifice and heroism and hope and whatever can't erase the fact that it's been a shitty decade.

Thanks, President Bush Cheney.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bestest Grafick Evah

From this Robert Reich op-ed, which is good, comes the graphic below, which is great.

This is the best summary of the negative trends that have pinched the middle class over the last 35 years.  The point about women working comes across as slightly sexist, but I don't think the equivalent data for both sexes (dads can stay at home, too) exists, at least for the time period involved.  So the excellent NYT graphics department used the best available series.

We've been running the Republican experiment since the 1980s - cut taxes, cut social spending, cut public investment, increase war and security spending, and outsource much of the latter - and it hasn't produced good results for the majority of Americans.  The underlying trends - globalization, computerization - would still exist if we had stuck with Democratic policies, but overlaying Republican policies on those trends has amplified them.  Capital moves quicker and farther than labor, and giving more capital to the rich has only allowed them to shuffle it around with greater ease, dragging jobs with it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Monday, August 22, 2011

From the Annals of the Entirely Unsurprising

The NY Times reports today that the Japanese government is about to declare a significant area around the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant as uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.  It's not going to buy the properties in the no-go zone, however.  The Japanese government will rent them instead.  That's a good way of putting off the day of reckoning, which would cost a pretty penny.  (I'm likely off with all of these numbers but the scale is what is important here.)  If we use a price of $200,000 per home, every 5,000 homes condemned would cost about $1 billion to buy.  That's not much compared to Japan's GDP, but renting would only cost about $90 million per year if the monthly rent is $1500.  That adds up quickly, of course, but in 11 or 13 years, when the rental costs surpass the cost of outright purchase plus interest, none of the politicians in charge will be around.

I think what is likely to happen in somewhat cramped Japan is that the worst affected areas will be bought in 5 or 10 years, partially cleaned, and then converted into large industrial districts.  The population of Japan is already declining, so the housing units won't be missed that much (from an economic perspective).  In the meantime, tens of thousands of people will be left in limbo, not able to sell and move on, or go home.  And so the crisis will continue for years, even after the reactors are brought under control.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Smoke Two Joints

phhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHtt.... wah?  O hai.

Actually, I don't smoke anything, or even drink these days.  But this writeup at Wired of some fascinating research makes me think I should start ... if it were legal.  It turns out not only does using pot not make you permanently stupid, it actually makes you smarter in one particular way when you're high - word association.  It's a little more complicated than that, of course.  And there is some reduction in short-term verbal memory among current heavy users.   But overall, this is another piece of evidence that supports the decriminalization of marijuana.  The harm caused by criminalization continues to far outweigh the harm caused by the drug itself.

On a strictly anecdotal basis, I've always thought the dumb stoner/hippy affect was a sub-cultural artifact.  The whole "oh, wow, man" attitude may be induced by getting high, but its carryover to the rest of people's waking lives was a learned trait.  Fortunately the sub-culture has mostly gone away, especially now that The Dead are dead.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is Our Central Bankers Learning?

Twice in the past three days, important central banks have actually done something slightly positive.  Sunday night it was the European Central Bank deciding to intervene in the Italian and Spanish sub-sovereign bond markets.  Yesterday it was the Federal Reserve setting expectations on how long it plans to keep its current low-interest rate policy.  The ECB's intervention has worked, at least temporarily, as the interest rate premiums for both countries vs. Germany have dropped sharply (divide the numbers by 100 to get real world units).  The Fed's statement was aimed at general sentiment, not any specific index, so it's a little early to say if it worked.

In both cases, however, the gap between what is being done and what should be done is still far too wide.  Hopefully, these two actions were just first steps towards more sensible policies.

Update: 2011.08.11: Yves Smith talks about the central bank actions.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Goes Down Must Come Up?

Thank goodness our markets are so eminently rational.

Here's an annotated chart of today's market movements. In 30 minutes, starting at 2:15 when the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee released its latest meeting statement, the DJI went up by 77 points, then down 227 points, then up 146 points, and finally down 285 points. In the 75 minutes from 2:45 to the close (the computers took about 7 minutes to spit out the final number) the DJI increased 624 points, or about 5.8% from the intra-day low.

Is there any possible justification for this kind of herd behavior?

Monday, August 8, 2011


Ho-ly cow.  Stocks down, bonds up (yields move opposite of prices).  Thanks, S&P.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Up, Down, Turn Around

I want to thank S&P for providing me with this evening's quota of humor.  If you're going to do something as momentous as downgrading the U.S. Government's credit rating, at least get the numbers right first.  And after embarrassing itself so thoroughly, I suspect S&P went through with the change mostly so it could distract everybody from its foolishness.

On the sober, serious side, Salmon has some good comments on the situation.  The US remains the richest country in the world, with very low tax rates compared with other industrialized countries.  But the political risk of default is very, very real.  Heck, if "the deal" had been bad enough, I would have been willing to bring on the default.  As it turned out, the deal is merely mildly counterproductive - at least until the new and improved Catfood Commission II reports in.  But the entire crisis was purposely contrived to extract spending cuts that the Teahadists wouldn't have been able to negotiate with the Senate and White House.  The best analogy I can come up with is a doctor holding a pneumonia patient hostage by threatening to shoot the patient unless the doctor is allowed to amputate a leg.  The US is suffering through a huge jobs crisis, but the Teahadists want to cut government spending, and they were willing shut the US government down and ruin its credit rating in order to get what they wanted.  Fortunately (or not), all they got was a promise to consider amputation in a few months.

BREAKING!  MUST CREDIT... just about everyone.  Okay, here's some text from S&P's release:
We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process.
Heh-indeedy.  Unfortunately, the rest is worse.  But that's not surprising, as the way S&P inserted itself in the debate to begin with showed that it was clearly on one side.  The release as whole is basically a continuation of their pressure to act in a certain way.

Added: Krugman weighs in with a somewhat harsher view of S&P than Salmon.

Added: Drum thinks the risk of actual default was and is remote.  I used to think that, but I no longer believe that the Teahadists are under anybody's control.

Added: Here's a good post on why the practical effects of a downgrade - even by all three agencies - are likely to be minimal.  I largely agree, though I would qualify it with "in the short term" more explicitly. Another qualifier that I would add is "provided nothing bad happens elsewhere."  A breakup of the Euro would send investors piling into any US asset, especially Treasuries, driving down yields sharply.

How's That Working For You: July 2011 Edition

Here's the latest in another chart series that I abandoned for a while.
The recession is pretty obvious here.
I think the data speaks for itself.
And here.
The unemployment rate is staying high instead of declining from a peak as it did in 1981.
Next are zoomed versions of the previous two graphs
Population growth has slipped below 1%.
The labor force data has become very noisy since the beginning of the pre-recession in early 2007.  That's when people started experiencing that Wile E. Coyote moment and growth slowed.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

She's Got a Trichet to Ride

Megadiving in the markets today.  Nobody knows for sure what fears live in the hearts of market makers, but today it seems to be goings-on in Yurp, where the German-Italian bond spread continues to balloon.  The ECB's policies have been disastrous, predictably.

The most interesting proposal to resolve the crisis is this one from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.  Generally I find AE-P to be a bit of a breathless blowhard, but at first glance the idea that Germany should withdraw from the Euro is quite intriguing.  Germany, along with a few others in concert, are more likely to be able to pull off a orderly withdrawal because they are more likely to be able to keep the whole thing secret.  Discretion during any unplanned currency switchover is very important, because public knowledge is likely to trigger a bank run.  (The situation is different if the changeover is announced years in advance, as happened with the formation of the Euro.)  The new currency - lets call it the nordmark - would appreciate against the rump Euro, allowing the South European countries to regain competitiveness and grown their economies without suffering through years of deflation first..

As always, reality is likely to be a lot more complicated, so such a move may end up making everything worse compared to organizing bailouts and haircuts and other such things within the existing currency union.  Or individual countries in the so-called PIIGS quintet may be better off going their own way.  Dunno.  But like the auto bankruptcies here in America, whatever happens should happen in an organized manner, because we know that chaotic failure will produce the worst outcome.  And right now Germany and its proxy the ECB are steering the Eurobus towards a cliff.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Under the Hood: July 2011 Edition

Sales are up from last month's dismal showing. I am going to wait until next month to see if the Japanese companies have recovered.
There's been several changes to the brands graph since the last time I posted one. Hummer, Mercury, Pontiac, and Saturn are dead. (Isuzu has been dead for a while but lives on in my data.) Ram has been broken out from Dodge as a separate brand. Toyota reported Scion as a separate brand for a few months, but seems to have gone back to combining the data for both brands. Jaguar and Land Rover are reporting sales again.  And Fiat makes it's first appearance.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Shit Sandwich, or Just Plain Shit?

There's very little positive to say about the deal reach today, except that it's better than default, and it's better than other possible deals.  The details floating about earlier in the day were skimpy, but awful.  The final deal seems to be better, though there are conflicting versions.  It's not over yet, however, as one or both House caucuses might reject the deal.

Given a choice between shit or a shit sandwich, I think most people would take the latter.  But it's not really something anyone would celebrate.  Similarly, default is a worse option than the deal, but the deal is still bad in the absolute.  We need more deficit spending now, not less.  The economy is very weak, and the longer it stays weak, the bigger our long-term problems will become.  We shouldn't be making big cuts to domestic discretionary programs, because they are already insufficient.  We should be making more cuts the national security budget, and moving that money over to the domestic side.   And so on.

It's crazy that we are even having this discussion.

Update 2011/08/01: Also, not a grand bargain, but no guarantees that the hostage-taking won't happen again with the 2012 and 2013 budgets. And some of the language in the spin from the White House is horrid.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Picture This and That

At some point in the not-to-distant future, I plan to buy a new (or new to me) digital camera.  This time I think I'm going to step up to a digital interchangeable lens camera (ILC).  I have owned several digicams, but I've never been all that happy with the results.  My Kodak in particular seems to make very bland JPEGs, and the mode/off dial is very frustrating.

The digital camera market has become even more confusing than it was the last time I embarked on a pre-purchase research project. Back then, "bridge cameras" were the Big New Thing.  They are still around, as are digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, but between those are two new categories - mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILC, though for obvious reasons mirrorless system cameras (MSC) seems preferable) and single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras.  Arguably, the categories could be combined into a single category called electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens (EVIL), as neither has an optical viewfinder.  Cameras in the SLT category still have a mirror, but it is fixed and only the autofocus system uses the light coming off of it.  Most passes through to the sensor, and a rear LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder is used for image composition.  Cameras in the MSC category do away with the mirror altogether, and they don't incorporate a rangefinder-style optical viewfinder to replace it.  There are a few high-end cameras made by Leica that operate like a classic rangefinder, but those have existed for a while, and aren't considered part of the new MSC category.  They're also way too expensive for me.  Digital medium format cameras all have interchangeable lenses, but they are very expensive and are used almost exclusively by professionals.  Large format cameras have always been basically a kit of parts, and again are used almost exclusively by professionals.

I haven't made a final decision yet, but right now I'm leaning towards either a new Olympus PEN E-P3 or a used DSLR of some sort, preferably a Nikon D90 if I can find one cheap enough.  I have a few Nikon/Nikkor lenses in the basement that I might be able to use with a Nikon body, but I marked that model because it has racked up the most sales in the segment.  Below are some notes I made on the state of the ILC market right now.

Key acronyms - See the text above for details.
  • MSC - mirrorless system camera
  • SLT - single-lens transparent
  • SLR - single-lens reflex
Major manufacturers - The duopoly of Canikon/Nikanon dominates the digital ILC market.  They were also the largest film SLR manufacturers before the switch to digital began.  Sony entered the DSLR market first by essentially re-badging Konica Minolta products.  It then purchased the product line, and has increased sales significantly since then.  The items in parenthesis are the types of interchangeable lens cameras the companies make, and their 2010 ILC market shares.
Minor manufacturers - These companies offer smaller product ranges in the digital ILC market.  Panasonic and Samsung make only MSCs at this point.
Specialty manufacturers - These companies offer digital ILCs, but for various reasons their cameras have limited appeal.
  • Leica (high-end, medium-format) (?)
  • Ricoh (specialty packaging) (?)
  • Sigma (specialty sensor) (?)
  • Hasselblad (medium format, backs) (n/a)
  • Leaf (medium format backs) (n/a) 
  • Mamiya (medium format) (n/a)
  • Phase One (medium format backs) (n/a)
  • Sinar (medium format, large format, backs) (n/a) 
Former manufacturers - A number of companies no longer make digital ILCs.
  • Contax
  • Kodak
  • Epson
  • Fuji/Fujifilm
  • Konica Minolta (absorbed by Sony)
Major market segments - The MSC segment is considered to be below the DSLR segment, which is broken down into several tiers.  But increasingly there is overlap between MSCs and DLSRs
  • Mirrorless
  • Consumer DSLR (low-end/entry-level/beginner, mid-range, high-end/enthusiast)
  • Professional DSLR (mid-size, flagship)
Body styles and image composition methods - While there is no need for MSCs to have any particular form factor, nonetheless they basically fall into two categories - pseudo-rangefinders and pseudo-SLRs.  The DSLR form-factor is still heavily defined by the mirror and eyepiece, even though there no longer is film behind the shutter.
  • Rangefinder-style MSC (display - optional electronic viewfinders on some models)
  • SLR-style MSC (display or electronic viewfinder)
  • SLT (display or electronic viewfinder)
  • Compact SLR (display or optical viewfinder - either pentaprism or pentamirror)
  • Midsize SLR (display or optical viewfinder - either pentaprism or pentamirror)
  • Large SLR (display or optical viewfinder - pentaprism only)
Sensor types - Most image sensors use an internal layout developed by Kodak in the 1970s, and use one of two technologies for actually detecting photons.  The latter are charge-couple device (CCD) and active pixel sensor (which are usually referred to as CMOS).  Each has advantages and disadvantages, but the most relevant one for high-end cameras is the higher speed of CMOS sensors.  There are variations in implementation of CMOS sensors between companies and over time, but the details are not all that important.  The exception to the layout pattern is the Foveon sensor used by Sigma.  It arranges the detectors into three different layers, which yields better color rendition according to the company, but at the price of lower resolution. 
Sensor sizes - The sensor formats used in ILCs are much larger than in typical fixed-lens digital cameras, with one exception.  As time goes on, the sensor vendors have been able to increase the pixel resolution for a given size, but the sizes in ILCs have remained fixed (roughly, there are small variations) because of the relationship between the sensor size and the lens.
  • 1/2.3" (8.1mm x 6.1mm, 58mm2, 6.7%) (Pentax)
  • Four-Thirds (17.3mm x 13mm, 225mm2, 26%) (Panasonic, Olympus)
  • APS-C (~22.2mm x ~14.8mm, 328mm2, 38%) (Canon)
  • APS-C (~23.6 x ~15.6mm, 368mm2, 42%) (Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Samsung)
  • APS-H (28.7mm x 19mm, 519mm2, 60%) (Canon)
  • Full-frame (36mm x 24mm, 864mm2, 100%) (Nikon, Canon, Sony)
Lens mount type - Each camera company has developed its own lens mount, though adapters are available that allow for some reuse across types.
  • Alpha/AF (Sony/Konica Minolta)
  • E (Sony)
  • EF (Canon, fits on EF-S mount cameras)
  • EF-S (Canon, won't fit on EF mount cameras)
  • F (Nikon)
  • Four-Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic)
  • K (Pentax)
  • Micro Four-Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic)
  • NX (Samsung)
  • Q (Pentax)
Lenses - just like there is no point in buying a $1000 receiver and $400 pair of speakers, there's not much point in buying a $2000 body and nothing but one basic photographic lens.  In both cases, the spending should be at least be balanced, if not tilted towards what might initially look like a less important item. Professional photographer and equipment reviewer Thom Hogan recommends a dedicated enthusiast have 5 lenses, (scroll down to July 22) with the most used one being of high quality.  I think first-time DSLR purchaser would want two zooms - a 28-85mm and a 105-200mm - unless they already know that they have specific needs such as low-light or macro.  Only after they find they are running up against the limits of their lens should they buy another. (Any focal lengths mentioned are 35mm-equivalent.)
  • Extension tube -  mounts between a body and lens to decrease the focal length
  • Fast - a lens with a large maximum aperture, generally considered to be f/1.4 to f/2.8 depending on the type of lens, but exotic (read: expensive) lenses can be faster
  • Filter - allows only a certain portion of incoming light to pass through it; generally screws onto the end of the lens, but some lenses have a filter tray near the middle of the lens barrel
  • Fisheye - a lens with a very wide field of view and exaggerated distortion
  • Fixed-focus - typically used only on very low-end cameras
  • Kit - a lens that comes with the camera, often a 28-85mm zoom
  • Macro - a lens that allows for close-up work, with minimal magnification
  • Macro filter - not a filter; mounts on the end of lens to allow close-up work
  • Portrait - a slightly long-focus lens, with a focal length of 85mm to 105mm
  • Prime - fixed focal-length lens
  • Standard or normal - a lens that gives a field of view similar to the human eye, typically 50mm for 35mm cameras, with a range from 40mm to 55mm
  • Teleconverter - mounts between a body and lens to increase the focal length
  • Telephoto - a long-focus lens that enlarges distant subjects, with a focal length of 105mm or greater
  • Teleside converter - mounts on the front of a lens to increase the focal length
  • Tilt-shift or perspective control - specialty lens used by professionals
  • Wide-angle - a lens that allows for a greater field of view, with a focal length of 35mm or less
  • Zoom - a variable focal length lens
    Camera controls - The two main controls on manual film SLR cameras were aperture and shutter speed.  Combined with the film speed, or sensitivity (as defined by an ISO standard), they determined if a shot could be taken, and allowed it to be manipulated.  Digital cameras have added many new twists to those controls, and offer far more automation than even the last generation of film cameras introduced in the 1990s.
    Features - Over time, camera manufacturers have added many features beyond standard camera controls.  The latest craze is adding video recording capabilities that match those on video cameras.  Oddly, in my mind at least, built-in time-lapse capability is not yet universal.
    Terminology - Here are a some terms that come up in reviews that don't fit elsewhere.
    • AVCHD/M-JPEG/H.264/MPEG-4 - a variety of video compression standards and file formats
    • Crop factor - too complicated to explain here
    • Noise - spurious information that can show up in images due to sensor design issues and other factors
    • JPEG - an image file format in widespread everyday use; the quality of in-camera processing from RAW varies between manufacturers somewhat
    • RAW - generic term for image file formats generated by cameras; saves more information than a JPEG, but at the price of file size, and must be processed into a JPEG with software
    Comparisons - One of more time-consuming things to figure out is exactly what models are comparable to each other.  I have made several mini-lists of models that are roughly equal in price and capability.  The links lead to side-by-side comparisons at one of the better known camera review sites.  The lists are not in any particular order.
    And, finally, here is a list of cameras available as of July 2011.  Naturally, there is a certain amount of conflicting information on the net.  So some of the cameras in the list may no longer available from the manufacturer, and I've probably deleted a few that still are.   Retailers will sometimes have products on their shelves long after the manufacturer has discontinued them.  If you're desperate to buy a certain model as new, it still might be possible for months or even years after production has stopped.  The list is sorted by the price with a basic zoom lens (if available) and then by the body only price (buyers in the higher price ranges will select their lenses separately).  At the end are a few cameras that have been announced but don't have a "street" price yet.  That will change within a couple of months, at most.

    Market segmentSensor typePixels
    Body priceW/ kit zoomAnn'ced
    SamsungNX100MSC RF-styleMirrorlessAPS-C14.6n/an/a45009/14/10
    OlympusE-420Compact SLRConsumer, low-endFour-Thirds10.0E-450, E-410,
    E-400, E-330,
    PentaxK-xCompact SLRConsumer, low-endAPS-C12.4K-m/K2000n/a55009/17/09
    NikonD3100Compact SLRConsumer, low-endAPS-C14.2D3000, D4053060008/19/10
    Canon1100D/T3Compact SLRConsumer, low-endAPS-C12.21000D/XSn/a60002/07/11
    PentaxK-rCompact SLRConsumer, low-endAPS-C12.4K-x64062509/09/10
    SonyNEX-C3MSC RF-styleMirrorlessAPS-C16.2NEX-3n/a65006/08/11
    PanasonicDMC-G3MSC SLR-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds15.8DMC-G2, DMC-G160070005/13/11
    SonySLT-A35Compact SLTMirrorlessAPS-C16.2SLT-A3360070006/08/11
    OlympusE-620Compact SLRConsumer, mid-rangeFour-Thirds12.3n/a70070002/24/09
    SamsungNX11MSC SLR-styleMirrorlessAPS-C14.6NX10n/a70012/28/10
    SonyNEX-5MSC RF-styleMirrorlessAPS-C14.2n/an/a70005/11/10
    SonyDSLR-A560Compact SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C14.2A50065075008/24/10
    PanasonicDMC-G10MSC SLR-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds12.1DMC-G260080003/07/10
    NikonD5100Compact SLRConsumer, mid-rangeAPS-C16.2D5000, D60, D40x, D5070080004/05/11
    SonySLT-A55Compact SLTMirrorlessAPS-C16.2n/a75085008/24/10
    Canon600D/T3iCompact SLRConsumer, low-endAPS-C18.0550D/T2i, 500D/T1i, 450D/XSi, 400D/XTi70090002/07/11
    SonyDSLR-A580Compact SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C16.2A55080090008/24/10
    PanasonicDMC-GH2MSC SLR-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds16.1DMC-GH1n/a100009/21/10
    NikonD90Midsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C12.3D80, D70s,
    PentaxK-7Midsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C14.6K-20D, K-10D960120005/18/09
    Canon60DMidsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C18.050D, 40D, 30D, 20D, 10D, D60, D30900130008/26/10
    NikonD7000Midsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C16.2D901200150009/15/10
    PentaxK-5Midsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C16.3K-71580150009/20/10
    Canon7DMidsize SLRConsumer, high-endAPS-C18.0n/a1600190009/01/09
    OlympusE-30Midsize SLRConsumer, mid-rangeFour-Thirds12.3n/a1000n/a11/05/09
    NikonD300sMidsize SLRProfessional, high-endAPS-C12.3D300, D200, D1001700n/a07/30/09
    OlympusE-5Large SLRConsumer, high-endFour-Thirds12.3E-3, E-11700n/a09/14/10
    SonyDSLR-A850Midsize SLRProfessional, high-endFull-frame24.6n/a1999n/a08/27/09
    Canon5D Mk.IIMidsize SLRConsumer, high-endFull-frame21.05D2560n/a09/27/09
    SonyDSLR-A900Midsize SLRProfessional, high-endFull-frame24.6n/a2699n/a09/09/08
    NikonD700Midsize SLRProfessional, high-endFull-frame12.1n/a2700n/a07/01/08
    NikonD3SLarge SLRProfessional, flagshipFull-frame12.1D3, D2Hs, D2H, D1H5200n/a10/14/09
    Canon1D Mk.IVLarge SLRProfessional, high-endAPS-H16.11D Mk. III, 1D Mk. II N, 1D Mk. II5470n/a10/20/09
    Canon1Ds Mk.IIILarge SLRProfessional, flagshipFull-frame21.11Ds Mk.II, 1Ds7410n/a08/20/07
    NikonD3XLarge SLRProfessional, flagshipFull-frame24.5D2Xs, D2X, D1X, D18000n/a12/01/08
    OlympusPEN E-P3MSC RF-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds12.3E-P2, E-P1n/an/a06/30/11
    OlympusPEN E-PL3MSC RF-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds12.3E-PL2,
    OlympusPEN E-PM1MSC RF-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds12.3n/an/an/a06/30/11
    PanasonicDMC-GF3MSC RF-styleMirrorlessFour-Thirds12.1DMC-GF2, DMC-GF1n/an/a06/13/11
    PentaxQMSC RF-styleMirrorless1/2.3"12.4n/an/an/a06/23/11

    Note: this is another post that I'll probably edit a lot, at least for the next week or so.

    Major update 2011/08/01: Added older cameras below.

    2010 comparisons - the latest models available at the end of the year.  I've fitted the available cameras into the 2011 market categories for continuity.
    • MSC, low-end RF-style - Olympus E-PL1s, Samsung NX100, Sony NEX-3
    • MSC, high-end RF-style - Olympus E-P2, Panasonic DMC-GF2, Sony NEX-5
    • Beginner SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D3100, Canon 1000D/XS, Panasonic DMC-G10, Pentax K-x, Olympus E-450, Samsung NX10, Sony DSLR-A290, Sony DSLR-A390, Sony SLT-A33, Sony DSLR-A560
    • Midrange SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D5000, Canon 550D/T2i, Olympus E-520, Olympus E-600, Olympus E-620, Panasonic DMC-G2, Pentax K-r, Sony SLT-A55, Sony DSLR-A580
    • Enthusiast SLR/MSC - Nikon D7000, Nikon D90, Canon 60D, Pentax K-7, Olympus E-30, Panasonic DMC-GH2
    • Professional SLR - Nikon D300s, Canon 7D, Sony DSLR-A850, Olympus E-5, Pentax K-5
    • Professional SLR, full frame - Nikon D700, Canon 5D Mk. II, Sony DSLR-A900
    • Professional SLR, flagship action - Nikon D3S, Canon 1D Mk. IV
    • Professional SLR, flagship studio - Nikon D3X, Canon 1Ds Mk. III
    2009 comparisons - the latest models available at the end of the year.  I've fitted the available cameras into the 2011 market categories for continuity.
    • MSC, low-end RF-style - none
    • MSC, high-end RF-style - Olympus E-P1, Panasonic DMC-GF1
    • Beginner SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D3000, Canon 1000D/XS, Olympus E-450, Panasonic DMC-G10, Pentax K-m/K2000, Sony DSLR-A230, Sony DSLR-A330, Sony DSLR-A380, Sony DSLR-A500
    • Midrange SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D5000, Canon 500D/T1i, Olympus E-520, Olympus E-600, Olympus E-620, Sony Sony DSLR-A550, Panasonic DMC-G1
    • Enthusiast SLR/MSC - Nikon D90, Canon 50D, Pentax K-7, Olympus E-30, Panasonic DMC-GH1
    • Professional SLR - Nikon D300s, Canon 7D, Sony DSLR-A850, Olympus E-3, Sony DSLR-A850
    • Professional SLR, full frame - Nikon D700, Canon 5D Mk. II, Sony DSLR-A900
    • Professional SLR, flagship action - Nikon D3S, Canon 1D Mk. IV
    • Professional SLR, flagship studio - Nikon D3X, Canon 1Ds Mk. III
    2008 comparisons - the latest models available at the end of the year.  I've fitted the available cameras into the 2011 market categories for continuity.
    • MSC, low-end RF-style - none
    • MSC, high-end RF-style - none
    • Beginner SLR/MSC/SLT - Canon 1000D/XS, Nikon D40, Olympus E-420, Pentax K-m/K2000, Sony DSLR-A200, Sony DSLR-A300, Sony DSLR-A350
    • Midrange SLR/MSC/SLT - Canon 450D/XSi, Nikon D60, Olympus E-520, Panasonic DMC-L10, Panasonic DMC-G1, Pentax K200D
    • Enthusiast SLR/MSC - Canon 50D, Nikon D90, Olympus E-30, Pentax K20D (Samsung GX-20), Sony DSLR-A700
    • Professional SLR - Nikon D300, Olympus E-3
    • Professional SLR, full frame - Canon 5D Mk. II, Nikon D700, Sony DSLR-A900
    • Professional SLR, flagship action - Canon 1D Mk. III, Nikon D3
    • Professional SLR, flagship studio - Canon 1Ds Mk. III, Nikon D3X
    2007 comparisons - the latest models available at the end of the year.  I've fitted the available cameras into the 2011 market categories for continuity.
    • MSC, low-end RF-style - none
    • MSC, high-end RF-style - none
    • Beginner SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D40, Olympus E-330, Olympus E-410
    • Midrange SLR/MSC/SLT - Canon 400D/XTi, Nikon D40X, Olympus E-510, Panasonic DMC-L1, Pentax K100D Super
    • Enthusiast SLR/MSC - Canon 40D, Nikon D80, Pentax K10D (Samsung GX-10), Sony DSLR-A100, Sony DSLR-A700
    • Professional SLR - Nikon D300, Olympus E-3
    • Professional SLR, full frame - Canon 5D
    • Professional SLR, flagship action - Canon 1D Mk. III, Nikon D3
    • Professional SLR, flagship studio - Canon 1Ds Mk. III
    2006 comparisons - the latest models available at the end of the year.  I've fitted the available cameras into the 2011 market categories for continuity.
    • MSC, low-end RF-style - none
    • MSC, high-end RF-style - none
    • Beginner SLR/MSC/SLT - Nikon D40, Olympus E-330, Olympus E-400, Pentax K110D, Samsung GX-1L
    • Midrange SLR/MSC/SLT - Canon 400D/XTi, Nikon D50, Olympus E-500, Pentax K100D, Samsung GX-1S
    • Enthusiast SLR/MSC - Canon 30D, Nikon D80, Pentax K10D, Sony DSLR-A100
    • Professional SLR - Nikon D200, Olympus E-1
    • Professional SLR, full frame - Canon 5D
    • Professional SLR, flagship action - Canon 1D Mk. IIN, Nikon D2Hs
    • Professional SLR, flagship studio - Canon 1Ds Mk. II, Nikon D2Xs,
    Pre-2006 comparisons - Camera bodies built before 2006 are mostly historical artifacts by now, though they can still take better (though not higher resolution) photos than most current point-and-shoot cameras because they have better lenses attached.  Pre-2006 lenses are still perfectly good, though there may be some instances where a new camera doesn't support the lens' electronic features even if the mount is compatible.