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.

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    Under the Hood: June 2011 Extended Edition

    Here's a few more graphs on where the auto market is right now.

    Sales are up from the crisis year of 2009, but still below 2008.
    This graph shows market share by brand home country (as opposed to country of manufacture).  The Japanese share fell in April and May, probably because of the effects of the tsunami on supply chains in Japan.
    In this graph the decline of the Japanese brands can be seen again.  Despite the impact of the recession on the industry, the same five brands still dominate sales.

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    Lasting Relief

    I had been planning to write a post on the end of the Space Transportation System (STS), a.k.a. the Space Shuttle once the Atlantis landed successfully.  But mistermix beat me to it, hitting all the points I was going to make.
    • Thank FSM it's over.  Ever since the Challenger disaster, and even more so after the Columbia disaster, I gritted my teeth during each flight.  The STS program ended up being the most deadly manned program in history (not counting related on-the-ground accidents), killing 14 astronauts, vs. 4 during the entire course of the Soviet Union/Russian program.
    • It was a Frankenstein.  I don't know the history of how the program evolved, so I don't know if the Shuttle could have been designed better.  But the additional weight of a man-rated reusable vehicle made launches of satellites and robotic missions much more expensive.  The Shuttle was approximately three times heavier than its payload capacity.
    • Ease up on the jingoism.  The pride element of objecting to using a Russian rocket is silly.  They have a reliable launch vehicle and space capsule, so it makes sense to use it now that there is no requirement to launch large ISS components.
    • Kill the ISS already.  The International Space Station is the most expensive thing on Earth built by humans, and is unlikely to yield scientific or technological results that will come anywhere close to justifying its immense cost.  It should be flown into the Pacific Ocean.  But because it's an international program, doing the sensible thing won't happen until at least 2020.
    • Crowds are no fun.  Money is always an issue, and the extraordinary expense of the STS and ISS probably crowded out a lot of more rewarding robotic missions.  The caveat is necessary because there is no way of knowing if any of the money spent on the manned missions over the past three decades would have been spent otherwise, but I think it's likely that a good portion of it would have been.
    • It ain't over 'til its over.   Space is still out there, and there are incredible things yet to discover.  The gee-wiz factor of putting men into space is gone, at least for the time being.  But robotic mission can yield fantastic results, as programs like Voyager, Hubble, and the Mars Rovers have shown.  There's no reason to equate the end of the Shuttle program with the end of space exploration.
     So what should NASA be doing in the near future?  This is how I see it:
    • Minimal support of the ISS.  Because it is an international program, keeping the ISS alive is necessary for political reasons.  But the US should do no more that meet its obligations.
    • Minimal development of COTS capsules.  Currently, three different unmanned supply vehicles are available to take cargo and fuel to the ISS: the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and the Russian Progress vehicle.  They have completed 2, 2, and 46 trips respectively.  Since there is no immediate need, NASA should provide limited funding to American companies for developing similar capabilities, or manned capsules.
    • General spaceflight research and development.  This would be NASA's slush fund for interesting but not immediately applicable technology development.  One specific goal I would recommend is to find a way to capture and de-orbit space debris.
    • Aeronautics research and development.  The first "A" in NASA is usually an afterthought.  But given how important air travel and freight are, some effort should be put into research applicable to atmospheric vehicles.  The emphasis should be on fuel efficiency.
    • Robotic exploration.  This should be the main focus of NASA for the next decade.  While there have been mishaps, the list of successful missions is much, much larger.  The missions can be divided into three categories
      1. Solar system exploration.  This includes missions to planets or other bodies, and Sol observation.  Dawn and SOHO are two such missions.
      2. Earth observation.  Any mission to observe the Earth not undertaken by NOAA or the military falls here.  The Aqua/Terra satellites comprise one notable program.
      3. Astronomy and physics.  The Hubble is the most famous example of this type of mission, but there are many others.  The James Webb Space Telescope is the next big one scheduled for launch, but it may be canceled due to budget cuts.
    • Heavy lift development.  This is admittedly the most dubious item in the list.  As of 2011, the Atlas V HLV is the largest available launch vehicle, with a claimed capacity to LEO of 29,000kg.  In contrast, the Saturn V was able to launch 118,000kg into orbit.  The STS was able to launch as much as 109,000kg to LEO, but most of that was the Shuttle itself.  There has been talk for years about developing an unmanned launch vehicle from the STS components, and NASA appears to be on the verge of announcing they intend to do just that.  But no one has identified a need to lob anything that weighs 70,000kg or more into orbit, either right now or in the foreseeable future.  So there are reasons for putting the program on hold.  To me, there are two arguments for the program.  One is that nobody else is likely to do it.  Other space agencies and various commercial organizations have slowly raised the capacity of their systems over the years.  But a much bigger rocket would have to be designed from scratch, and I think it's unlikely that anyone but the Chinese government would be willing to make such a huge and largely speculative investment.  The other is that most of the components are already available in the US from the existing Shuttle infrastructure.  They would have to be re-integrated after a new fairing system is designed, and then tested.  But if NASA plans and executes wisely, it should be able to have the new system ready in less than a decade and for a reasonable-ish cost (leaving aside the issue that it is pointless right now).
    No discussion about NASA is really complete without noting that it still receives indirect support from the Department of Defense.  The two programs are largely separate, but they often use the same contractors and the same launch vehicles, which reduces NASA's costs over being the sole customer government customer.  Occasionally there is some direct cooperation, though its nothing like what took place in the 1960s.  In addition, NOAA is in charge of a satellite fleet, but they are purchased, not built in-house, and are launched on commercial rockets.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Et vos, Italia?

    People have been talking about Italy's problems for years, but about two weeks ago they suddenly burst into the news for some reason - due to either a coordinated attack by speculators or squabbling within the governing coalition.  And the by now predictable response: an austerity package, passed on Friday.  Early in the week an important part of the bond mafia indicated that the markets would be reassured by such budget-cutting moves.  But that wasn't the case in Ireland or Greece, so such declarations seem premature.

    As in Greece, and Ireland, and the other countries in trouble, there are real problems in Italy.  The net national debt is currently over 110% of GDP.  The current Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, manages to combine all the negative aspects of Rupert Murdoch, George Bush, and Anthony Weiner in one human body.  The country is easily the most corrupt major EU country; only Greece ranks lower out of the 27 countries in the union.

    Of course, that's not the whole story.  While the Italy has a high level of debt, it has been able to sustain it for over a decade now.  Because the country has had a relatively high savings rate, the debt is mostly internally financed and its net foreign investment position is nearly neutral.  Despite pervasive corruption and a political culture that is a complete mess, it has still managed to raise its citizens' (adjusted) per capita income to over 30,000 dollars, and it is a top 25 country in the Human Development Index.

    I would say that like America, Italy's problems are mostly politi-cultural.  But that doesn't mean that market forces can't force a crisis.  Italy is a relatively populous country, and its bond float isn't trivial.  But it doesn't necessarily take that much money to move markets.   So the "crisis" is likely to continue as long as bond traders are able to exploit the market for personal gain at the expense of taxpayers.

    Update 2011.07.22: Calculated Risk reproduces a Bloomberg chart that illustrates the futility of bailout packages (which included austerity measures) in other countries.

    Update 2011.08.06: The Economist said it better.  And it turns out that Italy has the third largest sovereign bond market (or sub-sovereign, because Italy doesn't issue its own currency).  However, the amount that is likely to be traded could be much smaller.

    Sunday, July 17, 2011

    Under the Hood: June 2011 Edition

    It's been a while since I've looked at auto sales.  As should be expected for a number of reasons - a weak economy, the end of housing-bubble induced wealth effect, and perhaps even a slight trend away from driving - sales haven't recovered to their pre-recession levels.  The spike caused by the Cash for Clunkers program is pretty obvious.  But the falloff in the first months after the program ended was less than I expected.
    The data for registration lags by over a year, so it's too soon to tell if the downtick in registered vehicles is actually a trend.  But this article from a few months ago suggests that the number of cars on the road has continued to decline.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Fleet Street Cheatsheet

    Most Americans probably don't realize that the newspaper ecosystem in the United Kingdom is quite a bit different than in the US.  Except for the specialist-oriented Wall Street Journal and the McPaper, US newspapers are tied to a city or metropolitan region.  In much smaller England, the national newspapers (which are all based in London) dominate.  These are divided into three separate groups according to their perceived level of journalistic standards: quality, mid-market, and tabloid.  Something else for Americans to note is an odd tradition (to this American) of having a mostly separate staff for the Sunday edition of the papers, most of which also have different names.  In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, most of the English national papers run regional versions, and there are also a few regionally significant papers.  Here's a rundown of the national titles ordered by circulation as of March 2011 (or Sunday circulation where appropriate).

    Daily TitleSunday TitleFormatMarket segment2010 election endorsementCirculation daily / Sun. OwnerNotes
    The Sunn/atabloidtabloidConservative2,817,857 / n/aNews Corp.Murdoch; soon to launch a Sunday edition
    n/aNews of the WorldtabloidtabloidConservativen/a / 2,664,363News Corp.Murdoch; defunct as of July 9
    Daily MailThe Mail on Sundaytabloidmid-marketConservative2,039,731 / 1,888,040Daily Mail and General Trust, PLC
    Daily MirrorSunday MirrortabloidtabloidLabour1,155,896 / 1,063,096Trinity Mirror
    Daily StarDaily Star SundaytabloidtabloidConservative699,216 / 293,489Northern & Shell
    The Daily TelegraphThe Sunday TelegraphbroadsheetqualityConservative626,416 / 481,941Barclay brothers
    Daily ExpressSunday Expresstabloidmid-marketConservative620,616 / 533,192Northern & Shell
    n/aThe Peopletabloidtabloidnonen/a / 477,185Trinity Mirror
    The TimesThe Sunday Timestabloid / broadsheetqualityConservative446,109 / 1,031,727News Corp.Murdoch
    Financial Timesn/abroadsheetqualityConservative381,658 / n/aPearson, PLCFinancial focus
    The GuardianThe Observermid-sizequalityLiberal Democrats261,934 / 296,023Scott TrustNot-for-profit
    The IndependentIndependent on Sundaytabloidqualityanti-Tory181,934 / 153,183Alexander Lebedev
    “i”n/atabloidmid-marketanti-Tory171,415 / n/aAlexander Lebedevdownsized version of the Indy
    Morning Starn/atabloidmid-marketnone (tactical for Labour)15,000 (?) / n/aPeople's Press Printing SocietyVoice of the Communist Party of Britain

    Note 2011.07.15: A lot of people consider the now-defunct News of the World as the Sunday edition of The Sun. I've kept NotW separate because it is being wound up (or down), and the staff let go instead of being moved to The Sun.

    Update 2011.07.15: Added the Morning Star, which is national but very small.

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Predictable Expectations

    ATHENS (Reuters) - A deeper-than-expected recession caused Greece's central government deficit to widen by almost one third in the first half of the year, widely missing an interim budget target under the country's bailout plan, the finance ministry said on Monday.
    Hurt by austerity, the Greek economy contracted at an annual pace of 5.5 percent in the first quarter. The Greek government revised downwards its 2011 growth forecast for this year to 3.9 percent.
    Hoo-boy, another nobody-could-have-predicted moment.  Of course, it's not.  The Greek economy is going to contract until the cutting is stopped, or until it re-adopts its own currency.

    Update 2011.07.12: As always, I'm hardly the first one to make the observation.


    The ongoing phone-hacking scandal in the UK is just mind-blowing.  Kudos to the Guardian and its staff, whose dogged investigative work has brought all of this to light.

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Viewsonic VX910 Capacitor Replacment Update

    This little project didn't work out for me.  After replacing all of the caps, the inverter board still wouldn't work.  I could hear it clicking slowly (about once per second), but without a schematic I had no way of figuring out what was still wrong.  So I ordered a replacement off of eBay.  It has the same output specs but a different layout, so I couldn't compare the old one to it.  The new board has been working just fine so far.  The old one has gone off the great electronics recycling facility in the sky.  Or is it in central China?