UnicornCam Update

November 30, 2007

In Imponderable Decisive Moment Compact Camera Challenges I talked about a digital camera I call the UnicornCam. This mythical beast marries a digital SLR sized imaging sensor with a compact camera body to achieve a type of photographic nirvana.

One camera that gave hope to the UnicornCam enthusiasts was the announced but unreleased Sigma DP1.

Today, Sigma announced that the DP1 has entered alpha testing and the final specifications will differ than those previously announced.

After a careful evaluation, we found that the image processing pipeline we had developed for the DP1 was not ideal for achieving the best image quality as it was intended for the faster image processing speed, and we needed to make major revisions to it. At that time we had a choice between compromising image quality and moving forward or taking a different path. After long and sometimes intense discussions, we finally decided to change the entire image processing pipeline. When we decided to change the entire image processing pipeline, we also decided to return to the simple and original product concept of “a camera with the best still image quality in a compact body” and dedicate all of our DP1 development resources to that concept. Because of this change, we had to change some of the specifications that we had announced.

The final specifications will be released at a later time. I’m guessing that the APS sized sensor is gone.

The Tyranny of the Market

November 29, 2007

I finished reading The Tyranny of the Market by Joel Waldfogel last weekend. The subtitle of the book is “Why You Can’t Always Get What you Want”. The premise is that markets do not always fulfill the needs of consumers whose tastes are not shared by a majority of people. To support this claim Waldfogel describes black and Hispanic populations in urban markets being underserviced by radio, newspapers, and television options. Waldfogel says that two prerequisites are needed for this type of market failure. “First, preferences must differ across groups. And second, something — generally fixed costs — must limit the number of available options and prevent products from being provided to small groups of potential buyers.”

My answer to Waldfogel is <Mick Jagger singing> “If you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need”. Sorry, couldn’t resist :-)

The mass media examples presented in the book remind one of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory. Anderson claims that finite shelf space is to blame for your inability to get Bollywood films at your local Blockbuster. The internet, on the other hand, has infinite shelf space and that fact coupled with technology to help customers find obscure titles allows “long tail” products to outsell blockbuster products in aggregate (or so the theory goes).

In my mind, Waldfogel only manages to demonstrate what seems obvious, products and their prices are beholden to the laws of physics and the availability of information. In the Long Tail theory, the physics of shelf space and population density determines how many titles are carried in a bricks-and-mortar store. iTunes and Netflicks did not change the laws of physics but they changed the way their products/services are delivered which changes the specific laws of physics that apply (or are most critical). Amazon.com biggest breakthrough involved information, that is, the way people discovered books. Sears built an empire around warehouses, the railway, and a large selection of products communicated through a catalogue.

I think free markets tend to find an equilibrium that balances price with product offerings. It takes shifts in information (i.e. innovation) to disrupt the system and a new equilibrium results. The fact that these equilibriums preclude certain offerings is not proof of a market failure that requires government intervention. Waldfogel’s book is well written and his argument is clearly presented but I’m left unconvinced.

I watched a TED Talk by Juan Enriquez titled Why Can’t We Grow New Energy? The general premise behind the talk is that new biological processes will make the extraction of energy from hydrocarbons much more efficient. He compared the efficiency gains to the Green Revolution that allowed food to be grown at cheaper and cheaper prices.

OK, I’m following but I’m confused because I’m expecting to hear how this technology will impact the carbon cycle and fix global warming (I guess I’m conditioned). Instead I hear about how efficiency gains in energy extraction/production will solve our future energy needs. Sounds great, I’m all for technical progress but doesn’t that just lower the price of energy and not really change the carbon footprint problem?

So as I’m busy scratching my head the talk ends with the following.

One of the things that we have to do is stabilize oil prices. This is what oil prices look like [shows oil price graph]. This is a very bad system because what happens is that your hurdle rates are set very low. People come up with these smart ideas about solar panels or for wind or something else and then, guess what, oil prices go through the floor and that companies go out of business and then you can bring the oil prices back up.

So if I have one closing and modest suggestion. Lets set stable oil prices in Europe and the United States. How do you do that? Well lets put a tax on oil that is non revenue tax that basically says for the next twenty years the price of oil will be whatever you want, 35 bucks or 40 bucks or whatever you want. If the OPEC prices falls below that we tax it, if it goes above that price that tax goes away. What does that do for entrepreneurs what does that do for companies? It tells people if you can produce energy for less than 35 bucks a barrel or less than 40 bucks a barrel or less than 50 bucks a barrel, lets debate it, then you will have a business. But lets not put people through a cycle where it doesn’t pay to research cause your company will go out of business as OPEC drives alternatives and prevents bioenergy from happening.

This is a “modest” suggestion? Fix a bottom price on oil to encourage entrepreneurs to do more energy oriented research.

Juan Enriquez sounds like a really bright guy and Wikipedia says that he “is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences.”

So why such a disconnect with free market principles? Is it academia in general or perhaps seeing the world through the lens of research grant funded innovation that makes suggestions like this seem modest and reasonable? Am I out to lunch with my misguided faith in free market economics when this is clearly a case for government command and control? I’m confused…. really confused.

Weather Network Call Libya

November 27, 2007

Gaddafi has made an interesting request.

 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya has flummoxed presidential protocol service with a request that a Bedouin tent be erected in central Paris where he can entertain guests during a visit to France next month.

I wonder if anyone has considered the temperature in Paris in December? Perhaps modern day Bedouin tents come with patio heaters.

Libertarian Interventionists

November 26, 2007

Bryan Caplan at EconLog asks Why Did So Many Libertarians Support the [Iraq] War and tries to put the apparent contradiction into historical context.

Plenty of libertarians were against it, of course. But if you remember how integral isolationist/ non-interventionist foreign policy was to the libertarian idea back in the ’70s and ’80s, the libertarian reaction to the Iraq War (and the War on Terror generally) has been quite astonishing.

You might say that libertarians changed their mind because Islamic fundamentalism is such a serious threat. But it’s a lot less serious than the Soviet threat. And back when the Soviets still ruled eastern Europe, the standard libertarian foreign policy prescription was to pull out of NATO, Korea, and Japan. Similarly, you might say that Islamic fundamentalism is so ideologically repugnant to libertarians that they were willing to make an exception. But from a libertarian perspective, Marxism-Leninism is even worse, isn’t it?

In my view, libertarian thought does not lean to either an isolationist (anti-Iraq War) or interventionist (pro-Iraq War) side. Libertarians generally believe in a kind of Golden Rule: an individual has the right to do whatever they like as long as their actions do not impinge on the rights of others. What we often forget is that the Golden Rule does not specify the appropriate action to take when an individual breaks the rule.

How to deal with individuals, or groups of individuals, that break the Golden Rule is at the heart of the issue. As a libertarian, do you ignore or confront individuals that deny others their individual rights and freedoms. What about despotic rulers of sovereign nations? What about despotic rulers that commit genocide within the borders of their sovereign nations.

Iraq was a “problem from hell” (to borrow terminology from Samantha Power) before 9/11. Libertarian interventionists believed that bringing liberty to an oppressed people was a good thing. Libertarian isolationists believed that such pursuits were pure folly.

I think all libertarians believe that people around the world will benefit from an increase in individual rights and freedoms. The hard part is determining the best course of action/inaction required to increase liberty and that is the root cause of the apparent libertarian dilemma.

Giving Thanks to Microsoft

November 23, 2007

As our American friends south of the border celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend I would like to give thanks to Microsoft. I would like to give thanks to Microsoft, not for their role in personal computing, not for their operating systems, not for their file or e-mail servers, not for their Office products, but for the Internet. I would like to give thanks to Microsoft for giving us the Internet.

Now this is not an Al Gore Invented the Internet moment. I am not claiming that Microsoft invented the Internet or even championed it. What I am saying is that Microsoft made the most important decision that shaped the success of what we now think of as the Internet and they didn’t even have a clue they were doing it.

At some point in the 90’s Microsoft bundled and embraced the TCP/IP protocol in their operating systems. They did this for a simple reason, to give them a competitive edge over the then dominant market leader Novell. That simple choice driven by fierce competitiveness enabled the ubiquity of the Internet that we know today and, I dare say that, it would not have happened without it.

For this, I give thanks.

Repugnant Transplants

November 16, 2007

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has an emotional post about Repugnant Repugnance.

Many people find the idea of selling human organs for transplant to be repugnant which is why Roth argues that we should focus more on improving efficiency through kidney swaps. I’m all in favor of swaps and have also suggested that one argument in favor of no-give, no-take rules is that they are ethically acceptable to more people than organ sales.

Nevertheless, I think Roth assumes too quickly that repugnance is a constraint to be respected rather than an outrage to be denounced and quashed. People’s repugnance at inter-racial dating or homosexual sex is no reason to prevent free exchange – the same is true for organ donations. Repugnance itself can be repugnant.

Is it not repugnant that some people are willing to let others die so that their stomachs won’t become queasy at the thought that someone, somewhere is selling a kidney?

I think Alex’s posts are some of my favorites as he is not shy about wearing his repugnance on his sleeve :-) Nonetheless, organ transplant policies and irrational biases (repugnance being one form) are complicated.

For a long summary of organ transplants (yet succinct given the complexity of the issue) see Tom Slee’s post Juicy Kidneys and his review of Kieran Healy book Last Best Gifts where he concludes:

Healy convinced me that the big issue is not the economists’ issue — of markets versus altruism — but is the sociologists’ issue of coping with complex incentives in large-scale industrial organizations, and that alone was worth the price of the book.

I agree with Tom on this one. Well not the “large-scale industrial organizations” part . Hopefully Tom doesn’t mind my mental paraphrase substituting “overcoming innate biases” for the Chomsky-esque stuff :-) I believe it is important to recognize our innate biases and sometimes in rare situations it is appropriate to create incentive systems to overcome these biases.

As another altruistic health example consider the practice of fecal transplants as a superbug treatment. I think its hard to argue that the repugnance in this case is an “outrage to be denounced and quashed” especially since I’m positive that some (most?) of the repugnance comes from the recipients who benefit from the altruism. I’m guessing that a funny commercial or even mainstream media coverage like the CBC’s will do more to overcome the repugnance than heavy-handed approaches.

Another one of Pogue’s Imponderables is:

I’m told that they could make a shirt-pocket digital camera that takes pictures like an S.L.R., but it would cost a lot. So why don’t they make one for people who can afford it?

This is a long running meme that I think started with Mike Johnston’s Decisive Moment Digicam and continued with Thom Hogan’s Compact Camera Challenge. Both Mike and Thom want a pocketable digital camera with: Read the rest of this entry »

Developing Smokers

November 12, 2007

There are 350 million smokers in China (vs. 540 million non-smokers). After years of hearing public health warnings against smoking and the legal fights against big tobacco companies it makes you wonder why people in developing countries take up smoking in the first place.

I think there is a common belief in the west that smoking is caused by 1) misinformation, and 2) companies that exploit this misinformation. The misinformation/exploitation explanation may very well explain the smoking numbers in China but I have some reservations.

My skepticism has its roots in anecdotal evidence from a couple of scuba trips to Indonesia. A high number of the dive masters in Indonesia smoke. Misinformation does not seem to apply. These young men (all have been men) have a good grasp of health issues dealing with the risk of decompression sickness and poisonous stings (rarely lethal but painful) for themselves and the divers in their charge. They speak English and are exposed to westerners who preach the evils of smoking to them daily. Yet they smoke in droves.

There seems to be some kind of psychological bias in place that accounts for this behavior.

Happy Diwali

November 9, 2007


Loose Change

November 8, 2007

I wore my winter coat yesterday for the first time since I put it away sometime in the spring. To my surprise, I found $5.21 of loose change in my coat pocket. That is $5.21 Canadian. Six months ago when I put my coat away that $5.21 Canadian was worth $4.92 US. Today it is worth $5.70 US. Wowzee. 16% in six months.

Stress Free Pricing

November 8, 2007

One of Pogue’s Imponderables is the following question:

Why doesn’t someone start a cellphone company that bills you only for what you use? That model works O.K. for the electricity, gas and water companies —and people would beat a path to its door. [And I don’t mean prepaid phones, where once again you’re paying for calls you haven’t even made yet.]

Economist Tyler Cowen says the most likely answer combines price discrimination with consumer misjudgment.

I think the answer is that people try to maximize their preferences while minimizing the amount of stress induced by thinking about it. Stress free brain cycles is the goal. A fixed monthly plan that fits most of your calling needs reduces stress when the monthly fee does not impact your cash flow. If you have problems paying your monthly bill then prepaid cards will reduce your stress. The service provider also tries to minimize stress in their organization (meeting payroll and/or shareholder expectations).

People prefer stress free pricing.

Google has announced Android and the Open Handset Alliance. The Android platform will be based on Linux and offer a custom Java “virtual machine that has been designed to optimize memory and hardware resources in a mobile environment.”

The SDK for Android will be made available Monday Nov 12. I’m curious to see if they are going with plain jane J2ME or will they be creating their own User Interface abstraction like the Blackberry. Will there be a C/C++ API in addition to Java? What CPU architectures will they support (Arm vs. x86)? Will they have pre-defined form factors for screen resolution, device orientation, UI navigation (directional keys vs. roller vs. touch screen), and text input (T9, thumb QWERTY, screen keyboard). Will they expose voice/media codecs for 3rd party apps (i.e. can a 3rd party VoIP application take advantage of the DSP codecs rather than including their own running on a general CPU).

The possibilities are endless and that may be the problem with this effort. It is unbounded.