Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Nikon's photo editing program

As I have a Nikon camera, it seemed a good idea to check out Nikon's photo editing program, Nikon Capture NX 2, so I downloaded the free 60 days' trial and played around with it a bit.

It seems a decent, competent program at a modest price, though relatively early in its development, compared with programs that have been around for years.

However, if you buy it as your only photo editing program, bear in mind that it concentrates on photographic functions and misses out a lot of more general image editing functions that you would get with Photoshop or even Paint Shop Pro. As someone pointed out elsewhere on the Web, what if you want to write some text on top of the photo?

If you have Photoshop already, I see little point in buying Capture NX 2 as well. As far as I could tell by experiment, Photoshop imports Nikon's NEF files as well as Nikon's own program does, and provides more editing functionality.

The Nikon program offers the unique functionality of U Points, otherwise known as control points, which are a cute way of making local changes to parts of a photo. This could well be of interest to some people, but it's not my style. I feel happy manipulating a photo as a whole, but I don't want to get into messing around with parts of it.

Adobe software and prices

I started buying Adobe fonts in 1990 (I was keen on fonts in those days), but took much longer to buy Adobe programs, because my software at work was provided by the company, and at home I had other software that I was happy with.

However, in 2005 I started working from home and paying for all my own stuff, and at that time I splashed out £940 for the Adobe Creative Suite, reasoning that I needed Acrobat and Photoshop for work, and those two programs would cost about as much as the whole Suite if bought separately.

Shortly afterwards, the Creative Suite 2 was released, and Adobe allowed me a free upgrade to it. (Gold star to Adobe on this point.)

I skipped Creative Suite 3, because I didn't feel a need of it, and Adobe's upgrades are expensive enough to make you stop and think.

When Creative Suite 4 was released, I decided that I still didn't need it, but that I would rather like to have the latest Photoshop, which I use for my photography hobby as well as for work. So I ordered the Photoshop CS4 upgrade, first checking with Adobe's Web site that I was eligible for the upgrade price. It said, if you have Photoshop CS2 (which I had), you are eligible.

I got my Photoshop CS4 upgrade and it refused to install. Enquiries revealed that it will install only as an upgrade to Photoshop bought as a separate product, not to Photoshop bought as part of the Creative Suite; although this is not explained at all on Adobe's Web site.

I tried to send the upgrade back to Amazon UK, from which I'd bought it. Amazon wouldn't accept it because the box had been opened. Of course the box had been opened: I had to open the box to find out that it wouldn't work.

After long and exhausting arguments with two different Adobe customer support people, Adobe eventually agreed to unlock my upgrade (by a special secret procedure) so that I could use it.

Although Adobe as a company seems to mean well in some ways, and its software is competent, I give it demerits on several grounds.

  • The software is alarmingly expensive, unless you happen to live in North America, where it's a good deal cheaper. As I don't live in North America, I naturally resent this.
  • The documentation is not as good as it should be at that price level.
  • If you have the Creative Suite but you want to upgrade only one component of it, Adobe apparently expects you to pay full price for that component, as though you had no previous version. That's crazy. When you upgrade, all you're getting for your money is the difference between the new version and the old. At full price? No thanks, I'd stick with the old version.
  • Adobe has this crazy internal policy but doesn't explain it in public. When I pointed that out, did I get any apology? No. Did I get any assurance that the Adobe Web site would be changed to give correct information? No. I was treated as though the situation was my own fault. To give Adobe support minimal credit, however, in the end it caved in and gave me what I paid for. Possibly out of exhaustion and to get rid of me.

There is a lesson here. If you're tempted to buy the Adobe Creative Suite, bear in mind that you'll be locked into upgrading the whole suite for evermore: or else you'll have to pay full price for the latest versions of any individual components. This makes the Creative Suite much less of a bargain than it looks, unless you're confident that you'll always want to upgrade multiple components of it simultaneously. The cost of a Creative Suite upgrade is not small change; check it out in advance.

So far, the only advantages of Photoshop CS4 that I've noticed, compared with Photoshop CS2, are that it seems to start up more quickly and it has a new Vibrance control, which is similar to Saturation but more subtle in effect. I'm sure there are other novelties, but they're things I don't use. So, it was apparently for these small things that I paid £184 and wore myself out arguing with Adobe support. I should have stayed with Photoshop CS2...

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Jesus versus Santa

According to a BBC report, a Catholic priest in Novara, Italy, has caused a stir by telling children that Father Christmas doesn't exist.

The priest said he had never intended to hurt anyone, but it was his duty to distinguish the reality of Jesus from the story of Father Christmas which was a fable just like Cinderella or Snow White.

I don't know about you, but I find this really funny. All we need to complete the picture is a department-store Father Christmas teaching children to distinguish his own reality from the story of Jesus Christ, which is a fable just like Cinderella or Snow White.

In a reality contest with no holds barred, I think Father Christmas would have a distinct advantage: "Children, think about it: when did you last get a present from Jesus?"

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Sid Meier's Somalia

I was reading a news article about Somalian pirates today when it occurred to me that Somalia, from everyone else's point of view, rather resembles a barbarian settlement in Sid Meier's Civilization game.

However, the barbarians in the game make a nuisance of themselves on land and I haven't noticed them taking to the sea; the Somalians are much more aquatic.

In the game, there's only one way to deal with barbarians: as soon as possible, you march in and wipe them out, with superior technology or superior numbers, or both. Real life tends to be less simple.

Friday, 14 November 2008

President Obama

I've been a bit surprised by all the hullabaloo over the election of a new US president. Let's try to make some sense of it.

Q: Will President Obama make everyone's lives much better?

A: Probably not. He's a politician, not a magician. He'll do the sorts of things that US presidents normally do.

Q: Will he at least be a better-than-average president?

A: Maybe, but we'll have to wait and see. No-one actually knows; not even the man himself.

Q: Will he do good things for black people in particular?

A: Probably, but to a very limited extent. He'll want to make some kind of gesture to his black supporters, but without antagonizing his non-black supporters, who are more numerous.

Q: Is the election of a half-black president a sign of US moral superiority over other countries?

A: No. The USA has a much larger black minority than most other predominantly white countries. According to Wikipedia, the USA is 80% white, 12.8% black, and 1.6% "multiracial" (I omit other categories). The UK, for example, is 92.1% white, 2% black, and 1.2% multiracial. Other European countries probably have even smaller black minorities. If it takes the USA this long to elect even a half-black leader, it's not surprising that it takes other countries even longer. However, if a politician similar to Obama appeared in the UK, I think he could attract plenty of votes. Obama himself seems popular in most countries, at least at the moment.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Wikipedia as a translation aid

Recently one of my correspondents asked me the Spanish word for paragliding. Probably I'd heard it before, but I couldn't think of it, and my big Collins dictionary didn't have it. So I looked up 'paragliding' in Wikipedia, and when the English page came up I then switched over to the Spanish version of the same page. Bingo, there was my translation: 'el parapente'.

As there are Wikipedia pages in many languages, this is a rather general-purpose method, although it's mainly useful for nouns and for the more popular languages. There are Wikipedia pages in, say, Punjabi and Tibetan, but not very many pages.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

South Ossetia

I have a generally very low opinion of the Russian government, but I'm disconcerted to see that it appears to be in the right (and the Georgian government in the wrong) in the conflict over South Ossetia.

As far as I can tell from reading up quickly about the situation, South Ossetians are historically distinct from Georgians and have for years been operating unofficially as a separate country, with a large majority in favour of independence from Georgia.

Recently Georgia attempted to assert its claim to South Ossetia by military force: which was not only morally wrong (in my opinion) but also pretty stupid, given that many people in South Ossetia hold Russian passports, that Russia has previously shown interest in the place, and that Russia's army is many times bigger than Georgia's.

That Georgia is now suffering in the conflict seems entirely the fault of its own foolish government.

It's geographically unfortunate that South Ossetia takes a sizeable and inconvenient bite out of central Georgia: Georgia without South Ossetia is a rather odd shape. However, if the South Ossetians don't want to be part of Georgia, I don't see why they should be.

It seems hypocritical for the US government to complain about Russian aggression, when Russia can claim to be supporting the right to self-determination in South Ossetia just as most Western countries are doing in Kosovo.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Intellectual property and theft

It rather irritates me to see frequent aggressive allegations by interested parties that copying files of 'intellectual property' is theft.

Theft means taking an item belonging to someone else. After the theft, the thief has the property and can use it; the original owner no longer has it and can't use it.

When a file is copied, no-one is deprived of the copied item. The author and any other rightful owners still retain their original copies.

The author may be deprived of a payment to which he feels entitled, but this is not a matter of theft. You can't be robbed of money you've never had.

Whether copying files is immoral is something for people to argue about. Whether it's illegal is something for politicians to argue about. I won't try to argue those larger issues here. I merely point out that 'theft' is the wrong name for it.

In practice, a large proportion of people make unauthorized copies of files, and therefore seem to believe that it's a moral thing to do, or at least not very immoral. If the propaganda floating around convinces them that 'theft' is an appropriate description of what they're doing, there is a danger that they'll come to regard other kinds of theft too as moral — or at least not very immoral. I think it would be better not to use words so inaccurately.

I also think that people who think they can stop unauthorized copying, or reduce it to a minor problem, are trying to hold back the tide. Like it or not, this is something that is not going to go away.

Personally, I still make a habit of paying for books, music, etc. Maybe that's just because I'm not young enough to be accustomed to the new way of doing things. I feel that the moral position of intellectual property owners is arguable either way, and not as clearcut as they mostly think it is. Certainly, the continuation of copyright restrictions for decades after the author's death seems to me absurd, and I don't understand how it can be justified.

Tibet

There seems a lot of heated argument these days for and against the idea of self-determination in Tibet; I can agree in part with both sides.

  • Some people say that China is denying self-determination to Tibet, oppressing Tibetans, and trying to settle Tibet with Chinese people in order to outnumber the Tibetans.
  • Other people (mostly Chinese) say that Tibet has been part of China for a long time, that Chinese rule in Tibet is improving the living standards of Tibetans, and that foreigners have no right to criticize because their own countries have denied self-determination to other peoples in the past.

All of these claims by both sides may be true simultaneously. But both sides seem to have blind spots:

  • The Free Tibet crowd seem to be forgetting that the issue of self-determination is world-wide. I support the right to self-determination myself, but I support it for all peoples everywhere, not just for Tibetans. The Chechens and the Palestinians and various peoples of ex-Yugoslavia, for instance, have surely suffered worse than the Tibetans. The Basques are not suffering (except from the excesses of their own extremists), but their position is in principle similar to that of the Tibetans. Spain doesn't accept self-determination for Gibraltar either. Argentina doesn't accept self-determination for the Falkland Islands.
  • The Chinese nationalist crowd seem to rely on the argument that self-determination is a modern right that was never observed in the past. If what we're doing in Tibet is bad, they say, then what your countries have done in the past was even worse. This is true, but irrelevant. By the same argument, China could practise slavery and point out that other countries have done it too. If you're a good person, you act in a good way. If you act in a bad way and try to justify yourself by saying that other people have done it too, the fact remains that you're still a bad person.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The nine billion faces of God

A kindergarden teacher was going round her class, looking at the paintings they were doing.

Little Carol was very intent on her work, although it didn't make much sense to the teacher.

"What's that going to be, dear?" she asked.

"It's a picture of God," explained Carol.

"But nobody knows what God looks like."

"Well, they will in a minute," said the artist.


My mother heard this on television and passed it on. I rather like it: I don't read any particular moral into it, but I think it makes a good short-short story.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Warm at last!

Now the temperature is hitting 27°C, I feel at last in my element, the air is warm and supportive instead of cold and hostile. I don't need clothes for warmth, not even in the night. These are human, welcoming temperatures.

True, it can be uncomfortably hot in the car, or if I go for a long walk in the sun, but I accept this with good humour.

My skin is too dry in winter; it's happy in the summer. I can open windows. Nature is not at war with me. Rejoice!

Free speech and the law

It's come to my attention that France, England, and probably other countries have laws against “inciting racial hatred”. Recently, Brigitte Bardot (elderly film star and animal rights activist) was fined 15,000 euros under the French law for complaining about Muslim ways of slaughtering animals—and ranting about Muslims destroying her country while she was on the subject.

We already have laws against slander, libel, inciting violence, copyright infringement, and probably others that all limit free speech to some extent. Do we really need laws against inciting racial hatred (whatever that means) as well? I think not.

As far as I can see, “inciting racial hatred” basically means expressing any negative opinion about a particular group of people (in French law not necessarily a race).

I'm afraid that some groups really are not nice people and deserve to have negative opinions expressed about them. To take a few examples: the Nazis of the 20th century; the Mongols who invaded eastern Europe in the 13th century; the Christian crusaders and members of various Catholic inquisitions. If you have negative opinions about a particular group of people, you may or may not be right (in any case it's a subjective judgment), but I think you're entitled to your opinion and you should be entitled to express it. Of course they should have the same right to express their opinion of you.

As for the people in the 20th century (not just Nazis) who had negative opinions about Jews, I'm not in sympathy with them but I think they were entitled to that opinion and entitled to express it. What they weren't morally entitled to do was to kill Jews and steal their property, both of which were of course grossly immoral and should have been illegal.

The increasing legal restrictions on free speech seem to mean that you should consult a lawyer before expressing any opinion in public. I think this regrettable, and it suggests to me that the law has gone too far.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

S.M. Stirling

I'm much obliged to Richard Guha for recommending S.M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers to me in 2006: it's become one of my favourite books, being a good adventure story with a fascinating alternate-history scenario.

I naturally investigated Stirling's other books, of which he's written quite a few. He generously provides the first few chapters of each book at his own Web site, so you can sample them without paying a cent.

I've bought and read The sky people and Conquistador; both have good scenarios but are merely OK as fiction. He's written several different series of linked novels, but I feel doubtful about them and probably won't buy them.

Stirling is six months older than me and a fluent and competent writer, who researches his stories thoroughly and populates them with some quite likeable characters. He evidently likes and respects women, and creates some strong female characters.

Unfortunately he seems to have a preference for authoritarian politics and a fascination with hand-to-hand combat, neither of which are to my taste, although I can tolerate them up to a point as part of a good story. The Peshawar Lancers provides a natural setting for monarchy, aristocracy, and old-fashioned swordplay, and these things are acceptable in that context. However, in Conquistador he had a free hand to choose almost any political arrangement he fancied, so what he came up with is disappointing. Furthermore, while his female characters are somewhat varied, his male characters all have a certain basic similarity.

I continue to recommend The Peshawar Lancers to anyone who likes alternate history, but so far I wouldn't give the same recommendation to any of his other books, though they're readable enough.

Innocents abroad

BBC News:

Two Japanese sisters have been arrested for allegedly trying to evade paying a fortune in inheritance tax. Tax officials say the sisters hid almost 6bn yen ($58m) in cardboard boxes and paper bags at their home in the city of Osaka. They are accused of failing to declare most of the money they inherited from their wealthy father, who died almost four years ago.

I always feel sad when someone gets caught by the taxman, although I don't feel strongly about inheritance taxes. Those sisters didn't earn the money themselves, so their moral claim to it is relatively weak. However, the government's moral claim to it seems to me non-existent.

I'd feel more sympathy for the sisters if they'd shown more intelligence. I'm not sure what's the best way to hide a large inheritance, never having had to deal with the problem myself, but stashing banknotes around the house in cardboard boxes and paper bags seems somewhat lacking in sophistication. And they had four years to find some better solution.

Hell's bells, even burying the banknotes in the garden would probably have been an improvement. But it would have been better to get the money out of the country somehow.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Independence for Kosovo?

Today Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia. It has of course already been independent from Serbia in practice since 1999, but it remains to be seen whether it will remain independent in the long term, and what other effects this will have.

I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I believe in self-determination for all peoples, including the people of Kosovo, so I wish them luck.

On the other hand, it seems that various other countries will be spending money propping up Kosovo for many years into the future, and this is not good, for at least three reasons.

  1. What have the Kosovans ever done to deserve this generosity? I wish them luck, but I don't feel that I owe them money.
  2. Interference in the affairs of other countries may or not be justified in principle, but in practice it often seems to turn out unhappily.
  3. As Kosovo becomes accustomed to being propped up by other countries, it may become permanently incapable of looking after itself.

The world could do with some kind of international law and some kind of international organization(s) to enforce it. It's neither satisfactory in principle nor successful in practice for powerful countries to send their armies all over the world trying to enforce whatever they happen to think is right at the time.

Various people have already pointed out that, if Kosovo's independence holds, this will encourage separatist movements in other countries. Indeed, I suppose it will, and I wish the best of luck to all such movements that have majority support within their regions.

I'm amused to see that, also today, residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, have voted in an unofficial poll to leave England and become part of Scotland.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Software obsolescence

Three months ago we got a new computer for our son Marc, and of course it came with Windows Vista, although Ana and I are still using Windows XP on our own computers.

From Marc's point of view, a computer is a games machine, and I was apprehensive about how many of his old games would work under Vista. I reassured myself that Vista seems not very different from XP; and at first I was pleased to find that some old games worked without trouble.

However, by now we realize that a number of his old games don't seem to work under Vista, although they work under XP.

This is a nuisance, and it's just an example of a wider problem with software: that it has a short lifespan. When I buy a book, I expect it to last for decades; it may well outlast me. But software can become unusable after only a few years, generally because of changes to the operating system.

Of course, if you maintain a museum full of computers running old operating systems, then you can go on running your old programs. But that's inconvenient and ultimately not very feasible. After a while, the old computers will break down and the old operating systems may not work with a new computer.

Some programs last longer than others. I'm still using Lotus Magellan, a file browser and search program, which hasn't been updated since 1990. It was an excellent program ahead of its time; it's somewhat less useful now because it's operating in a very different environment from what it was designed for. However, amazingly, it still works, and it's still useful for some purposes. I suppose this is because it was written for DOS, and so most of the changes to Windows in the last 18 years haven't affected it.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Hot wine

A traditional winter drink in many countries is hot wine, sweetened and with various spices or other additives.

Despite these widespread traditions, I've found that hot wine by itself makes a good winter drink without sweetening or spices. Just a minute in the microwave, and it's done. So far I've tried only hot red wine, but I've read that hot white wine works too. Hot sparkling wine doesn't seem like a good idea, but it may be worth trying out of curiosity...

If you want the wine to remain alcoholic, avoid boiling it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Motorists versus cyclists

Today Ana told me about a current Spanish news story: a motorist ran over a teenage cyclist some time ago, killing him, and recently took the boy's family to court for the cost of repairing his expensive car. It seems that the accident was entirely the cyclist's fault, no argument about that; but nevertheless the case has generated so much unfavourable attention that the man has now withdrawn it.

I can see both points of view on this. On the one hand, as a motorist I don't see why I should pay any costs of an accident that was someone else's fault. On the other hand, as a sometime cyclist I feel it should be recognized that the car is the lethal ingredient in this situation. If the boy had crashed into another cyclist, I suppose the cost of the accident would be relatively low in both human and cash terms. It's the use of the motor car in general that causes the risk of death and the risk of expensive repairs, so arguably motorists as a class should bear such costs even if the specific motorist is not at fault.