Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 years later - The Ten Greatest Metal Bands

Actually six year later; but since I'm doing a few different five years later posts I'm throwing this in with them.

Six years and two weeks ago, I wrote a post about who I thought the ten greatest metal bands were, here:

It's still one of my most commented on posts every (at one point the comment thread was up to over 100 before I lost all my comments in the move to disqus).

I got yet another comment today, and saw the post was over five years old... and thought I'd take a look again, see if anything had changed.

So, first, the ground rules for consideration:

Okay so ground rules.

1. Solo artists not allowed (including solo artists with backing bands like Dio and Yngwie Malmsteen)

2. This is my "definition" of metal:

Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, and Blue Oyster Cult don't count (progressive blues, forerunners of metal, not metal yet). Metal wouldnt exist without them, they all made songs that are very much heavy metal, but they aren't metal by this definition.

I AM counting Sabbath as metal however. There is no metal without Sabbath, and although Sabbath with Ozzy trod the edge of metal and progressive blues, they created the entire genre of doom metal, and post Ozzy they got nothing but harder.

"Black Sabbath" (the early 1970 album) is still a little bluesy to be 100% metal. I say it marks the transition from blues based hard rock, into heavy metal, with "Paranoid" (also released in 1970, 9 months after "Black Sabbath") being the first real metal album (though many consider "Black Sabbath" be the first real metal album).

I count Sabbath both with Ozzy, and with Dio (frankly, they were a better metal band with Dio, but a better band as a whole with the first few Ozzy albums). Also, "Heaven and Hell" is Black Sabbath with Dio as the lead singer, so they don't count separately.

A special note on Deep Purple: Many people credit Deep Purple as the first metal band, because a number of their songs between '68 and '74 are either metal, or transitional metal. 
These include the early 1968 instrumental version of "Mandrake Root" (which is definitely a transitional metal song... in fact many of the "bits" of the song are used in many later metal songs), the instrumental "Exposition" from late 1968s "Book of Taliysen" (which is borderline metal/progrock), "Speed King" and "Black Night" (both transitional blues metal) from 1970s "In Rock",  "Fireball" and "Demons Eye" (both transitional metal) from the 1971 album "Fireball", "Highway Star" and "Space Truckin" from 1972s "Machine Head" (the first very much metal, the second transitional metal), and "Burn" off the 1974 album of the same name. 
Plus of course "Smoke on the Water" (also off "Machine Head") while itself clearly a hard rock song, probably inspired more metal guitarists than any other song of all time.  
 If you listen to those songs above, you will hear the themes, and many of the riffs, runs, and solo structure; in literally thousands of later metal songs. In a real sense, Richie Blackmore (who of course later founded Rainbow) invented the classic metal guitar sound, much as Tony Iommi invented the doom metal sound. 
Frankly, I think  "Highway star" and "Immigrant Song" (Led Zeppelin from 1970s Led Zeppeling III) are in competition for the first speed metal song (but the first speed metal band, was Motorhead, the year after "Rainbow" came out). 
Like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple is one of the bands that mark the transition between hard rock, and progressive blues, and heavy metal; but unlike Sabbath, Deep Purple always stayed on that line, while Sabbath moved further and further across it from 1971 on.  
Rainbow, probably the first band ever formed explicitly to play heavy metal; came out of Deep Purple, and Ronnie James Dios band Elf (talk about heritage) in 1974. 
The release of 1975s "Rainbow" and particularly 1976's "Rainbow Rising", and the 1976 release of Judas Priests "Sad Wings of Destiny" (Priests first album "Rocka Rolla" was more a transitional album), created what we now think of as "Classic Metal"; and in the process launched the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that brought us all the great classic metal of the late 70s and early 80s (though neither were really NWOBHM bands, along with transitional metal band Budgie; they created the platform for Iron Maiden, Saxon, Angel Witch, etc... ). 
Progressive metal (like Dream Theater), and altmetal/grunge metal counts, but progressive hard rock, hard rock, hardcore punk (although I'm wavering on L7 and the MC5) etc.. don't.

I'm on the fence about industrial, goth metal, death metal etc... some of it is real metal some is more electronica... some it just screaming and power chords. Let's make it an artist by artist thing.

Some hairmetal yes, some no. Hell most of it was really hard rock anyway. Let me repeat this, hard rock is not metal. AC/DC, GnR, Crue etc... are not metal. Twisted Sister and Skid Row are right on the edge of real metal (but don't even TRY and tell me that Dee Snider and Sebastian Bach aren't metal), Whitesnake (though I love them and they kick ass) are NOT real metal.

Nu-metal (though I like some of it) is right out...

Well... except System of a down, and Disturbed maybe, and a couple of other bands that are more real metal than nu-metal. I'm thinking of Linkin Park shit whan I say it's right out.

4. They must have been around for at least 5 years, and really 10 to be serious about it. By that I mean they need to have produced an album before 2000, unless someone can tell me there some amazing metal band that transcends it's newness. Damageplan, Audioslave etc.. need not apply.

I DON'T mean they need to have been together for five or ten years. I'm not going to disqualify a spectacular single album band.

5. The criteria for "best" are as follows
Best Music
Biggest Impact on metal
"Most Metal"

Since it's now 2011, bands from 2006 on are in consideration...

And yeah, frankly, nothing in my top ten has changed. I still think most deathmetal/blackmetal is crap. I still hate cookiemonster vocals and breakdowns.

Initially I cheated and only put in my top five, and said there was about a 50 way tie for positions 5 through 10... But what the hell, I'll put down my full top ten here, in order, now:

  1. Black Sabbath (including Heaven and Hell)
  2. Metallica
  3. Iron Maiden
  4. Judas Preist
  5. Megadeth
  6. Slayer
  7. Motorhead
  8. Anthrax
  9. Pantera
  10. ...and then I start cheating again and declare about a 50 way tie for tenth

Also, frankly, above position 4 you could swap any of them around a few places, and I wouldn't care one way or another.

The 50+ way tie starts here (yes, some of these bands are clearly better than others. I'm cheating again).

Dream Theater
Faith no more (okay thats pushing it, they are on the edge between progressive rock and metal)
Korn (yeah, its pushing it, but I think they're real metal)
Alice in chains (prior to Jar of Flies they were real metal)
Soundgarden (prior to Superunkwnown they were real metal)
Mercyful fate (remember what I said about goth/industrial/deathmetal being on the borderline)
Rainbow (Rainbow is probably the first band actually formed to play metal from day 1)
Uriah Heap
Scorpions (yeah they were the best of the '80s arena metal, come on you know it)
Kings X
Danzig (technically a band and not jsut Glen solo but I'm kind of wavering on that one).
Racer X
Suicidal tendencies (oaky I know, more punk but still...)
Type O Negative
Sisters of Mercy
Napalm Death
Fear Factory
Rammstein (again, on the edge of metal, but I love them anyway)
Shadows Fall
System of a Down
Iced Earth
Black label society

And of course there are LOTS more; that's just the "off the top of my head" list.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shit! Now They Have Knives

We are so fucked.

epic win photos - Mother Nature FTW: Deadly Assassin WIN
see more Hacked IRL - Truth in Sarcasm

Not So Outta Left Field This Time...

... as straight down the baseline.

So in December I found out through my doctor's insistence on being thorough that I had hypothyroidism. I've been on treatment ever since, and it's helped me immensely. More energy, more focus, more emotional stability.

However, the treatment wasn't doing quite enough and I ended up maxing out my dosage to the point that now I'm almost hyperthyroid, which is a BAD THING. I still felt low on focus and energy though, and my anxiety started making a big comeback. Of course life at the moment probably contributed, but I didn't feel that was enough of an explanation. At that point we started piecing symptoms together.

Turns out I have, and have always had, ADHD. However since I'm female, I did reasonably well in school, and I'm not hyperactive (all of which contra-indicated) the common conception of ADHD in the 80's and 90's) I ended up mis-diagnosed as depressive and then anxious.

Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder doesn't necessarily include the Hyperactivity OR the Deficit. There are some who say it should be consider deficit in attention control, not deficit in attention, because one of the primary characteristics is hyperfocus.  Another characteristic not often looked at is faulty short-term memory (what one author calls a "glitchy" RAM) which is what generally reminds you to remember (the kid who gets so wrapped up in a book that they forget about their homework until Monday morning back at school).

I can be the queen of hyperfocus, it's what got me through school. The glitchy RAM has plagued me most of my life, as the lack of memory somewhat divorces my perception of my actions from my perception of the consequences. Those things together make life a constant anxiety-inducing event, as you don't know what you forgot.

Turns out if you don't have hyperactivity, and you have a tendency to go into hyperfocus mode (the inability to switch attention easily), AND you have enough intelligence to automatically compensate for the memory glitches, you can reach adulthood without anyone noticing there's a problem. The only proof to be had would be those report cards that say "doesn't live up to potential. Under-achieving overachiever."

Sometimes no one notices until there's enough balls up in the air and no ability to keep track of them. That's when it becomes clear that adult ADHD is the culprit.

Oh look, that sounds a bit like my life at the moment. There's the Chris's health ball (6 docs, one dentist, and a case manager, all of which I'm the primary contact for), the IRS ball (accountant, lawyer, and agent), the custody case ball (don't even get me started), the work ball, the household ball, the extended family ball...

As I understand it, normal people don't have near as much trouble splitting their attention like this. I do. It's a constant source of anxiety, to constantly be "absolutely sure" that you're forgetting something.

To know WHY is such a tremendous relief that I can't even begin to describe what it's like to know 1. that there is something about me that's making this so much harder than it needs to be and 2. there's something I can do about it.

Tomorrow I will be paying attention to the ball in the air called my health and seeing a professional about what we can do. I've already started working on the lifestyle changes to account for my deficit in attention control and my glitchy short term memory (oh smartphone, how I love thee).

I am thrilled that I finally get to have my brainpower back.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What exactly is "Classic Rock", and what is "underrated"?

There was a thread yesterday on a private music forum I frequent asking for who we thought were "underrated" classic rock bands.

I immediately thought of Boston and Journey; who are much loved by the public, but much reviled by music critics, music snobs etc...

Some objected to this on the grounds that everyone knows those bands, and they get a lot of airplay.

Lots of other folks (mostly people in their early 20s) brought up a number of artists who are most definitely NOT classic rock; artists I love like the Ramones, the MC5 and husker du.

Others brought up Rush and King Crimson.

A couple folks brought up Queen.

Lots of folks brought up artists that didn't start making music until the late 80s.

Ok, so people were bringing up lots of great bands... Most of which are not classic rock.

I realized they have a definitional problem.

Most of these kids were clearly thinking something along the lines of "everything made before I was born is "classic rock".


Just, no.

Classic rock is not a chronological age, it's a genre.

In particular, classic rock is a broad class of subgenre sharing similar guitar and drum heavy styles, being blues based with progressive and pop influences; but not being too fast or too heavy and creeping into true hard rock or heavy metal, or too poppy and creeping into actual "pop" (and yes, those are very fuzzy lines often pushed very hard in one direction or another).

Prior to the early 80s, "classic rock" was in large part the genre generally called "album oriented rock" or "FM rock"; but the rise of consolidated radio networks like Clear Channel tended to focus the playlists on singles under 4 minutes from recognized popular artists (rather than the well known excesses of many 1970s albums and artists; both for better and for worse).

Classic rock primarily consists of music produced between 1965 and 1985 (with the vast majority between 1970 and 1980). Basically in between Oldies and New Wave, but not including Punk and Metal); or artists that became popular in that time period.

Just like "oldies" is still, and always has been, everything from Bill Haley to the British invasion (roughly 1953 to 1963). It is generally "birth of rock" and "pop standards" (including pop standards dating back to the 1930s), plus a little rockabilly, made for depression babies (people born between 1930 and 1945) by depression babies (with some exceptions, like Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, both born in 1925).

Similarly "Classic Rock" could also be defined fairly accurately as the popular rock music and artists (vs. straight up pop music) that the baby boom generation listened to from their teen years through their twenties. It was basically war babies and baby boomers, making music for war babies and baby boomers (every member of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who,  except Bill Wyman, was a war baby).

Notably, the early Beatles work is largely grouped into the Oldies, while everything Rubber Soul (1965) and later is grouped into Classic Rock. Oldies radio very rarely plays late Beatles; but classic rock radio often plays early Beatles.

In comparison, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and The Animals; all of whom released albums prior to "Rubber Soul" and who in those early albums were no "harder" than the Beatles; are almost never included in Oldies radio, but again receive lots of classic rock radio airplay.

There are certainly subgenres of classic rock; from Progressive hard blues (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin) to folk rock (Bob Dylan, CSN, the band), to arena rock (Journey, Boston), to country/southern rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd), to genre blenders like Queen and the Eagles; but all are in the same classic rock mold.

If new artists play music in those subgenre, they will generally get played along with the older artists on classic rock radio.

Now, as to what constitutes underrated...

Rush and King Crimson are progressive rock. Queen, can't really be defined as any genre other than "classic rock" but along with Rush and King Crimson, they aren't underrated.

They are perhaps under-appreciated by the non-fan public (who may know a few tunes from each, but have probably never heard anything that isn't a widely played single); but for knowledgable music fans, they are basically taken as a given that everyone knows and loves their work if they are a fan of their genres (Queen, being a genre all it's own of course).

Also, I disagree with the idea that lots of airplay equals "not underrated". Music critics and music snobs LOATHE Boston, Journey, Def Leppard etc... All the arena rock types. You will never see them in "best of" lists, unless it's ironically (or a list by the listening public, who love them).

Now for some arena rock, sure they really weren't any good (Elo and grand funk for example. Good musicians making mediocre music) . But in the case of the true classics, that just isn't true.

Sure, some of Journeys songs or Bostons songs were sappy or cheesy, but a lot weren't; and you can't deny that Steve Perry and Tom Brad Delp were spectacular vocalists; or that Neil Schon and Barry Goudreau were great guitarists.... and Tom Scholz is an honest to god musical genius.

...but you'll never see Rolling Stone admit it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tim Harford, explaining why authoritarians of any kind are basically always wrong

Of course, he doesn't say so explicitly, but that's exactly what he's pointing out here:

The talk is derived from Harfords recent book "Adapt: Why success always starts with failure", which I reviewed here a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Anyone heard of this possible Glock safety issue?

A few weeks back I got this comment on my "Glocks and Safety" post:
BH1218 - 2 weeks ago

I almost agree with you but there have been reports from Glock that some model .40 can discharge when first chambering a round do to design issues of part of the extractor touching the primer. check it out.

It would not be possible for the extractor on a Glock to touch the primer under almost any circumstances; and even if it did, its too broad and blunt to set a primer off.

I wonder if he meant the ejector? As in the ejector was bent too far over towards the center of the round and was hitting the primer and making a round blow up out of battery when someone was racking the slide to eject an unfired round?

Not sure how that could happen either, because there shouldn't be enough force from pulling the slide back to pop a primer no matter how hard you're pulling... and even if there was, the extractor should act as a pivot point and the round should just pivot on the ejector and fly out as normal.

In order for that to happen, the cartridge would have to be jammed between the slide and the extractor (which shouldn't happen given how large the ejection port is, but it's possible with certain bullet weights and profiles).

This would put the primer further over to the ejector side of the gun than it should be, such that it may conceivably be possible, that an ejector that was bent over towards the center of the gun as far as possible and still be functional (it CAN happen, I have actually seen that) might strike the primer, and the cartridge might jam between the slide hood and the ejector, and you might be racking with enough force to pop the primer...


At that angle, bent over like that, as thin as the ejector is, the alloy it is, as brittle as it gets like that... I'd think it would just bend over further, or break off. It'd have to be in a perfect position, with a soft primer etc...


I kinda doubt it.

UPDATE: The consensus around the gunblog world, is that what this guy is talking about, is a known issue, but not what he thinks it is.

If you eject a live round with force, while the objection port is obstructed, you are covering it with your hand etc... (for example, trying to catch the ejected round in your hand); the round can rebound off your hand, and end up in a position where it can be set off by the ejector.

Not only is this a known issue by anyone who spends much time in the competitive shooting world (where doing so is generally a procedural violation); but it's not an issue just for Glocks. Most rimfire and centerfire semi-auto pistols have this particular potential problem to some degree or another.

The way to solve the problem is either to not cover the ejection port, or to eject a live round slowly, or both (I generally recommend both; though some pistols will jam a case or live round up if you don't eject smartly).

So it has nothing to do with the pistol being a Glock, or a .40. Though, I'll grant this may happen easier with the Glock design, given it has a very small and pointy ejector tip that is slightly closer to the firing pin than in some other designs; that doesn't make this a design flaw or safety problem for Glocks.

Down in Spokane for a couple days

Working and waiting for corporate laptop to be fixed etc...

Not a lot of content at the moment.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

5 years later - the economics of handloading

I've been handloading and reloading since 1996 or so, but I took a break around late 2000 when I moved to Ireland, and didn't start back up again until 2005, and didn't get really back into it until 2006.

When I did, I wrote a number of posts about getting back into reloading, the costs of it, the gear required etc... And I've been writing fairly regularly on the subject ever since.

I've written a bunch of posts on the subject under my ammo and reloading categories:

Also some posts specific to the costs, general economics, gear, and processes of reloading (theres more, these are just off the top of my head):

And the cost of commercial ammo:

Over the past 5 years, my posts on reloading have proven to be among my most popular; and there isn't a week that goes by that I don't get reloading questions. My posts also get linked up a lot at other sites and forums.

It's those two factors that are prompting this post actually. My older posts on costs and gear are out of date at this point; and instead of just referring some of the basic questions to the older posts, I find myself having to research new numbers etc...

Plus I just don't like having out of date stuff as my last word on the subject.

I got a bunch of questions from a guy new to reloading a few weeks back, and then today somebody linked a couple of my posts up on another forum; so I decided I was going to revisit the basic questions on reloading. First the base economics, then the basic gear, and then the advanced gear.

At any rate, this was the question someone asked (from the grammar and vocabulary of his other posts I presume the poster was scandanavian of some kind):
"I am having trouble now locating expert articles on the issue, but I heard that some Americans allegedly save money by refilling ammo after shooting at the gun range. That makes me wonder, if ammo is made in vast quantities using optimally productive technology, how come an assembled cartridge ends up costing so much more than its constituent parts (except for the shell that gets reused) that it makes sense to do manual refill?"
There were a number of answers in the thread about target ammo, and about it being as much a hobby as a money saving venture...

And I agree in large part with the ideas presented.

Most of us are in this as a hobby, as well as to save money. I find handloading and reloading an enjoyable pursuit in and of itself.  I enjoy the experimentation and control over my ammo that handloading gives me.

But the money isn't anything to sneeze at, at least for most chamberings.

You can save money loading almost every chambering, except steel cased bulk import ammunition, like most 7.62x39, and some russian 5.56/.223 for example.

The margins are pretty small on bulk 9mm,  bulk grade 5.56/.223 and 7.62x54r as well. In the case of 9mm, it's just really cheap to get surplus foreign ammo and white box commercial, because it's the most common pistol ammo in the world (being the NATO standard). With .223 and 7.62x54r it's because surplus and bulk commercial ammo are quite cheap (comparatively speaking), and that the brass is quite expensive compared to the cheapest commercial ammo. Your best bet is to buy reloadable brass cased commercial, then shoot it and reuse the brass.

Yay, the brass is now "free".

The economics of reloading bulk grade 9mm aren't particularly great for example, saving only a few cents a round; however when you shoot 5000 rounds of it a year it does add up.

And that's only the FIRST time you shoot the brass.

Even with practice grade ammunition (as opposed to defensive, hunting, or match grade), it is possible to have pretty big per round/per box savings; even on the second most common centerfire chambering in the U.S, .45acp.

Why? because .45 has a lot of metal in it, and therefore a lot of overhead.

In a good year I might shoot 25,000 rounds of .45acp, in a bad year 10,000... and that's based on the time I have, the number of events I can go to, and the amount of spare cash I have that year. The more I shoot, the better I shoot (up to a point anyway... and of course, the less the worse).

Note: The last couple years have been very bad years; between the economy and my health issues, I've probably only shot around 2,500-5,000 rounds per year total of all chamberings; but I'm hoping to bounce back in the next couple years.

These days, a 50rd box of US made commercial practice ammo in .45 JHP costs around $30 (which is down from a $50 peak two years ago, when copper and lead shortages combined with Obamas election to drive ammo prices through the roof; but brass and bullets are down a similar amount so scaling applies).

Including the cost of fresh unfired brass, I can load that exact same ammo (including the same case and bullets from the same manufacturer) for about $19. Plus, the next 9 times I shoot it (actually for .45acp it's more like 20 times), the brass is free, so the it only costs me $11 each box.

If I want to use cheaper bullets I can do it for more like $14 a box (less expensive foreign commercial FMJ round nose runs about $20 a box). If I want to cast my own bullets using salvaged wheel weights, is more like $11 a box (no commercial vendor uses low cost cast bullets for .45acp).

The cost of the brass in all cases (no pun intended) is fixed, at about $8 per box or about $0.16 per case; and again, the next 9 times the brass is free, so it's more like $6 a box, and $3 a box.

For those not wanting to do the math by the way, that's a cost of around $0.60 per round of commercial JHP, about $0.38 a round for handloaded jhp, about $0.28 for handloaded plated round nose, and $0.22 for handloaded hand cast.

The non brass portion of cartridge cost runs from about $0.06 per for the hand cast with salvaged lead, up to about $0.22 per for the handloaded commercial JHP.

That could save me between $2500 and $9,500 a year assuming I shot the brass just once. If I reloaded each brass case 9 times, it's more like a savings of $6,500 to $13,500... and it can turn what would be a bad shooting year, into a good one.

The economics on reloading and handloading precision ammunition, or defensive or hunting ammunition are even better.

Every round of match grade 300 winchester magnum I handload rather than buy, saves me more than $1; and that's just the first time I use the brass. The next five times I use the brass (some chamberings are good for dozens of reloadings, some less than ten) I save more like $1.70. Given I can go through 500 rounds in a single shooting event weekend, that's a huge savings.

Over the course of five events per year (buying once batch of brass per year and reloading it that whole year... which is approximately what I do actually), and assuming I practice as much as I shoot in events... that's about an $8,000 a year savings.

Again, it turns a bad shooting year into a good one.

Also, I can make a higher quality piece of ammunition, specifically tailored to my individual rifle; fine tuned to the ten thousandth of an inch and 1/10th grain of powder (about 0.006 grams or 0.0002 ounces). Factory ammunition has production tolerances approximately five to ten times that; and even match grade ammunition tolerances are two to five times that.

With the best quality commercial match grade ammunition (which costs as much as $8 a shot depending on the chambering; but more like $3 for my .300wm), my 1000 yard competition rifles shoot to about .75moa at 600 yards (about a 4" group). With my hand loaded ammunition, it's about .5 moa (about a 3" group).

... Well... presuming the weather co-operates, and from a stable rest.

And by the way, I am not anywhere near "competitive" in events

The real serious competitors shoot two to five times as much as I do, and their group sizes are half mine... but with commercial ammo, their groups would be almost as bad as mine... and they'd all be broke (that's assuming you could even get commercial ammo for their guns. Many are in custom chamberings that can only be handloaded).

So really, it's a bit of everything.

It's fun, I shoot more, I'm more involved in the process, I have more control, I get better results, and I save money (that I use to shoot even more).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Exactly what you would expect to happen...

"The state is broke. Unemployments about to tank. Public Health insurance has no funds. All other agencies as well. Its a mess. What in Gods name is happening?" -- A question from a friend

It's rather simple really...

The government spent everything they could squeeze from us when the economy was good. Then, when the economy went bad, instead of cutting back like all of us real people had to; they convinced a bunch of people that the way to make the economy better was to spend MORE.

It's basically the same thing that always happens. Governments don't ever really help economically (when they do, it's tempered by the opportunity cost they impose on others); and they usually hurt. They (in the person of politicians) take credit for when private businesses do well, tax us all as much as they can get away with (thus reducing productivity, efficiency, and future growth) and they "spread the wealth around" a bit to buy votes, planting the idea in the heads of people who don't understand economics (that would be most people), that it was the government making everybody better off; so they can convince you to let them spend even more the NEXT time they do this to us.

Exactly as you would expect...

A Brief Constitutional Lesson for Congresscritters... particularly from Kentucky...

United States Constitution
Article 1, Section 7

All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

The issuance of debt is a revenue raising measure. The "debt ceiling" is, in fact, legislation initiated in the House of Representatives, which authorizes the executive branch to issue debt through the treasury (and by extension the federal reserve), up to a specific limit.

This "debt ceiling" and authorization of debt issuance; allows the executive branch to raise revenue in a constitutionally legitimate way; because the revenue is raised under the auspices of specific authorization by the house or representatives.

Neither the Senate, nor the House, acting separately or together; has the authority or ability to delegate this exclusive power of the house, to any other entity, including the president. In fact, it would be a clear violation of the principle of separation of powers to do so.

That is all.

Ten years in a life, through the lenses of five different cameras

Writing the camera post yesterday, I realized I had come full circle on digital cameras.

Ten years ago in late 2001 (I don't remember what month), I bought my first "useful" digital camera; meaning it could take a picture large enough, and at high enough quality, that I didn't need to scan developed film or prints to post online anymore. 

A few years ago I wrote a post called "Camera lust" where I talked about my history with film cameras; but I didn't really touch on my digital history, except for the D80. 

I'd had digital cameras before late 2001, but they weren't particularly useful. There was no circumstance, including basic shots for web sites, where their output could be used without questioning the sanity and good taste of the person posting that picture. 

The very first digital camera I owned, was some ridiculous Sony Mavica that saved pictures to a floppy disk. Looking at google, I think it was an FD90... Which would line up, since I probably bought it in late 1999 or early 2000, when I was a boom imaginary millionaire. 

Frankly, I don't remember anything about it except it was expensive, never worked properly, and the photos were utter crap. I don't have any of the pics from that time period saved; and as I said, I don't really count it, as it wasn't a useful camera, it was a novelty item. 

That same year I got as a "techie stocking stuffer" a tiny little digicam the size of a zippo lighter, mounted on a key chain, that could take 8 really awful 640x480 photos. I remember it was something like $150, and they were sold at high end "gift" and novelty stores, techy stores and novelty web sites. 

Basically, these were toys, not really cameras. 

The camera I bought in 2001 replaced a Minolta Maxxum 3xi I'd had since I think '93 or so; and that honestly had never been that great (particular compared to the manual focus Nikon it replaced). But, combined with a decent scanner, I was able to take, and use, a lot of great photos with it (if not very quickly or conveniently).  It's what I started my first web design side business with all the way back in 1994 or '95... 

I actually kept the Minolta all the way up to 2004, when I sold it, and all my lenses filters and gear, with the plan of buying a DSLR (but I had a major financial hit and ended up waiting til late 2006); but I almost never used it from late 2001 on. 

As it happens, the camera that I bought in 2001 (after I'd been in Ireland for a few months), was, like the camera I just bought in 2011, a Fuji: The first of the FinePix big zoom cameras, the FinePix 2800 zoom; which, at the time, was $400 (I had the euro version which looked slightly different).

Honestly... it was a piece of crap. Almost all digital cameras were crap at the time, and this was among the best of them (as witnessed by the many 4 and 5 star reviews)... but it was still crap. 

I mean, it took pretty good photos, but the autofocus was awful ( and there was no manual focus), the flash was just as bad, if anything the autoexposure was worse, and the camera had the worst shutter lag... it would be about 2-3 seconds from button press to actual image capture. It used a proprietary image card scheme (with DRM that didn't work either) that had horrible performance and capacity and cost a fortune to boot; and it had a battery life of about 80 shots (on 4x AA batteries) without flash. 

It was a 2 megapixel camera, which had a theoretical zoom range of 38-228m at f2.8-4.8... but I just don't believe it, because the low light performance was utterly horrible. IT had a theoretical max shutter speed of 1/1500sec, but again I don't believe it because anything moving whatsoever was nothing but a blur. 

Oh and it had a "continuous drive"... of 1 shot per second, for two shots, at 320x240.

It was also the first digital camera with both zoom, and video (though you couldn't use the zoom with the video. When you went into video mode the lens would pull in to minimum zoom); with the ability to take a 320x240 videos with sound, up to 60 seconds long, none of which were ever in focus. 

All that said, I took a lot of good pictures with it for the less than a year I had it.

These pics were taken at my house in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland; one night in January 2002, after too many bottles of wine... Wolf blass cab shiraz blend I believe... a '98 maybe?  Very good year that  (date and camera verified with EXIF data. All pics are unedited from the camera, click to enlarge):

My friend Imogene, in a pic I later used as the basis for some artistic photo editing work 

My friend Ronan, playing with his sword.

Imogene again, in what is probably my favorite pic of her ever; having just fallen asleep.

Me, "surrendering" to Imogene behind the camera

Funny enough, I still have that knife (or rather Mel does. I gave it to her as a gift), AND that shirt, and those stuffed animals in the background. And yes, I do look exactly the same today only fatter and with a shaved head. My family reach a certain appearance, and then seem to stop aging for about 30 years. 

These were taken in Wexford a few days later:

A beautiful young lady named Carmel, just before her 18th birthday (literally. It was the next day). In this shot she reminds me of Liv Tyler. 

Carmel again, looking far younger than 18... though the picture was just a minute after the previous.

My friend "Hec" (actually his name is Dave, but everyone calls him Hec) later that night.

And Aiden, whose parents house down the seaside we were all crashing in that stormy weekend. For those of you who know my stories about Ireland, yes, this is little gay Aiden (and yes, this was THAT night... and those are my stuffed animals too).

Here are some pics from Glendalough a few months later... including some of the what I think are the best photographs I've ever taken... I'll let them speak for themselves:

I had the 2800z less than a year, because it broke three times in 9 months, and eventually the factory replaced it for me under warranty with the replacement model, the FinePix 3800/S304 (I had the european version, the S304), which at the time would have cost me $400:

The 3800 was a better camera in every way; but still, not so great. It had all the problems of the 2800z, just less so. It definitely got in the way less of getting good photos.

It was a 3 megapixel camera, with the same lens range but worse aperture, same 1/2.7" sensor size (tiny),  same awful battery life... though it could at least do 2 frames per second for 2 seconds. 

Again though, you could take good photos with it. 

These are pictures I took in New Yorks Central Park at the end of 2003.

The Beresford, central park west; from the turtle pond near Belvedere castle: 

The wooden bridges in the ramble

I also had the 3800 for about a year before it broke for good; though it was my best friend Jim who ended up breaking it (he dropped it on the floor),  not a manufacturing defect. 

I replaced it with this HP Photosmart 935 right at the beginning of 2004; which, at the time cost (once again) $400:

At the time it was the best camera HP was selling... Yeah I know, buying a camera from HP? I needed a digital camera that day,  I was going on a trip to the Utah canyonlands and my other camera was broken; and it was the best thing they had at Best Buy that I could afford.

As it happens, these cameras were made for HP by Pentax, and they were pretty decent. A hell of a lot of web designers at the time were populating their sites with photos from these cameras. 

The 935 was a 5 megapixel camera,  with a 1/1.8" sensor (pretty good for the time, and for these days for that matter, especially since it's 1/3 the pixels they squeeze into such a small area today), auto ISO up to 400, a zoom range of 37-111 ad f2.6-4.8; and it shutter priority, and aperture priority. Like the Fuji before it, it could record short film clips, but at least at 640x480. Still had the short battery life, with AA batteries though (maybe 250 shots with lithiums).

For compact cameras at the time, this was really good; and again, it was a five star reviewed item. I was certainly able to get a lot of good shots with it for several years:

The Utah Canyonlands, March 2004:

I climbed those rocks by the way. As late as 2005, I was still pretty fit on the days my knees were cooperating. I actually did the river trail up Zion canyon in water up to my waist on that trip. 

Me, visting my aunt Helen and family in New Hampshire in 2004.

Two of my three youngest cousins, Madison and Bailey (the daughters of my aunt Maureen).

Madison (who is now 14... good lord...)

And Bailey (who is now 11, and still has a goofy grin by the way)

And Hunter, who was I think 13 months old then?

The aunt on the swing with me is Maureen, the aunt at my feet is Helen, and the one looking too cool for school there is my cousin Caitlin (who is 6 years younger than me).

Me, actually in the same shirt as above) with my Mother and Grandmother,  in late 2004 after moving my mother into her new house (you can see here, the weight gain seems to have started). 

Some pics of the family from early 2006

Again, these are all original, from the camera shots; so some would benefit from some cropping and some exposure and white balance correction. 

I had the HP up til late 2006, when I got my DSLR, the now dead Nikon D80:

Basically, other than cellphone pics, until yesterday every pic I've taken and posted on the blog since October of 2006 was taken with the D80; most of them with the 18-135mm kit lens. 

And that brings us up to yesterday, when I bought a new Fuji HS20; which I'm looking forward to taking some great photos with.

It's amazing how far digital cameras have come in the last 10 years... from 1 megapixel to 16, with 710mm zoom lenses, and full high definition video... It's a different world.

You can click here to see a feature comparison of all the digital cameras I've shot with over the past ten years... the changes are just amazing (once again, provided by from whom I also got some of the review pics above).

Since there are so many shots from the D80 here; and since I haven't had a chance to take many interesting shots with the HS20 yet... I think I'll just close up with these couple shots of my family... far the biggest and most important thing to happen to me in the last 10 years:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why Mel Loooooves Her Nook Color and E-Books

Chris bought me a Nook Color for Christmas. Of course he would not allow me to use it until he had properly rooted it so for the past 7 months I've had my own low-cost Android Tablet.

That doesn't mean I don't use it for its intended purpose. Indeed 75% of the time my Nook Color is used for e-books. In fact, by having Nook, Kindle, and Google Books apps installed my free e-book potential is pretty well maximized.

Oddly enough, I prefer the Kindle app, if only because Chris and I share e-books and I can loan the e-books out to friends across the country.

Now I know there are people in the interwebs who are die-hard physical paper book lovers. I'm one of them. I won't touch an e-book version of a reference book for example, because I desperately need those in hard copy. However when it comes to fiction, I'm e-book all the way.

Yes I know a Nook Color is no smaller than those trendy trade paperbacks or mass market paper backs. There the issue is more convenience than anything else, as I don't have to change out my reading material every day.

However, there are exceptions to the "same size" rule...

Of course, that angle doesn't really capture the difference... Try this one:

That one particular hardcover, the long awaited 5th book in George R. R. Martins "A Song of Ice and Fire" series "A Dance With Dragons", runs about 1100 pages, is about 3" thick, and weighs 3lbs 2.9 ounces.

My Nook Color, with several hundred books on it (and room for ten thousand plus more, plus music, plus games, plus internet access etc...) is less than an inch thick even with the leather case, and weighs 1 pound, 5.6 ounces (about a third of which is the case).

Chris and I bought both copies, because we're "stock the library" people.

However, let's see how the two stack up:

HardcoverNook Color
3lbs 2.9oz1lb 5.6oz
2-handed operationOne-handed operation
Requires bookmarkBookmarks itself
Requires a light sourceMakes it's own light
Costs $15-$30 per bookThousands of free books, the rest $.99 to $15
Is only one bookCarries many books
Requires a backpackFits in purse nicely
Requires traditional book publishingGives authors more control

And that is why I love my Nook Color.

Crossing the "Bridge"

So, a few months ago, my lovely wife made a bit of an unfortunate error in spatial perception; knocking my (now 5 year old, but still excellent) prized Nikon D80 (with my 28-135 lens mounted) off a table, about 3 feet down onto a tile floor.

As you might expect, this broke both the camera and the lens; rather spectacularly in fact. They are both now in multiple pieces, and make quite disconcerting noises when shaken back and forth.

I was rather dismayed by this development.

At the same time (in fact, in the same week) she also managed to semi-permanently misplace (as in, we haven't found it yet) our little pocket sized Canon point and shoot (the now 4 year old and again quite decent, SD850is).

As such we have been sans camera since around late January (other than our cellphones of course).

For Mel, this isn't really a problem, as she finds her cellphones camera to be of acceptable quality, and surpassing convenience.

I am not so sanguine about the state of affairs.

This lack of decent camera has been somewhat irritating to me; both because we've done some traveling around the region since then and wanted a real camera for some decent photos; and because as part of the blogging thing I'm used to taking and posting a lot of pictures.

In particular I was rather annoyed at not being able to get good pics at boomershoot. I tried taking some with the cell phone camera, and they were just such poor quality I gave it up as a bad job.

Now, I know what camera I WANT to replace my much loved and missed D80 with: a Nikon D7000.

There's a lot of reasons why I want that particular camera, and if I scrape up the cash to buy one any time soon I'll go into that in detail; but for now I DON'T have that kinda cash (about $1200 body only). In fact I don't have enough cash for any of the current Nikon DSLR range... or the current Canon range either.

I've been budgeting and saving aside for a replacement for a while; and at the moment, I can swing about $400.

Of course that's less than ideal, but the issue has just become pressing; because several people have recently sent me gear and/or products to review, with a couple more coming in the next few weeks, and I don't have any means of taking a decent photographs.

As of today, this is a problem requiring immediate resolution.

Now, I could get a refurbished Nikon D40, D60, or D3000 for my $400 budget; but not a body and a decent wide to mid zoom to replace the 28-135 I lost, and I don't have another lens that covers the wide-normal range.

Right now, I just have a couple primes (a 50mm and an 80mm), and then some big zooms above 70mm. In particular,  for the blogging work I need to be able to cover the wide to normal range (24mm to 80mm); and of course for nature and shooting pics, I need the mid to long zoom. I'd have to walk around with 4 lenses, or spend $200-$300 on the minimum acceptable quality VR lens from Nikon.

So that wouldn't work for me right now either.

Also, frankly, at this point if I'm going to buy another DSLR (and I will, eventually), I'm just going to wait to get what I want... And though the d40, d60, and d3000 are all good cameras, they don't have the features I want.

In particular, though the d3000 is really an excellent camera, it doesn't shoot video; and at this point, I'm not going to buy a camera without at least 720p video capability. To get that would mean going to the d5000 (currently running about $500-$600 refurbished). If I'm gonna pay $500-$600, I'm going to wait til I can pay the $1200; or even the $850 street price of the d5000s successor, the d5100 (also an excellent camera... and too new to have any refurbs available).

Oh and yes, I could consider Canon as well; but I'm a Nikon shooter, and I'm not throwing away the lens and accessory investment I've already made. Besides, they're no cheaper for the same features.

So anyway, by the time I can afford one, a refurbished d7000 will probably be down to $800; and in the meantime I need a capable camera. Something worthwhile purchasing over a cheap pocket cam, or the "8 megapixel" camera on my mobile phone (which, yes, is utter crap... though less utter crap than most other phones cameras).

The problem is, if I'm not going to have a changeable lens camera, I need something with a very useful wide zoom range, and good image stabilization. Plus I need some manual shooting controls, and other "professional" type features.

That leaves out the pocket point and shoots, ("compacts" and "ultracompacts" in the industry market definitions) and moves me into what are colloquially called "super-zooms" or "bridge" cameras. So called because they "bridge" the gap between P&S and DSLR cameras.

This is not a very fun space to play in frankly; it's a land of pretty hard compromises. Either you spend outrageous bucks to get a big sensor (in which case, why not just buy a DSLR), or you get stuck with the small sensor of a P&S and the limitation on image quality that imposes. And of course, you're stuck with the one lens grafted on the front, so you have to find one that will cover everything you need to shoot.

Oh and one major thing to note, is that unlike changeable lens cameras; fixed lens cameras conventionally list their lens focal lengths as "35mm equivalent". 

What this means is that your 24-800mm zoom isn't actually a 24-800mm lens. There is a multiplying factor based on the length of the sensor, compared to the length of a 35mm film frame. With full frame DSLRs the multiplier is of course 1x, because their sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame (or close enough that it doesn't matter). With conventional APS-c sensors (the majority of DSLRs under $1500) the multiplier is either 1.5 or 1.6 (sensor measurements vary slightly); so that a 28-135 would be a 44.8-216 or "50-210mm 35mm equivalent).

Compact, ultracompact, and "bridge" cameras don't have a standard sensor size, so each one has a different multiplier; but their sensor size numbers are published, so you can figure them out.  Most of the superzooms use the 1/2" or 1/2.3" sensor size, which is about 6x5mm, vs APS-c at 24x16mm, or full frame at 36x24mm. Instead of a 1.6 multiplier, these cameras have about a 6x multiplier. 

So, the 24-810mm "35x" superzoom in question has an actual focal length of 4-52mm (which by the way is actually very hard to do, and still maintain optical quality. You could only do a focal length that short in a fixed lens camera with an electronic shutter, because the rear element of the lens can be so close to the sensor. 

This multiplying factor (also called a cropping factor, or a reduction factor) is one reason why it's rather difficult to throw out background focus, even wide open with fast apertures in these lenses (and why an f2.8 on these lenses isn't nearly as much light as it would be on an equivalent SLR lens), why they zoom in and out so quickly, and why they are so much smaller and cheaper than an SLR lens (for comparison, an 800mm SLR lens at f3.5 will be about three feet long, have an 8" front element, weigh 20lbs or so, and cost as much as a car). 

So, you can see why, other than the weight and the cost, I'd prefer a DSLR... but as I said, it's not happening right now.

The good news is, the "meat" of the superzoom marketspace is right around $400-$500 (or a little less if you don't mind a refurb, and I don't).

Ok, so the first step is to make a list of what I consider the essential features:
  • Biggest sensor possible, backlit sensor preferred, cmos sensor preferred
  • EXCELLENT image processing capability
  • Video capability at least 720p, 1080p preferred
  • Slow motion (high frame rate) video capture capability is preferred, but not required
  • Fast shooting, at least 4 frames per second, preferably 8+ with a 10+ burst capability
  • Image stabilization (preferred electronic-optical hybrid, not just sensor shake)
  • As many manual controls as possible, particularly controls with dedicated buttons not menus
  • Manual focus is required, on lens manual preferred but electronic control is acceptable
  • Manual zoom is desirable, but fast electronic controlled zoom is acceptable
  • Manual shooting modes (program, shutter priority, aperture priority at least)
  • High iso range (at least a USABLE 100-1600)
  • Wide shutter speed range (1/1200 to 15s minimum, 1/4000 to 60s preferred) with bulb
  • Wide aperture, f2.4 or f2.8 preferred, f3.5 acceptable (barely)
  • Wide angle wider than 30mm... 24mm preferred
  • Long zoom greater than 500mm, 800mm ideal
  • Very short macro focus. Less than 8cm required.
  • MUST have standard sized filter thread, preferably non-rotating, along with standard hood lug
  • Exposure bracketing is strongly preferred, but not required
  • Viewfinder required
  • External hot shoe strongly preferred but not required, TTL strongly preferred (not dumb shoe)
  • External microphone port is desirable but not required
  • Remote release strongly desired, but not required
  • Raw format, including Raw+JPEG is desirable (almost necessary given the small sensor)
  • Street price under $500 (such that refurbs, sales, specials etc... will be under my $400 budget)
You can see by the list, even if I wanted a compact or ultracompact, there's no way they could meet those requirements. In fact, as far as I know, there isn't any fixed lens camera of any type that meets them all, or even 80% of the list above the bare minimum to qualify; no matter what the price, never mind under $500.

Yes, I'm demanding. What can I say, I'm used to shooting with an $800-$1400 dslr body and a $500-$1500 lens. I'm sure a $2000-$3000 superzoom would be spectacular, and have all the features I want (and I still wouldn't buy one. I like being able to change lenses).

But, we have to work with what we've got, right... And in general, you can get a lot of capability for $400... with some irritating gaps and surprises.

Most surprisingly, the single biggest eliminator was the manual focus capability. Very few cameras in this class give you manual focus at all (which boggles my mind). Frankly, I don't think a camera is functional without at least some type of manual focus capability, even a little point and shoot. Otherwise what do you do when your autofocus get's confused and won't trigger the shot? I'd rather get a shot with less than perfect focus, than no shot at all.

Next up was the manual aperture control... almost none of the cameras in this class give you full aperture control, and many don't even give you an aperture priority mode. I can't use, and won't buy a camera  without at least some manual aperture control (though frankly, with such small sensors, your ability to throw a background out of focus is rather limited, even wide open).

Also, many cameras in this space either have no filter thread at all, or they have a non-standard thread size; and they have no remote release or bulb shutter feature. Most also have no provision for mounting a lens hood. Try shooting in a light shower, or bright sunlight, without filters or a lens hood... No thanks.

Almost meaningless to me, but nice to have, and a requirement for SOME shooting situations because of the small sensors and more limited image processing compared to DSLRs; RAW mode is also missing from most cameras in this space.

I spent a number of hours going through, Amazon, and manufacturers web sites trying to find acceptable candidates. I found a number that had manyof the features I wanted, but when it all came down to it, never mind actually getting everything on the list; there were only five that didn't have at least two or three showstoppers missing.

Those five were:
So, let's take a look at how they stand up to my requirements, and each other.

I started comparing specs line by line, and combing through reviews (and watching many many many video reviews and sample videos).

Click this for a side by side feature comparison and links to more details of the cameras above.

After 8 or so hours, this is what I came up with.

Sony Cybershot DSC-HX100

Right away, the Sony was out of my price range  at $450-$499 street price (it's also the newest camera, only just becoming generally available so that may go down in the next few months); but it met most of my feature wish list, so I didn't want to exclude it yet.

On the plus side, it has a backlit cmos sensor, a 3200 max iso, and a focal length out to 810mm. However, with no hot shoe, no remote release, and no filters, at that price... Let's just say it was pushed way down the list.

Canon sx30is

The Canon  SX30is is the only camera in the group without 1080p (also the oldest camera in the group having been announced a year ago), but it has 720p and excellent zoom range and a wide aperture (24-840mm at f2.7-5.8; by far the best in the market).

According to reviews, the SX30 is noted for it's high video quality; having particularly good image stabilization and autofocus in video (a noted weakness for most of the other cameras).  Reviews also note that video quality remains excellent, and image stabilization remains effective, even at the maximum zoom range (again, something the other cameras are weak at).

Also, it is a Canon and therefore it has a lot more of the "professional" touches than other cameras; like the very basic item, having a metal tripod shoe (most in this class have plastic). It has more manual controls than most, more programming options; and the menu system is Canons usual excellent fare.

The major missing elements unfortunately are speed shooting (.6fps with no burst), lack of a remote release, and only 30fps film speed. Also, while manual focus is available, it isn't a manual focus ring, it's an electronic control (as is the zoom).

The Canon is available at quite low cost however, running $399 new and about $340 refurbished. So again I didn't want to exclude it. Given the value presented,  and the video quality it's definitely a viable candidate.

Panasonic Lumix dmc-fz100

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 is the very top of the Lumix superzoom line, and it has most of the features to prove it; but still at a reasonable street price of $399, with refurbished available for $50 less.

The FZ-100 runs a standard filter 58mm filter thread (all the cameras with filter mounts in this comparison use 58mm filters... which thankfully I have plenty of) and bayonet mount for a lens hood; but like most of the other cameras, does not have a remote release. It has the lowest zoom range at 25-600mm; though it somewhat makes up for it with a wide f2.8-5.2 aperture, using electro-optical stabilization instead of just sensor shake, and RAW capability. Unfortunately the manual controls are limited, and hard to access. Everything is buried in menus, and nothing is simple, or tactile.

The biggest selling point, is the video quality, and the autofocus and image stabilization in video. All are reported to be among the best in the industry; so it stays in the running.

Nikon CoolPix P500

The Nikon, like the Canon, comes from a market leader in consumer and professional SLR cameras, and the P500 is the top of their superzoom line. As such, one would normally expect it to have more of the "pro" type features.

It has better menus than most, better controls than most including a speed dial (a control dial for your right thumb that can be used to adjust many things on the fly, like shutter speed, aperture etc... All of the five finalists have one, though the Canons is on the back not the top corner), a zoom control on the lens barrel, a metal tripod foot... which makes the lack of a remote shutter release, hot shoe, or filter threads; utterly glaring. Honestly... how can Nikon produce a camera like this without a filter thread, or a hot shoe?

The p500 has a wide zoom range at 23-810mm, but the worst aperture at 3.5-5.7, and the slowest max shutter speed at 1/1600. Also it only has an 8 second maximum exposure time, which is really not sufficient for star shots, or other night shots... especially with the smaller aperture.

Also, it's reasonably priced at $399, but no bargain compared to the rest of the market; and frankly, with the missing features... It's the bottom of the list.

FujiFilm FinePix HS-20exr

The Fuji is the odd man out of this group, in that the list price is $600; which could normally have excluded it right away. However, the street price of the camera runs between $400 and $450, with refurbs running as low as $350.

The HS20exr is clearly intended to be much closer to a DSLR than other cameras in this market, and the list price reflects that; but Fuji also took some cost savings, using AA batteries instead of a custom LiOn battery pack and charger, which probably cut $50 off the price immediately. However, four lithium or NiMH AA rechargables will only cost you about $20, and will get you 800 or 600 shots respectively (about 500 for a set of alkalines). I would guess it's this particular measure that makes the street price under $450.

The Fuji has the second lowest zoom range of the group at 24-710mm, but a 2.8-5.6 aperture, a 1/2" sensor vs the 1/2.3" the rest of this class has, and a standard 58mm filter thread and bayonet mount for the included lens hood; make up for the missing 90-130mm compared to the Sony, Nikon, or Canon.

It also has a hot shoe, a metal tripod foot, a speed dial accessible from the top and back of the camera, and is the only one in the group with a remote release.

Most importantly though, it has FULL manual controls, usable in most modes. It is the only camera in this group that has a full manual zoom barrel, and a real focus ring for manual focus. It also has manual aperture controls accessible in the manual modes; and has dedicated buttons for exposure, white balance, autofocus modes... basically all the buttons you want on a DSLR, instead of having to hunt through menus. And, it's the only camera here with exposure bracketing.

The Fuji is also the only one of the five that offers 160 and 320 frames per second slow motion video; and it's got built in in camera HDR, low light optimization, a capture mode that takes half resolution pictures using the data from two pixels to dramatically reduce noise (something important for such small sensors), a capture mode that does the same two pixel trick to boost low light performance, and a capture mode that aids in throwing the background out of focus while keeping the subject in focus (producing a more SLR like photo).

The camera is capable of 8fps shooting at 16 megapixels, or 11fps at 8megapixels (in a noise reduction mode for higher quality) and bursts of up to 16 shots.

On the negative side, the menus aren't as good as the Canon, the image stabilization is sensor shake only, and the autofocus system is a bit slow, with difficulty tracking quickly in video mode. These flaws are magnified at the long end of the zoom; so much so that at 720mm it might as well not have VR, and the focus can't track moving objects at all according to the video reviews.

So... which camera?

From the writeups it might seem obvious; but I actually spent quite a bit of time deciding this one.

Unfortunately the Sony and the Nikon were right out; but because of the video performance and relatively low cost, the Canon and Panasonic were both real contenders, and I'm pretty sure I would have been happy with either of them.

At the end of the day, I chose the FujiFilm FinePix HS20 EXR; because it had the most of what I wanted, the fewest missing critical elements, with the least of what I didn't want... but at full price I would have bought the Canon or the Panasonic instead.

I would have excluded the Fuji on price, but I was able to find a new "open box" in stock for $350 with free shipping; making the Fuji actually less expensive, and to my mind a much better value, than any of the other cameras in this comparison.

Most importantly to me, it had by far the best manual controls; including full manual zoom and focus, and full manual aperture controls. Also, it was the only camera in the space to support exposure bracketing (a critical tool for me in mixed lighting conditions, and for HDR photography).

Also, the EXR image processing, and "pro focus" and "pro low light" modes seem to be really excellent and useful features, to help compensate for the lack of sensor size, and the fixed glass.

There were a few videos that helped convince me, even with the negatives on the autofocus and image stabilization; that the Fuji was the way to go:

Warning, this one is 25 minutes long...

This vid has a great demonstration of the EXR image processing capabilities, with HDR, lighting, focus etc...

And particularly, this video comaprison of the HS20, and a DSLR with the same zoom range (though obviously a higher quality lens).

And now, it's here... (and with hopefully the last product review shots I'll need to take with my cell phone for a while):

It looks basically like an SLR, and other than being a bit lighter, it feels like one in the hand. It shoots like one too for the most part. The menu systems are pretty quick and easy to use, and the manual buttons are great.

For me. 

Frankly... if you're used to point and shoot cameras, you probably won't like the HS20; and Fuji hasn't targeted this camera to you. It's very clearly targeted as a backup or secondary camera for SLR shooters and pros, or for those who'd like to be but can't afford a DSLR (which would include me at the moment).

That said, the wife had no problem snapping a few shots with it, finding it comfortable and easy to shoot with (click for larger, but blogger compressed and shrunk to 1600x1200, not original):

Here's macro mode, at about 2" from the subject:

And here's "Super macro mode" where my lens was literally touching the bottom of those keys at the bottom of the frame:

And around sunset I went out and took these; two shots each of the same scene in exr "low noise" mode, and then in exr "high dynamic range" mode:

And these two, slightly different framings, zoomed in about half way up the barrel, the first in low noise, the second in HDR (which is why I framed them differently, one to be much darker, the other to have very wide differences between light and dark):

I'd call that more than acceptable, especially for $350.

(Camera review photos gratuitously ganked from The camera name links are all back to this most excellent site. If you buy one of these cameras, do it through their affiliate store).