Why are we scapegoating “China Sword”?

The following is a largely stream-of-thought article on the recycling side of waste management systems in North America. I could have used “United States” instead, but this issue is broader in scope than that. Many people are using the term “crisis” regarding a change in Chinese policy. I think we can learn more if we approach the issue as “from crisis, opportunity“. This is my own work and does not reflect the policies or opinions of my employer, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

When it comes to the recycling side of the solid waste industry in 2019 there is one King Kong-sized boogeyman. High Prices? Bad Markets? Excessive Transport Costs? All those problems and more are thrown at the feet of “China Sword“, one of the names given to a Chinese pivot away from importing post-consumer recyclables from North America. This policy is tied to surging costs and shrinking profits in the waste management industry.

The Chinese Recycling Market Genesis Story goes like this: For over 20 years China’s expanding manufacturing industries were sending container ships full of consumer goods to the North America. These ships would unload at a major port such as Long Beach, CA, but there were insufficient corresponding North American exports to fill the containers for the return trip. The economics of transporting a load of empty containers back to China were terrible, so bringing back *anything* was preferable. Thus a “black hole” for post-consumer materials was born. Those containers were filled with post-consumer recyclable material from North American households and businesses. From the North American perspective it was a miracle. No domestic processing requiring labor and machinery and electricity was required, only cheap rail shipments to the west coast, and the material was GONE. On the Chinese side the main end product for these materials was packaging for Chinese electronics and other consumer products, which would be exported to North America, and then theoretically returned to China to be born again as new packaging.

If that sounds too good to be true, it was. The quality of the material being delivered to North American docks was terrible. Much of it had high rates of contamination, or worse, involved good looking material on the outside and garbage on the inside. It is likely that none of this material would have been accepted for processing at a North American facility. As we will see, the costs involved in removing that contamination strip the materials of their intrinsic value. It was not long before the Chinese decided they would not be a dumping ground for this poor quality material. None of this was (or should have been) a surprise to North American brokers. Any serious student of recycling processes, markets, materials, and policies is not buying onto a “magical end market”. The charade continued until the proverbial well ran dry. At that point a crisis was born. China hit the brakes. Where importing poor-quality recycled materials may have been economically sound at one time, that time came to an end. China’s economic path from a producer of trinkets to a producer of iPhones led to a mature modern economy, with global economic ties and massive earnings.

It appeared to be a sudden reversal from the perspective of the US. But how could it have been. Waste management is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing economists, international business analysts, experts in everything from curbside collection to trade policy, and it revolves around the banking industry. That banking industry is doing their own due diligence. How could the entire industry, the transportation industry, and their financiers have overlooked this iceberg? My cynicism tells me they didn’t.

Much like the Chinese consumer goods of the 2000’s, North American recyclables were overwhelmingly destined for export markets. There had been very little investment in processing infrastructure on this side of the Pacific. Likewise, there had been no reason for collection programs to stress high quality over sheer volume. The export markets had not demanded it, and domestic markets were glad to limit themselves to materials such as white office paper and high-quality plastics, both known for low contamination rates and high value. Pre-Sword, if a municipal collection program was getting paid $20/ton for mixed recyclables, why would there be a reason to worry? As seen from the generation/collection side of the process it seemed like a status quo had been established, and there was very little indication it would change. Processors were offering 5- and 10-year contracts with guaranteed rebates. Generators and trash haulers were writing those rebates into their cash-flow calculations. Ah… Good Times! Not many were aware that this model relied on a distant market with a rapidly growing consumer sector and a government with the ability to alter course on a dime. The ones who were aware seem to have been satisfied to ride the wave until it crashed.

And crash it did. The closure of the Chinese market caused a virtual evaporation of system capacity. Post-consumer material had nowhere to go. The end markets (purchasers of separated recyclables) who would take the material demanded very low contamination rates (Between 1 and 5%, and lower). China had set their acceptable rate at 1.5% and then lowered it to 0.5%. As far as North American MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities or MRFs, pronounced “murfs”) were concerned this rate was impossible to achieve. Without a huge low-cost destination for post-consumer materials, the focus began to shift from quantity to quality.  Many MRFs were running their material through their processing line a second time to reduce contamination. This effectively halves their capacity and doubles their labor and energy costs per ton. The result is spiking costs.

As 2019 progresses, the old contracts fade away, and the shock over post-Sword economics sinks in. Processing a ton of recycling might cost as much as disposing of a ton of trash (or more), a previously unthinkable scenario. Where there were once $20/ton rebates, the cost to deliver recyclables to a MRF (called a tip-fee) was suddenly $25-$75/ton. States, municipalities, corporations, MRFs and brokers are all wondering who will pay for these new costs. In cases where long-term contracts with rebate pricing were in force, they were either torn up or the contractee was hit with higher “claw-back” costs in their next contract (making up for losses under the old rebate contract. Some scenarios involved both tearing up a contract as well as claw-back pricing. Could it be that the closure of the Chinese “Magic Market” exposed North American markets to the actual costs of their waste management policies? Can I make that any more of a leading question?

To turn specifically to the United States, our current solid waste management practices matured under those pre-Sword conditions. The expectations of cheap markets for poorly-sorted recyclables have been baked in to our system over the course of decades. That system relies heavily on export markets. It has failed to develop domestic processing and remanufacturing capacity in the shadow of those export markets. It also relies heavily on long-haul transportation instead of local and integrated, collection, processing and remanufacture. The challenge we now face is one of self-examination, education, commitment, and investment. Can we face up to the facts regarding our laissez-faire approach to waste? The idea that we can mass-produce products and packaging, with no regard to the implications, continues to be discredited every day. Whether it is a global adjustment like China Sword, or a local town-hall budget meeting erupting into a shouting match because the money is simply not there, the current system benefits very few and places a massive economic and environmental burden on the public at large.

To return to the opening question, why would we blame China for this scenario? Do they have some kind of mandate to take poor-quality material from halfway around the world, only to spend money to separate it into useful parts, dispose of the contaminants, and hope to end up in the black? None that I know of. More to the point, considering the importance of the Chinese market to the North American waste management industry, why was there no trade agreement in force regarding recycled materials. It was basically one giant handshake deal. This is the quicksand upon which was built the economic basis of the materials management economy for over 20 years.

There is a feeling that the market will settle, costs will relax, and a “new normal” will take shape. For most people in the waste management industry from the consumer/generator to the recycled content manufacturer it can’t happen soon enough.

I intend to come back and dig deeper into these issue in future posts, but I would like to close with a few observations about where the opportunities and solutions might lie:

Strong National and State Policies: To date the waste management industry has largely been left to run itself. It is important to give credit where credit is due. The industry has developed the technology and the economic strength to process much of our nation’s waste material. However, in the end it still operates on a volume basis. The incentive to reduce waste is simply anathema to the waste management industry. This is similar to the relationship between the electric generation industry and energy efficiency. EE measures take dollars out of the system. In the waste management industry, waste reduction plays the role of energy efficiency. The industry has been able to manage waste materials through a network of landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, and recycling facilities. No industry would voluntarily takes profits off the table, and as a bloc the waste management industry lacks the scope to put a value on efficiency and develop the policies and partners to make it work. What is needed now is a strong framework to guide the conversion of that industry to one that works for the next 100 years. It simply must evolve to yoke a reduction in waste generation to improvements in separation, processing and disposal.

The Supply/Demand Void: With the market value of post-consumer recyclables at a deep low there should be a buyer to embrace this buyer’s market. Right now that seems to be limited by processing capacity and the ability to reduce contamination to the new, lower, standards. As well, separated, high quality, low contamination materials are still holding their value in the marketplace. The real boat anchor is mixed recyclables (many of us know this as Single Stream, or Blue Bin). As I was once taught, the technology required to fix a problem is exponentially greater than the technology required to create it. Creating mixed recyclables is easy. Separating them into the component parts and maintaining the integrity of those parts is exponentially more difficult and more costly. The mixed recycling days should by all rights be coming to an end. Hence…

Source-Separation. This term can be used to describe separating recyclable materials from trash, but it also means separating recyclable materials by type before they are commingled. Separating materials such a cardboard, certain plastics, textiles, food waste, electronics, metal, and packaging at the source (the consumer in most cases) yields cleaner and more valuable material without the need for expensive post-processing. This approach also reduces the total quantity of mixed recyclables, lessening the strain on MRFs trying to meet the low contamination rates the market demands.

Cooperative and Expanded MRF Infrastructure: A MRF is a fairly innocuous industrial process. Most of these facilities can be sited in a light industrial zone with access to highway and rail/ship/manufacturing infrastructure. Cities, regions, or states might find the best solution to cost is to contract with a facility to process their recyclables. By keeping the size of each facility down the transportation costs are kept down, and the amount of post-process materials (baled separated recyclables) is likewise kept to an acceptable level as considered by the host community. It is important to note that even clean separated materials sill require baling, storage and marketing. A move away from mixed recycling is not a threat to the MRF industry, but a lifeline.

Integrated Processing and Manufacturing: The conversion of post-consumer recyclables into consumer products the final link in the chain. The transportation costs involved in this process can be mitigated by locating manufacturing facilities within a short-haul of one or more MRFs. Similarly the opportunity for long-term supply contracts sets the stage for enhanced source-separation, decreased contamination, and decreased processing costs. Any MBA will tell you that this is a recipe for long-term control of both costs and materials supplies.

These approaches can all be part of the answer to “what’s next” in the aftermath of China Sword. This crisis presents and opportunity to build the next house on firmer ground, with known costs, and reliable cash flows. This is what drives investment, and ultimately creates a sustainable model with room to grow and change as future opportunities present themselves.

 

 

A Tale of Two Mothers

2019 has seen two very promising releases in the Zappa Influence/Tribute genre, and it is only March! On one hand it is Liverpool’s Finest, The Muffin Men, aka the “Flab Four”. On the other is Michel Delville and The Wrong Object, Belgium’s answer to “What if you were very good at pretty much everything?” Both groups have been working at a high level for quite some time, and they both deliver the goods.

Roddie and the boys go first:

The Muffin Men have been at this game as long as anyone I can think of. They have hosted Jimmy Carl Black, Ike Willis, Denney Walley and many other guests at their tours and live shows. I was lucky enough to see both of these bands at the Moo Ah Festival in Corby, England, and I have seen the Muffinz at Zappanale as well. Both bands deliver an excellent live experience, but what about on repeat listening?

I sent some e-cash over to Roddie Gillard (£5 plus £2 P&P for UK, £2.50 for Europe, £3 for USA. paypal roddiemuf@hotmail.com and don’t be shy to round up that conversion for international shipping. That’s a steal.) for a copy of “(It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018“. What I got back was worth it, and then some. I know the Muffinz are heavy, as their incredible Fairies Wear Boots / Brown Shoes Don’t Make It mashup has proven to me already. This rekkid is heavy business in the same way. The band is tight, powerful, and funky in the way Zappa’s 1988 band would understand. They also sound like a much larger ensemble by keeping the arrangements tight, especially between keys and horns.

Opening with a super-tight Peaches is a good sign, and the album seems to just keep geting better (is that possible, I thought). The arrangements are more direct than some of the Zappa versions you might be familiar with, delivering a little more instant gratification. That is not a bad thing. As you stick with it you get to the meat of the CD which to me is Easy Meat / Village of the Sun / The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing… If you aren’t cranking the hell out of that I can’t help you. Nobody can. This is to my mind a benchmark of how it is done. In a world where shows are often poorly paid, poorly attended, and the travel is cramped and tiring, the Muffinz hit the stage with the goal to sound like they are playing Wembley (Anfield, actually!). Jumpy, Rhino, and Roddie have been the stable core of this band for so long that I have come to expect this kind of performance. Hearing them deliver on it, as I was not in the UK in 2018 [damn], is almost like being there. Some of the nuances are straight out of the Zappa catalog, while others are nods to the classics, often winking at the greats of the UK rock scene and beyond. It makes for a great record, especially cranked up as the soundtrack for a long drive. If you are still on the fence regarding what passes for bands playing the music of Frank Zappa this should burn the fence down. Get on with it!

Next up is a Mother of a Different Color, The Wrong Object’s Zappa Jawaka (order info at link) Michel Delville is the kind of guitarist I love to listen to. He can wear his influences on his sleeve and still sound like himself. His preference is to be in the ensemble unless coming to the fore is necessary. When he does he straight-up shreds. The Wrong Object is a powerhouse group, and while I am not genre/idiom dropping, they opeerate where eagles dare. Where many bands switch gears with a magician’s flourish, the Wrong Object method is more seamless, more compositional. The stylistic shifts happen at full tempo, on the beat. This is the kind of precision and composition I have heard in this context from Corrie van Binsbergen (Look her up, do it now) and very few others. All of that is on display with Zappa Jawaka, an homage to Zappa in a very progressive and modern fashion.

The Wrongs can drop your jaw with Zappa-authenticity, but they are also free to do that in many other ways. That freedom allows the band to play to their strengths and use the compositional framework as exactly that. There is an intent and a precision to this band, without sounding stilted or over-rehearsed. Make no mistake, this album gets very heavy. Not that I should have been surprised. Michel’s work with Tony Bianco in Machine Mass is not for the soft-prog-wallpaper crowd (pro tip: Machine Mass Plays Hendrix is a great disc).

Not unlike The Muffinz “Smoke and Mirrors“, there is gold right in the heart of this disc. “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” gets the respect it deserves, which is much. And did I say Zappa Authenticity? Hell yes I did. This rendition is worth the price right there. The Wrongs gave me reason to do a double take with the spot-on vocal and arrangement. It also sets the stage for a divine and sublime Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge mashup. This recording is heavy where it needs to be, free where it needs to be, and frankly klezmer-esque where it makes all the sense in the world. While this album is a studio effort, it has the open feel and flow of a live recording. I don’t hear any telltale overdubbing or looping or effects. It is the sound I recognize from their live performances.

These two recordings display the Zappa legacy on two different stages. The Muffinz rock those small club stages across the UK and elsewhere. The recording needs to be played LOUD. It has that rock-club-recording grit to it and to my ears it just makes it better. The performances are not, however, simplistic and dumbed down. They are full of all the “eyebrows” a Zappaphile demands. There is no velvet glove, just the iron fist of power and precision. While it might sound like I am setting the Wrongs up as a more delicate Object, I am certainly not. This band delivers in a different manner, but not a less effective manner. You feel it in the way they game the Zappa system, lulling you into a feeling of comfort then dropping the hammer with something unexpected. Possibly more to the point: The Wrong Object sounds like The Wrong Object playing Zappa (I’ll be reviewing their new release Into The Herd very soon), where the Muffinz sound like Zappa and more Zappa!

You really want to see both bands live, and if that is not possible, listen to both records. [Updated for spelling and clarity on 19 March 2019. pb] Here are the lineups:

The Muffin Men – (It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018 – Ian Jump (Jumpy) guitar, vocals; Roddie Gillard – bass, vocals; Rhino – drums, vocals; Phil – keys, vocals; Michael – sax, vocals. Peaches en Regalia, Cosmik Debris, Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, City of Tiny Lights, Jones Crusher, Easy Meat, Village of the Sun, Pick Me I’m Clean, The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing, I’m The Slime, Advance Romance, Whipping Post

muffins-smoke-mirrors-back-1

The Wrong Object – Zappa Jawaka – Michel Delville – guitar; Pierre Mottet, bass; Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, samples; Marti Melià – tenor sax, clarinet, vocals; François Lourtie – tenor and soprano sax, vocals. Wonderful Wino, Mr Green Genes / King Kong, Big Swifty, This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich / The Sealed Tuna Sandwich Bolero, Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge, Sleep Dirt, Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy, I’m The Slime

wrong-object-jawaka

The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers

We are all High Risk now

I’ve heard it all about Trump. I agree with much of it. He is all the bad things you think he is. He is a whirlwind of incompetence. All true. Not in dispute on my end. And yes, we should be very vigilant and very involved, because what he seems to be doing, primarily, is making people very uneasy about the future. But enough of the hot-takes and put-downs and emperor-has-no-clothes memes. It is time to put away the childish things. All the rants, all the ridicule, all the facepalm… all of it. Even if it is just for a minute.

 

Try this: Think about Trumpworld like you were having it explained to you by a financial advisor. Maybe your financial advisor, if you have one. He/She is likely very serious, very focused, and not a political blowhard. He can chat about either party with equal ease. He knows that filtering out the political background noise is essential to making good financial decisions. What would the Trump administration look like if you filtered out the stadium-volume politics? That is what good financial advisors do. The good ones are good because they can look at a proposition without getting too wrapped up in the writ-large politics of it. Trump is not a politician. He has no political background, skills, or even firm political beliefs. What he has done with his life is amass a personal fortune, and a key part of amassing a fortune is learning to lay off risk. If you play with big numbers and you can get someone to reliably take more risk than you take, you will reliably amass wealth at their expense. That’s how a guy who couldn’t make a casino work; who rolled craps on bottled water, vodka, and steaks (I guess American’s couldn’t get on board with those things); a guy who has cratered and declared bankruptcy at least four times (plus other sell-offs and bail-outs); managed to become the President of The United States of America: Laying off risk on potential voters.

 

That’s not all of it, of course. The other part of the Trump mystique is getting people to ignore or minimize the risk he are asking them to take. To make this sleight-of-hand work you have to either misdirect them about the degree of the risk, or you have to get them very focused on some other risk. The mark has to be so focused on that other risk that they overlook the obvious risks they are being asked to take by Trump. That is how you get investors to buy in, and it extends executives, staff, regulators, and whole governments. Reading the room and having a feel for what token of misdirection will be most effective is probably the one thing Trump is really good at. He proved it during the 2016 campaign. He routinely clobbered people with better, or better-formed, political platforms because he could play an arena full of potential voters in a way they couldn’t dream of. Prairie Home Companion, meet Tony Montana fronting Led Zeppelin.

 

The last tie-in to Trump’s success in 2016 is evangelism. Not just Christian Evangelical evangelism, but also the idea of a true believer who is all-in. Apple was showing their understanding of the concept’s power when they added “Mac Evangelist” to their org chart. Trump is a Trump Evangelist. The Best. The Smartest. The King of Deals. And so on… And that nauseating passage aside, Trump is pulling from both flavors of the word, almost equally. In a religious setting the risk is always outside, facing in, threatening the audience. The unbeliever. The heavy metal music. The gangsta rap lyrics. The [insert your favorite secular pleasure here]. The reward the religious evangelist offers is the safety of being inside, away and apart from the external menacing force. Trump knows this play like he knows the buttons on his TV remote. All he had to do is sprinkle in the barest soupçon of old time religion and the audience understood. Inside Good. Outside, Bad. Prosperity Gospel Politics brought to the Presidency.

 

And yet again, there is a huge risk component in Religious Evangelism. [“Again with the risk?” you ask? Yes. Stick with me for a sec] Think about it like your somewhat boring and outwardly apolitical finance guy would. Guys like Joel Osteen are just laying off huge amounts of risk on their flocks, and the house always wins. Trump is doing the same thing, but in his case the flock absorbing the risk is 350 million US citizens who are now finding out that the risks are high, they are real, and there is no way to mitigate them.

You want an example of what kinds of risk I am thinking of? Here ya go: You have rank amateurs running the departments of Housing, Energy, and Education. How do you feel about those three things? Pretty strongly, I’d imagine. If there is a bedrock to western civilization it is housing, energy and education. So who were “the best people” to guide these bedrock agencies? You have a guy who initially refused the job because he admitted not having any pertinent experience (aside from having lived in a house, I shit you not), running Housing. You have a guy with an Ag degree [full stop] in charge of our nation’s nuclear weapons and fissionable materials over at DOE. And lastly you have a woman with no professional education or education policy background in charge of Education… but who’s brother (Eric Prince of Blackwater fame) made a cool billion(z) leveraging the US population’s concept of risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, oh yeah, this: did anyone notice that her husband is the founder of Amway. Amway is basically a peak-risk-distribution effort. The company always takes on less risk than their franchisees. Always. The house always wins. Always.

 

So stop thinking about what a braying jackass Trump is. He was one before all of this started. Nothing will change. He will always be a braying jackass. Get over it.

 

I am making the case that we start thinking about Trump as the guy who sees the entire US population as a risk-soak. His presidency is just like every other Trump deal: The less equity you have at buy-in, the more risk you gotta take. And over 95% of the US population does not have the required equity to hedge against Trump. We are faced with the prospects of backsliding on worker protections, civil rights, air and water quality, Social Security, healthcare, foreign relations, foreign economics, domestic economics, and the feeling that a world war is imminent. At the same time we are seeing Wall Street deregulated, energy corporations take over the EPA, and a massive increase in military posture and spending. The payoff is supposed to be a period of sustained economic resurgence. Last I checked the DOW was over 20,000. That was pre-Trump. At the end of eight years of G W Bush it was around 6,500. Talk about selling ice cubes to eskimos! There has been plenty of economic growth in the past 10 years, but it all stayed out in shareholder-land. The money was not used to create jobs, build factories, build coal-fired power plants, and club baby seals for fun and profit. It was used to pay the guys who had been exposed to the least risk in the first place. They are the people who bear the least risk of being without good housing, good healthcare, good education, clean water, affordable energy and good nutrition.

 

While the US Senate deliberates in secret over what version of Trumpcare can get 51 votes, think about the risk you are being asked to take on. Guys like Trump use risk as the basic measuring stick for every major decision. Maybe it’s time we all started doing the same.

An Old/New Photo Gear Mashup

As I divest from my Nikon APS/DX gear there have been some moments for reflection on what I actually want to be taking pictures with. The move away from Nikon was about size, weight, and handling. The Olympus Micro Four Thirds (M43) gear is a pleasure to use. It is light and has both a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a good tilting LCD display (some models swivel). So I can shoot eye-level, waist-level and overhead. Most of my photography has me doing all three and I don’t want to have a lot of lag (Live View, I’m looking at you) or a murky display or a display that doesn’t tilt both ways. Nikon is having some serious not-growing-pains as they stake out the DSLR market and can’t put out a mirrorless system that people want. See the previous post for a pre-mortem on that subject.

I enjoy manual focus photography, though I have become so used to Aperture Priority mode with easy exposure compensation adjustment that I only shoot manual in very specific circumstances. The OM-D and PEN cameras have a good focus peaking system and make manual focus easy enough.

But what about old-school manual focus? Well, I mated up a very nice non-AI Nikkor-P 105/2.5 that I picked up for a song on eBay to my E-M10 with an el-cheapo K&F Nikon (G) to M43 adapter. That would normally be a recipe for disaster since non-AI lenses can bust the aperture feeler on modern Nikon gear, but the adapter works like a champ!

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Ben Bilello

In short: The Oly doesn’t use focus-peaking on a manual lens, but the EVF on the Oly is bright and clear enough to make manual focus a snap. It also deactivates the image stabilization, so it is really a throwback experience. On the plus side it meters in “fake aperture-priority mode”! You have to view at the aperture you want to use, and the camera sets an appropriate shutter speed. Even the exposure comp works.

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Vance Provey

I’ll probably look for a similar AI or AI-S version, plus a wide, to use on my ancient D200 body as well as with the adapter to M43. The non-AI mount may not have bodged the sub-$20 adapter guts, but it will wreck the D200’s innards.

Why I left Nikon and went Mirrorless

This is a post in two parts, and conceptually this is Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 1, How Nikon could be the Next Kodak (if they aren’t careful).

A few years back I was feeling particularly hemmed in by the classic DSLR experience. I was happy with the images from my Nikon D300, but not happy with the “eye to the finder” mode of shooting. Among the reasons is that I am a former Rolleiflex TLR user, and waist-level viewing is very pleasurable. It is less “in your face”, it gives a more natural eyepoint on some subjects, and it doesn’t involve blocking your face with a camera body. I also shoot a lot of live music and event photos, and shooting overhead is better when you can look up and see a real-time preview.

Some DSLR’s have live-view and an articulating display. I thought I had it figured out with a D3200. It was a very affordable way to hang a newer and more friendly body off of my existing DX glass. It was also light, had decent live view, a decent LCD display, shot HD video. The other side of the coin is that I was still lugging a heavy kit (17-55DX, 70-300VR DX, and a 35mm f/1.8 normal lens). The body was a little lighter, but not enough to make a day walking around the city any easier.

As I perused the camera landscape I saw that Olympus and Panasonic were making cameras with a newly spec’d “Micro Four Thirds” standard. As well, these cameras depend entirely on the sensor to provide the preview. Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and all have a nice bright display (most articulate for waist level and overhead viewing at a minimum). Good glass was available, and the cameras were well received by the finicky photographic press. I took a walk over to my local Brick and Mortar (Camera Bar in Hartford, CT) and checked out the cameras in-person.

Rant on.

I did the right thing and bought my camera, a Olympus E-M10, from Camera Bar. I have been known to browse in person and buy on-line, but not for purchases where I have picked their brains and gotten some good non-pushy advice. YMMV, but I’m happy I did that. I’ve bought other cameras and accessories there, and will continued to do so. Good folks deserve my business.

Rant off.

The point of all this is that Nikon just announced that the DL, their anticipated entry into the mirrorless game, is being scrapped (the weak-selling 1-Series is not a factor here). I think they made the right move but for the wrong reason. What they should do (IMO, selfishly) is design a mirrorless camera that accepts their DX-mount lenses, which are affordable and often excellent, and ditch the swing-up mirror. A swing-up mirror is an anachronism in a camera for anything other than a few specialized pursuits. Of course it made sense at the birth of the DSLR. These cameras were built using existing 35mm film bodies and had digitals sensors swapped in where the film plane/pressure-plate had been. It allowed the big SLR makers to leverage their investment in SLR technology. Sensor technology was in its infancy, so asking the sensor to stay on all the time, as well as provide output to multiple displays, was a bridge too far.

For all the advances in DSLR technology, and those cameras continue to be excellent performers for both stills and video, what exactly is the mirror doing in a camera like a Nikon D7000 Or a Canon 5DMKII? My feeling is that it is truly vestigial and an annoyance for most users. These cameras have sensors that are clearly capable of running full tilt all day. Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror? Or more specifically: Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror in every level and every price range? (If you think Canon has fared any better in catching up with mirrorless tech… read THIS)

One of the advantages of the mirrorless generation is that they can use a shorter focal distance (the distance from the lens flange to the film plane), allowing a shallower and smaller camera body. But there is another advantage is the lack of a mirror mechanism. Entry-level gear like the Nikon D3200 I experimented with have a mirror mech with an expected MTBF of 50-100,000 actuations. Most could probably outlast that by a bunch, but then again most entry-level cameras will never see that many shutter presses. A professional or prosumer camera might be good for 150k actuations. Still, that’s a lot. But I’m not sure it is ever anything other than a noisy inconvenience in a consumer camera.

So that is where a company like Nikon, an also-ran in the story of mirrorless cameras, could really clean up and deliver something better than they currently provide without actually developing a new camera system and without the question of “do we throw yet another freakin’ lens mount into the alphabet soup that is modern photography equipment?”. Nikon should transition to a Mirrorless DX camera to supplant/continue the already good/great 3xxx series. Hell, you could reflex the light path 90-degrees with a fixed mirror/prism and gain a shallower body while still using the DX flange distance… just sayin’….

I wish I could have thrown in on an upgrade to my D300 and gone on loving the Nikon DX experience. But now that I have a few years of mirrorless under my belt, and my Nikon gear has languished (actually being passed on to my nephew) I can say with confidence that I am not ever going back. I could end up moving to Sony or Fujifilm and their excellent mirrorless products, or I could upgrade my E-M10 when the time is right, or maybe another Micro 4/3 body like Panasonic/Lumix… But no. Not going back.

I’ll speculate in Part 1, the prequel, about how things could really go sideways for Nikon if they screw this up and decide that they can be the torchbearer for traditional SLR technology.

P