Architechnosecurigeek. Tinkerer. General trouble maker.
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I Will Fucking Piledrive You If You Mention AI Again

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The recent innovations in the AI space, most notably those such as GPT-4, obviously have far-reaching implications for society, ranging from the utopian eliminating of drudgery, to the dystopian damage to the livelihood of artists in a capitalist society, to existential threats to humanity itself.

I myself have formal training as a data scientist, going so far as to dominate a competitive machine learning event at one of Australia's top universities and writing a Master's thesis where I wrote all my own libraries from scratch. I'm not God's gift to the field, but I am clearly better than most of my competition - that is, practitioners who haven't put in the reps to build their own C libraries in a cave with scraps, but can read textbooks and use libraries written by elite institutions.

So it is with great regret that I announce that the next person to talk about rolling out AI is going to receive a complimentary chiropractic adjustment in the style of Dr. Bourne, i.e, I am going to fucking break your neck. I am truly, deeply, sorry.

I. But We Will Realize Untold Efficiencies With Machine L-

What the fuck did I just say?

I started working as a data scientist in 2019, and by 2021 I had realized that while the field was large, it was also largely fraudulent. Most of the leaders that I was working with clearly had not gotten as far as reading about it for thirty minutes despite insisting that things like, I dunno, the next five years of a ten thousand person non-tech organization should be entirely AI focused. The number of companies launching AI initiatives far outstripped the number of actual use cases. Most of the market was simply grifters and incompetents (sometimes both!) leveraging the hype to inflate their headcount so they could get promoted, or be seen as thought leaders1.

The money was phenomenal, but I nonetheless fled for the safer waters of data and software engineering. You see, while hype is nice, it's only nice in small bursts for practitioners. We have a few key things that a grifter does not have, such as job stability, genuine friendships, and souls. What we do not have is the ability to trivially switch fields the moment the gold rush is over, due to the sad fact that we actually need to study things and build experience. Grifters, on the other hand, wield the omnitool that they self-aggrandizingly call 'politics'2. That is to say, it turns out that the core competency of smiling and promising people things that you can't actually deliver is highly transferable.

I left the field, as did most of my smarter friends, and my salary continued to rise a reasonable rate and sustainably as I learned the wisdom of our ancient forebearers. You can hear it too, on freezing nights under the pale moon, when the fire burns low and the trees loom like hands of sinister ghosts all around you - when the wind cuts through the howling of what you hope is a wolf and hair stands on end, you can strain your ears and barely make out:

"Just Use Postgres, You Nerd. You Dweeb."

The data science jobs began to evaporate, and the hype cycle moved on from all those AI initiatives which failed to make any progress, and started to inch towards data engineering. This was a signal that I had both predicted correctly and that it would be time to move on soon. At least, I thought, all that AI stuff was finally done, and we might move on to actually getting something accomplished.

And then some absolute son of a bitch created ChatGPT, and now look at us. Look at us, resplendent in our pauper's robes, stitched from corpulent greed and breathless credulity, spending half of the planet's engineering efforts to add chatbot support to every application under the sun when half of the industry hasn't worked out how to test database backups regularly. This is why I have to visit untold violence upon the next moron to propose that AI is the future of the business - not because this is impossible in principle, but because they are now indistinguishable from a hundred million willful fucking idiots.

II. But We Need AI To Remain Comp-

Sweet merciful Jesus, stop talking. Unless you are one of a tiny handful of businesses who know exactly what they're going to use AI for, you do not need AI for anything - or rather, you do not need to do anything to reap the benefits. Artificial intelligence, as it exists and is useful now, is probably already baked into your businesses software supply chain. Your managed security provider is probably using some algorithms baked up in a lab software to detect anomalous traffic, and here's a secret, they didn't do much AI work either, they bought software from the tiny sector of the market that actually does need to do employ data scientists. I know you want to be the next Steve Jobs, and this requires you to get on stages and talk about your innovative prowess, but none of this will allow you to pull off a turtle neck, and even if it did, you would need to replace your sweaters with fullplate to survive my onslaught.

Consider the fact that most companies are unable to successfully develop and deploy the simplest of CRUD applications on time and under budget. This is a solved problem - with smart people who can collaborate and provide reasonable requirements, a competent team will knock this out of the park every single time, admittedly with some amount of frustration. The clients I work with now are all like this - even if they are totally non-technical, we have a mutual respect for the other party's intelligence, and then we do this crazy thing where we solve problems together. I may not know anything about the nuance of building analytics systems for drug rehabilitation research, but through the power of talking to each other like adults, we somehow solve problems.

But most companies can't do this, because they are operationally and culturally crippled. The median stay for an engineer will be something between one to two years, so the organization suffers from institutional retrograde amnesia. Every so often, some dickhead says something like "Maybe we should revoke the engineering team's remote work privile - whoa, wait, why did all the best engineers leave?". Whenever there is a ransomware attack, it is revealed with clockwork precision that no one has tested the backups for six months and half the legacy systems cannot be resuscitated - something that I have personally seen twice in four fucking years. Do you know how insane that is?

Most organizations cannot ship the most basic applications imaginable with any consistency, and you're out here saying that the best way to remain competitive is to roll out experimental technology that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything else your I.T department runs, which you have no experience hiring for, when the organization has never used a GPU for anything other than junior engineers playing video games with their camera off during standup, and even if you do that all right there is a chance that the problem is simply unsolvable due to the characteristics of your data and business? This isn't a recipe for disaster, it's a cookbook for someone looking to prepare a twelve course fucking catastrophe.

How about you remain competitive by fixing your shit? I've met a lead data scientist with access to hundreds of thousands of sensitive customer records who is allowed to keep their password in a text file on their desktop, and you're worried that customers are best served by using AI to improve security through some mechanism that you haven't even come up with yet? You sound like an asshole and I'm going to kick you in the jaw until, to the relief of everyone, a doctor will have to wire it shut, giving us ten seconds of blessed silence where we can solve actual problems.

III. We've Already Seen Extensive Gains From-

When I was younger, I read R.A Salvatore's classic fantasy novel, The Crystal Shard. There is a scene in it where the young protagonist, Wulfgar, challenges a barbarian chieftain to a duel for control of the clan so that he can lead his people into a war that will save the world. The fight culminates with Wulfgar throwing away his weapon, grabbing the chief's head with bare hands, and begging the chief to surrender so that he does not need to crush a skull like an egg and become a murderer.

Well this is me. Begging you. To stop lying. I don't want to crush your skull, I really don't.

But I will if you make me.

Yesterday, I was shown Scale's "2024 AI Readiness Report". It has this chart in it:

Scale Report.png

How stupid do you have to be to believe that only 8% of companies have seen failed AI projects? We can't manage this consistently with CRUD apps and people think that this number isn't laughable? Some companies have seen benefits during the LLM craze, but not 92% of them. 34% of companies report that generative AI specifically has been assisting with strategic decision making? What the actual fuck are you talking about? GPT-4 can't even write coherent Elixir, presumably because the dataset was too small to get it to the level that it's at for Python3, and you're admitting that you outsource your decisionmaking to the thing that sometimes tells people to brew lethal toxins for their families to consume? What does that even mean?

I don't believe you. No one with a brain believes you, and if your board believes what you just wrote on the survey then they should fire you. I finally understand why some of my friends feel that they have to be in leadership positions, and it is because someone needs to wrench the reins of power from your lizard-person-claws before you drive us all collectively off a cliff, presumably insisting on the way down that the current crisis is best remedied by additional SageMaker spend.

A friend of mine was invited by a FAANG organization to visit the U.S a few years ago. Many of the talks were technical demos of impressive artificial intelligence products. Being a software engineer, he got to spend a little bit of time backstage with the developers, whereupon they revealed that most of the demos were faked. The products didn't work. They just hadn't solved some minor issues, such as actually predicting the thing that they're supposed to predict. Didn't stop them spouting absolute gibberish to a breathless audience for an hour though! I blame not the engineers, who probably tried to actually get the damn thing to work, but the lying blowhards who insisted that they must make the presentation or presumably be terminated4.

Another friend of mine was reviewing software intended for emergency services, and the salespeople were not expecting someone handling purchasing in emergency services to be a hardcore programmer. It was this false sense of security that led them to accidentally reveal that the service was ultimately just some dude in India. Listen, I would just be some random dude in India if I swapped places with some of my cousins, so I'm going to choose to take that personally and point out that using the word AI as some roundabout way to sell the labor of people that look like me to foreign governments is fucked up, you're an unethical monster, and that if you continue to try { thisBullshit(); } you are going to catch (theseHands)

IV. But We Must Prepare For The Future Of -

I'm going to ask ChatGPT how to prepare a garotte and then I am going to strangle you with it, and you will simply have to pray that I roll the 10% chance that it freaks out and tells me that a garotte should consist entirely of paper mache and malice.

I see executive after executive discuss how they need to immediately roll out generative AI in order to prepare the organization for the future of work. Despite all the speeches sounding exactly the same, I know that they have rehearsed extensively, because they manage to move their hands, speak, and avoid drooling, all at the same time!

Let's talk seriously about this for a second.

I am not in the equally unserious camp that generative AI does not have the potential to drastically change the world. It clearly does. When I saw the early demos of GPT-2, while I was still at university, I was half-convinced that they were faked somehow. I remember being wrong about that, and that is why I'm no longer as confident that I know what's going on.

However, I do have the technical background to understand the core tenets of the technology, and it seems that we are heading in one of three directions.

The first is that we have some sort of intelligence explosion, where AI recursively self-improves itself, and we're all harvested for our constituent atoms because a market algorithm works out that humans can be converted into gloobnar, a novel epoxy which is in great demand amongst the aliens the next galaxy over for fixing their equivalent of coffee machines. It may surprise some readers that I am open to the possibility of this happening, but I have always found the arguments reasonably sound. However, defending the planet is a whole other thing, and I am not even convinced it is possible. In any case, you will be surprised to note that I am not tremendously concerned with the company's bottom line in this scenario, so we won't pay it any more attention.

A second outcome is that it turns out that the current approach does not scale in the way that we would hope, for myriad reasons. There isn't enough data on the planet, the architecture doesn't work they way we'd expect, the thing just stops getting smarter, context windows are a limiting factor forever, etc. In this universe, some industries will be heavily disrupted, such as customer support.

In the case that the technology continues to make incremental gains like this, your company does not need generative AI for the sake of it. You will know exactly why you need it if you do, indeed, need it. An example of something that has actually benefited me is that I keep track of my life administration via Todoist, and Todoist has a feature that allows you to convert filters on your tasks from natural language into their in-house filtering language. Tremendous! It saved me learning a system that I'll use once every five years. I was actually happy about this, and it's a real edge over other applications. But if you don't have a use case then having this sort of broad capability is not actually very useful. The only thing you should be doing is improving your operations and culture, and that will give you the ability to use AI if it ever becomes relevant. Everyone is talking about Retrieval Augmented Generation, but most companies don't actually have any internal documentation worth retrieving. Fix. Your. Shit.

The final outcome is that these fundamental issues are addressed, and we end up with something that actually actually can do things like replace programming as we know it today, or be broadly identifiable as general intelligence.

In the case that generative AI goes on some rocketship trajectory, building random chatbots will not prepare you for the future. Is that clear now? Having your team type in import openai does not mean that you are at the cutting-edge of artificial intelligence no matter how desperately you embarrass yourself on LinkedIn and at pathetic borderline-bribe award ceremonies from the malign Warp entities that sell you enterprise software5. Your business will be disrupted exactly as hard as it would have been if you had done nothing, and much worse than it would have been if you just got your fundamentals right. Teaching your staff that they can get ChatGPT to write emails to stakeholders is not going to allow the business to survive this. If we thread the needle between moderate impact and asteroid-wiping-out-the-dinosaurs impact, everything will the changed forever and your tepid preparations will have all the impact as as an ant bracing itself very hard in the shadow of a towering tsunami.

If another stupid motherfucker asks me to try and implement LLM-based code review to "raise standards" instead of actually teaching people a shred of discipline, I am going to study enough judo to throw them into the goddamn sun.

I cannot emphasize this enough. You either need to be on the absolute cutting-edge and producing novel research, or you should be doing exactly what you were doing five years ago with minor concessions to incorporating LLMs. Anything in the middle ground does not make any sense unless you actually work in the rare field where your industry is being totally disrupted right now.

V. But Everyone Says They're Usi-

Can you imagine how much government policy is actually written by ChatGPT before a bored administrator goes home to touch grass? How many departments are just LLMs talking to each other in circles as people sick of the bullshit just paste their email exchanges into long-running threads? I guarantee you that a doctor within ten kilometers of me has misdiagnosed a patient because they slapped some symptoms into a chatbot.

What are we doing as a society?


An executive at an institution that provides students with important credentials, used to verify suitability for potentially lifesaving work and immigration law, asked me if I could detect students cheating. I was going to say "No, probably not"... but I had a suspicion, so I instead said "I might be able to, but I'd estimate that upwards of 50% of the students are currently cheating which would have some serious impacts on the bottom line as we'd have to suspend them. Should I still investigate?"

We haven't spoken about it since.


I asked a mentor, currently working in the public sector, about a particularly perplexing exchange that I had witnessed.

Me: Serious question: do people actually believe stories that are so transparently stupid, or is it mostly an elaborate bit (that is, there is at least a voice of moderate loudness expressing doubt internally) in a sad attempt to get money from AI grifters?

Them: I shall answer this as politically as I can... there are those that have drunk the kool-aid. There are those that have not. And then there are those are that are trying to mix up as much kool-aid as possible. I shall let you decide who sits in which basket.

I've decided, and while I can't distinguish between the people that are slamming the kool-aid like it's a weapon and the people producing it in industrial quantities, I know that I am going to get a few of them before the authorities catch me - if I'm lucky, they'll waste a few months asking an LLM where to look for me.


When I was out on holiday in Fiji, at the last resort breakfast, a waitress brought me a form which asked me if I'd like to sign up for a membership. It was totally free and would come with free stuff. Everyone in the restaurant is signing immediately. I glance over the terms of service, and it reserves the right to use any data I give them to train AI models, and that they reserved the right to share those models with an unspecified number of companies in their conglomerate.

I just want to eat my pancakes in peace, you sick fucks.

VI.

The crux of my raging hatred is not that I hate LLMs or the generative AI craze. I had my fun with Copilot before I decided that it was making me stupider - it's impressive, but not actually suitable for anything more than churning out boilerplate. Nothing wrong with that, but it did not end up being the crazy productivity booster that I thought it would be, because programming is designing and these tools aren't good enough (yet) to assist me with this seriously.

No, what I hate is the people who have latched onto it, like so many trailing leeches, bloated with blood and wriggling blindly. Before it was unpopular, they were the ones that loved discussing the potential of blockchain for the business. They were the ones who breathlessly discussed the potential of 'quantum' when I last attended a conference, despite clearly not having any idea what the fuck that even means. As I write this, I have just realized that I have an image that describes the link between these fields perfectly.

I was reading an article last week, and a little survey popped up at the bottom of it. It was for security executives, but on a whim I clicked through quickly to see what the questions were.

security_grift.png

There you have it - what are you most interested in, dear leader? Artificial intelligence, the blockchain, or quantum computing?6 They know exactly what their target market is - people who have been given power of other people's money because they've learned how to smile at everything, and know that you can print money by hitching yourself to the next speculative bandwagon. No competent person in security that I know - that is, working day-to-day cybersecurity as opposed to an institution dedicated to bleeding-edge research - cares about any of this. They're busy trying to work out if the firewalls are configured correctly, or if the organization is committing passwords to their repositories. Yes, someone needs to figure out what the implications of quantum computing are for cryptography, but I guarantee you that it is not Synergy Greg, who does not have any skill that you can identify other than talking very fast and increasing headcount. Synergy Greg should be not be consulted on any important matters, ranging from machine learning operations to tying shoelaces quickly. The last time I spoke to one of the many avatars of Synergy Greg, he insisted that I should invest most of my money into a cryptocurrency called Monero, because "most of these coins are going to zero but the one is going to one". This is the face of corporate AI. Behold its ghastly visage and balk, for it has eyes bloodshot as a demon and is pretending to enjoy cigars.

My consultancy has three pretty good data scientists - in fact, two of them could probably reasonably claim to be amongst the best in the country outside of groups doing experimental research, though they'd be too humble to say this. Despite this we don't sell AI services of any sort. The market is so distorted that it's almost as bad as dabbling in the crypto space. It isn't as bad, meaning that I haven't yet reached the point where I assume that anyone who has ever typed in import tensorflow is a scumbag, but we're well on our way there.

This entire class of person is, to put it simply, abhorrent to right-thinking people. They're an embarrassment to people that are actually making advances in the field, a disgrace to people that know how to sensibly use technology to improve the world, and are also a bunch of tedious know-nothing bastards that should be thrown into Thought Leader Jail until they've learned their lesson, a prison I'm fundraising for. Every morning, a figure in a dark hood7, whose voice rasps like the etching of a tombstone, spends sixty minutes giving a TedX talk to the jailed managers about how the institution is revolutionizing corporal punishment, and then reveals that the innovation is, as it has been every day, kicking you in the stomach very hard. I am disgusted that my chosen profession brings me so close to these people, and that's why I study so hard - I am seized by the desperate desire to never have their putrid syllables befoul my ears ever again, and must flee to the company of the righteous, who contribute to OSS and think that talking about Agile all day is an exercise for aliens that read a book on human productivity.

I just got back from a trip to a substantially less developed country, and really living in a country, even for a little bit, where I could see how many lives that money could improve, all being poured down the Microsoft Fabric drain, it just grinds my gears like you wouldn't believe. I swear to God, I am going to study, write, network, and otherwise apply force to the problem until those resources are going to a place where they'll accomplish something for society instead of some grinning clown's wallet.

VII. Oh, So You're One Of Those AI Pessi-

With God as my witness, you grotesque simpleton, if you don't personally write machine learning systems and you open your mouth about AI one more time, I am going to mail you a brick and a piece of paper with a prompt injection telling you to bludgeon yourself in the face with it, then just sit back and wait for you to load it into ChatGPT because you probably can't read unassisted anymore.


PS

Posts may be slower than usual for the upcoming weeks or months, as I am switching to a slower but more consistent writing schedule, more ambitious pieces, studying, working on what will hopefully be my first talk8, putting together a web application that users may have some fun with, and participating in my first real theater performance. Hope you enjoyed, and as always, thanks for reading.


  1. Which, to be fair, might explain why so many of the thoughts in the zietgeist are always so stupid. Many of the executives I know in Malaysia were obsessed with Bitcoin, but have abruptly forgotten about this now that it is politically unpopular. 

  2. I know a few people who genuinely exhibit something I'd call political talent, but most of the time it boils down to promising people things regardless of your ability to deliver. This is not hard if you're shameless. If we're being honest, I had to do this once or twice to stay em 

  3. And we can argue about its Python quality too. 

  4. Which, thanks to U.S healthcare, has the wonderful dual quality of meaning both unemployed, but also suggests termination in the Arnold-Schwarzenegger-throws-you-into-molten-metal sense of the word. 

  5. I was recently made aware that this is the quiet deal many SaaS providers have with executives. If you buy their software, such as Snowflake, it is quietly understood that you will be allowed to present your success on a stage, giving them piles of someone else's money and enhancing the executive's profile. 

  6. I don't actually know what 'zero-trust' architecture means, but I've heard stupid people say it enough that it's probably also a term that means something in theory but has been sullied beyond all use in day-to-day life. 

  7. It's me. I'm going to do this to you if you tell me that you need infrastructure prepared for another chatbot. You've been warned. 

  8. With an undisclosed group so they don't feel pressured to approve me, but it's looking good and will be available! 

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acdha
3 days ago
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It’s like jwz was born 30 years later
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Inside Micro Center's new North Carolina superstore

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My first trip to a Micro Center was like being a kid in a candy shop

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petrilli
11 days ago
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I so miss Microcenters.
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LAPD buys dogs from breeding company with same name as Hitler's bunker

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LAPD

That's a little on the nose.

The Los Angeles Police Department has done about $150,000 worth of business with dog breeder "Adlerhorst International LLC" over the last five years. LAPD buys German Shepherds from the breeder for $9,800-$13,000 a piece.

Adlerhorst translates to "Eagle's Nest" in German, and was the name of Hitler's bunker and command post in the alps during World War II. — Read the rest

The post LAPD buys dogs from breeding company with same name as Hitler's bunker appeared first on Boing Boing.

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petrilli
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Have $250,000 burning a hole in your pocket? Kitamura Camera has the deal for you!

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Kitamura Camera has about 600 locations "from Okinawa to Hokkaido" (all over Japan). I visited their stunning flagship store in Shinjuku, located just East of Shinjuku Station. They offer a full range of both new and used photo gear, film and services, including an extensive repair department, even handling Apple repair on the basement level.

Photo: Kitamura Camera

I always extend my business trips to Japan beyond the bare minimum needed for business, because I can never get enough of the country, its people and its culture. Most recently, I stayed on a couple of weeks past the end of the CP+ 2024 photo trade show, using part of the time to explore the world of used cameras in Tokyo. There are used-camera shops spread all across the city, but the largest concentration is in the Shinjuku neighborhood, within blocks of the massive Shinjuku train station.

Shinjuku’s used-camera scene is amazing; a true Mecca for film-camera enthusiasts, with offerings at every price point from a couple of dollars for a 'maybe it will work' point-and-shoot to hundreds of thousands of dollars for ultra-rare collector’s items.

Time permitting, I hope to write another story that will serve as a guide to buying a used camera in Tokyo, which is arguably the best place in the world to do so.

Hiroyuki Mizutani is the Concierge of Kitamura Camera’s vintage-camera business, focusing on collectible Leica bodies and lenses including some incredibly rare and valuable models. The camera he’s holding is one of the extremely rare olive-green "Bundeseigentum" M3 models made for the German government. (Note the black gloves, a hallmark of the Vintage Salon.)

Photo: Azusa Kumei, Kitamura Camera

This story, though, is about my introduction to the world of ultra-rare collector’s items when I visited Kitamura Camera’s flagship store just east of Shinjuku Station, and a conversation I had with the surprisingly young Concierge of that department, Mr. Hiroyuki Mizutani.

Kitamura Camera operates a chain of approximately 600 camera stores all across Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido, as the Japanese expression goes. (The phrase is similar to 'from east to west' in the US.) They built a massive and luxurious flagship store in a prime Shinjuku location in 2020, timed for the 2020 Olympics.)

This pair of Leica Summilux 50mm F1.4 lenses was my first hint of what awaited in Kitamura’s Vintage Salon. These were on the more prosaic 4th floor, but at the then-current exchange rate, they were priced at $15,900 and $36,700 respectively. The more expensive model is the original version, produced for only 2 years from 1959-1961 before being supplanted by the other one, which was sold with only cosmetic changes from 1961-2004 when it was finally replaced by the ASPH model.

I was amazed by the range and quality of used cameras they had on display on the 4th floor of the building (they have nearly 3,500 items in their inventory), including what seemed like some very high-priced items. After seeing a Leica 50mm F1.4 lens priced at 5,500,000 ¥ ($36,700 at the time), I remarked to an employee about these prices, and he replied, "Oh, this is nothing; you should see the 6th floor!"

It turns out the 6th floor houses Kitamura Camera’s "Vintage Salon," dedicated to truly rare and valuable collector’s items. I was blown away when I saw an early Leica built for the German Army bearing a price tag of 40,000,000 Yen, or more than $250,000 USD at the then-current all-time high exchange rate. It turned out that wasn’t even the most valuable model on offer.

I asked Mizutani-san if he’d be willing to be interviewed about his experience and the world of ultra-high-end camera collectors, and he agreed.

The "Vintage Salon" on the 6th floor exudes understated elegance. The far wall showcases particularly rare items, and the low flat cases display featured models. A vertical display case and the wall behind it holding larger numbers of less-rare collectibles are off-camera to the left, while the wall off-camera to the right holds more recent models. I wouldn’t venture a guess on the total value of the gear in this one room, but it’s easily in the millions of US dollars.

Mizutani-san was very patient with my lack of Japanese and the resulting inconvenience of passing both sides of the conversation back and forth through our phones. AI transcription software and my hand-tuned translator GPT helped me turn our words into the story below, but the AIs had a lot of difficulty with the choppy dialogue and the repetition in two languages as our phones echoed our words.

As a result, while I’ve written this up as if it were a continuous conversation, it’s, in fact, heavily edited for continuity; I asked Mizutani-san to look over a carefully translated version in Japanese to make sure I didn’t misrepresent anything he said, but any mistakes here are entirely my fault.

It was interesting to hear about Mizutani-san’s journey from a barista at a photo cafe to the "Concierge" of one of the largest vintage camera businesses in Japan. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did!

The beginning of the journey

Dave Etchells: How old were you when you first became interested in photography? What sparked your interest? What was your first camera?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: The trigger for my interest in photography really came when I began working here. It was actually after I started working at Kitamura Camera that I became interested in photography itself. If anything, I was initially more interested in the manual, mechanical cameras themselves, and it was because Kitamura Camera dealt with such cameras that I joined the company; from there, I started to engage in photography.

Dave Etchells: Was this your job after college? Did you start part- or full-time?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: I started with a part-time job. It wasn't at a university, but after graduating from high school, I began working at Camera Kitamura while I was attending a vocational school. I think I started in the middle of the school year, I was studying film and theater at the time.

Here’s a lovely pair of Leica Noctilux 50mm F1.2s, highly prized as the first Leica lens to use an aspheric element (a double-sided one at that), and also due to only around 1,700 of them having been produced (volume estimates vary). They were fiendishly difficult to make and Leica had no way of testing them until they were completely assembled, with the result that only about 50% of them ended up good enough to sell. The result is the kind of value you see here; the Spring Sale pricing is $74,400 and $52,800, respectively. (The version with the "feet" scale in red is even more rare, hence the higher value.)


Photo: Azusa Kumei, Kitamura Camera

Dave Etchells: How did you end up selling cameras, what was the connection to Kitamura?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Before joining Camera Kitamura, I worked for a while at a photo café, where you could order photos while enjoying a coffee. I was working as a barista, on the coffee-making side of things, and someone I met there introduced me to Camera Kitamura. That was the trigger for me ending up at Kitamura.

Dave Etchells: You currently manage the Leica business for Kitamura; how did you initially become involved with Leicas? What was behind your interest in them?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Originally, I was involved in various aspects, selling many different types of film cameras and even visiting customers' homes for camera purchases, dealing with both sales and acquisition of various cameras. Being acknowledged for these efforts and having a background working with manual and film cameras at Kitamura Camera were both significant factors. Additionally, the previous manager, Maruyama-san, with whom I had worked at the first store, played a part in me being assigned here. It's partly due to these factors – my track record and the connection with Maruyama – that I came to be part of this department.

Kitamura Camera’s two Shinjuku locations are on the east and west sides of the massive, sprawling Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku Station is bewilderingly complex, as hinted at by all the red-tinted areas showing underground passageways and malls. Google Maps suggests the quickest route between the two stores is to pass through the station. Don’t believe it, stick to surface travel! Even Tokyo locals often get lost in Shinjuku station. (If arriving by train, look for signs to the main East or West exits and then navigate to the stores on the surface from there.)

Dave Etchells: So you worked as a kind of apprentice to Maruyama-san, as you learned the business of buying and selling cameras, how to set prices, make offers, etc?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Actually, it was a little bit different. Kitamura Camera has about 600 stores nationwide, and I worked with film cameras at some of the other stores as well. I lived in Kanagawa Prefecture. Initially, I worked in Shinjuku, then moved to Tachikawa in the west of Tokyo, and after that, I worked in Osaka for several years. I worked together with Mr. Maruyama at the Shinjuku store over by the West Gate. That store is called Camera no Kitamura, the Shinjuku Nishiguchi shop. The store was located at the West Exit. [Nishiguchi means "west entrance"]

[Editor's note: The Camera no Kitagura store still exists, just a block or so from the West Exit of the massive Shinjuku train station. It stocks a full range of photo products, both new and used. Travelers should take note of their 1-hour sensor cleaning service, available for most interchangeable-lens cameras at both locations.]

Dave Etchells: Who was Maruyama-san, was he an owner of the business or just an experienced employee?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Mr. Maruyama oversees the Leica department at this store. The store we worked at together previously was called Camera no Kitamura. This Shinjuku Kitamura Camera store that we’re in today is the flagship store of the entire nationwide 600-store Kitamura Camera chain.

Tracking the global market

Dave Etchells: How do you manage to keep up with everything that’s going on in the Leica world? I'm sure it’s a global business, and it must be hard to keep track of what products are out there, what prices they’re selling for, etc.

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Yes, that’s right. It's quite difficult. As I’ve been running this store for several years though, customers have told me about a lot of things that the public doesn’t get to hear about, and I’ve managed to gather information from around the world. After doing this for several years now, I feel like I’m finally getting a good picture of what’s really going on in the market vs. just what happens in public auctions.

Loads of Leicas: This is just a small selection of the rare Leicas in the Vintage Salon. There seemed to be four tiers: The most exceptional ones are showcased on the left wall, very rare ones are in these low, flat cases, more ordinary collectibles are in a tall vertical case and wall on the immediate left as you enter, and more modern collectibles displayed along the wall to the right. It’s a must-visit shop for Leica collectors, regardless of their level.

Dave Etchells: Do you spend time online, seeing what's going on in other countries, what the models are … Is there some sort of organization or a group of top-level collectors and dealers you interact with? I'm curious about your sources of information.

Hiroyuki Mizutani: I think there are horizontal connections among customers, but I don't have a good grasp of what those groups are. Nevertheless, we participate in online sales and famous worldwide auctions, and of course, we are watching the auction prices everywhere.

Dave Etchells: So, many cameras at this level are sold around the world, at auctions in different countries?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Yes, cameras of this level are sold in great numbers at auctions in various countries. That's still the case now; it's challenging. Some items rarely appear or appear only very occasionally, which can make pricing them more difficult.

Lest you think the Vintage Salon stocks only ancient, world-weary cameras and lenses, the wall on your right as you enter the room has a lovely array of newer models in pristine condition.

Finding cameras

Dave Etchells: We’ve talked about auctions. Are there other ways you find the cameras to sell? You mentioned going to people’s homes. Do you hear about them somehow, or do people bring their cameras here at the flagship store because the company is so well known? Perhaps not just big collectors, but ordinary people who happen to own these cameras.

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Yes, we also purchase cameras from people who come directly here. I mentioned earlier that there are about 600 stores in the Kitamura Camera network; all of these shops serve as purchasing points for us. If a local store isn't knowledgeable about a particular model, they can contact us here [at headquarters], and we can tell them the correct price. I think this helps customers feel confident about selling to us.

"I can say for sure that there are a lot of very successful people who are interested in photography. Of course, there are also some celebrities, but again, I can't share any names"

Dave Etchells: I'm curious, who are the collectors who can buy cameras like the ones you have here on the 6th floor? Are they celebrities? Are they business people? Are they investors? What do your customers look like, and what kind of people are they that come through?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Well, of course, I can’t share any details because that would be private customer information. While I can’t give any specifics, I can say for sure that there are a lot of very successful people who are interested in photography. Of course, there are also some celebrities, but again, I can't share any names.

The two most rare specimens in the main Vintage Salon showroom are this pair of olive-green M3 Bundeseigentum ("federal property") models made for the German government. The one on the left is from the first production batch, and the one on the right is from the third. These green M3s are exceptionally rare, as only 300 or so were manufactured, and it’s estimated that only 142 remain. Prices will vary with the market, but if you're looking for a first-batch Bundeseigentum in good condition, you should have at least $250,000 in your checking account.

Photo: Azusa Kumei, Kitamura Camera

Dave Etchells: I keep coming back to the question of how you decide what prices to put on the cameras. That must be especially challenging in the case of very rare cameras, that don’t appear on the market very often.

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Yes, it’s certainly tricky, but it’s the same basic answer: We monitor auction prices around the world, note what similar cameras have sold for, and adjust the price as appropriate given the direction of the market (which is generally upward). For very rare cameras, they may not change hands very often, so it requires a deep understanding of the market to know how demand might have changed since the last sale of something similar.

One-in-a-million finds

Dave Etchells: I imagine that you have stories about some particularly exciting acquisitions or sales. Can you share any of them?

Hidden away from the main showroom, the Vintage Salon's "VIP room" has the rarest of the rare models on display and locked in cupboards, for exclusive viewing by top-tier collectors. Mizutani-san asked that I not reveal details to the general public, but if $75,000 for a Nocticron 50mm F1.2 or $250,000 for a well-used Bundeseigentum M3 amounts to mere pocket change for you, you might find something more to your taste and budget here.

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Well, I actually think selling every camera is exciting. Especially when customers use the camera to take photos and are pleased with it, that’s when I feel really glad to be doing this job. When they bring photos they’ve taken into the store, taken with a camera that I sold to them and show them to me, that makes me very happy.

Dave Etchells: I can imagine that’s rewarding, feeling that you’ve contributed to someone’s enjoyment of photography. Were there moments when you were surprised by what someone brought in to sell, though?

"I never imagined that something so extremely rare would just show up at one of our stores"

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Oh yes, one time I was very surprised. I got a question from one of our stores about a camera someone had brought in that was extremely rare. It was so rare that I had only ever seen it mentioned in magazines and books, never actually for sale anywhere in the world. I unfortunately can’t name the camera because it became part of a private collection, and the owner requires strict confidentiality, but it was a very rare model indeed. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more about it, but I never imagined that something so extremely rare would just show up at one of our stores. I have also had very rare cameras brought into this store here as well.

Kitamura Camera’s flagship store is a great place to buy a full range of used cameras, both film and digital, with upwards of 3,500 products in stock on their 4th floor. Unlike most used camera stores I visited in Shinjuku, Kitamura offers a full 6-month warranty on the used gear they sell. The prices are a bit higher as a result, but I personally think the assurance is well worth it.

Business is booming

Dave Etchells: How is the used-camera market in general going these days? If you had to guess, how much more used film camera volume is Kitamura Camera seeing now compared to, say, 2019, before the pandemic?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: Comparing the used film camera market to 2019 before the pandemic, basically, the quantity of goods and the number of items available has been decreasing year by year. However, I believe the rarity of these items has been increasing. Absolutely, yes; since I started working, I think the number of people using film cameras has greatly increased, and I find this to be very pleasing.

The Panon Camera Shoko company (very loosely "Panon Camera Specialists") is best known for its line of Widelux 35mm panoramic cameras with rotating lens assemblies. They began with medium-format panoramic models though, starting with the Panon 50A in 1952. This is an AIII model, introduced in 1953; a 50mm lens rotates to capture a total field of view of 140 degrees.

Dave Etchells: What do you see for the future of the collector's market? Is it growing, holding steady or declining? Do you see younger people coming into the Leica market, albeit perhaps not yet customers for the Vintage Salon?

Hiroyuki Mizutani: I think this is an unknown world, even for us. We’re glad to see many different kinds of customers come, including young, affluent ones. I think that many of the young people who are buying used film cameras today are just getting started in their lives. After they have made more money, perhaps some of them will become collectors.

It happens that I'm in charge of this floor, but fundamentally, I've always liked the cameras on the fourth floor as well. Therefore, I introduce them to various people and engage in selling them as well. I think it would be great if I could lead the flow of people in that way, getting them interested in cameras on the 4th floor and then later getting them interested in vintage cameras. I hope that the vintage world will become more and more exciting as time goes on.

Conclusion

Seeing Kitamura Camera's Vintage Salon and talking with Mizutani-san was a fascinating glimpse into the world of ultra-wealthy Leica collectors. Considering the prices new Leica bodies and lenses sell for, I had always assumed that Leica collecting would be a pricey pastime, but I had no idea just how pricey. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the sort of wealth it would take to consider spending the price of a modest house just to fill a gap in your collection of rare cameras.

What really brought it home for me, though, was the sheer number of cameras and lenses that Kitamura Camera has in this category. It seemed that a price tag of $20-30,000 was just the starting point in a room with a hundred or more items on display, and even more valuable ones tucked away and shown only to VIP customers.

Even more than the volume of vintage gear Kitamura Camera themselves have on display, talking with Mizutani-san made me realize just how deep the vintage Leica waters run. For a serious player, it's not just a matter of owning a 50mm F1.2 Noctilux, but whether they have both the red- and yellow-lettered versions in their collection. For some M3 bodies, the difference between having a white or black frame-counter dial can mean another $50,000 - $100,000 on the price, and of course, what collection could be complete without both versions?

"Talking with Mizutani-san made me realize just how deep the vintage Leica waters run"

I was intrigued by Mizutani-san's own story, too, a path that led from pulling espresso shots at a coffee/photo cafe to managing one of the premier vintage camera businesses in Japan and perhaps the world.

Beyond all this, though, Kitamura Camera's flagship store was just a fun place to visit. The Vintage Salon is worth the trip just for the experience of seeing row after row of rare cameras and lenses with stratospheric prices. For me, though, the 4th floor was even more interesting, with its rows of crisp wood and glass showcases filled with old but functioning film cameras of every kind imaginable. (They have a lot of used digital gear, too; it's just that I was more interested in the film side of things.)

For a photo-tourist on a shopping expedition, Kitamura Camera has a lot to offer; their prices for used gear are a bit higher than you'll find in many of the other shops around Shinjuku. However, there's a crucial difference in that Kitamura guarantees its used gear for 6 months, while most of the competing stores work on a consignment basis, which means they famously have "20-20" warrantees (20 seconds or 20 paces, whichever comes first).

As much as I enjoyed visiting Kitamura Camera's flagship store, though, I have to say I'm glad I don't live anywhere near it: My bank account would too quickly turn into piles of old photo gear that were just too interesting to pass up :-)

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petrilli
11 days ago
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