Category Archives: Computing

Broken

Although the title could fit me—though it is fair to say I’m not as broken as I thought I might be after recent national and international events—this is about this blog.

I’ve been busy at the workbench, with little time to sit at my computer. After my last entry here, back in March, I made the mistake of updating the main WordPress software and plugins. One of the most useful plugins, though, breaks the site. I simply am unable to access anything, presented with a white blank page. To gain access to the dashboard, I have to log into the nether regions of the control panel, rename or delete a folder, and then the site comes back to life for me.

The problem is the plugin is one of the most useful, and to pile agony further it’s made by WordPress themselves! Jetpack handles things like cross-posting links to my social media, notifying me if there’s been a comment, and lots of other handy things. Only it’s broken. Numerous updates have been and gone, yet it’s still broken. I can’t be the only person affected by this, can I? Sadly, it seems I am. There’s nothing recent on the WP web site itself. I’ve asked a question of the WP gurus, but I don’t expect a straightforward answer, if an answer is forthcoming at all.

So, I’m left with the annoyance that my blog is somewhat broken. I’m hoping this issue will be resolved in due course, but I’m not holding out any hope. Normal service may be resumed at some point.

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing

Readers of a certain age will recall the title of this piece was a slogan coined by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs for an advertising campaign some years ago. They were trying to explain that dealing with your tax affairs needn’t be a complex thing—and to an extent, over the past few years or so, this has proved to be the case.

I am self-employed. I’m a sole trader. I have been such on and off for the past 16 years or so. As one of this growing band of entrepreneurs I must fill out a self-assessment tax form each year. Should I be so lucky as to have had a good financial year and ticked over the minimum income tax threshold, then I dutifully cough up what I owe—as well as half of what HMRC think I might owe next year. Don’t ask.

Anyway, the current bunch of cretins in charge of this fair country decided it would be a spiffing wheeze if we “hardworking” [sic] self-employed types should perform the annual tax return ritual four times a year. You can type the words “tax returns four times a year” into your preferred search engine to find any number of stories about it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of we “hardworking” [sic] self-employed types were a little upset by the notion, and an online petition was started. Of course I signed it.

Anyway, this last week the signatories received the following email from the Powers That Be:

The Government has responded to the petition you signed – “Scrap plans forcing self employed & small business to do 4 tax returns yearly”.

Government responded:

Making Tax Digital will not mean ‘four tax returns a year’. Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘send’.

These reforms will not mean that businesses have to provide the equivalent of four tax returns every year. Updating HMRC through software or apps will deliver a light-touch process, much less burdensome and time-consuming than it is today.

At the March 2015 Budget the government committed to transform the tax system by introducing simple, secure and personalised digital tax accounts, removing the need for annual tax returns.

At the 2015 Spending Review the government announced it would invest £1.3bn in HMRC to make this vision a reality, transforming HMRC into one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

One element of this vision will be asking most businesses, self-employed people and landlords to keep track of their tax affairs digitally and update HMRC at least quarterly via their digital tax account.

Many taxpayers have told HMRC that they want more certainty over their tax bill, and don’t want to wait until the end of the year, or even longer, before knowing where they stand with their taxes.

We also estimate that £6.5bn in tax goes unpaid every year because of mistakes made when filling in tax returns. These reforms will make it easier for taxpayers to maintain accurate and up-to-date tax affairs, reducing the scope for error.

With businesses keeping track of their tax affairs digitally, quarterly updates will be fundamentally different from filling out an annual tax return in a number of crucial respects:

  • Quarterly updates will not involve all the complexity of a full tax return. The updates will be generated from existing digital business records. In most cases, little or no further entry of information will be needed. It will be much quicker to complete than the current tax return.
  • As part of the process the business owner or individual will receive a developing in-year picture of their tax position, helping people have greater certainty about what they owe, allowing them to plan their finances more effectively. This differs from the current system where many taxpayers are caught out by their tax bill when it finally arrives.
  • In-year updates will not be subject to the same sanctions for lateness or inaccuracies as apply now to the year-end position. HMRC will consult during 2016 on what sanctions might be appropriate for a more digital tax administration.

The government has already announced that these measures will not apply to individuals in employment or pensioners, unless they have secondary incomes of more than £10,000 per year from self-employment or property.

The reforms will rely on businesses, self-employed people and landlords using software or apps that can connect securely to their digital tax account. The government will ensure that free products are available. The Gov.UK service will signpost taxpayers to the right product, with clear HMRC guidance about how to choose software.

HMRC will ensure support is available for people to get online if they need it. We will also provide alternatives for those who genuinely cannot use digital tools, like telephone filing. This will build on our Needs Extra Support service, which has gone from strength to strength in helping more vulnerable customers.

We’re introducing these reforms gradually. We’ve been in discussion with stakeholders since March 2015 and will be consulting on the details of the proposals throughout 2016.

We will use volunteers to test the new tools and processes and give us feedback. Quarterly updates will be introduced for some from 2018, and will be phased in fully by 2020, giving taxpayers time to adapt.

We want to work with all stakeholders to ensure these changes work for them. For more information about the proposed reforms please search for ‘Making Tax Digital’ on Gov.UK or use the following link:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/making-tax-digital

HMRC

That’s a lot of words effectively saying “stop your whinging and just get on with it”.

In case you glazed over, the important bit—for me at least—was this: “Making Tax Digital will not mean ‘four tax returns a year’. Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘send’.“.

Oh, okay. So what they’re saying is I will have to actually start keeping proper accounts with proper software, rather than maintaining a simple spreadsheet and a box full of receipts which has hitherto been quite adequate. Am I expected to spend money on this software?

“The reforms will rely on businesses, self-employed people and landlords using software or apps that can connect securely to their digital tax account. The government will ensure that free products are available. The Gov.UK service will signpost taxpayers to the right product, with clear HMRC guidance about how to choose software.”

Fair enough, I suppose. However, this still expects me to sit down every bloody quarter and punch in some figures to an online account of my taxes. Just so you know, I haven’t managed earned enough to pay income tax for several years. I don’t find an annual return at all burdensome, and doesn’t actually take me more than a couple of hours with my accountant and about 20 minutes online to complete.

Incidentally, who are these “stakeholders” that have been consulted? I’ve not been asked my opinion on this.

Rather than cutting red tape and the burden of the state, this government seems intent on doing exactly the opposite. (Surprise!) Far from a “light touch” I think it’s going to cause more annoyance than anything else. I’ve got better things to be doing than submitting quarterly updates on my lack of tax-earning ability. Why the hell would I want to keep up with my tax affairs like that anyway?

I guess it’s going to happen whatever we do. My ranting about it isn’t going to change it, so in five years I shall be grumbling about it again as the free software fails to connect to my digital tax account for the umpteenth time because I haven’t updated it or because I’ve had to dig out an old PC to run it because Mac OS or iOS aren’t supported. My guess is it’ll be like every other government IT scheme. It’ll crash and burn, and cost billions to implement, saving nothing in the long run.

This rant is brought to you by HMRC’s web site’s failure to recognise Best Beloved’s online account this year, requiring a postal password reset because he doesn’t have a registered email address with the system. It bodes well, doesn’t it?

Creating art with an iPad

For my birthday earlier this year I purchased an iPad mini. The pricing and specifications had hit about the right place and the platform, to my mind, had matured nicely. After the initial scepticism about tablet computers being suitable only for consumption, it’s become a ripe market for all kinds of creativity, from music making, writing (I am composing this in the WordPress app, as I slump on my sofa) and photography. It’s now possible to draw on this iPad thing, and I was keen to try it out.

At first, I tried using my fingers. This is fine, but limited in finesse, even with my relatively slimline digits. I’m much more used to a pencil or brush, so the obvious next step was some kind of stylus. Happily, this market, too, has matured. There is quite a selection of styluses available for most of the tablet platforms.

After research, chiefly asking what everyone else might be using, I made my choice. Early styluses either had large rounded tips, to replicate the finger tip, or used clear discs. I really wanted a small tip, as close to a proper pen or “traditional” graphics stylus as possible. The choice came down to two designs, from the same company.

Wacom are no strangers to the graphics tablet and stylus market. I have owned a variety of tablets from them, the current one being an A4 sized behemoth attached to my desktop Mac. The Intuos Creative Stylus 2 by Wacom was duly ordered.

Wacom Package

The Creative Stylus 2 is not cheap, retailing between £60 and £80 depending on where you look. You do, however, get a fair amount for the money.

Neat Package

The stylus comes in a hard plastic carrying case, which has a hinged lid and non-slip underside.

Spare Nib and Tool

Inside you find the stylus neatly held in a shaped slot, with a spare tip and built-in changing tool, and the USB charging cable. This uses a standard micro-USB socket.

Business End

The stylus is well weighted, and feels very comfortable in the hand. Shaped very much like the traditional graphics tablet styluses from Wacom, the main barrel is aluminium with a soft touch grip area at the sharp end. A double rocker switch, which is customisable in software if it’s supported, falls neatly under the finger or thumb.

Recharge Socket

At the top end, a rubberised captive cap hides the charging socket. Battery and connection status is shown by a small LED.

After an initial charging cycle of about two hours, the stylus is read to use. Battery life is claimed to be 26 hours, but with typical intermittent use a charge may well last a week or more. The stylus connects to the iPad via Bluetooth. Connection is simple: open the creative app of choice and press the centre of the rocker switch. The stylus’ LED flashes a few times, and away you go. Interestingly, you can use the stylus as a pointer or finger substitute elsewhere within the iOS environment, but it really comes into its own in a supported drawing app.

I have Pixelmator for iPad, and have also downloaded some apps to test things out to find which I find most comfortable. The roster now includes Sketchbook Express, Inspire Pro and Bamboo Paper. All three fit neatly in my card-carrying skinflint category by being free, with “in app” purchases, and are listed by Wacom as supporting the Creative Stylus. Bamboo Paper is from Wacom, and designed to support many of their range of styluses.

While this post is supposed to be a review of the Creative Stylus, inevitably I find I have to review the software I tried as well. Let’s begin with the manufacturer’s own software.

Bamboo Paper from Wacom

Bamboo UI

Bamboo Paper is a fairly simple app. It uses the metaphor of notebooks, with up to four different kinds called “Thinker”, “Maker”, “Artist” and “Writer”. “Maker” and “Writer” are so-called in-app purchases, but the other two are provided free. I can’t actually tell what the differences are between them, aside from the default cover pattern! You can customise the cover colour, and what kind of “paper” the notebook uses, as well as give it a title.

The interface is clean and simple. Depending on the orientation of your iPad, a selection of tools appears along one edge. You can also hide all interface elements if you find them distracting.

From my screen grab, you can see the stylus configuration panel. It allows you to connect the stylus to the iPad and the software quickly. Once connected, you get stylus battery life data, you can tell the software whether you’re right or left handed, and you can choose functions for the two buttons.

The tools, from the top down, are bookmark, eraser, ink/paint colour, drawing tool, stylus link, hide all tools toggle, redo, undo, share, import or take a photo, home (to the top level of the app).

Perhaps my technique needs refining, but even with the fine tip of the stylus I find it hard to hit the active areas of each tool. I usually resort to a finger tip!

The drawing tools are fairly limited. Fine pen, smudge brush, pencil, manga brush, charcoal and crayon, each with three sizes. The colour palette doesn’t—as far as I can work out—let you add any new colours beyond those provided. The eraser tool does offer an option to clear the page if you’ve really made a hash of things!

Bamboo Paper

The app seems to like swift pen strokes. This abstract thing was drawn up using the pencil tool. It’s the kind of thing I doodle in quiet moments. I could have drawn out a wireframe in a lighter colour to get the lines better, firming things up later using the zoom and pan abilities of the software. There are no layers available in Bamboo Paper. It’s designed for quick notes and sketches, rather than complex works of art. When you’re done, you can export to Photos, the cloud or to a wifi printer.

So far, this is the only app I’ve tried that truly supports palm rejection.

Inspire Pro by KiwiPixel

Inspire Pro

This is an altogether different animal. I am still having trouble finding my way round the odd interface presented by Inspire Pro. It takes a while to find, but you can dig into tools quite deeply. I haven’t really warmed to it yet. One thing this app does the others reviewed here do not is to let you scale and rotate the digital paper on your iPad screen. Anyone who might have used Corel Painter will understand why this is an excellent feature. It overcomes one of the problems I find with drawing on the iPad, which I’ll explain at the end.

That is why this review is quite short! Inspire Pro lets you share your work with other users,  if you like, as well as the usual export and print options. The painting tools try to replicate natural media, but as I said, I am finding it a little hard to get to grips with right now.

Autodesk Sketchbook Express

Sketchbook X UI

Sketchbook Express is the polar opposite to Inspire Pro. Where the latter has a toylike interface and a “pro” name, Sketchbook has a “cheap” name but professional level tools. To get any better, you need to upgrade (or unlock) to the Sketchbook Pro version, which I think can actually be done through the installed app. It’s all explained on their web site, whichever way it works.

Three layers are supported—one of the limitations of this free app—so you can import an image, and trace over it on a new layer. You can merge layers, as well as hide them and change their opacity. You quickly learn layer management if you want to create more complex art.

From the screen grab you can see the fairly comprehensive tool and colour picker palette. A small selection of drawing, painting and erasing tools is provided, each of which can be adjusted for radius and opacity. You can also set the tools to draw a freehand line (as above), or restrict it to straight lines or shapes. From the left, the icons are home, add new artwork/import, info, undo, redo, drawing/painting tool, line style, reflect/mirror tool, [text and transform tools which would show on a larger screen device] and the layer tool.

A small circular button can be seen at the bottom centre of the screen grab. This allows you to control brush properties and various other things. The interface has been pretty much optimised for finger painting, with many built-in gestures, some of which work with the stylus, some of which don’t. You can also set an area to be designated as a “palm rest”, which lets you rest your hand anywhere the area is placed on the artwork while you draw with the stylus or your finger. I could grow to like that. While Wacom say this software supports the Creative Stylus, there is no feedback on battery life or ability to customise the buttons.

If you are into DeviantArt, you can share your creations with the site and other users. Otherwise, the software manages your artwork on the iPad, with export to Photos and so on. If you have the desktop version of the software, artwork can be shared back and forth, too (Pro version only).

Sketchbook X

Sketchbook Express has a lot of depth and power. This image was created from a photo, by sketching over it on a new layer. Once I’d finished the drawing, I deleted the photo layer, and added another for the shading effects.

Sketchbook X 2

This sketch was created in the same fashion, using layers for the fill effects under a line drawing. Carefully managing your three layers in Sketchbook Express, you can create to your heart’s content.

Pixelmator for iPad

Pixelmator 1

Pixelmator for iPad is the relative newcomer to this field. The Mac OS version of Pixelmator has been available for a few years now, and has come on in leaps and bounds. I have adopted it as my default image editing application for retouching, allowing me to drop the dreaded Photoshop at last. I don’t need CMYK support, so I can get away with this drastic choice! Alone among this review of apps, Pixelmator costs money to buy—a bank-breaking £3 or so. It’s one of the few iOS apps I’ve felt compelled to actually shell out real money for!

When Apple decided to kill the iOS version of iPhoto, and replace it with the pared down Photos instead, I really missed the painting and editing tools, basic though they were. Pixelmator has filled that hole, with plenty to spare. Pixelmator for iPad is not simply a cut-down version of the desktop program. It has many of the same features as its bigger sibling, and allows some serious pixel shifting to be done.

I was hoping I could use Pixelmator for pure art generation, as well as simple editing of photos snapped on my iPad. The tools available include a fine variety of pens, pencils, brushes, airbrushes and so on. It also supports the Creative Stylus properly.

I came upon some issues, though. Pixelmator insists on popping open the colour picker when I want to draw something. The upshot of this is I have to keep resetting the colour I was using, because the picker works under the stylus tip and changes as soon as you touch the screen! I reported this back to Pixelmator, and they admit the colour picker is a bit sensitive, and they plan to look at how they can improve this issue.

Etchasketch

Not quite as annoying as the snappy colour picker is the issue of wobbly diagonals. In this screen grab, you can see definite waves in the diagonal lines. The first one, top left, was a quick sketchy line, but the subsequent ones were drawn more slowly, as might be the case if you were tracing something. The set of three at the bottom were created using a proper real world ruler to guide the stylus, because I wanted to prove it wasn’t just my hand movement influencing the line. I think this is an issue with the way the pixels are mapped. Horizontal and vertical lines are clean and crisp at any speed, but the diagonals are a problem at slow speed. I need to report this to Pixelmator’s developers.

Another mapping issue, most noticeable with Pixelmator, is if you rotate the iPad the point at which you are drawing becomes markedly offset from where the tip of the stylus is touching the screen. I tried various things, including locking the rotation of the iPad, which helped a little, but it never really goes away. I find I end up holding the iPad at odd angles to let me draw a line where I want it to go.

The issue of palm rejection is something which I also mentioned to the software developers. There is nothing in the app about it, and the usual fixes, like switching off multitasking gestures in the iPad Settings, had no effect. According to the reply I got from my feedback: “We chose not to support it, because it doesn’t work very well.” Well, that’s fair enough, I suppose.

Some of these issues are software related, some are operator problems. Like drawing on a graphics tablet while you look at the screen ahead of you, there are certain things you can’t do easily. As a right-handed person, I find I want to turn the work so I can draw things where my hand would otherwise be. This is not something that comes naturally to an iPad!

Where Pixelmator really scores, though, is things like layers, styles, text, editing tools and just the general feeling of power and control over the image you’re working on. It really is a sensational tool!

Pixelmator UI

Here’s the usual interface, with the layers panel showing. In this bit of playfulness, I’ve imported an image I took quickly yesterday, and painted a glow on a layer above it. I duplicated the original layer, arranged it on top, then carefully cut out the car from the background. The red line is a style effect applied to the topmost layer.

I really like Pixelmator for iPad. Apart from palm rejection and the wobbly diagonal lines, the software supports the Creative Stylus with battery life feedback and customisable buttons. I currently have it set so one button switches to the eraser, and the other toggles back to the current brush tool. For a first version, this app is amazing, and can only really get better with each new version!

Intuous Creative Stylus 2

This review was supposed to be about the Intuos Creative Stylus 2. From a big name in the world of graphics hardware, the Creative Stylus is not lacking in quality. It’s well designed, feels good in the hand, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The tip is a lot smaller than some of the other styluses available, which makes it feel more natural in use.

Pressure 01

Where I have issues, they centre mainly around the whole drawing on a glass screen thing. It’s not a paper sketchpad, and I always want to rotate it to draw at a comfortable angle for my hand. Unless I lock the orientation, the iPad spins the interface to suit the direction it thinks I am now working in! Equally, if I managed to turn the iPad to a reasonable angle, the stylus doesn’t draw where the tip touches, but shifted off up and to the right, by quite some distance in some instances. This is quite disconcerting if you are attempting to follow a line by tracing something else. If I try the old graphics tablet trick of curling my hand round—rather like we used to when trying to hide our work at school!—so I can see where the tip is supposed to go, the iPad and stylus have quite a falling out because the palm rejection throws a tantrum as well as the tip orientation being skewed.

Pressure 03

There’s also a tiny amount of lag between making the mark and it appearing on the screen. In these photos, I’ve not lifted the stylus from the iPad. What you’re seeing is the split second before the line catches up to where the tip is. Another tiny issue is because the stylus is linked to the iPad wirelessly, you can sometimes make a mark without the tip actually touching the surface. That can make handwriting interesting, as you try to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Wacom recommends some things to overcome issues that might be encountered. For example, turn off multitasking gestures on the iPad. Another is if the tip location is not matching the drawn line, hold the stylus more vertically. This certainly helps, but it’s not perfect. In the end, I think it’s down to practice, practice, practice. The more I use the stylus and iPad together, the more I will become used to the foibles and learn to get the best from them.

The Creative Stylus package is a well-made unit with a nice tough case that won’t mind being thrown around in the bottom of a bag. The battery life has proved to be excellent, with over 80% left from the first charge, with my intermittent usage over the past few days since the box arrived. The spare tip, with the removal tool built into the case, is an excellent extra, too.

Would I recommend the Creative Stylus if you’re looking for a graphics tablet style input for your iPad? Yes, if you want to be able to draw and sketch on your iPad, and if you’re happy to work within the limitations I’ve explained, I can recommend it.

I think I’m getting too old for this

20140629-162948-59388675.jpg

I’ve been holding off updating my desktop Mac’s operating system for ages. This was partly inertia, partly “if it ain’t broke”, partly worries over an incompatibility with some hardware management software.

Having got an iPad, though, I eventually found my lack of interest in updating the OS was leading to incompatibilities. I couldn’t sync properly, and some of the apps I use were being updated but not supported on the otherwise happily working OS. Also, a new version of the OS will be with us quite soon.

I’d sort of made up my mind about how to do the upgrades a few weeks ago. I began the process of migrating photo libraries, and then forgot about the upgrade! This weekend, the news broke that my preferred photo management and editing software, Aperture, was no longer going to be developed by Apple.

My hand was being forced. I took the plunge. Better to be as up-to-date as possible, making a potential switch to new software less painful down the line.

As I type, a great chunk of iMovie updates are downloading. Numbers, Pages, iPhoto and Aperture all wait in the queue. Then another ton of OS patches.

If I am lucky, I’ll get to see if the hardware drive management software will be compatible after all. If it’s not, then the drive gets reformatted to Apple standards.

I’m getting too old for all this. Gone are the days when I wanted to be at the bleeding edge. I much prefer the comfortable, if worn out, slippers to the shiny, new, but toe-pinching ones everyone else is wearing!

Another update? So soon?

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 09.46.57

 

Every other day, or so it seems, there’s an update to Adobe Flash Player. Yet more bug fixes and security loopholes patched up.  I don’t let it update automatically, much preferring to wait until something useful bugs me about updating. What makes me chuckle, though, is the desperation exhibited by the download screen.

“Did you know…” is simpers, and then proceeds to tell me about games I never play on Facebook (I’ve actually blocked them), video sites that use Flash (only when I let them) and how many “connected PCs” have the bloatware installed (presumably so they can spread malware and viruses more easily).

When movement and animation on a web page was new and exciting I was a big fan of what was then Macromedia Flash. It was a powerful vector-based animation system, which allowed you to build in interactivity and fun to a web site. I never fully mastered the software, and used it for stupid things like animated GIFs and annoying splash screens.

Then Adobe acquired Macromedia, and killed off their arch rival illustration package FreeHand. Around the same time, I began to wonder why some web sites would cause my Mac’s processing to bog down, setting the otherwise mostly dormant cooling fans to hit warp factor nine.

On investigation, it turned out to be the Flash Player plugin. It turned out the player was running banner ads, and nothing actually useful. Flash Player was a complete resource hog, and was being used to drain my laptop’s battery while selling me crap I didn’t want. Best of all, though, were the magical ballooning adverts that suddenly zoomed over to block the actual content I was reading simply because my mouse cursor strayed nearby. Oh, they were the best, no doubt about it. I lost count of how many mousemats I chewed through in my frustration over those.

I installed a Flash blocker in my browser, and browsing became a much more pleasurable pastime once more. I realise that many of the free sites I use have to sell advertising in order for them to remain free for people like me to use, but there has to be a point when the benefit of advertising is outweighed by the sheer annoyance they cause. It’s amazing what a quiet place the World Wide Web can be when you’re not bombarded by buzzing and rolling adverts all the time.

Of course, once Flash is blocked, you realise just how insidious it has become. Uploading some photos to Facebook, for example, uses Flash to allow multiple uploads. This is same on one forum I frequent. If I don’t allow Flash to run, I have to upload one photo at a time, which is a bit tedious. Some sites still insist on Flash—well, at least it’s not Flash’s drunken cousin Silverlight; let’s not even go to that particular hell—in order to play video. Some sites play nicely and will serve up a lovely HTML5 compliant video, but others resist, like a cat that really doesn’t want to be removed from your lap even though you are desperate to get to the bathroom. If Flash is required to view a video, it really has to be a good video to make me let the Player to run. Otherwise, I’m out of there.

There’s also Flash’s younger brother, Adobe Air. You’ll have come across this if you use the BBC’s iPlayer download thing on your computer. I’ve now banished Air from my systems, but when I thought it was worth keeping around, like Flash it was updated virtually every time I ran it. No more. Now, I can access iPlayer through my telly.

I long for the day when Flash and its band of ne’erdowell relatives disappear into Silicon Heaven.

Danger! Idiot at work!

I’ve been mucking around with the internet for more years than I care to recall, yet I have never fully got my head round the clockwork and gubbins that makes this informational wonder actually work.

Yes, I learned enough about how to access the back office stuff, and where to put certain files, but I have never felt in the slightest bit comfortable rummaging around in the internal workings of an FTP server. Here’s a classic example: web forms. I have developed a complete aversion to creating forms on web sites. I think I’ve only ever managed to make one form work reasonably, and that was some time in the 1990s using a standard ISP-supplied script.

Now, take this blog thing. WordPress is one of the most popular and expandable blogging platforms out there. It’s used by millions of people every day. Usually, I visit the home page, see a new update is flagged for a plugin I’ve installed, hit the dashboard and click “update”.  Things go wibbly-wobbly for a few heart-stopping seconds, and then it’s all fine again.

Except today.

I don’t use many plugins, to be honest. There’s a spam-catcher, and something that links the blog to my account on RebelMouse (I still haven’t the faintest idea what RebelMouse is all about. I noticed it appearing in Flickr stats, and wondered what it was. I found myself an “early adopter” of something that appears to aggregate tweets and blog posts in an easily accessible form. No, I haven’t a clue, either.) I also had a WordPress plugin called Jetpack. It adds all kinds of useful bits and bobs to the standard blog, and up until today it had been working happily. I’ve even updated it a few times.

Except today.

New update to Jetpack! I clicked through to the dashboard, checked out the update, clicked “Go!”. And waited.

As I said, usually a few seconds elapse and everything is back in the room. Today, it breaks. Today, “maintenance mode” becomes the norm. Seconds turn to minutes, and before things turn geological I decide to pull the plug. But how do you do that? The site in is maintenance mode. Argh!

Anyway, some helpful friends pointed me in the right direction. Sadly, it seems I’m the one with the problem download, and despite deleting the old plugin, and playing around with the others to see if they are clashing, Jetpack is borked.

So, no fancy bits for a while. I’ll try again another day. I need one of those folding boards you get where cleaners have been at work, but reading “Danger! Idiot at work!”

When disaster strikes

It’s been a bad week for technology at Snaptophobic Towers. Our “standby” MacBook Pro developed a fault with its logic board, which meant it failed to boot and went straight to a kernel panic. On a recommendation, we took it to an authorised Apple repair agent in Kingston upon Thames, and it’s hoped the machine will be fixed for a reasonable price and back with us again pretty soon. (The failed machine is used by Best Beloved, and so has everything set up for someone who has difficulties with sight, so it would be handy to have it back again.)

Having been out on a shoot today, I returned and set about backing up the RAW files to my backup drives before I imported them Aperture. I have a pair of matched 500GB external drives, Archive A and Archive B, and I literally manually copy from the CF card to each drive in turn. Once the copies have been made, the drives are unmounted and powered down. The reason for making backup copies this way to try to eliminate the risk of data corruption that might occur copying from one drive to another: each copy process is from the original card image. With two matched drives—not in a RAID configuration, I may add—if one goes down, at least the other ought to remain, at least until I can source replacements.

Anyway, I powered the drives up, but only Archive B mounted to the Mac’s desktop. I’d been having some odd issues with Archive A, which ought to have warned me this was likely to occur eventually. I launched Disk Utility to see if it appeared in the drives list. It did, but only the drive itself. The partition was greyed out.

I unmounted the drive through Disk Utility, and tried connecting it with a different socket. Same problem, and the same again when connected with USB. Running First Aid reported some errors on the catalogue, so I let the repair process run its course. All came back as passed, but the drive partition still refused to mount. I ran First Aid a couple of times, but no joy.

At this point, I was resigned to the drive having failed completely in some way. I tried taking the drive out of the case and connecting with a caddy system to see if it would mount that way. Nope. Not playing. Putting it back in the case, I considered my options. Both drives were nearing capacity, and I was planning on purchasing two new drives to start a fresh archive. The old archives were to be stored, preferably one of them off-site. With one working archive drive, I thought perhaps it was time to bring that purchase forward.

Meanwhile, with nothing to lose on the “broken” drive, I decided to try erasing and reformatting it. Would you believe it? The drive mounted as normal after this. It lives to die another day. I’ve set about copying the Archive B over to the reformatted Archive A, but I am still going to replace them both with new units. Having checked out the prices of 500GB external drives, I realised it would be more sensible, not to say economical, to purchase replacement internal units and re-use the old cases. The old internal units can be safely stored off-site, and I can restart the archive on the “new” drives.

The moral of this tale is, I suppose, if you use electronic media to store valuable data in any form, back it up. There is a saying you should back everything up three times, on three different forms of media, and in three different places. That’s not always practical, so I try to do the best I can. I like to think my system of two identical drives, plus my Aperture libraries, gives me some measure of reassurance. The sad fact is, though, that any hard drive is living on borrowed time. Drives will fail, it’s just a case of when, and making sure you have backups of your data so you can restore things and not lose anything.

Progress

It seems to be inevitable that eventually you begin to hit the end stops of what your computer is capable of. I’ve owned my current Mac, a 2.33GHz Intel Core2Duo MacBook Pro, since the middle of 2008. It has served me well, and still manages to just keep its head above water most of the time. Sadly, software moves on, and I find myself getting frustrated and struggling at times to make headway.

As an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at how my machine handles processing images in Aperture. I import Canon RAW files to Aperture, and do the small amount of post processing I generally require. I rate and make selections, shuffle things about into projects and folders, and export directly to Flickr or 500px via plugins, or export JPEGs for other uses.

Exporting
Exporting JPEGs. According the Activity Monitor, that relatively simple process needs nearly all of both processor cores.

With the Mac maxxed out with 3GB RAM, there’s precious little overhead left for anything else. It’s reaching a point where I have to plan my productivity, deciding which applications to run and when. When running Pixelmator, I even have to periodically reboot the computer to clear caches and memory. It’s like the 1990s all over again!

Activity
The galling thing is a new Mac is affordable, just not right at the moment. After nearly a decade of mobile computing, I’ve decided to put down roots at my desk again. My next Mac will be a Mac mini, and I’ll max out the RAM from the start!

Why we’re building Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer

But Babbage’s machine has something that no others have: its sheer scale. It is about the size of a small steam locomotive, which means that people will be able to appreciate the architecture and internal workings of a computer by watching it in operation. The analytical engine has a central processor (today’s “chip”) and expandable memory, is programmed with punched cards, and even has a printer. And Babbage hadn’t forgotten the human operator: a bell is included to summon help in case of a problem.

Once complete, the machine should be able to run some of the programs that have been waiting almost two centuries for the computer they were designed for to be finished. Babbage prepared punched cards containing programs (perhaps containing programs worked on with collaborator Ada Lovelace), that have to this day been carefully preserved.

via Why we’re building Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer | John Graham-Cumming | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.

I wish them luck. I’ve seen the Difference Engine that was built a few years ago, and to see a full-scale working Analytical Engine will be just awesome.