Category Archives: Technology

Have we peaked?

This isn’t a terribly well organised or thought through post. I just wanted to get the idea out there, so please forgive the somewhat random nature of what follows.

I have come to the conclusion that our civilisation has peaked.

What do I mean by this? Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the progress of Western civilisation has been steady. Yes, it took bloodshed to give us the rights we hold dear, but conflict has also driven progress, particularly in the technological sphere.

A couple of centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production of goods, massive improvements in transport and cities that began to grow exponentially. We began to explore our world, to learn about its limits, and—sadly—to exploit much of it. Natural philosophers discovered gravity, how light works, and made the first stumbling steps into understanding the very building blocks of our universe. We looked up and out, beyond our own planet and dreamed of distant places.

In the 20th century, two global conflicts drove technology. We could fly in heavier-than-air-machines, we could dive below the surface of our oceans. We could destroy cities instantly. After 1945, things began to change socially. Here in the UK we created a welfare state, so no-one would need for a home or food if they should find themselves out of work. A national health service, free at the point of delivery and paid for through taxation, meant illnesses and diseases of poverty were virtually eliminated. Life was still hard, but it was getting easier.

We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, it is true. A stalemate between two opposing forces, which came almost to blows on many occasions, yet which didn’t prevent society making progress. Civil rights, gender equality, all started in the years following the end of the Second World War. We put men on the Moon!

Yet, as I sit here, tapping away at this keyboard into the ether of another of mankind’s inventions, I can’t help feeling we aren’t making progress any more. Despite the evidence of science, religion is still here. Superstition still has a hold over many millions of our species. Diseases once thought extinct are making a comeback. A world population that’s grown by over four thousand millions since I was born half a century ago is beginning to take its toll on ecology and diversity of our home planet. We were warned about the harm we were doing to our planet, and now it’s virtually too late to stop its effects.

That was a bit depressing. Sorry about that.

I now think, despite iPhones and Internet and jet aircraft and microwaves and organ transplants and space stations, our society has peaked. I think the pinnacle was reached in July 1969, when three men left their home planet, landed on and explored another world, and came safely home to Earth. That, my friends, was the apogee of Western civilisation and Western science. Ever since, for better or worse, we have been in steady decline.

I don’t have an answer, even if I thought there was one. Was there even a question? As I said, this thesis hasn’t really been thought through.

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

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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!

An update, and a test

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I am still busy at the workbench. The current build is nearing completion now, with just fiddly details and the transfers to go on before it gets a gentle weathering.

The test is of the WordPress blogging software for the iPad. Having acquired one of the iGizmos for my birthday, it has become my main interface with the wider world. It is a natural step to try and maintain the Snaptophobic blog with the same equipment.

There are some features I miss over the web browser system. I can’t immediately see the tags, nor can I see how to add more than one image per post. I don’t even know if the image I have selected is going to show! I suppose there will always be a need for a “proper” computer for the dedicated blogger—though I can always revert to the iOS browser if I need to.

Right, let’s see how this turns out.

Well, it isn’t quite how I expected it. Why is the image above the headline, for example? Oh well, back to the browser for some heavy lifting.

[A short while late] ah! that’s better.

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.

Catching up

Wow! It’s been a while since my last couple of posts. Apologies if you’re a regular visitor and missed my ramblings.

Let’s see, what’s been happening?

I decided to kill off the Invicta Shutterbugs photowalks. After a strong start, and support from some regular walkers, things had begun to tail off during the summer. I contrived to miss the September walk, having double-booked another event, and when it came to organising the October one my enthusiasm was spectacularly absent. I just couldn’t pull together enough keenness to sort out times, parking, things to see and so on, so I decided to kill things there and then. This doesn’t mean there won’t be any further walks. It just means any that happen will be less formal and more likely to occur on the spur of the moment.

My little car had been having a few problems. I’d had a new fuel tank fitted, but there were some teething problems with a persistent smell of petrol when cornering. We’d been all over things to diagnose the problem, and couldn’t locate it. We decided to wait until we could book the car into a garage with a ramp so the tank could be dropped out and checked over properly. While we waited, the exhaust pipe decided to part company. As the car would have to be up in the air for that to be fixed, we asked the garage to see if they could also fix the tank. Happily, they did—at the second attempt! I’ve now got a little red car that doesn’t smell of petrol all the time, and has a shiny new exhaust!

I’ve had fun and games with the pooter hardware again. I use a couple of drives to store original RAW images from shoots. Both drives are identical in content, so there’s a simple form of redundancy if one decides to crap out. Which it did. I thought it might be the enclosure, so I acquired a USB3 dock system, and it turns out the drive itself is buggered. I had to shell out for a large external drive so I could back up the backup again, as well as provide sufficient space for vault archives of my Aperture stuff. This never used to a problem in film days: everything got stuffed in a box and put on the top of the wardrobe! Anyway, the backup system has settled down again—for now. Let’s not even begin to think about migrating to the newest version of the Mac OS. Apparently, it eats Western Digital data for lunch, so I’m holding off until WD sort themselves out and get a software update out. I believe the WD hardware is supported by the OS without the WD software, but I got a bit scared and decided to hold off for now. While I don’t get all the new shiny, and I’m missing out on some new software updates, I can be patient until my data is safe.

I’ve been busy modelling. I’ve made a concerted effort to make it a proper Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job, although that doesn’t stop me working on into the evenings and weekends as the mood takes me. As of now, the two Mark One coaches are nearing completion, and the client has paid their second instalment. I’ve got another build to get through, being a couple of etched brass coaches I need to finish and paint, then I have a steam loco and another coach to come. Things are looking quite interesting for quite some time into 2014, which is great. I will need to look at publicising things a bit more in the new year, and I’m considering a reworking of the web site.

I’ve been paid by my last “official” Imagic Design client, so I am looking to wind up operations there at the end of the year. The last job was a web site, which I will hand off to a friend and colleague who is happy to take it on into the future. I am glad to see the back of the design world, to be honest. It’s not been fun for over five years, and I won’t really miss it.

With my new-found wealth, I decided to splurge on a couple of photography items I’ve had my eye on for more than a couple of years. I’ve finally ordered a 17–50mm ƒ/2.8 lens and a battery grip for the EOS 7D. It seemed a hell of a lot of cash when I added it all up, but then I’ve been waiting for so long to get these items, and I had the money in the bank, so why not treat myself? I’ve been so patient for such a long time it was hard to spend such a large amounts of dosh without feeling very guilty, which I suppose is a good thing in a way. That’s about it for my large photographic expenses, so any more earnings go back into the modelling business. Other items I may want tend not to be in the three figure price bracket.

Well, that’s caught up with most things so far here at Snaptophobic Towers. I’ll share some images over a couple of posts, just to liven things up a bit.

Sixty years, eh?

Today, 7 September 2013, is apparently Cassette Store Day. Six decades ago, Philips revealed the Compact Cassette to the world at the Berlin Radio Show. Folk who really ought to know better (and some weren’t even born when I was playing with compact cassettes in the 1970s and 1980s!) think we should be celebrating this fact, and have persuaded numerous musicians and bands to release their music on this supposedly defunct medium.

It took a while for the format to become mainstream. Early cassette tapes were of mediocre quality, but as the technology improved so did the sound quality. As a youngster, I fell in love with recording tape—my parents owned an ancient reel-to-reel recorder that I played with for hours, even learning to edit tape with sharp things and sticky tape. My sister and I would make rude noises, create silly sound effects and play about with the speed controls. It was a hoot, and I still fondly remember such antics. As I began to earn a disposable income, I began to buy records, and eventually I acquired a reasonable quality cassette recorder so I could still listen to them in my car.

Amazing stuff.

I always wanted to be a radio DJ when I was younger. I’d still jump at the chance if it came my way today, if I’m honest. While I waited, as a callow and spotty teen, for my big break into wireless, I created my own radio show which I lent out to friends. I bought a second-hand Akai 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel recorder (YouTube link to a young fan demonstrating his 40-year-old machine), and a second stereo cassette recorder. I learned to  multitrack using the “bounce” technique, where you played back one tape and recorded it on a second machine with a second soundtrack. It was all very basic and limited, but I had a ton of fun. Eventually it spawned the Ticky Radio Show.

IMG_6761

The Ticky Radio Show was a three-hour über mix tape, consisting of home-made jingles, favourite tracks from my collection, interspersed with snatches of comedy recordings. It was very much a shallow copy of my hero, the sadly missed Kenny Everett. The show was lovingly crafted, with musical selections to educate and entertain—many tracks were “flip sides” of hit singles, if I recall—and presented in two 90-minute cassettes with custom inserts designed by yours truly. Also included was a comprehensive track listing, carefully outlining the artistes, record label, recording number and so on.

Originally, the TRS was in mono only, a legacy of the technology available to me. Then came a breakthrough: I could produce everything and record the show throughout in stereo! Sadly, this high-tech marvel was the last show I ever made, dating from 1985. I do still have those final recorded tapes (and one of the much-chopped-about seven-inch reels somewhere) of the last two shows I made. Having recovered them from their dusty storage to take their photo for Cassette Store Day, they will be rewound to the start of side A, returned carefully tape side down to the plastic case, and put back in the drawer once more. I do not wish to listen to them, as my rose-tinted memories of the hours spent in my home-made studio making the things will be much better than the real thing.

Oddly, I didn’t buy much music on cassette. I preferred the LP until quite late in the 1980s. Eventually I bought a CD player, and began to buy new copies of my existing record collection, as well as add new material. I still made copies on cassette, simply because my car had a cassette player. I was one of those people who invested in the MiniDisc, too, and it was quite a while before I was persuaded that an MP3 player was a worthy replacement. Making mix-discs from CD to MD was a fun exercise, especially with a proper stereo mixer and a pair of CD players, but I digress.

I still buy the occasional CD, but most purchases nowadays are a click away on the internet. The pleasure of selecting music, carefully timing everything to fit into the 46 minutes available, and then painstakingly writing out the playlist on the insert, is something I will fondly remember for many years. The utterly linear process would be completely alien to many today. Having to sit through a track as it’s recorded, and repeating that process to fill a whole tape, must seem such a strange thing to do. Everything is so instant these days, the concept of having to wait while something is recorded in real time seems so very old-fashioned.

I wouldn’t want to go back there, though. I’ve been there, still got my record collection, and some mix tapes to prove it. I just wish I could have had the technology I have today back when I was a teenager lovingly making those “radio shows” in my bedroom.

My love of audio recording is still there. I am currently considering acquiring a digital audio recorder to match with the DSLR for location sound. While I could use my MiniDisc recorder for such a purpose, I have grown to dislike having to replay the sound back in real time to get it into another digital form. If my 17-year-old self could hear me now!

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.

Google Street View Hyperlapse

Google Street View Hyperlapse from Teehan+Lax Labs on Vimeo.

What an absolutely amazing idea! I love the way the video and music match so well. Excellent work, and an excellent idea. I think you can make your own videos, but you need Google Chrome to make it work.

I bet the video won’t embed properly, but as I’m about to dash out the door for our monthly Invicta Shutterbugs photowalk you’ll have to click through and see it for yourselves.