Useful Links: September 2010

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Keeping Windows alive with curated computing

Like it or loath it, there’s no denying that the walled garden approach Apple has adopted for application development on iOS (the operating system used for the iPhone, iPad and now new iPods) has been successful. Forrester Research talk about this approach using the term “Curated Computing” – a general term for an environment where there is a gatekeeper controlling the availability of applications for a given platform. So, does this reflect a fundamental shift in the way that we buy applications? I believe it does.

Whilst iOS, Android (Google’s competing mobile operating system) and Windows Phone 7 (the new arrival from Microsoft) have adopted the curated computing approach (albeit with tighter controls over entry to Apple’s AppStore) the majority of the world’s computers are slightly less mobile. And they run Windows. Unfortunately, Windows’ biggest strength (its massive ecosystem of compatible hardware and software) is also its nemesis – a whole load of the applications that run on Windows are, to put it bluntly, a bit crap!

This is a problem for Microsoft. One the one hand, it gives their operating system a bad name (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion, Windows is associated with it’s infamous “Blue Screen of Death” yet we rarely hear about Linux/Mac OS X kernel panics or iOS lockups); but, on the other hand, it’s the same broad device and application support that has made Windows such a success over the last 20 years.

What we’re starting to see is a shift in the way that people approach personal computing. Over the next few years there will be an explosion in the number of mobile devices (smart phones and tablets) used to access corporate infrastructure, along with a general acceptance of bring your own computer (BYOC) schemes – maybe not for all organisations but for a significant number. And that shift gives us the opportunity to tidy things up a bit.

Remove the apps at the left side of the diagram and only the good ones will be left...A few weeks ago, Jon Honeyball was explaining a concept to me and, like many of the concepts that Jon puts forward, it makes perfect sense (and infuriates me that I’d never looked at things this way before). If we think of the quality of software applications, we can consider that, statistically, they follow a normal distribution. That is to say that, the applications on the left of the curve tend towards the software that we don’t want on our systems – from malware through to poorly-coded applications. Meanwhile, on the right of the curve are the better applications, right through to the Microsoft and Adobe applications that are in broad use and generally set a high standard in terms of quality.  The peak on the curve represents the point with the most apps – basically, most application can be described as “okay”. What Microsoft has to do is lose the leftmost 50% of applications from this curve, instantly raising the quality bar for Windows applications. One way to do this is curated computing.

Whilst Apple have been criticised for the lack of transparency in their application approval process (and there are some bad applications available for iOS too), this is basically what they have managed to achieve through their AppStore.

If Microsoft can do the same with Windows Phone 7, and then take that operating system and apply it to other device types (say, a tablet – or even the next version of their PC client operating system) they might well manage to save their share of the personal computing marketplace as we enter the brave new world of user-specific, rather than device-specific computing.

At the moment, the corporate line is that Windows 7 is Microsoft’s client operating system but, even though some Windows 7 tablets can be expected, they miss the mark by some way.

Time after time, we’ve seen Microsoft stick to their message (i.e. that their way is the best and that everyone else is wrong), right up to the point when they announce a new product or feature that seems like a complete U-turn.  That’s why I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them come up with a new approach to tablets in the medium term… one that uses an application store model and a new user interface. One can only live in hope.

How to take stunning pictures: Portraiture

Here in the UK, Channel 5 Broadcasting is currently running a series entitled “How to take stunning pictures”.  I’ve been really impressed with the two episodes I’ve watched so far as it manages to strike a balance between simplicity for those who are new to photography and providing useful advice for more experienced ‘togs.

Channel 5’s website has some tips to go with each programme, but they don’t exactly match up to the advice in the programme itself so, here are the tips from the first episode on taking portraits, featuring professional photographer Harry Borden:

  • Choose the right location: make sure that the subject feels comfortable in the environment so that they may express themselves and relax.
  • Use available light: avoid using on camera flash if possible and position the subject in a place where they are nicely lit.
  • Expose for the brightest part of the image for a natural looking and atmospheric shot.
  • Try to compose when taking the shot, not with post-porcessing crops – look for something different/unexpected
  • Be yourself: relax, create an authentic connection with the subject and build rapport.
  • Take multiple shots: not only does this break the tension but it tells people you like what you see (they don’t know if you haven’t got it) – it’s called hosing people down! Take loads of pictures, learn more, grab a moment!  Don’t be afraid to keep snapping until get the shot you’re happy with.
  • Keep it simple and be aware of every element: calm down; look through the viewfinder and go through the frame asking yourself whether each individual element adds to or subtracts from the result.  If you keep it simple and are aware of everything that’s in the frame, you’re more likely to achieve stunning pictures

More tips can be found on the Channel 5 website.

Extending certificate validity to avoid mouse/video refresh issues with the Hyper-V Virtual Machine Connection

In order to avoid man in the middle attacks, Hyper-V’s Virtual Machine Connection (vmconnect.exe) requires certificates for a successful connection.  At some point, the certificates expire, resulting in an error message when connecting to virtual machines, as described in Microsoft knowledge base article 967902, which also includes details of an update to resolve the issue, introducing an annual certificate renewal process.

Unfortunately, there is a bug in the annual certificate review process that can affect the refresh of mouse/video connections. The bug only applies to certain use cases with VMConnect (i.e. Remote Desktop connections are unaffected) and there are two possible workarounds:

  1. Save and restore the virtual machine (temporary workaround, until the certificate expires again in a year).
  2. Install new self-signed certficates on each host. It may not be the most elegant fix, but it is simple, and has a long-term effect.

Microsoft has not created an update to resolve this new issue, which only applies in certain use cases; instead they have produced a sample script that uses makecert.exe to create new Hyper-V Virtual Machine Management Service (VMMS) self-signing certificates that don’t expire until 2050.  This script should be run on every affected host and running it several times will result in multiple certificates, which is untidy, but will not cause issues.

After installing the new certificates (in the Local Computer store, at Trusted Root Certificate Authorities\Certificates and at \Personal\Certificates), the VMMS should be configured to use it and then restarted. Obviously, this will affect all virtual machines running on the host, so the activity should only be carried out during a scheduled maintenance window. For organisations that do not want to use self-signed certificates, it’s also possible to use a certificate issued by a certificate authority (CA).

More details will shortly become available in Microsoft knowledge base article 2413735.

What’s the real worth of a photographic image?

A few months back, I was listening to a podcast on my way home from work. There’s nothing unusual about that – but this one was episode 125 of This Week in Photography, featuring an interview with Michael Corsentino, who is a California-based lifestyle photographer.

Listening to the interview, it was clear to me that Michael has made some hard business decisions about the way he packages his art (which is the way he refers to his photographic works) and the options he gives (or doesn’t give) his clients in order to ensure that he is able to cover the time and effort he puts into them. That’s fair enough when someone does do the best they can to turn images into art but now I’d like to put forward an alternative view.

Photography is one of my great passions and I like to think that I’m someone who appreciates great photographic images but is not prepared to be taken for a ride. When my wife and I got married, our photographers did not charge us an extortionate fee for a “wedding package”. Instead we paid for the (fantastic) images, both formal and journalistic, on a time and materials basis. Our lead photographer, the late Brett Williams, brought in one of his associates to assist on the day and I have all of the prints and most of the negatives for safe keeping.

On the other end of the scale are two examples that I experienced through my eldest son’s school.

The first was a school portrait, captured by H Tempest. As proud parents, of course we paid for some prints but I also looked into the quality of the images that I could have bought digitally. I don’t know what cameras were used to capture the image, but when I called Tempest to see what quality the image they were selling for unlimited printing was, the answer I got suggested it was a a fairly low resolution (2304x1536px) JPEG image. As that image is unlikely to be suitable for quality reproduction at any larger than 8″x10″, it’s not what I call unlimited, so I decided not to spend the (I seem to recall quite large) sum of money that they were looking for, opting for a few small prints instead (I have my own “first day at school” images anyway).

Then there was the case of Richard Kerber Photography. Richard came into the school to create family portraits and we attended, as did many other families, one weekend last November. The images he created in our short session were great – and we did buy several prints; however I was still disappointed by the lack of flexibility and attention to detail. In common with many photographers, the packages offered were intended to encourage us to buy sets of photos but, in these days of digital SLR capture, I see no technical reasons (only some commercial ones) to restrict the ability to mix colour and monochrome images. There was also a hefty fee if we wanted to pay for the images on CD (with printing rights, but copyright retained by the photographer); and, apparently, no post-production effort at all.

No post-production? Well, I know nothing of Mr Kerber’s workflow – I’m sure there was some post-production – but, in one of the images, part of my foot is missing from the smaller prints, despite being visible in a larger version (albeit a little too close to the edge of the frame – given the amount of white space, some basic editing may have been in order to balance up the shot).

It seems to me that what we have here is a photographer who clearly has the talent to create lovely images of my family (no mean feat with two “active” boys and two tired parents!) but who, for the lack of a little care and attention in his workflow, is not delivering the standard of work that warrants the pricing. Furthermore, whilst I can see that photographers need to set digital image pricing so as not to cannibalise their print sales, the prices charged for a CD with a license are extreme. £295 is a lot of money for a few minutes in a school hall (remember, there are still print costs to consider)… oh yes, and he used a portrait of at least one family on his website without permission (as far as I can tell, no model release was signed, and whilst the copyright is his so there is no. Legal reason not to use the images, one might consider that he was morally and ethically bound to ask permission first).

So, what’s the point of my rant? Well, I guess what I’m saying is that there’s money to be made by those who charge a fair price, without devaluing the overall effort involved (after all, it still has to be profitable – not everyone with an SLR is automatically capable of producing quality work). If you are a fine art photographer, then by all means charge a fee that reflects the value of the artwork but, if your approach is one of a production line, then your pricing should reflect that too – looking to make a fast buck from parents or newly-weds is just not on. If you want to charge me for something really special, then you need to put in the associated effort.

[Incidentally, I originally wrote this post back in February but wasn’t sure whether to publish or not… after sitting on it for several months, I still think it makes some important points, so I’ve edited the original post and committed it to the web!]

Rebuilding WordPress…

This post comes with an apology – to Alex Coles, who often helps me out with the development of this site, and who, after encouraging me to update it to the latest version of WordPress (late last night, at a pub, over a 3G mobile connection) was the recipient of my frustration when it failed with an HTTP 408 error and a message that said something about a slow connection. Sorry Alex.

Despite having been given a torrent of abuse, Alex was gracious enough to give me the advice that allowed me to rebuild the site. I was lucky that it had stayed up, albeit in some kind of weird state that said it was WordPress v3.0.1 but was probably still v2.9.2; however, attempts to reinstall WordPress were futile – and a failed plugin update left the site stuck in maintenance mode (the answer to which seemed to be wait a few minutes, although I also found advice which suggested deleting the .maintenance file).

So, this afternoon, I set about rebuilding the site, by installing a parallel copy of WordPress, although the database has not been changed (I do have a backup of that, if it becomes necessary to restore it).

  1. The first thing to do was to download the latest copy of WordPress. I’m on a Linux host so I downloaded the .tar.gz version but Windows users may prefer a .zip.
  2. After extracting the archive to a suitable location on my webspace (the web root was fine, as the extraction automatically created a /wordpress subdirectory).
  3. I then copied over the customised elements of the old site from /wp-content including themes, plugins, uploads and other data that my blog uses (for example, images that are not in my uploads folder, and JavaScript that I use to run some of the advertisements on the site).
  4. Next, I copied some of the critical files that control the WordPress configuration: wp-settings.php, wp-config.php and .htaccess.
  5. Finally, I renamed the old /blog folder, and renamed /wordpress to /blog before testing site access.

With everything working well, I can delete the old /blog subdirectory but I’ll leave it for a while, “just in case” – although it’s probably worth editing /robots.txt to stop search engines from indexing the old site alongside the new one.

I should probably breathe a big sigh of relief now, but I’m in the mood for site development so, if you see the site theme change a few times over the coming weeks, bear with me!

Clearing the readonly attribute on write protected media in Windows

Years ago, when floppy discs were the norm, I was used to having to flip the write protect switch (or cover over the notch on older discs) but I was a little surprised today when I couldn’t write to my USB removable hard drive because Windows 7 told me that the media was write protected. I tried adjusting the properties on folders but the actual disk was showing as write protected – very strange.

I still don’t know why this occurred but this was the disk that I use to keep personal items separate from work on my company-supplied notebook, which runs BeCrypt DiskProtect – and I suspect DiskProtect may be part of the issue. Nevertheless, I did find an apparant solution, courtesy of a post at Windows Seven Forums that refers to a post on the T3chworks site.

Using diskpart.exe to clear read-only attributes from a volumeBy running diskpart.exe from an elevated command prompt (cmd.exe), I was able to issue a few commands to remove the readonly attribute on the media and write files to it again:

list volume
select volume <em>volumenumber</em>
attributes disk clear readonly

Only time will tell if this is a permanent fix (the post also talks of modifying a registry entry at HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\StorageDevicePolicies\WriteProtect but that’s not present on my system) but I’ve never seen this before, and it seems to have done the trick for the time being.

Preparing images for projection in photography club competitions

Earlier this year, I took a day out to attend the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre, near Birmingham.  I spent a fair amount of the day on the Epson stand – some of which was looking over some great printers (a Stylus Pro 4880 is now on my wishlist) but whilst I was there I also had the opportunity to listen to two professional photographers sharing their experience with the audience.

The first of these was Mike McNamee, who spoke about preparing images for print and digital competition exhibition.  In this first post, I’ll look at digital competition entries and a follow-up post will concentrate on preparing images for printing.

(The steps described are based on Adobe Photoshop CS4 on a Mac but the settings should be the same for other packages, even if the methods are different – Photoshop users with Windows PCs should use Ctrl where I have written Cmd).

There are two common image resolutions used by photography clubs in the UK  – 1024x768px and 1400x1050px.  Therefore, when preparing an image for projection in a club competition, create a new document 1024 or 1400 pixels wide, and 768 or 1050 pixels high, 72 DPI (although this doesn’t really matter for projection) and 8 bit sRGB. Choosing the colour space is important as images submitted using another colour space (e.g. AdobeRGB), will appear desaturated when projected.  Optionally, save these settings as a preset:

Screenshot showing Photoshop CS4 (Mac) settings for entering projected images into UK photographic club competitions

Next up, take an image (pre-sharpened during raw conversion and left at full size), select the area you want to show in the presentation and, making sure the Move Tool is selected (V), drag/drop it onto the blank canvas (holding down the shift key whilst dragging/dropping will place the image in the centre of the canvas).

Because the source image will typically be much larger than the target, we need to resize it on the canvas. From the Edit menu, select Free transform (Cmd+T) and zoom out until the controls on the edge of the image are visible (a quick way to do this is to select Fit on screen from the View Menu – or Cmd+0).

Hold down the shift key and drag in the corners until the image fits on the canvas, then press Enter to leave a scaled image on the canvas.  Move this to the centre by selecting the whole image (Cmd+A), then making sure that the Move tool is selected (V) and clicking the Align vertical centers and Align horizontal centers buttons in the toolbar. Deselect the image (Cmd+D).

The image will probably look tiny on the screen by now, so adjust the view if necessary, and then change the background colour.  To do this, select the background layer (if there is one – if the background is transparent, create a new layer) then, from the Edit menu, select Fill (Shift+F5) and choose appropriate contents (generally Black), then click OK.

Screenshot showing Photoshop CS4 (Mac) settings for a black background fill

Some people like to add a keyline to their images.  To do this, select the image layer then, from the Layer menu, select Layer Style and Stroke… Pick a size (around 3px is probably fine), select Inside as the position (Outside will leave jagged edges at corners) and select the colour.

Screenshot showing Photoshop CS4 (Mac) settings for a 3px white keyline/stroke

We’re almost done now, but some clubs will require metadata (e.g. Author) to be stored inside the file.  From the File menu, select File Info… (Alt+Shift+Cmd+I) and add appropriate details (e.g. to the IPTC fields) before clicking OK.

Screenshot showing Photoshop CS4 (Mac) settings for adding/accessing file metadata

Finally, save the edited image by selecting Save As… from the File menu (Shift+Cmd+S) and pick an appropriate format (JPEG or TIFF).  Depending on the competition and the software being used, there may be a specific naming format required.

The final image, ready for projection (reduced size)

(The photographic image in this post is ©2010 Mark Wilson, all rights reserved and is therefore excluded from the Creative Commons license used for the rest of this site.)

Adding a Facebook Share (or Like) button to a self-hosted WordPress blog

A few weeks ago, I wrote about adding a Tweet button to a self-hosted WordPress blog, and followed up by writing about using a little CSS trickery to align the Tweet button (thanks to Alex Coles).  Whilst I was implementing the Tweet Button, I also went about putting a Facebook Share button on each post.

There are plug-ins to do this for me but why use a plugin when the answer is just a single lines of code in two files within the template?

In the same paragraph as the Tweet button (i.e. styled with the same class), I used this code, generated using the Facebook Share Button generator:

<a name="fb_share" type="button" share_url="<?php the_permalink(); ?>" href="">Share</a><script src="" type="text/javascript"></script>

This time, the code is identical for both index.php and single.php as, unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t seem to give me any control over the title of the link (it just takes the <title> tag from the page). There is another method, using query string parameters in the URL but I chose to stick with Facebook’s recommended method.

Incidentally, I chose to Share, rather than Like (which can be implemented by following these guidelines) because they have subtly different purposes and each is represented in a slightly different manner (as Danny Sullivan describes in his post on the subject). After reading Danny’s post, I agree that Share is best for linking to a single post, whilst Like is more suited to the site as a whole (someone might Like and Share one or more posts from the site).

The effects of sunscreen on Volkswagen/Audi paintwork

A couple of years ago, my wife and I bought a brand new Volkswagen Golf.  We’d been happy with our previous VWs (a Mk2 and two Mk4 Golfs, a 2004 Polo and a 2005 Passat) so were more than happy to purchase a Mk5 Golf 1.9TDI Match (in Blue Graphite Metallic) as a family runaround.  Fast forward around a year and we were slightly less pleased with our purchase…

…The car had started to develop white marks on the paintwork.  Each time they were polished out, they came back.  Strangely, some of them looked like little handprints and, when I asked the dealer about them, they instantly recognised the problem.  “That’s sunscreen”, they said, “and it’s not covered by the warranty”.

Sunscreen?! Yep. It seems that the modern (water-based) paints are not as hard as the nitro-cellulose or isocyanate paints used on older cars and that they are susceptible to damage from titanium dioxide – an ingredient found in many sun protection products, including the sunscreen we had applied regularly to our young children.

With just a few thousand miles on the clock, I wasn’t taking no for an answer, but we decided to use a little of the motor industry’s sexism to our advantage too as, from this point on, the negotiations weren’t with me but with Mrs W. instead!  After escalating the issue to an appropriate level within the dealership, it was agreed that the car would go into the bodyshop and the offending panels would be machine polished, as a gesture of goodwill.  Even though the job took much longer than it should (most of the panels on the rear and sides of the car were affected – have you ever tried keeping toddlers from plastering their hands on a car?) they dealer was true to their word and the car was returned to us in as new condition.

Damage caused by sunscreen coming into contact with car paintworkWhen I asked if this was a regular issue, Volkswagen told me that it wasn’t (although, later, an Audi dealer was a little more truthful, admitting that it happens a lot with modern VW-Audi paints and that the resolution is usually a machine polish – we also have friends with similar marks on their silver Bora).  Had it been necessary, I would have kept on pushing until the car was completely resprayed (I might have settled with a compromise agreement to pay for the materials but not the labour) but, as it happens, the problem seems to have been resolved, with just one small area of damage still visible.

We were lucky.  With just a few thousand miles on the clock, it was difficult for Volkswagen to suggest this was “normal”.  If the car had been used a little more, we might have been seeking legal advice to see if we were entitled to a return under the Sale of Goods Act (it is a family car after all, and blemishes as a result of contact with sunscreen might question its fitness for purpose) but I frankly wouldn’t fancy our chances at suing Nivea et al. for damages because their products don’t carry a warning that they may damage car paintwork!

Needless to say, these days we’re ultra-careful to wipe our childrens’ hands with wet wipes after applying sunscreen…

[I waited a while before publishing this because a) I wanted to be sure we had resolved the issue and b) it’s not the normal sort of content for this blog. As a result, the events in this post are written as I remember them; however it’s entirely possible that there may be some minor errors as part of the effect of time on my memory]

[Update – 5 September 2012: Two years after writing this post and I’m sorry to say that fingermarks are back again. It seems that the long term damage of the sunscreen goes deeper than a polish can deal with and our choice is either to accept the damage (on our now four-year-old car), or respray.]