Monday, 9 November 2009

Bonfire night and firework photos

I love bonfire night and the fireworks so this year I made sure I took my camera with me and much to the chagrin of my wife I also snuck my tripod in too.

Much like my moon photos, I've been waiting to try my hand at photographing fireworks for some time however unlike the moon shots I didn't just need to wait for a clear night!

The local bonfire night rolled around so I made sure I was ready for it - it turns out that there is a basic setup and settings that essentially guarantee some nice shots. The rest is lucky timing and (in my case) waiting for the smoke to clear!

A tripod is a must since we're going to be using pretty long exposures and a cable release is useful if you've got one. Other than that, use manual focus nearly at infinity, set the aperture nice and small to allow a huge depth-of-field whilst keeping everything in focus.
I did make one mistake though, I've since been reminded that f/22 is a bit too small to use since it can cause diffraction problems resulting in less-than-sharp images. Knock it down to f/11 or f/16 to be on the safe side.


I used exposures of between 4 and 8 seconds to capture the movement of the fireworks but if you've got a locking button on your shutter release then you can set the camera to Bulb and just expose as long as you like.

Don't worry about opening the shutter earlier than you need to since the sky should be nice and black - you can wait for a firework to go off then let go of the shutter.
One technique, which I decided not to use, is to have a very long exposure (20-30 seconds plus) and to cover the front of the lens with something dark between fireworks so that you can capture multiple explosions.

The rest of my shots from the night are on flickr here.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


I'll skip the usual apologies for the lack of posts... take it as read from now on that I'd love to be posting more often but both work and my personal life are pretty busy these days so unfortunately this site gets left behind. My hope is that I'll upload more frequent, short posts rather than the rambling ones from earlier this year.

As some of you might know, I produce a podcast called PhotoLegal which neatly combines my interest in photography, technology, audio work and legal/civil liberties. It's hosted by the fantastic team of Darren Hector (professional wildlife photographer), James Barisic (our resident lawyer), Kate Day (Communities Editor at the Telegraph) and Phill Price (amateur photographer and IT guru).

The show managed to rack up 10,000 downloads over it's first series and we're now halfway through our second - this time around we're broadcasting live while we record so it's a bit more fraught for the hosts and my recording setups but it gives us a level of interactivity that other podcasts don't have.


The Early Days
I got involved early in the first series after hearing Phill sound like he was recording from a cave - since then we've had our fair share of problems ranging from noisy recordings, poor mic placement, uneven levels and more recently some bad audio dropout over Skype which actually caused us to abandon the recording, although we continued for the benefit of our live listeners.
Darren and Phill took inspiration from the audio setup posted by PhotoNetcast when they originally started recording the show - it basically consists of a Skype conference call routed through a mixer and an additional USB line-in to allow the recording to capture both the local vocals and the remote guests. It actually works very well, especially at the start when we were able to have Darren and Phill in the same room with just James and perhaps a guest coming in via Skype.

I streamlined this a little by removing the unnecessary digital-analog conversions that using the mixer required - my trick is to use something called a Virtual Audio Cable which is a small driver which mimics an output on your computer and allows you to route it where-ever you like. Using the VAC and it's accompanying Audio Repeater software I'm able to output our Skype call along with any local vocals to a recording package, to our live streaming software and back to my speakers/headphones as well!

It's a trick I used to be able to do with one of my previous soundcards (M-Audio Delta66) but since my desktop computer broke I've not been able to use it's features and have been reliant on a laptop instead. I've got a sneaking suspicion that Mac users might be able to do this natively but I'm a lifelong PC user so I have to resort to hacks like this.

If you're interested, I record using Cubase but this is overkill for a simple live recording - it was very useful when I had multiple local vocals to mix into the call on the early setup but once it was all being done using the virtual cables this was so much of a problem. Something like Audacity is a good, free, alternative. I know Darren favours Soundbooth on his Mac.
Our live broadcast is handled by LiveStream which is designed for video streaming - we block off the camera inputs but use it's video abilities to put up graphics and notes.
The problems came when we tried to avoid us all driving around to physically be together during the recordings - Darren, Phill, James and a guest would dial into a call hosted by me with my recording gear ready to go. Add another guest and the recruitment of Kate as co-host and suddenly we had 7 people on the call and discovered that Skype struggles a little!
General interference, noise, pops, varying volume levels, random audio dropout and finally completely dropping users from the call meant that our chosen method of communication was starting to look problematic.

The Solution
Our solution came from Rob Wright who suggested an alternative VoIP system called Ventrilo - it requires a host server to be running somewhere but when we trialled it for our latest recording the results were spectacular.

Call quality is a huge improvement over Skype which I suspect is because we have a handful of people using a single server rather than Skype's thousands of users. It's also got some nice features such as Push-To-Talk which avoids unwanted background noise and can be set to an automatic trigger or a keyboard button. Each user also has more control over the level of their audio input and output.

The big benefit for me is it's ability to record a call itself - I can set it running and not worry about it, plus it even records the local user unlike Skype's output. It records in a proprietary format but this isn't the problem it might seem since it actually logs and records each user's individual audio, allowing me to export each on separately into .wav files and then back into Cubase for some proper multi-track editing. I tend to apply noise reduction as required, EQ each channel and normalise the levels, then it's run through compressor and gate VST plugins before mixing down to a single .wav file again and another export to MP3.

It's really great to have a noise-free VoIP service since it makes the editing job much easier and the recording and export abilities mean mixing the final track is a dream compared to our earlier attempts.

Hopefully this has been useful to some of you - I do realise it's quite a narrow field of interest but there's not a lot of comprehensive information about this sort of setup as a lot of podcasts only have one host and possibly a guest; we're a bit unusual with our 6 or 7-way discussions!

The image at the start of this post is from Colleen AF Venable's Flickr photostream under the Creative Commons Share Alike licence.

Friday, 31 July 2009

iPhone 3GI

Within weeks of the new iPhone 3GS hitting the stores there's already rumours of the next update, dubbed the iPhone 3GI...
Before you get too excited I should let you know that the report featured on the excellent site The Onion and goes into details such as:

"Not only is this our lightest and slimmest model ever, but as any truly savvy Apple customer can clearly see, it's also the most handsome product we've ever designed."

And describes "a multi-touch interface that provides those who are "cool enough" with a rich user experience."

If you've not guessed by now (or aren't familiar with The Onion's style of satire), it's a spoof, with the 'I' standing for 'invisible' but for a couple of days there was a growing number of tweets around it as people got a bit caught up in the next big thing from Apple.

US patent granted on podcasting

Photographer and podcaster @WildlifePhotog tweeted a link on Friday to a Softpedia article detailing a patent that's apparently been granted to US company VoloMedia.

Q) So what's their big new invention?

A) Podcasting.

That's right, VoloMedia are claiming that they invented podcasting. The patent was filed in 2008 but is a continuance to a previous one in 2003 and covers the concept of "episodic media content" which could include not just podcasts but potentially also things like RSS feeds in general. As Ars Technica points out it's hard to work out what's actually been invented here since they aren't claiming to have actually created the ability to download a media file or an RSS feed itself.

VoloMedia are currently claiming not to be interested in licensing deals however this is an obvious threat to anyone producing podcasts, in particular large companies who now face the prospect of a retrospective claim being made for licensing monies.

Personally I feel sure that podcasting was already around in 2003 and if someone can demonstrate prior art over this then the patent can be invalidated. Wikipedia has a statement that they emerged in 2004 and this has apparently been enough to overturn an application to trademark the term the following year.

EDIT - There is a suggestion that the first podcast may have been in July 2003 from Boston radio broadcaster Christopher Lydon following his attendance at BloggerCon in Harvard. At around the same time ex-MTV host Adam Curry apparently wrote some software to extend RSS feeds to include audio content and automatically download archived shows to his iPod.

It looks like it's going to come down to a matter of timing between the podcasts and the aggregation software at the time and the specific dates detailed in VoloMedia's patent claim.

Kudos to the regular blogger

I'm realising that this blogger malarkey needs a fair bit of time
devoted to it, you've got to have something interesting to say (whether
your readers agree or not is another question), do enough prep or
research to ensure that it's factually correct, spend some time writing
the damn thing and then revise/edit so that it makes sense.
So kudos to the bloggers out there who have other jobs or time pressures
and yet still manage to post frequent, interesting content. Of course,
you could always just throw some words together and hit send but I think
that the best amateur bloggers probably spend as much time getting the
post up scratch as professional bloggers and journalists do.

With that in mind and with a unusual lack of hubris on my part I've
realised that while I am still working for a living and wanting to spend
my spare time doing things like scuba diving, mountain biking,
photography, growing veg on the allotment, DIY around the flat.... oh,
and spending some time with my long-suffering wife as well, I'm not
going to be able to update this blog with anything like the regularity I
had originally intended.

It's probably not going to affect many people in the scheme of things
since there's still not that many of you reading this on a regular basis
(the Google Analytics show that most of you are one-off or sporadic
readers). I'm not going to compete with people like Mashable or The
Register for speed and volume but I'll still post about major things
that catch my eye.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


I've been listening to podcasts on-and-off since I first got a 4th gen iPod (the black&white screen and click wheel) and now regularly put one on in the car on my drive home from work.

I use a Kensington LiquidAUX to charge and connect the iPhone to my stereo's line-in socket. The main draw for me on this product is that the charger's also got a handy wireless remote control that fixes to the steering wheel allowing me to skip tracks safely without fumbling with the iPhone's touchscreen which doesn't have the tactile feedback of previous iPods.

Most of the podcasts I listen to fall into three categories - comedy, photography or technology and there's a special fourth category reserved for anything by Stephen Fry who's recently released a new book, The Dongle of Donald Trefusis, only by podcast.

Some of the other podcasts that I've been listening to are:
  • Tips from the Top Floor - photography tips from Chris Marquardt.
  • Stephen Fry's Podgrams - a series of audio essays (sadly not updated for a while now).
  • Guardian Tech Weekly - audio updates from the tech writers at the Guardian newspaper.

    I'm also very keen on one podcast in particular - it's a new one called PhotoLegal which is a great listen for anyone interested in the legalities and rights surrounding photography. You'll see in a future blog post why this one is close to my heart...
  • Strobist Boot Camp II

    One of the blogs I read religiously is Strobist, the photography and
    lighting site from David Hobby (@strobist on Twitter). David's a
    photographer and photojournalist from America who for a long time has
    been running a very popular website dedicated to sharing his techniques
    for off-camera flash photography.

    In case you're wondering, the American call their flashes a strobe so"Strobist" just refers to flash photography - I guess the English equivalent site might be called "Flasher" but that might get a different audience!
    Where David really excels is in explaining through simple steps how to achieve some pretty amazing lighting in your photos - specifically, the power and flexibility that comes when you a) stop using the little popup flash on your camera, and b) take that flashgun and move it away from the hotshoe.

    Over the years the Strobist blog has covered a huge range of basic and more complicated flash techniques through his Lighting 101 and Lighting 102 series. They're definitely worth a look if you're even slightly interested in improving your flash photography.

    This summer sees the start of Strobist Boot Camp II, a repeat of last year's series of practical challenges since there's only so many technique lessons you can post to a blog. David will be setting a number of assignments that the readers of his site will each attempt in their own way - the winner at the end wins a prize.
    If you're reading this at some point after the Boot Camp has finished then there's nothing to stop you completing the assignments however the real interest for me is going to be comparing my entries to all the others as we submit them via the Strobist Flickr pool.

    I'm going to be following the assignments and hope to post on here and my Flickr stream about my equipment, techniques and results. If you're entering too or just want to have your say then I'd love to hear from you via the comments on this site or my Twitter feed.

    UPDATE: The first assignment is here!

    Wednesday, 3 June 2009

    PhotoCalc iPhone app

    Recently I've been listening to the photo podcast Tips From The Top Floor from German photographer Chris Marquardt.

    One of their recommendations was a handy little app called PhotoCalc which won't appeal to the non-photogs out there but for the technical togger it's a nice reference tool to calculate the Depth of Field of a particular focal length/aperture combination.
    It'll also guide you on Flash Exposure settings, reciprocal exposures and plenty of other useful, but not all vital, camera related information.

    You can find it on the iTunes App Store.

    The other reason for this post was to test out the ShoZu app which allows you to update a number of different blogging, photo sharing and social media sites from within a single interface.
    So far so good if you're reading this... there's also a rumour on Twitter at the moment that the app might move to being paid-for so I wanted to download it while it's still free.

    Seems good so far but you can't post text and images as one post - hence the screenshot in the previous post.

    Posted by ShoZu

    PhotoCalc on the iPhone

    Posted by ShoZu

    Tuesday, 26 May 2009

    iPhone remote trigger for Canon DSLRs

    Canon already gives users of it's DSLRs the EOS Utility which allows them to shoot tethered, controlling everything except zoom from a computer. This is useful for timelapse photography or in a studio environment where you're not needing too much camera movement but want to take advantage of the ability to review shots on a larger high-res screen and save them straight onto a hard drive, especially useful if you're lucky enough to use one of the new 21megapixel Canon 5D mk2.

    Photoshop and Lightroom plugin experts onOne have now extended this functionality with a new iPhone and iPod Touch app called DSLR Remote which lets you wirelessly control the computer/camera combination from the phone itself. You do still need the camera to be tethered to the PC, it's not a standalone remote but I'd be surprised if we didn't start to see wifi enabled DSLRs in the future that cut out the need to use USB cables for control or file transfer and this in turn would allow something like the onOne software to communicate directly to the camera. Of course you can always use the £600 wireless transmitter and grip but for most of us this isn't a feasible option.
    An added bonus is that for LiveView enabled cameras the app allows live streaming, allowing you to see whatever the camera sees and almost turning it into a remote security camera while future versions of the app will also allow remote control of the video functions of the newer DSLRs.

    It'll be interesting to see how useful the app actually is - there's already been comments suggesting that it's a case of "hey, this is cool" rather than fulfilling a particularly pressing need but I can see a number of uses where the app will come into it's own - plus there's no denying that it's rather cool functionality that I'm determined to make work somewhere!
    For studio shooters who are already tethered then this probably will be useful, I can imagine the tog walking around with more freedom and being able to show the images to their model for more easily. It'll certainly be handy for self-portraits since you could recompose the shot and adjust aperture etc without walking back to the camera and the intervalometer will make it popular for timelapse photography.

    It's not on the AppStore yet but when it comes out I'll be getting a copy to review on here. The Professional version is expected to cost $19.99 (UK pricing not confirmed yet) for full functionality but will be offered at a discount $9.99 initially, while a cut-down Lite version will give you remote shutter triggering only for $1.99.

    onOne will be notifying us when the app is approved via their RSS feed and on twitter from @therealmikewong.

    Nikon, Sony, Pentax and the others aren't supported yet but plans are to extend the app to include these brands in the future - see the onOne Q&A for a full list of supported models. Users of these brands shouldn't take this as a snub that they've gone for Canon first, I'd imagine that's due to the availability of the Canon SDK for developers.

    Friday, 17 April 2009

    Pirate Bay walks the plank

    After the end of the Pirate Bay trial nearly a month ago it seemed likely that the four defendants were going to escape serious criminal charges. Within days of the start of the trial their lawyers had successfully argued that most of the serious charges were dropped and their now legendary King Kong defence looked set to save them from the remaining ones too; however the Swedish court has now passed a guilty verdict, along with a year's prison sentence for each of them and a hefty $3.6m fine.

    If you're new to this story then it's worth reading some of my previous posts for a catchup.

    In a fitting twist, the verdict was leaked from the court and published online a Torrent hours before the official announcement.

    The original charges of "complicity in the production of copyrighted material" and their multimillion dollar damages were dropped within two days of the trial when it became apparent that the prosecution didn't really understand what The Pirate Bay actually does. The defendants have been found guilty of the revised charges of "complicity to make (copyrighted material) available" which has brought much lower sentences and fines.

    If this sounds a little odd then it's because not many countries have copyright legislation as tight as Sweden's which is both the reason that The Pirate Bay started there and the reason the prosecution wanted to pursue it in that country.
    Ars Technica spoke to music industry legal consultant Peter Danowsky who explained that in Sweden "A work is made available as soon as it is for sale or for hire or given away, this does not have to involve any actual transfer of the work. And the right to control availability is protected by the Act, so making available can be in violation of copyright even though no actual distribution has taken place."

    Plain sailing?
    So what's going to happen next? There are mirror servers for The Pirate Bay in other countries so they've not been shut down and in any case there are a lot of other torrent indexes around.
    Social Media guide Mashable have reported that one funny side effect of their King Kong defense and comparisons to Google as a search site is that someone has created a torrent search using Google's Custom Search function.

    The Pirate Bay defendants plan to appeal and have stated that they can't and won't pay the fines - see @JemimaKiss's recent article in the Guardian. Recently their supporter have started hacking the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's website and sending black faxes in protest.

    While I'm not in favour of mass copyright infringement, we've certainly not seen the end of BitTorrents or illegal file sharing and just like the shutdown of the original illegal Napster site lead to the peer-to-peer networks like KaZaA or Limewire, and then on to torrents, the technology will keep adapting ahead of the industry attempts to shut it down.

    It's just a shame that the recording industry didn't embrace new technology a little quicker so they could have been the ones setting the pace with something innovative but legal. Tools such as Spotify and come close but it's taken a long time for them to come on the scene.

    Thursday, 26 March 2009

    When is a walk not just a walk?

    ....when it's a blog post!

    A week or two ago we decided to take advantage of the unseasonal sunny weather to get out for a walk on the North Downs followed by a late lunch at the nearby pub. The sun was shining, I was spending time with my friends and the promise of a pint at the pub was really helping to keep me going so I did what every self respecting blogger would do and turned it into an opportunity to test out the GPS capabilities on my iPhone.

    The app that I'm using is MotionX-GPS which I trialled using the free Lite version but wanted more functionality so I've paid the £1.79 to get the fully-featured version. For this bank-breaking price you essentially get the features of a £350 handheld GPS like the Garmin Colorado 300; standard location, speed & altitude info, compass navigation, waypoint/geocache navigation as well as route tracking and the ability to display location and route onto both streetmaps or terrain maps. The other nice touch which will be welcomed by iPhone owners who have tried to use Google Maps GPS is that you can cache maps that you have previously viewed so that if you go out of range of your phone service you can still see the maps of the area since they're stored in the phone rather than downloaded on the fly, plus the maps are from OpenStreetMap which means it keep being updated with more and more details.
    It's worth noting that the free Lite version of MotionX-GPS will actually do most of this with the exception of the visual mapping and a limitation of only storing one saved track.

    I set the app running as we left the carpark so that it would track our route and also provide us with a handy compass-style pointer to later direct us back to the starting point, shoved it in my pocket and got on with the walk. I pretty much ignored it until we came to a point when our directions let us down and we got a little bit lost... so it was iPhone to the rescue! While it obviously didn't know where we were trying to go to it did show us where we'd been and also where the nearest footpath was. I could feel that beer getting closer!

    This software is also suitable for geocaching as you can manually add a waypoint with the cache location and then it will navigate you towards it. The output from the app are .kml and .gpx files which it gives you option to email from your iPhone. These can then be used in Google Maps, Google Earth, Yahoo Pipes and any number of other applications. I've uploaded my route onto my Google account so you can see where we went.

    Since I had my camera with me and had been snapping away throughout the day while the GPS app had recorded my position I took the opportunity to geo-tag my pictures. The free GPicSync software isn't pretty but it does the job it needs to, namely, matching up the timestamp from my photos to the time logged in the GPS route files and then writing the location back into the EXIF information of the photos.

    Sites like Flickr and Google do a great job of visually displaying their photos overlayed onto world/location maps, allowing you to search images geographically as well as by name or keyword.
    This software has a another trick up it's sleeve by letting you create a custom .kml file with location markers showing the photos and their location. I've imported this into Google Maps as well so you can see the camera icons and image links that are generated.

    If you're interested in customising .kml files for use in Google Earth, Maps or any of the other places you can import GPS information then I'd recommend looking at the Google tutorial on the subject. The files are essentially just XML so they take you through the process of defining the look and feel of tracks, placemarkers and anything else you might want to overlay onto a map including 3D geometric shapes which I could imagine being useful for architects. If there's enough demand from readers then I'll write a how-to guide to simplify the process!

    Thursday, 19 March 2009

    Lo siento mucho

    I owe the painfully solitary readers of this blog a bit of an apology.

    I know that it's not a huge thing in the scheme of things, and if you take the big picture it's barely important at all, but it's important to me.

    So here it is. My confession. Mea Culpa.

    It's nearly a month since I posted on my blog. Instead I've been micro-blogging on Twitter so there's plenty I could have been writing about but it's been condensed into 140 character chunks and spat out into the Twittersphere so I thought I'd do a little re-cap so that you don't think I've just been sleeping for the last four weeks.

    A little while ago I posted about the trial of The Pirate Bay which has been carrying on in the background since then, in the process popularising the phrase "King Kong defence" in reference to their argument that it is the users of The Pirate Bay and not the operators that are breaching copyright laws. One of the surprising offshoots of the trial is that a new style of facial hair has swept Sweden emulating Gottfrid Svartholm.
    A verdict is expected on the 17th April which will hopefully give a decisive legal answer to a long standing debate.

    I'd also meant to post about the Digital Britain report, written by Lord Carter to set out a roadmap for the future expansion of the digital infrastructure of our country, but no matter how many times I started writing I couldn't get enthused about it.
    In fact I've realised that my apathy towards it was a direct result of the report itself - where they could have taken the opportunity to put forward a proposal with bold and far reaching ideas, instead he describes some obviously needed network expansion and suggests that the national standard of broadband access should be set at a speed most of us are already feeling frustrated with.

    Twitter came into the news recently after it was reported in the national news that the micro-blogging service had played a part in the search for two missing skiers in the Alps. Jason Tavaria and Dolphin Music founder Rob Williams became separated from their group in a blizzard, with Jason relaying his location to rescue services from his GPS enabled iPhone. Another member if the group, Alex Hoye, sent out a much retweeted message asking for Rob's mobile number so that they could get in touch with him too. I was one of many users who retweeted the request and so it was all the more poignant when we later heard that he'd tragically died in the accident.

    I'm sure there were other things that I meant to post about but it's getting late and I can't remember them - follow me on Twitter if you want to get the regular updates but I do promise that I won't leave it this long between blog posts again.

    I'll leave you with a link to a blog that Melanie Seasons (a friend of a friend) writes called Fake Plastic Noodles. It's normally a good read and her comments on the new facebook design perfectly echo my own thoughts so rather than rehash them I thought I'd point you in her direction.

    Wednesday, 25 February 2009

    Where were you on the day GMail went down?

    People often remember where they were on the day that momentous things happen in history; first man on the moon, JFK being shot, Princess Diana's car crash... that sort of thing.

    That's all well and good for the big stuff (actually, was Diana's death really that big a deal?) but if you'd been following Twitter yesterday you would have though something similar had happened as a huge number of Tweets about one thing flooded the networks, something that seemed to excite and amuse some users and horrify others... the death of GMail!

    Actually rumours of it's death are greatly exagerated since it came back online within a couple of hours but for a while there Twitter and the Blogosphere were buzzing with slightly nervous posts from users who couldn't access their email. Do a quick search on Twitter for #GFail to get a feel for it.

    I pretty much run my life on Google's online services - they host my blog, my email, my calendar and contacts which sync to my iPhone, I use their blog reader, their photo sharing site Picasa and I also use their online bookmarks and search alerts to keep up-to-date on things.

    So, in light of the Great Google Outage of 2009 should I be worried about being so reliant on one service? Google responded to the problems on their blog and everything seems ok now but I am wondering about spreading the load a little. I already use Flickr from rival Yahoo, along with an old Yahoo mail account so that's a bit of backup and is probably better than Google's bookmarks but it's so nice and easy having everything in one place! Which is probably why there has been speculation around a monopoly investigation to determine whether it needs to divest some services.

    I like it - I like the ease of use, the openness of their API and tools, the simple interface, everything! They just don't feel like Microsoft did when they were being attacked for their global coverage. Hopefully Google can recover from it's technical glitches and that their users will forgive them for being shown to be fallable like everyone else.

    Thursday, 19 February 2009

    It's raining torrents!

    Kick Start
    This year seems to have kicked off with a bang on all things copyright related. First we had launching their DRM-free MP3 download service and hot on their heels came Apple's long-overdue decision to remove the copy protection from their catalogue too (all sing with me "I see a little silhouette of a price war...").

    The British Government published their Digital Britain report which included recommendations for ISPs to take a more active part in halting illegal file sharing.

    Then came the news that New Zealand seems to be ignoring civil-rights and going for an approach on copyright infringement that can best be summed up as "I think he's guilty so he must be" which flies in the face of western judicial practice.

    Now there's the latest update in another long-running saga; Sweden vs The Pirate Bay, one of the largest indexes of torrents currently available.

    The Technology

    In case you aren't familiar with torrents they are the latest incarnation of Peer-to-peer filesharing (P2P) which works by having users all over the world sharing content with each other via programs like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire. BitTorrent emerged in 2001 and takes the technology to a new level where a torrent file is created which contains information about the location of multiple (could be thousands) of seeds or users which are sharing that file. Once a user downloads a file they can then become a new seed which allows the numbers of available downloads to grow exponentially. Torrent data is estimated by some to make up to 35% of all internet traffic.

    The Pirate Bay
    So that's BitTorrent explained but to explain why there's all the fuss about it you need to look at what's being shared and while it can be used to download the latest Linux distribution it's more commonly used to share copyright music, video and software... which the entertainment and computing industrial giants would rather didn't happen.

    The Pirate Bay, created in 2003 and hosted in Sweden, is probably the world's largest tracker of these torrent files and you can tell from it's name which side of the fence they sit on when it comes to copyright. Over the last few years it's been raided by police, been on the defending and prosecuting sides of a number of lawsuits and even attempted to buy Sealand, the micronation located about 6 miles off the Sussex coast, to use to host their servers.

    Half time scores - The Pirate Bay 1, Sweden 0
    Now the site's founders and admins Carl Lundström, Peter Sunde, Frederik Neij and Gottfrid Svartholm Warg are in court in Sweden accused of copyright infringement however it has quickly become apparent that the prosecuting lawyers don't actually understand the technology they are trying to shut down, presumably only driven by their share in the multimillion pound potential damages being claimed.

    The key to their defence is that the site is a tracker or index of the torrents themselves and that even the torrents are only lists of users sharing a particular file. They don't make copies themselves or host it so while you've probably got views on their moral standpoint it's a lot harder to actually go after them legally.
    If you take the prosecution to it's natural extension then you need to sue search engines like Google for listing sites that host or link to copyright material (actually that's an even better case to prosecute since Google actually maintains a copy of every site it indexes). Hey, let's sue the ISPs for giving us access to the whole damn shooting match in the first place.

    These suggestions have been flying around on tech sites like The Register but it's crossed into mainstream reporting with Charles Arthur writing in the Guardian with a discussion on who would actually benefit from the demise of The Pirate Bay.

    So an entire day and a half into the big copyright test case the prosecutors have been left with egg on their faces as charges are amended to remove "complicity in the production of copyrighted material" and replace it with "complicity to make (copyrighted material) available" which isn't quite the same thing.

    What next?

    General opinion on the blogosphere is that The Pirate Bay are going to go on to win the rest of the case but even if they don't the final charge will be much less dramatic than the claimants hoped for. Regardless of what happens to this particular site the torrents are still out there and there's plenty of other trackers around so will it even make a difference? In a similar arena, Kazaa and Limewire still allow easy P2P sharing years after the high-profile cases against Napster.

    There are suggestions that users who download illegal copies are actually more likely to go on to spend on the legal versions, Charles Arthur's belief is that they will revert to more casual networks of friends sharing these materials but my view is that the internet is a big bad place and shutting down a single index might slow things down for a while but it's not going to stop it

    For the moment we wait to see what's coming next in the Swedish case.

    Tuesday, 17 February 2009

    Stand up against "Guilt Upon Accusation"

    I'd quite like to live in New Zealand. I'm lucky enough to have been there twice and I really liked the relaxed attitude and the fact I could indulge in various outdoor activities on such a grand scale (skiing and scuba diving are the main examples that would be a lot more fun in NZ).

    However I've recently started hearing about a proposed change to their laws which would disconnect internet access from anybody accused of copyright infringement, without trial or court scrutinised evidence.

    Now I'm not condoning copyright infringement but I do like to stand up for rights, especially if it goes against a fundamental belief like "Innocent until proven guilty".

    If you're thinking that this doesn't affect you since you don't live in New Zealand then consider that this becomes law there then our governments might be tempted to follow suit.

    The organisers of the protest are urging people to blackout their avatars on popular social networking sites - details are at the Creative Freedom protest site. If you're blogging, tweeting, facebooking etc then follow the instructions on how to show your support. There's some high profile people like Stephen Fry already taking part.

    Monday, 16 February 2009

    Google catches up

    After my post on how to sync the Google contacts and calendar to an iPhone I was wondering why it was necessary to go to such lengths when Google makes it so easy to do everything else. It turns out that the good people at Google must have been thinking the same thing since they've now released Google Sync Beta for iPhone which does exactly what I achieved using Nuevasync - I've not tried the service yet since I'm happy with how I've got my iPhone setup but the comments about Google Sync overwriting the existing contacts suggest to me that they've used very similar processes and emulated an Exchange server.

    Since you can already sync Google calendars and contacts to Thunderbird, the open source email client from Mozilla, the new Google release removes another layer of complexity in keeping everything synced together.

    I seem to be increasingly reliant on Google now - email, calendar, photos, blog reader, maps... oh, and web searches! I've still not succumbed to their web browser Chrome since I like Firefox but they're a big part of my online life!

    Tuesday, 10 February 2009


    One of my resolutions was to get out more with my camera (a Canon 400D Digital-SLR with a growing bag of lenses, flashes and assorted bits) since I generally just use it for snapshots which is a bit of a waste.

    A D-SLR (the SLR part stands for Single Lens Reflex which refers to the fact that you actually look through the same lens that you'll be shooting through) is a great improvement on most compact digital cameras since it offers you complete control over every part of the camera while most compacts will just try to give you a properly exposed shot with the minimum of fuss. Fine until you want to be a bit more creative.
    I'm not saying that you can't get good shots with a compact, or that a D-SLR will automatically give better shots but it does give you more opportunity to experiment.

    I've been playing with mine and will be posting to the excellent flickr as I do more. My flickr page is in the links to the side but be patient since there's not too much on there at the moment.
    One of the reasons I chose flickr rather than Picasa is the community element to it - posters are encouraged to share photography techniques and to leave comments on other people's shots whick makes it a great place to learn more about the processes involved in making the type of shot you like. It's always fun to check out flickr's interestingness page to see some of the best new uploads.

    Helping me along the way are a couple of useful sites including the UK based ePhotoZine for general tips, review etc and the popular Strobist blog run by the American newspaper photographer David Hobby which focuses, if you'll forgive the pun, on using flash and light effectively.
    Again the community of flickr comes to play with a very active Strobist group where you can post images for review, tips and see how others have achieved their shots.

    Since I don't seem to be able to post without mentioning the iPhone I'll just throw a little link in to one of David's recent posts where he uses his iPhone as a handy light for low-light shots. Very inventive!
    I'll also be posting soon on the GPS facilities of the iPhone, both standalone and how you can use that to geotag your photos locations so watch out for that.

    Monday, 2 February 2009


    I found this nice little site called Wordle which creates "beautiful word clouds" - their words not mine, but it is pretty cool. You can type in words or give it a website to use as source information then alter some of the layout options.

    I gave it my blog URL and it came up with this which I quite like -

    Friday, 30 January 2009

    Amazon MP3

    After my post on the removal of DRM copy restrictions from Apple's iTunes store I realised that I'd not really mentioned the launch of Amazon's MP3 service except in passing but now that I've had a chance to use the new site I can write in a little more detail.

    Amazon seem to be favouring a soft launch approach to their new categories with sections like Health & Beauty just appearing in the navigation bar without any fanfare however the launch of a new MP3 download service that competes with established rivals Napster and iTunes surely deserved a bigger announcement.

    Back in January 2008 there were promises from Amazon that a UK version of the US beta trial was coming soon and they just managed to get launched before Christmas accompanied by promotions offering chart topping albums like Kings of Leon for £3 (sadly this price has now gone back up to £6.45)

    The lack of user awareness has presumably come from the fact that there is a limited number of tracks available at the moment and once the library is a little larger I'd be surprised if they didn't start shouting about it more.

    Given that the big selling point of Amazon MP3 was that they are DRM free and will play on any device it's not surprising that iTunes have chosen now to announce they have change their system to follow suit, scared perhaps of users moving to the new competitor in large numbers.

    Amazon have sensibly setup their site so that downloading a song or album is no different to browsing and purchasing any other product which will hopefully appeal to users who don't want to use the iTunes interface or are already familiar with buying from Amazon. While you can just click and download tracks they have also offered a nice little download manager which keeps track of multiple purchases and automatically updates your iTunes and Media Player libraries. The other, more important point is that they seem to have priced themselves slightly below iTunes with a 79p track from Apple costing just 69p on Amazon - now that they've equalised the market on DRM could this be the start of a price war? In the current economic climate this can only be a welcome thing for users of the two sites.

    Nearly a decade on eBay

    I just logged into eBay to be faced with the welcome screen thanking me for joining eBay seven years ago which, given that I had another account for a year or two before that means that I've been with the auction site for around 9 of the 10 years it's been running in the UK - it actually celebrates it's 10th birthday in October this year so I'm fairly proud to have been using the site for most of it's lifetime.

    I dread to think how much I've spent on it over the years - my purchases definitely outweigh my sales!

    Tuesday, 27 January 2009

    iTunes goes DRM free

    It's official, iTunes is going DRM free in a long anticipated move which will bring it in line with the other major music download sites.

    It's been rumoured for some time that Apple was changing the way it approaches Digital Rights Management (DRM) within it's iTunes store with users noticing that the "iTunes Plus" part of the store, which traditionally gave access to higher quality unprotected music, had vanished and the DRM restrictions on certain artists seeming to come and go, a fact picked up by Wired last month.

    Digital Rights Management is the copy restriction process that distributors like Apple and the big labels use to ensure that the music you pay for and download doesn't get spread over the internet or shared between friends however the other major online sites like Amazon and Napster have all opted for DRM-free music which allows your downloads to be used on whatever device you choose. Currently an iTunes download can only be used on an iPod/iPhone, tying you to the brand.

    Even on iTunes the story isn't clear cut since EMI opted to remove the DRM from it's catalogue some time ago so what we're really talking about here is whether Sony, Universal and Warner will follow suit.

    The DRM restrictions in iTunes are one of the biggest problems users have with the service and when I first got an iPod about 5 years ago I steered clear of using iTunes since I didn't want to be forced into using the Apple programme for my music management on the computer, preferring WinAmp at the time, and also had a fear of wanting to use a different MP3 player in the future and losing my entire collection since they were all coded to work on my iPod. The old iPod finally died a couple of weeks ago which was a pretty good lifespan compared to those models which seemed to break the second you put it into your pocket - cue the purchase of a shiny new iPhone.

    Despite my concerns, you can understand why DRM was introduced back in the heady days at the start of the century when music labels really woke up to the fact that people wanted to be able to download, transport and listen to their music without the cumbersome physicality of a CD. Even though people have been taping records and burning CDs for decades the idea of effortlessly passing digital music around really scared the labels so they loved Apple's implementation of DRM.

    The real problem (at least for Apple) was that people exist who don't use iPods and that there are other music download services other than iTunes so there's a lot of people out there who aren't limited by DRM. All the big labels offer DRM-free music on these other sites, even if they are restricted on iTunes so it's pretty confusing why it's taken this long for Apple to down this route especially when it opens the iTunes service to every MP3 user out there. Steve Jobs went into this subject in some detail back in 2007 and came out supporting the removal of DRM.

    The Future
    So what's changed?
    A couple of weeks ago during the MacWorld keynote speech Apple announced that they were finally removing DRM from their library. So far around eight million tracks have been altered with the expectation that all tracks will be free from protection by Easter. At the same time they have upgraded the quality of the music available on the site to match what was previously available on iTunes Plus. You can see more details from Apple themselves at the iTunes website

    The changes will only be applicable when you download the music for the first time so your existing collection won't magically upgrade it's quality or remove it's copy protection - Apple are offering this for a hefty 20p per track for each one you want to release from the chains of DRM.

    Monday, 26 January 2009

    New Year's Resolutions

    New Year's Resolutions
    I don't like New Year's resolutions.

    I've gone through the usual "Give up chocolate" variations when I was younger and for a couple of years stuck to the corny "I resolve to not make resolutions" in an effort to get out of it all but at heart I just don't like them.

    Why should I suddenly decide to do or not-do something just because it's another year? Plus, they're always so negative, along the lines of "Lose weight" or "Give up ..." (fill in the blank with your favourite food/activity). I like to think I'm a positive person so I don't like to focus on a negative goal.

    So this year I didn't make any and I nobody asked me what mine was so I didn't feel pressured into making one up on the spot - I guess we were all too busy keeping our neighbours awake with the late night (or early morning...) marathon session of Singstar that marked New Year 08/09 to be bothered with things like resolutions.  Phew.

    January is also renowned for being a difficult time at work.

    You've hopefully just had a fun-filled December followed by some holiday leave, Christmas Day and a New Year's party so it's understandable that you start to feel a bit down in the cold, dark days that follow. It's made all the worse since a lot of tasks in December are tagged with a 'follow-up in the New Year' so suddenly you're back from your break with twice the work to do and no bank holidays in sight.

    It's no surprise that more people hunt for new jobs in January than any other month but of course this year that's been tempered by the current economic climate - people are staying where they are since no-one wants to be part of the "last-in first-out" list of cash-strapped employers.

    Resolving things
    In an effort to snap out of the January blues I've done two things, stopped moaning to my long-suffering wife and instead shared some of my work concerns with colleagues (who turned out to be feeling the same so now we're all working to fix things rather than moaning about them privately) and realised that I've stopped doing a lot of the things that I used to do (or wanted to do) that I enjoyed.

    I made a decision that I needed to have more fun, or if you like, I made some resolutions but instead of the usual negative ones mine are a bit more upbeat along the lines of "Get out and take more photos", "Be more creative" and "Go mountain-biking".

    So far it's working well; in the last week or so I've been more positive at work again, I've combined two of the above and went out to take some creative photos which I'll put onto Flickr soon and also got thoroughly exhausted mountain biking on Sunday with Charlotte and some friends. It's all paying off and it's far easier being happy and relaxed again - maybe there's more to these resolutions than I'd realised.

    I've also re-embraced my inner geek which used to be fairly present when I was younger and ran my own webdesign agency with a couple of mates but that side of me had recently been ignored apart from some fairly simple sites for friends and family. Hence my new iPhone and this blog - time to get back into the tech lane.

    Syncing your iPhone contacts and calendar to something other than Outlook on Windows.... like Thunderbird and Google

    Home Truths
    Let's start with a couple of home truths:

    1) The bulk of home computers run a Windows OS.
    2) One of the benefits of a mobile device like the iPhone is to have roaming access to your contacts, calendar and email.

    3) You clicked NO to the paid-for Mobile Me account that Apple want you to sign up for.

    If you're a Mac user then it's all fine, Apple have helpfully given you all the tools you need to sync your iCal to the iPhone and email is handled well by the phone anyway although I confess to not knowing whether your contacts are sync'ed.

    If, like the bulk of us you're running Windows then you're a bit more limited. For email then it's mostly fine, the iPhone will connect to most account types but to what happens if you want to co-ordinate your contacts list or calendar? Surely in the modern go-anywhere world it's nice not to have to re-input everything just because you want it on your iPhone as well as your home computer.

    The choices presented by iTunes are Microsoft Outlook/Windows Address Book or nothing and unless you're running an Exchange server you have to plug your iPhone into the computer to sync. How restricting, how disappointing!

    Holy Grail
    So what happens if you use Googlemail, or an alternative email client like the excellent Mozilla Thunderbird with the Lightning calendar plugin?

    Or if you're like me and you actually want to sync your Thunderbird/Lightning calendar to your Google calendar AND your iPhone as well as the contacts lists of all three? This is bordering on a kind-of holy grail of roaming data access.

    The Solution
    After a bit of digging around I found GCALDaemon which let's you sync your Google calendar to iCal compatible programs - lots of people have used it but some complain it's a bit too technical and for me it was only going to do part of the job so I'll mention it in passing but focus on how I chose to progress.

    First thing is to link up your Google calendar to Thunderbird/Lightning - this bit is dead easy, simply go to the Google calendar settings, click on the link of the calendar you want to sync and scroll down to find the XML button. You need to copy the code this gives you and enter it into the Options screen in Lightning. That's it, your home life and mobile calendars are now linked!

    To perform the same trick on your contacts list you need to use a third-party plugin for Thunderbird called Zindus which you download then install via the Add-Ons menu option from within Thunderbird. Make changes to either list and it will sync - either automatically when you open/close the program or manually by pressing the big SYNC button found on the Zindus menu option.

    The next stage is to sync up your Google calendar/contacts lists to the iPhone. This should have been made easy by Apple since they bothered to give native support of the Google mail system but apparently they got bored before they finished extending the functionality to the rest of the tools.

    The work around I've used is to sign up for a free NuevaSync account which acts as a Microsoft Exchange frontend to Google. You complete the very simple details for Calendar and Contacts then save it and forget about it. Now pick up that iPhone and go to the "Settings" screen, then "Mail, Contacts, Calendars" to add a new account as if you were adding a new email address.

    Use the NuevaSync website address as the server and select "On" to both Contacts and Calendar in the iPhone account settings - I've not used the Mail switch since you can already access Googlemail on the iPhone.

    Be warned that this will delete any existing contacts you have on your iPhone so make sure that you've got them replicated elsewhere, preferably in your Thunderbird or Google contacts lists since that's what it's going to be replaced with.

    That's all folks! You should now be able to access the same email, calendar and contacts in Thunderbird, Google and on your iPhone! That's what I wanted when I bought a mobile device and I'm disproportionately happy that I've managed to do it! Plus it's all done 'over-air', or as we used to call it, wirelessly.