Knowledge obsolesence

And a free skills upgrade for Queenslanders

Links in chain of learning.
Links in the chain of learning.

There was a time when the knowledge you gained at the beginning of your career would more or less serve for your entire working life. These days things move so fast that some or all of what you know can become obsolete overnight.

This was rammed home forcefully late last year when my position was made redundant and I decided to use some of the spare time I gained to polish my skills. My main focus has always been content creation but I have had a sideline in developing, maintaining and hosting websites since the early 1990s. I therefore decided I would take a course or two on the subject and was amazed at how much had changed while I wasn’t looking. Read More

We’re doing it all wrong, you know!

posted in: Book review, Dating | 0

happilyThe Science of Happily Ever After
By Ty Tashiro
Harlequin, 2014

The thing that the vast majority of us do wrong is the way we go about choosing  life partners. This issue was sharply brought into focus for me after reading relationship scientist Ty Tashiro’s book The Science of Happily Ever After in which he says the numbers of people who manage to achieve ‘Happy Ever After’ relationships is a woefully small percentage of the population. Read More

BorrowBox

posted in: Books, Review, Reviews | 0

The one development I could never have anticipated was that printed fiction books would suddenly become dramatically less important to me than they were. Just the other day I worked out that l must have been a member of various libraries for at least 53 years ever since being taken by my mum to the children’s library in the Durban City Hall.

In the intervening years I have probably devoured at least three printed books a week and sometimes more until one day when, having been in Brisbane for some years, I noted that my sister and niece were listening to audio books on their tablets and mobile phones and deriving a lot of enjoyment from them. I had listened to audio books on occasion but had given it up because the process simply wasn’t that convenient and because I have issues with buying audio books at the same price as the printed versions.

I was all ears once it was explained that the family had downloaded an app called BorrowBox (available for Apple iOS and Android) which allowed them to sign on as members of the Brisbane Library Service, browse athrough an extensive list of titles and download the ones they wanted free of charge, if available, or reserve them if they had already been borrowed. Once a book has been borrowed, it can be downloaded onto one or more of your devices and go with you anywhere. Read More

Reflections

A black and white version of a recent post on my Flickr stream. I have to admit I gave the reflections some help in Photoshop; the water of the Brisbane River is never quite this still. 😉

Brisbane CBD from Captain Burke Park. Click to view enlargement.
Brisbane CBD from Captain Burke Park.
Click to view enlargement.

Stage Fright

posted in: Book review, Crime | 3

Stage Fright
By Marianne Delacourt
Allen and Unwin, 2012.

sharp

In Australia we’re privileged to have some world-class crime writers including the two Peters, Corris and Temple, but I wasn’t expecting all that much when I picked up the gaudily-jacketed Stage Fright by local Brisbane author Marianne Delacourt who, it turns out, is the alter ego of SF author Marianne de Pierres.

My first impression of the book was totally mistaken and I was delighted to find that Stage Fright is a really very good crime story and the third in the series about Tara Sharp, PI, who lives in the garage behind her well-to-do parents’ home in Perth.

In an unusual paranormal twist, she is able to read auras and even though she once thought she might be off her rocker, she has been taught to use her gift and it gives her the advantage of often being able to tell what’s going on under the surface with people she meets. Read More

Hart Marine

posted in: Freelance, Stories | 0

One of the most interesting commissions I’ve had recently was to write about a new pilot boat which was about to be delivered to Port Phillip Sea Pilots. The dangers faced by the pilots in the seas that come howling through the Bass Strait are well demonstrated by the fact that the organisation lost a boat, its crew and a pilot some years back and therefore really does need the safest boats available to transport their staff.

I’ve just posted the articles on the Tear Sheets page of the site.

To the grindstone

posted in: Blogging, Photography | 0

It has been an awfully long time since the last post but I have been very much taken up with settling into my new country. Since the last post, Rural Press has become Fairfax Agricultural Media and I have continued to work for them.

I have also had quite a few story commissions from the publications Australian Main Roads Construction and Australian Ports News which have involved me in doing telephonic interviews with clients around Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. I’ve written stories on a wide variety of topic ranging from the stabilising of dirt roads to the finer points of pilot boat design.There are some samples up on the Tear Sheets page of this site.

DSC_2057-Edit-3
I was helping a friend by taking pictures of his guitars earlier today
and this was one result I liked.

I’ve missed blogging on a regular basis but have successfully fought off the urge until now.  😉

A new year dawns

posted in: General | 0

I confess that that the pressures of job hunting were getting to me and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of seeking a new life in Australia. Fortunately, just when things were at their blackest last October, I did finally get a call from one of the organisations I had applied to.

Rural Press, which is based in Ormiston just South of Brisbane, needed an extra subeditor to work on their publications including Queensland Country Life, Northern Queensland Register and a number of others. I have been averaging two or so shifts each week since then, which has lifted a lot of the pressure on me.

The search for something more substantial goes on….

Red letter day

posted in: Freelance | 0

Today is something of a red letter (or should that be Green letter?) day for me because I have completed my first job on Australian soil for an Australian firm. Since my arrival in Australia I have written some IT-related stories for an entrepreneurs’ website in South Africa, which is why my first local job was especially welcome.

I was asked to create a leaflet for Green Grove garden hire to send out with their monthly accounts, advertising the trees and silk flower arrangements they have for hire. I did the product photography, wrote the copy and laid the leaflet out. My sincere thanks go to Therese and Peter Nally for their business.

Business club

posted in: Freelance, networking | 0

Just got back from a meeting of the Everton Park Business Club. It’s a networking group run by Sheree Lenton, which meets on a weekly basis in the excellent Luv-a-Coffee coffee bar in the Everton Plaza shopping centre.

I went along a couple of weeks ago to check it out and it turns out that a nice selection of local business people are members. I’ve been to four meetings so far and have found it very informative about local conditions.

One thing I learnt in South Africa from my years as a freelancer is that it is easy to become isolated. Being part of a group is very useful in that regard.

A commission

posted in: Freelance | 0

I am very pleased to be have been commissioned by a new South Africa-based entrepreneurs’ website to produce a series of articles on various aspects of IT likely to be of interest to their audience. I’ll publish a link to the site as soon as I am allowed.

Culture shock

posted in: Applications | 0

My head is starting to clear after the shock to the system brought on by the move from Durban in South Africa, my former home, to Brisbane, my new one. I really did think that I would arrive and start work immediately, but it has taken time to adjust to my new circumstances.

In many ways, Brisbane is similar enough to Durban to make it feel eerily familiar. Both are on the east coasts of their respective continents, both were founded in the same year, 1824, and were settled and built by the same sorts of people. They enjoy similar weather patterns, the inhabitants have laid-back lifestyles, and they are important gateways to their respective regions.

Similar, yes, but there are also differences that are taking this immigrant some time to get used to. There is different terminology and pronunciation to get used to as well as new approaches and ways of doing things to be learned. One of the most important things I missed was the critical importance of correctly structuring applications for contract and permanent positions.

Many organisations, including many State government departments, have been advertising for media and/or communications staff for permanent posts or, quite often, on short to medium-term contract. I know myself to be an extremely good communicator but, in spite of those skills and all my experience, I wasn’t even getting to the interview stage. I was feeling pretty low about things but thankfully, after input from Frances Cahill of Emerald Writing & Training, I now know why.

It’s not enough to point to jobs I’ve done and work I’ve produced and expect employers on this side of the water, to be impressed. And so, from here on in, it’s a change of tack and my best foot forward.

Networking

posted in: networking | 0

I was aware right from the start of my move to Brisbane in February that I would have to get out and start networking. I almost immediately found a great group of former South Africans called the SAbona Business Network, which conducts a number of monthly meetings around the country, including one at Northlakes and one in Cleveland in Brisbane.

I have now been to both and met many new people. There is the added benefit that they have all experienced moving to a new country where they are unknown, and have also had to restart their careers from scratch. I’m looking forward to networking with them in future and assisting them where I can.

Au revoir FishNet

My last post marked the end of FishNet for the time being, at least. I will soon be on my way to a new land, to join family, and I wouldn’t have been able to keep the column up while I pack on this side of the water, and get settled on that.

I have been writing FishNet every week, more or less without a break, since July 2006. I’ll certainly miss doing it, but I have to admit that a rest from the relentless weekly deadlines will be most welcome

Why not say au revoir by leaving a comment below?

Quick viewer

A new version of one of my favourite free imaging program has just been released.

The program, FastStone Image Viewer, has been mentioned in these columns before and is available from the website FastStone.org. I use it every day even though I own copies of Photoshop and Lightroom, because it is the quickest way I know to look through a lot of digital pictures.

FSViewerScreenShot1

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Get off of my (Joli) cloud

posted in: FishNet, General, Online, OS | 0

This is going to be a bit of a weird column, some might say they all are, because I haven’t got anything to write about.

Most columnists get to this point sooner or later, and usually plug the gap by writing a column about how they got into that situation. It’s a noble tradition and whom am I to change it.

The thing is that I had been planning to install and review a free new operating system, Jolicloud, but when I sat down at the usual time of the week to do this column, Jolicloud stubbornly refused to start.

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Festive shopping made easy – part I

Shopping has never been one of my favourite occupations but looking for gifts for myself and others is, I suppose, the least objectionable form of it.

Me being me, however, my first move was certainly not to try and find parking at a busy shopping centre but instead, to fire up my trusty browser and go out onto the web to see what I could find.

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Getting help online

Over the last few months I have been using MS Word 2010 as my wordprocessor and I’m getting to like it very much indeed.

The bit that I don’t like is its ribbon interface which has brought me no benefit and has had me searching through the Help facility on many occasions, looking for features which have been moved from where I was used to finding them.

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Blogging to print

posted in: Blogging, FishNet, Online | 0

Over the last couple of years I have done quite a lot of blogging to satisfy the creative urge but I came to realise that, no matter how fulfilling, it only exists in the online world.

There is no chance of leaving it lying around on your coffee table for visitors to notice and admire while you’re off making the coffee. Clearly then, what was needed were printed versions of my blogs, and I didn’t foresee too much hassle or cost involved.

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Photo layouts at high speed

Over the past few weeks I seem to have had a mini-season of columns on the topic of what to do with digital images.

Before going on to something else, however, I thought I would mention a specialised little program called LumaPix FotoFusion. It is designed solely for creating layouts for photo books, greetings cards, business cards, models’ Z-Cards, or whatever else you can think of to do with it.

2009-110  Layouts can be as complex…

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Photoshop Elements 9 launch

300 posts and counting

It seems incredible to believe that this is really the 300th post on this blog. I have been posting my weekly computer columns here since 2006 and I recently added all the earlier columns I could find. All are listed on the Archive page and add up to a hell of a lot time and words.

Some exciting news in the few weeks was Adobe’s launch of the latest version of their entry-level image manipulation program Photoshop Elements.

Available simultaneously on the PC and Apple Macintosh platforms, Photoshop Elements 9 is the latest in a line of products that was brought out to fill the gap in the market for a less costly and less complex version of their industry-standard Photoshop application.

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Photoshop Elements 9 links

I’m going to be posting a review of Photoshop Elements 9 later in the week but here are some links in the meantime:

Photobooks again

And so on to another in my occasional series on things to do with your digital photos. I have mentioned making photo books before and there have been a number of services available, but now I have found another South African source of high-quality books and has its HQ in Durban.

It’s called Burblepix and offers a range of photo products and a free Burblepix program to be used to create them with. On offer are photo books ranging from a 24-page 148 mm square soft cover, at R195, to a 24-page 300 mm square hardcover book for R530. Extra pages can be added to any book but cost extra.

SampleImage
The cover of the book I made using Burblepix.

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A tale of two launches

posted in: FishNet, Mobile, Review | 0

There have been two important launches in recent times in the mobile arena in South Africa and the difference between them couldn’t be greater.

The first one I’ll mention is Telkom’s launch of its lamely-named 8.ta mobile service. Interested parties watched the extensive Heita-branded teaser ad campaign and held their breaths to see what products and services the company would come up with, to compete with the three incumbent operators.

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Intro to Rock ‘n’ Roll

posted in: FishNet, Music, Online | 0

I’m a recent convert to Rock ‘n; Roll and am always interested to find something on the Internet to feed my growing interest in the subject. I was looking at the great Listverse site a while ago and found a list entitled:

Top 10 Rockers Who are Better than Elvis

The list was compiled by Maggot and features such artists as Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. There is a very interesting writeup where Maggot puts each artist in context and supplies a link to a sample video of each, so you can get a flavour of what they’re about.

My knee-jerk reaction to the list was to wonder how anyone could be deemed better than Elvis but, as Maggot says, he doesn’t intend any slight. It’s just that Elvis, although a supreme performer, didn’t create much (if any) music of his own. Carl Perkins wrote and performed the great Blue Suede Shoes (and other stuff) which is why he makes the list and Elvis doesn’t, in spite of the fact that Elvis scored a bigger hit with it than Carl did.

The list is a great introduction to Rock ‘n’ Roll and you’ll have to go there to see who Maggot thinks is the Best Rocker of All Time.

Listverse is also packed with many other interesting lists.

Computer essentials

In previous columns I’ve mentioned a suite of free Microsoft programs called Windows Live Essentials and new versions have just been launched for 2011.

The programs in the suite include Writer, Photo Gallery, Messenger, Movie Maker, Family Safety, Mail and a few other things. One new and interesting addition is Windows Live Mesh which allows you to synchronise folders between a number of PCs connected to the Internet and/or folders stored on Microsoft’s online SkyDrive storage facility.

2010-10-16_210232 Windows Live Writer

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Supersonic surfing in KZN

posted in: FishNet, Internet, Mobile | 2
cellc_4gs_717555124 Late-breaking news: Cell C branded its service as 4Gs but has been stopped from doing do by the Advertising Standards Authority, on the grounds that it is not a 4G network. Cell C somewhat weakly claimed that 4Gs stands for “For Good Service”.

I just got back from the Durban and Pietermaritzburg launch of Cell C’s fast mobile HSPA+ data network

Cell C threw a big stone into the local Internet pond recently, when it announced its new data network, and a pricing structure which turns out to be more aggressive than a pit bull terrier. Read More

Back door challenge

DSC_2652

One common challenge to photographers is to go and find a picture within a meter or two of their back doors. I was musing over the unkempt state of the yard in our (allegedly serviced) complex, when I spotted the beauty, above, amongst the weeds.

In the picture below, I used my D90’s multiple exposure feature on another plant I found growing nearby.

DSC_2637

Rock ‘n’ Roll links

posted in: FishNet, Music, Online | 0

I have come across two Rock ‘n’ Roll shows on BBC Radio. They are:

  • Mark Lamarr’s Shake Rattle and Roll  broadcasts on Tuesdays but is available for listening anytime for a week after each show  – page includes links to show playlists
  • Geoff Barker’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party broadcasts on Saturdays but is available for listening anytime for a week after each show – playlists in the notes section of the show’s Facebook page.

A gem featured on one of the Rock and Roll Party shows is Si Cranstoun’s Dynamo.

 

Watch it but just don’t blame me if you can’t get that girl called Dynamo out your head…

A lightning Bolt?

posted in: FishNet, Mobile, Review | 0

One of the hazards of fiddling with new technology, as I do, is that you become prone to sudden urges to spend large sums of money.

There I was experimenting with a couple of mobile Internet browsers, when I came to the sudden realisation that I need a mobile phone with a bigger screen and which doesn’t connect to the Internet via the treacle-slow GPRS network.

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Mobile stuff

posted in: FishNet, Mobile | 0

Last time, I reported that I had found and installed the Google Mobile app on my phone and that I had noticed that it froze periodically.

Once, I wasn’t even able to answer an incoming call and I was afraid that I had managed to turn my phone into an unresponsive brick. Fortunately, all was well after I reset the phone completely by removing and replacing the battery and sim card. The phone and Google Mobile are now working perfectly together and the app is proving to be very useful.

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Applications on the go

posted in: FishNet, Mobile | 0

It took a very long time indeed for me to see the value in mobile phones that you could use to do more than talk to other people and send SMS messages.

The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) for connecting mobile phones to the Internet dates from 1997. Phones with WAP built in soon began to emerge and, although I don’t remember exactly when they appeared in South Africa, I do remember feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the whole idea.

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Restarting Windows 7

posted in: FishNet, OS, Windows | 0

In a previous column, I wrote that I was having a fine time using Microsoft’s recently-released Windows7 operating system.

My very favourable first impression has not changed after much intensive use, and I figure that the company really hit the jackpot with this version of Windows. It does everything in such a capable and fuss-free manner that I barely notice it’s there.

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The impossible shot ??

DSC_1843

This picture doesn’t look like much at first glance but it’s a testimony to how far digital photography has come and how it now surpasses film in many ways and for many purposes.

It came about when I was hurtling home down Inanda Road the other evening and saw a magnificent full moon rising through the skeletal  trees on the Camp Orchards Estate. Here was a massive photo opportunity but the conditions were so bad that I had little hope of getting a result.

It was getting dark, blowing a gale, I had a slow f/5.6 lens, I didn’t have a tripod with me and, to cap it all, the moon was rising pretty fast, as it does. I knew I’d need a pretty fast shutter speed to freeze the moon so the only thing to do was to wind the ISO up as far as possible, brace myself against a light pole for the shot, and see what happened.

It was taken at at 125th, f/5.6, ISO3200 and underexposed by 2.67 stops. I’m not kidding myself that it’s any good, but I am amazed that anything at all was recorded by the sensor.

Damn that thieving YouTube

As time thieves go, YouTube must be a hands-down winner. While researching for my column this coming weekend, I happened to go past YouTube and think that I would quickly look up Kay Starr to see what she sounded like.

I first thought I would just listen to her singing Rock and Roll Waltz but I had forgotten about the list of suggested videos which YouTube puts up alongside the clip you happen to be looking at. How could I then resist looking at the lady singing Bonaparte’s Retreat, or clicking on the link on that page, to hear Willie Nelson singing the same song, and then to Patti Page singing Tennessee Waltz.

It was then only a short step to satisfy my curiosity as to whether Patsy Cline could sing it better than Patti. After that, I had wasted so much time that I thought I might as well click on the link and listen to Patsy singing Wayward Wind.

And we won’t even go into the half hour or so that I spent having a listen to some Connie Francis tracks. It was hours late, at least I did get the column down eventually…

The evil empire strikes back, belatedly.

Good news arrived in my inbox just as I was sitting wondering what to base this column on.

The message was from the evil empire, Telkom, and basically said that its ADSL customers were going to be getting more bandwidth for their money from August 1, 2010. And about time too, I thought.

kenwright Bill Kenwright’s The Golden Years

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Worldwide Photowalk

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 2

It was Scott Kelby’s third annual Worldwide Photo Walk on 24 July 2010 and I wasted no time in getting my name down for the Durban, South Africa, leg of the walk led by fellow camera club member Andrew Roos.

Our walk took place in Point Precinct Area which includes some of the beachfront and buildings ranging from the ultra-modern to the seriously distressed. The walk started and ended outside Moyo Restaurant at Ushaka Marine World and I noticed that restaurant had established a second instance of itself on the end of the adjacent pier.

DSC_2567-Edit

I stuck a neutral density ND8 filter on the end of my 18-105mm lens and the 15-second exposure gave a misty effect on the waves that I liked, so I chose the shot as my entry for the Photowalk competition.

All my pictures taken on the walk:

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk 2010″ tag_mode=”all”]

Small things !

Programs come and go and I generally resist change for change’s sake. Of course, I often do make the change to new software and it’s usually because of some huge and miraculous new feature which has been introduced. Sometimes though, it’s a tiny little tweak that takes my fancy and gets me to change.

There is no doubt that Microsoft Word 2010 is a good-looking package with all the bells and whistles that you might reasonably require, but I wasn’t really tempted to move over to it and abandon my venerable and well-used copy of Word 2000. Not, that is, until I noticed that Word 2010’s status bar includes a running total of the number of words in the document.

It’s not a huge thing but, for me it is pretty darn cool, and the straw that broke the camel’s back and persuaded me I needed a new wordprocessor. Now all I have to do, is figure out how to make it the default program for opening .DOC files because Windows still insists on opening them with Word 2000, no matter how often I tell it not to.

Having a continuously updated idea of the number of words I’ve used is great although it’s perhaps not quite as cool as the hack done by a fellow computer scribe, so that his copy of Word displayed not only a running word count, but also how much he would earn from them at his usual rate per word.

Caps Lock trials and tribulations

Once upon a time I was driven mad when I kept hitting the Caps Lock key on my keyboard and having to go back and correct my typing.

i WOULD REGULARLY MAKE MISTAKES LIKE THIS and things got so frustrating that I decided I would have to do something with some urgency. Various solutions suggested themselves to me including ripping the Caps Lock key off of the keyboard or gluing it so that it couldn’t move.

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FREE: My Word 2010 QAT

2010-07-17_220857

Setting up the Quick Access Toolbar in Word 2010 does take a little bit of fiddling but, as I discovered, one can export the setup once you have it arranged to your satisfaction. You can then import that file into other copies of Word 2010 and not have to set the QAT up again.

Any reader interested in duplicating my setup can download and install my setup file but please be warned, it will overwrite any customisations you might have done already,

Download and installation instructions

  • Download the file by right-clicking this download link and selecting ‘Save link as’, ‘Save target as’ or whatever option your browser offers, and save the file to somewhere you can find it.
  • Click on the File ribbon in Word 2010
  • Select Options  => Quick Access Toolbar  => Import/Export => Import customization file
  • Navigate to the download file, select it, and click Open.

Shooting panoramas

I seem to be doing a fair bit on panoramas lately. One of the first articles I wrote concerned how to shoot them and I wrote that you had to shoot a series of overlapping pictures. The picture below shows what a series of images looked like before and after I had stitched them.

pano.jpg

One of the problems with shooting a panorama  is remembering months down the line, which images are a sequence. Shooting a picture of your hand at either end of the sequence is a tip I picked up on another blog (can’t remember which one) and is a neat way of separating panos from each other and from other pictures shot on the day.

Click to view all my panorama posts.

Outlook 2010 – Part II

posted in: FishNet, Review, Software | 0

After my e-mail account settings import troubles last time, I manually entered the settings for my two e-mail accounts, including Gmail. I eventually got that done but Outlook took no heed of the messages I had already imported, and created a new set of folders.

It had taken me a long time to get Windows Live Mail set up so that it downloads and keeps a local copy of my most important Gmail messages. I have decided I can’t face doing it all again, not to mention the bandwidth it’s going to use up to download all those messages from Gmail again.

I have accordingly decided to give Outlook a skip and keep with Windows Live Mail unless I can figure out a way of get Outlook to do what I want it to to do.

I would have thought that it would be basic business practice, for a software company, to make it as easy as possible for users to upgrade to their premium e-mail client from whatever other program they happen to be using. At the very least, you would think, the company would take care that the premium product would be able to upgrade in a fuss-free way from their OWN free e-mail client.

Fail !!

Fitting it all in

One of the problems of taking pictures of scenery and buildings is that the subjects are often too big to capture in a single exposure.

The problem got even worse with the coming of digital photography because small camera sensors mean that wide angle lenses are effectively not as wide as they would be if you were shooting film.

pano-0750-58

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Panoramas yet again…

pano-1377-1384

I’ve been fiddling with panoramas again and came up with this one of Durban’s new Moses Mabhida Stadium on the night Nigeria were playing South Korea in the 2010 Soccer World Cup. We were on the old Mutual Building in the centre of town and looking north to the stadium and, past that, up the coast.

The picture is made up of eight shots stitched in PS CS3.

I have been trying out a number of different packages for creating panoramas and will be posting in the next week about a really cool free option I’ve found.

My previous posts on panoramas can be found here, including hints on how to shoot them.

** More of my stadium pictures here.

A cute trick

One of the frustrations I often encounter as an editor is that people will load pictures into a word processing document before sending  them to me for publication. It is a problem because there was no way of getting the pictures without losing a lot of quality and spoiling them.

One very useful thing I discovered the other day is that you can retrieve pictures inserted in modern XML-format word processor files. These include Open Office’s .ODT and Microsoft Word’s .DOCX files and the trick works because they are not actually single files with images embedded in them.

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Fun with PhotoScape

Last week I downloaded the latest addition of FastStone, my favourite image viewer.

I like it because it is just as fast as its name implies and one of the quickest ways I know of to view a folder of pictures and cull the bad ones. It has a huge range of features including the ability to convert Raw files produced by a whole range of cameras.

It’s free and, if you haven’t done so already, I’d really advise you to pop along to FastStone.org and take a look. When I downloaded the latest version, I also got a list of other programs that FastStone users have downloaded and, at the top of the list, was a free program called PhotoScape, which I’d never heard of. It’s only about 16 MB in size so I snagged a copy and installed that as well.

2010-06-19_215813  The PhotoScape editor.

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Archives

posted in: Blogging, FishNet | 0

I have been doing the FishNet column for nearly four years non-stop, and the list of posts has gotten pretty long. While the search box at the right-hand top corner of the page is the quickest way of finding a particular story, I thought it would be useful if there was a listing of all the columns and other online-only posts I have added.

I was confident that, with WordPress being the great blogging platform that it is, there would be an easy solution to this. A quick search of the WordPress.org website revealed a number of different solutions including a nifty plugin called Smart Archives Reloaded which can be installed from inside WordPress.

The installation was quick and easy and it took only a few moments more to create a new page in WordPress, called Archive, and include the code which tells SMR to generate a list of posts every time someone views the page. The new page is available from a link at the top of each blog page, or by clicking here.

2010-06-13_112439

Making bad pictures

I went through a phase of playing lawn bowls but, although I haven’t played for a number of years, I have retained a piece of wisdom imparted by a grizzled veteran. He said that, no matter how good I got, I would still lose far more than I would ever win.

The same thing applies to photography, if you think about it, but there is the difference that your mistakes are preserved so that you can learn from them. Lisa Bettany made the point recently in her Mostly Lisa blog when she went through the photos in her collection and revisited some of her mistakes. She has put six of the worst up here, for us all to learn from.

2010-06-05_215537 Mostly Lisa

The lesson we should take from all this is that it’s not bad to make mistakes. What’s bad is not to learn from them…

Lisa is not at all technical but she has a good fresh eye and there’s plenty of inspiration to be had from her pictures. It doesn’t hurt either, that she, in turn, is very easy on the eye. Check her out on her blog and on  Flickr.

Using belt and braces

Looking back over previous columns, I see it’s been nearly a year since I accidentally formatted my hard drive.

I can’t believe it’s been that long because my wounds are still smarting from that unfortunate incident. One result of the experience is that I have adopted a belt and braces attitude to backups to try and make sure I’m never without a computer I can use and that I don’t lose data again.

2010-06-05_203110   Microsoft SyncToy 2.1 

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Aspect ratios

posted in: PB, Photography, Technique | 0

Here’s a quick note on what aspect ratios are and how they apply to planning a screen-based slideshow or presentation. It follows up on my previous post on ProShow Gold 4.1 and explains what I meant when I said that the first step in planning a slideshow is to consider the aspect ratio (or shape) of the screen you are going to show it on.

The aspect ratio describes the shape of a screen (or print for that matter) by stating how many units wide and high it is. A widescreen display is 16 units wide by 9 of the same units high (16:9) or, to put it another way, they are very nearly twice as wide as they are high. You can get big ones and small ones, but they will all have the same basic shape. By contrast, conventionally-shaped computer and television have screens which are 4 units by 3 units high (4:3).

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Noise reduction in PS CS5

posted in: PB, Photography, Software | 1

I have been very impressed with the noise reduction feature in Photoshop CS5. The picture below is from my previous post and shows what it looks like processed from the RAW file with noise reduction off, left, and switched on, right.

CS5-noiseClick image for larger version.

The noise is reduced pretty effectively and, when you print or view it at normal size, it’ll look even better!!

D90 Rocks!!

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I went the el-cheapo Sunday afternoon matinee at the Barnyard Theatre at Gateway Centre in Durban, to see the show Rock Circus. The show was great but what made it even better for me was that the theatre management don’t mind you taking photos during performances, so long as you don’t use flash.

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Internet radio and TV

This week brings news of two splendid entertainment channels I have discovered.

The first is Internet radio station Last.fm which you can find at www.last.fm and is like your favourite radio station, but on steroids. It has a lot in common with conventional radio in that it plays you a stream of music but, in this case, you have the opportunity of choosing the sort of music you want to listen to.

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Doing the family history thing

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The top of my dining room table is covered under a vast weight of books, documents and photographs and has consequently not been seen for many months.

In a moment of weakness I embarked on the Herculean task of creating a family tree and I am only now starting to make a slight dent in the piles of material. Everything has been sorted into different boxes and I have started the process of scanning all the bits and pieces into the computer.

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HDR (or an approximation)

posted in: PB, Photography, Walkabout | 1

DSC_9011-Edit

I have never really been in favour of the overdone HDR that has been popular in web photo circles for a while now. I don’t know that I’ve really changed my mind but, having downloaded a trial version of Photoshop CS5 which does that trick, I had to give it it a go. Right??  🙂 And then I thought I’d go the whole hog and add an overlay.

Anyhow, I quite like the look I managed to achieve but I honestly don’t think it’s ever going to be firm favourite like, say, black skies for instance.

The picture was taken on a recent walkabout on and around the newly revamped South Pier at the entrance to the harbour in Durban.There is something about harbours and piers that I really love.

** I have a big page here on Durban’s harbour including history and the entrance widening project.

Photo inspiration

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Taken at Umgababa on a recent photo outing to the KZN south coast.

Today, I would like to bring to your attention Scott Bourne’s inspirational photo blog and podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or directly from the blog. One of his all-time popular posts concerns 10 ways to Improve Your Photography without Buying Gear. The entire post is relevant but his sixth point rings a great big bell with me: Read More

New photo packages

One of my great interests is digital photography and I also take a great interest in the various software packages available for fixing and manipulating pictures.

Adobe will be launching updates of its digital imaging and design software packages in the next few weeks. Adobe Creative Suite 5 (CS5) has been the cause of much excitement on the Internet and, even though the products are not yet available**, there are plenty of previews, reviews and videos about them available.

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An overgrown throne

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

One of my most intense photographic passions is for ruined buildings and structures and I often seem to notice scenes where a toilet is included. The picture below was taken in a building that was rapidly returning to nature, found during a recent photo outing when fellow shooter Harry Lock and I set to out to see what we could find.

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Keeping abreast of technology

Over the years I have realised that I am not a true geek because I am not that interested in the technical minutiae such as processor speeds and all that sort of thing.

But I am pretty interested in technology however, and I do try and keep abreast of the latest and greatest in the computer world. I consume a fair amount of media on the subject each day and I thought I would share some of my favourite sources of information with you.

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A road warrior again

Nine years ago I took the plunge and bought a notebook computer before leaving Durban for a life on the road.

The machine in question was a Toshiba Satellite 1800-100 and by today’s standards seems woefully underpowered (see here for my article from the time). It wasn’t the latest and greatest model but it still cost me the huge amount of R14000 not including the bag to carry it in, which cost nearly R600 more.

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Creating powerful presentations

This week I continue my look into the Microsoft Office 10 Beta suite of office programs.

I have already had a look at Word and Publisher and this time it’s the turn of presentation program PowerPoint. It must be remembered that Office 10 is still in its beta-test phase but I have to say that PowerPoint is already looking very good.

The hated Ribbon interface made perfect sense to me, for a change, because the commands are grouped in tabs in a very intuitive way and I never had to search around for the one I wanted.

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Ideas to steal

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 3

Chase Jarvis blogged about a couple of innovative ideas to follow in case you ever hit a creative block and don’t know what to shoot. The first is to do a major photo shoot with a grandparent as your model.

It’s great idea but it should really be extended to other family and friends. I have mostly shied away from documenting the people important to me and, talking from recent bitter experience, I wish I had paid more attention to it.

Coping with loss is bad enough without an aching feeling that you should have taken some photographs, instead of keeping all your creative energies for shooting another ruined building, rusty lock, or whatever.

Shoot a loved one today !!

Testing, testing, testing…

All sorts of testing and reviewing is currently underway in my neck of the computer woods.

First, I have been fiddling with one of Mweb’s uncapped broadband Internet package which was launched on an unsuspecting market a couple of weeks ago. I was given the opportunity to test the most basic offering which, for the astounding price of R129 per month, offers unlimited Internet access at a speed of 384Kbps.

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Why the hell not?

During a recent very difficult time, I was once again given cause to wonder what software designers think they are doing.

The situation was that I had e-mail that I needed to take home and edit and, as I usually do, I exported the messages I needed from Microsoft Outlook at work in the form of an Outlook PST folder. I saved the folder onto a flash disk and took it home where I expected to import the messages into my Outlook Express mail client and do the edits I needed.

hellnot  My suggested new dialogue box!

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Sacré bleu!

posted in: Computers, FishNet, Online | 2

I mentioned in the previous post that the ZATech podcast had predicted that cheap uncapped ADSL connections were going to be launched in SA soon. Just a day or two after submitting that article for publication in Tribune, Mweb launched several uncapped products with the basic domestic 384kbps service priced at R219 per month.

Don’t they know that we South African consumers aren’t used to getting such value. It might be bad for us!

Notwithstanding that, however, I am soon going to be testing the product and will report back, so watch this space.

Dead but not yet buried

Rattling around on the back seat of my car is a spindle of CDs which I burned to listen to in the car after I upgraded to one that had a CD player.

Catching sight of them the other day, it popped into my head that the phrase ‘dead man walking’ describes CD (and DVD) technology perfectly. CDs were marvels of technology when they were launched in 1982. They held a whopping 700 MB of data, the equivalent of about 80 minutes of uncompressed audio.

CD BruléImage courtsesy *** Fanch The System !!! ***

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Sports action

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 1

I have been playing with composing pictures with a much tighter crop than I would normally choose. The fingers strumming the guitar strings, rather than the whole musician, for example. This pic of a car in action during the recent Total Tour Natal Rally is composed way tighter than most of the others from that shoot, yet it tells the story of the day pretty well.

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Making posting easy

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of the WordPress blogging platform but I do have one gripe with it.

The built-in editor you use for adding and formatting blog posts is pretty cramped and not all that pleasant to use. There are WordPress plug-ins you can install to replace it, but I found another very nice option, from a somewhat unexpected source.

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On the front page

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

What a hell of a time I’ve had over the last few weeks with my computer, which I’ve written about on my other blog.  Finally, I’m back to normal and might even get a chance to process some of the pictures which have been piling up. In meantime, I can disclose that one of my pictures made the front page of KZN Industrial & Business News, supporting an article on the pulp and paper industry.

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I am the editor of the publication, it’s true, but that didn’t bias me towards the picture. It’s just that the other candidates weren’t up to the same incredibly high editorial and artistic standard.  😉

As You Do

By Richard Hammond

Weidenfeld & Nicholson: 2008

Richard Hammond is best known as The Hamster, the shortest of the three presenters on the BBC’s hugely successful Top Gear television programme. I am quite a fan of the show and took the opportunity to borrow the book when it was offered to me. To be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it, but I thought it just might throw some light behind the scenes of Top Gear.

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Clouds and silver linings

The past few weeks in these parts have been really hectic from the technological point of view.

First, I stopped my lost credit card and was unable to access my Internet banking facility. Then I was without a computer for most of a week and, having decided to take the opportunity to install Windows 7, I spent another week finding and installing all my favourite software packages, and getting to know Windows 7’s particular quirks. Read More

XP is a jealousy custard

The week started off with a bang this morning when I went into my office only to discover the frozen remains of my screen saver on the computer’s screen.

Apart from that slight sign of life, nothing was happening and that state of affairs carried on even after I applied the usual treatment of switching off, unplugging the machine completely, and turning it back on. Read More

The Case of the Missing Servant

posted in: Book review, Crime, IG | 0

By Tarquin Hall
Hutchinson: 2009

This book marks the first appearance of Delhi-based private eye Vish Puri whose usual business is checking into the backgrounds of prospective partners in arranged marriages. The detective is not your usual man-of-action hero but, instead, he is a portly 51 year-old Punjabi with an abiding passion for greasy food and a large crew of assistants, modelled on Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Read More

PC woes

posted in: FishNet, General, Mobile, Rant | 0

What a miserable situation! Woke up a few days ago and my PC was dead in the water. The full story will be written as soon as I have something more convenient than my BlackBerry to do it on.

Guru Vaughan, the fixer, assures me that the PC will be back tomorrow. The main problem I’ve been coping with is not the data, which is intact, but my missing bookmarks and website passwords.

I’ll need to work on some solutions for that in future. With that resolution, I come to the end of my first post done from a mobile device.

Full House

posted in: Book review, IG, Romance | 0

By Janet Evanovitch and Charlotte Hughes

Headline Book Publishing: 2002

I am always very happy to find a new Janet Evanovitch book in the library and, when I saw Full House on the shelf, I seized it eagerly. In the introduction, Evanovitch explains that the book is a romance novel she wrote in 1989 and which is being rereleased for her fans. Read More

Having a quiet word

posted in: Blogging, FishNet, Online | 0

Several times over the years I have mentioned tools which can be used for making blogging easy.

On other occasions, I have mentioned ones which do the same thing for website creation. Some of the products and services can do both but this week, I’ll talk about one that does both jobs very well.

WordPress is technically a blogging platform but its support for creating static web pages is so good that many people are using it for all their website requirements.

It is an astonishingly capable open source software package that is available for free to anyone that wants it. It will run on just about any web server that supports PHP scripting and the MySQL database.

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CD cover

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

Sorting through my in-tray, the other day, I found the CD soul in a suitcase that local musician Rowan Stuart had given me in appreciation for some pictures I contributed. The first thing was to feed the disc into CD and you know, it really rocks. Of course, I already knew it would, having heard his stuff before.

I first photographed Rowan performing at a gig at a nearby Waldorf School. This one was my favourite from that shoot:

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Durban @ night

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Things have been a bit quiet on the photographic front. Not so much on the taking, as on the processing side. Nevertheless, I did like this one taken at the weekend on a trip downtown. It’s made up three of stitched images and would have made a much wider panorama, had not the fourth picture been as soft as something out of a Canon 😉

I should have shot a couple more safety shots but it came on to rain and there was plenty of lightning around, not the healthiest time to be one of the highest points in the city.

Polishing the chrome

One minute I was a committed user of Firefox web browser, and a minute later, I wasn’t.

I had used Firefox for a couple of years and, although I was pretty happy with it, there were occasional feelings of discontent when it would install an upgrade and disable add-ons I had carefully installed.

I gave Google’s Chrome browser a try when it first came out, and I had a brief flirtation with Opera, but neither of those tempted too me much. Many of the features of Chrome had not been implemented in that early version, and Opera, although very slick and capable, would not import my browsing history and passwords from the websites I visit regularly.

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This Week in Photography

In the past year or two, I have become disgusted with the quality of the television broadcasts that we are offered, and I have compensated for that by listening to podcasts broadcast over the Internet. I shouldn’t think that there’s anyone reading this blog who doesn’t know what a podcast is but just in case, I’ll explain that they are the Internet equivalent of radio (mostly) and television shows, mostly available for free.

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HDR master

One of the main limitations of all cameras has been that they cannot capture the same number of brightness levels in a scene that the human eye can. This has led to the situation where the photographer has to make up his or her mind which parts of the scene they want to capture. The usual choice was to capture highlights correctly and let the shadows go totally black.

Now, in digital photography, we have a technique called HDR (High Dynamic Range) which lets you capture more brightness levels than ever before, by blending a number of different exposures together. One of the early masters of this technique is Trey Ratcliffe who established the site Stuck in Customs, where he combines his love of travel photography with HDR.

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WordPress anyone??

posted in: Blogging, FishNet | 0

I’m working on an article on the blogging platform WordPress for publication later this week, and would like to invite you leave your comments about it. Do you have any hints and tips on using it, and what are your favourite plugins?

Sleek, shiny and desirable

There can be few people in the developed world who have not heard something about the launch 10 days ago of Apple’s new iPad computer tablet.

When you think that the iPad is just a portable tablet computer designed for web surfing, e-mailing, viewing photos, reading books and playing music, the level of interest in it has been incredible. Earlier this year, Apple issued an invitation to journalists to be present at an event on 27 January and the Internet began to hum with even more discussion and speculation that, at last, the truth would finally be known.

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Yay 2000 !

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

I hadn’t noticed when I transferred this blog over from WordPress.com recently, but I see that it had then had over 2000 page views. Not that Scott Kelby and photo bloggers of similar stature are quaking in their boots as yet, but I’m pleased. 🙂

Shooting for peanuts

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

One of the major problems confronting photographers today is the increasing difficulty in making a living from it. This is brought about partly by these recessionary times when money is tight, and the market for photography is shrinking with the closure of newspapers and magazines all over the world.

The other factor in play is the improvement in imaging technology which means more and more people are able to take competent shots and who, to get a foot in the door of the professional photographic world, are prepared to sell their pictures cheaply. It would be easy to dismiss them if they were all untalented and produced poor pictures, but I know several who are turning out very good work at a price so low they cannot possibly be even covering the costs of their expensive equipment.

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Apple iPad. What do you think?

posted in: Apple, FishNet | 0

A very experienced blogging colleague gives the advice that the way to get readers to engage with a blog post is to ask them a question. And so I am.

Nest weekend’s column in the Tribune is going to be about the launch of Apple’s new iPad. I would like to include a selection of your opinions on it. Two questions spring to mind:

1) Do you want one?

2) If not, is expense the deal breaker, or is it the fact that it cannot multi-task and is not compatible with Adobe Flash?

Comments are most welcome.

Lucky dip goodies

Over the last few weeks I have been collecting bits and pieces and I thought I would share them with you this time.

According to a news story I saw recently, it seems that Internet-filtering technology can have unintended consequences. The magazine of Canada’s National History Society is being forced to change its name due to the fact that porn filters in schools and some e-mail systems were blocking access to the magazine.

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Cool refreshing mint

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 3

Late last year, I did a couple of columns on the free Ubuntu Linux operating system.

I reported that I had installed it on my spare computer and that I had been extremely impressed with how well it worked. I was convinced that the average computer user would find Ubuntu more than adequate for all their computing needs.

One reservation I did have with the operating system was that the initial installation did not provide support for playing many media file formats. I discovered that you can get files, such as CDs, DVDs and various types of streaming media, to play on Ubuntu, but it does require some fiddling under the bonnet.

Another reservation I had was that, although there is a way to run some Windows programs under Ubuntu, the process can be far from simple. I concluded that it would be a viable choice for many computer users with the only real exceptions being people who need software which is either not available on Linux, or won’t run on it.

Since those columns were published, I have discovered a new version of Linux which is even easier to use than Ubuntu. It is called Linux Mint and is essentially a streamlined and simplified version of Ubuntu.

Linux Mint 8 (codenamed Helena) corresponds to the current version of Ubuntu, known as Karmic Koala, and can be downloaded for free from www.linuxmint.com.

It installs with a refreshing minty-green (what else?) colour scheme and is indeed very simple to use and navigate your way around. It comes with a wide selection of software, including OpenOffice and many other packages, and it is totally compatible with all the software that will run on Ubuntu.

One area where Mint has greatly improved over Ubuntu, is that it is able to play most media formats straight after installation. The desktop layout has also been simplified and there are fewer options and buttons to click on.

The installation file is rather large Nearly 700Mb), but I have discovered that it is possible to order it on CD from fosscds.co.za for about R30 a copy.

One good thing about Linux Mint, and many other versions of Linux, is that they can be used to boot up your Windows computer into Linux without making any changes to Windows. This makes it very easy to preview new operating systems without committing yourself to installing them.

Linux Mint is also able to install itself in such a way that, when you switch your computer on, you are given the choice whether you would like to boot into it or the operating system that you had previously installed.

This option seems fairly safe but as usual with these things, you’d be well advised to have a good backup of all your data, before starting the install process.

I have been incredibly impressed with the two versions of Linux that I’ve tried so far. To my mind, they are more than ready for prime time and are extremely viable competitors for Windows.

My feeling is that Windows could have a serious problem going forward, especially if the Linux developers start paying more attention to making a really bullet-proof means of running Windows programs on Linux.

Worldwide Photowalk

In one of the very early posts on this blog, I confided that I had been lucky enough to win the Durban section of Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk 2009. With over 900 winners and the same number of walk organisers, there were a lot of prizes to post out and problems were bound to occur. I had begun to think that my prize was never going to arrive but, shortly after Christmas, a courier rolled up to the door with a copy of Scott Kelby’s The Digital Photography Book Volume 3.

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Speech recognition

Regular readers will know that I have been using Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software for a couple of years to do my columns and other writings.

The version I had was the Recorder Edition v9.5, and it required you to record your dictation either onto a handheld recorder, or directly onto a computer, before it would transcribe it for you.

I had been hearing good things on the Internet about the improvements in Version 10 of the software and I was very keen to give it a try because it would allow me to dictate straight into a wordprocessing program, doing corrections as I went along, and cut out the need to record it first. Read More

Scrapbooking

A while ago I posted on Triscape FxFoto which I thought might be useful for scrapbookers, even though I didn’t much like it, because it seemed less complex than other image manipaulation programs. I did promise to check with my friend Carolyn, who is an experienced digital scrapbooker, and get back to you with what she thought.

She wrote:

I have actually never heard of FxFoto, but then again I just love Photoshop and couldn’t imagine using anything else to get such realistic 3D work. Of course, Photoshop is expensive, but there is always Photoshop Elements which is way cheaper but doesn’t come with all the functionality. Read More

Smart at last

posted in: FishNet, Mobile | 2

In one of the last columns of 2009, I hinted that I had finally grasped the nettle and renewed my mobile phone contract.

It was about time; my previous contract had expired a year previously and the printing was starting to wear off of the keypad of my el-cheapo Nokia handset. The reason for the delay is that I hate shopping in the first place and especially when I am going to be dealing with an organisation that doesn’t really care if it has my business or not.

What finally decided me to go ahead with the upgrade was that I happened to hear, quite by chance, that there was now a reasonably priced BlackBerry Smartphone available, and that the deal included unlimited Internet access. Read More

Beware of the YouTube

YouTube has come up in these columns from time to time but, in keeping with my current theme of whether its possible to depend wholly on the Internet for one’s entertainment, I thought I’d mention it again, and issue issue a warning.

For those who haven’t yet encountered it, YouTube (www.youtube.com) is a video sharing site which allows anyone to upload video for the world to enjoy. The interesting YouTube blog (youtube-global.blogspot.com) gives a glimpse of how huge the site is.

Users are apparently adding to it at the rate of 20 hours of video every minute of every day. Throw into the mix a billion videos viewed every day by site visitors, and you have an entertainment phenomenon which is probably unparalleled in history. Read More

Gift guide: 2009

posted in: FishNet, General | 0

South African retailers and consumers are seeing eye-to-eye for a change, and are all hoping for a good Christmas this year. The retailers are hoping to sell lots of nice presents and the consumers are hoping that at least some of those being bought, will be coming their way.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been taking a good look around the Internet and a couple of things that I would not be sorry to find in my Christmas stocking have caught my eye .

If someone liked me very much and money were absolutely no object, this kind of person would lash out on a Nikon D700 camera which, although not cheap at around R30,000 without a lens, is Nikon’s least costly digital camera with a full frame sensor; one the same size as a piece of 35mm film. The Nikon D90 I already own, is a wonderful camera but the D700, with its larger sensor, provides very much better performance in low light conditions. Read More

The Best Camera

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 7

IMG00029-20091215-1634

The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You, a book by Chase Jarvis, is causing quite a stir in the photographic world. The idea that underpins the book is that it is not expensive equipment that really counts, but the photographer’s eye.

To prove it, all the photography in the book was done with the camera in his iPhone. The fact is that there are times when we leave our cameras at home and, no matter how good they are, the one actually in your pocket is better at that moment.

The picture, above, is one of the first taken with the camera in my new BlackBerry. Not too bad for a first try and, seeing that the D90 was at home, certainly better than no shot at all.

They’re playing our iTunes

Is it just me or are our already bad TV broadcasts getting even worse?

I’ve mentioned this before but, as a DSTV subscriber, the continual onslaught of repeat programming and house adverts, regurgitated several times every hour, are driving me to distraction. I try not to, but I can’t help feeling slightly murderous when I tune in, to find that The Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers or Orange County Chopper is on. Again!
And, if DSTV is bad, the SABC is even worse.

Over the last couple of months I have again been wondering if it could be viable to rely solely on the Internet for one’s entertainment needs. I’ve had the idea before but, at the price of Internet connectivity then, it didn’t seem practical. Read More

Triscape FxFoto

While out and about on the web the other day, I heard tell of an image manipulation program called FxFoto.

Always being interested in photo-related programs, I decided to go along and see what it was all about.  It turns out that it is meant for fixing digital images and creating a wide variety of photo projects including collages, movies, scrapbook pages, and many others. Read More

Ubuntu Part III

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 1

I managed to install the free Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer with very little problem and, being very easy to get to know, it was getting high marks in my eyes.

It came with a wide selection of free software packages already installed including, as I was pleased to find, a very nice Mahjong game. I managed to use the built-in package manger to find and install a program called Wine, which lets you run many Windows programs on Linux.

The time for playing around was over, and I decided to put Ubuntu to the test to see if it could be a really viable replacement for the Windows XP I use every day. It recognised my HP D1360 printer as soon as I plugged it in, and I was able to print a document without any fuss at all. Read More

Took a while

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It took a while to get round to processing the pictures from a shoot during which I wasn’t thinking all that clearly. (See Doofus) I did have a very high discard rate but there were a few decent pictures as well, thank goodness.

The one of Mieke, above, is one that pleases me a lot. It was pretty chilly and the poor girl’s hands were turning blue, so I did what every self-respecting photographer would have done; I converted to black and white.  😉

There are already more pictures from that shoot in my Model Shoot Set on Flickr, and I will be adding a few more in the near future.

A wonderful community

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 1

DSC_1528

The online community is a wonderful strange thing. I dicovered today that Flickr will display a list of your most-viewed pictures. In the top two places in my photostream were a pair of nice ladies, as you might expect, but in third place, was the picture above. Of course, I love it in an indulgent fatherly kind of way, but I am the first to admit that it doesn’t have that much artistic merit. People do look at unexpected things.

Ubuntu Part II

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 2

Last week, I wrote of my experiences installing the Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer.

The whole experience was pretty quick and painless and I was most impressed with how civilised and house-trained it is. The feeling you get is that the system is solid and reliable with very little unnecessary flashiness which, to my mind, just eats up computing resources and offers little benefit.

It is obvious that a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of the interface and it is laden with thoughtful little touches to make life easier. A nice feature is that it keeps an eye out for when you plug in a disc or memory stick, and displays it on your desktop as an icon, so that you can access it quickly when you need it. Read More

Ubuntu Part I

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 2

Over the last few months I have been promising myself that I’d have a go at installing Ubuntu, a version of the Linux operating system, on my spare computer.

The attraction behind Linux is that it is free, in stark contrast to Windows for example and, by repute, is more stable and powerful. I arbitrarily chose Ubuntu among the many variants on offer because it is the version of Linux supported by Mark Shuttleworth.

Ubuntu is apparently a modified and improved version of Debian Linux and, although its name is an African word for Humanity to others, one Internet wit defined it as a word meaning ‘I can’t configure Debian’. Read More

Blurry good?

DSC_0069-Blur
I was fiddling with the trial version of Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro Photoshop plug-in and came up with this version of one of my favourite pictures, after trying a few different effects. Silver Efex seems to be a great way to convert images to black and white, offering everything you might want under under one roof, so to speak.

You can pick from a variety of presets and then customise the look of your picture by simulating the use of coloured filters, toning, and adding film grain. Using Control Point technology, you can apply effects to selected areas in a picture.

The package is pretty easy to use although I found the interface a trifle cramped, with there being no obvious was to maximise the work space to fill the entire screen. I like Silver Efex but the $199 price tag is too much for my slender means at the moment.

Photo Critique

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

Over the last months I’ve been tuning into an occasional video podcast produced by Atlanta photographer Zack Arias and his musician wife Meghan.

What happens is that Zack and Meghan review websites belonging to professional or wannabe-professional photographers and manage to impart much commonsense and wisdom along the way.

Photographers have to apply to have their sites and their work reviewed and, on occasion, it must be quite a painful experience. Not that the Ariases (I wonder what the proper plural is) are ever nasty or unkind, but they do tell it as they see it. Read More

Huge big photo fun

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Software | 0

This week I was planning to write about my experiences installing Linux on an old computer I have lying around.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t have made much of a story as my activities have been so far been confined to looking at the computer tower squatting on the floor of the spare room, acting as a bedside table, and thinking; ‘Hmmmm!’.

So that’ll have to wait for some time in the future but, talk about writing, I am really having a lot of success with the Dragon Dictate speech recognition software that I have mentioned before. Read More

BigHugeLabs

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 1

I wrote about  photo website BigHugeLabs in my weekly computer column but I decided to archive that section of the article here.

I thought I’d share an interesting photo website with you.  It’s called BigHugeLabs and offers myriads of different photo-related services.  These include turning photos into a number of different things including a magazine cover, a motivational poster, a pop art poster, a mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle, an ID card, or any one of a number of other options.

You can upload photos directly from your computer or from the photo sharing site Flickr, and you can have many hours of fun creating your masterpieces.

stampBigHugeLabs offers you the opportunity of having these printed and posted to you, but this is of fairly limited appeal to us South African consumers, given the cost of international postage.

Where it scores, however, is that it allows you to download the file of the project that you create. If you use the free service, you can only download low-res files, suitable for putting on the web or e-mailing but, if you pay, you can download high-resolution files which would be entirely suitable for printing at a local photo lab.

There are a number of payment options ranging from $100 for your lifetime to $25 for a year, $10 for a month, or $5 for a week. Even if you don’t pay however, I still feel that you can have plenty of creative fun at the BigHugeLabs website.

Lens longevity

I’m an ignoramus when it comes to technical issues but I’m wondering about the pricing of electronic goods, lenses in particular. In the old days when you bought a good lens, you paid through the nose, as you do today, but at least you had assurance that that you would most likely have the use of the lens for your life-time.

Now when you cut off your limbs and give them to the retailer in exchange for a piece of glass, it will only be usable as long as the electrics last, and there’s no telling how long that will be. I would love to know how long these things are designed to last, but I’m sure that the average will be considerably less than the lifetime typically enjoyed by  pre-electric lenses.

What brought these thoughts on is that  a friend has had a Canon 24-105mm lens for a couple of years and it recently stopped working. He was quoted more than half of the dollar price for new lens, to have it fixed. In another case, practically our whole camera club used to shoot Canons and many of us owned their 17-85mm lens. Ever single one of us, and several other people we know, have had that lens fail, and had to pay plenty to get it fixed.

I was a pretty early adopter of Canon autofocus in my home town of Durban, South Africa. I bought three lenses in the early 1990s and one in 2003, when I switched to digital. Only one of those, a  35-135mm, is still working.

I don’t know whether lenses have come down in price much in real terms, but they should have. Do electronic lenses offer the same value for money as the  lenses in the past did? If the manufacturers offered parts at cost, as a service, maybe…

Live performances

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Software | 0

By a strange quirk of coincidence, both items I’m going to discuss today come with the word Live in their names.

First off, is a neat little drawing program called Livebrush. It basically gives you a canvas and the ability to draw lines in an unlimited variety of styles and decorative flourishes. Every aspect of the brushstroke can be controlled via on-screen control palettes and each line is created on a new layer. You gradually build up your picture, layer by layer, until you’ve got what you want on canvas. Read More

Doofus

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 3

Just when I thought I had got this Strobist off-camera flash thing taped, I managed to totally mess up a shoot. Our camera club had organised a model shoot with three gorgeous models but it rained and we had a sudden change of venue and a lot less light than expected.

A few of us Nikon shooters decided to practice our skills with off-camera flash and Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. We got everything set up quickly and were snapping away at a great rate, swapping models and poses and having a great time.

Read More

Getting Bown away

The last week brought me quite a shock, photographically speaking. First, to fill in the essential background, I have been wondering what my own photographic style was and what sort of photographer I wanted to be.

This phase has been going on for quite some years and I had come to some preliminary conclusions. These were, firstly, that I especially like shooting people and, secondly, that I like high contrast black and white, with inky-black backgrounds. Read More

A new Windows opens

posted in: FishNet, Rant, Windows | 0

I see that there has been a study by the universities of Oxford and Oviedo about broadband Internet quality in various countries.

South Africa’s broadband quality is apparently below the international average and considered to be below the level at which it is really practicable to run online applications in any useful way. South Korea has the fastest Internet, with an average speed of 21.85 Mbps and Lithuania, of all places, comes fourth with 13.5 Mbps.

I’m in danger of sounding like a stuck record, so I’ll change subjects quickly to say Windows 7 has finally arrived and we’ll see if it can rescue Microsoft’s reputation which was damaged by the previous version of Windows, First. Read More

The Hot Shoe Diaries

I may have mentioned that one of the most exciting developments in my photography in recent times was the discovery of off-camera flash. Or, if I wanted to be strictly accurate, my recent rediscovery of off-camera flash..

I was browsing through the B&H Photo site the other day when I noticed Canon accessories which allow you to connect off-camera flashes to your Canon film cameras. It reminded me that I once had a set of those cords, hot shoes and connector boxes, and which gave superb results. I was shooting my niece who was a toddler at the time and, if I tell you that she now has her driving license and is at university, it’ll give you an idea of just how long ago that was.

cheeky

For one reason or another, perhaps it was too limiting to work tethered with short bits of wire, I stopped doing the off-camera thing; and what a great pity that was.

Read More

Getting the light right

Over the past few weeks I’ve been preoccupied with family medical issues and didn’t get the chance to write up a practice shoot I went on with a couple of fellow Strobists. We started out in an old railway station building and were shooting grungy detail pictures with our cameras mounted on tripods.

Little did poor Voden know that he was destined to be the model a little later in the day, on the wonderful graffiti-covered bench outside. A group of us have recently become disciples of Joe McNally and the holy Nikon Creative Lighting System which, if you use it right, can give you incredible off-camera flash pictures.

This picture was taken with Voden’s bare SB-900 flash gun positioned at 90° to the camera, directly in front of him, and slightly above his eye line. Tucked into the space between him and the bench was my SB-600 flash, set to put just a bit of light into the space behind his head.

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The next one was taken with the help Read More

Pernicious pricing policies

posted in: FishNet, Rant | 0

Just what is it with this country that our prices on some things are so high?

Regular readers will know that I have referred to this once or twice in the past and what got me going this time, was the visit of an old friend, my oldest in fact, from Canada. He has made a life for himself and his family on Vancouver Island for the last decade and a half.

Our conversations wandered here, there and everywhere, over the course of four or five days, and I couldn’t help building up a picture of his life over there with the significant other, the mother, and three active teenagers sharing a house. Like most other people in cold climates, they spend quite a lot of time indoors each year, and they rely partly on electronics to keep them amused.

Their leisure time is preoccupied with six television sets and four computers, all of which are fed by a fat cable which comes into the house, and provides umpteen TV channels and more Internet bandwidth than you could shake a stick at. My friend, in fact, doesn’t know a how much bandwidth they all use, and he doesn’t care.

Their cable TV and Internet package sets him back CA $130 a month, about R910. When you add to that the fact that local landline calls are totally free, and they can phone South Africa at 6-8 Canadian cents a minute, it is clear that this bandwidth-intensive family is paying less than it costs me, alone, for my television, telephone, and meagre bandwidth allowance.

The college-going teenager has a part-time job, and an Apple iPhone, which he quite easily pays for himself. My friend has a Blackberry with unlimited e-mail, 200 minutes of talk time during business hours, free calls in the evenings and at the weekends, and all for CA $60, R420, a month.

Most readers by now will be nodding their heads and agreeing what swine our service providers are. From experience, however, I know that there will be a percentage of you who are thinking something along the lines of: “Whining again! Doesn’t he know that they have a bigger market than we do?”

Well, it turns out Canada has a population of 33 million people and, although we don’t know exactly how many South Africans there are at this point, SA Statistics’ best guess is that we are currently nearly 50 million.

So the naysayers can stick that in their pipes and smoke it! It’s not a small market we’ve got, so much as one that accepts whatever is dished out to it, and a government that is no help at all.

My friend mentioned that the significant other had just taken delivery of a Mazda 3 motor vehicle and I wondered how our prices would compare with their Canadian ones. A quick look online (and you were wondering where the online bit would come in this week) revealed that a Mazda 3 2.0L. was being offered by a South African dealer at R242,300.

In stark contrast, on Vancouver Island, Pacific Mazda at 1060 Yates Street in Victoria, was offering the same vehicle at $15,995 Canadian dollars, or about R113,000. And if you really want to feel miserable, just take a look at their listing of used cars. How about a black Subaru Impreza 2008 model for CA $16,990, or about R120,000?

To sign out this week, I’ll just repeat my opening question: ‘Just what is it with this country?’

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Night at the Opera

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 0

This week I’ve got a couple of items to cover and first up is an Internet browser which is new to me, at least.

It’s called Opera and has been available for years, but I never bothered because it cost money in an era when other browsers were free. It has been very popular on mobile phones but I hadn’t encountered it, not being a mobile Internetter.

I recently saw that a new version had been launched and, having a couple of minutes to kill, I went along to opera.com to have a look. Somewhere along the line, they stopped charging for what is a capable, good-looking piece of software.

The new version, Version 10, is not quite as minimalistic as Google’s Chrome browser, but its interface is neat and clean and it looks very smart. It does the normal web browsing thing very well and has plenty of extras built-in, like a Bit-Torrent download capability, just for starters.

It also has a built-in notepad which you can use to take notes as you hop from one website to another, or which can be used for other purposes like keeping to-do lists, or whatever else takes your fancy. Opera allows you to install widgets (or small programs), of which there are a large selection, ranging from games to clocks, and much else besides.

Opera also includes a capable looking e-mail and news client which will operate with both POP3 and IMAP-based e-mail systems. The IMAP capability lets you to use it in conjunction with services such as Google’s Gmail or indeed, with Operas own web-based e-mail system.

It has a feed reader, which will allow you to subscribe to websites that provide feeds, and keep you up to date when new material is added to any of the sites that you have subscribed to. Unusually, Opera has a voice control feature, which allows you to control the browser with the power of your voice alone, and it’s certainly going to be interesting playing with that.

It has a feature which will remember your website passwords and fill them in, at a click of a button, whenever you visit a site requiring them. The feature will also streamline filling online forms by automatically entering personal details, such as e-mail and postal addresses, into web-based forms.

It’s too early to say whether I’m going to make the switch to Opera, but my preliminary impression is that it is a very capable browser and more polished and complete than most of the other options.

I had hoped that talking about Opera would expand into an entire column but, seeing as I have some centimeters left to fill, I thought I would go into some interesting websites that you might possibly visit using Opera, or your favourite browser.

The first one, courtesy of Sky News, was an ongoing auction on eBay (ebay.co.uk) in which one million frozen mixed fruit pies were being sold off to the highest bidder. The 1,090,000 pies, occupying 130 pallets and needing five articulated trucks to carry them, had then received 208 bids, with the highest being for £125,300. Bidders were warned that the winner would have to come and fetch their pies.

And I thought I had seen everything!

The other site worth visiting is detouch.org which shows off the work of a variety of beauty retouchers, who take pictures of already attractive women and manipulate them to make the models look better; or just different, it might be argued. The site has a very nifty Java application built into it, which allows you to select from a stack of options and shows you pictures before and after retouching.

I have to say that I was amazed at some of the examples shown, which range from skin smoothing, whitening of teeth, brightening of eyes and the elimination of stray wisps of hair, to much more elaborate retouches. Eyebrows are shaped, excess poundage is removed, certain features are plumped-up, and even dramatic shadows and makeup are added.

It certainly gives you a new perspective on the beauty and fashion shots that feature so often in popular magazines. Those ladies are definitely not as perfect as they might seem.

Why not leave a comment by checking the link below?
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Skies of black,

nandi_2009-09-06_Pano

I see skies of black ….. clouds of white
Tra-la-la

Seriously though, I seem to be in a major black skies phase at the moment.  This is our new Moses Mabhida Stadium which I have to say, looks pretty stunning. Word on the street is that the grass for the pitch has already been laid.

The picture above is a pano stitched from seven separate frames but the detail detail of the arch, below, is a single frame. Click the pictures to go to Flickr to view slightly larger versions.

DSC_5104

How to buy a computer

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 0

There have been a couple of questions from readers in the past few weeks about buying computers, and I thought it might be useful to try and provide some sort of advice in this column.

It is not surprising to find people are nervous about doing the wrong thing when asked to choose between products containing so many components of differing sizes, speeds, and model numbers.

Potential buyers are often concerned that the computer they choose may not be up to the task that it is being bought for. The other common fear is that, knowing nothing about the speeds and capacities of the various components, they might be paying for technology or capacity they don’t need.

The good news is that the entry-level PC these days is more than good enough for most computing tasks. These include office work, fiddling with digital photography, doing e-mail, surfing the web, and playing less involved games.

The entry-level PC will be quite fine these for those pursuits although I would recommend paying for extra memory, so that the machine has at least 2Gb of RAM. These machines will most likely not have separate network and video cards, but have them built-into their motherboards, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Choosing a computer does get a bit more complex when you are buying them to engage in activities, such as video editing, high-end gaming, and advanced image manipulation, which need more computer resources to be really viable.

The advice I gave to a reader who wanted to buy a gaming computer for his son was to take a look at a couple of the games his son was going to play. Programs, including games and video editing packages, will always have a listing of the minimum requirements they need to run and, very often, a suggested configuration as well.

It seems that most of the monitors available today are LCD screens and I don’t know all that much about them. It seems to be that screens with higher contrast ratios and lower response times are better.

I’d say the thing to do is to take a careful look at difference between the cheaper and more expensive models, and don’t get seduced into buying an inferior screen, simply because it’s larger.

Choosing a laptop, or notebook, sounds quite hard too, but it’s also a matter of buying a machine to suit what you’re going to do with it. At the most basic, you have the so-called Netbooks, which would be fine for web surfing, a bit of wordprocessing, or sending e-mail.

These normally have smaller screens but make up for that with a greater battery life and enhanced portability. You have to decide if you can live with the smaller screen and keyboard.

As with their desktop cousins, the entry-level notebooks will be fine for just about any task and you really only need something better if you’ve got a special requirement. I would want at least 2Gb of RAM and a wireless networking facility built-into any machine I bought.

As far as operating systems go, I personally would not choose to buy any machine with Microsoft Vista on it at this stage. Windows 7 is due out very soon and I would insist on a free upgrade to that, or I wouldn’t buy. I’d also definitely consider using a Linux variant, like Ubuntu, if I could get Linux versions of all the software I intended to use.

The only really hard thing about buying a computer, to my mind, is choosing who to buy it from. The ideal is to buy from someone you trust to provide unbiased advice and the technical support you’ll need, and that’s really a matter of individual choice.

One hint I’ll give is that the glib-sounding person you found in the newspaper, with only a mobile number listed, is probably not the right one to choose. Of course, if you have a favourite guru, the choice will be easy for you.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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A momentous day

DSC_5467

Allan’s photo blog celebrated a milestone a few moments ago, when it surged through the thousand views barrier. My thanks to one and all, and here’s  to the next thousand.

I really like the picture above. I seem to be going through a phase where I’m looking at deep rich blue skies and not seeing them blue at all…

HINT: I can’t quite claim the picture represents the essential truth of the scene I witnessed, but it’s not too far off.

Fifi and the fast lens

DSC_5475

The quality of the kit lenses we get with our cameras these days is generally pretty good and so are most of the less expensive consumer zoom lenses available from the various manufacturers. These can all be used to used to produce great pictures but, as I’m discovering, they are all lacking in one particular way, which may or may not be important to you.

In the old days, when I devoured lots of how-to-do-it photography books, there was always a section which dealt with differential focus, and how you could take pictures with a narrow depth of field to draw extra attention to your subject. The idea was that the area of interest would be in focus and that everything else would be more or less out of focus. Read More

Exploring the Commons

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Web | 3

One of the few pleasures left in life, now that the sugar, fat and salt have been denied to me, is photography. [ I may have mentioned this before 😉 ]

When I can’t actually be out taking pictures, I am very often to be found looking at them, and one of my most frequent online destinations is the photo sharing site Flickr.com. It’s where I display my personal pictures and regularly check in to see what friends and contacts have been up to.

This column is not about us individual photographers however, but about organisations who are using the site to post their pictures. Quite by chance, I came across pictures posted by the U.S. Army Materiel Command, which included the greatest inventions of 2008, and showcased the XM-153 Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station.

I challenge any man to see this thing and not have visions of setting one up to cover the approaches to his house, and using it to blow away the baddies as they come sneaking up the driveway. Anyhow, my interest was aroused, and I went looking for other organisations using Flickr to host their pictures.

There is no direct way of searching for these, but I did find quite a few including the US Marines, who post a variety of current pictures. Another is the media section of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and, although I should be getting used to the Internet by now, I still find it incredible viewing pictures taken the day before in a war zone halfway across the world.

Moving away from organisations for just for a moment, I also discovered that one can find collections of pictures on Flickr on just about any topic, by entering a key word into the search box. I managed to find pictures on such diverse subjects as Camp Bastion, Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and the London Eye.

But back to the topic, I was surprised to find that there are a number of heritage institutions using it to post sections of their photograph collections online. These include the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute, the Imperial War Museum, and an apparently growing number of others.

They have a dual motive in posting their pictures to be viewed by a wider audience. The first is to share their pictures, which such institutions like to do, and the second reason is that the viewers might know more about the pictures than the institutions themselves, and contribute this knowledge.

Visitors to the site, seeing anything they recognise in a picture, are asked to add a tag, or keyword, to the picture and, if appropriate, some information in the form of a comment. This area of Flickr is known as The Commons and a note at the bottom of the contents page says it all; “Any Flickr member is able to add tags or comment on these collections. If you’re a dork about it, shame on you. This is for the good of humanity, dude!!”

One amusing thing I found in the Library of Congress collection is a colour picture of a couple of people hanging out backstage at the Vermont State Fair in 1941. Off to one side, there is a young boy kneeling with his back to the camera.

There is speculation in the notes on the picture about what he might have been up to. One commenter said he was probably playing with matches, because he looked like her twin brother had looked, as he set fire to their mother’s trailer home.

The pictures in the Commons are displayed on condition that there are no known copyright restrictions on them. They may be in the public domain, the copyright holder may have decided not to enforce copyright, or it may be unknown if there is a copyright holder.

I’m no legal expert, but I interpret this to mean that you are broadly safe to use the pictures for your personal purposes, but you might find trouble if you started selling posters, and the copyright holder suddenly appeared.

I had meant to do this column on a completely different subject, but when I sat down to do my Internet research, I was distracted for hours by all the interesting pictures I found in the Commons. They covered all manner of subjects ranging from a group of workers in an Australian cake shop in the 1930s, to a glamorous picture of a woman, apparently used in a cigarette advert.

And, if you don’t get distracted by something like that, you have no soul.

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Pier

DSC_5312
Here’s another one I really like from last week’s beachfront walkabout. It’s quite crowded, and there are people looking out of the frame all over the place, but I think it conveys something of the feeling of the place.

New stadium

DSC_5313

Here’s one I took on our photo club’s walkabout on Durban beachfront last Saturday. It shows the Moses Mabhida Stadium, which is due for completion for next year’s football world cup.

I like the picture very much and I’m pleased to report that pro-South African, pro-World Cup, pro-just-about-everything, blogger Fred Hatman thinks so too, and has featured it on his excellent website.

Our photowalk was very enjoyable but the atmosphere was slightly ruined when some of us were stopped by the cops and warned about the dangers of wandering around the beachfront after dark and, especially, about not getting separated from the group. We apparently were too much of a tempting tempting target, loaded down as we were with camera bags and stuff.

Weebling a web

posted in: FishNet, Web creation | 4

Websites are potentially very useful for a whole host of purposes, which might include advertising a business, posting pictures from your holiday, or any one of a great number of other things.

Creating a website has, in the past, demanded a fair degree of expertise from the user but there are more and more tools being developed, which anyone can use to build a websites. We have had a look at a few of these in the past editions of this column, but a new and very clever service recently came to my attention.

It goes by the somewhat odd name of Weebly, but as I was to find, it’s a capable web development and hosting service. Like many other such services on the web, the basic Weebly package is free, and you are only asked to pay if you have the need for more advanced features.

When you go along to weebly.com, you go through a very brief signup procedure during which you also create your first website. Once the signup is complete, and that only takes a very few minutes, you get taken to the front page of your website which is blank.

Running along the top of the screen are tabs which you can select to change the settings of, or add things to the site. The default tab is the Elements one, which allows you to add elements to your page by dragging and dropping them.

These include titles, paragraph text with a picture, paragraph text without a picture, a two column layout, photo gallery, a YouTube video, and many more.

In building a typical web page, for example, you would drag a title element onto the page, click on it, and type into the space provided. Assuming you then wanted to add a picture to the page, you would drag a picture element onto the page, select a picture from your computer, and click the upload button. Building a page is really a lot easier than it sounds, and certainly takes less time than it would take to read this.

You can also choose a template for your website from a huge list of options, ranging from businesslike to fun. There is also a section which allows you to add more pages to your website, or re-arrange existing ones.

Finally, there is a big orange Publish button which you would click once you’ve built the site to your satisfaction, and it will be visible thereafter to the entire world. The site can have an address like http://yoursite.weebly.com, you can apply a domain name that you’ve already registered, or Weebly can register one for you for a nominal fee.

I was very impressed with the Weebly product and I’m sure that that it would be a very viable way of building a website with features including a very decent blog, a photo gallery, a contact form, an online poll, which will allow you to get your site visitors to vote on issues, or even a forum, which you can set up to allow visitors to the site to chat amongst themselves.

It also allows users to easily add an e-commerce facility to their sites, to sell goods and services, but it probably won’t come as any surprise to know that an online payment processing feature is not easily available to South African users. That limitation aside, however, Weebly is really a first class product.

Added after print version of article appeared: I have heard from Weebly co-founder Dan Veltri (don’t you love folk who return e-mails??) in answer to a question I posed on how you would accomodate your e-mail if you registered a domain with Weebly. It turns out that they offer integration with Google Apps, which means that you use can Gmail and the Google online applications for your business along with your Weebly website.

As far as e-commerce goes, Dan pointed out that accepting online payments is built-into Weebly with the choice of Google Checkout or or Paypal. Neither of these currently offers South African customers the option of receiving payments (you can use them to make payments) but South Africans can embed other payment options into their websites using the Custom HTML element provided by Weebly.

In short, Weebly has done its part and it’s the fact Google & PayPal won’t deal with us, and the fact that our local providers set their prices too high to make it viable to do e-commerce on a small scale, that is really BLOODY ANNOYING !!!

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Photo Icons

posted in: Books, PB, Photography, Reviews | 1

Quite a few posts ago, I mentioned that I had been out shopping for photography books with some money I got for my birthday. I might well have ended up with more how-to books, if my eye hadn’t been caught by the two-volume Photo Icons set.

They are small (14×19.5cm) neat hardback books  by Hans-Michael Koetzle, and published by Taschen. Subtitled, The Story Behind the Pictures, the two attractive little volumes were begging me to take them down off the shelf, and have a look.

icon1 Read More

A flipping good news site

posted in: FishNet, Web | 0

One of the most vexing questions that faces online publishers these days is just how to make the Internet pay.

Internet users are notoriously resistant to paying for content and there are only a few publications worldwide, which have managed to get their users to do so. The publishers have all more or less been forced to establish an online presence, where users can access some or all of their content, and rely on advertising to make it pay.

In the medium to long-term future, Google has plans to provide a platform whereby publishers will be able to charge small amounts for users wanting to read their material. The theory is that web users would be prepared to pay a small amount to read published news and views. So far, it has been impossible to collect very small amounts of money from lots people, because finance charges are prohibitive.

All that’s in the future, if it ever happens at all, but Google recently launched a new site which is intended to help content publishers (and Google) make a profit from their content. The new service is called Google Fast Flip and presents news from participating publishers on one easy-to-navigate page, and shares the advertising revenue with the publishers.

I went along to the site at fastflip.googlelabs.com and found that here are more than 40 publishers who have signed-up to the service, and whose stories are displayed on the site. These are displayed in the form of thumbnail pictures of the story page on the publisher’s own website.

The stories are grouped by section, topic, publication, and can also be ranked in order of Most Recent, Most Viewed or Most Recommended. You can click on any story that interests you and you are then shown an enlarged picture of the page containing the story. The pictures are large enough so that you can read a couple of paragraphs, to get a sense of whether you want to read any more.

On the page is a link to the publisher’s website, where you can read the whole story if you want to, and a couple of adverts. Google is hoping that, while you’re viewing the page on Fast Flip, you’ll click on one or more adverts. Every time you do, Google’s cash register will go ‘ka-ching’ and the advertiser will have to pay up, because you’ve looked at their advert.

Just as a supermarket collects consumer goods together to make shopping quicker and more convenient, Google is acting as a news aggregator and making it quicker and more convenient to get your news online.

Content publishers have so far tended to get very hot under the collar at the thought of their content appearing on other websites, even if in abbreviated form. This is why I think that Google model, where they are paid a share of revenues, is going down much better.

Fast Flip is a very interesting idea and it certainly does make it easy you for you to see at a glance what’s happening in the world, and to get up to date quickly on whatever topic happens to take your fancy.

I think that it is going to be a very useful tool and, even though it offers mainly American publications at the moment, I’m sure we’ll soon see more international ones joining in.

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Madiba magic

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0
Click to view Matthew Willman's site.
Click to view Matthew Willman's site.

Hillcrest Camera Club was very fortunate this week to be able to host, for the second time, photographer Matthew Willman. For those who do not know the name, Matthew works as a photographer for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, among other clients, and still regularly photographs our iconic former president. One of Matthew’s pictures, which many around the world will have seen, is of the palm of Mandela’s hand. The picture was used as the poster for Mandela’s 46664 Birthday Concert and is included in the banner on the 46664 Concert website. Read More

Darn group shots!

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0
  • Don’t you hate doing group shots and, most especially, when you’re one of the subjects as well?
  • Don’t you hate doing group shots when the pre-flash makes one of the subjects blink, in every shot?
  • Don’t  you hate it even more when that person is you and you have to scurry out from the group, check the picture, say “Cr*p, I blinked again”, set the self-timer, and scurry back to the group, all the while hoping that your reputation for photographic expertise has not been totally ruined? And repeat the process nine times in only 11 exposures!

preflash

Winners and clunkers

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 6

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One of the hardest things for me in photography is assessing those of my pictures that fall into that big grey area between the obvious winners and  the obvious clunkers. The picture above is just one example of a picture which I quite like, but I wonder if the impulse to create it shouldn’t have been smothered at birth.

Maybe, I need an art critic to set me straight on that point 😉

Cool special effects

A screenshot from virtualStudio showing an image of Durban songstress Natalie Rungan, that I was working on.
A screenshot from virtualStudio, showing an image of Durban songstress Natalie Rungan, that I was working on.

Some time in the dim and distant past, I came across an outfit called OptikVerve Labs, who produced the brilliant free virtualPhotographer plug-in for Photoshop, and other compatible image editors, which you could use to apply special effects to your pictures.

I had kind of lost touch with them and the other day, just on the offchance, I swung by their website to see if anything new was happening.
They are indeed still in business, and producing an updated version of virtualPhotographer and a totally new (at least in my experience) free program called virtualStudio. Read More

Who can say??

zenex_Panorama1
Sometimes I produce a picture and I can’t immediately think if I like it or not. This was a very sloppily shot pano, consisting of about six separate pics, and did not produce an accurate stitch. It’s quite an interesting effect but I’m undecided. Apart from everything else, I’d probably battle to reproduce the effect.

Now on Alltop

posted in: General, PB | 0

A quick post just to explain the new Alltop badge that has appeared on the righthand side of this blog page. Alltop is a really cool aggregator of blog content on all sorts of subjects and is a great way of catching up quickly with you favorite topics.

You go to alltop.com and search for what interests you, say photography,  and you get presented with a page listing blogs on your subject, and each has a list of the last few posts that have been added to that blog. It makes it easy to see which of your favourite blogs have been updated.

Since a little while ago, this blog has been listed on Alltop and that has unleashed a flood of five visitors so far; people I don’t even know have read these musings. I wonder what they thought?

By the way, you can create a free account at Alltop and add blogs on any subject to your page. Other people can then visit your page to see what blogs interest you. My page is here.

Forget Twitter and all that stuff, Alltop is the coolest new thing on the web in recent times apart, that is, from this excellent blog.

Today is a non-photographic day, it seems, so I’ll take the opportunity to mention a story that you will not believe. We South Africans moan about our evil and greedy, monopolistic telco, Telkom. We have long accused them of providing expensive and cr*ppy internet connections. Today the case was proved. And how!!

Earlier, an experiment was conducted in which 4Gb of data was transmitted via Telkom’s ADSL circuits, between Howick and Hillcrest in KwaZulu Natal.  At the same time, the data was written to a flash card and attached to the leg of Winston, the carrier pigeon.

Winston then flew the 70 kilometers from Howick to his home in Hillcrest, got a lift in a car to the offices of the Unlimited Group in the village, where the data was still being received by ADSL. The Internet protocol over Avian Carrier (IPoAC) had completed its transfer while the ADSL transfer was under 4% complete.

Here’s a news report, the official website and Winston’s Facebook Page. He’s also apparently one of few Twitter users who can really Tweet.

Americans and Europeans sometimes think they have it tough as far as their Internet connections go, but they don’t know what tough really is.

Creative lighting

hands-onA couple of weeks ago, an interesting parcel arrived for me containing a couple of items that I had ordered from the USA-based Camera Books. The parcel caused a great deal of merriment in the post office when it was noticed that it had been posted from Horny Hollow on the Crooked River Ranch. Camera Books’ Petra Kellers later wrote to me that her business is indeed based in Horny Hollow, and that the Crooked River Ranch had been a working ranch until the 1970s. It seems that the cowboys lived in the Horny Hollow area, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how it got its name.

One of the items in the parcel was a DVD produced by the Nikon School, called Hands-on Guide to Creative Lighting, which is presented by Bob Krist, who I hadn’t heard of before, and Joe McNally, who I had. The whole rationale behind the Creative Lighting DVD is to show how to get the best out of Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, which includes their various speedlights and the means to control them remotely. As mentioned in a previous post, I had already started going down the off-camera flash road, thanks to David Hobby’s Strobist website. David concentrates on using manually-adjusted flashes but, through his site, I got to hear of the Krist and McNally DVD. Read More

A nice dead tree

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 1

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I have offered a tip of the hat to Telegraph Photo blogger Kate Day on a previous occasion, but I thought I’d just use this opportunity to repeat what an interesting and informative blog she has, and what a cool weekly competition she runs.

The fact that my dead tree, above, got a mention in the latest competition, has nothing to do with anything.  😉

The pic was taken on a recent visit to Tala Game Reserve between Durban and Pietrmaritzburg, on avery cold morning. I think the touch of flash on foreground helps it along.

Some sort of wally

posted in: FishNet, Mobile, Rant | 0

Insomnia is not one of my problems, but I sometimes do lie awake at night and think deep thoughts.

One of the most puzzling issues which occupies my time is the question of where the tendency for South African service to be so shockingly bad came from. It seems that we are a nation that just accepts whatever we are given and, although we may moan about it in private, we let the culprits get away with it.

I had an example last week, where I finally decided to renew cellphone contract, close to a year after it had elapsed. This was on a Monday, and everything went smoothly until the phone had been chosen and the final papers signed.

Then the assistant went and ruined everything by saying that he would put in the order the following day, and that I could probably expect to get my new handset and speakerphone by the Friday. Probably.

This store was selling a product that it didn’t have in stock and, in it’s don’t-give-a-damn business model, was only prepared place an order the following day. Maybe I’m unreasonable, but shouldn’t the aim have been to fill my order as promptly as possible, not to make me fit in with whatever schedule they deem acceptable?

I regularly deal with a store in New York where I can more or less count on getting the goods in my hand, a week after order. Five days (probably) to get stuff from Johannesburg is just unacceptable to me.

Given a little sympathy and understanding, and agreement that perhaps the way things are done is not ideal, I might well have left the order stand and not done anything about it. As it was, the assistant could not begin to understand why I might be annoyed, and clearly believed me to be some sort of wally.

Anyhow, I made him tear up the new contract, and I’ll stick with my el-cheapo handset, with no camera, no colour screen, and whose battery lasts more than a week. Most people would probably not have gone to that length to make their point but, if there were more consumers like me, there wouldn’t be service like that.

The print version of this column mentioned the program Polardroid

Poladroid is alive and well

A picture from long ago.
A picture from long ago.

I was reading Kate Day’s photography blog at The Telegraph and she mentioned a program called Poladroid, so I went along to the website, www.poladroid.net to have a look.

Polaroid has apparently stopped making its icon instant film but Poladroid is doing its bit to keep the spirit alive, by providing a free program to convert ordinary jpeg images into something that looks like a Polaroid.

The software is available from www.poladroid.net and is simplicity itself to use. When you start it up, you get an icon of a Polaroid camera on your desktop and you can convert any picture by dragging the picture onto the icon.

You can see the development process happening in a little window on your desktop and, any time you like the results, you can right click on the image and save a copy at that stage of development.  When the image is ready, a bell rings and the final version of the picture can be saved onto your hard drive.

The development process is slow, just like a real Polaroid print, and, just like the real thing, shaking the print speeds up the development. There were apparently only 10 shots per Polaroid cartridge, and the program even mimics that, processing only 10 pictures at a time, before you have to restart it.

As I said, Poladroid is very easy to use but I would recommend that you read the accompanying documentation, even if only because the language is so charming.  To quote from the manual, “Poladroid is an addictive software (you’ve been warned!) because it is so easy to use and unexpected”.  Another eloquent passage goes, “Eventually, you’ll be surprised to discover pictures that were thought to know”.

Great fun, and the results are interesting!

Doing it off-camera

One of my most important photographic discoveries in recent times was the huge benefit to be gained by moving your flash off-camera. There are strategies for improving the quality of light from on-camera flashes but the results are usually pretty flat, giving no definition and shape to your subject.

Moving your flash off-camera results in pictures which are not just a tiny bit improved, but are so much better that they belong in a different world. Studio photographers have always known about off-camera flash, but I had assumed that this wasn’t really viable with the small flashes designed to be mounted on cameras.

Read More

UTP: attempt # 2

Ugrading the Photographer: attempt # 2

So, yesterday’s post turned into a bit of a disaster when, after several hundred words, my work suddenly disappeared and I was left with the picture and no text.  I would have thought that that was impossible with WordPress but, as I can now testify, it most certainly is.

Anyway, I was talking about a trip a couple of us went on to the moonlight market at our local Waldorf School.  It’s usually a good outing and there is the added bonus that there’s a selection of musicians and bands playing.  This time, if any further excuse were needed, I wanted to give my new Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 lens a run.

I bought it for the limited purpose of shooting people, particularly musicians, in low light, and it seems as though the purchase has paid off.  I still took a lot of drek, as you do in marginal conditions, but my hit-rate improved a lot since I only had a slow kit lens to work with.  The picture of Durban muso Rowan Stuart, in the previous post, is one of my favourites from the shoot, ironically taken with my plastic 55-200mm lens, but there were a good few others that I also like.

A month or two back, I read a post on Thom Hogan’s Blog (July 13, 2009) on how you could get the best return if you had, say $2000, to spend on your photography.  His conclusion was that, in most cases, the money would be better spent upgrading the photographer, and not the kit.

When you think of it, it’s a version of the old truism that most of the cameras and lenses are better than most of the photographers and so, even if you think you need better kit, you probably don’t. Good training is Thom’s answer, and I’d add to that, self-study through books, magazines and videos.

In this case, I had hit the limit of what I could do with my slow lenses, so I opted for a minor upgrade, but I also invested in photo books.

More of which, later…

Building digital castles

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 3

Last time I wrote about the Zoho suite of online applications which are freely available for personal use.

In the article, I remarked how unusual it was to see their users’ support forum where the vast majority of users’ questions had been answered by Zoho staff. This is in stark contrast to many other software forums, put up by the website owner instead of going to the expense of hiring real support staff.

Things got even more unusual when I put up the article onto my blog archive and, within a couple of hours or so, received a thank-you note from Arvind at Zoho. Among other things, he said he hoped that we in South Africa soon got cheap and fast Internet connections, like the ones they have in India and the East, that would make using online applications really viable here.

On that subject, it seems I wasn’t wrong about the likely effect that the arrival of the Seacom undersea cable would have on our Internet connection speeds and bandwidth costs. My prediction was that it would have little or no effect and, even though the cable has been running for a month, there hasn’t been a rush of ISPs cutting their prices.

Surprisingly, the only development in that direction has come from the evil empire itself, which is now allowing users a slightly larger bandwidth allowance each month; in my case, 5 GB instead of 3Gb. [Added after the column went to print: If they can give us 5Gb for the price of 3Gb, and still make a profit, it only proves what we’ve been saying all along; that we have been exploited. Makes you wonder how much more they could cut prices…]

Anyway, to the subject of this week’s column which is far more cheerful, being a free software program that can take you back all the way to your childhood and keep you entertained for many hours. I’m talking of Lego Digital Designer, which you can download from the Lego.com site, and which you can use to build all manner of fantastic models without moving out from behind your computer.

I have a long history with Lego, having played with it in my extreme youth, and created all manner of things, including an unsuccessful Easter Bunny trap. In later years, while visiting friends in Denmark, we drove across the whole country to visit Legoland, only to find it was closed for the winter.

Damn! At least I saw the North Sea.

Anyway, once the program is installed and running, you are taken to start screen. You have the option of choosing a partly-built model, like a racing car, and completing it from the selection of bricks on offer, or you can start from scratch, and build whatever takes your fancy.

There is a wide selection of bricks to choose from and all you have to do is drag the one you want from the stack, rotate it appropriately with the arrow keys, and then drop it in the place where you want it.

Using Digital Designer is just like playing with the real thing, except that the bricks don’t all have tooth marks on them, caused by trying to separate ones which are stuck together too firmly.

The program is very easy to use and, once you’ve got the controls figured out, you’re up and running, and building whatever fantastic creation occurs to you. The graphics are great and you can rotate and view your model from any angle, even from below.

Digital Designer does have a serious business purpose, from Lego’s point of view, because it will tell you at any time how much the bricks that you’ve used would cost, and once your creation is complete, it will allow you to order those bricks online, so that you can rebuild your model in the real world.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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Doorway to Infinity

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 2

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about where creativity comes from and strategies that might encourage its appearance. What brought on all this instrospection was a visit a whole troupe of us photographers paid to the Shongweni nature reserve last week. Having had enough of wildlife, see post here, many of us concentrated on the dam wall itself, and some disused buildings in the area.

I took quite a few pictures including the two you see below:

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One of the photographers along on that occasion was the famous Africa Dave and it so turned out that he took what were essentially the same two pictures, but put them together in a highly imaginative and creative way:

I was frankly stunned by his picture and have since come to the conclusion that he went about creating his pictures in the proper way, and that I did not. I was on auto-pilot and took the same pictures as everyone else. He, on the other hand, knew that others would likely have the same sort of pictures, and so he put his own slant on things.

My education at Dave’s hands was not complete, however. On the far side of the dam wall, there was an abandoned building, which may have been an old pump room, or something. When it got pitch dark, I put away my camera and started thinking about my next meal; he didn’t:

All in all, I learnt a lot from the trip to the dam, and that’s why I like to go on what we now call photo walks. Sharing pictures afterwards helps enormously and, even if you aren’t happy with what you did, you can’t help but improve when inspired by others.

Pre-visualisation

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

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Ansel Adams apparently came up with the term pre-visualisation to describe the process of deciding what the finished picture should look like, and then working towards that desired result. The image capture was only part of a process that also included all the aspects of development and printing.

The picture above is a modest example of how I applied to the principle to a scene I found while out walking on the beachfront, in front of Ushaka Marine World. The kiosk had promise, I could tell, but its paint was quite faded and the light was more or less flat. The straight capture wouldn’t have been any good but, before I tripped the shutter, I knew exactly what I’d have to do in post processing, to end up with something quite striking.

Some added vibrance, saturation, and contrast.

Shoot me Rankin

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d bought a copy of Black + White Photography magazine. One of the most interesting things in it was an article on Rankin, who has photographed a wide selection of celebrities.

He is currently mounting an exhibition in which he is photographing 1000 people between 31 July 2009 and 18 September 2009, and printing and hanging the pictures. Anyone could apply and pay £50 for the privelege of being shot by him, with the proceeds going to charity.

Rankin has a website with a lot of his work on display and there is a separate site for the Shoot Me Rankin exhibition. There are a lot of pictures to look at and draw inspiration from, on his sites. Well worth a visit.

Boy, I’d love to be able to see that exhibition and the many others on the go in the UK. It’s a disadvantage of living down here in the pimple on Africa’s backside. We do have wildlife, but still..

Rankin recently completed an hour-long TV documentary called Seven Photographs That Changed Fashion. In it, he recreated famous pictures by Cecil Beaton, Erwin Blumenfeld, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, David Bailey and Guy Bourdin. I enjoyed the programme very much, when a friend found it on YouTube but, unfortunately, it has now been removed.

We’ll just have to hope that it arrives here eventually by legal means. Not that that looks all that hopeful, in light of the fact that BBC Entertainment seems to believe that we’ll all be happy if they just keep re-running old Top Gear episodes.

Black and White

A cool magazine.
A cool magazine.

I was at the newsagent a couple of weeks ago and I found a magazine which is very much to my taste.  I might have mentioned it before, but imported magazines in South Africa are quite pricey and Black + White Photography, costing the same as 11.73 McDonalds cheeseburgers, is no exception.

I took a chance and bought the July 2009 edition and was very pleased that I did so. The mag is packed with interesting articles on various aspects of photography and a selection of superb monochrome images to get you inspired. In this issue, at least, there were a few equipment reviews, but the subject matter is overwhelmingly about photography, not equipment. The right balance in my view.

The articles included:

  • A profile on Paul Anthony, a reportage photographer.
  • Details on an exhibition being mounted by celebrity photographer Rankin.
  • Black & white news from the USA.
  • Photobook reviews.
  • Spotlight on Eamonn McCabe.
  • Tips for selling pictures.
  • Puttin together a portfolio.
  • A directory of black and white printing paper.

The mag does have a UK bias in that the exhibitions and happenings referrred to, are taking place there, and the adverts refer to UK shops. That didn’t matter at all to me because there is so much else in the magazine, and it’s incredibly inspiring.

You can get more information and subscription details on Black + White at the GMC Publications website. Surprisingly,  there are no articles posted online or any forums, but maybe, that fits in with the slightly old fashioned feel of the magazine. One of the articles concerns the author’s visit to Venice during which he uses a film camera, for heaven’s sake!!

Highly recommended!

On the wild side

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I live in South Africa which has many game reserves, including the Kruger National Park, and many more excellent ones in the adjacent countries. I have grown up in camera clubs where I have seen many top-class wildlife pictures and, it must be said, a lot of dreck along the way. And yet it has never grabbed me, and I think I have only ever taken one animal picture that I liked.

So it was with a sense of foreboding that I noticed that it was time for our club’s annual wildlife outing, which took place last weekend. This time, we chose to go to Tala game reserve, which is literally only about 40 minutes drive away. They have a wide selection of game but no big cats, and only some hippo to keep a wary eye out for.

I was teamed-up with Vanessa, a fellow pretty-much-uninterested-in-wildlife photographer.  She has blogged about our experiences so there’s not much point in my going into all the details. That there were two wildlife ignoramuses in the car meant that our species identification was highly suspect, at the very least.

I was amazed, however, to find that I did enjoy myself but I haven’t suddenly had the urge to get a longer lens and go back into the bush. Next year will be soon enough…  😉

Going to the online office

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 3

It was pointed out to me recently by a chirping reader that I had been devoting a lot of attention to image and photography-related to topics in the last little while.

In the interests of providing broad-based coverage, this week I’ve got news of a rather spiffy online service called Zoho. It’s a suite of online applications that you can use, either as an individual, or as part of a business, and is similar in many ways, to other offerings such as Google Apps.

I went along to www.zoho.com to see what it was all about, and the first surprise came when it didn’t insist that I create an account for myself, but let me sign on using my Google account. It will also let Yahoo account holders sign on, and get to work right away.

Whether you create a new account, or sign in with an existing one, you will end up at your personal page where you will be able to access all of the online applications that are available. These include e-mail, a wordprocessing package, a spreadsheet package, a presentation program, a calendar, a notebook, and a task list.

For the business user, there is a customer relationship management, or CRM, program, an online meeting program, an invoicing program, and even a program which can be used for vetting applicants for a job.

Zoho has an astonishing range of programs and add-ons that the individual can use for free, and you get 1GB of free storage space to play with. For business use, the price is not high for access to most of the applications, with 20 users plus 50 GB of online storage costing $50 a month, and 200 GB of space for only $30 more per month.

There are additional charges for the use of the more heavyweight programs, such as the CRM, database and project management package, for business purpose. Even these charges are not high and compare very favourably with the cost of buying an office suite and additional softwarevfor all your users.

I found that it is easy to navigate your way around the available applications which are listed on the left-hand side of the screen. One of the most useful that I found was that desktop, or dashboard, which displays your new messages, a list of documents, your outstanding tasks, and your calendar, all in one easy-to-view screen.

I didn’t have the time to try out all the applications in the Zoho stable but I did take Zoho Writer out for a spin, and found it to be a very capable word processor. It has all the usual features including tables, bullets, indenting, and all the rest of it. There is a reasonable choice of fonts included with it, and it looks very easy to store documents, and find them later.

My conclusions should not be seen as definitive at this stage, but it does look as thoughZoho would be a viable tool for private single users and groups in business. On the plus side, it does seem very capable and complete and it has the benefit of being free for individuals, and reasonably priced for business.

It is hosted on the Internet, which has the plus that your data is stored well away from any disasters which might overtake your PC or network in the home or office, but there is the negative that we’re in South Africa. Whether our Internet connections are reliable and cheap enough for a business to use Zoho for all its day-to-day computing needs, is a matter only the business can decide.

The other slight negative is that Zoho’s help feature and explanatory text is not quite as clear as it might be. I occasionally found it difficult to find the information I was looking for and there were a couple of things referred to in the help, that I still couldn’t see how to do. It is also clear that some of it has been done by persons whose first language is not English.

This slight drawback will probably be compensated for by the support forums which you can use to get answers. Many other Web services have forums where you find that questions go unanswered but, with Zoho, I can’t say that I found any questions which were not answered and resolved to the satisfaction of the user.

At the moment, I am not that tempted to move all my e-mail and few online documents over to Zoho from Google, if only because you get more free storage space with the Google Gmail offering. On the other hand, if I were running a business and decided that hosting my software and data on the Internet was viable, I would give Zoho a very close look.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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A new baby arrives

posted in: Equipment, PB, Photography | 2

I began to think that I needed another lens and, after agonising over the choices available for months, I finally placed my order for a Tamron SP AF 28-75mm F/2.8 XR Di lens, and it arrived last week.

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A 28-75mm is not a conventional choice for a camera with a DX sensor because you’re getting something that behaves like a 42mm-112mm on a full frame camera. On a 35mm film camera, or full-frame digital, a zoom which ranges from a wide 28mm to a moderate 75mm telephoto, would make a superb general purpose lens. On a digital camera, such as mine, with a crop sensor, the lack of a wide angle of view makes it unsuitable as a general lens.

‘Mad as a hatter!’ You’re probably thinking to yourself. ‘The boy will be changing lenses all the time. He should have gone for 18-200mm with vibration reduction, and never had to change his lens again.’

Indeed, a 28-75mm lens is not the usual choice for a crop-sensor digital camera, but what I wanted was a lens that could shoot people in low light. I wanted a zoom lens with a whacking big hole through the middle to let in lots of light. A lens with a maximum aperture of F/2.8, in fact.

Given the funds, I would have chosen the Nikkor 80-200mm F/2.8 lens but this is a recession, and I was going to have to choose between a Nikkor prime lens (35mm, 50mm or 85mm) or a zoom lens from an independent manufacturer. The Tamron has a F/2.8 maxium aperture, it has had very good reviews and, on a crop-sensor camera, covers the range that most photographers would choose for portrait work; ie., anywhere from 50mm to 100mm. Remember that the Tamron offers the equivalent of about 42mm-112mm.

An ideal portrait lens in fact, and, for about $400, it was only going to put strain on my bank account, not break it.

So what’s the big deal with an F2.8 lens?? Well, its what’s known in the trade as ‘fast glass’, meaning that it has a bigger hole through its middle than is the norm for cheaper (slow) lenses. This effectively means that:

  • You can get a picture in only a quarter of that light that a kit lens with an F5.6 maximum aperture would need.

or

  • You can use a shutter speed 4 times faster than would be possible with a kit lens with an F5.6 maximum aperture. This crucial difference is how fast and slow lenses got their names.

or

  • You can use the same shutter speed as a slower lens but, because it’s letting in more light, you can shoot with a lower ISO setting. Your picture quality will be much better if you can shoot at ISO 800 in conditions where you’d need ISO 3200 if you were using an F/5.6 lens.

and

  • The depth of field offered by a lens with a larger aperture is less that than with a small aperture, meaning that you can blur the background behind your subject more thoroughly, and more pleasingly.

Fast glass is more expensive and, based on the principle that you usually get what you pay for, the lenses are generally better constructed and better optically.

The manufacturers know that lenses with smaller apertures are problematic in low light and tend to give you blurry pictures. This is because they don’t let in enough to light to give you a fast enough shutter speed when the light drops.

The answer they have come up with is image stabilisation, or vibration reduction, which allows you to get get sharp pictures even when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The systems work like a bomb providing that whatever you’re shooting remains still.

If the subject moves while the shutter is open, however, the picture will still be blurry, no matter how steady the camera is. And that’s where fast glass comes in; a faster shutter speed…

I used the Tamron in action last weekend, and I found that my hit rate went up instantly because, instead of shooting at a 30th of second, for example, I was able to shoot at a 125th, and got more unblurred pictures as a result.

So far, so good…

Black cats in coal cellars

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On 1st August, we went off to a gig at Pecanwood in the bush somewhere near Merrivale. Much to my surprise, it turned out that the bill was being headed by the Parlotones who are South Africa’s biggest group and, if I’m any judge, are going to make a big dent in the world charts. What was even more surprising was that we managed to get permission to shoot from the VIP area directly in front of the stage.

The bad news is that the lighting conditions were apalling and it would have been easier to shoot a black cat in a coal cellar at midnight, than those Parlotones. I took close to 500 pictures of them and the supporting bands and came back with very little I feel proud of. I did get a fairly decent picture of Parlotones lead singer Kahn Morbee, so I didn’t feel too bad.

On searching through the shoot pictures for something decent, I came across the following, which brought forth a smile. At least she emptied her glass (plastic??) first.

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For future shoots in coal cellars, I have acquired a secret weapon, of which, more anon.

Hitting a luck

posted in: PB, Photography, Portrait | 0

The photographic gods sometimes smile on your photographic efforts and everything goes right when you trip the shutter button.

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I was at the Battle of the Bands at Kearsney College on Friday night, and doing my thing photographing musicians. I looked up and noticed a beautiful projected pattern on the roof of the marquee and, at that very moment Xavier hove into view, sporting the most incredible head of hair.

I’m not usually quick at this sort of thinking, but even I put the head and the pattern together, and asked him if I could take the shot. I had been shooting with available light and the first couple of shots were nice sillhouttes and then, something made me pop up my built-in flash and take a shot with that.

Maybe it’s because I was down on one knee, but things came together perfectly. My D90 gave me a half-second exposure but it was dark enough so that Xavier didn’t register until the flash fired. Subject movement could have been a problem if there had been more ambient light kicking around.

Helping matters was that the roof of the tent was high enough so that the flash didn’t cast a shadow on it. As far as I can remember, the camera and flash were both dialled down to deliver about a stop less light light than the camera would have liked.

Making photo books

posted in: PB, Photography, Software | 5

There are a number of things you can do with your photographs. These include making slideshows and online photo albums and sharing them with the rest of the world.

There is another thing that you can do and it gets your pictures into a format that can even be appreciated by Aunt Em, who doesn’t have a computer or Internet connection. I’m talking about photo books which you can create and pass around to people to allow them to see pictures you took on your last holiday, the latest family snaps, or whatever.

There are lot of different ways of going about making a photo book, including various online websites where one can upload pictures or designs, get a book printed out, and shipped to your doorstep. Readers outside South Africa have an embarrassment of riches to choose from when it comes to making photo books but postage delays and costs make things more difficult for us locals.

Luckily, there is a very good South African service which I used recently, and which produces books of an impressive quality. You can find out all about them if you go along to the www.myphotobook.co.za, where you can download the free PhotoGenie software which will help you to assemble photo books and other photo-related products quickly and easily.

The software is also available at a nominal fee from various Fuji-affiliated photo labs in Durban, including Photoworld. I got a disc and installed the software, which updated itself online, and then I got into making a photo book to show off some of my portraits.

The photo book I created recently.
The photo book I created recently.

The program is not hard to use and you need to start by selecting the book format that you want to create, and choosing pictures that you want to put into it. You basically get the choice between softcover and hardcover books in various sizes and shapes, including A4, 12-inches square, and a couple of others.

PhotGenie has a wizard that will go ahead and put all the pictures you’ve selected on to the pages of the book and it will very often produce a result that, if it isn’t quite what you had in mind, can easily be tweaked.

For myself, I prefer the manual mode which starts out as before, but then lets you go from page to page and place pictures and captions wherever you want them. There are a large number of page templates and page backgrounds which you can choose from, and which speed up the process a bit.

There are templates with varying numbers of images per page but, if that doesn’t work for you, you can drag pictures onto a blank page and position and size them them as you want. Once on the page, you can apply a variety of special effects to each picture, including black and white and sepia, and one of many borders available.

One of the double-spread layouts in my book.
One of the double-spread layouts in my book.

This brings me neatly to the subjective and sensitive issue of good taste in layout. The message to take home from here is that, just because you have a million effects to play with, you don’t have to use them all.

The most successful photo books I’ve seen are the ones where the layout doesn’t call attention to itself and the special effects are largely uniform. I’m a ‘less is more’ kinda guy, but your tastes may vary and, of course, its your photo book, so you can do whatever you want.

Once your project is completed and saved onto your hard drive, you can either submit it to Fuji via the internet or burn it to disc and take it along to one of the participating mini-labs. They will forward the file for printing, handle payment, and be a convenient place for you to pick up the book when it’s ready.

The PhotoGenie software is excellent, in my opinion, and should be enough for 99.9% of the population to use to create their photo books. If however, you want to achieve some sort of effect that is not available through the program, there’s nothing to stop you designing your pages in another software program and then inserting them as images into PhotoGenie.

I chose the 215mm square soft cover format and was most happy with the quality of the book that came back to me, just over a week after I dropped it off at the mini-lab. The soft cover books have matt-finish pages, a glossy UV-varnished cover and, starting from R179 plus a delivery fee, are the cheapest option. The A3 landscape-format book is the Rolls-Royce and will set you back R849 for the 28 page version.

I have seen a sample of one of these books and it is absolutely gorgeous, immaculately bound, and printed on heavyweight glossy paper which is, in turn, coated with UV varnish. I was very impressed with the quality of both the economy and deluxe products.

As a matter of interest, the PhotoGenie software will not only allow you to create photo books, but it will also help you create and order a number of different products with your photographs printed onto them, like coffee mugs, handbags, and much more besides.

Panoramas Part II

I did an earlier post on pano stitching software.

completed_Panorama1
Durban’s harbour entrance widening project.**

The most accurate way of shooting a panorama is to use a tripod and a device so the camera swivels on the lens’ nodal point – see nodalninja.com for an example.

Connecting the tripod directly to the camera’s tripod socket does introduce some parallax error into your panorama so you need a panorama head like a Nodal Ninja, if you’re after perfection. I’ve been getting decent enough results without one, and even shooting hand-held.

Pano shooting tips

A tip I picked up on the web is that you should set your camera on manual exposure and manual focus to cut down on variations in the pictures which will make up the panorama. You obviously have to pick exposure settings to suit your scene and then dial these into your camera, once it has been set to manual.

The next step is to focus the camera correctly and switch off auto-focus so that, providing you don’t alter the lens’ zoom setting, it will hold the same focus until you’ve finished shooting your panorama sequence.

You then take the pictures for your panorama, taking extreme care to keep the camera level between shots and that each shot overlaps the one before it by about a third. One way to help keep things level is to ensure that your viewfinder markings are always in exactly the same position with regard to features in your scene. An example of that would be always placing the central focusing mark on the horizon.

Note: You can shoot either in landscape mode or, as I prefer, turning my camera on its side and shooting in portrait mode. That way gives you more picture if you need to crop the picture after stitching it.

It’s usual to shoot your sequence of pictures from left to right and it will help you sorting things out later, if you mark the beginning of the sequence by taking a picture of your left hand and the end, by taking a picture of your right hand. This makes it easy to tell which the panorama pictures are because its easy to get confused, once a bit of time has passed.

Another tip that I picked up from Episode # 23 of Scott Kelby’s D-Town TV show is that you can get much better results when shooting panoramas hand-held if you don’t keep your feet in the same position for each shot. I intuitively kept my feet and body as still as possible and just swivelled my torso when shooting a pano sequence to try and cut down on error.

I noticed I was ending up in quite a contorted position at the end of the sequence and it turns out that this twisting motion introduces error, so the component picture don’t stitch as well as they might. The solution, says Kelby, is to reset your feet every few shots so that you’re totally comfortable.

Hand-holding does work pretty but a Nodal Ninja, or other Pano tripod head, would still be the best solution.

_______
**The sample pano, at the top of this post, is quite an historic one because, if I were to try and stand in the same position today, I’d sink in 20 fathoms or so of seawater in Durban’s much wider harbour mouth. The new northern groyne can be seen at extreme left. The old north groyne was approximately where the pipe comes ashore, to the left of the digger.

The pipe was a temporary measure for supplying sand to Durban’s beaches. Dredgers would couple up to the pipe and discharge their cargoes of sand.

All that ground is gone; part of the 10-million cubic meters of material that will have been moved once the harbour project is complete in March 2010. See my Durban website for much more on our harbour.

That’ll teach me !!

That’ll teach me to go out taking pictures and not to check my camera settings first. For reasons which presently escape me, I had the camera set to capture small basic jpegs only. The consequences could have been a lot more serious if I had been out on a job, but there was no lasting harm done, except for the lines I had to write:

I will always check my camera before use. Stupid.
I will always check my camera….

DSC_3500

Still, I did get pictures that will diplay on screen even if they won’t do a decent 8×12  print.

These days, I see a blue sky and immediately begin to think Ansel Adams-type thoughts. A black sky in the day is a phographer’s delight….

Keeping up with the news

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 0

There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to learn photography and keep inspired is to keep on reading about it. These days there are many Internet resources on photography, but how to find them??

Alltop, all the top storiesOver the years I’ve collected a list of sites that I like to visit but it’s much quicker and easier since the launch of a site called Alltop. They are like a humungous index of sites on every concievable topic and you can go there and type in photography, for example. You get presented with a list of sites on that topic and, best of all, through the magic of feeds, a list of the latest stories on those sites.

You can even register for a free Myalltop account which is basically a page to which you can add sites you like. So then, its only a matter of going to your Myalltop page and you can instantly see which of your favourite sites has been updated and, even, read the first paragraph of each story.

How sweet is that!!

Visit MyAlltop Page

More details on Alltop.

A book bonanza

posted in: Magazine, PB, Photography | 0

So, I hit the big ‘five oh’ almost a month back. It eas an experience that bummed me out more than somewhat, but it had the benefit that I got presents in the form of a fistful of book vouchers and some spending money.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to restock on photo-related reading material, and so that’s what I did. I’ll be talking about the things I bought in due course, but I will mention one of the items today.

It was July 2009 issue of Digital Photo magazine which I first encountered during a year I spent in the UK, and which inspired my first foray into digital imagery.  It has been available in South Africa for a number of years but I haven’t bought it often because, at the equivalent of 17.1 McDonald’s cheeseburgers, it’s quite pricy in this country. Anyway, with a gift voucher to burn, I thought I’d get myself a copy.

I see on the cover that it is now Britain’s largest selling photo magazine and I can see why, because it’s packed with useful hints and tips on photography and photo image manipulation. It has a CD-ROM with video tutorials which illustrate articles in the magazine. This issue has good articles on how to shoot a panorama and create Photoshop actions, among many others.

Digital Photo is probably aimed more at at the novice than anyone else, but there is enough in it to inspire the more experienced as well.  After reading the magazine for a while, and completing all the projects, you couldn’t help but get a thorough grounding in digital photography.  I know I did.

Digital Photo has an online presence at photoanswers.co.uk where you can subscribe and take advantage of online content which includes video tutorials, forums and advice. Talk of their videos, the first one to catch my eye was on shooting without using the camera’s viewfinder; and I thought I was being incredibly innovative when I put together an earlier post on doing exactly the same thing.

Digital Photo = Highly Recommended.

New blog

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 1

Abandoned toilet, Browns Road, Point. By Vanessa Cracknell.

One of the first posts in photo colleague Vanessa Cracknell’s new blog is to do with her fascination with the Point in Durban. It is an area which is undergoing a rapid transition from being extremely run down, to becoming a sought-after residential and business area.

Rot and decay exist side by side with new structures and, to be fair, Vanessa isn’t the only one fascinated by it. The area has received a lot of photographic attention and one of the highlights has to be the abandoned toilet, as shown in Vanessa’s picture, above.

I have also been on several trips to the area and I, too, saw the loo.   😉  My versions of it are

here point_8714 and here point_8711

Technically imperfect

DSC_0094

I’ve been thinking about imperfection just lately. We learn photography and are indoctrinated with the belief that pictures that are not perfectly composed and exposed are no good. That was me for for a long time but I’ve lately come round to believing that pictures can be good without needing to be perfect.

My picture of mother and baby, above, has a horrible background and I would have written it off, even a year ago. In the interim, I have come to see that the picture captures a nice moment and that I am allowed to to like it in spite of its imperfections. I’ve even become bold enough to hope that the bride might like it too.

You’ll be wondering a bride has to with anything. Well, it’s an ongoing joke in our circle, which started when a friend was visiting the photo lab and walked up behind a photographer known to all of us. This chap [dude, for you younger readers] was thumbing through a stack of jumbo pictures he had taken at a wedding and, every so often, he’d stop and say; “Oh yes, the bride will like this”.

Ever since then, whenever we comment on a picture among among ourselves, we’ll say “I wonder what the bride would say to this”, “The bride wouldn’t like this”, etc. etc.. And then laugh like schoolgirls.

Fuss-free panoramas**

dsc2793-98

More of my panoramas here

Doing full justice to a beautiful scene or the interior of a building is often quite difficult with normal cameras because their relatively narrow field of view makes it impossible to fit everything in at once.

The answer, of course, is to shoot the view in sections and to join these up together later.  In the bad old days of film, we would get jumbo prints and cut them up and, with  glue and a great deal of sweat and patience, you could come up with a picture that at least that showed the whole scene that had attracted you in the first place.

Now that we have digital photography and software programs that can join many pictures up into one, I decided to experiment with shooting some panoramas. I have used a number of different programs, including one given away free with Canon cameras, and Photoshop.

I started getting pretty decent results but there were occasions the programs would fall over and just refuse to join, or stitch, the pictures I had taken. In an online forum somewhere, I came across mention of a program called AutoStitch which, it was claimed, made the process of creating panoramas so much easier.

I went along to the website www.autostitch.com and found that the program is technology demo created by Matthew Brown and David Lowe at the University of British Columbia in Canada. It is free to download but is only available for Windows computers.

AutoStitch is only just over a megabyte in size and, to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it after I unzipped it into a folder and started it running.  To say that the interface has no bells and whistles is to put it mildly but, as I discovered, it has all the essentials.

You start by selecting the pictures that are going to go into making up your panorama and it puts those images together and shows you a low resolution preview of what it’s done.  If you like the result, you can go into the settings menu and increase the resolution of the panorama that it’s going to create.

The first set of pictures I fed into it were taken from the pier in front of Ushaka Marine World in Durban, and showed the work going on at the new North Pier and the remnants of Vetch’s Pier, made visible by the very low tide.

Photoshop had already flatly refused to stitch these pictures together but AutoStitch had no problem, and produced a very nearly perfect result.
The only real fault was that it missed out a child playing soccer on the beach and, instead, produced a little blurry patch where he had been.

I was even more impressed to find out that AutoStitch could not only cope with joining up a single row of images, shot from left to right, but that it could also join up more than one row of pictures, or even a vertical panorama.

AutoStitch is great and I will certainly be using it in the future.  The free demo version is only available for Windows computers but its’ technology has been licensed to a number of commercial software producers and there are versions that will run on Apple computers and Linux-based machines.

One of these, which I haven’t yet tried, is the reasonably-priced Serif PanoramaPlus.

_______

** This article was originally published on my FishNet computing blog (don’t ask about the name, it was devised by a sub-editor).

Worldwide Photowalk

DSC_2538

I was a participant in Scott Kelby’s Worldwide Photowalk on 18 July and was amazed [and delighted] to hear that one of my pictures was chosen as the Durban winner. It will now go forward and compete with the other 900+  winners for the grand prize.

Our walk took place at the harbourside and I was lucky enought to get this picture of a group of paddleski fishermen dragging their skis across a sandbank towards the main channel. I didn’t notice, until our walk leader pointed him out, that there is another fisherman just in front of the dredger, waist deep in water and casting into the channel.

Gotta publish

posted in: Blogging, FishNet, Imaging, Web | 0

Gene Kelly sang Gotta Dance in the immortal musical Singin’ In The Rain.

I know how he must have felt because I often get the feeling that I Gotta Publish something. I have published a book, various websites, these columns and yet, it seems, that is not enough for me. For some time now, I’ve been having the urge to do a Blog on photography even though I’ve done my best to resist by reminding myself that the last thing I need is more time spent in front of the computer.

That didn’t work and I soon started considering how, rather than whether, to go ahead with it. My usual blogging platform it is a Blogger, where these articles are kept in an archive and, while I’ve got nothing against it, I was starting to think that it is a little less professional than I would like.

One blogging service that crops up often nowadays is WordPress which offers anyone free blogs at www.wordpress.com. You get 3GB of storage space for, which will hold a whole lot of words, and you can upgrade that for a nominal amount.

The sign-on process is very quick and once you have an account, you can go ahead and create a blog which will end up like end up having an address like http://allanjackson.co.za/fn/, to pick a random example. There are a large number of layouts (or themes) to choose from to give your blog the look and feel that you want.

You also get integrated statistics which tell you exactly how many people are viewing your blog, a list of people linking to your blog, and you get can import existing blogs from other locations, including from Blogger.

One very handy feature that WordPress has is static web pages which can be linked from your blog’s header or sidebar, and which don’t change as you update the blog’s pages. This feature fixes one of the great lacks that I found in Blogger, which is that everything is filed in date order and there is no direct way of keeping pages, such as a biography for example, near the front.

The key to using WordPress is the dashboard which is an admin page that allows you to view all the information to do with your blog. It is where you create and edit pages and blog posts, change the appearance of the blog, choose a new theme, and much else besides.

I had a quick look through the list of templates that are available and picked out a very clean and uncluttered black-and-white layout, which suited me perfectly. That particular theme allows you to add a picture to the header section of your page which I did very easily because it told me exactly what size to make it.

I found the WordPress interface to be really smooth and easy to use and I had a professional-looking blog site up and running in a short while. The first post took an additional couple of minutes using some text I had created and a picture from my online Flickr account.

The interface for creating and editing posts and pages is like a basic word processor which you use to enter text, apply formatting or insert pictures, video clips, or whatever. Pictures can either be uploaded from your computer and stored in your web space or you use pictures stored elsewhere on the Internet, such as in Flickr.

WordPress is a very easy but powerful publishing tool which would be ideal for keeping a day-to-day blog, or a much bigger website. I don’t intend to remove my current blogs from Blogger, but I must say that I very much prefer the features and power of WordPress.

Highly recommended!

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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Sublime imperfection ??

posted in: General, PB, Photography | 3

I seem to be going through a phase where I’m shooting quite a lot by instinct and not using the viewfinder. I read somewhere that we should not be aiming solely for technical perfection but, instead, for sublime imperfection.

DSC_1215

I get a lot of misses and File #13 candidates but the pics that come out, don’t have that carefully-composed look about them. The jury’s still out on whether that’s a good or a bad thing…

There are more No Viewfinder pictures on my Flickr account.

Fun with panoramas

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Software | 5

Doing full justice to a beautiful scene or the interior of a building is often quite difficult with normal cameras because their relatively narrow field of view make it impossible to fit everything in at once.

The answer, of course, is to shoot the view in sections and to join these up together later. In the bad old days of film, we would get jumbo prints and cut them up and, with glue and a great deal of sweat and patience, you could come up with a picture that at least that showed the whole scene that had attracted you in the first place.

Now that we have digital photography and software programs that can join many pictures up into one, I decided to experiment with shooting some panoramas. I used a number of different programs, including one given away free with Canon cameras, and Photoshop.

I started getting pretty decent results but there were occasions the programs would fall over and just refuse to join, or stitch, the pictures I had taken. Then, in an online forum somewhere, I came across mention a program called AutoStitch which, it was claimed, made the process of creating panoramas so much easier.

I went along to the website www.autostitch.com and found that the program is a technology demo created by Matthew Brown and David Lowe at the University of British Columbia in Canada. It is free to download but is only available for Windows computers.

AutoStitch is only just over a megabyte in size and, to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting all that much from it after I unzipped it into a folder and started it running. To say that the interface has no bells and whistles is to put it mildly but, as I discovered, it has all the essentials.

You start by selecting the pictures that are going to go into making up your panorama and it puts those images together and shows you a low resolution preview of what it’s done. If you like the result, you can go into the settings menu and increase the resolution of the panorama that it’s going to create.

The first set of pictures I fed into it were taken from the pier in front of Ushaka Marine World in Durban and showed the work going on at the new North Pier and the remnants of Vetch’s Pier, made visible by the very low tide. Photoshop had already flatly refused to stitch these pictures together but AutoStitch had no problem, and produced a very nearly perfect result.

The only real fault was that it missed out a child playing soccer on the beach and, instead, produced a little blurry patch where he had been. I was even more impressed to find out that AutoStitch could not only cope with joining up a single row of images, shot from left to right, but that it could also join up more than one row of pictures, or even a vertical panorama.

I was very impressed with AutoStitch and I will certainly be using it in the future. The free demo version is only available for Windows computers but its’ technology has been licensed to a number of commercial software producers and there are versions that will run on Apple computers and Linux-based machines.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?

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Social networking on the Internet

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Web | 0

I have been on the Internet for a long time and have used it time out of number as source of information and entertainment.

I never quite got the social networking aspect of it until fairly recently. The light began to dawn when I started to play an active role on photo sharing website Flickr.com.

I had been a member of Flickr for quite some time and was using it to display some of my photographs but hadn’t taken it much further than that. Things changed when I managed to persuade some fellow members of Hillcrest Camera Club to get Flickr accounts and we soon began sharing pictures online.

The system is cleverly set up to display new pictures, which have been uploaded by your contacts, on your home page and I found that wasn’t at all long before Flickr was my first stop on the Internet each morning, and quite often, the last one at night.

It is very interesting, after having gone on a photo outing, to get back home and then, over the next couple of days, to begin to see the pictures taken by other members of the club appearing in our Flickr group. The next thing we discovered was that there was another group on Flickr, called the Durban Flickr Meet Up, who were about to have an outing of their own to the beachfront.

A number of Hillcrest members went along on that outing, had a wonderful time and, instantly, our circle of local photographers expanded. We have since been on a joint outing to the Moses Mabhida Stadium, and there are many more in the pipeline.

I then got to hear of local photo magazine Pix’s website which also allows you to network with other like-minded photographers. It turned out that they also had a Durban and KZN Group, who were just getting organised, and about to start organising their own photo outings.

The social highlight, so far, was last weekend’s Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk on 18 July, when over 30,000 photographers in many cities around the world went on a Photowalk. There were 50 Durban photographers and we had a very successful walk, starting at dawn, from Wilson’s Wharf to the Bat Centre, and back.

For security reasons, the SAPS weren’t keen to see us photographers busily recording views around the bay but they soon threw their hands up in despair when confronted with the impossibility of controlling 50 leather-stetsoned people out having fun. We should have had some I-AM-NOT-A-TERRORIST signs but, as it was, I have had my picture taken playing the Lying Down Game (see here and here), which is gaining popularity all over the Internet.

Social networking is working for me so far and I’d recommend it. As with most things in life, however, one does have to be a bit careful about what one gets up to.

If you are a teenage girl, for example, it would most likely be unwise to run away to South America with someone you meet on the Internet. This person doesn’t love you and you will end up working in bordello, wherever you happen to end up.

I’ve even been doing a bit of Facebooking lately, but I must confess that one thing I still don’t get is micro-blogging site Twitter, and I doubt if I ever will. It’s probably a bit like Tom Waits music in that regard; not a taste I’m likely to acquire.

Why not click the link below to leave a comment?
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Milking the cash cow

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 0

Operating systems have traditionally been a cash cow for software companies because no computer can do without one.

They tie together computer hardware and software, taking care of printing, ensuring that files are stored correctly, that they are accessible when needed, and that user input is processed properly. The complexity of operating systems (OSs) means that there have been few players in the market and the companies have tended to exploit their near-monopolies by charging high prices for their products, and by forcing customers to accept new products they don’t want.

There has been a backlash against these high-handed business practices among computer programmers and users, which has given rise to the phenomenon of programmers creating brilliant software and giving it away to users for free. The free software includes operating systems which are mostly based on Linux, a derivative of Unix, and are being adopted by growing numbers of people.

Users have found that the free Linux operating systems are more than sufficient for their needs and my feeling, confirmed by some experience, is that these products are now good enough for the computing needs of most users. The fact that the majority of people have not been exposed to them, and most likely don’t know they exist, is the reason that there hasn’t been a wholesale migration to free OSs.

In short, there hasn’t been a free OS with a high enough profile to attract the attention of the average user, but this is going to change significantly in the next year. The first week in July saw a lot of excited speculation in the computer world, with the announcement by Google, that they would be producing their own free operating system.

To be known as Google Chrome OS, the new system will be available to users from the second half of 2010. In the next couple of months, it will be a made available to the open source programming community and Google believes that, by this time next year, it should be ready for distribution in new Netbooks, laptops and desktop computers.

Chrome OS is aimed at people who do most of their computing on the Internet and will be designed to get users connected a few seconds after switching their computers on. The actual computer that the user works on will become far less relevant because Chrome OS will be designed to take full advantage of programs running on the Internet and for user data to be stored there, or on the cloud, as Google calls it.

I have no idea what sort of a dent Chrome OS will make in the sales of desktop operating systems but I suspect the fact that a major company is producing a free operating system, may give the free OS movement a lot of momentum. If it works as promised, and I imagine that it most likely will, Chrome could tempt a lot of people into trying it out, especially when you consider the price.

I can’t see my desktop being replaced by a machine running Chrome OS, at least while our Internet connectivity is so expensive. On the other hand, I could see me using a lightweight portable unit for my day to day internetting, and only resorting to the desktop for heavy-duty tasks, such as processing pictures, or whatever.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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Gearing up with e-mail

posted in: FishNet, Web | 3

E-mail has become one of the most vital communications tools that most of us use every day.

For this reason, e-mail has featured often in these columns, and today I’m going to return to the subject to discuss my ongoing adventures with Google’s Gmail service. I’ve been using Gmail for a couple of years, since it was available by invitation only, and have found it to be an extremely valuable addition to my computing arsenal.

The move away from an e-mail package based on my desktop computer at home has proved invaluable over and over again, seeing that I can now access my mail from wherever I happen to be. The only nagging doubt I had was that I didn’t have way of backing up my e-mails, stored on Google servers, and was therefore totally dependent on them to keep everything safe and sound.

I searched high and low for a means of backing up my e-Gmail and eventually came up with the fact that Gmail does allow IMAP-compliant e-mail clients to access the system and download all or part of the email stored there. I eventually settled on the Thunderbird e-mail client and the full story of that is documented in a previous column, which is available here.

The solution worked very well and I was able, not only to download messages from Gmail, but to have Thunderbird copy messages that I had created locally to my Gmail account. Then came the terrible episode when my hard drive was accidentally toasted during a computer upgrade, and I was forced to go back and recreate everything that I had done over the last couple of years.

The Thunderbird-IMAP solution was very workable, if a trifle fiddly to set up, so I decided to go out and see if there were any new ways to back Gmail up. The first thing I found was a program called Gmail Backup, whose name gives you a very accurate idea of what it does, and it does simplify the matter of creating a backup of all your Gmail messages.

The program is free from gmail-backup.com and it will download your e-mail messages so that you have a copy of them safe on your local hard drive. It is a work in progress and only gives you a straight choice between backing up all your messages or just those from before or after a particular date, or between two dates.

Gmail Backup sounds very useful and, if you only need a simple backup, it sounds as though it would be fine for that. I wanted a bit more and I was looking around for another solution which would give me the backup facility, and also allow me to use Gmail on my desktop computer if Gmail was ever offline, heaven forbid, or my Internet connection wasn’t working.

Quite by chance, I came across a browser add-on called Gears, which was developed by Google, and is compatible with most modern browsers. It allows you to use certain websites even if you’re offline and, Gmail’s case, it stores a copy of your messages on your local computer so you can access them when you’re offline .

This sounded like just the job to me, so I went along to the Gears site at gears.google.com and downloaded the program for use with my Firefox browser. The next step was very simple and meant going into my Gmail account, going to the Labs setting under settings, and switching on the Gmail Offline facility.

No sooner was that done, than Gears and Gmail started talking to each other and Gears started downloading my messengers to the hard drive. At the time of writing, Gears said it had downloaded all my messages, but that it had still had 2856 attachments to download.

It’s early days to comment on Gears and Gmail’s offline facility, but it does look very promising. I have noticed that Google is usually very careful about making sure that its various bits and pieces work, before releasing them on the unsuspecting public. More to follow in future columns.

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High sugar can be good

posted in: FishNet, Software | 0

Having recently been diagnosed with high sugar levels, I was delighted to find a type of sugar that I could indulge in freely.

The product in question is not food, unfortunately, but is the free Sugar Learning Platform which was released onto the Internet in the last couple of weeks. It is a complete learning platform which can run on just about any computer and can be installed on any USB flash drive with a capacity greater than 1 GB.

It is available from the Sugar Labs website and was apparently first developed for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO-1 computer, which I’ve mentioned before in the column. The Sugar Learning Platform, or Sugar for short, is apparently being used by over a million children, speaking 25 different languages, all round the world.

Getting a copy of Sugar and installing it is a fairly easy process, although the file is just over 380Mb in size, and so the download takes quite a while. You then need another much smaller program called Fedora Live USB Creator, to transfer Sugar onto a USB stick, in such a way that a compatible computer can boot from it.

Older computers won’t boot from a memory stick but you have the option of downloading a file which you can use to create a CD-ROM disc to boot from. Fortunately, the instructions on the website are pretty clear and you shouldn’t have too much problem getting it installed on any Windows, Linux or Apple PC.

The install process is fiddly but the benefits include the fact that the user’s computing activities take place only on the memory stick, keeping files on the hard drive insulated from harm. Other benefits include the fact that you can use Sugar on a computer without a hard drive, that users can plug into any convenient computer, and that many people can share one computer.

I finally got Sugar up and running on my PC and found that it has a spare and clean layout which children, and older users, should have no problem in learning. The first time Sugar boots, it asks you for your name and, once that’s done, you are taken to a screen where you can choose from a wide range of different activities.

The word activities, it should be explained, describes not only the things you do with Sugar, but is also the word Sugar Labs uses in place of the word programs. Thus, you would use the Journal activity if you wanted to indulge in the activity of reading an electronic book, for example.

Activities include music players, a web browser, a wordprocessor, games, and so forth. There are also puzzle activities to be solved, activities for reading electronic books, for composing music, for computer programming, and there is even some reference material and maps to be going on with.

The idea was that the OLPC laptops would be equipped with wireless networking and that, even if not directly connected to the Internet, children in the classroom could use the facility. Thus, most of the activities have collaborative features built-in and users can easily design graphics, put slideshows and music together, or solve problems in cooperatively.

One of the central organising features of Sugar is the Journal which records everything that the user does, including all the projects they create, and makes it easy for parents or teachers to see exactly what the child has been up to.

I did find the interface a little puzzling here and there, largely because I’m so used to doing things in a particular ‘Windows’ way. Luckily, there is a very decent user manual which you can download and which has plenty of notes for teachers and parents. In addition, many of the activities include a lesson plan which the teacher can refer to.

I must say that I was quite excited by the whole concept of Sugar and can see that it could be extremely useful in places such as South Africa, where there is no way we could afford to buy a computer for every child. On the other hand, we might just be able to provide each of them with a memory stick with Sugar installed, which they can plug into any PC that they can get access to.

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Here be a Dragon

Today, I’ve got quite a few different things for you.

First off, I finally got my copy of Dragon Dictate working again after my recent hard drive accident. I had been using the program for a number of months when the accident happened and I had to do without it for a good couple of weeks.

I was actually quite surprised at how much I missed being able to dictate my various bits and pieces into the computer and have Dragon magically type them out for me. I suppose the true test of a piece of new technology is whether or not you miss it when it’s taken away from you.

I didn’t miss many of the programs that I use every day, like Open Office, but it was a very different story with Dragon. I suppose its proof that speech recognition is a technology whose time has come and that typing has suddenly become so ‘yesterday’.

The other day, while reading David Ziser’s photography blog, I saw that he too, had acquired Dragon Dictate and was having great success with it.

My only reservation with the version of Dragon that I’ve got at the moment is it came free with a dictaphone and the makers would clearly like me to upgrade to a new and better version. I reinstalled the program OK but it resolutely refused to let me import my precious speech files and made me go through the whole training process again.

That was certainly annoying but the value I find in the program is such that I will buy an upgraded version in the near future. And that brings me to my next point, which is that I’m going to make very sure that any new software I buy is fully compatible with Windows 7.

My tip for you today is, when buying anything in the PC line in the next couple of months, that you check very carefully to make sure it is compatible with Windows 7. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would not now buy a PC unless the vendor was prepared to guarantee a free upgrade to Windows 7 when it is released in October.

I haven’t heard anything official as yet but believe that Microsoft will at some point start offering a free upgrade to buyers of new systems. Without such a guarantee, I would personally choose to defer a PC purchase until after Windows 7 is launched.

Last week I talked about a free service called Alltop (alltop.com) which is a website which allows you to search for blogs and websites publishing information on any of a wide variety of subjects. By registering with Alltop, I explained, you can establish a page on which all your favourite websites and blogs are listed and which is updated when new material is added to any of the blogs or websites that you subscribe to.

Google offers a free feed reader service which does something similar and also allows you to subscribe to any website or blog, and read the latest content from any of those sites without leaving the Google feed reader page.

It does help to make life simpler by collecting all the stories you want to read together in one place, and the tool is quite easy to use, but it does have the drawback that you have to know about a particular site before you can subscribe to it.

I find I much prefer the AllTop service because it allows you to search by topic and provides you with a list of blogs and websites that pertain to that. You can then browse through the list and find interesting sites that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

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All the top stories

posted in: FishNet, Hardware, Web | 0

After several weeks and much effort, my newly upgraded PC is almost where I want it, with most of the bits of software I use installed and running as I want them.

The computer Canopus ran for four years without needing my attentions so the upgrade came as a huge disturbance, and it took me an awfully long time to get back to where I had been. One of the things which was lost in transition was my browser’s history of the websites that I visit on a regular basis.

I had gotten used to typing a few letters into the browser’s address bar and for it to suggest a list of sites or pages which fitted in with what I had typed. I would just type out the letters ‘the’, for example, and Firefox would guess that I wanted to visit The Online Photographer, and fill in the rest of the address for me.

Likewise, when I typed in the letters ‘scot’, it would bring up the address of Photoshop guru Scott Kelby’s informative blog. Without my browsing history, however, Firefox didn’t know what sites I wanted to see and I was left wondering whether the address I wanted was kelby.net, kelby.com or whatever. [It’s scottkelby.com, BTW.]

I eventually managed to track down all my favourite sites and I thought it would be a good idea if I could find a way of memorizing them in such a way that their addresses won’t be lost the next time I accidentally format my hard drive. I also thought it would be great if I could somehow get a list of all my sites that could keep a track of changes at each site and notify me, for example, when a new article appears on one of them.

I was cheating a little bit because I already knew that this sort of thing was possible through a mechanism called feeds, which are built-into more and more websites and blogs these days. Feeds allow you to subscribe to the site and to be notified when new pages or articles are added to it.

I knew that there are a number of feed readers available, including one from Google, and I had decided to take a look at a couple them, when I came across the very cool Alltop site (www.alltop.com). Its purpose is to help you answer the question ‘what’s happening?’ in whatever sphere happens to interest you.

A conventional search engine would be good at helping you answer specific questions, such as somebody’s date of birth, but it would be lousy if you wanted to find out what was happening in the world of politics, Apple computers or being a mom, for example.

Alltop aims to help you find out what’s happening in a huge variety of topics by allowing you to type in what you want, and showing you a list of websites and blogs which publish information on that topic.

That’s quite clever but the really cool thing is that it uses feed technology to download the last five headlines from each site and, if that weren’t enough, you can view the first paragraph or two of any story by hovering your mouse cursor over the headline. Clicking on the headline takes you to the full story on the original site.

You would typically go to Alltop and enter whatever you’re looking for, such as photography, and browse through the list of sites it provides. The overwhelming majority of the sites I visit regularly were listed and it is a simple matter to see which have been updated since my last visit.

The system allows you register and create your own page at Alltop and use it to list your favourite sites from any topic so that, just by visiting one page, you can quickly see what’s happening in any of your spheres of interest. You can find my Alltop page at http://my.alltop.com/allansjackson and you’ll see some interesting photo sites are already listed there.

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Everyone’s a palooka sometimes

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 2

Recent events in my computing world were a salutary reminder that everyone will eventually earn themselves an entry in the Palooka’s Hall of Fame (PhoF).

I installed a trial version of the new Windows 7 operating system on my upgraded computer but decided that I wasn’t quite ready for it, and would go back to Windows XP. The process of installing an operating system isn’t all that hard and involves booting your computer with the installation CD, and following the prompts.

I’ve done this before quite often and have found that it is better to retain the hard drive with all your old files on it and use a clean new hard drive for the installation. That way, you’ll be able to plug the old drive in after the installation of the new operating system, and access any of the old files you discover you need.

The fresh new SATA hard drive was connected and the computer had been told that this was the Master hard drive, where the operating system was to live. I then made the mistake of connecting the old IDE drive, with all my files, before installing XP.

The old drive was plugged into the motherboard’s IDE socket and, unbeknownst to me, the motherboard decided that this should be the master drive. It couldn’t have happened on an IDE-only motherboard, but it did on this new one.

The damn thing asked me whether it should format the Master drive, in preparation for Windows XP and, although it did issue a dire warning that all data on the drive would be lost, I assumed it was referring to the empty drive, and said it could go ahead.

The formatting finished and Windows started to install itself but the process bombed out for some reason; luckily for me, as turned out. I soon realized that I had formatted the wrong drive and that there were some files on it that had not been backed-up.

Shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, I unplugged the formatted drive from the computer, and then installed XP on the correct one. Fear and trepidation ruled the day because I realised that, although there were some files I’d miss, there was at least one whose loss would make my life seriously inconvenient.

It is possible to recover files from a formatted hard drive because they are not actually deleted and should be recoverable providing that no new files are written over the top of the old ones. That was what happened when Windows started to install itself on the drive but I had to hope that the vital files were still intact.

I went onto the Internet and found a program called Recover My Files (recovermyfiles.com) which has a very cunning marketing scheme. You can download it for free and, so as not to overwrite any files, you install it on a different hard drive to the one you want to recover files from.

After scanning the hard drive for a long time, it gives you a list of the files it has found and, after you pay $69.95, it saves the files for you in another location. The cost seems a little steep but the truth is that you don’t mind at all, when it tells you that it has found the files you thought gone for good.

I ended up getting my vital file back and quite a lot of the picture files I had been working on in the week before the event. A few of the recovered files turned out to be unusable but it seems that, when Recover My Files thinks it can restore a file, it usually can.

Luckily, my backups onto DVD disc had been pretty thorough and so I only ended losing non-vital stuff but my lapse into palookadom has reminded me of the importance of backing up.

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A new Windows on the world

posted in: FishNet, OS, Windows | 4

It has been a long time since I have looked forward to the launch of a new version of an operating system, but I’m in that position again.

I started talking about Windows 7 last week and said that I’d acquired and installed a copy of the pre-release version, which Microsoft had put out for users to test and evaluate. The real for-sale version will probably be here by Christmas and I have to say that I can’t wait.

New to me, and everyone who managed to avoid Windows Vista, is a snazzy-looking interface called Windows Aero. It’s strong on animating things like windows opening and many elements of it incorporate a glass-like translucent look. You’ll like it if you like that sort of thing.

I didn’t and turned off the glass and animation but I was very pleased with the rest of the interface. There is still a Start button and a taskbar, but they are greatly refined and better than those in XP.

For example, you still get a button appearing on the taskbar when you start a program but you now get multiple instances of a program, like many browser windows, stacked under one button.

Hovering the mouse pointer over a button gives you a thumbnail view of all the windows open under it, and it’s a simple matter to click the one you want. Programs that you use often can be pinned permanently to the taskbar, so that you can click the button to start them.

There are a fair number of accessories new to me in Windows 7 including a Snipping Tool, to capture images from your screen, and Sticky Notes, for leaving notes to yourself on your desktop and there is also a Mahjong game.

That stole quite a lot of my time as I tried to identify and remove matching tiles from the various shaped piles that the program generates. I found it quite a challenge at first but my brain adapted to the task and I got better as I went along.

Also available are Desktop gadgets which live on your desktop and are either ornamental or provide useful information. The gadget idea is not new but the Windows 7 ones I tried, including a calendar and Durban weather report, did not make my desktop feel cluttered, as the Google Desktop ones do.

For me, one of the most important changes in Windows 7 is in how user files are stored. The system works on libraries for storing documents, music, pictures, and videos, and it is now less important where the files are physically located.

There are still a basic set of folders where these files are stored but Windows can also show you files stored in other locations like, for example, music stored on another hard disk drive. Quick access to your libraries is provided from the Start button and from a sidebar in all open Windows, so your stuff is only ever a click or two away.

I was incredibly impressed with Windows 7 and, in spite of it not being a final release, it is elegant, clean, and hassle-free. Best of all, it seems to be quite a speed merchant and will allegedly work perfectly well on lesser computers, which was not at the case with Vista.

In the week or so I had Windows 7 on my machine, I didn’t have a single problem that I could trace to it. I eventually decided to step back to Windows XP only because two of my most vital programs refused to install on it.

All the other many programs I installed, including little freeware ones, worked perfectly but my Quickbooks 8 and my Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.5 refused to install. So many programs worked so I conclude that those two programs try to do something non-standard and fall over when they encounter a Windows they hadn’t heard about.

It would probably be a good idea for everyone wanting to upgrade to Windows 7 to check that all their software is compatible before taking the plunge. There’s no telling what price it will be launched at but, assuming its reasonable, and my software will work on it, I’m upgrading for sure.

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See you through the Windows 7…

posted in: FishNet, OS, Windows | 2

This is a one of the most strange and uncomfortable columns I’ve had to write in the past six months or so.
The problem is that I had to type it all out manually instead of dictating it, as I’ve been doing since getting my hands on a copy Dragon Naturally Speaking. The program transcribes my spoken words into a wordprocessor file and, having learnt from all the corrections I’ve made, it’s pretty accurate.

I like dictating and have found that, if I sit quietly and note down the important points, I can dictate the column, have it transcribed onto my computer, edit it, and send it off in just over half the time it used to take to type it out. Unfortunately, I’m in the midst of reinstalling all my software on a new hard drive and didn’t manage to get Dragon moved across in time.

Canopus, my computer, was starting to show signs of age was sometimes cranky, like its owner, some might say, and unwilling to start. It had been running more or less continuously for four years and I got the message that I should probably be getting a new computer before it failed altogether. I am not a fan of Microsoft’s Windows Vista and I had been hoping that Canopus would last until the arrival of the next version of Windows, Windows 7, or until I won the Lotto and could buy an Apple.

That wasn’t to be, however, and I was wondering what to do about an operating system, when I noticed an article in a computer magazine. It reported many users of the test, or Beta, version of Windows 7 were so impressed that they were already using it as their main operating system.

Microsoft recently made the first release candidate of Windows 7 available on the internet and, seeing that a release candidate should be very close to the finished product, with most major bugs ironed out, I decided to take a chance and install it on the upgraded machine.

A friendly guru, Vaughan Willcox, stepped in with a copy of Windows 7 RC1 on a flash disk and I soon copied it to DVD disc and plugged it into the machine, now known as Cambria. So there I was with a copy of Windows 7 loading itself onto a completely fresh hard drive.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting too much, having been a bit bitter and twisted about Microsoft in the past few years. The first surprise came when Windows 7, after asking a few questions about me and which part of the world I live in, breezed through the installation process and was ready for action, a bare 20 minutes later.

I have sat through many program and operating system installations over the years and this was about as quick and trouble-free as its gets. A far cry from the longest installation I can remember doing, which was Microsoft Office which, in those days, came on 50 floppy disks.

Installing Windows 7 was much better than that but, to hear exactly whether I managed to get to grips with it, and whether Dragon Dictate will agree to work on the new system, you’ll have to wait until next week.

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Computing on a stick

posted in: FishNet, Software | 4

Portable computing has been mentioned before in this column in an article on Ubuntu Linux and how some bright spark had created a portable version of it and a selection of programs that you can carry with you on a USB memory stick and use in any computer that you came across.

And now, thanks to reader David Buxton, I have news of a similar sort of system based on Windows-compatible software. The product is called LiberKey and it can be downloaded free from www.LiberKey.com/en/. It is basically a collection of free portable programs grouped together with a menu system which you can use to start the particular program you want to use at the time.

There are a couple of different versions of the LiberKey including the Basic, with 28 programs, the Standard with 106 programs, and the Ultimate which includes 202 different program. These are predominantly utilities to help look after your system, edit audio and video files, burn discs, create documents, and many, many others; no games, unfortunately.

You can see on the website what each of the packages contains and download the one that suits you best. If however, you find that you need other programs, you can easily download them and add them to your LiberKey installation.

Getting LiberKey involves selecting the version you want, and clicking the download button. The Ultimate version download is 197Mb in size and needs 575 MB of disk space for installation.

Once the download is complete, you double-click it and, when asked where to install the system, you select a location on your computer or on a flash disk drive with enough space to accommodate it. Installation is fairly quick and once complete, you can activate LiberKey by opening the folder where you installed it, and double-clicking the program file.

When it starts, a little menu window pops up giving you a list of all the programs that have been installed and you can then start any of them by double-clicking it. I managed to start it easily enough and was able to run a number of the programs that I had installed.

There were one or two strange occurrences such as, for example, when I tried to start the Firefox Web browser. It just wouldn’t start but, seeing as the error message was in French, I’m still none the wiser about what had gone wrong.

I chose the Standard version of LiberKey and I must confess that many of the programs didn’t look at all interesting and I probably would never use them. One example is a replacement for the Windows file explorer and I must confess I don’t see the point of that.

Quite a number of programs I fiddled with promise to be quite useful. One was a clever little utility for creating photo albums for the web and the other can record whatever you’re doing on your computer screen, together with a narration, if you want to create a tutorial for somebody.

As I say, some of the programs look useful but a harder question to answer is whether the whole LiberKey concept is going to be useful or not. I honestly don’t think that I am likely to find it so, but I can see that for those hopping from computer to computer, it might be very handy to carry around a full set of programs configured just the way they like to use them.

One prime use for such a system might to avoid leaving traces of your activities on the computers that you use. I can’t guarantee that using LiberKey on a computer won’t leave traces and even if it doesn’t, I think you would still have to be very careful to save the files you create onto your flash drive, and not onto the computer by accident; the consequences of saving a file in the wrong place could potentially be fatal to your career and/or relationship.

LiberKey is a very interesting concept and one which will find favour with some.

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More digital slideshows

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Software | 0

Last week I discussed a program that will allow you to package up your digital pictures as a slideshow to send to Auntie Mabel living overseas.

Today, I’ve got two other possibilities for creating photo slideshows or movies. These include Google’s Picasa image viewer (picasa.google.com), which is free and makes creating movies very easy, and Pictures2Exe which is also very easy to use, but not free.

Picasa is Google’s image viewer and organiser and can be used to copy pictures from any source, like a camera, onto your computer. It is quite powerful and to can be used to fix and apply special effects to pictures, send them by e-mail, create contact sheets, burn pictures onto CDs, and export web pages.

Among its many talents is the ability to make movies out of any combination of pictures and existing video clips that you might have. It doesn’t offer many options during the process of creating a movie but this will be viewed by most as a blessing because there are no confusing choices.

All you do is select your pics, movie clips and a tune for the background music, if you want that. The only other options are adding a caption to each picture, choosing the size that the movie will be, and what transition to use between pictures.

You then click the Create Movie button which, if your computer is any thing like mine, will take quite some time, depending on the number of pictures that you’ve included in your movie. Once the hard drive on the computer stops whirring, you’ll get the option of exporting your movie as Windows Media Video (WMV) file, or uploading it to YouTube.

WMV files will play on any computer which has Windows media player installed on it cannot burn the movie to a DVD disc in such a way that it will play on any common DVD player. You will need some extra software to create a DVD from the files you create.

Just before I leave Picasa, I should mention that it does have one other interesting feature which is that it can create a picture collage out of any number of pictures that you select.

Last week I suggested that you try Microsoft picture story, and this week have gone into a little bit of detail about Google’s Picasa program. The final word on the subject for the time being at least, is that I would preferably not use either of these programs but, instead, one called Pictures2Exe.

I have been using a very old version of it and, although I find it now costs $49 for the standard version, it would still be my preferred solution. Like the others, it makes assembling the pictures for your show very easy but it offers far more control and flexibility of output.

By default, it creates a slideshow in a single file, that can be played on any PC, but it will also export your slideshow in video format, upload your files to YouTube or Vimeo, and the Deluxe version can also directly create DVDs. The new version includes a lot of visual effects such as panning and zooming, narration for individual pictures and plenty besides.

Trial versions of Pictures2Exe are available from their website (www.wnsoft.com) but, be warned, the trial version is severely limited and can only import 10 pictures at a time. It also puts a watermark on your shows but, it’s enough to give you a general idea of the program’s capabilities so you can gauge whether you’d be prepared to shell out your hard earned money for it.

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A DVD for Auntie Mabel

posted in: FishNet, Imaging, Software | 1

Digital photography is one of my passions and there has been plenty written about it in this column over the years.

One of the main themes has been what to do with the hordes and hordes of pictures that tend to accumulate after a while. I believe that one of the best ways of sharing pictures with others is to put them into an online photo gallery, such as Flickr (flickr.com). See my gallery here.

You can, of course, also share pictures by sending them here, there and everywhere via e-mail but those plans do fall down a bit when you come to the case of Auntie Mabel, who lives overseas, and has never even heard of the Internet.

One possible solution for keeping her updated with the latest pictures of the family, would be to trek down to the local photo lab, have a set of pictures printed out for her, trek over to the Post Office, stand in a queue for a long time, and post the pictures to her.

An easier solution, which I was reminded about recently, would be to take the pictures from your computer and put them onto a DVD disc which auntie can feed into her DVD player and look at them on her television set.

There are quite a lot of programs available which will do this including some that will allow you to get quite creative when putting your pictures together into a nice slideshow, complete with titles, narration and music.

One of the many available is Microsoft’s Picture Story 3, which you can get for free by visiting the Microsoft website and downloading it. I’m not too sure how long it is going to be available, however, seeing that it is one of the accessories for Windows XP, and seeing that XP is most definitely almost down and out.

The program is quite small and fairly quick to download, assuming you’ve got broadband, and it’s a matter of just a few moments to install it onto your PC. It’s surprisingly sophisticated, considering the price, and it manages to make the process of creating an audio-visual slideshow very easy.

When starting the program, you are presented with a wizard which guides you through the whole process of creating your slideshow. Your first task is to select pictures for your show from your hard drive and once that is done, Picture Story loads the pictures into a strip at the bottom of the screen where you can change their order.

At this point, you get the chance to edit the pictures and remove redeye, or apply special effects such as black and white or sepia to any of them. The next stage in the process is to add text to any of the pictures and you can choose the font, size and placement.

Recording a narration for any picture is very easy easily done by selecting the picture, clicking the record button, saying whatever you have to say, and then clicking stop. You can customise transitions, or how the pictures fade into each other, or tweak the settings for zooming and panning.

I didn’t bother too much at all with this last step, because I found that Picture Story did a very creditable job of choosing the right transitions to put between each of the pictures. You then add background music and, as a final step, choose what you’re going to do with the slideshow.

There are a number of different choices including whether you intend the slideshow to be played on a computer, and at what size, or whether you’re planning to create a DVD. You can then save your slideshow and, separately, the project as a whole, in case you ever want to come back and tweak the settings.

As I’ve said before, Picture Story 3 is surprisingly sophisticated and a lot of thought has gone into making it extremely easy to use while, at the same time, allowing the more creatively inclined to tinker with the settings. The only a slight snag that I can really say I found with it is that it cannot directly be used to create a DVD.

The file that you get out of it is a WMV (or Windows Media Video) file which can be played on any PC running Windows Media Player but which needs additional software before it can be burnt to DVD disc. There are many different solutions which will allow you to do this but the easiest of all, is a $19 plug-in from Sonic which will allow you to create a DVD directly from inside Picture Story.

As I’ve said before, there are plenty of software packages available which can be used to create slideshows and I may very well come back to the subject sometime in the future. In fact, you can probably bet on it.

In the meantime however, I’d recommend that you get your hands on Picture Story, or some other similar program, and get into making audiovisuals; it’s a whole lot of fun.

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Intimate relations with the stars

posted in: FishNet, Rant | 0

Sometimes my heart really bleeds when I read a sad story in the newspapers.

This time it was about some analysts who are predicting that the Internet is approaching full capacity and that, when this happens, things are going to slow down to a crawl. They expect the Internet to suffer brownouts, when nothing seems to be happening, and for computers to be dropping their connections all the time.

The analysts could be right but have certainly overlooked the fact that, here in South Africa, we’ve had those conditions for years. We were years ahead of the US with online banking and now we are also ahead with crappy slow Internet; the same organisation, ironically, being responsible for both of those glorious South African achievements.

In one evening at the computer, preparing for this column, I had to restart my ADSL router twice because it lost its connection and forgot where to find Google, and everything else for that matter. It’s so frustrating but that seems to be our lot as South African consumers.

The same report says that the video sharing site YouTube now uses as much bandwidth by itself as the whole the Internet did in the year 2000. Internet traffic is now measured in exabytes which consist a quintillion (that’s a 1 followed by 18 zeroes) bytes of information. An exabyte is apparently equivalent to about 50,000 years of DVD data and the monthly Internet traffic is currently about 8 exabytes.

Some of this is undoubtedly down to my new and close interest in YouTube, where my latest discovery is an elfin comedienne by the name of Sarah Silverman. She is very funny but to say that her sense of humour is robust, is to be guilty of a gross understatement.

There is a brilliant clip on YouTube in which she appears on her boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel’s late night television show, with a music video to show him. She plays guitar and sings that she has been having an affair and that “I’m f***king Matt Damon“, who also appears in the video.

It was so funny I nearly cried and, to top everything, the song is so good that that it won Silverman an Emmy award for outstanding original music and lyrics, and I challenge you to get it out of your head, once you’ve heard it.

And that’s not the end of the story, however, because there is also a music video clip in which Kimmel, with the help of Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Cameron Diaz and a number of other stars, sings that he’s also been having an affair and that “I’m f***king Ben Affleck“.

Kimmel hosts a late-night talk show on the ABC network in the USA and highlights from the show are available on the show’s own channel on YouTube. There’s plenty of interesting and amusing stuff to see there.

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Having their socks blown off

One of the latest videos to make headlines on YouTube and in the news media is something that I’d really recommend you see.

The video was taken of the show Britain’s Got Talent, which is a show owned by Simon Cowell, who also invented the Idols phenomenon.

The clip shows decidedly unglamorous spinster Susan Boyle, 48, about to go on stage for her audition to win a place in the show. She is being interviewed and admits that she lives alone with her cat, that she has never even been kissed, and things get worse when actually goes out on stage.

The judges and the audience are not inclined to to believe such an uncool-looking person could possibly turn in a good performance and are clearly settling back to enjoy her humiliation. Things don’t go according to plan, however, when Susan launches into I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables, in voice which would not disgrace a concert hall.

She blows their socks off, with the audience going wild, judges Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell grinning incredulously, and judge Amanda Holden so far forgetting herself, that she gives Susan a standing ovation.

You can view the video by clicking here.

There are a number of versions of the clip, which should last about seven minutes, and each had been viewed several million times when I looked last week.

Free software and shareware, which you can try and then buy if you like it, has long been one of my passions and one of the prime sites for finding examples of both, in my opinion, is the oddly-named Tucows (www.tucows.com). It has software of all descriptions, for all computer platforms, rated on a sliding scale from one to five cows.

I recently visited Tucows looking for this and that, when I discovered that they now have a companion site called Butterscotch (www.butterscotch.com), which has many interesting bits and pieces relating to computing and mobiles. On offer are a wide selection of video clips, which you can watch for free, just by clicking on the one you want to watch.

The video clips are divided into shows, with regular instalments, and tutorials. The shows include the latest news on popular YouTube videos, computer-related news, great software that you can download, and the latest in mobile technology.

Also on offer are a wide selection of tutorials covering the use of popular online services and software programs. They include such useful lessons as how to print web pages without including the background design, how to use the popular music player Winamp, the beginner’s guide to blogging with Blogger, buying and selling on eBay, and an introduction to the Flickr online photo sharing service.

I have watched quite number of the videos and found that they are potentially very useful and designed to be accessible to novices and more experienced computer users. Because Butterscotch is based very largely around video clips, you would have to have broadband before you could derive much benefit from the site.

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Making order out of chaos

posted in: FishNet, Software | 0

Files on my computer have lately been multiplying at an alarming rate, like the rabbits down under before Myxomatosis came along.

The chief villain behind this proliferation of files is my passion for digital photography and this was brought home to me recently when I realised that I have been doing digital photography for only six years, but that I already have 50 CD-ROM and DVD backup discs full of pictures. The problem is that I have lost track and haven’t the foggiest idea of where anything is.

With the thought that the number of digital pictures I take is not going to decrease and that, in time, my office is going to be knee-deep in discs, I have been looking for a way to catalog everything so that I can easily find what I need. One possible solution I recently came across is a program called WinCatalog.

It will allow you to catalog the contents of any number of CD-ROM and DVD discs, flash drives, external hard drives, music CDs, and folders on your hard drive and allow you to find items you are looking for. There is a free version of WinCatalog called WinCatalog Light and it’s available from www.wincatalog.com.

Using the program is simplicity itself and all you have to do is create a new catalog, save it in a place of your choosing, and then begin to add material to it. The cataloging process is very quick, seeing as the content of the file is not imported, just it’s name and its location, and you can catalog a collection of CDs almost as fast as you can feed them into your computer.

In order to make searching even more effective, you can add keywords or comments to any file or group of files to help you in finding them later. For instance, you can select all the pictures you took on your latest holiday, and add a comment to them, giving the location and any other information you care to add.

Finding files is easy and all you do is call up WinCatalog, enter all or part of the file name or comment, or a keyword, and hit the Search button. The program brings up a list of files or folders which meet the criteria that you entered and tells you where each is to be found.

I easily added a selection of content to my test catalog including a folder of files from my computer, two DVD storage disks, and Bonnie Tyler’s Greatest Hits. Adding comments and keywords was also very quick and, once that was done, searching for a particular file was a real breeze.

The free version of WinCatalog looks very capable and while the paid version does give you quite a few extra features, the free one would more than cover the requirements of an average user. I felt that WinCatalog did have a slight flaw in the fact that the Search feature makes you search by filename, keyword or comment, and does not allow you enter a term once, and search under all three headings at one time.

It also falls a bit short, in my opinion, because it has no provision for importing thumbnails of all your pictures so that you can see what you’ve got, rather than just looking at a list. My version of computing heaven would be WinCatalog which could not only import picture thumbnails, but could also index the contents of your other files, much like Google Desktop does, and help you to find a wordprocessor document, for exampple, by a word or phrase it might contain.
I think that would be a truly awesome tool for making some order in your life.

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Not so terrible after all

posted in: FishNet, Open Source, OS | 0

This week I’ve got a really interesting little tidbit for you that I came across on my web wanderings recently.

It is a complete Linux-based operating system and set of applications that fits on a biggish memory stick and which you can carry around with you and use on any Windows PC you come across. It’s known as Portable Ubuntu and you can find and download it for free from portableubuntu.sourceforge.net.

At 438 MB in size, it is a fairly substantial download, but I eventually did manage to get it down onto my PC. It comes in the form of one executable file which decompresses itself into a folder that you’ve designated. It doesn’t install on Windows as such, so you have to go to the folder where you’ve put it and double click a file called portable_ubuntu.bat.

After humming away to itself for some time, a new program icon appears on your Windows Taskbar and, at at the top of the screen in the centre, you get a panel which allows you to access all the various features of Portable Ubuntu. The Applications menu gives you access to a number of applications including accessories such as a calculator and a dictionary, a fairly wide selection of basic games, a photo manager, a word processor, and a spreadsheet.

From the Places menu you can access your home folder and desktop within Portable Ubuntu, the computer as a whole, and any network that you might be connected to. There is also a System menu, a button for the Firefox browser, a panel with a calendar and clock, and a button to use to quit the program.

Portable Ubuntu is a complete computing environment and could be useful if you’re moving around a lot and you want to take your computer with you on a memory stick. I guess that it could also be useful from a security point of view because it won’t leave any settings or data behind on the computers that you use; files you create are stored in the same folder as Portable Ubuntu and go with you when you unplug your memory stick.

My computer is now over four years old and it ran Portable Ubuntu speedily enough to to make it entirely useable. I have a lot more exploring to do but it does seem to be pretty easy to use and likely to give its users the feeling that Linux isn’t so terrible after all.

There will be people that have a serious use for Portable Ubuntu but I suspect that they are probably far more for whom it will be an easy way to get a look look at Linux, without having to install it on their own PCs. Portable Ubuntu is based on the fully-fledged Ubuntu Linux operating system which is also available for free from the Internet at ubuntu.com.

Ubuntu goes back to 2004, according to online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and is developed and refined by members of the open source programming community. The project is generously supported by billionaire South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and brings out a new version of Ubuntu every six months.

I did originally play with Ubuntu a couple of months ago and was convinced that it, together with the plethora of free applications that you can run on it, had become a viable choice for computer buyers. Certain users may need to stay on the Windows or Macintosh platforms because they use applications that will not run on Linux but, for the rest, I think that the future is Linux, one of whose many varieties is Ubuntu.

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A sad announcement

posted in: FishNet, Software | 0

There was a sad announcement on the Microsoft website recently to the effect that the CD-ROM and web-based Microsoft Encarta encyclopaedia is being discontinued at the end of October this year.

Encarta was a fantastic learning resource in the many years that it has been available, first as a CD-ROM, and then also on the Internet. I daresay it has helped millions of children with their studies and provided hours of entertainment and information for those of us who were no longer and school.

I reviewed many versions of Encarta over the years and was always very impressed with the high quality of the content and, as the years went past, the additions to it which included a World English Dictionary an atlas. The scope of the coverage was immense and a new version was always good for many hours of browsing.

Its great strength, and what turned out to be its Achilles’ Heel, was that it was put together by a highly professional team and the content was strictly vetted to ensure its accuracy. Its downfall has obviously come about as a result of the Catch 22 situation that professionals do tend to cost a lot of money and in harsh economic circumstances, it becomes more and more difficult to sustain those sort of salaries.

The web-based encyclopaedias, chief amongst which is Wikipedia.com, have won the battle because their content is contributed for free by their users, giving them an overwhelming advantage when it comes to competing against other services. Wikipedia owes its success to the fact that anyone can log on and contribute new articles or edit existing ones.

The founder anticipated that inaccurate information would entered into articles but that these would be continually reviewed by the other users and corrected. The jury is still out on whether this model will succeed in providing an accurate source of information or result in a big archive of garbage. I, myself, have often used Wikipedia and have sometimes worried about the quality of some of the information that I’ve discovered there.

Wikipedia does seem to have some intelligence built in and it can detect when an article does not have what it considers to be enough references for each of the points in an article. That is a start but someone maliciously putting false information into a Wikipedia article could also enter false references, and the system would have no way of telling the difference.

I have found Wikipedia very useful but I still have the nagging feeling that an encyclopaedia put together by experts is probably going to be a better bet in the long run. Anyway, it’s farewell to Microsoft Encarta which, by the way, isn’t the first CD-ROM encyclopaedia that Microsoft has discontinued.

For a number of years, they put out a CD-ROM called Cinemania which was an absolutely brilliant resource on all matters cinematic and, in the last few years of its existence, it even updated itself over the Internet on a regular basis with new movie reviews and facts. I was devastated when it was canceled because I’ve spent many happy hours browsing through its movie reviews, biographies, and so forth.

Fortunately, we now have AllMovie (www.allmovie.com) which is a huge online resource on films and filmmakers. It has all the information but it is not quite as polished as Cinemania was and doesn’t seem to have the large number of film star photos. In doing the research for this article, went to AllMovie and, with one link leading to another, it was a couple of hours later that I surfaced.

The afternoon had somehow disappeared and I had whole lot of new film titles on my wishlist. I hadn’t know, for example, that there had been a sequel to one of my favourite movies, Gregory’s Girl. It’s called Gregory’s 2 Girls and I’ll definitely be including that in my next order.
Thank heavens for online ordering, because it seems as though the selection of videos that we are being offered gets worse all the time. There certainly isn’t much to choose from on our locally-available television stations and the situation is almost as bad at most video rental stores in town.

I went into a newly opened one the other day and felt very depressed because there wasn’t much there that was not B-Grade garbage, or more than a couple of years old. There was hardly a classic of any sort in sight, no decent war movies and no westerns.
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Getting your life in order

posted in: FishNet, Web | 0

Last week I spent quite a lot of time looking at a website looking brimming with tips on how to improve your life by getting things done quicker and more efficiently.

I spend so much time, in fact, that I almost didn’t leave myself with enough time to get the most important thing done, this column. The website is called Life Hacker (www.lifehacker.com) and does have a strong computing flavour about it but it also has an idiosyncratic selection of articles on various other subjects ranging from how to prepare an infused olive oil, to making a revolving rack for your tins of food.

One of the interesting computer articles which I read was written by Life Hacker founder editor Gina Trapani, who says that you can easily keep your e-mail under control by using what she calls the Trusted Trio of mailboxes, or folders. She says that most of us spend far too much time filing our e-mails based on the subject of the e-mail, the person who sent to us, or any number of other criteria.

She believes that the secret to keeping on top of your e-mail is to scan it on a regular basis and complete any tasks arising, that can be completed in less than a minute. Apart from that, she believes that you should only have three other mailboxes in addition to your inbox, which she labels as Follow Up, Archive and Hold.

Messages that require you to do something which is going to take you longer than a minute should immediately be moved into the Follow Up box and you should regularly go through them and complete the tasks that arise from each. The Hold box is a temporary holding station for messages that you want to keep around for quick reference.

Examples of this might be a tracking number from your latest Internet purchase which you will no longer need after the package arrives. The Archive mailbox is for the long-term storage of all the messages that have been dealt with or are no longer required in Hold.

Gina makes the point that the search facilities that we have available on our computers today make it unnecessary to file all our messages in the elaborate and time-consuming ways we used to. I hadn’t really thought about e-mail in these terms but using the Trusted Trio does make perfect sense and sounds as though it would save a lot of time.

Another recent article on Life Hacker concerned their Top 10 Tiny and Awesome Windows Utilities which all seem potentially very useful to those of us who spend a lot of time in front of our computers. One that I have tried is called Revo UnInstaller, which can be downloaded free from revounistaller.com, and which provides a lot of useful looking tools for Windows computers.

The most important of these is the Uninstaller which you use in place of the one provided in Windows, to properly uninstall programs that you no longer need. Once you’ve selected a program to uninstall, Revo activates the program’s uninstall feature, as Windows does, but it also searches out files and registry entries left behind by program.

I tried it a couple of times and the process seem to work very well. Other facilities offered by the program include one that deletes junk files from your computer, one that cleans the history and temporary files from your browser, and one which makes it impossible to recover deleted files, which would be useful from a security point of view.

Life Hacker is a very interesting website and one that I’m going to keep my eyes on for sure. In other news, I was having a look at a British newspaper, over the Internet of course, and I see that the firm previously known as British Telecom, now BT, has announced that it is providing Internet connection speeds of 60 megabits per second to many areas in the UK from the beginning of 2010.

This is apparently eight times faster than the previous fastest speeds offered by BT and they apparently plan to jack that up to 100 megabits per second by 2012. It’s enough to make me cry, slaving away night after night over my hot computer trying to download podcasts at a measly 384 kilobits per second and finding that many of them bomb out halfway through because of server time-outs, or whatever have you.

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Replacing my television set

There is no doubt that the SABC is one of the worst television broadcasters I know, but DSTV isn’t all that far behind them.

The constant repetition of programming and a catalogue of movies which couldn’t even be classed as B-grade, has meant that I am often at a loose end in the evenings and looking for something to occupy my time.

One avenue which I have been exploring is programming delivered via the Internet. For a couple of years, I have been a regular listener to BBC radio, which is one of the many stations which one can listen to over the Internet.

Also, for the last year or two, I have been using a free Apple programme called iTunes to download a weekly video programme presented by Photoshop guru Scott Kelby with digital image manipulation tips and tricks. I hadn’t really paid much attention to iTunes otherwise, but one evening when I really couldn’t find anything on television to watch, I decided I would have a closer look at it.

You can download it from www.apple.com and there are versions for both PC and Macintosh computers. It can be used to keep track of your library of sound and video material and lets you play the items on your computer or copy them onto an Apple iPod so that you can enjoy them wherever you are.

There are a number of media player programs available but the trick that Apple came up with, and which makes iTines so compelling, is the Internet-based iTunes store. It’s a repository of material including music, audio books, movies, television shows and podcasts which can be downloaded either for a fee, songs are 99 US cents each for example, or for free.

The bad news is that, once again, South African customers are left sucking the hind tit because the pay content is not available to us and I don’t know if it ever will be; Apple’s PR in Europe has so far not responded to my request for clarification. And so, you might ask, why is he telling us this if we can’t download the latest Hannah Montana episode?

The answer is that there is a lot of excellent free stuff that you can get by firing up the iTunes program and clicking on the iTunes Store button. Most of the free stuff consists of podcasts, which are regular audio or video magazine programs, so you need to visit that section of the store and browse around till you find something of interest.

Each podcast will have a subscribe button next to it and you click that to tell iTunes you are interested in it and want to download it. The program will download the latest edition of the podcast for you automatically and give you the option of downloading previous editions, if you want them.

From then on, whenever iTunes starts, it will automatically go off to the store to check if there is a new edition of any of the podcasts you’ve subscribed to. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of podcasts that you can subscribe to but I’m learning to be picky because it is easy to download more than you could possibly watch or listen to.

One of my current favourites is a podcast by American comedian Adam Carolla which he updates about four or five times a week and which I find hugely funny. I definitely recommend that you put this one on your list of things to listen to but please be warned that Carolla and his guests are sometimes pretty explicit in what they have to say.

Many podcasts are designed to entertain but there are a probably an equally large number which are meant to be informative and educational and these range from the informal, with people giving hints and tips on their specialities, to universities providing academic lectures to anyone who wants to listen.

The more academic stuff is grouped under the iTunes U banner and I have listened to a little of what’s on offer. They vary quite greatly in sound quality from the pretty bad to more professionally produced offerings. A very interesting series of lectures that I’m listening to is on the history of photography and, from my limited knowledge of the subject, they seem to be extremely good.

There are also a large variety of podcasts which are ongoing study courses on many different subjects. Some of these are entirely free and some offer free material but are designed to attract you into paying for the deluxe version of the course.

The type of material you download has a direct bearing on how much bandwidth you’ll use, with sound working out at about 40-50 Mb per hour, and video files being much larger. Our puny expensive bandwidth means that most people will have to limit their subscriptions but, at least, there is an alternative to the dreadful goggle box.

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Light at the end of the bandwidth tunnel?

posted in: FishNet, Web | 0

Languages are a funny thing and unless you’re careful you can say something something in your language and mean something totally unintended in another.

One example is the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite Programme, which is a joint effort between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Kingdom and France. The POES Programme’s name wouldn’t even raise a eyebrow at an American boardroom table but, for those of us who speak a bit of Afrikaans, it gives rise to a delighted chortle.

And so on to the more serious business of the week, which concerns the Seacom undersea cable which is currently under construction and which will provide an additional link from South Africa to the Internet. I was reminded about its imminent arrival recently when I read an article on the establishment of the cable’s South African terminus at Mtunzini on the KwaZulu Natal north coast.

The cable is due for completion by the end of June 2009 and will provide a fibre -optic link from Europe to East and Southern Africa and South Asia. There has already been quite considerable excitement amongst the ranks of the IT press about the cable and what is commonly believed will be a dramatic decrease in the price of bandwidth to South African consumers.

I recently received a newsletter Seacom detailing the progress that has been made on the project and I must say it does sound exciting. CEO Brian Herlihy extols the benefits that Africa is going to reap from the arrival of the cable and promises improved quality of service for international calling and web browsing.

The newsletter also carries an interesting interview between Herlihy and Tami Hultman, who admits some people are saying that the price of broadband won’t come down as dramatically as hoped. He says that the cost of international bandwidth is only one of the three factors which will influence the price paid by consumers.

The other factors are the network infrastructure in each country and the connections, such as ADSL, WiFi or mobile technologies, which cover the last mile between between that infrastructure and the user at home or in the office. Seacom doesn’t have control over the first two elements but, as far as international bandwidth goes, that they are promising to bring the price down by 90-95%.

We’re going to have to wait and see what the various parties who are going to connect us to this lovely cheap bandwidth will do. I veer between optimism and bitter experience of the SA business tradition of parity pricing which has seen us with three mobile providers and not one iota of genuine competition between them.

Maybe I am being a bit pessimistic and things will turn out for the best for us South African consumers for a change. If an upbeat press release I received last week from Neotel is anything to go by, maybe we really can look forward to reduced prices.

According to a Ajay Pandey, CEO of Neotel, the next few months will see a new age in telecommunications in South Africa. He said that the cable will ensure a flood of extra bandwidth and drive down prices to an internationally comparable level, whatever he means by that.

At the moment, I am paying R152 per month for my ADSL connection and R699 per 10 GB of bandwidth that I use. The Neo-Connect Prime offering is currently R599 a month and also includes 10 GB of of bandwidth usage. Other ISPs, apart from the cellphone companies, are in the same sort of ballpark and it is going to be really interesting to see just how much less we’ll be paying after the end of June.

The question will only be answered in the fullness of time and, hopefully, also the question of when Neotel will start rolling out their consumer service in my area. I have asked the oracle at Neotel but I’m waiting on the answer to that one as well…

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The beauty is a beast

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 0


Late addition:
This article had already gone to print when I had a look on Internet for other reviews of the product and found that there were none. I was alarmed to discover that the Toshiba Satellite A300-1QE seemed only to be available in South Africa and Romania and was not listed on the A300 specification sheet. I had dreadful visions of obsolete machines being dumped on unsuspecting Banana Republic consumers (and me endorsing them) so I was relieved to hear from Toshiba’s product manager Reon Coetzee that the machines were specially built for the Europe, Middle East and African region. The only difference between them and the other Satellite A300 models is that they offer users the choice of installing their operating system with French as the default language. The hardware components are the same as in the other models and they fall under Toshiba’s World Guarantee. Another thing I learned is that laptop models have a shelf-life of three months; not that they’ll only last that long, but it’s how long before a new model arrives.

It’s not all that often that I get to review computer hardware so the arrival the other week of a Toshiba laptop was very welcome.

The particular machine is the Satellite A300-1QE and it arrived in a very stylish backpack which had kept it safe from harm during the journey from the agents to my door. It is quite a large laptop and is finished in glossy shades of black and charcoal which extend even to the keyboard.

I had little problem deciphering the little symbols on all the buttons and expansion ports on the machine but I guess that people with with poor eyesight could have some difficulty in making them out against the dark colour scheme.

The glamorous-looking laptop is also pretty potent and comes with a 250 GB hard drive, a large 15.4 inch screen, Harman Kardon speakers, and 2 GB of RAM. Built in is a DVD Super Multi Drive compatible with just about any disc, and it lets you burn both CDs and DVDs as well.

It has wide variety of expansion sockets and interfaces including plugs for an external monitor, S-Video TV-out, iLink (IEEE 1394), external microphone and headphones, WebCam and microphone, a slot for memory cards, and four USB ports. Included is an ExpressCard slot, which I’d never heard of, but which is apparently a descendant of the old PCMCIA slots.

In this day and age, it comes as no surprise to know that the laptop is provided with built-in Bluetooth, WiFi, and a standard network socket. In the time available, I was unable to test the machine’s wireless networking capabilities but I did plug it into my home network and it was able to access the Internet without any intervention on my part.

In using the A300-1QE, I found that it seemed to work well and require little fiddling. For example, I inserted an SD memory card with pictures from my camera into the correct slot and, in a moment or two, the computer offered to download them. I also inserted a sound CD and it gave me the choice of either playing or copying the music to my hard drive.

The A300 runs on the dreaded Windows Vista which irritated me in some ways but which nevertheless seemed to work pretty well. I guess that Vista has had time to mature and that it makes a difference when using a computer designed for it, with plenty of power to spare.

Back in 2000, I had a Toshiba laptop and was impressed with its design and build quality and the A300 did nothing to to change that first favourable impression of Toshiba products. The thing that amazes me is how far laptops have come despite the fact that, at around R13000, the A300 is R2000 cheaper, and many orders of magnitude more powerful than my old machine was.

I would be very pleased to own a Satellite A300-1QE with the slight reservation that I would first look at the rest of the Toshiba range to see if I could find a model that perhaps didn’t look quite as shiny.

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Thunderbirds are go!

posted in: FishNet, Software | 0

The catchphrase Thunderbirds are go! was used by the characters in the famous 1960s (1970s in South Africa) television show.

Sharing the Thunderbird name, and perhaps hoping to generate some of the excitement that having a glamorous name can bring, is free e-mail client developed by the same people who developed the Firefox Web browser. I’d been using Microsoft Outlook Express for many years, and while that was perfectly functional, I was always on the lookout for something that would do the job a bit better.

I came across the Thunderbird program and I decided that I would take a look to see if it could offer any improvements over Outlook Express. You can get the programme from www.Mozilla.com and, at only 6 MB in size, it makes a fairly quick download if you’ve got broadband.

I was very impressed when Thunderbird immediately detected that I had been using Outlook Express and offered to not only import my old e-mail messages, but also my address book and the settings required to connect to my service provider. It did take a fair bit of time to import all my messages but, once that was accomplished, everything went smoothly and it managed to connect and download new messages and send ones I had created.

Thunderbird doesn’t look all that different to the other programs out there and so there is no delay in getting up to speed. It has a nice clean interface and doesn’t give a feeling of being cluttered with unnecessary bits and pieces.

One of the reasons why I decided to move over to Thunderbird is that it is an open source program and stores mail messages in a commonly used format instead of Microsoft’s proprietary format. The other reason I switched was the huge selection of add-ons you can get which add all manner of new abilities and features to the programme.

The first one I downloaded and installed was called Mail Tweak and it gives you a lot of control over how Thunderbird behaves and it adds a very valuable feature known as Personalise. This allows you to send messages quickly and easily to groups of people chosen from your address book or listed in a comma-delimited text file.

It’s not a tool suitable for spammers because it creates an individual message for each recipient and would slow down the process too much if you were sending mail to millions of people. It does, however, make it much easier to send e-mail updates to small groups.

Another add-on I’m finding very useful is QuickText and it allows you to save blocks of text that you commonly use and insert them very easily into your e-mail messages. This gives you the facility to quickly add your banking details to a particular message or, indeed, any other piece of text you often use. There is also a Mozilla add-on called Lightning, an appointments calendar, which looks promising but I haven’t had a chance to play with that yet.

The appeal of a program like Thunderbird is the huge number of people that are developing add-ons and dictionaries for it. There are currently dictionaries is just about any language you might care to name including Afrikaans, South African English and Nepali. By the look of the list, there are dictionaries on the way for Zulu and Northern and Southern Sotho, but these are not yet available for download.

I have been using Gmail, Google’s free webmail service, for quite some time and I had began to get worried about the number of messages which I had stored online and which I wouldn’t have wanted to lose in the event of an accident at Google. I hadn’t managed to come up with much of a solution for downloading the quite large number of messages that I wanted to keep and so I was delighted to find that Thunderbird has a facility for doing it.

The name of the technology that allows this all to happen is called IMAP and it seems wonderful to me. I’ve got Thunderbird configured so that it has access to my Google mail, allowing me to download any messages that I particularly want to keep.

IMAP is clever enough to allow me to let me send a message in Thunderbird and automatically send a copy to Gmail. Thunderbird also alerts me me when new messages arrive in my Gmail Inbox and allows me to view them with having to open a browser.

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It’s a funny old mobile world

posted in: FishNet, Mobile | 0

Mobile phones have been in my thoughts quite a bit just lately which is probably the result of the regular reminders I get from my service provider that my contract is due for renewal that I can get an upgraded cell phone.

Regular readers may know that I am currently using a Nokia 1200, bought for a shade over R250, when my previous handset failed with a couple of months to go in my existing contract. I was so impressed with the little Nokia which, after all, allows me to talk and send text messages and whose battery lasts for between five and seven days, that I got to thinking about I, or the vast majority of users, actually need anything more elaborate.

I even went as far as going into the one of the service providers branches and asking the assistant what marvels of technology I could own if I were to sign on the dotted line for a further two years. None of the units on offer would have provided a noticeable improvement and its not until mobiles get really expensive that you start to get extra features that really mean something.

Anyway, there I was thinking about mobile phones, when I heard that they were holding the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, from the 16th to the 19th of February. Early reports revealed a couple of interesting developments coming down the line.

The thing that interested me most was an agreement that has been reached between the major mobile manufacturers to switch to universal energy-efficient rechargers. It seems that by 2012, Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericcson phones will all work with the same charger and the GSM Association calculates that this will result in the saving of 51,000 tons, per year I assume, of duplicate chargers which people won’t need to buy, and therefore, have manufactured for them.

A universal charger sounds to me like an incredibly good idea and one which will simplify matters if you get caught away from home and you need to borrow a charger from someone else. I think that manufacturers of other devices, like laptops, should get onto the bandwagon and start converting their products to use the same charger and make life very much simpler for us.

Another interesting development is Microsoft’s announcement of Windows Marketplace, which will be an online store of Windows programs for mobile phones running Windows Mobile. It is, of course, an unashamed copy of Apple’s wildly successful iTunes Application Store, where users of iPhones can download all manner of programs, either for free or for a fee.

One report claims there had been over half a billion downloads from the Application Store including some really esoteric programs that the majority of us would never need, like one for snipers to use to calculate bullet trajectories. I have this vivid metal image of a brawny sniper hauling out his shiny iPhone in the midst of battle and getting distracted when he notices a message from the little woman asking him to get milk on the way home…

Windows Marketplace will apparently be run on similar lines to the Application Store and time will tell how successful this venture will be for the company. You can’t help getting the idea Microsoft was a little slow off the mark and that they will battle to catch up in a marketplace where Apple has carved itself such a convincing niche.

On to other matters, I thought I would just mention a free program which seems to be very good at converting sound files from one format to another. I have an accumulating number of .WAV files which are taking a lot of room on my hard drive and I was looking for a free way to convert them to MP3s.

A friend told me about Switch Sound File Converter which you can get from www.NCH.com.au and which fits the bill admirably. I found it very easy to do a couple of sample conversions including a 283Mb .WAV which was reduced to a 51Mb .MP3 file which in about a minute and half.

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Chirpy Chirpy Tweet Tweet

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 2

Last week I wrote about Evernote which is a great service found for noting down all sorts of information that you might need to remember.

You can get the full story by going to the previous post but I thought I would just come back to Evernote this week to mention a very useful tool for adding information to your notebooks. It’s called the Clipper and allows you to select any item, be it text or pictures, in any program that you happen to be working on, and transfer that to Evernote.

The very clever thing about it is that, even if you can’t select the item that you want to remember directly, you can grab or all part of the screen you’re viewing and transfer that to Evernote. In the fullness of time, Evernote will synchronise all this information between your notebooks on your local computer and on the Internet, so that it will be available whereever you happen to be in the world.

Now you’re probably wondering why I would wantonly massacre the title of a perfectly good song by Middle Of The Road to form the title for this column. The truth is that I was cleverly trying to allude to the online service known as Twitter, which can be found if you go to www.twitter.com.

Twitter is basically a micro-blogging service which allows you to post messages, or tweets, of 140 characters or less about what you happen to be doing at the time. I have mentioned Twitter before and came to the conclusion that 140 character exchanges between people would be pretty banal, and that the service probably wasn’t going to fly.

It just goes to show you how wrong you can be however, because it seems as though Twitter is rapidly becoming the most- happening thing on the Internet today. It is has been used by no less a person than President Barak Obama, comedian Stephen Fry, and a whole host of other celebrities including Britney Spears.

The way Twitter works is that you signup for a free account at the site, and then you start looking for friends, family and anyone else whose tweets you want to follow. Tweets from anyone you’re following will appear on your Twitter pages and your tweets will appear on the pages of anyone following you, making it easy for everyone to keep up to date with each other.

Twitter has been getting a lot of press just lately because of the celebrities who have been posting tweets and because of the fact that it has been instrumental in breaking some important news stories just lately. Many believe that Barak Obama’s tweets were helpful in gaining him the Democratic nomination and in winning the US election.

I took a look at his Twitter page, which can be found at www.twitter.com/BarakObama and I see that he used it regularly in the run-up to the election to alert his followers to where he was holding meetings and where on the Internet, they could watch telecasts.

In another case, Twitter hit the headlines after the miracle on the Hudson where an airliner had birds fly into both engines on takeoff from the New York’s La Guardia Airport and crash-landed into the Hudson river. A person on the riverbank took a picture of the crashed aircraft and tweeted the news around the world before the city authorities even knew about it.

So it seems that there may be something in Twitter after all. I did go back and look at it quite extensively this week and tracked down some celebrity pages. Stephen Fry hit the headlines a week or so ago when he was trapped in a lift and sent tweets describing the situation and providing a link to a picture that he had taken of himself and the others trapped with him.

I must say I’m still not totally convinced that by Twitter but, I suppose, it would help you keep up to date very quickly with anyone you want to keep up to date with.

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A memory like an elephant

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 0

Finding something to write about is often quite difficult and it’s annoying when a product goes pear-shaped before I can write about it.

An example of this is Google Notebook which I have been finding very useful for making notes about interesting websites I find, and for collecting research. The way it works is that you can select any text or pictures that you come across in your browser, and save it to your notebook, which is kept on Google’s servers and which you can access from anywhere on the Internet. Read More

Internet Explorer 8

posted in: FishNet, Software, Web | 0

Microsoft has certainly been busy in the last couple of weeks what with the launch of a beta test version of Windows and, now, Internet Explorer 8.

I mentioned the launch of Windows 7 a couple of weeks ago and I reported that it was available for download from the Internet. It seems as though the download has been greeted with much enthusiasm and accordingly, Microsoft has extended the download deadline to February 10.

Internet Explorer 8 had also been out in beta for quite some time but last week, Microsoft announced the launch of what they call Release Candidate One, which is a step forward from the beta and considered to be stable and contain all the features that the final release product will.

You can download the new version of IE8 by going to the www.microsoft.com website where you’ll find a link on the front page to the main Internet Explorer page. It’s pretty easy to download and, at 16.2 Mb in size, it doesn’t take a tragically long time to download.

I had Internet Explorer 6 and was interested to get a look at version 8 which looks quite a lot different, with a cleaner and more uncluttered user interface. That said, there is nothing that users of other modern browsers, such as Google Chrome and Firefox, would find radically different.

Chrome and Firefox have broken the ground in browser features and there is not all that much in IE that is strikingly new on the features front. One thing it does have is a feature called Web Slices is which allows you to select a part a part of a web page, called a slice, and put that on a toolbar at the top of your screen.

Every so often, and you decide how often, IE8 will go and check to see if the information on that page has been updated, and if it has, it will let you know. Apart from this, it’s got a feature called Accelerators which allow you access to online services so that, for example, you could select some text on a web page, and click an Accelerator to transfer that text to your blog, an e-mail package, or whatever.

One of the new features is puzzling is Compatibility View which allows you to view web sites which were created for ‘older browsers’. I personally can’t see the point and wonder why they wanted to make a big thing about something that other browsers do as a matter of course.

IE8 does have a nice clean interface and, so far, has proved pretty stable and has managed to display any page that I wanted to view with it. It doesn’t offer me any advantages over Firefox so I won’t adopt it but, for Internet Explorer users, I think it would be a beneficial upgrade.

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A great software freebie

posted in: FishNet, OS, Software | 2

OpenOffice.Org is both the name of an amazing free office productivity software suite and of the website you can go to download it.

Version 3 of the suite was launched in October 2008 and the news prompted me to go along to their site to find out a bit more about the it. I read that OpenOffice.Org has been over 20 years in development and has its roots with a German company called Star Division, which was bought by Sun Microsystems in April 1996.

In 2002, for reasons of its own, Sun released the programming code for the office suite under an Open Source license, which meant that anyone was free to alter the code as they saw fit, without payment. The open source community, which is devoted to producing high-quality free software, embraced OpenOffice.Org and began improving it.

There are an estimated 5000 people participating in the further development of the various programs in the office suite. Most of these are volunteers, although there are about a hundred or programmers sponsored by various companies to work on the development.

From the fact that there are thousands of volunteers co-operating together to produce the software, you might expect it to be a bit of a hodge-podge but it’s amazing just how good it is, to the point where it is a more than viable competitor for the expensive Microsoft Office suite.

OpenOffice.org consists of a number of programs which include Writer, a word processor and desktop publishing program, Calc, a spreadsheet, Impress, a presentations package, Draw, a program which can be used for creating graphics of all types, Base, a database program, and Math, a program for creating mathematical equations.

I have had the time over the last couple of weeks to take a really careful look at OpenOffice.Org and I am uniformly impressed with its various component programs. Most of my time has been spent in the Writer, Draw and Impress programmes but I did at least fiddle with the rest of them.

I had seen previous versions of OpenOffice.Org but had had not adopted it because it really wasn’t ready for prime time. Now, as I use various programs in the in the suite, there is actually very little that I come across that I would miss if I were to totally abandon my venerable copy of Microsoft Office 2000.

Writer, in particular, seems to have developed into an excellent program which would suit the needs of most office users wanting to produce documents, or do a bit of elementary desktop publishing. I was likewise impressed with Impress, if you’ll pardon the phrase, which seems to have all the features that a business presenter might need.

It can’t be denied that, at the moment, Microsoft Office is the dominant office suite in the world and so, if one were to contemplate switching to something else, one would have to ensure that it was completely at home with documents produced using Microsoft products.

OpenOffice.org uses the ISO standard OpenDocument format to save all its files but it is equally at home with documents created in Microsoft Office and, in fact, can be set to use the MS Office document formats as its default. I suspect that the OpenDocument format will likely become the standard and I think that this is shown by the news coming out of Microsoft that Service Pack 2 for MS Office 7 will also support OpenDocument.

I did do a couple of tests to see how well OpenOffice.Org coped with documents produced in Microsoft Office and I was impressed at how well it did so. I can’t possibly claim, from my limited experience, that everything would translate absolutely perfectly, but it would seem that the conversion facility is pretty good.

I imported a complex Microsoft Power Point presentation into Impress and was pleased to see that it came over perfectly, with not only the formatting and graphics completely intact, but also the navigation buttons on each page that link to the various topics in the presentation.

OpenOffice.org 3 is a remarkable achievement, I believe, and it certainly makes a very viable competitor for the Microsoft Office suite of programs. I had a quick look on the Internet for the prices of MS Office 2007 and I found that the standard version was going for R5499, while the upgrade was R3699.

If I was an individual needing an office suite, or an IT manager, looking to equip a number of staff, I would think very strongly about OpenOffice.org before going the Microsoft route. It is available on most computer platforms and in a large variety of languages and will fill the needs of most users admirably.

When you remember that it’s free, the argument becomes unanswerable; if I were Microsoft, and depending on MS Office for my next billion, I’d be really worried.

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Story edited 31/01/2009 to correct the error pointed out in the comment below.

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Streets and stadium

The Mercury of January 14, 2009, reported that a fire had broken out at the Royal hotel the day before, resulting in the evacuation of a hundred guests and staff. The fire apparently broke out on the third floor in a linen storage room. 7 eThekwini Metro fire tenders attended the scene and soon contained the fire. I am personally amazed that, given the shortages of staff that the fire department is currently experiencing, they could actually send out seven fire engines.

The paper also reports that on the previous day, the last section of the Moses Mabhida stadium. The arch, costing R448 million, was nearly complete when, at 3:45 p.m., the 60 tonne final piece was hoisted into place. The arch is made up of 96 separate pieces and at its apex towers over 100m above the playing surface. The arch is presumably mainly decorative but it will support the Teflon coated glass fibre stadium roof which will be apparently unique in the world.

It was announced during the week that city management were going to go out on the streets to help clean the new street name signs which had been defaced by vandals objecting to the street reanming in their areas. The Mercury of Friday, January 16, 2009, reported that many of these officials had taken some flak as they worked.

Mayor Obed Mlaba said he had been confronted by two ratepayers including one old lady who said that what they were doing was nonsense and another resident, known as Alistair, who said the street then shouldn’t have been changed in the first place and that spray-painting the street names was and vandalism, it was people protesting against the enforced changes.

The speaker of the council James Nxumalo said the city would continue the defaced signs and urged people to accept the changed names. He pointed out that they are about 45000 street names in the municipality and that only a hundred had been changed. DA caucus leader John Steenhuisen said that the street sign cleanup had been a cheap publicity stunt, and he had more to say on the subject in a letter published in the readers’ letters section of the same newspaper. He wrote:

An open later to eThekwini Mayor Obed Mlaba and city manager Mike Sutcliffe:

Dear Obed and Mike, I noticed you both very hard at work in my ward in Durban North cleaning the defaced street signs (the same ones you forcibly imposed on the Durban North community despite overwhelming community rejection).

You obviously so busy keeping the very relevant Swapo sign with your ANC baddies that you both failed to notice the graffiti on all the other municipal infrastructures in the area which has not been cleaned for years.

You also, no doubt, overlooked the overgrown municipal verges and the weeds in the road, drains and pavements which, despite repeated requests to your parks department, remain unattended to.

Your hard slog would have meant that you were also likely to miss the near-fatal accident which took place in Danville Avenue on the same morning. You will remember that this is the road where the residents and I have been pleading for some form of traffic calming to be implemented for the past two years with no success.

There is always the same excuse: no funds. It appears you guys have used all the funds on fancy projects, seven BMWs, overseas trips and expensive tracksuits for your councillors.

I was, however; glad to notice that you brought the luxury mayoral 4×4 along. You would have needed it if you’d wanted to visit any one of your municipal parks in the area, because the grass hardly gets cut and there is lots of litter which never gets collected.

I am sure that this was not just a cheap publicity stunt and will be ongoing, so the next time you decide to come and do some work in Durban North, I would be grateful if you could give me a call to meet you on the site.

This will enable me to provide you with the long list of basic municipal functions which, under your leadership, failed to get done.

With the exorbitant rates which you’ve passed on to the Durban North residents I think we all deserve to see you both getting your priorities right and doing something constructive for a change.

By the way Mr Mayor; your press statement urges the public to report illegal posters. Two months ago I reported whole bunch of illegal ANC rally posters which had been put up across the city; perhaps you could do some follow up because for some reason Michael won’t seem to come back to me on the progress.

John Steenhuisen
DA caucus leader.

Apart from the street naming issue, reporter Coleen Dardagan has a story on the Moses Mabhida stadium saying that, while the residents of Durban are looking forward to using the new stadium, it’s also time the municipality told them how much they are in for. She quotes DA leader John Steenhuisen, again, saying that the city’s failure to release the financials of the stadium since July last year should set alarm bells ringing. She also says that city manager Michael Sutcliffe had promised the Mercury an interview in August last year to discuss the costs of the stadium, but that nothing had yet materialised.

Dardagan says that it is concerning that no one really knows what we are in for once the 2010 World Cup has come and gone, what the maintenance costs will be, and how much the budget has been overrun. She said she believes it’s time the city drew its citizens into its confidence and let them know.

The two issues covered in this post are ongoing but they show up the leadership style of our new masters perfectly; unaccountable. autocratic and obdurate. City councils and management from the past will be remembered for their support of of apartheid but at least nobody will be able to point a finger at them and say that the city fell apart while they sucked the cash tittie and scored cheap political points. We had high hopes that our society would improve when we voted “yes” in the referendum but all that’s really changed is that there is a new elite and one, moreover, that is so concerned with its enjoyment of the trappings of power things like maintenance are forgotten.

I’m depressed !!
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Going gadget crazy

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 0

One of the most eagerly awaited events on the gadget lover’s calendar is the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Nevada.

This year’s show featured hosts and hosts of desirable gadgets but probably one of the most noteworthy announcements was by Microsoft, who announced the arrival of Windows 7 any time in the next year or so. They announced that a beta version of the new package would be available for free download from the Microsoft website the following day, January 10.

The news caused a great deal of excitement in computer circles and, hardly had the new Windows been put up on the Internet, than the huge demand crashed Microsoft’s servers. Things got back to normal after a couple of days and users were downloading the new Windows which, it would seem, was receiving a pretty enthusiastic reception.

Windows 7 has apparently been designed to work faster than was the case with Vista and also on lower specification machines. Among the new features is an improved taskbar which displays buttons for all the programs that you have open on the computer and will now allow you to re-arrange the buttons in any order. Clicking on the wordprocessing icon on the taskbar for instance, will call up a jump list consisting of all the documents that you have worked on recently.

One of the major new departures in Windows 7 is the fact that it is being designed to be used with a touch-screen so that, for example, you could operate the computer without a mouse just by touching its screen. You will, of course, also need a screen that has touch-screen technology built-in and it does remain to be seen whether a touch-screen will work better for you than a mouse.

Microsoft said it would limit the numbers who could download the beta version of Windows 7 to about 2.5 million users but, at the time of writing, it was still available on the Windows 7 website. Before plunging ahead and installing it, however, it must be remembered that it is still in its beta test phase and will therefore be loaded with bugs.

It would be far too risky to install it on a computer used for work because the chance of a disaster would just be too great. There’s absolutely nothing to stop you downloading and installing Windows 7, however, providing you have spare computer to do it on and enough bandwidth to download the rather large installation files.

One of the most annoying things for me about watching television is the constantly changing sound volumes when you go from programmes to ads, or even from one station to another, and you keep having to change the volume setting on the TV. It’s an irritation and can be a major problem for people who are hard of hearing and who do not easily tolerate quick changes in volume.

It seems that our sound woes may be at an end one of these days because, also at CES, were a couple of television sets produced by Toshiba which incorporate a new technology called Dolby Volume. The Dolby website describes Dolby Volume as “an innovative approach to delivering consistent volume levels across a wide variety of content, channel programming, or input sources”.

Also on display at CES were Sony televisions which have rather reversed the current situation between them and their owners, by watching the owners as avidly as the owner watches them. The sets will switch themselves off in order to save power when they detect that the viewer has left the room or fallen asleep.

One last item that caught my eye from CES was a Victrinox Swiss Army knife designed for people doing business presentations. They have 32 GB of memory, a built-in laser for using as a pointer during presentations, and a Bluetooth button which can be used as a mouse. I was amused to see that there are versions of the knife without a blade but I suppose that’s par for the course in these days when a knife could get you arrested on an aeroplane.

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Painting the windows

posted in: FishNet, Software | 1

Last week I made a very interesting discovery in the form of a free image manipulation program called Paint.NET.

Unfortunately, it only runs on modern versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system including Windows XP and Windows Vista. It apparently needs the Microsoft.net framework which developers use when they produce their own programmes, to save them having to keep reinventing the wheel all the time, and it would be a huge task to convert it to other platforms.

I came across Paint.NET when I read on a news website that it had received a couple of awards and, now that I have installed and played with the programme, I can quite understand why it won them.

It can be downloaded from www.getpaint.net and is only a couple of megabytes big so it doesn’t take all that long, even with our relatively slow download speeds. Installation is quick and easy but I would advise you to take the custom installation option because the default, unfortunately, goes ahead and makes Paint.NET the default for opening various image types.

It is surprisingly sophisticated for a programme which was originated by a bunch of undergraduate students and which currently is being developed and improved by a small staff of only two people. It has such it has all the usual special features that similar programs might have but, unusually, allows you to create and work on images with more than one layer.

Another unusual and interesting feature is that it doesn’t have a limit, apart from the size of your hard drive, to the number of undo steps it stores in case you make a mistake and need to go back.

The program was developed as a free replacement for Windows’ venerable old Paint program and, as such, will look quite familiar to many user. It has a full set of drawing tools for use in creating original artworks or embellishing pictures from a camera or off of the Internet.

You can perform all the usual manipulations including flipping a picture, rotating, resizing, and whatever else you might need to do. Adjustments you can make to a picture include auto-levels, levels, brightness and contrast, curves, hue and saturation, and many others.

You can invert a picture’s colours, you can posterise it, or turn it into black and white or sepia . Other special effects include making the picture look like an ink sketch, adding various blurs or distortions, and many other interesting things including an excellent soft portrait effect.

Even if there were no other features, it would be a very capable programme for using to manipulate images but there is a large community hard at work developing plug-ins which give it any number of extra abilities. Judging by the number of these available on the Paint.NET forum, I’d think that there is likely one for most things you might want to do.

To my mind, it can can be used as well by the kids as a more capable version of the Windows Paint program they already know, as by more sophisticated users looking for a program to fix their digital pictures.

I must say that I am very impressed with Paint.NET and I would certainly use it in spite of a few little problems that I have. It does not currently allow you to hide, or mask, parts of a layer and its brush strokes have an unduly hard edge for my taste.

These small criticisms aside, Paint.NET really is a most capable program and, sometime in the next couple of months, a new version of it is due for release. That will apparently have most of the capabilities it’s missing.

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Looking back at 2008

posted in: FishNet, General | 0


It is traditional at the time of the year for columnists to look back and remember the highlights and disappointments which were experienced.

The launch of a new version of Apple’s iPhone during the year was not a cause for celebration as far as I was concerned. There was nothing wrong with the phone itself, but I felt that the pricing for the unit and/or the monthly contract was overly extortionate.

I compared the prices that users overseas would pay for the product and found that South African consumers, once again, receive far less value for this and, it must be said, all other brands of high-end handsets.

My column on the subject was also published in the Independent Online (iol.co.za) and it attracted a fair amount of comment, including from some who felt that I had been unduly critical of our cellphone industry. It just goes to show that there are many shades of opinion out there including those who seeing nothing wrong in mobile phones costing as much as decent laptops.

Once again, I needed to set up an online payment facility on a website that I was working on for a friend. I have tried this on and off over the years and found that it is still difficult and costly for South Africans to obtain facilities for receiving credit card payments over the Internet. Visiting an online discussion forum devoted to South African IT and online issues, I discovered that there are American organisations that are not reluctant to do business with South African website owners.

One I found was 2checkout.com which only charges a once-off setup fee of $50 and a percentage of each transaction; no monthly charges or anything like that. I managed to track down someone who had been using the system and who said that there had never been a problem, that 2Checkout paid like clockwork and that he had been entirely happy with their service.

To my mind, the world is now essentially a much smaller place and our local suppliers and service providers should take note that businesses based overseas might just grab a share of their customers while they are still operating in the belief that they have a captive market which can be exploited at will. I know plenty of people who have started ordering stuff over the Internet and are happy doing business that way.

One unhappy anniversary that occurred in May when spam e-mail turned 30. I must say that the number of spam messages received in my Gmail spam bucket is an awful lot less than it used to be just a year ago, but I’m still getting over 1600 of them a month, and it is very irritating.

On the credit side of the ledger, an important anniversary occurred on April 3, which was the 15th anniversary of the occasion that the creators of the World Wide Web put the technology in the public domain, so that everyone can use it for free. Later, in May, we had the 25th anniversary of the first commercial telephone call using a portable cellphone.

Organisations offering online services such as word processors, spreadsheets, picture manipulation and storage, web design programs, e-mail, and whatever have you, seemed to gain in popularity. This is the concept of cloud computing, where you can log on from anywhere, using any computer you choose, and still be able to access your documents, pictures and all the other bits and pieces that make up your digital life.

An organisation called G.HO.ST. and another called JOOCE, were both offering free virtual PCs to anyone who wanted them and other organisations, such as Google, offers Google Docs, an online office suite. Other services I experimented with during the year were Adobe’s Buzzword online wordprocessor and their Photoshop Express online photo manipulation and storage service.

I also played with a number of website development services which offer anyone free hosting space for websites and online tools to make them easy to build. These included Google Sites, the local Tank.com and an excellent easy tool called Jimdo.com.

One interesting development in the telecommunications scene in Durban, was the launch by Neotel of their services to consumers in the city. It turned out that their prices were only slightly less than those charged by Telkom, but as I remarked at the time, at least folk in their coverage area now have a choice of provider.

In the past year, I have made some major advances in my personal computing life. The first of these was when I started using speech recognition software that I got with a voice recorder. In the past two months, I have done little typing but have dictated to the computer and later edited whatever it was I was working on.

So, that’s pretty much what my digital life was like in 2008, and I’m expecting more of the same this year. One major new development that is going to take place, is the completion of the Seacom undersea cable which will link Europe and the east coast of Africa, including South Africa, to the Wurope and India.

It’s going to be great to have another player in the Internet bandwidth market, apart from Telkom, and I sincerely hope that we consumers start to benefit from the competition. Experience has tended to show that competition doesn’t necessarily drive down the prices of services in South Africa, but there is always the hope that this time will be different.

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The coastal cloaca

posted in: DbnDate | 0

Last Sunday, which was December 21, 2008, I had a bit of a sad experience. With a a couple of passengers, I had occasion to drive from the Morningside, Burman Bush area, over to the Botanic Gardens, and from there to Essenwood Road, and then down through town to the Point area and back to Morningside. The town has a dilapidated air with pavements which were unswept, and had not been for many moons, judging by the size of the weeds. Street furniture was badly in need of painting, potholes were proliferating in the roads and it was not only the busy downtown areas that are affected in this way, but even the leafy streets in the suburbs were looking down at heel and badly in need of attention.

To say that Point Road, around the the intersections of West and Smith Street is looking squalid, is to be guilty of a gross understatement. The beachfront is our crown jewel, which tourists should be paying big bucks to visit, and yet it is being ruined, and I don’t know the cause. Is it greedy building owners, a huge influx of poor people to the area, crime? What? Whatever factors are at work, they must be identified and sorted or we are going to end up as some sort of coastal cloaca. Ever fewer people are going to want come here.

Having travelled a fair way through town on Sunday, it was inevitable and that we would come across another problem which is plaguing Durban at the moment. The matter is, of course, the fact that there are so many malfunctioning traffic lights and, although I can’t accurately remember exactly how many were not working, it was more than a double-handful.

By a strange, well perhaps not so strange, coincidence, the Sunday Tribune of the same day, December 21, carried a story headlined “Berea Road’s killer corners”. In the story, it was reported that faulty traffic lights have been causing havoc at a number of locations in Berea Road. These are the bridges at Essenwood Road and Musgrave Road and the robots have apparently not been working for three weeks. At least 30 accidents were reported from those locations in the last three weeks. In spite of this ongoing problem, City Police pointsmen had not been deployed in the area, which is one of the most busiest in the city. There is a picture heading the story which shows absolute chaos with cars going every which way trying to get through the intersection. An onlooker reported city policemen on a bridge over Berea Road operating a speed trap, but totally unconcerned with traffic chaos at occurring not a couple of yards from where they sat.

In the Natal Mercury of December 22, 2008, there is a reader’s letter which notes that city management, because they live here, must pass these intersections and others like them every day, and yet they do nothing. The reader is is quite right to raise this point and you can’t begin to understand how these people can neglect their own home in such a fashion.

The Sunday Tribune article of the 21st, said that a contractor was responsible for repairing the traffic lights and the questions should be asked why the city’s own staff is not being used for this task, and why, failing that, the contractors are not being supervised adequately.

The Durban streets that we travel in every day are not yet looking quite like the streets of Zimbabwe or the other third-world troublespots that we see so so regularly in the news. But they are deteriorating and will start to look that way before too much longer.
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Advance and be recognised

posted in: FishNet, Software | 2

During the last part of this year I have gone back and played with some technologies that I experienced years ago.

First, I went back and had a look at voice dictation software which I found has matured into a very usable product. And then the other day, not feeling like typing a photocopied document into my computer, I wondered how optical character recognition (OCR) software was coming along.

OCR software will translate non-editable digital images of text into editable text files and was something that I have played with on a number of occasions in the past. It wasn’t that good then but, in the light of my experience with the improved dictation software, I decided I would give optical character recognition another go.

I had a look on the Internet and found that OmniPage seems to be an industry-standard at the moment and I had a hunt around to see if I could find a trial version of the program. OmniPage is owned by Nuance and can be found on the Internet at www.nuance.com but I couldn’t seem to find a trial version of the current program, which is version 16.

I did find the Nuance Australian site is still offering the previous one, version 15, of OmniPage Professional ,on a 15-day free trial basis. I soon got the program installed and found that the interface is really very simple, although it might look a bit complex at first glance.

The first thing you do when you want to use the software, is to go to the load files facility, which allows you to load pictures of the text you want the program to recognise. These are digital pictures of text created with a scanner or digital camera, and I tried both, having taken pictures of some pages from a book ,and scanned in more pages using my desktop scanner.

Once the files are loaded, you go to the recognition section where there is a fully automatic mode in which the software automatically tries to gauge which parts of the image are the text you want it to recognise. It’s probably easiest to try the automatic setting first but you can manually control the result by telling OmniPage where the text on the page is, which bits are tables or pictures, and which parts it should leave out.

Once it has completed processing the image files, it goes into proofing mode where it highlights suspected errors in the text and gives you a chance to correct them by referring to the original image file. You can save your text as a plain text file, a Word file complete with the pictures and formatting from the original, or in any of a number of other different formats.

I have used OmniPage 15 Professional quite extensively and I’m amazed at the quality of its recognition, providing you give it a decent original to work with. When I used my desktop scanner, or my digital camera to capture the image of pages out of books, or whatever, recognition was almost perfect.

The results were not so good at first, when the images I fed into OmniPage were poor because I took them with my digital camera on a low resolution setting’. It did make an attempt at recognising the text but, once I re-took the pictures at high resolution, the output accuracy shot up to nearly 100%.

As I said before, I was very impressed with the quality of the program and am going to track down a South African supplier as soon as I can. The OmniPage 16 Standard version is available for $149 and, looking at the Nuance.com site, it looks very much as if it has most of the features except for some abilities to process files automatically.

Anyway, it was a revelation to me because it is going to save me a lot of time when it comes to digitising material for my Facts About Durban (fad.co.za) history website.

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Paradise is a kind of a library

posted in: FishNet, Web | 0

Christmas is almost upon us and once again, I left the business of searching for gifts almost to the last minute.

Some people were easy to choose gifts for but there was one was person whom I got stuck over. Just in time, I remembered chatting to them when they happened to mention that they were looking for a particular book.

It was the Snow Goose by Paul Gallico and was printed very many years ago and unavailable in local new book stores. We do have quite a number of secondhand bookstores in town but, to be quite honest, with the Durban heat and the Christmas rush, I really didn’t feel like trekking around looking for one particular book.

Anyway, I didn’t have to go out searching because there was already a solution in the form of a website that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before. The website is AbeBooks and can be found at AbeBooks.com.

It is basically a cataloguing service for secondhand bookshops all round the world which display their stock on the site. They currently have around 110 million books listed by any number of bookshops including, I notice, quite a few here in South Africa.

The number of books is staggering and I can’t say I have ever looked for something and not found it listed. Well, nothing except my own book, Facts About Durban; I suspect those are so popular they haven’t reached the secondhand market…

Anyone visiting the site can easily search for books that they’re looking for by either the author name, title, keywords, or ISBN number. The system lists the available copies of the book, together with details of each including the price, shipping cost, condition, and bookstore location.

By default, the books are listed from the cheapest to the most expensive which is quite handy when looking for the cheapest price, say, for a hardback with a dust jacket. The individual bookshops under the a AbeBooks banner have complete freedom over the pricing that they want to apply to each of their stock items and there are often widely varying prices, so it pays to check.

You can add the book you’ve chosen to your shopping cart and, once you’ve finished shopping, you go to the checkout. The first time you buy at AbeBooks, you have to fill in your address and credit card details but the system remembers you, and subsequent purchase are much quicker.

I went to the site and entered The Snow Goose in the title field and in a very few seconds, I was presented with a list of available copies ranging in price from a dollar each to a signed first edition for $875. I opted for one of $1 ones (plus $10 for shipping), because I wasn’t looking for a collectors’ copy.

Once you’ve paid, the system sends orders to all the bookshops from whom you’ve ordered and deducts the price, including postage, from your credit card. It sends you a confirming e-mail to say that the shipment is being processed and, later, once the individual bookshops have dispatched your order, they send you a follow-up e-mail.

I have used a AbeBooks on quite a number of occasions now, and have had absolutely no trouble with any of the merchants I dealt with. All my orders have been to overseas stores because South African ones are usually more expensive, and charge you the same for shipping as the overseas ones do.

The Snow Goose hasn’t got to me yet, but with any luck, I’ll have it before Christmas in time to wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree.

There’s a quotation at the bottom of each AbeBooks web page: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges. The implication being, I suppose, that AbeBooks is where they’ll buy the books.

Previous columns at allan.fishnet.blogspot.com.
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Voice computing has arrived

A couple of weeks ago I wrote I had bought a compact digital voice recorder for recording interviews and speeches.

I have found this very useful for many of the things that I do and, even better, the Olympus WS-110 DS came with a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9.5 speech recognition software which transcribes dictation into text files.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was playing with speech recognition programs which were the grandfathers of this current version. Looking back on my articles written at the time, I thought the programs were pretty good stuff and I was convinced I’d keep using them.

I did do so for a couple of weeks but found that it was just too labour intensive to correct all the errors. I was hopeful that things would have improved since then and so I installed the package on my computer.

My version of NaturallySpeaking is known as the Recorder Version and needs you to record quite a sizeable chunk of text chosen from a number of different ones which are provided. Accuracy also improves as you use it and you make corrections to text it has transcribed.

Once I’d got the training out of the way, I eagerly plunged ahead to and began dictating that week’s column. I was extremely impressed with the high quality of the transcribed text even though it takes a bit of time to load and transcribe.

One drawback to the recorder edition is that you first have to make the recording and then load it into the program, before it can be transcribed. For this reason, I have been considering buying the full package which allows you to dictate directly into whatever program you happen to be working with.

Compatible programs for the full version include MS-Word, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and the program transcribes your speech, allowing you to make corrections as you go. You can also use voice commands for opening and saving files and navigating about on the Internet.

You can get NaturallySpeaking Preferred 10, for about R2800, and the Standard 10 version at about R1700. The Standard edition seems to do most things but it apparently won’t import files produced on a voice recorder, as the Preferred edition will.

Being in the media business, I was very interested to see if NaturallySpeaking could transcribe an interview but, unfortunately, it turns out that it can’t. It needs a good quality recording by the single voice that it has been trained to recognise, before it can operate.

NaturallySpeaking is very accurate and the major limitation to using it, in my opinion, is not how good the software is, but how well the user can learn to dictate. I’ve now been using the package for four weeks, and I’m still having a bit of difficulty in dictating accurately because you not only have to think of what you want to say next, but also remember to speak clearly and insert the punctuation.

Things are starting to come right and, although, I still get pretty tangled up, NaturallySpeaking doesn’t mind a silence while I’m thinking of what to say next. I often talk myself into a dead end and I have found that it’s easier and quicker just to say ‘new paragraph’ and start the paragraph again; the other can easily be deleted later.

Running words together is another source of inaccuracy because the program, no matter how clever, won’t know what you mean unless speak each word distinctly. You can pretty much talk as fast you like but each word needs to be distinct, which does take a bit of practice, but it does start coming right in time.

There are special versions of the program designed for the legal and medical professions and I guess that they would be very useful for those people. Details on those and the other versions on www.nuance.com. A comparison of the features in each version is available here.

I have now been NaturallySpeaking for the last four weeks for producing my weekly column, and other things, and I have to say that I’m really hooked on this method of working. I don’t think that I will be abandoning it any time soon, as I did 11 years ago.

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Adobe Premiere Essentials 7

posted in: FishNet, Software | 0

Last week I talked of my adventures with a camcorder that I’d been given to review and the associated software for creating movies out of the video clips taken with it.

The software was Nero Vision Essentials and making a video was great fun, but I soon got to wondering if other programs would make the process of movie creation any easier. I went along to the Adobe site website and downloaded a free 30-day trial version of Adobe Premiere Essentials 7.

It is a consumer version of Adobe’s heavyweight Premiere video editing package and had the reputation of being very easy-to-use. The download weighs in at nearly 700 MB and as you might imagine, with our slow South African Internet connections, it did take a fairly substantial amount of time.

Eventually I did manage to download and install it on my computer. It works in a very similar way to Nero, in that you first have to import all the components you’re going to use for your our movie, including video clips, still pictures, and sound.

You are then presented with with what Adobe calls a Sceneline, which is basically a long skinny window into which you can drag the movie’s components in the sequence they’re going to appear.
You can add sound including music and voice narration if you want. One improvement over Nero is that you can turn down the sound that was recorded through the camcorder’s microphone.

It was particularly windy when I took my sample video and I was very glad to be able to get rid of the sound. I added some music as the soundtrack to my video and transitions between each clip, to make them fade into each other.

I made title pages for my movie in an image editor, and imported them into Premiere Elements as images in .jpg format. The program itself will generate title pages for you and you can add text at any point that you want to.

Once the movie was complete, and it didn’t take long, I went to save it and found there are many sizes and formats to choose from, including those for viewing on television or computer screens, burning onto a DVD, or for upload to the Internet.

This was when I found out that I need a bigger computer. I have a four-year-old Pentium 4 2.8 GHz machine with 1.25 megabytes of memory, which is really not enough if I’m going to be doing video on a regular basis.

My movie only runs for a minute and a half but it took Premiere Essentials about seven minutes to render it, as a file of 67Mb in size. I shudder to think of the file sizes that you going to get if with much longer movies.

Premiere Essentials is a pretty simple but powerful programme and the only slight fly in the ointment with the trial version, is that it puts a stripe through the middle of your movie, saying that it has been created with a trial version. Luckily, you can lose the stripe by buying the program online and converting the trial to a real version.

Anyway, I did enjoy a fiddling with Elements and I reckon that, if I should ever get a video camera of my own, I’ll most likely pop down to the shop and buy a copy of it, because it seems to be able to do most of what I’m likely to want it to do.

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The arms deal again

posted in: DbnDate | 0

In the Mercury of December 2, 2008, the Mercury’s Idler columnist reports having been to the Cobb Inn on the wild coast for a couple of days holiday. He notes that he saw what he believes to be an illegal trawler operating just off the coast at night, without any navigation lights. He reports that the locals say that this is a regular occurrence.

I have mentioned in these pages before, the controversy involving the Navy’s desire to order new vessels for coastal patrol, which comes in spite of their recent acquisition of four frigates, which are apparently not suitable for the purpose. The Mercury of December 3, 2008, reports that, in a speech by the chief of the Navy on the previous day, it was announced that the Navy intends to buy six additional patrol vessels valued at nearly R2 billion, and also a strategic sealift and sustainment vessel. The acquisition of these items will apparently put the South African Navy on track to becoming the continent’s most formidable naval force.

I’ve asked the question before, and no doubt will again, exactly what enemy it is that the Navy was expecting to fight. In my opinion, the new patrol vessels are probably exactly what was needed in the first place and that there was absolutely no need to buy the very expensive and highly sophisticated frigates which, according to some reports, the Navy can’t afford to run anyway. Those who ordered the frigates must have received some benefit and/or been so determined to strike a pose that they were quite prepared to waste R6 billion of our money.

There may be one good item of news in all this and that is that the local ship building industry may receive a benefit from the order for the new vessels.

The paper also reported that, once again, a tall vehicle has come to grief when trying to go under the low bridge which carries Greville Racecourse over the roadway. There is a wonderful picture of a military vehicle which had apparently been towing a refrigerated trailer which had beent totally destroyed, when it tried to drive under the low bridge. The picture shows Samil 50 vehicle, which had apparently just fitted under the bridge, and the wrecked trailer lying behind.
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Buses and renaming

posted in: DbnDate | 0

According to the Mercury of November 26, 2008, it seems that Durban’s bus service is again in trouble.

Municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe was reported as telling a committee meeting that the Durban transport operator will not be receiving a subsidy from central government for the period January 2009 to March 2009. The amount of money that was due to be paid to the bus operator is by central government was R46 million and, according to a company spokesman, the company won’t be able to operate without it.

Both central and provincial governments have said that they don’t have the funds to cover that amount and it’s beginning to look awfully as if the city is going to have to cough up the money in addition to the 40 million that it will already have to pay the bus company Remant Alton.

According to the Mercury of December 1, 2008, it seems that things are hotting up in the court case which has been brought by the opposition parties in the Durban Council to the street renaming which took place recently. The leader of the Democratic Alliance John Steenhuisen, and city manager Mike Sutcliffe have apparently been trading insults in the court papers.

Steenhuisen called Sutcliffe “nothing more than an ANC lackey”.

The opposition are bringing the case in an effort to get the renaming reversed and, of course, the city and its ANC leadership, in the form of her Michael Sutcliffe, are vigorously opposing the move. One of the most controversial of the street renamings was when Kingsway in Amanzimtoti was renamed after Andrew Zondo, who had set a bomb at a shopping centre in the town, killing a number of innocent civilians.

On that particular issue Sutcliffe said “Naturally there are strong feelings each way about Andrew Zondo. Such is our history.”
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Bus troubles again

posted in: DbnDate | 0

The Mercury of November 25, 2008, reported that the Durban bus service could come to halt next January. The bus operator Remant Alton has apparently not receive national transport subsidies from December to March. The company apparently gets R11.5 million per month and will therefore be R46 million short over the festive season area. Erik Moller, deputy head of the city’s transport authority, admitted that it was a big problem said he believed that the best solution would be if the money came from the National Treasury or that the province could come to the assistance of the company. The current municipal subsidy of R10 million was apparently still be paid to Remant Alton by the municipality.

In other news, it appears that contestants from the Miss world 2008 competition will be in town for a couple of days, starting on Wednesday, November 26, 2008. 112 contestants will apparently be in the city for photo shoots on the beach and at the Beverly Hills Hotel, before proceeding to Johannesburg for the competition. Hope they don’t get ill swimming at our non-Blue Flag beaches!

The paper reported that Enden Refinery should be back in operation by mid-January after a disastrous fire shut down the installation two weeks ago. The fire was apparently caused by mechanical failure on a pump.
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Websites with Jimdo

posted in: FishNet, Web creation | 0

This article published out of sequence because it was accidentally deleted.

In the last year or so, I’ve looked at a number of supposedly easy website creation and hosting services and, this week, it’s the turn of one called Jimdo.

Like most similar services, Jimdo offers both free and paid options with the free one being more than adequate for personal websites or casual use. It’s easy to sign on by going to www.jimdo.com, entering your e-mail address and the username you want use.

The system then sends you an e-mail with a link you click to be taken to your site and you can then get started adding pages and content to the basic site that was created for you. This includes some pages it thinks you might need such as a blog, a picture gallery and a contact form.

The really nifty thing about Jimdo is the fact that you do all your edits additions in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface with an options bar on the right-hand side of the screen. The options bar is used whenever you want to change the layout of the site or its style, including choices of font and colours.

There are a large number of different layout option to choose from and it is reassuring to know that you can from one to another at will, without losing content you might have already added. An option I didn’t explore is to find a page you like on the web and let Jimdo copy the layout and style for you.

Sites are created with a navigation bar and you click anywhere on it to get the option of adding, deleting or renaming pages on the site. The same principle of clicking whatever you want to change applies when you want to edit a page element or add something else to a page.

Every page element, such as a block of text, a picture, or whatever, is kept in its own container and is highlighted if you move your mouse cursor over it. You can move it up or down on the page, edit its content, delete it, or add a new element to the page.

There is a wide selection of elements that you can choose from including headings, text blocks, text with a photo, photos on their own, picture galleries of various kinds, videos, tables, forms, horizontal lines, and a comment/guest book.

You just select the element you want to place on the page and it’ll open an appropriate dialog box that you would use to input and format the content. It is really easy to do and, if you make a mistake and put the heading below the text, for example, it is easy to select the heading and move it up.

As a keen photographer, I enjoyed the picture gallery feature which allows you to select a bunch of photos from your computer and upload them into a slideshow gallery or as thumbnails which the viewer can click. There is also the facility for displaying photos from your Flickr account or those of other people.

Jimdo’s interface is the easiest and most intuitive to use that I’ve yet come across but it still manages to offer you more options than most. It would be my choice if I wanted a quick site although I would probably opt for the paid option, at $5 a month.

The free option is not at all bad but it is paid-for by the adverts which appear on each page. Another benefit of paying is that you get to use whatever site address you want, instead of a generic one like yoursite.jimdo.com.

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Doing the video thing

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 0

Making my own videos has never been a great priority for me although I have now started to think that it would be a good idea for use in documenting interviews which have historical.

There is an awful lot but I don’t know about video, and I haven’t often used a video camera. so I was pleased when I was offered the chance to review Toshiba’s Camileo PRO HD camcorder. It is a very compact little machine which is which is a trifle unconventional in shape, being about the size of a small brick of margarine stood on end, with a screen that flips out from the side, so that you can see what you’re recording.

The Camileo records in high-definition format (1280×720 pixels) but it supports other lesser formats such as VGA or QVGA. Video or still pictures are recorded onto SD card and can be replayed through a television or downloaded to a computer. One nifty trick is that the Camileo can upload video clips directly to YouTube if you connect it to an internet-enabled computer.

I soon had the camcorder unpacked from its neat packaging and had it working as soon as I had figured out the instructions. The machine turns out to be pretty simple to use but, unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said for the instruction manual which accompanies it.

Holding the camcorder ion one hand and the instructions in the other, I did eventually manage to take some test videos. Once that was done, I connected the machine to my TV and got it to replay the videos I just taken.

The quality seemed to pretty good, at least to my inexpert eye, and so I decided that I would take the camera with me the next day to record the visit I was going to make to the old whaling station on the Bluff. I duly filmed the ruined buildings, which are all that remain of that once vibrant industrial site, and need not have been quite so selective about what I filmed because I hardly made a dent in the battery and a 2Gb SD card.

Having a lot of video clips on the camera is only half the battle, however, because you then have to download them onto your computer and create some sort of coherent whole from bits and pieces you’ve recorded. The software supplied with the camera is called Nero Vision Essentials, which is a scaled-down video editor which you can use to assemble video clips into movies.

After copying all the clips onto the computer, and opening them in Nero Vision, I found it very easy to put each of them onto a timeline so that they play one after each other. You do get an opportunity to trim the clips and you can add sound, special effects, transitions between clips, and titles to your movie very easily.

All in all, I found the Camelio PRO HD camcorder to be a very neat little item of kit and one which would doubtless be great for documenting family events and holidays, or whatever have you. It is small enough to put in a pocket and light enough so that, even with an extra battery or two, it wouldn’t be hassle to carry all day.

I liked the Camileo but a problem was the flip-out screen which was difficult to view in very bright light, making it difficult to frame my subject properly. If I were buying a camcorder for myself, I would want one of the ones with a little eyepiece on a stalk that shades the viewing screen.

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**So easy your granny can use it

posted in: FishNet, Hardware | 0

For more years than I can shake a stick at, I’ve been going to listen to speeches or interview people and then having to go home or back to the office and write up a story.

It’s easy enough to do if you’re in a one-on-one interview and you write down the interviewee’s responses to your questions, but things are a bit more difficult when it comes to listening to a speech in an auditorium, and you can’t control the speed at which people speak. The best you can do is write fast, develop a good memory and, a trick of the trade, rush up to the podium at the conclusion of the speech and grab the speaker’s notes.

As an aid to memory, I did try to use a cassette recorder but I found it was too cumbersome and generally the tapes would run out just when you got to the interesting part. On the last two press trips I went on, however, I met other members of the media who use digital voice recorders to record speeches and interviews.

This looked like a jolly good idea, so I popped down to my local electronics store to see what they could offer me. It seems that camera-maker Olympus is one of the major brands in digital voice recorders. The assistant showed me a number of models ranging in price from R400 upwards with varying features and recording capacities.

I eventually settled on an Olympus WS-110 DS, which is a tiny little recorder not much bigger than a cigarette lighter, but which can record high quality speech for 17.5 hours. It has a built-in microphone and speaker, which give good results but an external microphone will improve the quality, as will playing recordings back through headphones or a computer with speakers.

I was soon in action with my new toy when I paid a visit to the whaling station on the Bluff in Durban and had the good fortune to be able to interview whaling skipper Rolf Larsen. I was amazed at the high quality of the recordings that you get out of such a tiny machine and, even though the interview went on in noisy surroundings, I had no trouble reviewing what was said.

I am finding it extremely valuable in all sorts of interview situations, to be able to go back and refer to exactly what was said and by whom. The recorder has not replaced taking notes with pen and paper, in some cases, is all I need, but it’s still a comfort to have a recording available.

The unit has an integrated USB connector on it for downloading the recordings you’ve made into your computer, where you can listen to them. The recorder is able to store files in any of five different folders, which allows you to keep the files for different projects separate.

I was a bit disappointed to find that my usual sound player and editor, Audacity, does not yet support the .WMA sound format produced by the recorder. After a quick look on the Internet however, I found a wonderful new program called Free Audio Editor (free-audio-editor.com), whose name gives you a pretty good idea of how much it costs.

I was very quickly able to download the interview file, listen to it and produce a version with an introduction and the irrelevant chatter cut out. Free Audio Editor is a great little program that only seems to have one slight snag; it can import all sorts of different sound file formats, but can only output sound files in .WAV format. If that’s a problem, you can always upgrade to the deluxe version for $29.95, and output sound in any format you want.

**The blurb says that Free Audio Editor is so easy to use, that even your granny can do so. They didn’t know my granny, clearly, but the program is really very easy to use.

One unexpected little bonus is that the Olympus WS-110 DS came with a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Recorder Edition 9.5. The purpose of this software is to transcribe dictation you’ve recorded, into a word processor. I won’t say too much about the program this time, because both it and I are still in a steep learning curve, but I will return to it in the very near future.

Previous columns at allan-fishnet.blogspot.com.
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Another blue-light incident

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The Sunday Tribune of November 16, 2008, reported the occurrence of another blue-light incident on the N3 near Pietermaritzburg. A member of the VIP Protection Unit has been arrested for shooting at the tyres of a Mazda car when it didn’t move out of the fast lane to allow the VIP convoy past on the N3. Eight people were injured when the diver of a black Mazda lost control and the vehicle veered into the oncoming traffice and crashed into another vehucle

The convoy was apparently on the way to fetch MEC for Social Welfare Meshack Radebe when the incident took place. The policeman has apparently been arrested and charged with 12 counts of attempted murder arising from the incident. I have mentioned blue-light incident before in these pages and this is just another one in a long list where the bodyguards of VIPs and prominent people feel they have the absolute right to push all traffic out of the way from in front of their convoys. They do not appear acknowledge any accountability for their actions and I’m sure that one day, quite soon, we are going to have an even greater tragedy when people are actually killed.

Life in the banana republic goes on…
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Freak storm hits Link Hills and Molweni

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The Independent Online reported on November 15, 2008, that a freak storm had torn through residential areas in Molweni and Link Hills near Durban, and had damaged hundreds of low-cost houses and killed at least eight people, leaving thousands homeless. An emergency rescue worker reported he’d never seen such devastation in 35 years of providing emergency services.

I went out yesterday morning to have a look at the path damage that the storm cut through the Link Hills area, which is very near my home. I was shocked at the scale of devastation and the evident power of the storm. Sturdy pine trees had been twisted and snapped off halfway up their trunks and the roads were littered with fallen branches and trees. Many residents were trying to clear the wreckage from their properties and many of the houses had missing tiles from their roofs. As I walked through the area, the sound of power saws filled the air as people tried desperately to clear away the wreckage from their properties.
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Fire at Engen refinery

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The Engen refinery in Durban will be closed for four weeks after a fire, according to the Mercury of Friday , November 14, 2008, which reported that a fire had broken out the day before and is likely to cost the company more than R6-million per day while the repairs, themselves, are expected to cost more than R50-million.

The fire broke out after midnight in the unit which feeds crude oil into the refinery’s processing units and was put out by 3:10 a.m. in the morning. This fire is the fourth at the refinery in two years according to general manager Willem Oosthuizen. Last year in November, R120-million was lost when a tank containing petrol 7.5 million litres of petrol was struck by lightning.
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Snippets from the week

The Mercury of Monday, November 10, 2008 reported, amongst other things, that:

  • The city hall organ, which is unserviceable as reported here, is not going to be fixed. This according to municipal manager Michael Sutcliffe, who said that fixing the organ was not a priority and that it was not something that ratepayers should paying for. The city can’t afford a couple of million to fix an organ dating back to 1894 but it can afford billions for an unecessary football stadium??
  • A local artist Jenny Cullinan held a Dirty Durban exhibition at the Botanic Gardens consisting of photographs of the filth and litter in Durban. The pictures were apparently all taken after the end of the Durban Solid Waste strike.

The Mercury of Tuesday, November 11, 2008 reported, amongst other things, that:

  • That a heist had taken place the previous day in Maphumulo in rural KZN. Sixteen men, armed with assault rifles and pistols, had ambushed a convoy taking money to a pensions pay point, killing two policemen and critically wounding two others. By the sounds of things, the robbers drove up to and opened fire on the police vehicle without warning.

The Mercury of Wednesday, November 12, 2008 reported, amongst other things, that:

  • There was a growing tide of protest at the decision not to fix the city hall organ.
  • Moses Mabhida Stadium visitor’s centre manager Florina Maphalala was quoted as saying that the stadium would be like Durban’s Table Mountain – a great tourist attraction. She apparently doesn’t think she’ll be watching the world cup final because it would conflict with her Christian beliefs.

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An angry white man?

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Some while ago, our city manager Dr. Michael Sutcliffe was accosted by an irate ratepayer while he and his wife were having Sunday breakfast (I seem to remember) in a restaurant. A letter from Dr Sutcliffe was subsequently published in the local papers in which he slammed the failure of ‘angry white men’ to accept transformation in society. There wasn’t so much as a hint that the ‘angry white man’ might have had a legimitate grievance and reasons, like the litter and deteriorating infrastructure, for taking the city manager (who is, after all, his employee) to task.

Now it seems, according to the Independent on Saturday of November 8, 2008, that Dr Sutcliffe has himself become an angry white man. He is apparently furious that people are defacing the new streetname signs which he and his cohorts have forced on an unwilling city. He is so angry, in fact, that he is reportedly trying to ensure that anyone caught defacing the signs gets an automatic jail sentence. This for an offense which is currently on a par with putting up posters illegally or spraying graffiti on walls and which would only attract a fine. Sounds to me like vindictiveness brought about by an inability to tolerate being crossed.

The opposition DA party in the council said it didn’t condone the destruction of property but pointed out that these sort of things happen when you force things on people who have no legitimate redress. The ANC, of which Dr Sutcliffe is a member, was brought into being to offer resistance to a system in which people were denied the right to decide things for themselves. I wonder if he and the rest of our city management see any parralells at all between their behaviour and that of the previous regime?

Here’s a suggestion: I’d be in favour of renaming any street provided it has the approval of the majority of people living or doing business there.
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Point watersports good news

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The Mercury of November 7, 2008, reports that a long-running acrimonious disagreement between the city and various watersports clubs based around Vetch’s Pier has been solved. The Durban Point Development Company and the city were very keen to get the clubs to move from their prime beach locations. The developers have apparently now agreed to accommodate the clubs in premises adjacent to the new North Pier in the mooted Point Marina.

This was announced at a function held in a marquee in Timeball Square on Thursday in what was to be the announcement that the Environmental Impact Assessment concerning the building of the Marina had been approved. The approval has not yet been granted and it might take months longer.

I’m not usually in favour of the buraucratic process (particularly slow in our case) but this time I’m wondering if approval would be merited. Building a nice marina just outside the harbour entrance sounds like a hell of a good idea on a nice calm sunny day, but it overlooks the fact that this area was known as extremely dangerous. To prove it, there are literally dozens wrecks of ships within sight of where the new structure is to be built. The wall needed keep out the 1-in-a-100-year and 1-in-a-50-year high tides and storm surges, which we seem to be getting quite frequently of late, would need to be mighty indeed.
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Blue Flag rears its head again

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The Mercury of October 6, 2008, reported that Blue Flag status was awarded to four beaches in KZN excluding Durban, which unfortunately decided to back out of the scheme. The awards were made at a function held at San Lameer on the KZN South Coast on Tuesday. A new fact that that was revealed by local Blue Flag manager Alison Kelly was that Durban-based hospitality groups were so concerned by the city’s decision to go it alone that they approached the Blue Flag organisation in an effort to take over responsibility for getting the beaches into shape.. The request was apparently refused because attaining Blue Flag status did not have municipality support.
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Not so racist after all ?

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It would seem that ‘white’ America may not be as racist as might have been believed. Barack Obama was elected president of the USA last week and, if the Mercury of November 6, 2008, has its figures correct, 43% of white voters voted for him. These folk were clearly not voting along racial lines, and I aplaud that, but can the same be said for the 96% of black voters who supported him?

You may wonder what this has to do with a South Africa and, particularly, a Durban-related blog. The trouble is that we are also afflicted by the view that racism can only really exist only among whites [I felt guilty about this for years] but it is a view which is clearly wrong. We cannot become a truly non-racial society until everyone stops acting (or voting) along racial lines.

Anyway, America has a lot to be proud of. The best man won last week’s election and it will hopefully inspire others around the world to vote for candidates in their elections on that basis in future.
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Diwali & Moses Mabhida

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The Hindu celebration Diwali took place in Durban last week on 29 &30 November, 2008. I was in a good vantage point in Moreton Hall (on the Berea near Kensington) and the sight of fireworks going off all around was awe-inspiring. It was hard to photograph them because you couldn’t predict where the next one was going be and train the camera, fixed to its tripod, onto the spot. I had a bit of luck and produced the following pic of the new Moses Mabhisa stadium with a small firework:

and this one looking towards Jacob Zuma’s house, with Durban in thebackground:

Web creation made simple

posted in: FishNet, Web creation | 4

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about building websites and playing with another couple of online tools for doing so.

The first of these is known as Tank and was brought to my attention by Alan Alston, who is its co-founder and designer. It can be found at withtank.com and is free for anyone to use, although there are two paid options available with enhanced features.

The emphasis has been placed squarely on making Tank easy to use from sign-up to actually completing a site with it. The first screen you see when you’ve signed up is a dashboard where you can create sites or edit existing ones.

Building a site is a quick process which includes giving it a name, description, and choosing what sort of site it’ll be from a list possibilities such as business or individual. You can also elect to do your own thing and start with a single page that you can add to as required.

You then get taken to a sitemap page where you find a list of the pages in your site and you can start to put content onto them by clicking the one you want to work on. The editing page presents you with spaces for entering content for different areas of the page including the main body and the text that appears on the side of the page.

The most noteworthy thing about Tank is that, in the interests of simplicity, there are no tools for formatting the content on your page. You just type the content in and add formatting instructions yourself, which is very easily done.

A # at the beginning of a line of text, for example, means that it will display as a large heading, and two ##s mean that it will be a slightly smaller heading. You can display pictures by uploading them to the page you’re working on and then copying and pasting the unique link you’re given into the place you want the picture to display on the page.

The fact that you do not have a what-you-see-is-you-get facility does take a bit of getting used to, but you can always preview the page you’re working on by clicking the it’s name at the top of the page. Tank has its own set of formatting instructions which you can use or, if you know it, you can use standard html code as well.

The choice of layout options, or skins, is limited to three basic ones, which can be customised to a great extent by choosing your own colours logos and pictures. At the moment, you can add ordinary pages, photo galleries and blog pages which can be used for that or for posting news items.

The free sites created with Tank will have an address like sitename.withthank.com but you can, by signing up for one of the two low-cost packages available, use whatever address for your website that you want.
An added bonus is that you will be set up with Google Apps so that your organisation will not only have a website, but e-mail facilities using the address you’ve chosen, and access, for all members of the organisation, to Google’s online office suite and calendaring programs.

Tank is a very simple little tool for creating a website and adding content and may be frustrating for experienced web designers. It intended target audience, however, is likely to be more comforted than frustrated by the relatively limited range of options available.

I think Tank is pretty simple to use and, although I think that there are some minor improvements that could still be made to the interface, I think most people could use it to build a useful site.

Next week I’ll take a look at a much snazzier German web creation and hosting solution.

Why not leave a comment by clicking the link below?
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Quite a procession

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On Friday, October 31, 2008, I was driving down the M19 from Pinetown to Springfield Park and came across an mazing sight. The first sign of anything unusual were members of the city police directing traffic where the road passes under the N2 ring road. They were not wearing their usual summer uniforms, but their Number Ones or stepouts which included heavy jackets, and they were sweating like bullets. A little further down the road towards Makro there appeared a procession, the like of which I’ve never seen.

There were two huge stretch limousines with the logo of a funeral home on their doors and following them, the biggest collection of expensive black cars that I’ve ever seen. They filled the three lanes of the road in a queue that could have been 500m or even longer. I have absolutely no idea how many vehicles there were, because I had to pay attention to the road and was unable to count, but there were a hell of lot. There were Mercedes and BMW, and a wide selection of SUVs including Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs and, I think, Jeeps, many of them, otherwise unmarked, had flashing blue lights on their dashboards.

I later found that this was the funeral procession of anti-apartheid struggle stalwart Billy Nair, who died in St Augustines Hospital on October 23, and that all the great and the good of the new South Africa were in attendence, including the president of the country and everyone else who is anyone. I don’t grudge Nair his sendoff but all I wonder is how a country with as many poor people in it as ours’, can afford so many expensive black cars for its officials. As I’ve said, I don’t know how many there were but there were enough to make the scene look awesome and, at possiblyR50000 a pop, the amount of money spent must be awesome too.
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Harbour congestion

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The Mercury, of October 29, 2008, reports on congestion on routes leading to the container terminals and of the long delays experienced by truckers waiting load to and offload cargo. The truckers have apparently been threatening to block the port. The truckers apparently often wait for periods longer than a day with no facilities, including toilets, available to them. Drivers were complaining that they do not get paid for time spent waiting, which should be source of shame to their employers.

The Mercury reported that they had been unable to get comment from Transnet, which runs the harbour and the container terminals. No surprises there, then! It matches up perfectly with my experience of the monolithic Transnet. The story about congestion at the container terminals has been around for years. I wrote about it at least a year ago for the publication I edit and it has been around for much longer than that. There are a couple of efforts underway to try and ease the situation, including the building of the Khangela Bridge to connect Bayhead Road to Sydney Road, but no there is a yet no decision on how to solve the problem.

One plan, which seems to make sense, is to built a container park at Cato Ridge and ferry containers there from the harbour by train. They can be fetched from there by truck which would have the effect of keeping them out of Durban. Another idea, which I described in an earlier post, is to take a leaf out of Dublin’s book and built a tunnel from the harbour to the ring road, for trucks to use.

Banana Republic

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Every day there is more and more evidence that our masters do not view themselves as accountable to citizens. There are two examples in the Mercury of October 28, 2008 which show that quite well.

The first example is local and has been mentioned in these pages before. The municipality has now declared that the report is too sensitive to be disclosed to the public. Deputy information officer Joseph David came out with that statement. Overpayments to security companies could hardly be a matter of national security and so, to my mind, there are only a few possible reasons why our employees (the municipality) should be refusing to publish a report on what happened to our money. I don’t like the thiught of any of them.

The other story in the paper concerns a so-called blue-light incident in which motorists are forced off the road to make room for official motorcades. Over the years, motorists have been threatened with firearms and have, on a few occasions, been hauled out of their cars and beaten up. I have seen a couple of these convoys, which roar past at great speed past with tinted windows [surely illegal] and blue lights flashing. Never to my knowledge has anyone been brought to book for assault or intimidation or have the VIPs within been asked to account for the strongarm tactics and dangerous driving of their escorts.

The particular incident mentioned in the paper took place in Johannesburg and involved vehicles belonging to the presidential protection unit. The convoy consisted of at least six black vehicles led by two Johannesburg Metro Police Police vehicles. At least one of the officers in the convoy was seen brandishing his weapon at motorists. The president was out of the country and his deputy was not in Gauteng province. The head of the presidential protection unit, Tau Thekiso, would not say who was being driven in the convoy and Johannesburg metro police chief Wayne Minnaar apparently didn’t know, in spite of the fact that his vehicles were escorting the convoy.

We will not have any sort of democracy until our officials are made to be accountable to us!
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Into the wild Azure yonder

posted in: FishNet, Windows | 4

The big news in the computer world last week was the announcement by Microsoft that there will be a version of Windows which will run over the Internet. [Added 2/11/08: There will still be desktop versions of Windows such as Windows 7, which is slated to replace Vista.]

The product is to be called Windows Azure and the announcement was made at the company’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles by the company’s chief software architect, Ray Ozzie.

I had a look at the Windows Azure website at microsoft.com/azure and found that it was described as “.. a cloud services operating system that serves as the development, run-time, and control environment for the Azure Services Platform”.

Being none the wiser after reading the definition, I found a list of frequently-asked questions but, while I understood most of those perfectly, the answers were couched in more impenetrable gobbledygook.

I then went out onto the web to see if I could get a better explanation of what Azure is, and it turns out to be mechanism by which your computer operating system, programmes and data will no longer be located in the computer on your desk.

Instead, all these items will reside on large computers housed in data centres owned by Microsoft, and you will access them through any computer with an Internet connection.

There is nothing new in this idea, which really dates back to the earliest days of computing, when processing power and storage were centralised in the mainframe computer, and users accessed it through terminals.

Here at Independent Newspapers, for example, we had such mainframe systems in the form of Atex and CSI, which we used for entering and storing stories and printing them out, so that they could be used to make up the pages of our papers. The terminals we used were just smart enough to be able to find and connect to the mainframe.

Gradually, however, the world moved away from this way of doing things and started to put a lot of the computing power and storage onto the desktop. Companies like Microsoft and Intel grew fat off selling ever more powerful desktop computers and programs, even though some data files were still stored centrally on servers, and there were still some mainframes around.

Having the computing power on the desktop was great because it meant that you could keep on working when the link to the mainframe failed. The downside was that it became very complex and time-consuming when, for example, you needed to keep hundreds of computers updated with the latest software versions.

Some organisations, like Independent Newspapers, began to move back to a server-based system and the tendency moved into high gear with the rise of the Internet. Various organisations began to offer web-based programs, like word processors, and storage space for files. Many users discovered the joys of using these services, which are mostly free, and don’t require a brute of a computer to run, or high-priced software packages.

Windows Azure is Microsoft’s reaction to this trend of putting the computing power back on the server, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. They stand to lose big-time on desktop operating system and software sales, in the face of online offerings from the likes of Google, for example.

They had little choice but to move in this sort of direction and hope that they’d be able to maintain their income through renting out online access to their software, charging other software developers to host their programs on the Azure platform, and for storage space for data files.

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Jet fuel woes

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I will be creating a page on the main Facts About Durban website for our new airport at La Mercy but, in the meantime, there was an interesting story in the Sunday Tribune, of October 26, 2006, which states that there have been protests at plans to ship jet fuel from the refineries to the airport by road. The airport is apparently going to need a million litres of the stuff every day, which will take about 20 trips by road tanker, and cost between R40000 and R80000 per day to transport. Mind-boggling figures! There is the option to build a pipeline to deliver the fuel.

Mismanagement or corruption?

posted in: DbnDate | 0

It was good news about the buses, as mentioned in the previous post, but the Sunday Tribune, of October 26, 2006, also carried a story to do with the episode that wasn’t such good news. It turns out that the amount of government subsidy received by the Remant Alton bus company, and what it was spent on, is not open to public scrutiny. The Tribune apparently asked to see financial statements and the request was refused by Remant Alton and the municipality. There is suspicion in some quarters that the money has been misused and that there are people in bed with each other who should not be.

The ANC-appointed city manager Mike Sutcliffe dismissed such ‘crazy claims’ and said that there had been an oversight process. This is in spite of the fact that John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance caucus on the council, said that no Remant Alton financial statements had been presented to the EXCO in the last five years.

It seems pretty clear to me that there has to have been incompetance or dirty work at the cross roads but the really worrying bit is why city management is feeling the need to cover up. Are they involved? And how?

This is not the first episode mentioned in these pages which involves the municipality refusing to give us details about how our money is spent. They are actually our representatives and our employees and are supposed to be accountable to us, but they are not behaving in the least like it. Some democracy this is turning into…..
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Bus strike over !!!

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The good news in the Sunday Tribune, of October 26, 2006, apart from KZN winning the rugby Currie Cup yesterday, is that the strike by bus drivers is finally over. The news was very unexpected and it isn’t all together clear how the breakthrough came to be. The article is a bit confused, to my eyes at least, but it seems that a deal was brokered with the help of eThekwini ANC chairperson John Mchunu. It seems that a consultative forum to decide on the future of public transport in city is to established and that it is to include driver representation. More details when I get them.

I’m very glad that things are sorted and I hope that they stay that way. I am sympathetic to the drivers but feel that they could have played the game a bit better and kept essential services running. One of the papers last week reported that disabled people were among the ones to suffer most from the strike because their bus service was also suspended and minibus taxis don’t have facilities for wheelchairs. Some disabled school pupils at sleep over at their schools for a time because the strike started after they were dropped off at school and the drivers didn’t even pick them up again before knocking off work. I also know that senior citizens, dependent on the buses to get out from their retirement complexes to pay bills or whatever, have had a very hard time as well.

GUYS, YOU COULD HAVE DONE BETTER.
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Cellular silver anniversary ?

posted in: FishNet, Mobile | 2

Last week I spent a happy couple of hours on the Internet after spotting a news article saying that the cell phone industry had just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

There is a heap of information available on the history of cell phones and I waded through a fair bit of it to establish that the occasion was, in fact, the anniversary of the first commercial call made on a portable cell phone.

Wireless phones, which could be used to dial telephone numbers, go back to the 1950s, with one system being launched by Ericcson in Sweden in 1956. The phones apparently weighed 40kg and can’t have been that tempting for the man-in-the street.

There were other early mobile phone systems, including the Norwegian OLT, which was once the largest network in the world. The real trouble with the early systems, apart from their bulky nature, was that you had to stay within range of the same cell tower until your conversation was finished.

According to Wikipedia, it was as far back as 1947, that the idea of using a system of hexagonal cells for wireless telephone communications was first thought of by engineers at Bell Labs.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s, however, when a system was invented by another Bell Labs scientist, Amos E. Joel Jr., which made it possible for you to drive along and for your call to be handed off from one cell tower to another.

Scenting the chance for some money, Motorola decided that they would develop a portable handset and, on April 3, 1973, successfully demonstrated their DynaTAC handset, which had been developed by a team led by Martin Cooper.

It was 1973 and they had a portable handset but it was not until 10 years later that the US government gave its approval to the phone and establishment of a cellular network. And we thought our government was slow!

The first commercial call was made by Bob Barnett, president of Ameritech Mobile Communications, using a DynaTAC 8000X handset in October 13, 1983. All the Internet sources agree that the call was made to Alexander Graham Bell’s grandson, who was in Germany at the time.

It’s a quirk of the Internet, and of everyone copying each other, I suppose, that the grandson was not named by any of the sources I found. He could have been Melville Bell Grosvenor, who was editor of National Geographic for some time, but I couldn’t find out definitively.

The DynaTAC was known as the ‘brick’, being 25cm tall and over 800g in weight, but it proved to be very popular in spite of the fact that it cost nearly $4000. The service charges and calls were also very expensive, but there were 12000 subscribers within the year.

It is almost inconceivable to me how quickly cell phone usage has taken off with millions and millions of people now using them all day, every day. The other incredible thing is how small some handsets have become as shown by that model who tucked her Motorola into her bikini, and there no additional bulges anywhere to be seen.

I did have a brief romantic idea in 1996, that I wouldn’t have a cell phone and leave that side of things to my then business partner. It wasn’t even a month later that reality intruded, and I found myself lugging one of those Nokia 2010s around.

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DSW strike

posted in: DbnDate | 0

A short article in the Mercury of October 21, 2008, says that DSW refuse workers currently working for agencies will be able to apply for full-time jobs with the municipality when positions are advertised later this year. Apparently, 25% of DSW are hired through agencies. Deputy city manager Derek Naidoo has apparently said that all agency workers would NOT automatically be hired. I hope this will not be the start of more trouble if the current temporary workers see other people getting employed.

In the meantime, I took a drive through the centre of Durban today and was struck by the fact that it looked quite a lot less filthy than usual. That’s progress, I suppose.

On another topic, I don’t know if it’s my imagination but I have the feeling that deputy city manager Derek Naidoo is being quoted in the papers a lot more lately. In the past, Mike Sutcliffe rather dominated whenever city officials were quoted and it makes me wonder if there’s something cooking behind the scenes.
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Stadium bags award

I came across a press release from the Concrete Manufacturers Association that the new stadium had won an award. That’s impressive whether you agree or not on the fact that its being built in the first place. The following is taken from the press release:

Picture Courtesy CMA


Moses Mabhida Stadium – Durban

Regional Winner – Coastal
Category – Innovative Products: other innovative concrete products showing ingenuity.

Straight and raking precast concrete columns were used for the construction of the Moses Mabhida Soccer Stadium. The façade incorporates cast-in-situ columns with anchor bolts up to level 3.

Precast concrete columns, comprising a stub at the base and an upper section, were placed above the in-situ columns. Steel base plates on the stub columns were custom-designed and fabricated on site to correct any discrepancies in the anchor bolts.

At 15m long and weighing up to 65 tons each, the columns were manufactured on site to exact specifications and tight dimensional tolerances. A total of 30 raked columns of varying skew angles and 200 straight columns were deployed. The weight of the straight columns held them in place, whereas the raking columns were further secured by means of a push-pull tie on the field side of the bowl. The ties were removed after the upper slab, which was tied back to the column, was in position.

Through careful calculation, using a small working model for demonstration purposes, it was determined that if the precast concrete columns were lifted slightly above the centre of gravity, they would be aligned for positioning onto the stub column.

Once the columns were correctly positioned and bolted down, the splice slabs were shuttered and filled with concrete, and the gaps grouted. The completed columns were topped by steel caps. These support ring beams which transfer the vertical and high horizontal forces off the roof.

Professional Team
Architect: BKS/Group Five Design and Planning
Consulting Engineer: BKS
Quantity Surveyor: Ibhola Lethu Consortium
Contractor: A joint venture comprising Group Five, WBHO, and Pandev
Manufacturer: Group Five, WBHO, Pandev

Product Information
104 Precast concrete columns and raking columns (approximately 50 different types)

Judges’ Comments
Innovative engineering saved construction time and produced an aesthetic product.

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Snippets from the week

I had intended to use this blog on a very occasional basis to record noteworthy things happening around the city but I’m starting to feel withdrawal symptoms if I should miss a couple of days, as happened this week when I had to go away on business. So here goes…

The Mercury of October 14, 2008, reported that Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, was recently voted best mayor in the world. See mention of a reader’s letter, below, for an explanation of why this is unlikely to happen in Durban. Also, according to the paper, Independent bus operators have refused Remant Alton’s offer for them to take over its routes for fear of being targeted by striking workers.

The Mercury of October 15, 2008, reported that police had arrested two men for alledgedly plotting to kill a Durban Solid Waste Manager. They were arrested in Sydney Road and their car was to to contain two revolvers, ammunition, and some petrol bombs. In other news, Alfred Zondi, the chairman of the KZN Bus Council, called on the KZN Transport MEC Bheki Cele to intervene in the dispute between Remant Alton and its striking workers.

The requirements of Fifa for the World Cup in 2010 sound draconian to say the least. The Mercury reported 2010 Project Head Julie-May Ellingson as saying that, by 2010, the city will be empowered to immediately remove offending signage from buildings, especially anything which conflicts with Fifa’s requirements. At the moment, the city needs a court order before it can remove signage and that’s fine by me.

It’s a puzzle why we should tolerate such interference in our affairs. It would have been better in the longrun to have told Fifa to keep their World Cup. It seems that the city is running out of money (not surprising when you consider the extravagance onvolved in the new stadium) because Ellingson also appealed to business for R15-million to upgrade facilities around the stadium.

In another story, the eThekwini Municipality was awarded the best credit rating of any municpality in Africa. This is bad news as far as I’m concerned, because our masters are surely going to be tempted to borrow more money on the strength of that.

Residents around Inanda Dam have been warned not to eat fish caught in the dam or vegetables grown nearby. Apparently the water has been found to contain elevayed levels of Mercury. A further study is to done.

The Mercury of October 16, 2008, reported that riot police, snipers and helicopters had prevented a march by Remant Alton and Durban Solid Waste workers through Durban the previous day. City Manager Michael Sutcliffe said the decision had been taken for security reason because the march had the potential to turn violent.

Sounds to me like something that a National Party functionary might have said in the bad old days, not a senior member of an organistion that, itself, has a long history of fighting against injustice. You’d expect the authorities to be more sympathetic to workers who feel they are victims of injustice but I guess its only injustice if it’s done to you, not if its done by you…

The paper also reports that environmental affairs and tourism depty minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi has spoken negatively about the city’s loss of its Blue Flag beaches. The comments were made the previous day at a meeting at the Point Yacht club to launch a national action plan to protect our coastline. A brochure describing the plan apparently says that the loss of Blue Flag status could have a severe impact on tourism and business.

A reader’s letter, signed ‘Saddened’, in the Independent on Saturday, of October 18, 2008, has some comments about the recent award of Best Mayor in the World to Helen Zille, mayor of Cape Town. The reader says that he or she recently spent a week in Cape Town and found the streets to clean and well-maintained, that the traffic signals all worked and that he or she felt safe walking around in the evening. This contrasts strongly with the situation in Durban and the writer wonders whether this has anything to do with the fact that the DA is running Cape Town and the ANC, with its pre-occupation with minor issues such as street-renaming, is running this city.
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