Photowhoa giveaway competition

Photowhoa ( is a site selling discounted photo editing stuff: from programs to plugins, and from overlays to .. something else beginning with O.

I've had a number of things from them (and would have had more, if I didn't already have the software on sale) most recently, the BorisFX Optics program / plugin. This started off at half price, and I was pondering getting it when it then went down another 20% for a few days. Sold!

At the moment, they have a giveaway competition – – with prizes including a year's Adobe licence. Normally, I think renting software is Wrong, but if it is free my scruples disappear for a bit 🙂 Amongst other things, winning the top prize would mean I was able to use Optics as a plugin: something means it doesn't work as a plugin in other programs that can run many Photoshop plugins.

Anyway, it's the usual 'do this, get so many entries, do that, get some more' format and writing about it is one of those things…


Amazon being annoying gatekeepers

I have too much stuff, and I would like to get rid of it. (OK, some of it – I am not quite at the point where I believe you can have too many DVDs or board games.)

One of the main places I do that is Amazon. The absence of a deadline means that you can wait for buyer who wants it for £x rather than having to settle for one who wants it now, but for less. (It's possible they'd pay more if there's a bidding war, but you can't guarantee that.)

The problem is that if you want to sell a Microsoft keyboard on Amazon, you can't. Unless you jump through several hurdles, for example by showing invoices from an authorised distributor. This applies to everything and anything they made, hardware as well as software.

If you want to sell a Sony Walkman on Amazon, you can't. You're told "You are not approved to list in this product category and we are currently not accepting applications." This applies to everything and anything they made: games consoles, cameras, TVs, etc etc etc. Some companies can sell them, I can't.

In both cases, you could do so a while ago – I've sold both there – but you can't any more. There are doubtless other brands in this situation.

I understand why Microsoft and/or Amazon want to stop people selling, for example, Windows licenses without being sure they're genuine. But keyboards?? And what's the issue with Sony?

The effect is that consumers cannot sell their unwanted gear there, losing one large marketplace (and one that is, or was, nicer to sell on than eBay) and we pay higher prices for products by these companies because the supply is being kept low.

In addition, you only find out this is the case when you try to list a Microsoft or Sony product, because there's no indication on Amazon to buyers that the supply has been artificially restricted.

'Good job you didn't lose anything important, because you have backups of everything that is…'

Someone I know makes a habit of saying that whenever someone has a serious computer problem like a hard drive failure or stolen laptop or…, and wants their help getting data back. Amazingly, I don't think anyone's punched them.

But it's a reminder that you need a good backup system.

I have gone from paper tape (I might still have one with O-Level computer science coursework on!), to floppy disks (urgh), to 120Mb tapes (better, but since someone stole the PC with the reader, I now have some tapes with ancient stuff I can't read), to writeable CDs (good until multi-Gb hard drives became affordable), to writeable DVDs (only slightly better than the CDs), to online offsite backup.

Oh, there are also some spare hard drives for local copies, but one of the points of an online backup system is that it will survive your house burning down, for example. Plus writeable DVDs and CDs are distinctly fragile! They have a lifespan of only a few years and I have some blank ones that were not blank before. (Fortunately, this has mostly just involved losing some copies of CDs for use 'out and about'.)

As well as having things on Google Drive and Dropbox – fine and free for smaller backups, expensive for larger ones – I've used four online services: Carbonite, Diino, altDrive, and Crashplan.

Carbonite was one of the first and helped set the basic idea: a client on your computer regularly looks at what's changed recently, and automatically backs it up. The less you as a user have to do, the more likely it is that it will happen, and this is much better than only being able to go 'Oh, yes, there has been some important changes since my last backup, I will backup now' as with consumer writeable media.

I might be with them still, but for a few things. They don't have a Linux client for a start, and from 2008 I've quickly gone from working mostly in Windows to barely booting into it. Although you can get Windows to read file systems more usually used by Linux, on Windows PCs, if it's not a local FAT or NTFS partition, Carbonite wouldn't touch it.* At one point, I had /home** on an NTFS partition – "it's not advisable, but it can be done" – to accommodate this, but when Carbonite failed to tell me about a discount for renewing, I ditched them and reformatted /home properly.

Diino had both a Linux client and weren't at all fussy about how your data was stored. In fact, you could install the software on multiple computers on one account. They had a couple of issues with 64-bit Linux back in 2009 – memory tells me that there wasn't a 64-bit version of Java for Linux then, so some workarounds were needed – but those were sorted by the helpful support. They also did versioning better than Carbonite- if you changed a file, you'd always be able to restore previous versions of it.

But then they didn't bother renewing a security certificate which stopped things starting automatically, hmmm. Worse, they announced in October 2012 that they'd be closing – a couple of months after taking an annual renewal fee from me! They got new funding, but it didn't inspire confidence, so I looked for alternatives.

AltDrive was the one picked. It worked ok for a couple of years, and again the support was helpful when needed. (I particularly liked their asides that no-one used some of the neat features they had.) But it stopped working reliably in 2014 and whatever I tried couldn't get it to show me what it had backed up. Erk.

So it was back to Diino. Until last year, when it stopped working reliably for me too and a clearly reduced level of support couldn't fix it.

CrashPlan, another one of the three I looked at in 2012, was where I went. And it's been great! As well as backing up to their servers, their client will manage local backups. Or any other PC that also has the software and gives you permission. Unlike several other services, it doesn't seem to slow you down your data transfer when you use it – the initial backup was quite big, but took as long as I'd expect.

After having some lockups, I recently did a fresh install of Ubuntu MATE as part of working out what the issue is. Having a separate /home partition meant that none of my data was lost, but it did mean that I had to reinstall things that I'd installed over the past few years, like Steam, the Atom editor, youtube-dl, get_iplayer etc etc. And, partly because it's been working away, barely noticeable, I forgot about the CrashPlan client..

.. until I got an automatic email from them yesterday to say that they hadn't heard from my computer in three days, was there a problem? Oops! Reinstalling the client was easy, as was saying 'you know about it already, and you don't need to start the backup from scratch'. Backing up the 500Mb or so of changes in that time took a couple of minutes – sorted!


Both Diino and AltDrive closed this year. It looks like Diino did it more gracefully, but online backup is a brutal business to be in. You've got Amazon, Google and Microsoft as rivals for a start, and they have huge advantages of scale. Plenty of backup firms have tried to resell Amazon's storage and been killed off when they changed their pricing.

So I hope it's not a kiss of death to say that all this has reminded me that my CrashPlan subscription is due for renewal later this month and I've got no hesitation in doing so…

* It wants to stop people using a single licence to back up a whole network, but they never could tell me why they insisted you use file systems they have rejected as too problematic themselves – when they asked Microsoft why NTFS was falling over all the time, they were told it wasn't designed to store lots of files! They will now allow you to back up one (only) locally connected hard drive, like a USB connected one, but charge you more for the privilege.

** Where Linux stores virtually all of your data.

Seeing the holes in the robotic cheese

I have recently started watching Humans. It's very good, and I'm looking for a copy of the Swedish original to compare it to, but there are some aspects that just jar me out of the suspension of disbelief.

Anita, the android that the family buy, says her processing power is about twenty petaFLOPS – twenty thousand million million floating point operations a second. That'd put her third on the current list of fastest supercomputers. But..

.. where's the evidence elsewhere that this sort of processing power is (relatively) really cheap? The cost of getting Anita's said to be about the same as a car and she has full language capabilities and excellent vision processing for example. But people are using current style computers and laptops via keyboard and mouse, and not talking to their toasters.

.. it turns out (micro spoiler) that she's quite an old model. Fourteen years old in fact. Why hasn't there been any significant advance in CPU processing power since then?

.. why's she built to do so many floating point operations in the first place? As the great Chuck Moore likes to say, robots use integers, not floating point. The real world may be analogue, but robots measure it with analogue to digital devices that have a limited resolution. Even if you're (pointlessly, in many cases) sampling audio with 24 bit resolution, you're still working with integers that easily fit in 32 bits. It's a lot easier and faster (and cheaper in terms of silicon space and power requirements) to do integer maths than floating point.

.. there have clearly been major advances not reflected elsewhere in the world – one of the biggest problems with real supercomputers is cooling them because they take a lot of electrical power, never mind Anita etc being charged for at least a day's use with a few hours plugged into a low voltage charger and not having a visible heatsink, they're not even human body temperature.

Ah yes, temperature. We know, thanks to a couple of comments, that the androids aren't anywhere near body temperature. But none of the people who kiss one comment that it's more like kissing a zombie without getting your face bitten off than kissing a human. And while the task of simulating the physical sensation of having your penis inside a vagina was solved about twenty years ago, I'm raising an eyebrow at the way that every 'female' android apparently has a self-lubricating, heated, Fleshlight equivalent. Just in case it's ever needed. Even if they do, it's still going to be a very poor simulation of one of the most requested sex acts from sex workers.

But apart from these and similar issues, it's been one of the best 'what does it mean to be human' series. Up until episode seven, anyway, where it gets a bit Lost in terms of going for something dramatic rather than credible.

Museli musings 2

Following on from my previous post on this, Aldi have been continuing to change things. This lead to at least one frightening* period when all three stores in vaguely easy reach didn't have any of the not-so-good stuff, never mind the good stuff.

To my surprise, they're now back to selling 750g packets… but in cartons that are almost the same thickness as the 1kg ones. It's at times like this that I'm glad I kept one of the old 750g cartons! Sadly, I don't have any receipts from that period, so I can't check if the price per 100g has changed, but I don't think it has.

I am now wondering what's behind this: a couple of months wasn't very long to try a marketing the new size. Was the move to 1kg a complete disaster in terms of sales?

The related** change is that their clone of Muller Light yogurt six packs have changed from being half strawberry and half raspberry and cranberry to being half strawberry and half cherry. I'm not nearly so keen on the cherry one. It's fine to have with pies etc, but not for breakfast.

Fortunately, Morrisons currently have a 12 for £3 offer on the real things – cheaper than the typical offers of a pack of 6 for £2 or two packs of 6 for £5, depending on the date – and you can pick your own flavours…

* Well, fairly scary.

** To me, anyway, because I have my museli with fruit and yogurt.

Catching another Don

The current season of ENO opened with a new production of Don Giovanni, and I gave a little 'eek' when I realised that it was nearly at the end of the run before I'd got around to arranging to see it. I have seen 'quite a few' productions before,* but it is the greatest opera ever written and each of them has shone a new light on it even if, as in the case of ENO's last but one production, it was on how not to do it.** But if I am ever allowed to direct it, it's this one I shall shamelessly steal – erm, improve – the idea of the opening from.

For those of you who haven't seen it yet, the opening features Don Giovanni being disturbed with his latest conquest, Donna Anna, by the arrival of her father, the Commendatore. The latter is killed and given how long it is since it was first performed, it shouldn't be a spoiler that this is not the last we see of him… Watching and commentating on all this is Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello.

So there are two questions that the director has to think about because they affect how we see the Don from the start. The first is how consensual is the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna. The libretto has Don Giovanni masked and one of the problems between them is that he won't tell her who he is, but is it attempted rape? The second is how accidental is the killing of the Commendatore: is it murder, manslaughter or misadventure?

During the overture, this one has a series of women walk past Don Giovanni and Leporello, stop, turn round and go through one of a series of doors with him before coming out again. I've seen others where this sort of thing has happened, including ones like this where there's also been one man in the queue of conquests. What doesn't convince me is that he doesn't do anything to pick them up: we're expected to believe that merely walking past is enough to get the stream of nine or so people into bed. It's fair to say that the role isn't performed here by Brad Pitt. The other improvement would be to have some of the people exiting the door be adjusting their clothing / having their skirt tucked into their knickers at the back or something.

I guessed that the last in the queue would be Donna Anna and indeed it was. The moment I sat up was where the set opened up and there were two rooms, one of which had the pair inside. There is some mimed negotiation and Donna Anna wants a masked man wielding a knife to 'assault' her. Even better, her father enters the other room with a woman very unlikely to be his wife who he begins to top! He hears Donna Anna's cries, enters the other room and is 'You want it? You have it' stabbed by the Don.

It fails to work with the plot – Donna Anna is supposed to only realise later that Don Giovanni is the one who's killed her father etc – but it's nearly brilliant.

What I'd do is project something like the screen of someone using Tindr etc during the overture. With a masked profile picture, the Don is going 'yes' to anything in a skirt, and ends up in text conversation with Donna Anna who says that her fantasy is… But I'd keep the Commendatore being up to some extra-marital sex in the next room.

Alas, that's the highlight. Some of the other ideas – like having Donna Anna's boyfriend, Don Ottavio, be her husband rather than just engaged to her – are pointless and contradict small bits of the plot. Some – like having the statue of the Commendatore be as unlike marble (what they're singing he is) as it's possible to be.. up until he enters the room, when he's a bit marble, but more like the resurrected body – are 'huh?' Another of the latter is the number of doors people go through for no very good reason. Some ideas – like having Don Giovanni attempt to seduce a servant over the phone rather than by standing underneath her window*** – are mostly harmless, but serve to raise a question or two. The call's made from a phone box with a rotary dial, so when is this set?

The final idea – having Don Giovanni escape Hell by sending Leporello in his place – is something I've never seen before, is sort of in character, but only works here in terms of explaining WTF someone looking like Leporello's clone has been pointedly wandering through the scenes throughout: he just replaces Leporello as the servant and it's back to the opening corridor and its stream of walking past, stopping, and… It could work, perhaps, but my favourite ending is still that of the Francesca Zambello production for the ROH, where we see a naked Don in Hell, carrying an equally naked woman.****

The set design – a series of greys and drab olive (taken from tank camouflage paint tins?) – is uninspiring and the rest of the design isn't up to much either, with the exception of having Leporello look like Michael Caine. The English translation is also ok rather than great.

But you could close your eyes and listen to this one, and I'm very glad to have seen it.

Two more performances: Monday and Wednesday. I'd bought a 'secret ticket' – you pay £20 and only find out where you're seated the day before. I'd guessed that it having been at the Tkts booth in Leicester Square for £30 meant that it was likely to be a good seat rather than up in the balcony, and ended up in the middle of the fourth row of the dress circle, normal price £125.

* A quick count says about twelve 'live in theatre' ones, some of which were seen more than once, plus a couple of 'live from..' satellite broadcasts and at least half a dozen on DVD.

** Normally, if the production is badly directed and designed, you can shut your eyes and listen, but even the singing was poor in this one.

*** Best line from any 'outside the window' production was one in the mid-90s: 'This worked quicker at Kensington Palace…' Now Princess Diana is long dead but we've another woman PM, you could have 'Downing Street'.

**** This was the production I paid HOW MUCH to see live and was definitely worth the money. Sky Arts were showing it at one point and it's also available on DVD.

Time and place

I can remember seeing my mother's School Certificate exam papers – this was the forerunner to O-Levels, except that you had to pass six papers including English and maths in order to get a certificate, rather than getting a separate English, Maths etc pass.*

The paper I particularly remember was the Arithmetic one (there was another one for other aspects of maths) where a typical question went something like 'The Atlantic Ocean is (so many miles, furlongs, chains, yards, feet, and inches) across, and the RMS Queen Mary crosses it in (so many days, hours, minutes, and seconds). Find her average speed.'

This is the intro to saying that another old exam paper has been found. In 1960, L's father took The Chartered Institute of Secretaries (Southern African division) Intermediate Accountancy exam. Question 2, the second of the three compulsory questions, was about the XYZ Lawn Tennis Club. Amongst the things people answering the question had to take into account was..

Two natives are employed by the Club, one to attend to the courts at a wage of £4 per week, the other to serve tea and minerals at a wage of £1 per week.


It's notable that the sale of those drinks is losing the club money: they're spending £106 annually to buy them in and only getting £149 from selling them… despite the way that the stocks on hand are worth £6. Whatever else the members are, they're rubbish at running a viable refreshments service.

Amongst the other striking aspects is that the women members pay a smaller annual subscription than the men (£4 vs £6, but that's still a month's wages for the person serving drinks…)

* If your six included a foreign language, you got a pass acceptable to universities. That would have been me stuffed then.

Scratching an itch

The pause in posting here has been caused by Antiyoy. It's a simple turn-based strategy game where you use armies and forts to conquer (and hold) an island made up of hexagons against assorted other players.

A peasant unit can capture undefended land. Combine two of those and you get a spearman, who can conquer land defended by a peasant or a capital city. Add another peasant and you get a knight, who can conquer land defended by spearmen or towers. Add a final peasant and you get a baron, who can conquer knights. But – as with modern business – the latter require 27 times the pay of mere peasants, and if you run out of money all the people in your territory disappear. So you have to have plenty of money-generating land before you can dream of having knights.. and the towers that are proof against anything less are much cheaper.

It's been scratching the Empire: Wargame of the Century itch very happily for the past few days. It looks like I've been playing that for, erm, twenty eight years, and it runs very well on a desktop's DOSBox but doesn't work well on a tablet's one. (There is an Android port of the Empire Deluxe sequel, but it doesn't work very well on a tablet either – both really want a mouse.)

I thought Antiyoy was a polished game, and it turns out that this isn't surprising: it's an utter clone of Slay, which has been around in one form or another since 1989, the year after EWotC.

Fortunately, I've now got through the seventy level 'campaign' and the latest change to the program – starting the one-off games with lots of neutral territory – simply doesn't work well at all. So you might well see some more posts soon…

.. unless there's a sale on the Android port of Slay.

Do the wardrobe shuffle

Yesterday was spent shuffling furniture about. From a house that's being cleared came seven dining chairs, a dressing table, a small table and some garden furniture. Out went six not very comfortable dining chairs and a cheap chest of drawers. That was fairly simple, although the existing – borderline unsafe – gardening furniture is still here. Whether it'll end up as a pile of decaying wood in the garden for insects or at the recycling centre, I don't know, but having seen some stag beetles in London, it'd be nice to see some here.

A friend down the road got two disassembled wardrobes and a chest of drawers. That involved moving out a chest of drawers and a sort of coffee table sized chest of drawers from one room, then moving an existing wardrobe and chest of drawers from another room into the first room, and leaving assorted bits to assemble in the second room.

Someone's garage now has the 'out' furniture, plus a couple of other things from the cleared house, including a writing desk and a tall rusty metal storage thing that may end up going to London somehow.

Now 'all' that needed to happen was assembling the wardrobes. These are Stag flat pack designs from the 1960s. It was interesting to see that some basic ideas are still used in IKEA etc stuff today. The person who'd broken them down hadn't taken photos of the process of doing that, but helpfully labelled which bit was from which and suggested that I do the simple one first. That might have been sensible except that they'd broken, either in taking them apart or in transport, one critical bit of the base of the more complicated one. A metal combination screw and 'secure this end' part hadn't been removed from the base where it was supposed to hold the middle vertical 'wall' and had broken the base, fortunately at the underneath side.

Fortunately, again, the two bases were identical – presumably it saved money only having one design – so it was possible to use the simple one with its intact screw holes instead. Having started, it seemed a sensible idea to continue with the more complicated one.

Which went fine up until the back. As with many IKEA ones, this uses some thin hardboard with a wood-coloured veneer on one side as the back. With much flat pack furniture, this can't be one sheet of the correct size or the packing box would be too big. So you get it in two or three pieces and join them together. Tape or nails is the current way, depending on whether there's something to nail it to or not. The sides are typically in groves of the real walls.

But for some reason – part of which only became clear later, instead of doing the sensible thing and having two vertical pieces, each roughly the size of one of the doors, it has four horizontal pieces, one smaller than the other. Attempting to stack them on one another failed, even with some duct tape, but then it was then that the use for some odd bits became clear: four bits of woodish stuff, the length the width of the wardrobe but otherwise quite small. And with a grove in two sides. Ah ha, these go on top of one bit of hardboard and hold it in place while proving the base for the next bit. Ah ha2, they have some thing that can be screwed into the sides, behind the hardboard, to keep it all fairly rigid too.

Which would have been great, except that only one of the two screws on the first of the three bars was anywhere near the right place. The other end was too high. There's a limit to how much you can hammer the side of hardboard to get it to go down (it breaks the hardboard if you're not careful!) and no amount of pushing it would get it to the right position. So of course the next layer starts too high, neither screw fits, and you end up not being able to get the top / roof wall on.

It was at this point that I gave up until the new owner came home.

When she did, we decided to do without all but the first bit of hardboard, but just use their support bars instead. I for one have always said that wardrobes shouldn't have a back.* The metal bits that hold the roof on aren't screwed in, so you have to get them just right for them to drop into the holes in the sides. Which isn't easy, given that the roof is much thicker and is the second heaviest bit of the whole thing. Get it wrong, and they drop to either side and then you've got to lift the whole thing again, usually taking the connectors that did get in their holes out and have to do them again too.

Repeat, several times, possibly breaking the base – the middle wall did bend over more than it should have done at one point, until it works.

The doors were almost simple, but there's a lot of work in the almost. You can see where modern door hanging designs come from, but the subtle changes since the 60s mean they are notably better for rehanging doors. These almost properly fit – but do close! – and it's not clear how you would adjust things so they do fit properly. About the only thing I can think of is start again, making sure that everything that is supposed to be a right angle is exactly 90 degrees.

Having done that one, it was going to be much simpler to do the simple (no middle wall) one. And it was! It did have a fixed top shelf that the first one didn't and this was the reason for having horizontal hardboard bits for the back: instead of having the back 'behind' the shelf, the top shelf has the top and bottom grooves for the hardboard. This probably also explains the asymmetrical sizes of the pieces of the hardboard – because you could choose to have this shelf, the last bit had to be the vertical size of the space left underneath the top shelf because that makes the maker's life easier in terms of stock control. As with the base unit, you then only need to have one sort of back.

This time, the three larger bits of hardboard fit (with a little hammering…) and it's only missing a back on the top shelf – there was no way you want the top to slot into that and have the annoying connectors fit too. If it had been lighter, perhaps, but not this lump.

The result worked perfectly in terms of its doors and is a tribute to the quality of the original design. It looks horrid to my eyes, but its new owner is seriously into retro stuff and loves it.

Except that she wanted it on the other side of the room. Push, shove, push. No, it's too big there (it blocked part of the window). One reason for wanting it there is that she wasn't convinced they'd be enough space to open the doors fully because of the bed. But.. push, shove, push.. yes there was. I thought there would be, just, having had a play with an unattached door earlier.

After that, the chest of drawers was simple…

* How else are you going to get to Narnia if they do?

Getting the rules wrong

Yesterday, someone found out they'd been playing a favourite board game wrongly / 'not according to the printed rules'. In this case, the missed rule makes a better game and the judgement involved is half the skill in something that has a lot of luck already.

But lots of people ignore rules. Few people play Monopoly without adding some variant or other, usually making it a worse game* by increasing the money supply or reducing limits on houses or.. Even the current rights owners have been guilty of that, including by adding another die to make it easier to land on squares you want to land on / easier to avoid ones you don't.

I've been taught games wrongly – the classic example was the game where the owner had missed that each turn you could do only one of four things and thought you could do all four, every turn. The game didn't last long…

Some people make a fortune out of it: Othello is Reversi with a restriction saying you have to start with one of two opening positions. Somehow, the Japanese patent office granted a patent on it anyway and the 'inventor' cleaned up.

Some games are improved by tweaks. I think one favourite has one mechanism, a favourite of the designer, too many and so do without it.

What's your missed / ignored / improved rule story?

* Feel free to substitute 'an even worse'…