Archive for the ‘IT’ Category

Chopped Pork & Ham …

July 6th, 2010

… is better known as SPAM, a sort of tinned meat. It’s a strange foodstuff, something I thought of as a product of the irretrievably grim British food rationing of the 1940s and 50s. But it turns out to be American, and some people eat it because they like it.

When Monty Python satirised the unimaginative British cuisine of the 1960s, they did a sketch in a restaurant where every dish was spam-based. This tickled the funnybones of early computer folk, and they would type “SPAM” over and over again to edge unwanted visitors off their primitive bulletin board sites. Once the verb “spamming” was coined, the force was unstoppable.

The key word of course is “Unwanted”. I do not want endless emails from China offering me Canadian pharmaceutical products (can’t see how that works) nor do I need any more chances to enlarge my manhood.

But if I sign up to an organisation, register with a business, give a company my details, join a club or become a member, I would expect to hear from that organisation. Especially if I’d paid a membership subscription. If I didn’t, I may simply forget about it — but if I’d paid, I’d want to know why I hadn’t heard from them.

Enter fotoLibra. It’s not compulsory to sign up to fotoLibra, just highly recommended. If you do, we will email you. And as a picture buyer or seller, what we send will be of interest to you. If it’s not, there’s a link at the bottom of every email which you can simply click on to be removed from our list. It also has our address so you can write and complain if we fail you.

What I’m saying is that we do not send out spam. People have signed up to fotoLibra, and we email them. Our problem is that a LOT of people have signed up to fotoLibra, and we simply cannot write to everyone individually, so we have to do what computers and email clients are very good at — sending one message to lots of different people.

Surprise, surprise. Lots of our innocent, requested emails get classed as spam. Of course we are to blame for some of it — we should never type the subject IN CAPITALS (apparently that’s popular among real spammers); HTML formatted emails (which ours are) send out alerts; bulk mailings are an obvious no-no. Trigger words such as ****, !!!! and %$%$ will often lead to blocked mail, even if used innocently.

Someone who will remain nameless recently sent out a fotoLibra Picture Call for photographs of guitars. Unfortunately she added an extra word commonly used in the publishing world to describe such books. Bang, bang, bang. Down came the shutters. The vast majority of ISPs blocked the mailing. As a result we only have 12 pictures of guitars to answer the call. Memo to self: get her to resend the call today WITHOUT the funny words.

Nevertheless it’s frustrating for us to mail people with information they genuinely want and then find our mailings are rejected. Some filters seem to be fairer than others, and I was particularly impressed by one company which sent us this message:

Your message was waitlisted.
Please add yourself to my Guest List so your messages will be delivered to my Inbox. Use the link below.
Click here to deliver your message
Boxbe ( prioritizes and screens your email using a Guest List and your extended social network. It’s free, it removes clutter, and it helps you focus on the people who matter to you.

Now that really does seem to screen out the professional spammers. HOWEVER — and this is a big HOWEVER — a quick search on the internet reveals a lot of people slagging off this company for spamming people themselves. I won’t be using it as a result, but it may suit some people.

So. Here’s our problem. Where is our solution?

Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

In fotoLibra’s offices in London and Harlech we use Zen as our service provider, and we have no complaints about them at all. In fact we can heartily recommend them, having used them for the past five years.

They’ve just upgraded our broadband service from 8Mbps to “up to 20Mbps”, which is very exciting.

Before they upgraded us I tested our speeds. It averaged 4.79Mbps download, and 0.36Mbps upload. That’s ADSL for you; if we had straightforward Digital Subscriber Lines like they do in Germany instead of Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines,we’d be able to upload and download at the same speed.

That’s why downloading an image from fotoLibra is over 13 times faster than uploading an image to us. We’re sorry, but unless you’ve got DSL there’s not a lot we can do about it.

Back to our “up to 20Mbps” upgrade. It came on stream this morning, so I tested our speeds again.

6.23Mbps download, 0.67Mbps upload. Not as thrilling as I’d hoped. That’s 31% of the potential speed. We were getting 60% of our potential speed on the previous deal. Why should the percentage decrease so greatly?

Still, it’s a little faster, so that is a good thing.

But have you noticed that “UP TO” always actually means “LESS THAN”?

Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

This morning The Times, The Telegraph and The Independent all had front page solus photographs of Steve Jobs holding up the new iPad. If only fotoLibra could have just one day’s worth a year of the publicity Apple gets!

iPad is a much better name than iSlate. Whoever thought iSlate would win out?

So Apple’s latest gottahave has finally been released. It’s as lovely as anticipated and it does several of the things that were expected. No phone, no camera, not even a little one buried in the frame looking at you so you can do video conferencing. Not needed because there’s no phone. But I suppose as it’s an internet browser it can Skype, so it could be used as a phone?

Of course I want one, and I want it now.

But what will I do with it? What basic need does it fulfil?

Most of us in the sedentary Western world live a three screens life — mobile, laptop, TV. When I’m not reading, I’m usually to be found staring at one of these objects. What I’m not so certain about is how much I hanker after a four screens life.

Which was always a good argument against Amazon’s Kindle, that clunky black and white book sales outlet. The new iPad blows the Kindle out of the water. It is incomparably more desirable. Put the two together and they look as if they’ve come from different centuries (which they probably have). Of course the iPad’s bookstore feature only works in the US, as Kindle’s did until very recently.

When all the brouhaha and hyperbole have been swept away, what have we got with the iPad? It’s a big screen iPod Touch with some software packages thrown in. It’s a big iPhone — without the phone.

I can live without it. For now.

But when Version 2.0 comes out …


Happy Snow Year

January 6th, 2010
Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

Apparently this snow and cold isn’t confined to Britain. Seems like it’s snowing all over the world, except in Cape Town where that nasty Graeme Smith has been putting our plucky boys to the sword. It is glorious weather down there, 28°C, a warm breeze and cloudless skies. Yum yum. Newlands, and a bottle of Rust en Vrede to keep me company … a man can dream, can’t he?

Anyway, while it’s snowing — or, even better, when the sun comes out just after the snow, please get out there and use that camera. We always need snow shots, and cutomers usually ask us for them in May or June, so please be prepared now. As most of you know, I’m no photographer myself, but make sure you mug up on how to use that white balance control on your camera so the snow looks crisp and white.

Grey snow pictures don’t sell, except for gritty realist images of buses struggling to get up hills. We always need more grit.

Away from the winter wonderland, close observers will know that fotoLibra’s former technical development manager Neil Smith and I have been writing some iPhone apps together. Aaron’s Apps now has its own web site, so please check out to find out about the applications we’ve released (two) and the ones we have planned (eight at the moment).

Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

This isn’t strictly fotoLibra business, so I’ll simply refer you to the fotoLibrarian blog where this fantastic free offer is soberly and modestly described:


White Labelling

July 9th, 2009

One of the smartest guys I know asked me what ‘white labelling’ was yesterday.

It’s a salutary lesson; remember how easy and how dangerous it is to slip into jargon, and how stock phrases (blue sky thinking, ongoing situation, granularity, reading from the same hymn sheet) can be used to talk glibly yet avoid thinking too deeply about any problem we face.

But ‘white label’ is not so much jargon as a straightforward description. I haven’t consulted Wikipedia, but I’ll attempt my own definition here.

If you go to buy a refrigerator, it may or may not have a brand name stuck on the door: Frigidaire, Zanussi, Smeg, Hotpoint, AEG, Indesit, Bosch, Lec, whatever. But if you compare a couple of models you might be struck by the fact that apart from the name on the door, inside they are identical machines.

That’s because they are. They’re probably built in the same factory, on the same production line, probably in China or somewhere, and then sold to the brand owners who stick their names on the doors, add a chrome strip and flog them as theirs.

As a boy I used to be fascinated by American cars of the 1950s (still am) and it didn’t take me too long to realise that the 1956 Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac were all essentially the same car, and only differed in trim and engine options. They were all General Motors products, in the days when what was good for GM was good for America. Effectively they were white labelled — same thing, different name.

If you build your own fridge or car or photo library there’s no reason why you can’t let other people use it and give it their own name. This thought has occurred to me several times while we were constructing (at vast expense) fotoLibra’s digital asset management engine. At the moment it’s only used by fotoLibra.

It’s rock solid, reliable, fast, and robust. It’s infinitely expandable, comes with a full set of tools and virtually all the problems our Support team ever have to answer turn out to be at the user’s end rather than at ours.

Why keep it to ourselves? Why not let others store their film in it or drive it and call it their own, to labour on with my fridge / car analogy? The great majority of fotoLibra users will get all they need from the fotoLibra service, but there will be a few professional photographers who will need a more personalised, individualised bespoke product.

Maybe we should think about providing it.


Fried Green Hard Disks

February 27th, 2009
Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

The MacBook Pro I use day to day is the least successful Apple Macintosh I’ve had. It’s been back to the shop four times, most recently for a replacement battery (battery life was down to 2 minutes, after 96 cycles). Luckily I kept my PowerBook G4 (battery life over 3 hours, cycle count 318) so until normal service is resumed I’m using that. It is noticeably slower and the screen is dimmer, but otherwise it’s a match for the newer MacBook Pro — and far more reliable.

Have you heard the noise a dying hard disk makes? It’s awful; in its portent more than its sound. You know there will be inevitable expense and your life will be disrupted. The disk that died on Wednesday morning was a Fujitsu. As Neil Smith says, you must allow for one in five hard disks failing every year.

We’ve replaced the 120 GB Fujitsu with a 320 GB 7200 rpm Western Digital. That was done by Thursday lunchtime. Using Apple’s Time Machine, the MacBook Pro is backed up every hour, so when the Fujitsu started making dying duck in a thunderstorm noises, I stopped using it. So no data lost — I hope.

We set Time Machine to restore my data to the MacBook Pro at around 2pm yesterday. As I write this (10:45 am Friday) it has 4 hours 32 minutes to go. It is not a speedy procedure. But what I get back (I’ve done this before) is my computer with all my data, settings and passwords valid and intact as they were on Wednesday morning.

And a faster 320 GB hard disk.

There are mutters in the office that I should not have been running a 120 GB hard drive with an average of 640 K spare space. But hey, pictures take up a lot of room.

I wonder how long it will take me to fill up 320 GB?

Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

38 years ago I spent a great deal of money on a good hi-fi system. At its heart was a QUAD 33/303 pre-amp and power amplifier combination.

I have used it every day since then. It has never been serviced or repaired. It simply works, and it sounds as good as it ever did. Which for me is great. I’m still playing the same music on it.

But it’s a measly 30 watt amp. You can break glass and dislodge substantial chunks of masonry with its sound output, but the spec doesn’t lie.

Shortly after I bought it, I saw Japanese-made 120 watt amplifiers at half the price. OK, they didn’t sound anywhere near as good, but just think of all that power!

I listened to a few. Cranked up, they didn’t seem to be any louder than the old QUAD (Little Feat’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor is the benchmark).

Then I discovered the reason. The QUAD’s output was measured as “the closest approach to the original sound” — that is, the clearest and loudest you could go before any distortion was audible.

That was 30 watts. The Japanese, on the other hand, took their 30 watt amplifiers and figured that as they were stereo, the 30 watts should be 60 watts. And forget fidelity of sound, just crank it up as far as it will go. So the 60 watts became 120 watts — there was no volume control as such, simply a distortion intensifier.

Faced with a 30 watt amp and a 120 watt amp, which would you buy? Right. That’s why the average IQ is 100.

Now something similar is happening with cameras. fotoLibra only accepts 8 bit images. The next step up is 16 bit, but few commercial printers can use 16 bit files, and JPEGs can’t be saved as 16 bit.

So we ask for 8 bit images to be uploaded.

Members contact us to say “You won’t accept anything other than 8 bit images? But my camera produces 24 bit images!”

Well yes it does, in the same way that those old Japanese amps pumped out 120 watts. The marketing department of the camera manufacturers have reasoned that if a digital image is a combination of a Red, a Green and a Blue channel, each of those is 8 bits, therefore 8 + 8 + 8 = 24.

And which would you rather buy? A 24 bit camera or an 8 bit camera? Right. You will almost certainly have an 8 bit camera. Unless of course you have an expensive 48 bit camera, in which case you actually have a 16 bit camera — lovely, but you’ll have to convert the images to 8 bit to upload them to fotoLibra.

Going back to those amps for a moment, the Beatles performed using 30 watt Vox AC 30 amps. 30 watts is plenty loud enough for most needs, although Vox did build them special 100 watt amps for their performance out of doors in front of 55,000 fans at Shea Stadium.

Nobody could hear them anyway.

Gwyn Headley

by Gwyn Headley

Managing Director

There’s a radical new version of the useful fotoLibra DND application released today.

It has all the functionality of the previous easy drag ‘n’ drop upload facility, but with the added bonus of checking every file to ensure it meets fotoLibra’s stringent Submission Guidelines.

Up till now, we allowed you to upload anything to fotoLibra, because only after we’d received it and looked at it could we tell if the file met our standards.

fotoLibra DND Version 2.1

height=”500″ fotoLibra DND Version 2.1

Now DND 2.1 allows fotoLibra members to check their files before going through the long and disheartening process of uploading files and being told an hour later that they have been rejected because they’re not 300 ppi (the most common cause).

We hope you like it. Please let us know what you think.

A behind the scenes note: because this is such a radical step forward I wanted to call it fotoLibra DND v.3.0, but the developers argued against it. This is what they said:

We believe it is DND2.0 with a big new feature. We know that the version number has a psychological impact on people, but as software engineers we follow the rule: major version number increases if and only if a fundamental and structural evolution has occurred. We have not re-designed it. We have updated and extended the earlier great job. Which is why we only recommend increasing what we refer to as the “minor” version number.
If you believe it’s got to be called 3.0, we will rebuild it.
We have spent some time on packaging it, most of the time compiling and building the core software (with support for JPEG, colour, etc) because the binaries provided are not suitable for the average user (and that’s the reason why it is much bigger now).

Faced with such logic (they are technical folk, after all) I capitulated and agreed that it’s to be called fotoLibra DND & Checker Version 2.1.

I commend it to you.


It’s our job at fotoLibra to make uploading as easy and painless as possible for our members.

It’s our job at fotoLibra to make sure the images we sell are print repro quality, ready to go without endless expensive manipulation by the purchaser.

How do we reconcile these two sometimes opposing forces? By publishing our Submission Guidelines, and enforcing strict parameters on uploaded image files. If we say we want 300 ppi, we won’t accept 200 ppi or 400 ppi. If we say we want 8 bit, we won’t accept 16 bit. if we say we want a minimum width or height of 1750 pixels, we won’t accept 1700 pixels.

Tough but fair.

The snag is, how can we tell if your images won’t made the grade until you upload them?

And that can take hours.

So what happens is that a member collects his images together, does what he can to ensure they meet our specifications, then drags them across to the fotoLibra DND (Drag And Drop) window. An hour or so later he gets the message “Image is 1514px high. Minimum height is 1750px.”

The upload has been rejected.

How annoying is that? I know I would throw something at the screen and storm off in a sulk. Yet we couldn’t figure out a way round it. How could we tell what members’ images were like BEFORE they were uploaded to us?

“We can’t, so let’s ask the members to do it.”

“But we do, and they don’t always do it. Then they get annoyed. With us.”

“So make them do it.”

“Yes, but how?”

“Make the pre flight check part of the upload process.”


If we build a piece of software that reads an image file and checks that

  • it’s 300 ppi
  • it’s a top quality uncompressed JPEG
  • it’s 8 bit
  • its shorter side is longer than 1750 pixels
  • it’s between 1 MB and 100 MB in file size

then it can report any errors back to the member before all that time is spent uploading a file which will be rejected.

So that’s what we’ve done. We’ve built it for Windows Vista and XP, for Intel and PowerPC Macs running OS X, and for Linux. We’ve built it into the forthcoming fotoLibra DND v3, so all you will have to do is to drag the files you want to upload into the DND window. The app will check your images and tell you what’s hot and what’s not.

Then you can upload safe in the knowledge you won’t get those nasty unfriendly error messages after a failed upload.

Is this a dream? A fantasy? Or simply vaporware?

No. It’s here, it works (I’m using it right now on an Intel Mac running OS 10.5.6) and we’re testing it at the moment. When we’re confident it’s bug free, we’ll release it.

Jacqui will tell you when it’s available for you to download. It should be in the next couple of weeks.

We haven’t yet got the resources of a Microsoft or an Apple, so we don’t have the facilities to test to exhaustion. But we think it will work well.

And if by chance it doesn’t, no doubt you will tell us.