Sunday, 28 May 2017

The excitement of the ISS (& photography).

Watching the international space station pass over your house is exciting. Even before you start capturing the experience on camera, just knowing that this hulking great big metal mass is flying around the earth every 1 and a half hours, with people on board is extraordinary in itself. Tracking it as it flies over Paris at 200,000 feet as far as Poland and still being able to see it as it disappears into the distance is mind boggling.
If you're in the least bit interested (and I've yet to meet anyone who isn't) then the first thing you need to do is check where it is, and if a visible pass is likely. These clear warm summer evenings are by far the best time to see it. However, it's not difficult once it comes into view. It's totally obvious as it looks like a star, that's moving fast!
http://www.isstracker.com/ is a good place to start. but if you want an app, try ISS?  for Android.
The orbit shows up as a sine wave on a flat map, but of course the orbit is circular. The best time to prepare is as it passes south america, it's usually about 15 minutes away once it leaves the coast and starts passing the Atlantic ocean. Depending on how far south the pass is, you'll need to set up your camera accordingly. If it's passing directly overhead, obviously you'll need to be pointing your camera straight up. If it's passing over France, (from North Wales) you'll need your camera pointing about 30% into the sky. These low passes often make the bast shots, as it's easier to get an interesting foreground in.
To get the ISS to appear as a long streak, you'll need a long exposure. First up, a tripod is almost essential. If you don't have a tripod, you might just get away with a bean bag. 30 second exposure will produce a lovely flight path, but obviously it could create over exposure problems, if the ISO and aperture aren't correct. Select a high Aperture (best for focus) and ISO 100 if you can. Before the ISS arrives, take a number of test shots, to ensure your settings are the best you can get them.
If you have the option of a digital display, flick your camera display on, and make sure you manually focus the camera on a star. This is harder than it sounds. When you're certain the camera is focussed correctly, with your camera on Manual, select 30 seconds exposure time, frame your shot and make a note of where the right edge of your camera meets the scenery. (Assuming you're looking south, it's going to pass right to left). Set the aperture to between 3-9 and the ISO to 100 or 200. Take a test shot and see if you need to adjust anything. The darker the evening, the more you're going to have to compromise on your settings. If your focus is spot on, it's best to compromise on the aperture, before you compromise on the ISO.
When you're sure everything is set up the way you want it, wait for the ISS to appear and when it passes the scenery where you know your camera is aimed at, hit the shutter.
This shot was taken a few years ago, if you look carefully, you can see another streak in front of the ISS, this was a food delivery that was due to dock in the following hours.

Have fun and let me know if you give it a go.


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Troubleshooting, anxiety and experience.

Technology suits people with a certain mindset. Many a time I hear defeatist language being used when someone shuts off, or has run out of patience when troubleshooting a technical problem together. It's peculiar. Anxious people also have similar unhelpful thoughts, perhaps a defeatist mentality; not weakness. People who can't solve computer problems aren't weak, they just think differently (about certain things). Likewise, I don't see myself as weak because I suffer with Anxiety, I'm just wired differently.

It's curious, because when it comes to resolving computer problems I am totally determined and tenacious.
"I will do this"
"What's wrong with this, I need to sort it"
"This is frustrating, but I'm absolutely not giving up"
"If that doesn't work and this doesn't work, then maybe this is the answer" is the type of language I use when I'm troubleshooting computer issues.

"I'll never be able to do this"
"I'ts hopeless, it's just not working"
"I don't know why I'm even trying" could all be used by someone suffering with social or other anxieties and likewise someone giving up trying to figure out a problem with say, a new router.

Yesterday for example, our broadband with BT ceased and we went live with Vodafone, what little I read of the literature (I'm not a cheat), suggested I needed to simply plug it in and let it connect.
So I did, as soon as BT went off. I hooked up the new Vodafone router and saw the red light come on. I assumed it would go green (like the BT router) when it connected, so I did my days work and came home 6 hours later.
vodafone router
Vodafone huawei router, the red light is always red.
Light is still red. Hmm, peculiar. I examined the router and found a green light reading 'internet' on the top, indicating, perhaps their is a connection. I picked up the phone, and sure enough, we had a dial tone.
'This should work' I presumed, so again, I made sure my mobile was connected to the internet and booted Facebook up. Nothing, no connection. So I hooked up a laptop. Navigated to the router control panel and was presented with a slider 'how safe do you want your connection to be?'.
Seriously, this was all I needed to do to get online. I hooked up the ethernet cables to the other devices and my 500Gb USB HDD and started linking all of the other devices up.

"It's gone off" daughter A shouted.
"It's rubbish" shouted daughter B.
"I need to watch the next step, seriously Dad"

It was my fault, the new broadband was pants. So the troubleshooting started. What had I done? Besides splitting the two broadband frequencies 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz, nothing. I unplugged some devices. Still, working for 5 minutes, and then off again and several minutes to reboot.

"Can you send it back Dad?"
"Can we go back to BT?" they protested.

'Should I factory reset?' No, it's virtually fresh out of the box.
Should I disconnect everything? Hundreds of questions to how I could overcome this problem. Did I believe we had a faulty router? No, I didn't, I thought surely Vodafone would be better than this. The answer had to be in the house. I disconnected the powerline adaptors (Time capsule upstairs was flashing orange to suggest it wasn't connected properly) but still the frequent reboots persisted. Logging into the control panel was equally as time consuming, as the damn thing kept dropping off. Then it struck me, several years ago, with another Huawei router, it'd done exactly the same thing when the external HDD was connected.

I unhooked it and waited. Everything slowly reconnected from the last reboot. I cautiously checked the router menus, ran a speed test and hooked up the last few devices.

That was it, the external HDD was to blame. Experience knowledge and tenacity had solved the problem; perseverance and logic. It's possibly something to do with the way it's formatted, but that's another problem for another day. And the time capsule needs connecting too, but they're jobs for another day. For now at least, my eldest daughter could watch the next step and I'd avoided an hour or more on the phone to Vodafone.

Again, there's probably a lesson here to do with personal resilience, strength and acquiring new skills. But, as before, I'd need someone more intelligent to tell me what that lesson might be! I guess I would benefit to applying the same mindset to my life, "I can do this", "it should be ok"!




Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Hate conferencing apps? There's a better way.

If like me, you've had Skype for several years, but you rarely use it because, well, it's a bit of a pain, then there is a better free way that you can communicate. If you use a team networking app, such as Slack, then perhaps this solution will also usurp it in another way.
Many years ago, Charles Dunstone predicted the end of traditional mobile phone calls. Mobile phone companies charging people for how many minutes they'd been on the phone would cease, and all calls would be routed via VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol).
It hasn't happened yet, but Whats App voice calling, Skype, Facetime calls are all doing their best to make it a reality. To be honest, I don't think I'm alone when I say I loathe video calls. For one, I can see my own ugly mug all of the time, reminding me how old I'm getting and how many extra chins I have, who wants that eh?
Not only that, but it's prohibitively intensive on your hardware and it requires fast and stable internet connection. Bothersome, to put it another way.
So today, inspired by gamers, I've been asked to test another solution, and the great thing is, I was only asked 15 minutes ago and I can already tell you.... It's simple, and it works.
Unlike most other solutions, you run your own server. Now before you think that sounds complicated, it really isn't. It's like having an open office door. Imagine you're sat in a conference room at the end of a long table, waiting for people to arrive. It's kind of like that.
To invite other people into your conference room, you send them a link.
Click Invite people and copy and paste the link to them.
Once they have the invite, they follow the link and join your room, either on their mobile, computer or even in a web browser. When they join, they take a seat too. And you can see that someone else has joined your room. When they say something, their icon flashes green. Everyone that joins the room, can see that they're talking. It works out of the box, with the microphone in your device.
You can (fortunately) mute your mic (*You need to mute your mic.... otherwise, you'll be broadcasting all the time), so that you're only connected to rooms with text chat, did I mention? No it seems I didn't, the 'room's you can set up (yes, you can set up multiple rooms in your office complex).
Best of all it's low latency and low demand, so you can always stay connected. So you're kind of, always available in your office.
So what is this platform? It's called Discord and can be downloaded for free from here. https://discordapp.com/
Give it a go and let me know your thoughts, could a gamer's communication tool be used as a business solution?

Friday, 12 May 2017

Ransomware? I ain't bovvered.


Today Ransomware has crippled the world. The WannaCry malware program has (at the time of counting) infected 47,000 computers.
This is astronomical, catastrophic and unprecedented and has caused the NHS to crumble. For the typical man on the street, this may be cause for concern, but there are a number of reason why these morons do not cause me any worry at all (apart from the fact that I might be a bit stuffed if I fall ill now!). By changing the way you look after your data, you too could prepare yourself (and improve your digital life) by changing the way you use a computer and manage your data. These changes will also protect you against a personally catastrophic loss of your mobile device too, or your tablet.

First you have to imagine, worse case scenario, if you destroyed your device, so it was completely unusable, what steps could you take to get your stuff back? And what might you lose?

Contacts - your business could revolve around your contacts, so why on earth would your only copies of your contacts be on your phone (and still) on the sim card that sits in it? Or, in outlook on your computer... and nowhere else?

Photos - sentimental photos, professional work thats pending further production, photos can be essential and precious for so many people.

Music - For many, their digital record collection is a labour of love, a finely tuned collection honed over many years. I know mine is, even if it does have Shakin Stevens in it.

Video - Again from a professional point of view, some of these productions or projects could be essential for future contracts, again, or of sentimental value.

Documents - Finances, digital receipts, important PDF's, spreadsheets, likely a lot of important digital documents to look after here.

Calendar - If you only use outlook on one laptop, again, you could find the days after a malware attack pretty lonely, sad and unproductive!

So, assuming that we've covered everything above, and all of this digital data is important to you, how do you make yourself malware proof? You spread yourself out and you use the internet to your advantage. Firstly I'd recommend you think locally; at home & online. Have backups at home and make the most of services designed to help you look after your files. Although the malware that struck today only affected Windows machines, it pays to be cautious even if you've got a Mac and all of these solutions will work on Mac too.

First up, your best friend is Google. Google services can check off most of these quite simply.

Photos - Google Photos allows you to sync your photos folder with your google account, it's that simple, so long as you're happy to limit yourself to 16mp images (which in my opinion 4 x 4K is fine), you'll be able to access your complete photo library from your mobile phone via the app too and all of your photos will be backed up, recently, online and safe from harms way.

Music - Google Music allows you to sync your music library, for free and again, via your mobile, not only will you be able to free up space on your device, but, via a chromecast audio device, you'll also be able to stream your music in 320kbps to your hifi at home via Optical, 3.5mm or RCA input.

Calendar/Email/Contacts - All taken care of via Gmail! Calendars, Email and Contacts can ALL be synchronised with the service, and, you guessed it, synchronised with your mobile, for free! Update an appointment on your mobile, or a contact, and it'll sync with your gmail account, accessible either through your browser or synced with your Mail app.

Google Drive - This is where you should store your important documents, this is a little more restrictive, as you only get 15Gb, but so long as your music and photos are backed up elsewhere, this should be plenty. An app that you install on your PC will sync your google drive with your documents (you'll need to change the default folder where you commonly store things). Google drive also works extremely well with google docs, which means file access (spreadsheets, drawings and word processing) anywhere, whether you have your computer or if you're using someone else's.

Finally Video and no, perhaps surprisingly, I'm not going to recommend (Google's) Youtube (although you could use this), instead I'm going to recommended Mega. Mega is most similar to Google drive, but you get 50Gb of storage space, which is all encrypted, 50Gb should be enough for most home video collections, so long as they're coded properly.

At home, if you have a Mac, you should most definitely be using Time Capsule. If you don't, you will most likely will have a USB port in your router, plug in a USB drive which will allow you to back your computer up over wifi. Either automate the process or ensure you regularly throw copies of the above onto it from time to time put it in your diary, but use a pen and paper.

Stay safe and worry not.

Drones and the law to protect people from injury.

Drones are now everywhere. 

Remote control flying machines used to be a niche hobby. Like minded, middle income shed dwellers would meet up to compare their creations; in a wide open field, they'd race around the skies and eat away their Sunday afternoons. 

Not any more, a handheld controller and a lethal four bladed cutting machine can be seen in most busy tourist sites. And this is a problem, someone soon is going to get seriously hurt, or killed by one. Mark my words, the news channels are hungry for the scoop on this story, as the popularity grows, seemingly exponentially, it's not long off happening in the UK. 

Drones are not for the fainthearted. The majority of the time they behave exactly as you expect them to, but they are difficult to learn and thus, hard to master. You can never be too cautious though and you always have to have your wits about you. You may get the left/right or forward/back controls confused depending on which way your drone is facing, especially true when you're still learning
The consequences for getting this wrong around people can be catastrophic. If you've got the stomach for it, take a look at this story from November 2015. 

Boys eye sliced by Drone propeller

Obviously, I'm a big fan (no pun intended) of quad-copters. As a photography and video enthusiast, the possibilities of sending a good quality camera, and amazing video camera hundreds of feet into the air is too tempting to resist. But I'm not blasé about the risks, I'm fully aware of the legislation, and fully aware of my commitments as a professional. But, and here's the problem, so many drone owners, (like the one I met on the beach on Sunday) simply don't know, or care about the regulations. The risk to people far outweighs the risk to property. The possibility of someone losing their life or suffering debilitating or life changing injuries (like the poor toddler in the story) should be setting alarm bells off that something needs to be done now. As well intentioned as the Drone code is, it's only effective 

  • if people read it, 
  • the public are made aware, and 
  • the Police enforce it. 


So lets cut to the chase, what should be done?

Like the warnings on cigarettes, I believe the message should be loud, and clear at point of purchase. Without getting tied up with the intricate details of the law* the message should be a simple one on the box of every drone sold, that has exposed blades. Retailers should advise new owners on the law as well. 


The biggest risk, needs the biggest focus. 
"It's illegal to fly this Drone 
within 50m of people"


That's the message that should be clearly visible on the packaging of every drone box sold in the UK. Everyone who buys a drone from that point on would no longer be able to claim ignorance to this vitally crucial message from the CAA drone code. This warning must be endorsed by Police and government. From my experience, the CAA aren't too bothered about investigating illegal operations. I've filed several reports via the CAA whistle-blowing site of dangerous activity with no follow up to any of them. 

Perhaps the public should be better educated too? A TV campaign, or naturally the news coverage of the new labelling could work wonders? I was the only one that said anything to the gent who was flying his drone from a crowded pavement on Sunday, perhaps if he knew that everyone was aware he was breaking the law, he wouldn't have done it? Currently, the risk of getting caught is so low, that people can (and do) get away with flying illegally. If a Pilot can illustrate he's taken all reasonable care to ensure he's 50m away from people then fine, otherwise, the Police should have the powers to remove a drone from a user recklessly endangering other peoples well being. 

It's only with clear advice at the point of purchase that as a nation we can ensure that public safety is put first. If the Pilot in the story above, knew it was illegal to fly his drone within 50m of people, this boy's sight in his right eye could have been saved. If the Parents had known the dangers, perhaps they'd have stopped the flight before the accident? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, we need to act know before it's a debilitating injury that we're acting on, or worse. 

This guardian article explains what the government is doing, in relation to drone ownership, and I welcome the compulsory registration, but there isn't anything relating to advice at point of sale, Lord Ahmed stated;
"while the vast majority of drone users were law-abiding and had good intentions, some operators are not aware of the rules or choose to break them, putting public safety, privacy and security at risk”.
Which highlights the problem. 

Drone prejudice vs safety.

Yesterday I had another experience of 'drone prejudice'. I get it, drones can be a pain in the neck. This very weekend, whilst enjoying some time in Rhos on Sea, a hobbyist was taking off from a crowded pavement. Kids playing a few metres away from sharp spinning blades. In Liverpool a few weeks previously, I saw someone taking a DJI Mavic off from the walls of Albert Dock on a very busy Sunday afternoon. Not ideal, or indeed legal. However, many of us have seen the business potential of these magnificent machines and want to do things the right way; politely and safely.

I'm working on a an exciting project of historical interest, something local schools may want to use in the future. For it to work, a local talented 3D modeller requires aerial footage of a small nearby town. After careful flight planning, checking the KP index, completing a risk assessment and site visit, working out the best launch sites, taking wind speed measurements, looking at the latest NOTAM reports and calculating a safe path around the area, avoiding purposeful overhead flight of others property. I decided that the safest option was to opt for 3 take off points. One from a nearby school field.

I arrived at the school, in my company uniform, with my flight pack ready and full of enthusiasm, after I spoke to the secretary and informed her, not only was I qualified, insured, held permission for commercial operation and DBS checked; with equally as much enthusiasm she set off to find the head master. 5 minutes later she returned and said, 'he said no, I'm so sorry, there are too many legal complications'. I explained that I was aware of the legal issues and that I would ensure that the flight would be both legal and safe, I re-iterated the work I already do with schools and my qualifications, and asked if I could possibly speak with him. She disappeared again and returned much quicker and stated, 'he said he's not interested in flying drones'. So I left, somewhat deflated. I returned to my flight plans and rechecked the distances involved. The second take off point would just about legally allow me to fly the distance to the points I needed to capture the footage; within 500 metres of the launch site. But only just. Anyone who flies will tell you, the further your craft is away from you, the much easier it is to lose sight of it. Nevertheless, the work needed doing, and the head teacher had given me no option, but to fly, less safely.

In all but one situation where I have asked for permission for a flight for something that isn't directly related to the landowner, I've been told no. TheForestry Commission, Flintshire council (took months to come back with a no) and Grosvenor estates (who even scoured my back catalogue of practice videos on Youtube and asked me to take one down that included some of their land!). Which leads me to the only conclusion;

'it's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission'.

Obviously in situations where you're doing work for the landowner, things are always more straightforward.

Happily, I got the footage I needed, but the close minded attitude of the head teacher actually made the situation and the flight less safe. I wonder as I start my aerial photography journey how much more 'drone prejudice' I'll experience and if it's something that needs more thought from the CAA and the government? If ignorance hampers safety without a valid reason, is that worth looking at in more detail?

Surely having jumped through all of the hoops necessary by the same governing body that runs the schools and the councils, the support and co-operation of those of us wanting to pay our own way in the world should be supported? Or is it better to push the professionals and hobbyists in the same direction, and just take off on pavements where the kids run around?

Perhaps it should be an offence to purposefully hamper the safe operations of a qualified drone pilot?

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Alan Downes

Simple laptop buying advice.