Layered lighting

Here's a little Photoshop trick that I occasionally find very handy.

Suppose you've got two or more photos of a given thing, none of which are properly lit. The right side is nicely illuminated in Photo One, but the left side is too dark. And the left side's OK in Photo Two, but in that one the right side is too dark.

You don't want to, or physically can't, go back and photograph the thing again.

Or perhaps the light there is never going to be any good, for reasons of geography, geometry or just the fact that you can't afford six flashes.

I ran into this just now when I was taking pictures of a ludicrously cheap network storage box I'll be writing a bit about shortly.

UPDATE: I've written the review now; it's here.

(In brief: It's a Noontec N5, and m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market are selling it for only $AU25 if you buy it along with a drive. And no, the drives are not overpriced to compensate. So all this thing is going to have to do to get a good review from me is, one, function, and, two, not send death threats to Barack Obama with my signature on them.)

One of my pictures of the shiny white box - which, of course, immediately tractor-beamed some cat fluff onto itself - looked like this:

First unsuitable image

Right side too dark.

Another looked like this:

Second unsuitable image

This time the front was too dark.

I could have reshot the image easily enough, but the Photoshop fix is faster. It's easy, too, as long as the images are pretty much identical except for the lighting. I'll talk about how to do it in Photoshop, but any imaging program with some equivalent of Photoshop's layers and blend modes can do it.

First, paste one image over the other, and set the opacity of the top image's layer to 50% or something, so you can see through it to line the two images up exactly.

Aligning images

(Lousiness of alignment exaggerated for illustrative purposes.)

You may not need to do this at all, but even when you're shooting with a tripod, it's common for successive images to be misaligned by a pixel or two. It may be impossible to perfectly align the images if they're off by some fraction of a pixel, or if perspective means they're off by different amounts in different locations. Just try to get the important parts of the overlapping image combination to look as sharp as possible.

Now, set the opacity of the top image back to 100%, and set its blend mode to "lighten".

Combined images

And you're done!

Layer-lightening animation

"Lighten" simply makes any pixel in the top layer opaque if, and only if, it's brighter than pixels in lower layers. So if you're combining images of the same object lit in different ways, you get a result that looks as if everything that illuminated the object in all of the images was illuminating it for just one photo.

I seldom set out to use this technique, but it's definitely not just a bad-photo-salvaging trick. If all you've got is one flash, for instance, you could take a string of pictures with the flash aimed and reflected and diffused in different ways, and then combine some or all of them to get the same effect as a bunch of simultaneous flashes, or a beauty-dish reflector, or a big studio flash with a large soft box, or J.J. Abrams and his Travelling Lens-Flare Circus.

You could also use this technique on video frames, sequential light-painting photos, and perhaps for astrophotography too. Any series of images you can shift and warp to pretty much line up with each other will work.

You could even use it to vanish dirt, dust or even insects on a thing you're photographing but can't properly clean. Take a shot, blow the dust around a bit, take another, combine with Lighten if the dust is darker than the object or with Darken if it's lighter.

(Even more complex blend-mode tricks involving lighting of different colours also suggest themselves.)

Information of great importance to almost nobody

AlphaSmart Dana

Commenter Fallingwater pointed out here that it's now rather hard to find CardTXT, the simple word processor that uses the whole width of an AlphaSmart Dana's screen. He recreated it and put it here; I've taken the liberty of mirroring it here.

I use the built-in AlphaWord application instead of CardTXT, because if all you need is plain-text note-taking, AlphaWord does the job fine. You don't have to install antiquated syncing software on your computer, or fool around with memory cards and weird old-PDA text formats. Just plug the Dana in via USB, from which it can also charge its batteries if it's running from rechargeables. The computer will detect the Dana as a USB keyboard, and then you just poke a button on the Dana screen to get the Dana to "type" the contents of a document into any text-accepting program on the computer. Any computer that can accept a USB keyboard should work with a Dana in this mode.

I thought I could help users of these strange hypertrophied Palm doodads with some more software, though, so I've zipped up the Dana files I have sitting around, too.

Here (5Mb Zip archive) is a collection of third-party software, including the plain (I think) version of CardTXT, which is in the "wp" subdirectory.

The original software package that came with the Dana is about 57Mb, here. It contains a lot of cruft, and I haven't tested all of these programs; if they don't work or they set your Dana on fire, don't complain to me.

Oh, and the Getting Started Guide and User Guide PDFs are only a couple of megabytes, here.

Constructive criticism

A reader writes:

From: Al
To: ""
Date: Sun, 23 Dec 2012 14:25:11 -0700
Subject: A little knowledge

I read your Dan's Data on the subject of power chips and must say you have lots to say about a subject you know nothing about. You state that engine timing before top dead centre will cause problems and can destroy the engine. Fact is every engine operates with timing set to vary from 15 to 5 degrees before top dead centre depending on load and rpm. I don't know where you pick up your information but do some serious research before you stick it on the web. I do agree chips are a bunch of hokey.

You're quite right, Al; I've fixed the article. Thanks!

I am gratified to note that now that I have fixed the one mistake you could identify on that page, I have presumably graduated from knowing "nothing" about this subject, according to your intriguing system of evaluation, to knowing everything about it. Will you send me my Ph.D in Automotive Engineering right away, or do you require a small processing fee?

(It's also interesting that that guy from the chip company who offered me handsome remuneration in return for writing a "white paper" about their products didn't notice the mistake either.)

No good deed goes unpunished

A reader writes:

I run a blog at ... actually, the blog is more or less dead in the water, but I'm keeping it alive for two very good reasons - one of which you'll notice if you google "F6 drivers", and the other if you google "laptop service manuals" (or many similar variations of). It's the latter I'd like to ask for your advice on.

Basically: For the last three or so years, I've been collecting laptop repair manuals for every model I can find one for (along with some extra things, like iMacs and other complicated all-in-ones), and hosting them free to download on my website. It started as a reference for myself and a few other guys at a small computer shop near Wollongong, then gradually exploded into the monstrosity you see there now. The last time I looked at stats on it, it was moving about 50gb of data every *day*.

The biggest challenge I've faced is that most laptop makers tend to guard their repair manuals behind passworded extranet sites and snarling legal notices. Dell, Lenovo and HP are the only three companies in the world that publicly publish their laptop service manuals, and the rest make it variously difficult to find (Apple and Acer models are fairly easy, while some companies like ASUS and BenQ apparently run a very tight ship). It's one such company, Toshiba, that is currently making things very awkward for me.

As you can see, my Toshiba manuals section is completely blanked out - I was contacted by the Assistant General Affairs Manager (Legal division) of Toshiba Australia at the end of July with a fairly blunt demand to take down all Toshiba copyrighted material from my site. I complied more or less immediately, because I was in no state to even start to pursue the matter down legal channels at the time, and did not want to risk more or less ruining my life for the chance to try and fight for something pretty petty.

I've been given varying reasons for Toshiba's unwillingness to play ball. They say they're concerned for the wellbeing of their customers (as if Satellite Pros are somehow intensely more dangerous to take apart than a ThinkPad?), they contain proprietary information (again, I see nothing different in what Dell/HP/Lenovo are willing to share publicly), and that they are copyrighted material (laws put in place to protect the profits of people who create original works of art - I see nothing particularly creative or artistic in their manuals). Any argument I put forward was simply rebuffed with a polite but very firm 'no'. I fully believe they are using copyright as a whitewash for controlling dissemination of information that would do nothing but help consumers, and are abusing the spirit of copyright law in how it extends to their repair manuals.

I've asked the Electronic Frontier Foundation for advice - they have no Australian legal presence but suggested I contact Electronic Frontiers Australia. EFA suggested I contact a lawyer who specialises in intellectual property matters, and the only one of those I could easily get ahold of charges more or less the same amount *per hour* for representation as I do per month in paying off my car. A friend of mine who is studying law pointed out that IP law is fairly specialised and I'm very unlikely to find a free source of legal advice on the matter. As far as I can tell, I'm completely screwed and have no legal recourse except to be a good boy and comply with their demands.

What do you think of this whole situation? Can you think of any way I can push back against Toshiba and be fairly likely to win the matter? I firmly believe I am in the moral right here (and have had a pile of emails from concerned readers more or less backing me up on that), but am getting screwed over because this is such new ground for ageing copyright laws and have no way to even have the matter addressed fairly without risking costly legal action against me.



I entirely agree with you that you're providing a valuable service to both end-users and, arguably, the laptop manufacturers themselves, but in my own non-lawyer opinion I'm not even entirely sure why you're asking me this. The manuals are unquestionably copyrighted to the manufacturer, so even if they normally give them away for free on their own (often crummy) download sites, that doesn't mean it's OK for other people to put copies of the manuals up on the Web.

This isn't a trademark-protection sort of issue; if somone is in a similar business to yours using a trade-name or mark that's similar to yours (if, say, someone other than Toshiba started selling "Satellite"-branded computer gear), then you have to make them stop if you want to keep control of your trademark. But copyright holders are free to ignore people distributing their copyrighted stuff, without that having any effect on the validity of said copyrights, and enforce or not enforce their copyright rights as and how they like.

(Tim Hunkin, for instance, allows free distribution of The Secret Life of Machines, just as Martin Pearson allows free distribution of The Unfinished Spelling Errors of Bolkien. But either of them could change his mind at any moment, and would I think easily win a case against someone who started selling those works without permission.)

I strongly doubt you could wriggle out of this by saying that a service manual isn't a creative work. Lots of things are copyrightable without being music or literature or any of the other things that first come to mind when you hear the term "creative work". Maps are copyrightable. Computer operating systems are copyrightable. Circuit diagrams, plans and blueprints are copyrightable. As they should be; you shouldn't have to file for a patent or something just to stop random people copying and selling, or giving away, a street directory that took you a great deal of effort and money to create.

The legal defining line, I think in my state of almost complete legal ignorance, is that a creative work is anything someone created that some other creator would not be expected to make in substantially the same way ("substantially" being the part that lawyers get paid to argue about), and that is also substantially different from anything someone else already created. A service manual for a given product could be written in many very different ways, so it's copyrightable.

I think the clincher is that Toshiba, unlike many other manufacturers, as you say does not make its service manuals available for simple free download. This creates a much greater need for an alternative download option like your Web site, but it also makes completely clear that Toshiba, for whatever reason, doesn't want the manuals freely available. So they are not only in my untutored opinion entirely within their rights as copyright-holder to demand you take down your copies of their manuals, but they aren't even acting inconsistently in doing so. Stupidly, perhaps, but not inconsistently.

I know actual lawyers do read this blog, and perhaps there's something I'm missing; if you know better than me, or even have something to add regarding copyright law in countries other than Australia, do please comment. But I really think it's an open and shut case.

The manuals are copyright to Toshiba, so you're not allowed to put them on a Web site for people to access unless Toshiba give you permission. End of story, I'm afraid.

MAKING money for nothing and FINDING chicks for free

In the comments to my post about people who think that all I do is beg for money on the Internet, Fallingwater asked:

Do you think a single, low-expense person can actually, really make a living with a site such as yours in 2012? I'm talking referrals, sponsorships and such, not living off donations (not that I'd mind, but I think you'd need a Wikipedia-like amount of readers, and possibly Jimmy Wales' creepy face, to pull that off).

I think you definitely can, even without staring into the soul of everybody who visits one of the most popular Web sites ever.

(Should I decide to try that, I would of course use...

Daniel B. Nosemonster

...this picture.)

That doesn't mean it's easy to make money with a Web site these days, though.

The main problem is that there's no way for a review site or similar enterprise to make a decent amount of money from the beginning. If it's a review site, every review can make you a small but non-trivial amount of money for the first week or so of its life, and then long-tail off into cents per day. But if you've got a thousand pages each making you 15 cents a day, you'll be doing OK. When you've only made it to the 50-page mark, though, you could easily be grossing no more than 25 bucks a day, which ain't gonna pay the rent in most of the Western world.

If you're in Africa or eastern Europe or something then this could of course still be a very workable proposition, but making affiliate deals with local businesses, generally on a per-sale basis, is a major way for small sites to get going, and local businesses in Uganda have a lot less money to throw around. There may also be major obstacles to getting money from richer countries sent to you in a poor one; I don't know.

I have always had it very easy. This is partly because I was smarter with my money during the dot-com nonsense than some of my friends. (Shiny new car and inner-city apartment? Nope, I'll go with rusty used car and living with mum, thanks. I did blow a surprising amount of money on this toy, though - brushless motors were EXOTIC back then.)

My easy ride was also partly because I for some reason am good at writing, and at understanding computers.

(I think Michael Bywater was partly responsible for this. He wrote the computer column in Punch in the eighties, giving me the chance to read comedic writing about Lotus 1-2-3 when I was a small child with absolutely no understanding of what this software actually did, but he also anonymously wrote the gonzo-ish "Bargepole" column, which I also didn't really understand but which connected some of my neurons in quite novel ways.)

I've had it so easy mainly because I was lucky, in the abstract sense of being born white and male in a rich country, and in the less abstract sense of just having job opportunities fall in my lap. The small publisher that was my first gig turned out to be based walking distance from my house (or, more accurately, from my mum's house), and my fairly brief gig with the Dark Lord Murdoch came via a headhunter. I think I had to ask one or two magazines to let me write for them, but mainly they asked me.

You don't need this sort of implausible good fortune to make a Web site that makes a modest but live-on-able amount of money, but you do need a way to ride out the period of time while you make the site big and well-known enough for that income to build.

To do this, presuming you're not already wealthy or a kid living at home, you need to start the site as a hobby in parallel with a real job. Preferably the kind of real job that lets you sneakily work on your Web site while you're there, which can actually be done legitimately if you're a parking-station attendant or late-night petrol-station cashier or something, so a significant portion of your job description is "sit right there, and remain awake".

You also, of course, have to come up with some sort of idea for your site that can make money. The mass affiliate deals like Amazon or eBay are unlikely to be adequate, even if you do loathsome Sell Sell Sell stuff, as described in books that use the word "monetize". You need more direct deals with advertisers and retailers to make it work, as I did with Dan's Data and Aus PC Market. I made decent money when I reviewed Aus PC products; I made not much when I reviewed stuff from elsewhere. (And no, I didn't sell the free review product when I was done.)

Because of this, Dan's Data does not make me much money these days, because I burned out on reviewing computer gear years ago, and Aus PC gear reviews were my principal money source. If I were still writing about cases and CPU coolers and monitors all the time then Dan's Data would by itself still make me a passable living, but I just couldn't face another PSU or video card after a while, so now Dan's Data makes pocket-money only.

If you can start a site that covers some niche that (a) isn't already utterly saturated with high-quality journalism (or whatever you plan to do) already, and (b) lets you hook up with a business or three for mutual benefit, you absolutely can still start and run a Web site for a living.

Hell, if you're good enough you can even make adequate money from plain old ads; that's how the superlative Rock, Paper, Shotgun works. They accept donations as well, but I only now discovered that, since their donation page is harder to find than my cunning combined e-mail/donation scheme.

(I think the excellence of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and numerous other big game-review sites qualifies that market as "utterly saturated with high-quality journalism"; I wouldn't pin too much hope on a new game-review site making its owner much money these days. If you write good stuff, though, you can at least count on sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun and news sites like the extremely venerable Blue's News to link to you fairly often. Starting a site that competes with Blue's News, Slashdot and other news sites that've all been taking body blows just from direct review-site RSS feeds a while ago, then Digg and now Reddit is, needless to say, not likely to be an express train to boundless wealth.)

That ain't workin', that's the way you do it!

I received this yesterday:

From: [redacted]
Date: Sat, 6 Oct 2012 20:49:46 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Dan's Data Page

Hello Dan,

I came across your website,, this evening. I have been considering doing something like this for awhile. I was wondering if you would be willing to share with me how succesful it has been? I am trying to save enough money and invest it so I can live off of dividend payouts. My goal is to be able to be home with my family as much as possible. I have a target of atleast 100k and have managed to to save about 40k on my own thus far. It will takes years however to complete my goal on my own. I need a way to boost my savings. Please help.

[name redacted]

I always wonder how these people come to e-mail me. I've had two this week. I suppose they find my contact-and-donation page, which is titled "Give Dan Money For No Very Good Reason!", and... that's all they read, before clicking the e-mail link.

Because otherwise, they'd notice that people occasionally drop a buck or two in my tip jar because I, you know, wrote a load of stuff, on a very wide range of subjects.

Perhaps I've got this guy all wrong, and what he wants to do is start a Web site and slog away at it for a decade and make money that way. I suspect, however, that he, like the others who more clearly express their desire that I share my money-making secrets, just reckons I must be some kind of expert Internet panhandler. The contact/donation page scores really high in a Google search for "give me money"; I think a search like that is usually where these people come from.

When one of these correspondents seems to have two brain cells to rub together I direct them to my reply to this letter, in which I explain why people occasionally give me money. But all you really need to do is actually read the donation page, on which can be found subtle hints that it is not quite the only page on Dan's Data.

It'd make more sense if these e-mails were widely-copied scattershot spam, but they never seem to be. (Or, at least, Googling a string from them never turns up copies elsewhere.) Even the ones that include a sob story and ask me to send some of my presumed riches to them on account of how their son only has a burlap sack full of leaves for a body, or something, appear to have been typed in by an actual human and sent to only a few recipients, and quite possibly only to me.

I suppose sending spur-of-the-moment e-mails to someone who might know about getting strangers to send you money for nothing is a better wealth-generation strategy than just visualising money really hard and waiting for your Ultra Advanced Psychotronic Money Magnet to kick in.

I think you'd probably do better by just sending out PayPal money requests at random, though.

(The people I get PayPal money requests from almost certainly find me via the contact/donation page, too. Only seldom does someone really put in some effort.)

A frequently-to-be-repeated offer

Anybody who runs a blog with more than one post a year will receive unsolicited offers of "content". I get them all the time.

It's a distinct category of spam. They offer you a "free" blog-post worth of text, and often also a small amount of money, in return for you publishing said text, a few words in which link to some Web site the contributor specifies.

This one's a little more interesting than most.

From: Robert Lobitz <>

[This is not a good sign. That e-mail address is the one on my domain registration; it's not my actual Dan's Data contact address,, that anybody who visited the actual site could find. Mail to domain-registration addresses is sort of like when a phone caller starts out by asking if he's speaking to Mr or Mrs surname-of-partner-to-whom-you-are-not-married.]

Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2012 12:49:25 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Article


I would like to start by saying that I was thrilled to find - it's not everyday I find a website of this caliber!

[Whenever someone cold-e-mails me saying something like this, I Google what they just said and, usually, find a few thousand copies of the same text, making clear that they not only actually do find a site "of this caliber" every day, but may find one approximately every minute. This time, though, there were only a couple of hits. So, good so far!]

I am interested in having one of my unique and interesting to read articles

[Yeah! Sell it, baby!]

published on In return, all I ask for is that you let me include a link to my site from within the article --- I would be willing to offer a one-time monetary contribution as well. Please let me know if this sounds like something you'd be interested in.

Public Relations
KASA Capital

As I write this, the first hit in a Google search for this gentleman's alleged name is an article called "A Brave New Reality: Changing the Bird Cages of the World"

I cannot, in all honesty, say that that article is truly "interesting to read". It's more like "first-year university student trying to make it to the specified page count when he didn't do the reading, has a killer hangover, and has to turn in the paper in one hour".

The "Brave New Reality" article is also almost entirely free of any actual information. The world must change, and the world changes, and we should change the world, apparently. But it does at least seem to be pretty close to "unique", and not sprayed all over umpteen other blogs that also accepted the "one-time monetary contribution".

(To see if a given chunk of text is a "proper" article and not a sort of journalistic copypasta, take a distinctive string from the article - in this case, let's use the rather odd "Among my pursuits and businesses are the caring of birds as protected pets" - and search for that. [Spelling errors make these searches a lot easier.] Your typical spam-article, scam e-mail or bullshit Wikipedia reprint sold on eBay will have a zillion hits. As I write this, though, the "Brave New Reality" article is only published, as opposed to discussed, on two sites, and The latter site is currently down, and may belong to the same guy as the first site anyway.)

The real purpose of "Brave New Reality" is, of course, not to actually inform or entertain. It's to link to a site and get it some Google-juice. In this case, that site is Hence the rather stretched metaphor.

Hit two for Robert Lobitz's name is "Child-proofing the Bedroom". Again, it's plainly been written by someone who doesn't have much writing skill, and it doesn't really say very much, but it is unique to the site it's on. And it gets its link in, too, this time to, which unsurprisingly looks very much like

Those two sites are both subtitled "A KASA Store". KASA Capital are strangely reticent about how many of these sites there are in their "diverse network of e-commerce entities", but I think it's safe to say there are a lot of them. They seem to be kosher online shops, too; no discount Viagra or fake watches.

I wanted to see just how many of these sites there are. It took me a moment to find something to search for that was distinctive to sites following the template, but I managed it by searching for a couple of strings of the hours their customer-service phone line is open.

Motorcycle fairings, medical scrubs, baby changing stations, martial arts supplies, silk flowers, caviar, boxing bags, radio-controlled planes, bike carriers, easels... if I'm counting right, there are 20 KASA sites found by the above search. If they've got more than one template, they could have a lot more than twenty sites.

I think it's safe to say that KASA are not experts on train horns, bar stools, poker chips, fish tanks and so on. I would, in fact, bet good money that they're just drop-shippers, who never even see the products they sell. Buy at wholesale, sell at retail, send goods straight from the wholesaler to the customer, spend the rest of your day on the golf course.

(The contact-hours search didn't find, the site the article Robert was offering me would have to link to, because has a different template. Searching for a string from that site's contact page found a few more KASA sites.)

So as far as KASA's actual retail business goes, they may not be the best place to buy any of the numerous things they sell, but I see no reason to suppose they'll take your money and run.

This still doesn't make it a good idea for blog-owners to take link-buyers like KASA up on their offers, though.

For a start, all you get, besides however much money they offer, is this worthless fluff-content that only exists to link to some site that frequently has nothing to do with the site on which the fluff appears.

More importantly, if Google notice you're engaging in link-buying schemes - or have been so deeply idiotic as to allow links to link-buyers' sites to appear on your site for free - they'll punish you by reducing your site's PageRank, as well as that of the link-buyers themselves. Serious offenders can be erased from Google altogether until they perform suitable penance.

So I'm sorry, Robert, but unless the "one-time monetary contribution" is in excess of a hundred thousand dollars, I'm afraid I'll have to turn down your offer.

And congratulations: You're in a pretty lousy business, but you could be worse!

Pop goes the e-mail

UPDATE: This post is now thankfully out of date; my mail's working again now.

Owing to circumstances beyond the management's control, the e-mail address currently bounces.

While I wait for the server admin at m'verygoodfriends SecureWebs to undo whatever he did that deleted the account, you can contact me on my ISP address,, or of course just chatter cheerfully in the comments to this post.

I think PayPal donations to will still work, but you may be thanked for your donation with an error-550 bounce message, which is kind of rude. Sorry about that.

UPDATE: My mail's working again now