2018-09-30

Being a fucking idiot, or just getting old.

I am seriously kicking myself over this, massively, but the outcome is not as bad as it sounds!

I have visited the US before, and I know one needs an ESTA. I wanted to ensure it was up to date as considering a canal trip next year maybe, which involves US.

So, I googled ESTA, and made a huge mistake, I click on the first link. I won't give the web site the credit of being listed on my blog post.

This was fucking stupid, and I really am not sure if just because I had drunk too much or what. Being a bit drunk is an insight in to being a bit stupid at times.

The real trick is that is was not a .gov domain.

The problem was that their web site was very slick, and more so than the "proper" US Gov web site. That should have been a clue.

At the end I realised they charged me $99 to my Amex. Well done for the Amex app telling me this. And calling Amex was no help as they said basically "the site is legit and some people do use them". They did advise to complain though. They gave the impression I am far from the first to make such a call to them!

What is good is that (a) the ESTA went through, and (b) they emailed back confirming that $85 processing fee is now refunded because of my complaint.

What is odd is the way it showed on Amex, as "ESTA VISA SPAIN" and as a vague UK address. They clearly automate it all and so the $85 is money for old rope. I imagine they have a simple policy to refund the processing fee when asked so it makes life simple and no actual loss to them.

Obviously I should not have fallen for it, and I feel like an idiot, but at the end of the day this also saved some hassle. I went to the ESTA site and it insists on US address, which was skipped via this "agent". As it was "On a bloody cruise ship" that was not easy to do and so it was hard to progress that on the real site.

I still do not know if we will do the cruise, but having an ESTA at the proper price of $14 fee is much better.

2018-09-27

I thought PDF solved this crap

This is all about the tools used, and how they maybe don't quite fit together sometimes.

I have been working with the people at Ivory Graphics, as you may know. Having done a few things with them I am now quite good and making the artwork in the right format for them.

Little things like, if I have a pack of cards, making it a single multi-page PDF is better for them than separate files for each card. It also ensures they know the order I want the cards to be in, which can be nice. Another small detail is interleaving the face and back of the cards in the PDF - this is crucial for a marked deck or a deck that has stuff separately on both sides of the cards for example, but they do have macros which will take one "back" and slot it in to a deck as well.

But how do I make the artwork?

Well, I start with SVG. In fact, for the card faces, I have SVG and C code, and the C code has some SVG in it (like shapes of the suits and digits), some it constructs with code, and some it pulls in from files (like the various layers of court card artwork) which I originally edited in inkscape, and it constructs final SVGs.

However, for the box designs I have used inkscape to create and edit. The original PDF from Ivory (they have templates on their web site) is imported in to inkscape, and split in to layers to allow me to make a design. In some cases I have then imported symbols and whole playing cards from my generated SVG. It works well.

I then have scripts which use inkscape command line to export PDFs and then pdfunite to make multiple page PDFs with card backs in the right order. I do the same for the box, making one PDF which has all of the cut and fold outlines for reference and one that does not, ready for printing. I view the PDFs either in Safari or using Preview on my Mac.

Here is the latest deluxe Stargate box design as an example. I exported as PNG from Preview:


I can, of course, view the SVG for this in Safari too, works well, except that the gate symbols at the top do not show! This is because they use SVG "symbols", which seem to not to always work in Safari for no good reason. In other cases they work fine, so really not clear. Also, bizarrely (having just checked this to make sure I was right) Safari has stopped using the fonts in the SVG (that are loaded on this Mac) so it actually looks very wrong indeed! That used to work, so I'll have to figure out why it is not (I did update my MacOS the other day). This is a screenshot from Safari on my Mac:


Anyway, the final product is PDF format, albeit using RGB colour space. Ivory Graphics cope very well with converting to CMYK for print, I have to say, so that has not been an issue.

PDFs "just work" as you probably know. They embed fonts as needed, and they are a consistent format, and I have never had any problem with PDFs, honest. Seriously, it is impressive - so many other formats for things, even (as you see above) SVGs, are not reliable, but PDFs just work. So it is very sensible of Ivory Graphics to prefer PDF as the means to send them artwork.

But, to my surprise, this is not always the case. It seems that the Stargate on the box causes problems, and it is not clear why. The same Stargate on the card backs was no problem! Loading the PDF broke horribly for them with bits missing in all sorts of places. The comment was "And when I attempt to crop it, other sections drop off.". This example is the previous version on a white background, but you can see the cards are broken badly, and bits of the gate are a mess. What on Earth is going wrong?


This was, I believe, loading in to Adobe Illustrator. To fix that she did something involving Photoshop and then Illustrator, and probably something else, and managed to sort it. But this time she failed, and different ways of loading caused error of not recognising a shading or getting colours wrong. She spent time creating new shading even but was not entirely happy with it.

I am really surprised by this to be honest, PDFs really should "just work".

However, there was a fix, which I stumbled upon, and it "worked perfectly" allowing the PDF to just import with no problems. The alternative was to make a raster PNG which would work, but can lose detail.

What did I do? I opened in "Preview" on the Mac, and did Export PDF from it. The result was on the wrong page size, and even rotated, and a different (smaller) file size, but still properly vector graphics, and apparently loaded with no problem in to Illustrator and whatever other tools she is using. The proofs she then produced just looked spot on, and no problems at all.

Unfortunately we live in a world where we are removed from the nuts and bolts of such file formats enough that you have to basically play around at a high level until something seems to work. It is a shame really, and not a situation I like. Whilst I have good understanding of Postscript and SVG (and PNG), I don't when it comes to PDFs. Someone that does could probably explain what inkscape did that was special in some way that it sometimes breaks Illustrator but not breaking Preview.

Just goes to show that some times the simplest solutions work best, and a useful tip for next time. And well done to Zsuzsa from Ivory for her hard work on this. It is nice dealing with a company that really do try to get things right.

Licensing intellectual property - a tale of two journeys

I thought I would do a comparison of two "journeys" in trying to get licensing of intellectual property.

1. The bar codes used by duplimate bridge card dealing machines so I could make promotional cards for a bridge club.

  • I searched for their web site, and emailed the published tech support contact asking about licensing
  • Within minutes I got a reply, advising €0.10 per pack and giving me the email address to contact
  • I emailed that email address asking how it works, and actually got a one page licence agreement back, which tells me what wording to put on the Ace of Spades, to send 4 sample packs, and a licence number to use, and where to send the money.
For extra bonus points, this is a Swedish company and they conversed in English (apart from spelling licence wrongly for English English), and this all happened on a Sunday afternoon! Also, no set-up fee, and no minimum number of decks. So simple.


2. The Stargate glyphs and Alteran characters to make my Stargate themed cards...

  • I searched and found the MGM media licensing web site, which has an email address to ask questions about licensing. I checked it was really MGM. I emailed.
  • I emailed again 5 days later
  • I emailed again 2 days later (got an out of office reply for that day)
  • I emailed again a day later
  • A day later I emailed the web master asking if the email address was right
  • I waited a week, nothing still
  • I went to the site and filled in the registration page
  • I waited a couple more days, and eventually got a confirmation of registration
  • I submitted a request on line - it is mainly for using stills/clips, but what I want to use is gate glyphs and Alteran characters which come from stills from the show, so maybe this is sensible, not sure. I filled in all the details carefully explaining the use I wanted.
  • I waited 3 more days, and emailed asking how long this takes normally
  • Another day later and I got an email saying I need to talk to consumer products and giving me their email.
  • I emailed Tricia in consumer products.
  • After 3 days of no reply, I emailed again.
  • After 3 more days, I emailed again
  • Finally I managed to exchange a few emails on the same day (evening as US time) and they confirmed $5,000 advance royalties. They asked me for sample images, yay!
  • I emailed images
  • I emailed again a day later
  • I emailed again three days later
  • I finally got a reply saying they could give me a licence and they sent an application which I returned
  • I emailed again three days later
  • I emailed again another six days later
  • I even left a voicemail
  • I finally get an email saying this is not how they normally work and I should contact a UK agent, which I emailed yesterday...
I think I have all the delays right in that list, but we are now 7 weeks to the day since I first emailed MGM. They routinely ignore emails for days or weeks. They could have said - go to this UK agent on day 1. They almost seem to be trying to put me off. At the end of the day if you make it hard to licence your IP then people will just sell unlicensed stuff and you have to faff with cease and desist and enforcement and suing and crap - why mess people around?

Now I start with a UK agent, I'll let you know how it goes. Hope people find this stuff interesting :-)

P.S. I hate using "journey" like this, as we are not going anywhere (literally, and in the case of MGM, metaphorically, so far) but I could not think of anything better. Maybe "story" would have been better?

P.P.S. Two emails and a tweet to the UK company, and no replies at all. I may have to try a call!

2018-09-24

Where am I with these damn Stargate playing cards?

Previous design, see end of this post for latest.
This whole project would be at least a month sooner if MGM simply replied to emails even just the same day. Even next day would have been good. It is very frustrating, in some cases waiting a week, or more, for a reply.

However, I finally got (on 20th): "I have been receiving your emails however I have not been able to spend time on this at present. If you are willing to pay a $5,000 minimum guarantee (or BPS equivalent) and have liability insurance, we can grant you the license for the cards."

So, they can grant a licence. I immediately sent back the completed application and asked how I pay the $5,000. No reply since (that is two of their working days they could have replied). Not even a clue how long it will take. I don't hold out hope for a reply this evening either (they are US time zone, obviously).

$5,000 is a lot. It is about 10,000 packs of cards worth of royalties, and is not something they will refund if I don't sell that many. However, I have got to the point where I want to do this anyway. I have created these cards from the C code to make the pips and layout to the drawing of the court cards and put in a lot of my spare time on this. I'm a bit of a Stargate fan, and so if I just break even I'll be happy, and if not, it will be a bit of a folly, but entertaining and educational anyway. It may be a "sunk cost fallacy" but I'd like to see it through now. At the end of the day it is my money - some people have cars - I have MGM licence (soon) and Stargate playing cards! I rarely get to do anything even vaguely artistic (failed Art O-Level), but I hope people like what I have created.

The only advantage of the delay is I have spent time verifying things like checking gate addresses (not easy), and that the shape of the Stargate dialling glyphs are correct (also not simple), and fine tuning the layout and exact composition of the packs I have designed, etc.

The card designs are all ready. Ivory Graphics are putting together the quote for printing now - and I have decided to "tack on" a couple of other packs to make use of the volume discount. The plan is to make 1,000 Stargate packs initially (500 single packs, and 500 deluxe packs). Maybe not sending all to Amazon at once in case I find other channels by which to sell them.

The two extra "fun" packs I am tacking on are a seriously minimalist pack, and a left handed pack. Left handed just means the index is only on the right. The minimalist pack however is even more minimalist than the minim pack, having just an index character and suit in one corner, all white otherwise, white backs, and white box (apart from barcode on base). Both packs should be interesting to list on Amazon and great fun to play with (especially as I am not actually left handed).

As for the Stargate cards, I have decided the format of the two packs. Firstly, a 64 card deck with this story:-
Found in a corrupted section of the Lantian database was a reference to various common games, including playing cards. Stories of these card games no doubt inspired the early card games on Earth in the 15th Century, but some details we lost in the mists of time. For a start, Alteran playing cards have 64 cards in a deck! 
We know from the time that Jack O'Neill had the Ancient repository of knowledge downloaded in to his brain that the Ancients did, at some point, use base 8. It should be no surprise that the Alteran playing cards have 64 cards as that is "100" in base 8. Any race with a fondness for powers of two would create games using nice round numbers like 4 and 16 and 64. 
We also know from Samantha Carter, when reprogramming a Tobin mine, that any advanced civilisation needs to have invented "zero", so it should be no surprise that the cards start from a zero value. 
Once travel to and from Earth was finally established, the Atlanis Bridge Club were able to get decks of cards made up in the style of those original Alteran playing card decks to play proper Alteran card games. Sadly the database lacked details of the court cards, so we used classic 19th Century designs, but we do know they used Alteran characters and digits in the corners. This was not easy, as personal items are hard to get shipped on the Daedalus, but because of their small size an exception was made. 
Playing bridge is easy, 16 cards each and allow bids up to 16. What can be more challenging is playing other common games using Alteran playing cards.
Learning the Alteran digits and characters should not be hard.
Secondly a deluxe deck which has the same 64 card deck plus a second which has 41 gate symbols, a gate symbol name card, and some gate address cards. Making games for these extra cards is not so simple.
Dr Elizabeth Weir realised that the replicators had given away some more detail about Lantian playing cards after she had a nasty run-in with nanites invading her brain. They showed her that there are playing cards with gate symbols on them. Unfortunately it is not clear how they are used in games, yet.
I have also created Facebook and Twitter for the "Atlantis Bridge Club" so there is somewhere to discuss the cards and the games.

If you want to see the actual card designs, the decks are here. Happy to have comments on the design, whilst I wait for MGM.

So, still, I am ready to roll and get cards printed and on Amazon, just waiting yet again for MGM. So, watch this space!

P.S. After some comments on the back, how about this? (amended again, lorem ipsum text and symmetric, even though gate is not)


2018-09-23

When is a final bill not a final bill? British Gas

British Gas

I changed energy supplier from British Gas to Bulb. Given that my son now has an electric car, this seemed a responsible thing to do so as to be buying 100% renewable energy, and actually Bulb were a tad cheaper.

I got the final bill from British Gas, paid it, and then started paying Bulb. All pretty seamless (apart from the smart meter now being dumb). I did not expect to hear any more from British Gas, obviously.

In fact, the final bill had actual smart meter readings for the date I left them, so not doubt whatsoever that I had paid correctly up to the reading on that day, no estimates.

To my surprise, nearly 5 months later, I get another "final" bill from British Gas!

Yes, it covers a different, longer, overlapping period.

But strangely the bill is now for an estimated final reading?

There is nothing on this bill saying it is a replacement of the previous bill (or bills), and no formal VAT credit note received. Indeed it lists charges for gas and electricity totalling £384.36, but showing balance and previous payments making only £19.49 due.

Unsurprisingly, even I was confused, especially at the electricity charge being based on an estimated final reading not an actual one. I thought smart meters meant an end to estimated readings, and indeed the previous "final bill" made that clear.

What ensued was a long, and very frustrating, conversation with British Gas, I can't be arsed to publish the recording as it is very repetitive to be honest. This blog is mind numbing enough without it.

Sadly I had someone that refused to actually answer questions most of the time, or even acknowledge the point I was making, constantly saying things like "you have mentioned that before" rather than agreeing, or even disagreeing, with what I was saying.

He "explained" that I have a new bill because my new energy supplier contacted them to "correct" the final electricity meter reading from 51361 to 51485, and that is why the £19.49 was due. He explained this was a replacement of my last bill and that the gas reading had not changed, which makes the bill even more confusing, but OK. I have no idea why Bulb would have contacted British Gas to make such a change.

I explained that British Gas have smart meters. That the previous final bill had a smart meter reading of 51361. He confirmed smart meters are meant to be "100% accurate", and after much going round in circles he agreed that the new supplier "must have sent incorrect information".

Well, from my point of view that is the end of the matter: I have paid British Gas fully up to the "100% accurate" smart meter reading for the day I left them, done. This new "final" bill is based on incorrect information - information British Gas know for a fact (based on their "100% accurate" smart meter reading) is incorrect. So I don't need to pay it, do I?

He really got annoying with the "you mentioned that before" replies - so much so that at one point I said "Yes, I have, but is what I am saying incorrect?" which he refused to answer.

He also got annoying with the repeated "I just need to explain why you have this bill" and I kept saying "You explained, it was new supplier sending you incorrect information, but as you know it is incorrect I don't have to pay it". He eventually said I could not just ignore the bill and that I would have to contact the new supplier - why?!?! How is that my job?

No matter how many times I explained that the final meter reading is a matter of fact, one that they have absolute proof to confirm (smart meter reading), and that I have paid all usage up to that 100% accurate" final smart meter reading on the day I left so could not possibly owe any more, he would have none of it. He just kept trying to "explain" why I have this new "final" bill!

We did have one slight digression which really made no sense: He said that even though the first final bill said "smart meter reading" the 51361 shown was actually what Bulb had told them. Obviously saying it is a "smart meter reading" is a tad misleading if it is not so (fraudulent maybe?). I asked him what the actual smart meter reading was and he (eventually) confirmed it was in fact 51361. So basically Bulb had confirmed the same meter reading that British Gas had actually taken - even more proof that this matter of fact was correctly recorded the first time (by both energy suppliers).

First "final" bill


New "final" bill


We were going round in circles so I finally resorted to stating that as they knew the factually correct meter reading, they know that what they have on record now is wrong. It is wrong personal information and so I formally requested that they correct the incorrect personal information they hold on me as required by GDPR and the Data Protection Act. I had to insist on this many times. I had to ask if he would be correcting the data many times, and insist on a "yes" or "no" answer before finally getting a "no"!

I then tried to get him to answer as to whether he understood that correcting incorrect personal information was a legal requirement. He refused to give a "yes" or "no" answer and finally went to talk to someone and came back saying he would credit the bill and nothing is owed.

No acceptance that they had the correct final meter readings as a matter of fact.
No acceptance they have any obligation to correct incorrect personal information.
Nothing.

Oh, well, at least it is sorted, but just really annoying conversation to have.

Anyway I ends by saying I was making a Subject Access Request and required all data including all smart meter readings ever. Apparently I'll had that in 7 days, nice! It should be interesting.

Bulb

Anyway, having sorted all of this I checked my Bulb bills. I pay them a fixed monthly amount by Direct Debit, so had not actually checked the detailed bills. But this seemed like a good time to do it.

My first 3 Bulb statements charged £0.00 for electricity usage, estimated meter readings 46791 to 46791, and then a bill for £1,496.61 for 46791 to 59129 (my reading).

Well, apart from a very strange way of doing estimates, that initial meter reading of 46791 is rather at odds with the final meter reading of 51361 up to which I had paid British Gas, and it does not even match the 51485 that British Gas claimed Bulb has sent them as a "correction".

We'll see how well Bulb sort that one out tomorrow when they are open.

Prediction: Bulb tell British Gas 46791 and I get a large credit from British Gas, but they won't know how to actually pay me money...


Seriously, how is something so stunningly simple handled so badly by two different energy suppliers. Crazy!

P.S. Sorry, before someone says this - yes, he could have said something like "There needs to be an agreed handover reading which may not be the same as the smart meter reading because of time of day or it being taken a day before or after, etc, but the bill is based on the agreed handover reading which both energy suppliers used as the reference to stop and start billing". He did not say that. Had he said that it would have made more sense except for Bulb working on such a completely different starting reading. Also, assuming that is the case, it would be better for the bill to say "agreed handover reading" rather than either "smart meter reading" or "estimated reading". They also need to not simply "replace" two previous bills with no explanation whatsoever.

2018-09-20

Amazon again

I think next time we ship to amazon we'll have to keep the boxes open until UPS arrive to collect and then video them as we tape them up and hand them over.

We sent 2x50 packs of cards to Amazon.
They show 49 packs of cards received.

We have to wait until 30th to dispute - we'll have to see how that goes!

P.S. 49 packs received, not 100. So that is 51 packs missing somehow!

P.P.S. Blogspot is broken, I can't reply to comments! All I see from Amazon is a number and that I can dispute on 30th

2018-09-16

Stargate addresses

OK, I know that film / TV show producers don't really care for this level of detail, clearly, but some times it gets a tad annoying!

I was trying to compile a list of known gate addresses to put on the cards I am making. Seemed like a nice touch to include them. There are wikis and blogs which are a good start, but I was being diligent and checking them (like I need an excuse to watch SG-1 again!). Whilst there are minor typos on various lists which I picked up, in some cases the producer of the show seems to be just taking the piss.

SG-1 s2e14 Touchstone, literally a few seconds apart in the show.





I may as well give up and just make up addresses randomly. I have no idea which is "right" for P5F-5T2 and P7J-1P3. One wiki listing gate addresses had :-


That is almost, but not quite, the top one! Looks like they type 39 instead of 36 for first symbol.

I can do my best. The cards are coming along nicely, just working on discussions with MGM over royalties.

P.S. Thinking about it, that scene involved flashing up the same scrolling list when searching three times in a row. To make the addresses different would have actually meant some deliberate action. Why? Just why?

P.P.S. This address (same dialling shot I assume) is used a *lot* which makes it difficult. This is from SG-1 s3e15 A Matter of Time but is the address of Chulak!



P.S. I found some more references not on the wikia page (s3e20 Maternal Instinct) - yay!


2018-09-15

Gate glyphs (#stargate)

I was trying to work out the right artwork for the Stargate glyphs. It turns out to not be as simple as you might expect!

There are several gate drawings, e.g. this simple svg, and this more detailed one. They have subtly different artwork.

A simple example from that is Pegasus which shows in different orientations and with or without an extra point/triangle.

 

Whilst the orientation actually on the gate should be fixed and defined, when shown as a gate address or symbol on a playing card, the orientation is more flexible. I have gone for the way it would be at the top of the gate. But that does not explain the subtly different designs.

Another orientation issue is Gemini, which shows in different orientations. In the above examples, they are almost the same, but in the third example, it is aligned with the ring rather than at an angle.



One site, stargate.wikia.com, has a good set of glyph SVGs. But its idea of Pegasus has the extra point/triangle :-

So I tried to work out if there had been different versions of the gates, which meant watching the original film, and episodes from several series of SG-1. All are the same, even series 10 opening credits show clearly no extra point/triangle on Pegasus. There are differences in the CGI in the opening credits though which may be a clue. Interestingly the film has the same constellations but again slightly different artwork, but still basically the same as the series.


Even today, at gatecon in Vancouver, they are doing photos with a green screen and gate in the background. One occasions to see a high res photo of a gate, and it has no extra point/triangle!


I think, however, I have found the source of the "wrong" glyphs, the book Stargate SG-1 The Ultimate Visual Guide (of which I have now obtained a copy). On page 10 they show the gate and glyphs in detail :-


Though even page 12, which has actual pictures of the gate, contradicts the drawing on page 10. You'll also note that symbols like Piscis Austrinus are shown with outline rather than filling in artwork, where as the gate does not have outlines like that.

So, I think my glyphs are actually correct, and the right way around (as would be viewed at the top of the gate).

Of course, if these cards ever get launched there will be fans saying I have it wrong. Par for the course I guess.

P.S. The glyphs on the screens in Stargate command are different to the gate! So this is another source of the different style:-


P.P.S I found some excellent work here... "...I went back to the Gate used on the show, and created my glyphs from that primary reference, making this list more accurate in both shape and orientation of each Glyph..." - these match my glyphs nicely.


2018-09-14

The RevK brand

I am far from retired, and may never be. There is a lot involved in running a company even if you have very good staff to handle a lot of the day to day work. However, I am trying to find more time for myself, and that does mean some times I come up with little projects of my own.

Historically, as a business, we have embraced many new things from laser engraving to 3D printing, and incorporated them in to the business. Indeed, these can be very useful - we use laser engraving on some FireBrick products and right now I am looking in to some 3D printing with flame retardant ABS for a related project. So they are not totally divorced from the main company activity. We are known for broadband, but have always been involved in a wide range of goods and services.

However, just occasionally, it is quite fun to try something completely different. Some times such things are commercial though.

Unfortunately it does not really make a huge amount of sense for me to set up a separate company and VAT and so on, unless I do come up with some more serious viable project. Obviously if I do, then that is a consideration. It also does not make a lot of sense for me to try a commercial project as myself, with the extra tax implications, and so on. So generally new projects that have any commercial prospect do go through the company, even if they are totally off the wall and unrelated to our main business. Obviously that means the business makes any profit from these ventures, and also, obviously, such projects need to be low risk and/or profitable.

So the plan is to make use of my personal brand, "RevK", for which I have a registered trade mark, and the business will sell some RevK branded stuff from time to time.

You may already see that we have RevK reproduction playing cards listed on Amazon.

My latest side quest, as you will have noticed, is these Stargate related playing cards. The good news is MGM are finally talking to me. The bad news is how much they want up front in royalties. The amount per pack of cards is not crazy though. However, we are talking, and it may actually happen. It is a nice change for me to do something creative and fun. So watch this space for possible new RevK branded stuff.

2018-09-10

Dual purpose QR codes

We used to include a QR code on product labels with the serial number. This is so that sales staff can scan in serial numbers to delivery notes and track stock. This is not uncommon.

This example barcode has a simple serial number 2900-0000-0000 which is great if you want to know the serial number, as we do.

However, QR codes are starting to be quite common and most phones will just read them, even in the camera app. This is somewhat boring being just a serial number. People are actually used to QR codes having useful URLs to take them to a web site.

So, we came up with a cunning plan. This was actually to help one of my friends with some work he is doing for a customer, and we came up with this plan between us, and it works quite well.

The trick is making the barcode useful to us as a serial number but also useful to random people reading it on their phone.

To that end, we make a slight change to the content of the barcode, and now it has HTTPS://FB0.UK/290000000000 in it, as an example.

As you see, you can fit a short domain like that, and 12 digits of serial number, in the same minimum size QR code. We had to lose the hyphens, and stick to upper case, to fit without being a more dense QR code or taking more space.

When scanned, you get to the FireBrick web site, and indeed to the FB2900 product page which includes a link to the quick start guide, etc. This makes it actually a useful barcode for anyone pointing their phone at it.

For our systems, we can easily make them strip the initial HTTPS://FB0.UK/ (and add in hyphens to look nicer). So we can use it as a serial number just as we did before.

Bingo, dual use QR codes.

2018-09-09

Printing, and microscopes!

I got a small £15 USB microscope off Amazon, as you do. Great fun, but there was a practical reason.

I have been trying to work out the logic of the printing from my Mac to a Brother QL-700 printer. I have this sussed when it comes to using linux (finally) with a lot of careful arguments to ghostscript and inkscape to take my initial SVGs and print them with no dithering. That is working well. But I am trying to work out how to print from a Mac when printing something that is fussy, like a bar code.

Printing PDFs

The most obvious choice was to make a PDF. I had carefully made the barcodes in the PDF to the exact print resolution of 300 dpi. Everything was vector based. On screen it is perfectly crisp and clear.

However, the printing from the Mac constantly insisted on scaling to fit page. Even when I put 100% scale the printing was not spot on, and did not read very well, if at all. In fact it was slightly better printed at 101%. This is silly.

Printing PNGs

So I tried PNGs. The good news is that by default, where the PNG has a resolution set, it defaults to print at 100% and seems to have the sense to align pixels well. I thought my problems were solved, and to the naked eye, the QR codes looked fine.

But I decided to check, which is where the microscope comes in!

I generated a PNG with a QR code at 100dpi with one PNG pixel per QR code unit/pixel.

This was the result!


As you can see, there are bits sticking out all over the place. It took me a while to work out what was happening! Basically, something in the process has decided to soften the edges of the pixels, and then something has decided to dither the greys that are then produced. Even tinkering with the dither settings I could not make it stop doing this. Surprisingly it does read, usually. (Yes, I also bought a 2D barcode reader from Amazon).

However, one small change makes it massively better. By making a PNG at 300dpi, and using 3x3 PNG pixels per QR unit/pixel I get this!


No bits sticking out. It is not quite perfect, but that may be the printer - it seems to bleed on the trailing edge of printing making all black slightly wider. I may be able to do something to compensate for that. This reads much more reliably than the previous one.

However, making a 600dpi image and 6x6 pixels did not help - it created anti-aliasing greys which dithered, though not as bad... If I was able to align this properly it would probably work as well.


So, the moral of the story is to make PNGs that match exactly the printer resolution, and ensure you have way more than 1x1 pixels for the bar code units. For this printer I would say at least 3 print pixels per unit.

P.S. linux pdfinfo command shows resolution in DPI and then has "(pixels per meter)" which is very confusing.

2018-09-04

New CLI rules are a bad idea

OFCOM have come up with some new rules on Calling Line Identity. Neil Brown has done a nice article on it (here).

One aspect is good! It is that the service to show CLI has to be free now. I like that part.

However. The other aspect is on various moves to try and make CLI more reliable. This is seems to make sense as junk callers often use invalid CLIs these days, e.g. 025 numbers.

But OFCOM have gone way further, insisting that CLIs should be valid and dialable, i.e. in service and can be used to make a return call. Now this is huge. There are loads of reasons you may not be able to make a return call :-
  • Number is not valid / in service (what OFCOM want to catch)
  • Incoming call barring (a valid service which currently does not stop CLI being sent)
  • Incoming call diversion (to numbers that are not valid, etc, etc)
  • Incoming call where caller is calling withheld and withheld is blocked (ACR)
  • Incoming call where the called party has used some call refusal / blocking service
  • Incoming call to a phone system which is able to reject the call (e.g. ISDN, SIP, etc).
  • Incoming call that the called party rejects (e.g. to a mobile and press red/cancel button)
  • Incoming call that the called party simply chooses not to answer
All of these are (or were) valid services to stop someone making a return call. However, taking OFCOM strictly at their word, if any of these are in place as a service (such as incoming call barring) then the calling telco should not send CLI or possible not allow the original call, because the CLI is not one that can be used to make a return call!

It is also unclear why OFCOM decided to go this far. There seems to be some merit in expecting some basic validation, maybe, but even that may have problems. That can be done in various ways, but if considering international numbers you suddenly present the telcos with the job of maintaining lists of all valid number allocation blocks for the whole world, a complex tasks, or relying on some 3rd party to do that, placing them in a position of power if they decide not to include some block of numbers in the CLI allow list and hence not allow calls. It creates lots of scope for consumer problems, which already exists with new number blocks not routing to their destination - now we face a separate hell of new number blocks unable to route outgoing calls as the block is not in CLI allow lists.

But, even if we have that, we have already seen junk callers go from withheld to invalid prefixes. They will now simply move to valid number blocks and there will be ways to get those in to the phone network I am sure. This will create something called back-scatter. Oddly I have already seen these where junk callers are using invalid numbers as I have some 0200 numbers (which would normally count as invalid), and I suddenly started getting calls from people saying I had called them trying to sell them something. It was not pleasant, not matter how much I tried to explain (and I knew what must have happened). I had to turn off one of my numbers for this. Now consider what happens when junk callers move to using real numbers that belong to innocent victims. This will be bad.

One reason calls will get in is that a telco / carrier cannot easily verify the CLIs of calls. We are a small telco and we will be able to send any CLI we choose, not just from our number blocks. (Obviously we are strict with our customers and follow rules) But the reason we can send any numbers is (a) presentation numbers and (b) forwarded calls. If a call comes in to us from telco A and we forward at our customer's request on to a number which we send via telco B, then telco B has to trust we are sending a sensible CLI even though not one of our numbers or a call they see coming in to us.

So junk callers need to make calls from the OFCOM press office direct line CLI as much as possible, that way OFCOM will understand the issue of back scatter. [OK that is an illustration, and I am not actually trying to incite people to do that].

If anything, better education that CLIs can, and are, spoofed, would help. It is just the same with email addresses. (educating police on this fact is a good idea too!)

Sorry OFCOM, I think you have massively missed the mark here, and could cause legitimate services like incoming call barring to impact CLI for no reason, and cause back-scatter on junk calls, whilst not actually addressing the real problem.

2018-09-01

Amazon, again

Whilst the first product we tried (and honest, this is one reason for my latest obsession with playing cards, to test Amazon) went well.

The second has not - it took a week to get in to FBA inventory for no good reason. OK, that is apparently within their terms, so OK.

Now I find there are customers waiting, over 6 days now, for delivery. Now, AFAIK, even Amazon do not consider that acceptable and would give a seller a black mark for late delivery like this.

I'll see what they have to say - I have raised yet another ticket.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/AAISP-Extended-quality-playing-cards/dp/B07GKNX3L2