Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 19, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Being a train driver at the Foxfield Railway

W. G. Bagnall 0-6-0ST No. 2 "Florence"

My dad reached the grand old age of 70 a few months back, which begged the question: what do you get for the person who has everything? So we clubbed together as a family and bought my dad a train driving experience at the Foxfield Railway, near Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire.

Like me, my Dad has a keen interest in the railways, although unlike me he actually worked for the railways for many years, as a civil engineer. Whilst he’s designed many structures for trains to use, he’d never actually driven one before, so this was to be a new experience for him. And, fortunately, we have family in Stoke so getting to the railway for 9:30am was not a problem.

The experience lasts all day, and the railway can accommodate up to 4 people at a time. The training is provided by the volunteers who run the railway, many of whom are retired from the mainline. The train for the day was W. G. Bagnall 0-6-0ST No. 2 “Florence”, and initially the ‘students’ took it in turn to practice driving the engine out of the station and back again. Later on, each of the participants got to take it in turn to drive the train all the way along the line, with passenger carriages. They also took the role of fireman, which included learning how to couple and uncouple the engine from the carriages, and got to use the levers in the signalbox.

Pleasingly, friends and family were also allowed to be part of the day – I was able to follow my dad around with my camera for almost the whole time, and consequently took over 100 photos. And we brought part of the extended family along with us to ride in the carriages whilst my dad drove us up and down the line.

The volunteers that run the driving training experiences were great – friendly and accommodating, and ensured that participants and their families all had a good day out. At the end of the day, those that took part are presented with a certificate and there were more photo opportunities to be had.

I had a great time, but, more importantly, so did my dad. It’s something that I’d definitely recommend for those with a similar interest in the railways. Foxfield are now booked up for the rest of 2015 so you may need to wait until later in the year for their 2016 dates, if you want to try it for yourself.

May 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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FAQ about next week’s rail strike

Siemens Desiro 380007

Next week, signallers, maintenance staff and station workers employed by Network Rail will go out on strike for 24 hours. It will be the first time in 20 years that a railway strike has effected all of England, Scotland and Wales.

Whilst I don’t work on the railways, I’m going to attempt to answer some questions that I anticipate that people will have.

Why is the strike being called?

Following a ballot, members of the RMT union voted to strike for three reasons: Network Rail won’t rule out compulsory redundancies, safety issues, and pay.

How long is the strike?

The strike begins at 5pm BST on Monday 25th May, and will run for 24 hours until 5pm on Tuesday 26th May. During this time, any workers taking part in the strike will refuse to work.

What effect will this have on train services?

Potentially a huge effect. Signallers are among those striking, and if there is no-one there to operate the signals, then trains cannot run safely. Not all signalmen are in the RMT union, and not all union members will strike, so some trains may be able to run. However, I anticipate that only trains on major routes will operate, with services on some minor routes being cancelled altogether.

The RMT gave 10 days’ notice of the strike, rather than the legally mandated minimum of 7 days, and so Network Rail and the companies who operate the trains will have more time to put contingency plans into place. Therefore, nearer the time, there should be information about which trains will run and which will be cancelled.

Will the strike definitely go ahead?

It’s not for definite. Network Rail and the RMT have talks scheduled this week – if a deal is reached that satisfied both sides, then the strike may be called off.

What if I’m booked to travel during the strike?

Ticket restrictions have been relaxed either side of the strike. You will need to contact the company that sold you the ticket, or the operator of the train that you’re booked to travel with, to find out what alternative arrangements have been put in place. But, in general, you should be able to travel either on the Sunday or Wednesday, to avoid the strike period, even if your ticket is for a specific train on the Monday or Tuesday. But please, check before travelling.

Can I get a refund or compensation?

Probably. Season ticket holders will need to contact the train operating company that issued their ticket to find out their policies. If you’ve bought an advance ticket, and now can’t use it, then contact the company that sold you the ticket for a refund.

Will everything be back to normal at 5pm on Tuesday?

Probably not. The reduced services that are run during the strike could result in trains, drivers and guards being in the wrong place. I would expect disruption for the rest of Tuesday evening, with normality mostly returning on Wednesday morning.

Similarly, whilst the strike doesn’t start until 5pm on Monday, there may be some disruption in the afternoon if the train companies make the decision to cancel services and return trains to their depots before the strike begins. I don’t know if they will, but this could happen.

What are you doing during the strike?

Staying off work. Monday is a bank holiday, but I’ve booked Tuesday off as annual leave. I’m not expecting any trains to be running in my area on Tuesday. I can’t drive, and I’d need to get two buses each way to get to work. Plus, if the trains aren’t running, then I expect the roads to be even busier than usual. I’d rather not have the stress of trying to get to work, and, in any case, I have annual leave to take. Might as well make it a four day weekend.

Is this just political posturing by the unions?

I doubt it. Of course, trade unions tend to ally with Labour; we now have a majority Conservative government, and as of September last year, Network Rail is a government body. The RMT stress that this is primarily about job security and safety issues, with pay as a tertiary issue. And as a trade union member myself, I’m keen to point out the advantages of being in a trade union. Going on strike is usually a last resort, after negotiations between unions and employers, and is not taken lightly. Employers can refuse to pay striking workers (or insist that they take annual leave to strike).

May 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The new Photos app on OS X

Screenshot of Photos on OS X

Apple recently decided to phase out its existing photo editing and management apps for OS X, iPhoto and Aperture, and replace them with a new app simply called ‘Photos‘. Photos is essentially the same as its iOS counterpart of the same name, and, through the iCloud Photo Library, is able to manage a single, synchronised photo library across all Apple’s devices – Mac, iPad and iPhone.

I’ve had a few weeks to get to grips with Photos, and so here are my thoughts. These are from the perspective of a former iPhoto user.

Migrating from iPhoto to Photos

Shortly before Photos was made available as part of the 10.10.3 update to OS X Yosemite, Apple released a small update to iPhoto to aid migration, so it’s important to ensure that this is installed. If so, then Photos offers to import your old iPhoto library. It’ll then combine this with any photos already in iCloud from your iOS devices to create one big photo library to rule them all. The import did take a while – my iPhoto library was pushing 50 GB – but once done, all the photos were imported as expected, edits and titles intact.

Unlike iPhoto, Photos is not orientated around ‘events’. All photos in iPhoto had to belong to an event; in Photos, there’s a simple ‘Photos’ stream that includes every photo you’ve taken, grouped by date and/or location. Your events are therefore converted to albums, and any albums from iPhoto are brought across as albums as well.

One of the first things I did was sort my albums by year – albums can be put into subfolders for ease of organisation. I also got rid of various ‘miscellaneous’ events that I had to create in iPhoto – photos don’t need to be in albums anymore so these were unnecessary. I’m now just using albums for when I need to collect a group of photos together, which is much better.

Editing photos

The edit functions of Photos are broadly comparable to iPhoto – red eye removal, rotation, cropping, light and colour adjustments and a one-click ‘enhance’ button. There’s also a series of filters to apply to your images – a few more than iPhoto offered. The adjustments default to basic light and colour sliders, but you can enable a histogram, white balance, sharpening and definition tools. They’re a bit easier to use that in iPhoto in my opinion.

The one-click Enhance button seems to do a better job than it did in iPhoto – it doesn’t tend to over-saturate my images. I haven’t had to do as much fine-tuning as I used to, which is nice.

Performance

iPhoto was a huge, slow application. It took up over a gigabyte of disk space and was slow at just about everything – even on the newest of Macs. Photos has been re-written from the ground up and it shows – not only does it only need 50 megabytes of disk space, but it’s significantly faster. My Mac Mini is five years old and Photos runs fine; there’s a bit of a pause when switching in and out of photo editing mode, but it’s not nearly as bad as iPhoto was.

Exporting to Facebook and Flickr

So far, this review has been quite positive. Here’s where it takes a negative turn; whilst it’s great for managing and editing images; Photos sucks at exporting. Unlike iPhoto, which had its own export code, Photos uses the standard OS X sharing features, which aren’t optimal. Here’s why.

Firstly, you will struggle to export more than 50 images at a time. It won’t even give you the option of exporting more than 50 images to Facebook, and trying to send that many to Flickr completely locks up my Mac. So you’ll need to export them in smaller batches.

You can’t create new albums when you export, like you could with iPhoto. You can only export to pre-existing albums on Facebook or Flickr. If you don’t select an album when exporting to Facebook, all your photos will go into a generic ‘OS X Photos’ album.

And my biggest bugbear with Flickr export is that it doesn’t copy across titles or descriptions. If you select multiple photos, then you can give them all the same title or description, but they won’t use the ones that you’ve set inside the Photos app. It’s fine for individual images, but for multiple photos it’s rubbish.

Ultimately, when it came to exporting a large number of photos from Flickr, I resorted to saving the photos in a folder, with the titles as the filenames, and uploading them manually. Hardly optimal, but it at least retained the titles of the images.

Three steps forward, one step back

Overall I like Photos – it’s much faster, and having all of my photos available on all devices via iCloud is nice. Editing is generally better and I feel like I can get more done than I could in iPhoto. But the problems with exporting images really takes the shine off it. I hope Apple takes the time to fix these issues for a future update.

May 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 16, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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May 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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A case of mistaken email identity

Email for other people in my Gmail account

In the Guardian, journalist Alex Hern writes about accidentally stealing other peoples’ identities online. It’s not his fault; other people with similar names keep signing up to various web sites with his email address by accident.

It’s a problem that’s affected me as well. ‘Neil Turner’ is quite a common name; there’s at least four other people sufficiently well-known to have their own Wikipedia articles, and when I first joined Facebook, there were at least two groups for people with the same name as me. I’ve even met another person with my name, which was weird. So from time to time, I get emails to my Gmail account for other people with similar names – which I wrote about in 2013.

Since then I’ve received more emails – such that I now have a ‘For someone else’ label to file these under. The screenshot above shows some examples – these include someone else’s Vodafone account, a Southwest Airlines frequent traveller account, and other random bits. Recently I also got weekly emails for new properties available from an estate agent in Lichfield, and an unsolicited photo of a male person’s erect genitalia. There’s also a movie in that screenshot – I haven’t watched it, so I can’t tell you what it was. Perhaps more male genitalia.

Most of the time I ignore these emails, but once I did end up logging in to a MapMyRide account for someone called Nick Turner who had used my email address. Because I controlled the email address, I was able to reset the password, log in, and then delete the account, to stop the emails coming in. This was after getting a useless response from MapMyRide’s customer services. I felt a bit sorry for Nick Turner that I’d deleted his account, but you could argue that it was his fault for not typing his email address in properly.

It’s worth reading the replies to Alex’s tweet to hear other amusing stories of mistaken email identities.

May 10, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The problem with election polls

The results of the British general election on Thursday were unexpected, not at least by me. For months, the polls had the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck, with neither party winning a majority of seats. As such, it was anticipated that one of these parties would have to govern as a coalition, or form a minority government. That didn’t happen and the Conservatives won a narrow majority.

This situation was unthinkable right up until the polls closed, when the first exit polls were released. The BBC’s poll suggested that the Conservatives would win 316 seats – ten short of a majority – and this was completely at odds with the polls and predictions. As it was, the Conservatives did even better and won more than the 326 required for a majority.

So why did the polls get it so wrong? Well, I’m not a professional pollster, but, armed with an A-level in Mathematics & Statistics from 2002, a university degree and a job working in data analysis, I’ll try to go through some of the reasons why things didn’t work out.

Continue Reading →

May 9, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Links from Pinboard for May 9, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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May 8, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Home Shopping, part III

Newby Hall

It’s been a while since I last posted an update about our quest to buy a house. In mid-February, we had an offer accepted on a house in Sowerby Bridge, not far from where we’re renting now. We’re still planning to move in soon, but the sale has been held up by our mortgage lender. Firstly they requested a full structural survey, which we had done in March, and then later asked for a damp survey, completed a couple of weeks ago. Whilst understandable – the property was built in the late 19th Century – it’s meant that the sale has dragged on much longer than planned.

Thankfully the structural survey came back showing that there were no issues (bar some minor re-pointing that we can do in future if needed), but the damp survey suggested that around £1500 worth of work is required imminently. So although our mortgage is now (finally!) approved, there’s a £1500 retainer that will be held until we can prove that we’ve had the work done. But it does mean that we can sort it out ourselves once we have the keys.

We’ve signed the legal papers and so we should get a date for completion soon. Once we have fully completed and exchanged, we’ll give notice on our current flat, do a bit of repainting (and get the damp course sorted), and then move in. It’ll be the first time we’ve moved in four years, so I’m expecting that we’ll have a lot of stuff to get rid of in the process.

May 7, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Polling day

Polling StationToday is the 7th May and the date of a General Election here in the UK. If you’ve registered to vote, please, please take the time to turn out and vote today.

Every 5 years (thanks, Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011…) we get to choose a Member of Parliament to represent us in the House of Commons, and traditionally the political party with the most number of MPs forms a government to run the country.

I say ‘traditionally’ because this didn’t happen in 2010 – we ended up with a coalition of the parties with the most and third-most MPS – and it’s highly unlikely to happen as a result of today’s poll either. No one party is expected to win a majority of the 650 seats in the Commons, and so another coalition or minority government is expected… at some point. Like last time, there’s unlikely to be a clear picture tomorrow morning about who will run the country.

By the time you read this, I’ll have probably already voted, and that vote is going to Labour, who I think is the best choice both locally and nationally. In the past I’ve voted for the Liberal Democrats, but I feel betrayed following their stint in the coalition government where they reneged on many of the things that they used to stand for. I considered voting for the Green Party, but they’re unlikely to win the Halifax constituency, and I disagree with them on a few key issues (genetically-modified crops, High Speed 2 and others). Labour are the only party who have a realistic chance of beating the Conservative Party, who I emphatically do not want to win, and I refuse to even contemplate voting for the xenophobic UK Independence Party.

Labour, unlike the LibDems, Greens and Conservatives, is fielding a female candidate here in the Halifax constituency, in the footsteps of the previous female Labour MP who has retired. Almost half of all UK constituencies have always elected a white male candidate, and so I’m supportive of any party putting forward someone who isn’t white and/or male. There are too few women and people of colour in Parliament and I hope that, following today’s results, this may begin to change.

For fairness, the local UKIP candidate is also a white female, the LibDem candidate is Asian male and the Respect candidate is Asian female, but the Greens, Conservatives and Christian Party are each fielding white male candidates here.

So that’s a bit about who I’m voting for. Regardless of whether you agree with me, it’s really important that you vote and have your say in the election result. Government policies tend to target those that are more likely to vote (older people) than those that don’t bother (younger people and ethnic minorities), so if you feel marginalised by politics, it’s probably because people like you aren’t worth campaigning to. Today is your chance to prove them wrong.

The polls are open until 10pm tonight, and you can find your nearest polling station on AboutMyVote.

May 6, 2015
by Neil Turner
0 comments

App of the Week: Airmail 2

Screenshot of Airmail 2

About 18 months ago, I reviewed Airmail, a third-party email app for Mac OS X. Today, I’m reviewing a new version of the app – which is version 2.1 at time of writing.

I’ve been using the previous version of Airmail for some time now. It manages the balance between simplicity and power; the interface is simple and focussed on quick reading and sorting of messages, but it also includes many of the features of more powerful email clients. POP3, IMAP and Exchange email accounts are all supported, and it includes extensive support for Gmail-specific features, including OAuth authentication (so no need to create a separate ‘app password’).

Airmail 2 isn’t a massive change from the previous version, which is actually a good thing as version 1 got a lot of things right. The interface has changed a bit, with a flatter, more out-lined appearance, and some aspects of the app have been re-designed. The biggest change I noticed was its speed – my major complaint with Airmail 1 was that it was a bit slow, and thankfully Airmail 2 is much faster at starting up.

Another major new feature is plugins. At present there are just two, one to add S/MIME support, and another which integrates with GnuPG for email encryption and signing. Whilst I don’t use PGP very often, it’s handy to have this available.

Airmail 2 is somewhat more expensive than its predecessor. Currently it costs £8 which I believe is an introductory price; this is to allow users of Airmail 1 to upgrade at a discount, seeing as the Mac App Store doesn’t officially allow paid updates to existing apps. If this is so, then eventually the cost will rise to £16, and whilst I like it, I’d also struggle to recommend it as much at that price. But at £8, it’s worth looking into.

Airmail 2 is available from the Mac App Store.