Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

June 6, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for June 6, 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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June 5, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Anticipation

YouTube is great for finding old adverts, including this one from 1995 (I think) for Guinness, called ‘Anticipation’.

I remember it because I had it as a screensaver for a while. Back in the 1990s we didn’t have the internet at home, so I would have installed it from a cover-mounted CD-ROM from a computer magazine. I remember looking at the data files for the screensaver and finding that, rather than using video, it used a series of 256-colour bitmap images cobbled together – a bit like animated GIFs. The audio track was a separate Wave file. Consequently the animation wasn’t very good, but, then, that was computing in the 1990s for you. This was before the release of Windows 95 and therefore you had to install extra runtime software just to be able to play video files.

I have no idea if the screensaver would work on modern computers, and I doubt that the CD-ROM it came from would still be lying around at home anywhere.

The music that Guinness chose for the advert was a version of the Italian song called Guaglione, recorded by a Cuban musician Perez Prado in 1958. As a result of this advert’s popularity, the song was re-released as a single. It subsequently reached number 2 in the UK singles chart in May 1995, and number 1 in Ireland.

Of course, whilst I like the advert, I still don’t like the taste of Guinness. This is despite having a pint of it from the Guinness Storehouse when we went to Dublin last year. I like other porters and stouts but Guinness just doesn’t do it for me.

June 4, 2015
by Neil Turner
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PGP on Facebook

My PGP public key on Facebook

This week, Facebook unexpectedly announced that it will optionally encrypt all emails sent to users with OpenPGP, and list user’s PGP public keys on their profiles. I don’t think anyone would have seen this coming.

In doing so, Faecbook has not only got around the problem of emails not being encrypted (unlike when you browse facebook.com through a web browser or its app), but has also effectively become one of the largest global directories of PGP public keys.

To enable PGP encryption, you’ll first need to edit your profile and then copy and paste your public key into the relevant field. Provided your key is okay (i.e. not expired, revoked or set to expire within the next 30 days), Facebook will accept it. You can then tick a box to tell Facebook to use your public key to encrypt all its emails to you, such as when you’re tagged in a photo or someone posts a new comment on one of your posts.

Of course, you’ll need an OpenPGP-compatible email program, of which most aren’t – at least by default. On Macs, Airmail 2 has an official plugin (my review here), Enigmail is a well-established addon for Mozilla Thunderbird, and GPGTools includes a plugin for the Mac Mail client. iPGMail is a £1.49 iOS app that I haven’t yet tried myself. On Windows, GPG4Win is a complete toolkit. Webmail users may struggle but there’s at least one Chrome extension for Gmail.

Airmail 2 seemed to handle Facebook’s encrypted emails well; once decrypted, they worked like normal messages with HTML code intact.

How popular this feature will be remains to be seen. PGP still has a rather large barrier to entry, in terms of its overall complexity. Few people use Symantec’s official PGP software, and GnuPG, the compatible open-source project, is mainly based around a command line client with some third-party graphical front-ends. Whilst I’m comfortable using it, I speak from the point of view of someone who has studied a postgraduate diploma qualification in computer security and cryptography. I couldn’t see my wife using PGP, for example. There’s a little more in this blog post that I found on the topic.

And there’s the question about how secure Facebook’s systems are, in light of Edward Snowden’s allegations about the NSA. If they have access to Facebook’s private key for signing these emails, then perhaps they would have the capability to decrypt emails in transit.

Plus, as Facebook warns, if you lose access to both of your Facebook and PGP passwords, then you may struggle to regain control of your Facebook account.

So whilst I’m pleased that Facebook has introduced PGP support, I do wonder just how many people will bother enabling it. As always, my PGP public key is available here.

June 3, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Our House – The Madness Musical

Our House - The Madness MusicalTonight is the opening night of Our House at the Bradford Playhouse – and I’ll be backstage helping out.

It’s a musical show based around the music of Madness, and follows the story of Joe Casey, a 16 year old who lives on Casey Street in Camden. He’s faced with a choice that will change his life – and the musical follows ‘Good Joe’ and ‘Bad Joe’ as it explores each implication of his decision.

Whilst Madness isn’t one of my favourite bands, like most people I know many of their songs and they fit well with the script. Even though this is not a professional production, I enjoyed it more than We Will Rock You.

I got called in to help at the last minute on Monday, just in time for the technical rehearsal, which was rather rough and ready. But last night’s dress rehearsal went really well, and the show looks fantastic. The cast are excellent and it promises to be a really great show.

Tickets are still available – I’d thoroughly recommend it, even if I wasn’t taking part. Performances are tonight, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and a Saturday matinée.

May 31, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Eachine Mini Y5 Power Bank review

Eachine Mini Y5 Power Bank

The rise of the smartphone has, in turn, created a new market for power banks – external batteries with USB ports for charging up your smartphone when the battery inevitably runs out. Whilst most smartphones can last at least a day during normal use, if you’re also filming video, or making heavy use of GPS, then your battery can be dead within hours. So small, rechargeable power banks have become very popular. Indeed, barely a week goes by when I don’t get an email from a Chinese manufacturer telling me about their range.

The latest to contact me was Eachine, who have offered me their Mini Y5 power bank to review. It has a 6000 mAh capacity, which is enough to fully charge an iPhone twice over, and outputs at 2 amps, meaning that it can charge higher current devices like iPads.

What sets it apart from other power banks is that it has a small LCD screen which displays the percentage of charge remaining – up to a maximum of 99% as it’s only two digits. That way you know exactly how much charge is remaining, and whether the power bank needs recharging. Other power banks that I’ve used often just have one LED, that glows red when it has almost run out.

Untitled

It’s also very compact – it’s quite a bit smaller than other power banks that I’ve seen, and yet still manages quite a high capacity. There’s also a small LED torch, as a bonus.

Included with the battery is one USB-microUSB cable, which can be used for charging devices with microUSB ports and for charging the power bank itself. There are no other included cables, so iPhone users will need to plug in a Lightning cable into its USB port to charge their phones.

As power banks go, the Eachine Mini Y5 is pretty good, and gets my recommendation. It’s currently $20 from the Amazon US store; I don’t think it’s yet available in the UK.

May 30, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 30, 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 29, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Home Shopping, part IV

Coral Reef

It’s been three weeks since my last update. The good news is that, as of this morning, we have exchanged contracts, so we’re now 90% of the way there. This also means that neither Christine or I have much money left over, having put almost our entire life savings towards the deposit and legal fees – around £18,000 in all.

Originally, we were supposed to exchange contracts and complete the purchase last Friday, the 22nd. That got put back to the 29th, although we had all of the money and paperwork signed and in place by the 21st. But now the completion date isn’t until mid-June, so although the contracts have been exchanged, we won’t actually get the keys to our new house for another couple of weeks.

Once we do have the keys, we have some work to do to sort out some minor damp problems, which will see our living room and dining room out of order for a while. There’s also some minor decorating that we’d like to do before we move in properly. For these reasons, we’ll be staying in our current rented apartment for a little while longer until the work has been done.

The house also isn’t particularly energy-efficient. As part of the sale we received a report showing what can be done to improve things, and a couple of those are quick wins which shouldn’t cost a lot, so we’re planning to get those out of the way first. These include more energy efficient lighting, and new thermostats for the central heating and hot water boilers. I’m actively considering purchasing a Nest Learning Thermostat to help lower our energy bills.

So, fingers crossed, we’ll have the keys to our very own home very soon.

May 27, 2015
by Neil Turner
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International Otter Awareness Day

Asian Small-Clawed Otter

Today is International Otter Awareness Day. No, me neither, but it’s an excuse to write about one of my favourite animals (amongst hedgehogs, penguins, puffins, red pandas, porcupines, capybara, hamsters, rats and other creatures).

There are actually 13 different species of otter (thanks, Wikipedia). Of these, the most well-known are the Eurasian otter (native to Britain), the North American river otter, the Sea otter, the Giant otter and the Oriental Small-clawed otter. The latter two are the species most commonly found in zoos, as they’re both endangered/vulnerable in the wild. Consequently, most of my photos of otters on Flickr are of Oriental Small-clawed otters, which are smaller than their Eurasian counterparts.

Otters

The Eurasian otter is near-threatened; wild populations in Britain were critically low as recently as the early 1990s. Fortunately, as our rivers have been cleaned up, so have wild otters returned, with populations increasing. Wild otters have now been noted in every county in England.

Sea otters, whilst part of the Lutrinae genus, are rather different – they have an extra thick fur coat, and can survive for long periods in cold water. They’re only found in the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and are also endangered. Pairs of sea otters will hold each others paws to stop themselves from floating apart whilst asleep, which is cute. Less cute is that male sea otters tend to be rather violent when copulating, and not just with other sea otters, or indeed live animals. A case of necrophilia with a dead husky has been noted.

Otters

Otters are quite intelligent animals and are able to use tools. Indeed, one otter was able to break open a waterproof iPhone case, ironically manufactured by a company called Otterbox. Oops.

So, this is basically my sum knowledge of otters. Happy International Otter Awareness Day.

May 26, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Tropical World

Meerkat at Tropical World, Leeds

Yesterday, as a birthday treat, Christine and I went to Tropical World. It’s effectively an indoor zoo, housed in a series of greenhouses in a corner of Roundhay Park, in the northeast corner of Leeds.

Whilst I’m not sure of the full history of the place, I get the impression that it was originally designed to house tropical plants (of which there are many – Tropical World has one of the largest collections outside Kew Gardens in London), and has later had butterflies and other animals added to it. These include a crocodile, various fish, frogs and snakes, bats, jerboas, a slow loris (allegedly – it was hiding when we went), a wide variety of birds and the ever popular meerkats. There’s a photo of one above; cute, but it didn’t offer me a great deal on my car insurance.

Tropical World is not a big place and we got around in a little under two hours, but it’s not expensive either: £5 each for adults, with discounts for children and local residents. It has also recently re-opened after a refurbishment, and now sports a much larger café and gift shop, along with a central American themed zone. With hindsight, yesterday wasn’t a great day to go, with it being a bank holiday and also the school half term holiday – consequently we had to queue for half an hour to get in. There were plenty of kids there – who were fine on the whole. Shame that couldn’t be said about some of the parents.

This was our second visit to Tropical World – the first time was three years ago, prior to the refurbishment. I’m sure we’ll be back again sometime – it’s a nice place to go, easily reached from Leeds city centre by the number 12 bus from outside the top entrance to Leeds market, and it’s not too expensive either. And it’s indoor, so great for even the most foul, cold winter days.

You can view the photos that I took this time on Flickr, and those that I took in 2012 as well.

May 25, 2015
by Neil Turner
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May 25th

Hornbill

One thing Wikipedia is good for is finding out what happens on a particular day in history. For example, on May 25th:

It’s also International Missing Children’s Day, Africa Day, Geek Pride Day, National Tap Dance Day and Towel Day.

And famous birthdays include Jonny Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Demetri Martin, Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, Mike Myers, Anthea Turner, Julian Clary, Paul Weller, Alastair Campbell, Eve Ensler, Catherine G. Wolf and Ian McKellen.

Plus, a not-so-famous birthday: mine.