Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

February 26, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Free Postcode Lottery

Screenshot of the Free Postcode Lottery home page

Do you want to win free money? For most people the answer to this question is ‘yes’ – and the Free Postcode Lottery will let you do just that. Each day, you have the chance to win at least £80.

To register, you provide the site with your email address and UK postcode. You then log in every day to find out which postcode has won that day. If it’s yours, then you win the jackpot, which can be paid to you by Paypal.

If it’s not yours, then you can still accumulate a bonus. For every day that you log in, one penny is added to your bonus – if you win the jackpot, then this is added to your winnings. Because you need to log in every day to see if you’ve won, you should be able to build up £1 after just over three months. There’s also an additional opportunity to win extra money with the Stackpot which is refreshed twice a day at 9am and 9pm, and you can refer friends for extra cash as well.

Unclaimed jackpots roll over – in the screenshot, the jackpot is £140 because the winners from the day before didn’t claim it. It’s got as high as £700 before. The jackpot recently increased from £70 to £80, as the lottery now covers 8% of all UK postcodes. Presumably there will be another increase at 9%.

The lottery is free because all of the income comes from advertising on the site – and you’ll see that it is a particularly advert heavy web site. But because people visit it daily, those adverts get a lot of views, hence why it is able to give so much money away.

If you live in Britain and fancy a chance of winning some cash, then it’s worth signing up. You’ll just get one daily email reminding you to check the draw – no other spam is sent. Here’s my referral link, if you want to give it a try.

February 25, 2015
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Short

Screenshot of ShortGot a spare 5-10 minutes, and want to read something? Short is here to help.

You link Short to your existing Pocket, Instapaper, Readability or ReadingPack account, and it will present you with a list of articles that can be read in under 5 minutes, or under 10 minutes. Tap each one to read it, and when you’re done you can remove it from your reading list. That’s basically it.

That’s not necessarily a criticism as Short is designed to be simple. That being said, it does also include a dark mode, and the usual sharing features, so that you can share interesting articles on your social networks. Short supports multiple read-it-later services simultaneously, so if you have articles saved in both Pocket and ReadingPack (for example), then you’ll be able to see them both in one list. More accounts may be added in later releases, perhaps including Feedly.

Somewhat oddly, you have to sign in to Short with a Twitter account; this is done before you link your read it later service account. One advantage is that it keeps your account settings in sync between multiple devices, such as an iPad and an iPhone.

Screenshot of Short when your feed is emptyThere’s a couple of limitations. Firstly, there’s no embedded video, so if the article you’ve saved for later is a bit of text with a video, then it may show up in Short’s list. Short also won’t show you the tweet that the article was saved from, if applicable, unlike the official Pocket app.

I’ve been using Short for about a week and it’s great for when you’ve just got a few spare minutes. I tend to use Pocket like an inbox, and spent most of the weekend getting my reading list down from 100 unread articles to 0, so being able to clear out the shorter pieces more easily is great. Pocket’s official app has ‘Highlights’ which is supposed to categorise quick reads, but it hasn’t worked on my account for months.

Short is free, and is available from the App Store. It’s a universal app for both iPad and iPhone.

February 24, 2015
by Neil Turner
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What happens to your internet accounts when you die?

Infographic - death in the digital ageIf you died tomorrow, what would happen to your internet accounts? Would you want your family to have access? If you’re like me, it’s probably something you haven’t given a lot of thought to – but perhaps you should.

The Co-operative Funeralcare have created a guide called ‘Death in the Digital Age’. It covers what you should consider doing now, whilst you’re alive, and also what to do if a loved one has passed away and you want to access their online accounts. The Co-op also produced an infographic with some interesting statistics – 75% of people surveyed by ICM had no plans for their online accounts, yet a similar proportion have encountered problems accessing accounts belonging to deceased relatives.

Considering how much stuff we store in cloud services, this is something of a worry, especially when there aren’t physical or local copies. Take photos – how many pictures have you taken that are only on Facebook? If you were no longer around, would a relative be able to still see them?

Sadly a lot of internet companies are not very good when it comes to dealing with the deceased. You’ll find many user agreements prohibit the sharing of usernames and passwords, so by logging into the account of someone who has passed away you are breaking the terms of the agreement. And customer service departments can be unhelpful.

But it’s not all bad news – Google has an ‘inactive account manager’ which allows you to nominate a trusted third party who can gain access to your account if you don’t log in for a certain amount of time. I’ve set this up so that Christine can get into my account if I don’t log in for three months. Facebook is rolling out a similar feature, but it’s restricted to users in the USA right now – in the meantime, you can have a profile ‘memorialised’ if its owner has passed on. We did this with my friend Dave when he died suddenly last year.

Thinking about your own death may seem depressing but it’s a lot easier for your relatives to have everything sorted whilst you’re still alive. Consider the following:

  1. Make sure you have a will in place (Christine and I are getting wills as part of our house purchase).
  2. Write some key usernames and passwords on a piece of paper and store it in a sealed envelope. Include any device passwords or encryption keys if applicable.
  3. Or, if you use a password manager (and you really should), then do the same, but for your master password.
  4. Backup important photos/music etc. to an external USB hard drive – don’t rely solely on cloud storage.

Everyone’s different; you may wish to have all of your online accounts deleted when you die, rather than preserved for others. It’s up to you, but you’re best making that decision now.

February 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Expanding cable

Cable Junction Box

Recently, Virgin Media announced it was expanding its cable network. Currently just over half of the UK’s 26 million or so households can get cable service from Virgin Media, although of those 13 million eligible, only 5 million actually subscribe. Virgin Media plans to add another 4 millions households to this, although somewhat controversially this will be primarily in urban areas.

A bit of history

Most of the cables for cable TV, internet and phone were laid in the early 1990s in the UK, by various different companies – usually subsidiaries of larger corporations. In York where my parents live, this was ‘Bell Cablemedia’, part of Bell Canada. Some of these companies spent a lot of money digging up streets to lay cables, but then didn’t make enough money to clear their debts, resulting in some gaps in their networks.

By the late 1990s most of the small companies had merged into three larger firms: Cable & Wireless, NTL and Telewest. NTL bought Cable & Wireless’ home cable business, and then in 2005, NTL and Telewest merged. The combined company then took over Virgin Mobile UK in 2006 and gained the rights to use the Virgin brand, re-branding as Virgin Media.

For the first time, there were two major players in multi-channel television: Virgin Media and its cable network, and the dominant Sky, with its satellite TV and ADSL internet service. Its dominance challenged, Sky had a fall-out with Virgin Media in 2007 lead to many of Sky’s channels being taken off Virgin Media, including Sky1 and Sky Sports News. Virgin Media responded by re-branding its lacklustre channel FTN as Virgin One (which seemed to mostly specialise in repeats of Star Trek: The Next Generation and porn), and launched Setanta Sports News with erstwhile Irish sports broadcaster Setanta. It would be 18 months before the Sky channels returned; ironically the following year Virgin sold all of its own channels to Sky.

The situation today

Which brings us to today. Virgin Media is now the only provider of cable TV and internet in the UK, having amalgamated every other company over the years (the last holdout, Smallworld, was bought last year). This means that it’s the only company with its own infrastructure for internet and phone services – Sky, TalkTalk, EE and all of the other providers all have to buy wholesale capacity BT’s Openreach network. Whilst Openreach should be able to reach every household, due to its routes as a public utility company, Virgin Media’s network, even after expansion, will only connect to a small majority of homes.

That doesn’t mean that the expansion isn’t worthwhile. Any expansion will increase competition, which should be better for consumers; more choice should allow people to access cheaper and better deals that suit their circumstances better. However, Virgin will be focussing on ‘filling in’ gaps in its coverage – towns and cities where it already has a presence but with some streets missing. This is unlikely to include rural areas, or towns where Virgin hasn’t been to before, although we don’t yet have a definitive list of places due to be connected. Access to broadband in rural areas is a contentious issue, but actually London has some of the worst broadband speeds in the country.

Register your interest

If you can’t currently get Virgin Media’s services and want to register your interest, you can do so here. Presumably, if enough people sign up in an area, then Virgin will consider connecting that area to its network. There’s no guarantee though – Virgin Media is a business with shareholders and it has no public service remit. Whilst filling out that form doesn’t commit you to signing up, it doesn’t commit Virgin Media to offering you a service either.

I’ve put the postcode of our new house in there, just in case. However, BT will be upgrading its service there by June, as part of the Super Fast West Yorkshire project which allows it to use public money to upgrade exchanges and street cabinets in more isolated areas. Even without it, we should be able to get similar speeds to what we get now – around 17 Mbps, which is fast enough for 99% of what we use the internet for.

I’ve previously been a Virgin Media customer and they were generally okay – and offered a good cheap deal at the time. But we’re currently with BT and get a good service with them, even if it is pricier than their rivals. I’m not sure whether I would go back to Virgin Media – but I would like that option.

February 22, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded: The East End Film Festival

East End Film Festival

In May last year I backed the fundraiser for the annual East End Film Festival. The festival takes place across the east end of London every year, and 2014 was its 13th year.

This was the first year that the festival operated as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, to maintain its independence. But this meant it needed an additional £25000 to put on all of the events and workshops as planned, and to keep some of these free where possible.

One of my friends has previously been involved with the festival (she’s now in New York studying for a PhD) and so I was happy to contribute a little bit towards the festival to make sure it went ahead last year. They met their funding target – although only just – and the festival took place in late June. As a thanks for my donation, my name would have appeared on a ‘wall of fame’ at their opening gala, however, with no means to visit London at the time I didn’t get to see it.

The festival is back on for 2015 and this time it’s going ahead without a crowdfunding effort, but with a number of sponsors. Hopefully there will still be many free events and the sponsorship won’t have lead to a loss of independence. It runs from the 1st to the 12th July at venues across the east end of London.

February 20, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Bradford Brewery

The Bradford Brewery

Last night, I went along to the opening night of the new Bradford Brewery. Once it’s fully up-and-running, it’ll be the first brewery in Bradford city centre since the last one closed in the 1950s.

Whilst the brewing equipment is still being assembled, the Bradford Brewery’s brewpub, The Brewfactory, opened yesterday. As well as various beers and ales from other local (and not so local) breweries, there is the first of the Bradford Brewery’s own beers available to purchase, called The Origin. It’s an IPA – smooth with a slightly spicy after-taste, although overall I found it a little bland. It’s being brewed at the Baildon Brewery for now until the on-site equipment is up and running, which should be within a couple of weeks.

The Bradford BreweryThe brewery is located in a small former factory building on the corner of Westgate and Rawson Road, behind the Oastler Centre, with the pub occupying most of the ground floor. As a factory, moisture meters were built there to measure moisture in wool (to discourage dampening the wool to increase its weight), and its industrial past is reflected in the decor. It’s a bit sparse at the moment, but then the place has only just opened after all.

The Bradford Brewery is just around the corner from North Parade, home to Bradford’s independent quarter and an increasing number of bars. I wrote about the Record Café last year, which joined The Sparrow and Al’s Dime Bar on the same street. The Brewhouse is another bar due to open there shortly.

Good quality new bars are always welcome in Bradford and hopefully a sign that the trend for pub closures might be easing, at least in certain areas. The Brewfactory certainly has a great selection, with eight handpulls for cask beer, several more keg pumps and a variety of canned beers. It’s aiming towards the top end of the market – the only mainstream beer available on tap was Amstel with most of the rest coming from independent microbreweries.

Whilst The Brewfactory will be the home of the Bradford Brewery’s beers, the brewery has ambitious plans for production once its equipment is commissioned – with the aim to produce over 10,000 pints per week. So hopefully their beers will be widely available across the region, and maybe even further beyond. And conveniently, they’ve been able to start production (albeit offsite) just in time for next week’s Bradford Beer Festival in Saltaire.

I wish the team behind the Bradford Brewery the best of luck – their plans have been in the pipeline for a long time, and it’s great to see them finally coming to fruition. It was busy when we visited last night and I hope that it remains so.

February 19, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

SSL-secured

SSL secured message in Firefox

One of my first projects after moving to the new server was to sort out a SSL certificate. Until now, any secure connections to this site have been using a ‘self-signed’ certificate which brings up big red warnings in most web browsers. Which is fine for me as I know I can ignore the warnings, but not ideal.

However, Google is (rightly) making HTTPS sites rank slightly higher in its results pages. So having a proper SSL certificate verified by a third-party is now more important, and not just because it offers better security to your users.

Two things were holding me back from getting a certificate in the past: the need to have an extra IP address, and the cost.

Extra IP address

Traditionally, if you want a SSL certificate for a particular domain, that domain would need to have its own, unique IP address. This was something that my host offered, but only by raising a support ticket and having it added manually. On the new BigV platform, I can easily add up to four IP addresses, allocate each to a domain name and set the reverse DNS. More IP addresses are available if needed, but on a request basis – after all, there aren’t many spare IPv4 addresses left.

Cost

I also had it in my head that SSL certificates were expensive – I was expecting at least £10 per month. As I’m saving £6 per month on my new hosting package, I decided to spend some of that saved money on an SSL certificate. Richy recommended Xilo to me via Twitter, and they offer SSL certificates for £16 per year – which is much cheaper than I expected. Xilo are a Comodo re-seller.

Setting up the certificate was really simple – it took me around 10 minutes, following Bytemark’s user manual. It’s been in place for a week now and works fine. I can’t get an Extended Validation (EV) certificate which shows the green bar in web browsers, as I’m not a company – individuals have to go for the more bog standard certificates.

Right now SSL is there as an option if you want to use it, but it isn’t the default. I may change my mind and make the site HTTPS-only, but this would require me to fix every link to every embedded image over 13 years of blog posts, and I’m not sure of the effect on my server’s load. That’s a project for another time.

February 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Scannable by Evernote

Screenshot of Evernote's Scannable on iOSAs much as futurologists have predicted the ‘paperless office’ over the years, we still have to put up with lots of documents on paper, even when an electronic copy would be much better. And not everyone has access to a scanner to scan paper documents.

But nowadays, most people have a smartphone with a half-decent camera, and so there are various apps out there that effectively emulate a scanner. One of the newest is Scannable, an iOS app by Evernote.

Scannable is quite straightforward to use. Place your document on a flat surface, and hold your phone’s camera over it. When it’s in focus and legible, Scannable will automatically snap it, and show a small preview at the bottom. If you have multiple pages to scan, then keep snapping. You can delete any images at this point, but when you’re done, tap the tick icon.

From here, the images you take can be sent to a variety of destinations. Naturally this includes your Evenote notebooks, since this is an Evernote product, but you can also send the images by email or message. There’s also an export option which connects to any apps that can accept an image – Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+ and others. And images can be saved to your Camera Roll, or any location on iCloud Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox, and they can be printed to an iPrint-compatible printer.

You could, of course, simply snap images with the standard camera app that comes with any phone, but Scannable makes an effort to adjust the contrast of your documents so that they’re more readable. They’ll also be intelligently cropped automatically, although manual controls are available as well. Do it right, and the end result should be at least as good as from a decent flatbed scanner.

Screenshot of a business card being scanned into Evernote's ScannableThe other trick that Scannable has up its sleeve is recognising business cards. It’ll read the information contained within, and connect to LinkedIn to retrieve the relevant profile. It worked fantastically well with my own business cards, easily detecting my name and bringing up my LinkedIn profile. But when I scanned my mortgage advisor’s card, it only detected the name and didn’t let me save it as a contact, which is a shame.

One thing that Scannable doesn’t do is full optical character recognition (OCR), beyond the basic reading of business cards. If you save the images in Evernote, then the text in images will be searchable, but you won’t be able to export the text as an editable document into Microsoft Word, for example. A workaround involves exporting the image to Microsoft OneNote (a competing product to Evernote), and then converting it to text on the desktop version of the app. Not ideal but it works, just about.

Despite its limitations, Scannable is a great app. It’s well-designed, with a simple step-by-step interface. The integration with Evernote is sensible without being forced – there’s no need to have an Evernote account to use the app, although it can be useful if you want to make your scanned images searchable. And the images that are outputted are clear and easy to read on a computer screen.

Scannable is free, and is a universal app for iPhones and iPads. It’s not yet available on Android or other mobile platforms.

February 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Sub-prime target

Screenshot of Amazon Prime

Yesterday, Amazon Prime was in the news, after various people found out they’d signed up for it without realising. This included Times journalist Giles Coren, who had some choice words for Amazon on Twitter when he discovered he’d been paying for it for three years.

Before I continue, I must disclose that I am an Amazon Associate, and receive commission when you buy things from Amazon having clicked on links on this site.

Coren is a controversial figure and some people who I like and/or follow on Twitter have been having a moment of schadenfreude over this. But Coren is certainly not the only person who ended up paying for Amazon Prime – someone much closer to me did as well. That would be my wife, Christine.

Recently she was ordering something from Amazon and I happened to be looking over her shoulder at the time. As she went through the checkout process, I remarked:

Neil: “I didn’t know you had signed up for Amazon Prime.”

Christine: “I haven’t.”

Neil: “Yes, you have, it says so on the screen. You’re paying £60 per year for that.”

Christine: [words which are not repeatable in polite company]

Suffice to say that she’s since cancelled – and thankfully this was before Amazon raised the price to £79 per year.

I’ve seen some people comment that they can’t understand why others didn’t realise they were signing up for a subscription service – after all, in the screenshot above, it clearly says that after the 30-day free trial you will be paying a subscription fee. But Amazon Prime is also heavily promoted during the checkout process, and though the small print at the bottom of the screen does state that there will be a charge after 30 days, it’s not as clear. Here’s a screenshot of what you see when you select Amazon Prime as a shipping option during checkout:

Amazon Prime terms and conditions

I have a feeling that this is how Christine accidentally signed up. After all, she’s quite tech-savvy, to the point where I have to ask her for help with complicated cell formulae in Microsoft Excel. She’s not normally the sort of person who would sign up for these things without realising.

If you have inadvertently signed up for Amazon Prime, then you can cancel. MoneySavingExpert has a guide, and, in fairness to Amazon, if you sign up and then never make use of any of the perks of your Amazon Prime membership, then they will refund your subscription fee when you cancel. And there’s no charge if you cancel within the 30 day limit.

Between us, Christine and I don’t order enough things from Amazon to justify paying £79 per year – especially as Amazon still offers free delivery on many items if you’re prepared to wait a bit longer. We don’t need Amazon Prime Instant Video because we have Netflix, and we don’t need the online photo storage or the Kindle lending library. For people who order regularly from Amazon (and we’re talking at least once a month here) or who often watch films and TV programmes on Instant Video, Amazon Prime makes more sense – but not for us. I can completely understand why people end up subscribing to it without realising though.