Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

December 21, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

The Leeds Reindeer Trail

Leeds Reindeer Trail - Trinity Leeds

Over the years many cities have commissioned various plain white fibreglass structures, gotten different artists to paint or customise them, and plonked them all over the place on a trail. CowParade started it, and others have followed, including Larkin with Toads in Hull, Superlambananas in Liverpool, gorillas and later Gromits in Bristol, rhinos in Chester and many more in different cities across the world.

Until now Leeds has never participated, but this Christmas it unleashed 14 fibreglass reindeer across the city. Whilst this is significantly less than the 125 Superlambananas that were scattered across Liverpool in 2008, it does at least mean that you can see them all in a day. Well, theoretically.

I tried tracking down all 14 today but only managed 10. Three of them are in the Trinity Leeds centre, one in the Corn Exchange, two in the Victoria Quarter, one in the menswear department of Harvey Nichols, one in the Merrion Centre and two in The Light. These are the ones I found.

Another three are in and around Millennium Square as part of the German Christmas Market, but that’s now finished and was being dismantled today, so I couldn’t see any of those three. And the last one is inside the First Direct Arena, which was firmly shut today as presumably there isn’t a show on tonight and the box office is shut on Sundays.

If you want to find the reindeer yourself, then you have another 10 days to do so as it finishes on New Year’s Eve. Whether the three around Millennium Square will be accessible when the Christmas market has been cleared remains to be seen; you’ll also need to decide whether to bother trekking out to the arena to see if the reindeer there is viewable or not – I couldn’t see it through the windows.

If I’m honest, compared with some of the other fibreglass-based public art projects, this is a bit underwhelming; one reindeer had an iPad implanted into its abdomen but apart from that they were rather plainly decorated. Some of the Superlambananas and toads in Hull were much more imaginative and interesting. Still, going to find them meant that I had something to do whilst my dear wife stressed herself out trying to buy me a suitable Christmas present.

You can view photos of the 10 that I found, plus some other photos of Leeds taken today, in this Flickr album.

December 20, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for December 20, 2014

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

December 7, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Distracted in Draenor

Hexorious in his garrison in World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Oops, looks like I forgot to post any new blog entries last week. This is mostly because a lot of my free time has been spent playing the new World of Warcraft expansion, Warlords of Draenor.

I didn’t play it much in the first week following release, which is probably a good thing as it meant that I avoided the worst of the launch issues, although it was almost two weeks’ after the expansion became available that the game settled down reliably. Apparently a higher than expected number of former players have returned to the game and Blizzard Entertainment hadn’t foreseen this, so there have been capacity issues. A few weeks on and the game is now playable without queueing, disconnects or lag, for the most part.

During the last expansion I effectively retired my main character, a human paladin called Hexorious, and mostly played on a shadow priest. Because it’s been so long since there has been any new content, I managed to level four characters to level 90, and another one was boosted using the offer that came with the purchase of the Warlords of Draenor expansion. However, I decided to go back to my main for this expansion and now he is level 100 – the other four still at 90.

Indeed the player character development features of this expansion make it less-alternative character friendly, in my view. The big new feature of the expansion is Garrisons – your own base of operations where you can construct buildings and gather resources. Building this up is a major time investment and not one that I’d necessarily want to repeat on another character. This is not to say it isn’t fun and I spend quite a bit of time every day tending to my garrison – starting and collecting work orders, sending followers on missions and building up resources to expand. My garrison is level 3 – maximum level – but the buildings are all level two as I haven’t come across any level three plans yet.

I think I would have enjoyed Warlords of Draenor even if it wasn’t very good, because it’s the first major bit of new content in the game for over a year and overcomes the staleness. But it is a really well-done expansion. So far I don’t quite think it’s my favourite – that would be Wrath of the Lich King – but it’s probably a close second, and certainly far better than Cataclysm which didn’t feel very immersive despite the decent story lines. I particularly like how we get to see the planet of Draenor in a different timeline – some bits still recognisable from Outland and some completely different but still familiar. And the non-player characters have a more defined back story – without wanting to reveal too many spoilers, Alliance characters should pay attention to Vindicator Maraad, especially paladins.

I’m still questing through Nagrand and have a number of bonus objectives to complete too, so even though my character is at the maximum level there is plenty more to do. And I’ve only just started setting foot into dungeons. So far, I’m really enjoying it, although hopefully I’ll have time to write things here too…

December 6, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for December 6, 2014

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

November 29, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for November 29, 2014

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

November 28, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Red Spotted No-thanky

Train crossing the Calder

In the past I’ve recommended Red Spotted Hanky (RSH), a web site for buying train tickets. Today, I’m withdrawing this recommendation, and here’s why, along with alternatives.

Booking fees

Earlier this year Red Spotted Hanky introduced a £1 fee for every booking, when previously you just paid for the cost of the tickets. Competitors like thetrainline and RailEasy also do this but it’s an extra cost. Bookings made directly with train operators don’t incur charges, even if the journey your making isn’t on that company’s trains.

Postage fees

At the same time, Red Spotted Hanky also introduced fees for posting your tickets to you. Previously you only had to pay extra if you wanted next-day delivery – standard first class delivery was free. Now that costs £1 too – the only way to avoid charges is to collect your tickets from a self-service machine at the station from which you will be departing from. Which is usually fine, unless your local station doesn’t have a ticket machine, or it’s out of order like the one at our local station often is. Other ticket sites still offer free postage.

Loyalty points

Purchases from Red Spotted Hanky accrue ‘loyalty points’, which can be redeemed for money off future travel or discounts at retailers and restaurants, at the rate of 1 point for every pound spent. For regular travellers this can clock up quickly and result in some decent discounts. Except that RSH reset all points gained at the end of each calendar year – I lost 77 points last year but some lost 1600 – worth £16 off travel. You need to make sure any points you have are redeemed before the end of the year.

Alternatively, if you buy tickets from First Hull Trains, First Great Western or First Transpennine Express you can gain 2 Nectar points for every £1 spent, which can be redeemed anywhere which accepts Nectar. None of these three charge booking fees. That being said, First haven’t had much luck with winning or retaining rail franchises of late so whether these offers will stand in future remains to be seen.

Cashback

It used to be that Quidco members received 1.5% cashback on all purchases from Red Spotted Hanky. But this arrangement ceased recently, although I’m still waiting for a few pennies of cashback for tickets that I bought over six months ago to be paid.

East Midlands Trains still has an arrangement with Quidco – up to 2.5% cashback for tickets on its own services, and 1% for tickets bought for use on services run by other operators.

But you can still use Clubcard deal vouchers

Red Spotted Hanky still accepts Tesco Clubcard vouchers, and doubles their value – £5 of Clubcard vouchers gets you £10 off train tickets. If you’re a Clubcard holder then it may still be worthwhile using RSH, although you will have to pay their booking and postage fees now. If not, then I would advise against using them.

November 27, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

East Coast trains to be run by Virgin

Pendolino

This morning, the government announced that a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin will take over the East Coast rail franchise in March 2015. Although Stagecoach own 90% of the consortium, Virgin’s 10% stake means that the trains will carry the Virgin brand, like those that currently operate on the West Coast Main Line (Virgin’s west coast franchise is 49% Stagecoach and 51% Virgin).

The awarding of this franchise has been controversial, and more-so than most others, because for the past five years the East Coast ‘franchise’ has been operated by the government. In 2009 the previous franchisee, National Express, surrendered the franchise after only a couple of years as it was making a loss. National Express had won the franchise in 2007 after the original operator GNER also surrendered as well. Rather than run yet another franchise competition, the Labour government at the time decided to bring operations in house, using a holding company called ‘Directly Operated Railways’ (DOR) and branded the services ‘East Coast’.

The intention was always to return the franchise to the private sector, even when Labour was in government, but originally this was to happen within two years, rather than five. I believe there have been several factors that caused the delay:

  • The mess that GNER and National Express left. GNER was originally one of the better franchisees, having invested in a high-quality refurbishment of its trains, being one of the first to introduce on-board wifi and improve its offerings for first class customers. But after it retained its franchise in 2005 it started cutting costs, and National Express continued this, including maintenance cutbacks. An example was a reduction in maintenance of the automatic doors, which meant that when East Coast took over the doors were becoming increasingly unreliable.
  • The fallout from the failed franchise competition for the West Coast Main Line in 2012. In August of that year, the government announced that Virgin were to lose the franchise to FirstGroup, but irregularities in the process led to the competition being cancelled and all other competitions being delayed. Virgin remain in charge of the West Coast franchise through ‘direct awards’ – essentially franchise extensions, with a new competition due in a few years.
  • A major timetable change, called ‘Eureka’ took place in 2011 and this took some time to bed down.

DOR’s aim was to turn the East Coast franchise around, so that it would be in a better state to return to the private sector. East Coast’s train livery was kept deliberately neutral so that a new franchisee could easily re-brand the trains in their own colours, and the East Coast brand could be transferred to a new owner if required. Evidently this took longer than anticipated.

Of course, once the franchise was back in the public sector, after 12 years of privatisation, there were arguments that it should stay there. The improvements made, along with a subsequent increase in passenger numbers, means that DOR has returned around £1 billion in premium payments to the government. And as DOR is not a private company, it doesn’t have any shareholders or investors who would want a share of the profits.

Labour, now in opposition but seeking re-election in next year’s General Election, have made it their policy that DOR should also be able bid for franchises along with private-sector businesses. I don’t really agree with this as private companies spend millions on their bids, many of which aren’t successful and this could be a waste of money if DOR has a low success rate. In any case, it’ll be too late for East Coast – Virgin will take over the new franchise two months before the election, and will run it for at least 7 years.

Stagecoach now has an effective monopoly on north-south train services. It operates East Midlands Trains on the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras and Sheffield, and with Virgin it operates the London Euston to Glasgow services. Now it’ll also operate the London King’s Cross to Edinburgh services too, meaning that the only other operators for north-south services will be the open access companies First Hull Trains and Grand Central. Stagecoach also operates Megabus with a significant proportion of north-south coach traffic.

On the plus side, the new franchise should see some positive changes. From 2020, new trains 140mph built by Hitachi in the north-east will be introduced, and there will be more services serving new cities. A map shows that Bradford will gain an additional 6 direct services to London each weekday – right now East Coast offers a token service in each direction, with Grand Central running four trains each way to Bradford Interchange. Harrogate and Lincoln will also benefit from similar service increases, and Huddersfield will gain a token direct daily service for the first time. Existing stations such as York, Newcastle and Leeds will also see additional services running. These new services will start in 2019, subject to Network Rail granting access to the track.

Personally I’d have liked East Coast to stay in public hands, and other franchises to join it as and when the current contracts run out. But realistically this would never have happened – none of the main political parties show any willingness to roll back rail privatisation. I just hope that Virgin continue DOR’s work at improving the service that runs on the East Coast Main Line and stick to their promises, without massively raising ticket prices.

November 25, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Home media streaming with Plex

Screenshot of Plex on iPad

If you have a lot of media stored on your computer, and you want to be able to watch it on other devices – your TV, or a tablet, for example – then Plex is one of the best ways to go about it. Originally a fork of XBMC (now known as Kodi), Plex has matured to the point where it is really easy to set up and use.

It works as a client and server. You install the free server software on the computer that has your media – be it films, music or photos – and then install client apps on your devices where you want to watch that media. Plex makes its money by charging for these apps, and for its premium Plex Pass tier which adds some cloud features.

What sets Plex aside from its rivals is its very broad platform support. The server software runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, but the client apps also run on iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices. And if you have an Xbox, Roku, ChromeCast, Ouya, Amazon Fire TV or Google TV device, there are Plex apps available too, along with smart TVs from Vizio, Samsung and LG. So you should find that Plex works with the equipment you already have, rather than having to buy another thing to plug into your TV. This is where Plex’s rival Boxee perhaps went wrong, as it required an extra set-top box; Boxee was recently acquired by Samsung and no longer offers its software for download.

When you install the Plex Media Server on a Mac, it will automatically make your iTunes music and video, and your iPhoto photos, available. You can then add any other folder with media in it, which Plex will download cover art and plot synopses for automatically. Plex also handles transcoding, so you don’t need to worry about what format your media is in – as long as Plex can open it, then you’ll be able to play it regardless of what your device normally supports.

You can also add internet TV channels. There’s a BBC iPlayer app, for example, although I don’t think it’s official and it’s not as good as the app on my Roku device. YouTube, Vimeo and Apple Movie Trailers channels are also available.

My only issue with Plex is that the server software will not run on a Raspberry Pi. RasPlex turns a Raspberry Pi into a Plex client, so you can hook it up to a TV, but you can’t plug an external hard drive with ripped films on it into your Raspberry Pi and have them available to watch on other devices. This is mainly down to the lack of processing power in the Raspberry Pi but it’s still a bit of a shame.

I would definitely recommend checking Plex out. Especially as its client apps are on sale this week.

November 24, 2014
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Susan Calman

ACMS #8 @ Edfringe13: Susan CalmanAfter seeing Frisky & Mannish on Friday, Christine and I went to another comedy gig on Sunday. This time it was to see Susan Calman, a diminutive Scottish lesbian and stand-up comedian on her tour ‘Ladylike’, at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. Hebden Bridge is something of a lesbian capital and so it was not surprising that the gig had sold out a few weeks ago.

I’m familiar with Susan Calman through her work on BBC Radio 4 – she is a regular guest on the weekly panel show The News Quiz, and has presented two series of her own show Susan Calman is Convicted. On TV, she’s appeared on Have I Got News For You and a few other programmes, mainly in Scotland. She’s been top of my list of stand-up comedians whom I have yet to see live so last night was a chance to fix this.

And I’m pleased to say it was really worth waiting for. Calman is a fantastic observational comedian, with all of her material drawn from her own life and experiences. It helps that she has an interesting story to tell – about her height, her sexuality, her career change and her three cats, each of whom has its own theme song.

Her tour continues into next year and whilst a number of dates are already sold out, hopefully there will be a gig near you with tickets still available. If you want to hear someone who is charming, inspirational and, most of all, hilariously funny, then find the time to go and see her when you can. Tour dates are on her web site.

Now, to make time to see Bethany Black and Chris Addison, who make up the rest of my list of comedians to see live.

Photo by Isabelle on Flickr, CC-licensed.