Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

August 20, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Interlude

Ongoing work-related business has meant that I haven’t had chance to blog about anything today, so here’s a terrible music video from 2003. Someone decided to take the campfire song about Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald’s and turn it into a pop song. Complete with extra lyrics stuffed full of innuendo and a garish music video.

You’re welcome.

August 19, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Shattered

Elephant

I can very much not recommend working 10 days straight without a break. Especially if one of those days involves 14 hours at work with almost no breaks.

I was doing fine until today when my brain turned to mush at about 3pm. I was asked to calculate some weighted averages and I just couldn’t handle it. Thankfully there were enough mindless things to keep me going until I finished at 5pm.

And it’s only Tuesday – I still have another three days at work until I get a break. Admittedly Friday will only be a half day. And this weekend is a bank holiday so I’ll be off for three days.

What may surprise you is that I haven’t been resorting to coffee and energy drinks to keep going – I’ve had precisely two coffees in the past ten days and no energy drinks – just the odd diet cola or Irn Bru here and there. And plenty of early nights.

On the plus side, I’ve got plenty of work done during a really critical time for us and have accrued plenty of time off in lieu of overtime – around five days’ worth. So I’ll be able to take a well-earned rest when everything calms down.

August 18, 2014
by Neil Turner
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The Bradford pub scene

Curse of the PubCo strikes again :(

Last week, a pub called The Queen closed down in Bradford, for what must be the umpteenth time in the 12 years I’ve been living in or near Bradford. Unfortunately the pub’s location just outside Bradford’s main railway and coach station means that its boarded up windows reflect badly on a city where there are already far too many empty shops. This led the local paper, the Telegraph & Argus, to ask whether pubs in Bradford have a future?

Invariably when a media outlet poses a question in a headline, the answer is yes, but I think that the T&A’s article is overly negative. Bars in Bradford do, in fact, have quite a bright future, as I’ll mention shortly. The Queen, as you’ll notice from my photo of it taken last week is owned by Enterprise Inns, one a number of so-called ‘PubCos’. These companies own the pubs, but essentially franchise out day-to-day operations to tenant landlords who then buy all of their beer from the pubco. They can’t buy in beer from elsewhere and usually have to meet aggressive sales targets. It’s no wonder that four pubs close in Britain every day.

Free houses, on the other hand, are owned by their operators. They’re free to sell whatever beer they want, as long as the business is viable. Consequently, more innovation is happening in this more liberated area of the market.

So, back to Bradford, and specifically the North Parade area of the city. It’s right at the top of the city centre, and currently home to two relatively new bars. The Sparrow opened three years ago in 2011, and was one of the first of a new generation of ‘bier cafés’ in Britain. Within weeks it had been named as one of Britain’s top 10 craft beer bars by the Guardian, and remains popular to this day. It was joined last year by Al’s Dime Bar, which is loosely themed as a New York style dive bar and specialises in good value cocktails as well as imported American beers.

A third bar, called The Record Café, is due to open later this year on the same street, subject to planing permission being granted. As well as serving real ale and craft beer, it will also be a delicatessen and an independent record store, which Bradford no longer has. I’m assuming it will follow a similar model to Friends of Ham and The Reliance which have done well over in Leeds, albeit with a record store as well.

And around the corner on Rawson Road, brewing of beer will return to Bradford city centre for the first time in many years, with the opening later this year of The Brewfactory. It’ll be a brewpub, operated by the Bradford Brewery.

So the independent bar sector in Bradford is actually pretty healthy, with four new pubs opening within four years, in places where there were none before. I’m not surprised, as pubs like The Queen offer very little – the same bog standard beer that you can buy more cheaply in supermarkets, for example. Whereas the likes of The Sparrow are run by people fanatical about beer, with regularly changing brews on tap from independent microbreweries and interesting food offerings. That, in my mind, is how it should be.

August 17, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Goodbye Delicious, hello Pinboard

Pinboard screenshot

Yesterday’s links from Delicious post will be the last one, as from now on I’ll be using rival bookmarking service Pinboard.

I’ve been using Delicious for some time and for a time I was one of its featured users – I managed to amass several thousand followers on there, which is far more than on all of my other social media presences combined. But clearly people are not using Delicious anymore – nowadays, when I save a link, I’m invariably the first person to do so. And usually the only person. It used to be that any link would have had several other people saving it to their bookmarks as well, but not now. And these links are from the likes of BBC News and Lifehacker – not exactly small and niche sites.

Furthermore Delicious changed hands again recently. You may remember Yahoo! bought it years ago, and then more recently it was sold to AVOS Systems, a company owned by the original founders of YouTube. And then in May Delicious was bought again by Science Inc, which co-incidentally was the last thing posted to Delicious’ blog and Twitter account. Either its new owners have something big planned or it’s being neglected like it was in the Yahoo! days.

Meanwhile years ago I signed up for a Pinboard account. Pinboard doesn’t have free accounts; instead, everyone pays a one-time sign-up fee which increases over time. It was $9.40 then, now it’s $10.46. You can also upgrade to enable archiving, where a copy of every page you bookmark is saved, allowing you to search them. This is $25 per year, but your first year is discounted by your sign-up fee, so it would cost me $15.60 in year one.

Pinboard can do a lot more things than Delicious, and has plenty of options to set for your account. This is at the expense of design, however, and explains the main reason why I hadn’t switched sooner. As much as I prefer to pay for services I use regularly, Delicious – especially after its redesign – was a nicer experience. But I’m concerned about Delicious’ long-term future, and so I’ll go with Pinboard.

Switching over to Pinboard from Delicious was simple, as the apps I use the most for saving links – Reeder and Pocket – support both services, as does IFTTT which I use for sharing links to Twitter.

If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter, then the chances are that you won’t notice anything different. My Pinboard profile is public, so if you also use it, you can follow me on there.

August 16, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Delicious for August 16, 2014

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

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August 14, 2014
by Neil Turner
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A-level results day

Baby Capybara

Today, for students in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and a few other far flung corners of the world, today’s a big day – the release of the A-level results. For those unfamiliar, A-levels are qualifications usually taken by 18 year olds and are needed for entry to universities.

It’s been 12 years since I got my results, which were disappointing but still good enough to make it in to my second choice of university, Bradford. And I’m still there now, having progressed from being a student to being a member of staff.

A-level results day also signals the main start of the Clearing process, where universities ‘clear’ their vacancy lists for courses in September. It’s basically a massive free for all, where students who haven’t got a place try to get in to whichever universities still have places available. I’ve been involved in Clearing in some capacity every year since I started university, this being the 12th year that I’ve helped out. Nowadays I tend to be based more in the back offices keeping everything moving, rather than on the front line taking calls from students.

This year, we at Bradford anticipate that there will be some limited places for students with good grades. If you’re looking for a place at university, please give us a call on 0800 073 4015 to speak to one of my lovely colleagues, who will be happy to help you.

As usual, any opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and not necessarily those of the University of Bradford.

August 13, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

The Government Digital Service

Sceenshot of the Register to Vote pages on gov.uk

Whilst there are many things that I dislike about our current government, one thing I am pleased about is the creation of the Government Digital Service in 2010. This team oversaw the creation of GOV.UK, a new web site for central government services and replacing the previous direct.gov.uk.

The remarkable thing about GOV.UK is that, despite being commissioned by a centre-right government that is keen on outsourcing and privatisation, the new web site was actually brought back in house and primarily uses open source software. And by completely rebuilding the web site from scratch, it can take advantage of more modern best practices for design. So it’s responsive and therefore works just as well on small smartphone screens as it does on desktops, and uses big, clear fonts. The language used is also deliberately simplistic so that those with a poorer grasp of English comprehension can still use it.

A really good example is the Register to vote section, which I’ve used this week after receiving a letter. It’s a really simple step-by-step process, but the web site is fast and so it doesn’t take long. By contrast the previous web site offered by my local council for registering to vote was some awful thing that looked like it had been created in 1998 and barely updated since.

The other big advantage of keeping the technology in house is money. Rather than paying for a big outsourcing company every time you need a new feature adding that was over and above the original project specification, the GDS team can just get on and improve the site themselves. And, in doing so, they’re creating software that has a value, and could potentially be sold to other organisations. In other words, generating income rather than costing money.

With this in mind I’m pleased to hear that the US government has had a similar idea. It sounds very similar to the GDS team in Britain – as it’s worked so well for us, I hope that their American counterparts can achieve similar things.

August 12, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

The daily fight

I’m one of the lucky ones. For me, every day isn’t a struggle. I don’t think I’m worthless. I don’t lose interest in carry out everyday activities. I’m not often angry or irritable. I don’t hate myself. I have the energy and motivation to carry on.

But for many other people these things are a daily occurrence. A daily fight. And sometimes people lose that fight.

They don’t know, or don’t think there is anyone there to help them. A friend, a family member, or a charity like the Samaritans or ChildLine for example.

If you’re a lucky one like me, then you can do something. Speak to your friends and family, especially if you think they’re depressed. Offer to help, or refer them to someone who can. Because someone can, even if they won’t believe you.

Like many of you I was shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ passing this morning. There will be few people who have not seen at least one of his many films over the years, and it’s a real shame that he won’t be in any more in future. I just wished that someone had been there for him in his time of need.

August 11, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Run With Us

If you’re like me and grew up in the 1980s then you probably watched the Canadian animated cartoon series The Raccoons on Saturday mornings on BBC1, usually before Going Live. If so, you’ll hopefully like this cover of the theme music, Run With Us, by Matt Fischel, embedded above. The music video uses footage from the original series.

The cover is really good – keeping the original 1980s feel of the song but updating it slightly. You can hear Lisa Lougheed’s version, as used in series two onwards, here on YouTube if you want to compare the two. The song is part of an album of covers released by Fischel, available on iTunes or Amazon.

As for watching The Raccoons, there aren’t many options in Britain. Only series one and two were released on DVD here, although there’s a German release with all six series. I’ve no idea if it includes the original English audio or whether it’s only available dubbed into German. And it’s not on Netflix sadly.

August 10, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Alestorm’s new album

Over the years I’ve occasionally mentioned the music of the band Alestorm, a Scottish pirate metal band. Imagine heavy metal sea shanties, covering such subjects as piracy, drinking, and the acquisition of wenches. The above music video is a prime example, containing all of the aforementioned things, and it just happens to have come from their latest album. Other songs include ‘Surf Squid Warfare‘ about going into the future to defeat undead squid from space with beer. Yes.

I first came across Alestorm in 2009, when a friend recommended that I check them out on Spotify. I’ve since bought three of their four albums, went to see them play live in Leeds in 2012, and right now they’re the third highest-ranked band in my last.fm library. Their fourth album, Sunset on the Golden Age, was released recently and I got halfway through listening to it on Spotify before buying it. It’s one of their best.

Their first album, Captain Morgan’s Revenge, was okay, but I much preferred their second album Black Sails at Midnight – which I listed as my second-favourite album back in 2011 (it’s probably my third or fourth nowadays). Back Through Time, their third album, was okay – some good songs let down by rough and (in my view) poorer production quality. Sunset on the Golden Age, by contrast, has the production values of their second album and sounds much better for it. I also note that Alestorm’s lead singer Christopher Bowes has consigned his keytar to Davey Jones’ Locker – they’re actually playing real instruments instead of synthesising their sounds.

Though not very politically correct, Alestorm’s music has surprising staying power, considering that they’re arguably a novelty act. But, a novelty act that has released four albums and been on several world tours is not to be sniffed at. So crack upon a bottle of rum, fire your cannons and grab yourself a copy of their latest album – it’s on Amazon or iTunes. And they’re touring the UK again in the autumn. Plus, if you like Alestorm, you may also like Christopher Bowes’ other band Gloryhammer, who songs include the wonderful Unicorn Invasion of Dundee amongst others.