Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

April 23, 2014
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Clic and Walk

Screenshot of the Clic and Walk appThis week’s app is a rare example of an app that I’ve been asked to review. Normally, I only review apps that I would myself use, but, about six weeks ago, I was contacted to try out Clic and Walk. The app offers ‘missions’, where you are asked to go and do something and, in return, receive a small amount of money as payment.

I suppose it’s a bit like the various paid-for surveys that I occasionally write about, but done entirely using either an Android or iOS app. The idea being that some of the missions will involve going to places, although in my experience the vast majority have been things that you do at home.

Clic and Walk’s missions generally involve a list of questions, and you’ll either be asked to select one or more answers, type in your own, or take a photo. The missions usually take about 5 to 10 minutes, and pay around 40p, which is in line with other survey sites. Payout is once you hit €3, which is approximately £2.50 at current exchange rates.

I’ll be honest – I haven’t really got into Clic and Walk. Mainly because most of the missions I’ve done have actually required a computer as well, and asked me to take pictures of things on the screen. There are also only a handful of missions available, and upon completion you have to wait until your responses are verified before you get any money. So I’ve only got 55p from it so far.

I gather that Clic and Walk app was originally only available in France, and it shows – some of the translations into English are a bit iffy and it uses a number of French conventions that aren’t common in Britain. It could do with some more work.

As a way of getting a little extra cash, I suppose it may be worth using but you’ll probably make more money from the likes of Valued Opinions or MySurvey. Whilst the surveys tend to be longer, the payouts are bigger, albeit usually in vouchers rather than cash.

Clic and Walk is free, and available for iPhones and iPads, and Android devices.

April 22, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Round the North we go

Round the North We Go blog screenshot

Do you like trains? I do – and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know this from the occasional public-transport related posts that crop up here from time to time.

I’m not the only who likes trains though. Scott Willison, aka ‘the Mersey tart’, likes them too – so much that he’s visited every railway station on the Merseyrail map, and is now working through the much larger Northern Rail map. And he’s blogging his adventures on a blog called Round the North we go.

For those unfamiliar with Merseyrail, it is a rail commuter network in Merseyside, somewhat akin to London Overground but pre-dating it by many years. Opened as an integrated network in 1977, it has some of the most consistently reliable trains in the UK, mainly because it is largely segregated from other railway lines. This is in spite of it having some of the oldest trains in the UK, with many of the trains now 35 years old. I’ve been on it once, when Christine and I visited Liverpool in 2010 – we used it to go under the River Mersey to Birkenhead.

Northern Rail, on the other hand, is a much larger franchise, covering many of the local train services from the Midlands all of the way up to the borders of Scotland. It operates over 400 stations, and its trains call at over 500. That’s quite a bit more than the 67 operated by Merseyrail, and so Scott has his work cut out over the next few years.

Particularly as some stations have a somewhat less than regular service. A number of Northern Rail’s services are so-called Parliamentary Trains – essentially, the lowest possible service required to keep some stations open. I’ve mentioned Denton in East Manchester before, but there are a number of others including Reddish South and Teesside Airport. Others, like Manchester United Football Ground, are only open when there’s a match at the Old Trafford stadium.

Thankfully, Scott has focussed on some of the hardest to reach stations first – Reddish South and Denton were done three years ago – and Man Utd was done when there was a rugby match on. Most recently, he’s done the Settle and Carlisle Line, which has just had its 25th anniversary of not being closed down by British Rail, and parts of the ‘little’ North Western Railway between Leeds and Lancaster.

This means that, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t yet made it up the Calder Valley Line where I live. Of course, if Scott is reading this and would like a companion for the journey, he can give me a shout.

Whilst some may see this is a boring pass time, I beg to disagree – it forces you to go to places that you may have never otherwise considered, and they can be lovely. Or not, as is often the case, but worth a try I suppose.

April 21, 2014
by Neil Turner
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A bank holiday visit to Hebden Bridge

Hebden Old Bridge

As it was such a nice day on Good Friday, and we were both off work with it being a bank holiday, Christine and I paid a visit to Hebden Bridge. We’ve been there many times over the years, however, this was actually the first time we’d been in almost two years.

In June and July of 2012, the upper Calder Valley was badly affected by floods. Whilst it didn’t cause too many problems here in Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge was hit hard, with large parts of the town underwater. This included the main road through the town and the main shopping streets.

It’s taken the town quite a long time to get itself back together again, so we were pleased to see it looking rather resplendent when we visited last week. There were almost no empty shops; though some hadn’t re-opened following the floods, others had taken their place. And the town was bustling with people taking advantage of a day off work and some nice sunshine.

Hebden Bridge features on this year’s Tour de France route. The Tour de France has its ‘Grand Départ’ in different places across Europe each year, and Yorkshire won the bid for 2014, so the first two days of the course are in Yorkshire. Riders will pass through Hebden Bridge before tackling a long, sustained incline further down the Calder Valley at Cragg Vale. Hopefully the weather will be equally nice as it was when we visited, and the local economy will get a nice boost.

Speaking of which, there is large amount of disquiet in the town about a proposed Sainsbury’s supermarket opening nearby. What makes Hebden Bridge so special is that the vast majority of shops are independently run, including a number of clothing boutiques, delicatessens and craft shops. The worry is that a big supermarket like Sainsbury’s would adversely affect business in these small shops. Many shops had posters in their windows about it and there’s a web site encouraging people to object to the planning application.

Hebden Bridge Duck Race

Finally, as today is Easter Monday, there is the annual duck race, where hundreds of rubber ducks are dropped into the river. Each duck is sponsored, and there are prizes for the first ducks to cross the finish line. Again, the local community are strongly behind this with many shops having duck-themed displays in their windows.

Hebden Bridge is always a lovely place to visit and it’s a shame that we haven’t had chance to drop by recently. Apart from the looming potential of a new supermarket, I’m glad the town is doing well.

April 20, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Kickstarted: Master of the Seven Teas

What was it?

The thirteenth project I backed on Kickstarter was Master of the Seven Teas, a new game by Gaslight Games for desktop and mobile featuring pirate ships fighting inside cups of tea.

How much did I pledge?

£6

What did I get?

So far, nothing – but then the Kickstarter only ended ten days ago. It’s likely to be September when the rewards become available. By pledging £6, I’ll get a copy of the game on my chosen platform, which includes Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, Blackberry and the OUYA console. This means that initially it will only be available on desktop and OUYA, before expanding to the remaining mobile platforms after two months, as OUYA are matching pledges to provide additional funding.

This was nearly unlucky number thirteen for me. I only came across the project a day before its funding deadline, when it was still a long way off from achieving its £17,500 goal. Indeed, it only met the goal with mere minutes to go, eventually exceeding its target by just £17.

Many of those who work for Gaslight Games are, like me, graduates of the University of Bradford, where I work, and they’re located locally. So as well as it looking like a cool game, I’m proud to be supporting fellow Braduates. Hopefully now that the funding is in place, development will get underway.

April 19, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Delicious for April 19, 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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April 18, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Debating whether to ditch Dropbox Pro

Dropbox Pro screenshot

I’m a Dropbox Pro user. This means that I’m paying around £60 per year (or £5 per month if you will) for an extra 100 gigabytes of storage, over and above what free users get. This is mainly because I use it to keep photos in sync between my devices – and as I have a SLR camera, those images can be quite large – but also because I believe in paying for services that I rely on.

But lately, two things have happened. Continue Reading →

April 17, 2014
by Neil Turner
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What happens when you change your Facebook password

Screenshot of a Facebook password being changed

On Tuesday I changed my Facebook password for the first time in forever. I literally hadn’t changed my Facebook password ever before, and I’ve been on Facebook for seven years. I also used my Facebook password on other services as well.

I assumed that I would be okay because I use two-factor authentication for Facebook, and so this wasn’t one of the passwords that I changed at the weekend. However, Facebook alerted me to some ‘unusual activity’ on my account which I didn’t recognise, so it forced me to set a new password. I duly created one of my standard 24 character passwords in 1Password and went with that.

As well as having to sign in again on my iPhone, iPad, and on desktop machines, Facebook also reset OAuth credentials for all third-party apps that use my account. The main ones that I’ve had to re-link are Timehop and Sunrise which need regular access. The Jetpack plugin for WordPress also needed re-connecting to Facebook, which was a little more involved; I kept getting error -10520 until I completely disconnected Jetpack from wordpress.com, re-connected it, and then connected to Facebook. And IFTTT emailed me to re-authenticate as well.

Facebook was one of the web sites that was identified as being susceptible to the Heartbleed bug so it could be that someone got hold of my password that way. I’ll never know for sure, and it could have been something that I did, but as the location of the login attempt was listed as being somewhere in London I decided to err on the safe side. I’ve also had a similar notification from Yahoo!, where someone in California attempted to access my account (which has a much stronger password) so that has been reset this week.

Worryingly, I probably would not have known about either incident had it not been for me enabling two-factor authentication – I was only notified because the attackers (if they were attackers) where thwarted when asked for codes. As my email address is public knowledge, then on services where two factor authentication isn’t available, all an attacker needs to do is guess my password. And whilst I choose very strong passwords, if an attacker is able to capture my password from somewhere then on most web sites they will have no problems getting in. Thankfully, most of the really important sites that I use have two-factor authentication available – Tumblr being the latest one that I’ve activated.

Mumsnet has already fallen victim to Heartbleed with one of its founders getting hacked – thankfully by someone without major malicious intent. I expect more sites will come under attack as time goes on – especially over the Easter weekend when fewer staff will be around to sort out server issues.

April 16, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Real ale and craft beer

Tasting trays of real ale

I’ve been a member of CAMRA – The Campaign for Real Ale – for a couple of years now, to support their work in promoting real ale and community pubs. Though I’m not a heavy drinker, and only a recent convert to beer, I enjoy getting discounted entry to beer festivals, and finding out more about independent microbreweries.

The beginnings of the real ale movement

CAMRA has been around for over 40 years, having been founded in 1971 against a tide of amalgamation and homogenisation by breweries. In days gone by, Britain had many breweries, but by the time the 1970s had rolled around we were left with a few large breweries making bland, mass-market beer, and eschewing traditional hand-pulled casks for newer keg systems.

Over time, their work has paid off. Nowadays, the larger of CAMRA’s beer festivals, like the recent one in Manchester, can offer over 300 beers, many of which were from local breweries. West Yorkshire, the county where I live, now has the highest concentration of microbreweries of any English county, and new microbreweries are opening on an almost weekly basis across the UK. Wetherspoon, probably Britain’s best known pub chain, offers real ale at all of its pubs.

From across the pond, craft beer

More recently, over in America, a similar but less formal movement has become mainstream over the past few years, in the form of craft beer. Like real ale, the beers tend to be crafted with care by small, independent microbreweries, instead of being mass-produced by large conglomerates. However, it’s a much broader term; ‘real ale’ tends to focus just on bitter, stout, ale and porter, and is served in casks. Craft beer, on the other hand, can be any type of beer, including lager, and can be dispensed in kegs as well. In other words, you could say that all real ale is craft beer, but not the other way around.

Hipsters versus old northern men

Whilst the two terms could be seen as being interchangeable, there are also different stereotypes attached to them which usually results in either one, the other, or both being used separately. CAMRA started up in the north of England and real ale seems to attract a particular stereotype – older men, usually from the north, drinking in traditional old pubs. Craft beer, being newer and having its British origins in East London, has a more hipster-ish vibe to it, consumed by younger people in trendy bars with rustic features.

Cask versus keg

To me, both cultures should be complementary, and you would hope that CAMRA would be pleased that the younger generation are interested in decent beer. Sadly, all is not quite so rosy. CAMRA is still strongly opposed to keg beer; whereas beer in casks still contains yeast and carries on maturing even whilst on its way to a pub to be sold, keg beer is chilled, filtered to remove the yeast and then pasteurised. CAMRA argues that this ruins the flavour of the beer, but, on the other hand, keg beer is easier to dispense, lasts longer and easier to store. Some pubs – those that do not participate in the Cask Marque scheme – may not store their cask ales properly resulting in a poorer taste.

So there are advantages and disadvantages of both methods – cask is the traditional way, but it requires more care, and keg is the modern, easier way but doesn’t necessarily produce the same taste. Breweries often use both – for my stag weekend last year, we visited The Great Yorkshire Brewery (formerly the Cropton Brewery) which can produce bottled, cask and keg beer. Some newer craft ale breweries may only offer their beers in kegs.

CAMRA’s opposition to keg beer means that any beer that is offered in kegs is not welcome at the beer festivals it organises – only cask ales are available. Controversially, this includes any beer offered in both formats – some breweries will offer the same brew in keg and cask, in which case, neither will be welcome at a CAMRA beer festival. CAMRA’s view is that the taste will be different between the two – but this is also the case when you bottle beer as well, and, as far as I am aware, CAMRA have no such limit on cask ale that is also available in bottles.

Perpetuating the stereotype

Whilst I’m still happy to be a member of CAMRA and believe its work in promoting real ale and community pubs is important, I feel its opposition to keg beer is petty, and will turn away the younger generation. I already mentioned the ‘old northern men’ stereotype and by alienating craft beer drinkers, CAMRA is putting its own future in jeopardy. Maybe not in the short term, but when its members get older, in 20 or so years time, a lack of young and energetic volunteers could make the organisation of events more difficult.

Preserving knowledge about traditional methods is important, and I’m sure there are many breweries out there that will be happy to carry on producing cask ale for years to come. But I feel CAMRA should also support those small, independent microbreweries that want to experiment and embrace new technology, whilst maintaining the wide variety of quality, crafted beers that are are now widely available thanks to CAMRA’s work.

April 15, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Explr.fm – map the music you listen to

Map of where the artists I listen to come from, generated by explr.fm

The map above shows you the countries of origin for the artists that I listen to. It was generated using explr.fm, which uses your scrobbles from last.fm to map out your listening history by country. Darker colours mean that I listen to more artists and bands from the country.

Overall, I’ve listened to artists from 48 of the 197 countries that explr.fm is aware of. Naturally most are from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, since I mostly listen to music sung in English. But Germany, Finland and Sweden are also hotspots as well, probably because many European bands also sing in English even if it’s not their first language.

I tend not to listen to much world music, so explr.fm wasn’t able to show much in South America, Africa or Asia, apart from Japan where my small collection of J-Pop makes an appearance. The data is amassed using last.fm tags added by users, so not all of the data may be accurate.

One of the main reasons why I scrobble the music I listen to using last.fm is to get data like this. With over 70000 song plays scrobbled, it’s possible to get some meaningful data – not just recommendations of other music that I enjoy, but also interesting data like this.

April 14, 2014
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

The big post-Heartbleed password change

Screenshot of the heartbleed.com web page

Following last week’s revelations about the Heartbleed bug, I spent quite a bit of time over the weekend changing passwords. Not all of them – I’ve been using this list of affected sites from Mashable – but quite a lot.

At the same time I’ve also taken the opportunity to audit other passwords from non-affected sites. I use 1Password as my password manager, on OS X, Windows and iOS, and it has a ‘Password Audit’ feature that shows weak, old and duplicated passwords. Ashamedly, I had quite a few of all three.

As a reminder, the generally accepted guidelines for strong passwords are as follows:

  1. As long as possible
  2. Using a mixture of lower and uppercase letters, numbers and special characters
  3. Are unique
  4. Avoiding any words that could appear in a dictionary

Using a password manager is therefore a very good idea, as they can usually generate strong passwords that meet those criteria, and offer to remember them for you. I tend to go for 24 character passwords like ’3&yjGJNrE)Up2no8W:iNduYg’, to give an example of one that 1Password has just given me, and there’s no way that I could memorise that. The only passwords I have committed to memory are my 1Password Master Password, for obvious reasons, and my logins for Google, iTunes and Facebook. Whilst they satisfy the first three criteria above, they do use actual words – albeit with numbers and symbols replacing some of the letters – because these are the ones I use the most frequently. They’re still ‘strong’ according to most password meters.

Having said all of that, your passwords also have to fit within the constraints set by the web sites with which you have accounts. Whilst most of the sites I’ve been using have no problem with 24 character passwords, and are happy to accept symbols, not all of them are. Quite a few would only take passwords up to 16 characters, and others won’t accept special characters – or both. In which case, I had to make do with weaker passwords, but at least they’ll be unique.

There are, however, two web sites that were significantly worse than others. hmvdigital doesn’t let users change their password, unless you contact customer services. The worst offender, however is the Intercontinental Hotels Group, who owns the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza chains. If you’re in their IHG Rewards scheme – I am, and I have gold membership – then your password is a 4 digit numeric PIN. So there are only 10,000 possible password combinations, which could be cracked within minutes by an average home desktop computer. In 2014, this is horrifying, and for this reason, if you use IHG’s hotels, please don’t store your credit card details with them.

On the other hand, it’s been enlightening seeing which sites have removed my accounts for inactivity. For example, dabs.com have deleted my account, presumably because my last purchase from there was circa 2005. And other sites simply don’t exist anymore.