Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

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.

May 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 23, 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 19, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Being a train driver at the Foxfield Railway

W. G. Bagnall 0-6-0ST No. 2 "Florence"

My dad reached the grand old age of 70 a few months back, which begged the question: what do you get for the person who has everything? So we clubbed together as a family and bought my dad a train driving experience at the Foxfield Railway, near Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire.

Like me, my Dad has a keen interest in the railways, although unlike me he actually worked for the railways for many years, as a civil engineer. Whilst he’s designed many structures for trains to use, he’d never actually driven one before, so this was to be a new experience for him. And, fortunately, we have family in Stoke so getting to the railway for 9:30am was not a problem.

The experience lasts all day, and the railway can accommodate up to 4 people at a time. The training is provided by the volunteers who run the railway, many of whom are retired from the mainline. The train for the day was W. G. Bagnall 0-6-0ST No. 2 “Florence”, and initially the ‘students’ took it in turn to practice driving the engine out of the station and back again. Later on, each of the participants got to take it in turn to drive the train all the way along the line, with passenger carriages. They also took the role of fireman, which included learning how to couple and uncouple the engine from the carriages, and got to use the levers in the signalbox.

Pleasingly, friends and family were also allowed to be part of the day – I was able to follow my dad around with my camera for almost the whole time, and consequently took over 100 photos. And we brought part of the extended family along with us to ride in the carriages whilst my dad drove us up and down the line.

The volunteers that run the driving training experiences were great – friendly and accommodating, and ensured that participants and their families all had a good day out. At the end of the day, those that took part are presented with a certificate and there were more photo opportunities to be had.

I had a great time, but, more importantly, so did my dad. It’s something that I’d definitely recommend for those with a similar interest in the railways. Foxfield are now booked up for the rest of 2015 so you may need to wait until later in the year for their 2016 dates, if you want to try it for yourself.

May 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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FAQ about next week’s rail strike

Siemens Desiro 380007

Next week, signallers, maintenance staff and station workers employed by Network Rail will go out on strike for 24 hours. It will be the first time in 20 years that a railway strike has effected all of England, Scotland and Wales.

Whilst I don’t work on the railways, I’m going to attempt to answer some questions that I anticipate that people will have.

Why is the strike being called?

Following a ballot, members of the RMT union voted to strike for three reasons: Network Rail won’t rule out compulsory redundancies, safety issues, and pay.

How long is the strike?

The strike begins at 5pm BST on Monday 25th May, and will run for 24 hours until 5pm on Tuesday 26th May. During this time, any workers taking part in the strike will refuse to work.

What effect will this have on train services?

Potentially a huge effect. Signallers are among those striking, and if there is no-one there to operate the signals, then trains cannot run safely. Not all signalmen are in the RMT union, and not all union members will strike, so some trains may be able to run. However, I anticipate that only trains on major routes will operate, with services on some minor routes being cancelled altogether.

The RMT gave 10 days’ notice of the strike, rather than the legally mandated minimum of 7 days, and so Network Rail and the companies who operate the trains will have more time to put contingency plans into place. Therefore, nearer the time, there should be information about which trains will run and which will be cancelled.

Will the strike definitely go ahead?

It’s not for definite. Network Rail and the RMT have talks scheduled this week – if a deal is reached that satisfied both sides, then the strike may be called off.

What if I’m booked to travel during the strike?

Ticket restrictions have been relaxed either side of the strike. You will need to contact the company that sold you the ticket, or the operator of the train that you’re booked to travel with, to find out what alternative arrangements have been put in place. But, in general, you should be able to travel either on the Sunday or Wednesday, to avoid the strike period, even if your ticket is for a specific train on the Monday or Tuesday. But please, check before travelling.

Can I get a refund or compensation?

Probably. Season ticket holders will need to contact the train operating company that issued their ticket to find out their policies. If you’ve bought an advance ticket, and now can’t use it, then contact the company that sold you the ticket for a refund.

Will everything be back to normal at 5pm on Tuesday?

Probably not. The reduced services that are run during the strike could result in trains, drivers and guards being in the wrong place. I would expect disruption for the rest of Tuesday evening, with normality mostly returning on Wednesday morning.

Similarly, whilst the strike doesn’t start until 5pm on Monday, there may be some disruption in the afternoon if the train companies make the decision to cancel services and return trains to their depots before the strike begins. I don’t know if they will, but this could happen.

What are you doing during the strike?

Staying off work. Monday is a bank holiday, but I’ve booked Tuesday off as annual leave. I’m not expecting any trains to be running in my area on Tuesday. I can’t drive, and I’d need to get two buses each way to get to work. Plus, if the trains aren’t running, then I expect the roads to be even busier than usual. I’d rather not have the stress of trying to get to work, and, in any case, I have annual leave to take. Might as well make it a four day weekend.

Is this just political posturing by the unions?

I doubt it. Of course, trade unions tend to ally with Labour; we now have a majority Conservative government, and as of September last year, Network Rail is a government body. The RMT stress that this is primarily about job security and safety issues, with pay as a tertiary issue. And as a trade union member myself, I’m keen to point out the advantages of being in a trade union. Going on strike is usually a last resort, after negotiations between unions and employers, and is not taken lightly. Employers can refuse to pay striking workers (or insist that they take annual leave to strike).

May 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

The new Photos app on OS X

Screenshot of Photos on OS X

Apple recently decided to phase out its existing photo editing and management apps for OS X, iPhoto and Aperture, and replace them with a new app simply called ‘Photos‘. Photos is essentially the same as its iOS counterpart of the same name, and, through the iCloud Photo Library, is able to manage a single, synchronised photo library across all Apple’s devices – Mac, iPad and iPhone.

I’ve had a few weeks to get to grips with Photos, and so here are my thoughts. These are from the perspective of a former iPhoto user.

Migrating from iPhoto to Photos

Shortly before Photos was made available as part of the 10.10.3 update to OS X Yosemite, Apple released a small update to iPhoto to aid migration, so it’s important to ensure that this is installed. If so, then Photos offers to import your old iPhoto library. It’ll then combine this with any photos already in iCloud from your iOS devices to create one big photo library to rule them all. The import did take a while – my iPhoto library was pushing 50 GB – but once done, all the photos were imported as expected, edits and titles intact.

Unlike iPhoto, Photos is not orientated around ‘events’. All photos in iPhoto had to belong to an event; in Photos, there’s a simple ‘Photos’ stream that includes every photo you’ve taken, grouped by date and/or location. Your events are therefore converted to albums, and any albums from iPhoto are brought across as albums as well.

One of the first things I did was sort my albums by year – albums can be put into subfolders for ease of organisation. I also got rid of various ‘miscellaneous’ events that I had to create in iPhoto – photos don’t need to be in albums anymore so these were unnecessary. I’m now just using albums for when I need to collect a group of photos together, which is much better.

Editing photos

The edit functions of Photos are broadly comparable to iPhoto – red eye removal, rotation, cropping, light and colour adjustments and a one-click ‘enhance’ button. There’s also a series of filters to apply to your images – a few more than iPhoto offered. The adjustments default to basic light and colour sliders, but you can enable a histogram, white balance, sharpening and definition tools. They’re a bit easier to use that in iPhoto in my opinion.

The one-click Enhance button seems to do a better job than it did in iPhoto – it doesn’t tend to over-saturate my images. I haven’t had to do as much fine-tuning as I used to, which is nice.

Performance

iPhoto was a huge, slow application. It took up over a gigabyte of disk space and was slow at just about everything – even on the newest of Macs. Photos has been re-written from the ground up and it shows – not only does it only need 50 megabytes of disk space, but it’s significantly faster. My Mac Mini is five years old and Photos runs fine; there’s a bit of a pause when switching in and out of photo editing mode, but it’s not nearly as bad as iPhoto was.

Exporting to Facebook and Flickr

So far, this review has been quite positive. Here’s where it takes a negative turn; whilst it’s great for managing and editing images; Photos sucks at exporting. Unlike iPhoto, which had its own export code, Photos uses the standard OS X sharing features, which aren’t optimal. Here’s why.

Firstly, you will struggle to export more than 50 images at a time. It won’t even give you the option of exporting more than 50 images to Facebook, and trying to send that many to Flickr completely locks up my Mac. So you’ll need to export them in smaller batches.

You can’t create new albums when you export, like you could with iPhoto. You can only export to pre-existing albums on Facebook or Flickr. If you don’t select an album when exporting to Facebook, all your photos will go into a generic ‘OS X Photos’ album.

And my biggest bugbear with Flickr export is that it doesn’t copy across titles or descriptions. If you select multiple photos, then you can give them all the same title or description, but they won’t use the ones that you’ve set inside the Photos app. It’s fine for individual images, but for multiple photos it’s rubbish.

Ultimately, when it came to exporting a large number of photos from Flickr, I resorted to saving the photos in a folder, with the titles as the filenames, and uploading them manually. Hardly optimal, but it at least retained the titles of the images.

Three steps forward, one step back

Overall I like Photos – it’s much faster, and having all of my photos available on all devices via iCloud is nice. Editing is generally better and I feel like I can get more done than I could in iPhoto. But the problems with exporting images really takes the shine off it. I hope Apple takes the time to fix these issues for a future update.

May 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for May 16, 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 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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A case of mistaken email identity

Email for other people in my Gmail account

In the Guardian, journalist Alex Hern writes about accidentally stealing other peoples’ identities online. It’s not his fault; other people with similar names keep signing up to various web sites with his email address by accident.

It’s a problem that’s affected me as well. ‘Neil Turner’ is quite a common name; there’s at least four other people sufficiently well-known to have their own Wikipedia articles, and when I first joined Facebook, there were at least two groups for people with the same name as me. I’ve even met another person with my name, which was weird. So from time to time, I get emails to my Gmail account for other people with similar names – which I wrote about in 2013.

Since then I’ve received more emails – such that I now have a ‘For someone else’ label to file these under. The screenshot above shows some examples – these include someone else’s Vodafone account, a Southwest Airlines frequent traveller account, and other random bits. Recently I also got weekly emails for new properties available from an estate agent in Lichfield, and an unsolicited photo of a male person’s erect genitalia. There’s also a movie in that screenshot – I haven’t watched it, so I can’t tell you what it was. Perhaps more male genitalia.

Most of the time I ignore these emails, but once I did end up logging in to a MapMyRide account for someone called Nick Turner who had used my email address. Because I controlled the email address, I was able to reset the password, log in, and then delete the account, to stop the emails coming in. This was after getting a useless response from MapMyRide’s customer services. I felt a bit sorry for Nick Turner that I’d deleted his account, but you could argue that it was his fault for not typing his email address in properly.

It’s worth reading the replies to Alex’s tweet to hear other amusing stories of mistaken email identities.