Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

July 24, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Samaritans Day, and railway suicides

Screenshot of the Samaritans web site

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide.

Today is Samaritans Day, a day to raise the awareness of the Samaritans charity which provides emotional support to people in distress in the UK and Ireland. They are mainly known for providing a telephone number that you can call if you feel you are struggling to cope with life (08457 90 90 90) but also an email address – jo@samaritans.org . Today, all £4 donations received by texting MATCH to 70123 will be doubled, meaning that the Samaritans will receive £8 at no extra cost to you.

I’m fortunate that I’ve never needed help myself from the Samaritans, but I am very thankful that they are around. You may see their signs on high bridges, at the end of railway station platforms, or near suicide blackspots in the hope that someone wanting to end it all will make a phone call and talk to someone about it. Whilst it’s probably hard to quantify just how effective these are, I hope that some people will feel that they have other options.

Suicide on the railways is a big issue. Though only accounting for a small fraction of the 6000 suicides that take place in the UK every year, 238 people took their own lives on the railways in 2012. It’s a number that has been consistent since 2010 when there was a 17% rise.

Consequently, ‘a person under a train’ is almost a daily event in Britain. Trains are big, heavy vehicles that travel at high speeds and have long stopping distances, which perhaps explains why the railways are such a target for those wanting to end their lives. Whilst for passengers it’s often just the cause of delays or cancellations, for the drivers of the train it can be very traumatic, knowing that you’ve hit someone and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Train drivers in this situation often need counselling and some never work again. Plus there’s the grizzly job for the police and maintenance staff of investigating and clearing up afterwards, especially if the train or track had been damaged as a result, and informing the victim’s family.

Ten years ago, the Ufton Nervet rail crash was caused by a suicidal driver parking his car on a level crossing, which was hit by a high speed train. Sadly this resulted in the death not just of the car driver, but also the train driver and four passengers on the train. Whilst Network Rail are working on closing level crossings in future to cut the risk of trains hitting road vehicles, it was a shame that the car driver didn’t talk to someone who could have saved his life, and the lives of five other innocent people.

Britain’s railways are very safe – no passenger has been killed in over seven years now, since the Grayrigg derailment of 2007. But suicide is, sadly, still a problem. As part of Samaritans Day there are staff collecting donations at a number of railway stations today – please send some money their way, to help them save lives.

July 23, 2014
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Clarityn’s UK Pollen Forecast

Screenshot of Clarityn Pollen Count UK iOS appIt’s summer and pollen is on the loose – great for plants, but not so good if you suffer from hayfever like me. Clarityn’s UK Pollen Forecast is an app for iOS and Android smartphones which will tell you today’s pollen count, and when it’s medium or high, it can issue a push notification in the morning so that you know to take medication.

The app is simple to use, with today’s pollen levels displayed clearly, along with the most prevalent type of pollen since some people are sensitive to different types. You can also rate your hayfever symptoms for the previous day – these are collected in aggregate to give a wider picture of how pollen counts affect hayfever sufferers, but are also displayed on a ‘My results’ tab. The data on the home page is localised to your area, although these areas are quite large with mine including most of Yorkshire. A ‘National’ tab shows you conditions elsewhere – when I typed this up on Sunday, pollen levels were low where I was but higher on the south coast. This is useful to know if you’re about to travel, for example.

The ‘Advice’ tab offers some general advice for alleviating your symptoms, such as tumble-drying clothes rather than drying them outside so that they don’t collect pollen. And the ‘More’ tab includes access to the settings where you can control the push notifications – the area, severity, and the time they are pushed out.

The app is made by a drug manufacturer, so you’ll see a few marketing messages encouraging you to take Clarityn, and this includes the push notifications. Clarityn is the brand name used by Merck for the generic drug Loratadine, which I tend to buy un-branded from supermarkets or discount shops. 14 tablets, which should last a minimum of two weeks, should cost no more than £1 if you don’t buy a brand, and the formulation is exactly the same as the branded tablets. And it’s non-drowsy, so you shouldn’t feel sleepy or lethargic after taking it.

As I mentioned I am writing this on Sunday when the pollen count was ‘low’ according to the app, but I still had symptoms and had to take Loratadine to stop my nose from streaming. On other days it’s been ‘medium’ and I’ve not had problems. Everyone is different, so just because the app says that pollen counts are low, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have symptoms.

Despite these criticisms, this app works well and is the most popular pollen information app on the iOS app store. It’s free, and available on iOS and Android.

July 22, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Being less sociable

Recently I’ve taken a few steps back on a couple of social networks. They’re no longer really of much value to me and therefore not worth investing time in.

app.net

I wrote about app.net’s troubles back in May, when I said:

I liked the idea behind App.net and wanted it to succeed. But I’m not afraid to admit that if it were to disappear tomorrow, I doubt I would miss it.

app.net hasn’t disappeared but a lot of its users have. It’s been some time since I had the NetBot client on my iPhone, but until recently I had it on my iPad as well, and popped on daily to see if there was anything interesting. When it stopped being interesting, I deleted NetBot from my iPad as well. For the purposes of this blog post, I logged in today to see if anything interesting had happened in the past month – nope. It’s perhaps because I was never following many people in the first place, but either way it doesn’t seem to be worth my time anymore.

I will still post things over there, mainly because the majority of my posts were automated through IFTTT anyway and it doesn’t require any extra effort on my part.

Foursquare / Swarm

This may surprise you, as I’ve been a really avid user of Foursquare over the years, and was really enthusiastic about the launch of Swarm. But using Foursquare just isn’t any fun anymore – the incentives to check in everywhere, in the form of badges and mayorships, are gone. I’ve gone from checking in 5-6 times a day, to probably 2-3 times per week. There’s just not much point now.

I like Foursquare and its tips were really useful when we were in Dublin and looking for things to do and places to eat at. However, there’s nothing that makes me want to use it on a day to day basis. I suppose someone who is very outgoing and has lots of friends using it might see some value, but I’ve found little reason to carry on.

I’m not about to give up my account as it is useful for reflection. I imagine the next time I go away somewhere I’ll use it more often as a travel diary, for example. But there will be less checkins at supermarkets, train stations or at work, where I go everyday. It’s sad, because having been in favour of Swarm initially, I feel that Foursquare has actually broken up the community and lost a lot of good faith in the process. And ironically this came just after I’d praised Foursquare for pivoting without alienating its user base – which it then went on to do just that.

July 21, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Roku 2 XS review

Last week I purchased a Roku 2 XS Streaming Player from Amazon. Normally costing around £80, Amazon are now selling them for £55, making them just £6 more expensive than the slightly newer but more limited Roku Streaming Stick.

When I discussed streaming media boxes last month, the streaming stick was my original first choice, but this was before the drop in price of the Roku 2 XS. Compared with the Streaming Stick, the 2 XS adds a number of extra features:

  • A USB port, for plugging in external hard disks to watch video files from.
  • A Micro-SD card slot to expand its storage space from the 256 megabytes provided as standard.
  • An Ethernet port.
  • Analogue outputs for televisions that don’t support HDMI.
  • A motion-sensitive remote for playing games, with Angry Birds included.

The latter two don’t bother me too much, but extra capacity could be useful if I end up installing lots of extra channels.

I’m really impressed with it, actually. The box is tiny and can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand – in fact, the remote control is longer than the box itself. Speaking of which, the remote is simple and doesn’t have lots of seemingly useless buttons like most of our other remotes. It doesn’t come with HDMI cable as standard, instead shipping with an analogue cable, but you can get a reasonable HDMI cable from most pound shops these days. Continue Reading →

July 20, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Netflix Notifier

Screenshot of Netflix Notifier

If you use Netflix and want to find out when certain films or TV shows will become available, then sign up for Netflix Notifier. Give it a few titles to watch, and you will get emails when they become available in one or more regions where Netflix operates.

It’s pretty simple to use. You can sign up with either your email address, or your Facebook or Google accounts. Search for titles, and then click ‘Add to my list’. You’ll then get regular emails for these titles, listing the regions where the title is available.

Unfortunately you can’t exclude regions you’re not interested in yet. So I now know that the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, is available on Netflix in Brazil, but not yet in the UK. This isn’t very useful to me, as I don’t live in Brazil, although I suppose I could do some proxying and try to convince Netflix that I am in Brazil to watch it. It would be nice if the notifier could be set to only tell me when titles are available in my own country.

The service is in beta so there’s a possibility of more features being added in future. But right now it’s really simple to use.

July 19, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Delicious for July 19, 2014

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

July 18, 2014
by Neil Turner
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10,000 comments

The 10,000th comment

Sometime in the early hours of this morning, the 10,000th comment was posted to this blog. That’s 10,000 comments since September 2002, when I migrated from Blogger to Movable Type and had a native comment system for the first time.

Whilst that roughly works out at 833 comments per year, or 2.28 per day, the majority of these are from the golden days of blogging in the early to mid-part of the previous decade. Nowadays I’ll get one or two a week, if I’m lucky, and there’s rarely more than a couple of comments on any one blog post.

Back then bloggers used to read and comment on each posts a lot. I’m not saying that no longer happens now, but fewer people seem to have their own blogs now, or if they do they’re part of a smaller and more insular community. And as fewer people visit this blog, fewer comments have been left.

There are a few of you who still take the time to leave comments regularly, and I am very much grateful for your contributions.

Here’s to the next 10,000, although I expect it’ll take a lot longer than 12 years to get there. If I’m still blogging in 2028, I’ll have to see.

July 17, 2014
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

Un-cancelling Dropbox Pro

Yes, I know, that didn’t take long. But having spent a week with Microsoft OneDrive, I decided that Dropbox Pro was actually worth paying extra for after all.

I originally cancelled Dropbox Pro because I didn’t need the extra space that I was paying for, and indeed had access to enough extra space in OneDrive. So I spent most of last week moving my photos (which take up most of the space) from Dropbox to OneDrive – almost 15 GB in total. This took several days to upload, on and off.

I then decided to enable the photo backup feature in OneDrive’s iOS app. Dropbox has a similar feature, as does Google+ and Flickr – all of the photos in your camera roll are backed up. And this is one of the key reasons why I decided to go back on my original decision and re-subscribe to Dropbox Pro – OneDrive is a bit dumb. It wanted to upload every image on my iPhone again, even though they were already there, having been copied across from Dropbox.

To put this into context, this amounts to over 1000 images, plus a few videos. That’s a lot of data to duplicate. I’m lucky that both my home broadband and mobile internet services are “unlimited” but it would still take a long time and require tidying up afterwards.

This is something I mentioned a couple of years ago in the technical superiority of Dropbox. Dropbox does a lot of things to reduce the amount of bandwidth it needs, by automatically detecting duplicate files, only uploading the modified portions of files, and synchronising files on the same network directly as well as with Dropbox’s servers. And last week an update to the Dropbox desktop client enabled ‘streaming sync’, which should allow large files to upload more quickly. OneDrive is evidently a much more basic client, that doesn’t check for pre-existing files.

What’s more, when I copied all of my photos back into my Dropbox folder, there was no need to upload them all again. Dropbox keeps copies of all files deleted within the past 30 days – or, for an extra $39 a year, its packrat feature will keep any deleted files indefinitely (business customers get this as standard). So it was able to bring all 15 GB of photos back online within a few minutes, and not several days.

Of course, cloud storage is pretty much the only thing that Dropbox does as a company, so of course it has a greater focus on the quality of its product. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and most of Dropbox’s other rivals all focus primarily on other products, with cloud storage as a small sideline.

As much as I would prefer to pay less for Dropbox Pro, my experiences over the past couple of weeks have convinced me that it’s worth paying a bit more for a better service. OneDrive may now be giving me over a terabyte of storage as part of my Office 365 subscription, but I can do so much more with the 100-and-a-bit gigabytes I get with Dropbox Pro, even though it costs extra.

July 16, 2014
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

App of the Week: 7 Minute Workout

Screenshot of the 7 Minute Workout app on iPhoneYesterday I wrote about my experiences of the seven minute workout – a high intensity workout, taking around seven minutes, that you can do every day to maintain fitness. I won’t be doing it again any time soon, as I don’t think my fitness levels are quite up to being able to handle it regularly. But I do want to tell you about the app I used to help me.

The app is, unsurprisingly, called 7 Minute Workout. I’ll admit that it was the first one that came up when I searched on the app store, but it does have good reviews. It offers the original full body version of the seven minute workout, but others are also available that focus on specific areas of the body. These extra workouts are available via individual in-app purchases, although you can randomly earn some for free if you keep using the app regularly. It’s also possible to create your own workouts, or have the app pick one at random for you if you have bought multiple.

Once you’ve selected your workout, and how many times you want to do it (if you’re insane and want to extend the agony beyond seven minutes), the app will show you each exercise on the screen, and a count down. A voice will also say which exercise to do, when you have ten seconds to go, and for the last three seconds. It will then count down the ten second rest time for you. This means that you can run the app without needing to press any buttons during the workout.

You can customise most aspects of the workout – change the interval time from 30 seconds, or adjust the 10 second rest time. The voice can also be changed – it defaults to iOS’s voiceover default, but can be set to several others including ‘drill sergeant’, ‘kung-fu master’, ‘cheerleader’ and ‘hippie’ – these, as you might expect, are available with an in-app purchase.

For motivation, push notifications can be set to remind you to exercise regularly.

Overall it’s a simple app that is well-focussed on its core purpose, but with a good degree of customisation. The in-app purchases are optional and are not in your face all of the time, so it’s perfectly usable without forking out any money.

7 Minute Workout is free, and is a universal app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, requiring iOS 6.0 or later.

July 15, 2014
by Neil Turner
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The Seven Minute Workout

Chinese Water Dragon, not doing the seven minute workout

Last year, some sports scientists found that it was possible to do just seven minutes of high intensity exercise, on a regular basis, and still achieve fitness levels normally requiring lengthy runs or cycles. By doing 12 activities, for 30 seconds at a time with just 10 seconds in between, you can get your daily exercise requirements out of the way in a short space of time. Plus, no special equipment is required – you just need a chair and some clear floor space.

Whilst I’m trying to go to the gym two or three times each week, I thought I’d try the so-called ‘seven minute workout’ to see if it would be worth doing on the days when I don’t have time to go to the gym. I downloaded an app to my iPhone, which I’ll review tomorrow, and made a start.

Firstly, the ‘seven minute workout’ takes longer than seven minutes. It’s actually nearly eight minutes, if you allow ten seconds between each activity. Secondly, you need to be aware that this is a ‘high intensity’ workout. On the discomfort scale, from 1 to 10 where 1 is easy and 10 is ‘why am I doing this to myself?’, it’s about an 8.

In other words, you should already be reasonably fit before trying this workout. And as you will know from yesterday’s blog post, I’m not particularly fit right now. I got part way through exercise number 11, which is push-ups with rotations, and basically collapsed in a heap on the floor. I barely attempted the last one, which is side planking. It took me a long time to get my breath back afterwards and some assistance from my asthma inhaler was necessary.

I’m sure the seven minute workout is great if you’re a busy person wanting to maintain fitness, rather than someone like me who needs to get fitter in the first place. Maybe in a few weeks’ time I’ll be able to do it without nearly giving myself an asthma attack. But right now it’s a bit too extreme for me.