Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

April 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 18, 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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April 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Theoretically passed

Burnt out car

Two of the big things we’re aiming to do in 2015 are learn to drive, and buy a house. We’re making progress on both: we’ve had an offer accepted on a house (although we’re probably still a good 6 weeks away from getting the keys), and last week I passed my theory test.

I’ve passed the test before, but that was way back in October 2006, when I last had driving lessons. Because I didn’t then pass my practical test, my theory test certificate expired in 2008, meaning I had to take it again.

The test has changed a little bit since last time. Firstly, there are more questions – 50, instead of 35 – and a higher pass mark; you now need to get 43 questions right instead of 30. 5 of these questions form a case study, which was also new compared to last time.

The second part of the test is hazard perception, where you watch several videos and have to identify the hazards that take place. This is to make sure that you’re aware, and would have time to react appropriately in a real situation. This was new when I took it last time – back then, a series of actual video footage was used. Nowadays the videos are mocked up using reasonably realistic CGI – right down to the idiot BMW driver who pulls out in front of you.

I actually didn’t expect to pass. Even though I’d passed it before, in the week running up to it, I heard of two people who had failed it, so I assumed I would too. As it happened, I got 47 questions right out of 50, and scored 58 out of 75 for the hazard perception. To practice and revise, I used the Theory & HPT app from SmartDriving, which was recommended to me by my instructor. It’s up-to-date and comprehensive with hundreds of practice questions, and available on iOS (iPhone and iPad), and on Android. There are many other apps out there that I haven’t tried, but this one seemed to work for me.

Now I just need to pass my practical test. This week’s driving lessons suggested that I’m most of the way there but there are a number of areas that I still need to improve. Hopefully I’ll be able to take the test in the summer, by which time I’ll have had lessons most weeks for around a year.

April 11, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 11, 2015

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April 4, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 4, 2015

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April 2, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Leaders Debate

WensleydaleTonight, the leaders of the 7 largest political parties go head-to-head in a TV debate, ahead of the UK’s general election in five weeks’ time.

Whilst TV debates have been a thing in many other countries for years now, this is only the second UK general election where they’ve taken place. Last time, in 2010, there were three rounds of debates, each hosted by a different broadcaster: the BBC, ITV and Sky. And these three debates had the same three party leaders: David Cameron for the Conservations, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats and Gordon Brown, the erstwhile prime minister, for Labour.

A lot has changed in five years. Following the election, no one party achieved an overall majority in the House of Commons, and so the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government, with David Cameron as prime minister and Nick Clegg as his deputy. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, retired from front-line politics; bar a brief reappearance last year around the referendum on Scottish independence, he has kept a low profile and is standing down as an MP.

After joining the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats popularity slumped. People like me, who voted for the LibDems in 2010, felt betrayed when many of their policies were abandoned. As a result, I fully expected Britain to become more like the USA, which is, for the most part, a two-party system. Whereas in America there are the Democrats and Republicans, in Britain we would just have Labour and the Conservatives, with the LibDems resigned to the ‘Other’ category along with dozens of other fringe parties.

This didn’t happen.

More recently the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – a far-right party opposed to the European Union and wanting tighter immigration controls, has risen in popularity and displaced the LibDems as Britain’s third-biggest party. But also, the Green Party, having existed for years but never achieved much, has also seen an increase in support, following the election of its first MP in Brighton in 2010. Right now, the BBC’s ‘poll of polls’ puts Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck on 34% of the vote, with UKIP in third, the LibDems in fourth, and the Green Party in fifth.

So that’s five of the parties in tonight’s debate. The other two will be the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) who, in turn, advocate independence for Scotland and Wales. The SNP, despite losing the Scottish referendum last year, are expected to win many more seats in Scotland. Whilst Plaid Cymru do not appear to be riding on a similar tidal wave of popularity, presumably if there will be a Scottish party in the debate then it’s only fair that a Welsh party is there too.

So, in five years, we’ve gone from debates amongst just three parties, to a debate amongst seven. It’s not what I expected to happen, but I’m pleased it has – it seems that, rather than polarising around just two parties, the political spectrum in Britain has widened to encompass a broader range of opinions. Which, if nothing else, makes the result of the elections next month all the more interesting, especially as it’s highly unlikely that any one party will win a majority.

As it is, I won’t be watching tonight’s debate – I have other plans, and have already made my mind up about who I’m going to vote for.

March 31, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Fixing a blank page when updating WordPress

Screenshot of WordPress being updated

Sometimes, when trying to update WordPress using its built-in updater, I end up with a mostly blank screen. Not a completely blank one – the menu and title bar are there – but there’s no content. It’s been puzzling me for a while, and it was only today that I finally found a fix.

I run two WordPress installs. One is a dedicated single-site copy for this blog, and the other is set up as a network and holds several blogs. The single-site install happily updates automatically (which is how it should be), but the network install requires an FTP password to update. This used to be fine until I moved to the BigV server a few weeks ago, whereby I’d end up with the problem as described. WordPress would ask for my FTP details, and then, nothing.

Fortunately, this is the internet, and you are usually never the only person with a particular problem. I found this thread on StackOverflow which had the same problem, and a solution. So, if you also have this issue, add the following lines to your wp-config.php file:

define( 'FTP_USER', 'ftpusername' );
define( 'FTP_PASS', 'ftppassword' );
define( 'FTP_HOST', 'ftphostname:21' );
define( 'FTP_BASE', 'htdocs');
define( 'FTP_CONTENT_DIR', 'htdocs/wp-content/');
define( 'FTP_PLUGIN_DIR ', 'htdocs/wp-content/plugins/');

Where ‘ftpusername’ and ‘ftppassword’ are your username and password for the FTP server, and ‘ftphostname’ is the hostname (i.e. ftp.example.com). The remaining three statements tell WordPress where your install is located, to make sure it gets installed into the correct folder.

This seemed to do the trick for me, and has the additional benefit of not being asked for the FTP details every time I update.

March 29, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded: Exploding Kittens

One of the more recent projects that I’ve backed on Kickstarter was Exploding Kittens, along with over 200,000 0ther people. Indeed, it was the most-backed project ever in Kickstarter’s history, and smashed its initial goal of just $10,000 – ultimately raising almost $9 million.

The art for the game has been designed by Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, who has a formidable following on social media. Consequently it reached its initial goal within minutes of launch and stretch goals were added retrospectively.

The game is still being tested; whilst the Kickstarter ended some time ago, it’s expected to be July before the first packs are sent out. I opted for the more expensive ‘NSFW’ pack, which includes extra cards of an adult nature, along with the basic family-friendly game. If a game about kittens that try to detonate themselves can be seen as ‘family friendly’.

At $35 (plus international shipping), this was also the most I’ve ever pledged to a Kickstarter campaign, but as someone who has enjoyed The Oatmeal (and I own a couple of the books), I imagine it’s something that I’d want to buy anyway at launch. I’m looking forward to playing it later this year.

March 28, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for March 28, 2015

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March 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Plugs for international travel

Screenshot of plugs on worldstandards.eu

I’m abroad at the moment, and it was only a few days before I travelled that I realised that I didn’t know what plug sockets the countries I’d be travelling to used. Not having the right adaptors whilst there might mean that I’d be unable to charge up my devices – phone, iPad, razor, camera etc.

Across the globe, there are 15 different types of plugs and sockets in use, according to this page on worldstandards.eu. They’re labelled A-O, with N and O the newest standards. N was supposed to be a new international standard and was first introduced in 1986, but is so far restricted largely to Brazil, and O is being introduced in Thailand.

Brits will recognise type G, as this is the standard UK plug socket. It’s a decent standard, as this video from Tom Scott demonstrates, with a number of safety features. But it’s not cross-compatible with any other plug type without an adaptor.

I’m mainly visiting Oman and Jordan on my travels, and, as it happens, Oman also uses type G so I shouldn’t have any difficulty plugging my devices in. Jordan is a different matter; despite being a relatively small country with a population under 7 million, I may find plug types C, D, F, G and J all in use. Whilst some of those are cross-compatible with other types, I’m going to have to buy one of those international multi-adaptors just to be sure. At least they can agree on one supply voltage.

There’s a full list of what plug type each country uses here. Some, like Jordan, use several – the Maldives has six! – others, like the UK, just have one. It’s a handy guide for anyone who often travels to different countries.

March 22, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded: Shock Treatment

Did you know that the film Rocky Horror Picture Show had a sequel? It was called Shock Treatment, and was released 6 years after the first film in 1981. Rocky Horror was, and indeed still is, a musical stage show, but Shock Treatment was only ever a film.

That was about to change, with the launching of a Kickstarter campaign to bring Shock Treatment to the stage. It had the backing of Rocky Horror’s creator, Richard O’Brien (who plays Riff Raff in the film adaption). I pledged £10 to have my name in the programme.

I’ve seen the film a few times, and was also part of the technical crew for a stage production of it in October last year – albeit a production that was put together in only 24 hours. It’s a favourite of mine and I know most of the songs.

Sadly this was the first (and so far only) Kickstarter campaign that I’ve backed which failed to meet its target. The goal was a relatively modest £5000, but only £587 was pledged despite a long funding period.

However, it looks like the show will go on – the King’s Head Theatre is still taking bookings for the show which opens next month. Hopefully it’ll be a success and gain the cult following its more well-known prequel has.