Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 21, 2014
by Neil Turner

The Record Café, Bradford

The Record Café

Last night I went to a preview night at Bradford’s newest bar, The Record Café, on North Parade. Officially it opens tonight, and it will be a great new addition to Bradford’s new independent quarter.

The Record Café is three things. First and foremost it’s a bar, with four hand-pulled cask beers and six keg beers, along with a fridge full of bottled beer. Most of the beers are either British (Saltaire, Great Heck, Brewdog and Camden Town were present when I visited) or American, including the Anchor Steam Brewery’s Porter available in a keg – this is the first time I’ve seen their beers in anything other than a bottle in this country. There were also a small number of bottled continental beers, and an eclectic selection of gin that eschews the more common brands. No mass-produced mainstream lager here. Continue Reading →

November 20, 2014
by Neil Turner

Northern Rail’s “Intercity” services

144 Crossing the River Calder

I’m a northerner, and I travel by train a lot. At least 95% of my journeys are with Northern Rail, a franchise run jointly by Serco (to whom all your base are belong to) and Abellio, which is owned by the Dutch government. The franchise was let in 2004 on a ‘no growth’ basis – the assumption being that passenger levels wouldn’t grow significantly during the franchise period, and so there was no real requirement for any extra trains or to increase service levels.

In reality there has been a huge growth in passenger levels in the north over the past ten years. Thankfully Northern has invested in some extra trains, although these are mostly old trains that other operators no longer need, and some services have been improved. But there haven’t been any brand new trains ordered, and whilst most have been ‘refreshed’ with a coat of paint, new flooring and seat covers, internally most of Northern’s fleet retains their original fixtures.

Around the time that the rail franchises in the north were re-jigged in 2004, the intercity services that Northern’s predecessor (Arriva Trains Northern) operated were mostly split off into a different franchise – First Transpennine Express. These services received new trains. Northern was left with mainly commuter and rural services, and the internal layout of its trains reflect this. But it still operates a few intercity services that I’ll get onto. Continue Reading →

November 19, 2014
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Documents by Readdle

Screenshot of Documents by Readdle on the iPhoneThis week’s app is Documents by Readdle, an app that allows you to open documents on your iPad or iPhone.

That might not sound particularly interesting until I tell you that those documents can be located pretty much anywhere in the cloud, on your network or on a server at your workplace. Documents’ strength comes from its wide support for cloud storage services, as well as any FTP or WebDAV server, and its ability to open most document file types using its own viewers.

Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, iCloud Drive, Box, Microsoft Office 365 and SugarSync are all supported, which for many will remove the need to have apps for each installed on your device. Documents will also connect to any SMB shares on your local network, and has its own WebDAV server for uploading documents into the app, or downloading them to your computer. It’s really, really powerful.

Any files that you open are downloaded to your device, so you are working with copies rather than the original documents. Uploading these back to the cloud isn’t quite so straightforward as it should be – if you have a document open, then the save option only applies to the app’s own storage or iCloud Drive. Instead, you have to go into, say, Dropbox, and select Upload. It’s a minor inconvenience.

Of course, you can send documents to other destinations as well, and any app that supports iOS 8’s share extensions should be available to you. You could, for example, take a photo stored in Dropbox and post it to Pinterest, all whilst within the Documents app.

Having WebDAV support has been a life-saver whilst in meetings at work, since I can access any documents saved onto the network there without needing to remember to move them into Dropbox beforehand. And it’s really useful to be able to access multiple cloud storage providers in the same app.

I saved the best thing about Documents until last – it’s completely free. No in-app purchases, no adverts, no cost to download. To me, it’s a must-have.

The only other feature that I’d like is perhaps settings synchronisation between the iPhone and iPad versions of the app. If you use both devices then you will need to set up each of your cloud storage accounts on each device – it would be nice if it used iCloud to copy your settings between devices.

Documents is free, and is a universal app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

November 18, 2014
by Neil Turner


Nottingham Council House

Whilst I spent Sunday wearing a top hat and too many cogs, on Saturday Christine and I went to Nottingham to meet up with some friends from university. In the past, the only bit of Nottingham that I’ve been to has been the marina; my grandparents had a narrowboat there for several years, but the last time I’d have visited would have been around 20 years ago. Until now I’d never been to the city centre.

We took the train, which from Sowerby Bridge was three hours each way; in all we spent more time getting to or going home from Nottingham than we did in the city. Nottingham’s rail connections going north aren’t that great, but it is served by regular trains going south to London and some cross-country services.

Nottingham Railway Station

Nottingham has just the one central station nowadays, built in 1904 and recently restored with a new, glassed-in porte-cochère at the front. In fact the station has had a lot of work done recently, with changes to the track and platforms. It looks really nice and shows what can be done when a sympathetic restoration is carried out.

Sadly once you leave the station via the main entrance, no-one has really thought through how pedestrians should get into the city centre. You basically reach a huge concrete wall, with a tiny opening in it taking you into the Broadmarsh… sorry, intu Broadmarsh shopping centre. The Broadmarsh centre seems to be stuck in a 1980s timewarp (it was last refurbished in 1988) and doesn’t reflect well on the city – not at least because the name of it reminds me of Broadmoor. Thankfully its owners have plans to refurbish it again; whether these plans will go as far as turning into a more open space like Liverpool One or Leeds Trinity remains to be seen, as right now it comes across as a major barrier.

Bombardier Incentro AT6/5 tram in Nottingham

Public transport geeks (hello!) will like Nottingham for a few reasons – as well its large station, it has buses that are still run by a council-owned company, and an expanding tram network, called NET. NET opened a little over ten years ago, and unlike many other light rail schemes in Britain it has been very popular right from the start. So much so that it’s being extended and the fleet of trams increased from 15 to 37.

In our brief visit to the city the main thing we saw was the Old Market Square, and the Council House, which is the large imposing building pictured at the top of this blog post. It’s primarily home to council offices, as well as tourist information and a small shopping arcade called The Exchange. We also headed to the area around The Lace Market, which is now home to many small, independent shops including several that sell vintage clothing. Most of the city centre is pedestrianised.

When I said I was visiting Nottingham for the day most people I spoke to seemed a bit perplexed. At best, people perceive Nottingham as nothing special – whilst it doesn’t get the (unfair) bad rap that Bradford does, it’s not perceived as somewhere to go on a day out. Which is a shame because, apart from the aforementioned shopping centre issue, I quite like Nottingham. I’d be happy to go back there sometime, anyway.

November 17, 2014
by Neil Turner

Thought Bubble Comic Con, Leeds

Neil & Christine at Thought Bubble in Leeds

Yesterday Christine and I went to our first every comic convention, as part of this year’s Thought Bubble Festival in Leeds. It’s been running since 2007, and I’ve been aware of it since 2012 but this was the first time we’d been.

Running over two days, the comic con concludes the week-long Thought Bubble Festival which takes place across Leeds and celebrates comic art. It’s based at the Royal Armouries Museum, taking over the Royal Armouries Hall (recently renamed from the ‘Saville Hall’), the New Dock Hall, and a large marquee in the square outside, plus some small rooms for talks. There were hundreds of mainly independent comic book sellers, artists and all sorts across the three main venues.

Me and Christine, dressed in Steampunk outfitsOne-day passes were £15, or two-day passes for both days – for die-hard comic fans who want to attend as many talks and panels as possible – were £24, and in both cases there was a £4 discount for cosplayers. So Christine and I dusted off our various steampunk paraphernalia and dressed up for the occasion. In doing so we spent more than the £8 that we saved on the entry price but we had a significant number of positive comments about our outfits – especially the octopus fascinator that Christine bought at a previous Leeds Steampunk Market. I’d say around 10-20% of attendees were in cosplay, some more elaborate than others. Kids under 12 had free entry so there were plenty of children around, many also dressed up. We saw a small Tardis, and a young, grumpy Hulk in a pushchair amongst others.

We followed the web site’s advice and made sure that we took out plenty of cash before we got there. The bigger stalls take cards but many of the exhibitors are regular people like you and me who just do this on the side, and the one cash machine nearby usually runs out of money on Saturday morning, apparently. And we spent most of the cash that we took.

Comic books bought at Thought Bubble

Here’s the point where I’ll admit to not being an avid reader of comic books, but you don’t necessarily have to enjoy reading comics to have a good time at Thought Bubble. It did mean that we knew very few of the exhibitors – Moo and Keo being one of the only major exceptions, along with Dr Geof whose Tea Museum has recently returned from an exhibition at the Cutty Sark in London. However we did come across the official Professor Elemental comics, about the steampunk-themed ‘chap hop’ rhymer, and James Chapman whose Soundimals comics I’ve come across on Tumblr and Facebook. We bought their books, the latter signed, with a sloth illustration.

Speaking of sloths, we also had a couple of commissions, or pieces of art drawn for us. The first was by Sajan Rai, who offered to draw you as a sloth – Christine volunteered, hence the octopus. And Lucy Bellwood drew us the beautiful red panda, which we’re planning to get framed.

Commissioned pieces - red panda and sloth

Leeds’ major comic book stores – Forbidden Planet, Travelling Man and OK Comics – were also there and we picked up The Oatmeal‘s book 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth.

Part of the fun of Thought Bubble, for us, was simply people-watching. Obviously some of the cosplay outfits were amazing, although regrettably I only took one or two photos. But it was also fun looking at the bemused expressions of those who were on their way to the Royal Armouries Museum and weren’t aware that Thought Bubble was taking place – and were thoroughly confused by all the people dressed up. In Pizza Express, at lunch, we were one of two steampunk groups, with a girl on another table wearing a painted morphsuit showing all of the muscle groups in the style of a flayed corpse.

It was really good fun, and I can’t believe we’d never been before. We’ll be there next year.

November 16, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Sleeping, not shutting down

Sleep and shut down

I’ve made a recent habit change of not shutting down my Mac when I’m finished with it, but instead putting it to sleep.

In the past, every time I finished using it, I would shut it down. I typically use my Mac in the morning whilst having breakfast, and in the evening after work, so it was being booted up and then shut down twice a day usually.

The problem is that my Mac is getting old. I’ll have had it five years in February, which is longer than I’ve had any computer before; generally I’ve had a new computer every 3-4 years. And it’s starting to show, particularly when I upgraded to Mac OS X Yosemite. Whilst I like most of the changes to Yosemite, it has made my Mac rather sluggish, particularly when it comes to booting up. It can be several minutes before it’s properly ready to use.

On the other hand, all the work Apple has done to make OS X work well on laptops means that my Mac can resume from sleep mode very quickly – a few seconds, most of which is me entering my password. And as it’s a Mac Mini its electricity usage is relatively low, especially when on standby – plus I still turn off my screen and speakers. So it shouldn’t use much extra electricity to keep it on standby, and it saves me several minutes every day.

Above image is me attempting to use Adobe Illustrator without any prior training…

November 15, 2014
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for November 15, 2014

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

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November 14, 2014
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

528 bus from Halifax to Rochdale

Blackstone Edge Reservoir

Today’s blog post is about a bus service. You may be wondering if I’m scraping the barrel here – surely there’s nothing interesting about a bus service? But Diamond Geezer blogs about buses and makes them interesting, and I think that this particular bus service qualifies.

The 528 bus runs once every hour from Halifax to Rochdale, via my home town of Sowerby Bridge, Ripponden, Blackstone Edge, Littleborough and Smallbridge. Drawn on a map, it operates on a near direct south-westerly line, taking around an hour to complete the journey. And it’s quite a scenic route – the photo above is of Blackstone Edge reservoir, as between Ripponden and Littleborough the bus runs through open moorland. On a nice day it can be quite spectacular. I’ve used it a couple of times, once when I needed to get to Bury for work, and another time when the trains weren’t running because of engineering work.

It isn’t the only way of getting between Halifax and Rochdale though. It’s quicker by train, with the fastest services taking around half an hour – and they’re every half hour whereas the 528 is hourly. And there’s another bus service, the 590, which also runs hourly. The 590 runs via Luddendenfoot, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Walsden before rejoining the 528’s route at Littleborough. It takes longer – about an hour and a half – but passes through more populous settlements.

Change of operator

P927949 by Ingy the Wingy on Flickr, CC-licensed.

At one time, both the 528 and 590 were operated by First, the Scottish-owned large national bus and train company that operates the majority of buses in West Yorkshire. First still operate the 590 service, but several years ago the 528 was taken over by a company called Centrebus Holdings. This was a joint venture between the managers of Centrebus, a bus company in the midlands, and Arriva, the German-owned large national bus and train company. Last year the managers of Centrebus sold their stake to Arriva, allowing Arriva to take full ownership of the company, which is now branded Yorkshire Tiger. Their buses retain Centrebus’ orange livery but with black tiger prints on the side. It makes me smile that a bus operated by Yorkshire Tiger crosses the border into Greater Manchester.

The reason for the change in operator is because the 528 is a subsidised service. It’s not commercially viable without taxpayer support, which comes from Metro (part of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority). Over time First have pulled out of a number of subsidised services and so Centrebus won the bid when it was put out to tender, along with a number of other services which run more as a public service than for profit.


Huddersfield Bus Company 775 YJ10 EZH
Huddersfield Bus Company 775 YJ10 EZH by Ingy the Wingy on Flickr, all rights reserved.

The weak economy and austerity cuts being imposed by central government led Metro to review the services it was subsidising earlier this year. In some cases it was supporting services that were used by just a handful of people which wasn’t providing value for money, and so a consultation process was held. And one of the service proposed to be cut was the 528. Not just cut, but cancelled completely with some replacement buses running only as far as Ripponden. There would be no bus links between Ripponden and Rochdale, and those wanting to use the bus between Halifax and Rochdale would have to use the slower 590 service.

Whilst a large number of other cuts were proposed, the cut to the 528 received the most vocal opposition. In particular, the consultation was only held in West Yorkshire; residents of Littleborough and Rochdale were not asked for their views. Meanwhile the buses used on the 528 route were downsized from large single-decker Optare Tempo buses to smaller Optare Solos.

Redemption, of sorts

The outcome of the consultation was published a couple of weeks ago, and like many consultations that propose cuts, the end result was something in the middle. The 528 will still cease to exist when the changes take effect early next year, but it will be replaced with a new service called the X58 which will operate the same route. ‘X’ services are express services and this will hopefully reinforce the fact that it offers quicker journeys between Halifax and Rochdale than the 590, with the potential that more people will use it. It’ll retain the same hourly service interval as the 528, although it will not run late into the evening and its frequency will be reduced on Sundays.

I’m pleased that the bus service will be kept, even if I personally don’t use it very often. Whilst some buses can be run at a profit, it shouldn’t mean that those that aren’t profitable are withdrawn, provided that they serve a useful public service. Serving small outlying villages may not make much money for the bus companies but it can be a lifeline for the residents who rely on these services.

November 13, 2014
by Neil Turner

De-Google-ifying, part II

Google servicesLast year, in the fallout following Google’s announcement that it was killing off Reader, I decided to make an effort to reduce my dependency on Google services. The thinking behind it was essentially ‘if Google can kill off Reader, what else will they get rid of?’

Whilst I did delete all of the Google apps off my phone, barring YouTube, within a few weeks they were all back and I was basically back to where I was originally – reliant on many of the services Google offers for free.

But recently I have managed to cut back on my Google dependency.

Contacts – iCloud

I used to use Google Contacts to keep my address book in sync between my various devices – iPhone, Mac, and Windows desktop at work. Originally I used Thunderbird at work which had a couple of  unofficial extensions that synchronised the address book with Google, and my Mac and iPhone both natively supported contact sync.

And then we moved to Office 365, at which point Thunderbird just wasn’t up to the job. So I now use Outlook 2010 like everyone else, and there’s no easy way of linking Google Contacts. iCloud, on the other hand, works fine with Outlook and my Apple devices (obviously) so I successfully migrated a few months ago.

Mobile web browser – Safari

In April last year, when iOS 6 was the latest and greatest, Google Chrome was significantly better than Safari, in my opinion. However the improvements to Safari in iOS 7 and 8 have made them broadly equal in my view and so I’ve removed Google Chrome from my iPhone and iPad. Having just one web browser makes things a little easier to work with and third-party web browsers have always been second-class citizens on iOS. Plus, 1Password integrates with Safari through an app extension, which saves me having to open, close, copy and paste to retrieve passwords.

Two-factor authentication – Authy

Google Authenticator is probably the most well-known app for managing two-factor authentication codes, and indeed it was about the only one available for a long time. Now, there’s Authy, which has a few key advantages. Firstly it’s a universal app that can be installed on both iPhones and iPads, and secondly these can be kept in sync. So if I have my iPad to hand, I can use Authy on that to enter codes on my phone, rather than having to switch between apps. There are also a couple of web sites – namely Humble Bundle and Coinbase – which require Authy rather than Google Authenticator, and Authy can do everything that Google’s app can do anyway. So rather than have both, I’ve moved everything into Authy.

As for everything else, I’m still mostly using Google services. I don’t yet trust Apple Maps enough to use instead of Google Maps, even though it has improved since launch. My calendar is still in Google Calendar despite its woeful support in Outlook, because it allows Christine and I to view each others’ events. The results I get from searching with Google are better than Bing or Yahoo!. So whilst I don’t think I could ever completely give up Google, I’m pleased that I’ve been able to find better solutions elsewhere.

November 12, 2014
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Pinner

Screenshot of PinnerIf you use the social bookmarking service Pinboard, and have an iPhone or iPad, then Pinner may be for you.

Unlike rival bookmarking service Delicious, Pinboard doesn’t have an official app, but there are a number of different unnofficial apps out there, especially for iOS. I chose Pinner primarily because it supports the new share extensions in iOS8.

This means that I can select an URL in a tweet in Tweetbot, and use Pinner to save it to Pinboard with tags and a note. This is important for me as most of the links I save are tweeted via IFTTT and Buffer, and appear in the weekly digests that are auto-posted on Saturdays.

Another iOS 8 feature that Pinner supports is Handoff, which means that, theoretically at least, you can move seamlessly between you iPhone and iPad when using the app. It’s also supported on Macs running Yosemite, where it’ll open Safari if needed. However I wasn’t able to get this working between my iOS devices in testing and my Mac is too old to support handoff.

The main menu in Pinner gives quick access to Pinboard’s key features, allowing you to view all bookmarks, or just those that are public or private. There’s also a separate section for unread bookmarks if you’re using Pinboard as a read-later service (I prefer Pocket), and a screen to view and edit tags. Bulk actions are possible too. Community bookmarks give you access to the links your friends have shared and what’s popular globally.

Links can be viewed in the in-app browser, either as full web pages or in an ‘optimised’ mide which runs the pages through the Readability service. And there’s a share button to share links on Facebook, Twitter, email or any other service that supports share extensions like Pinterest.

Pinner offers a large degree of customisation, with three fonts to choose from and a dark mode, plus a number of tweaks to how the app works.

Links can be added to Pinboard using the aforementioned share extensions in other apps, by clicking the + icon in the app or by pasting any URL copied to the clipboard on the menu. Pinner will fetch the title of the page from the URL, and suggest tags.

Considering that I found Pinner just whilst searching the app store, I’m very impressed with it – it’s a powerful app that works in a way that suits me. If you use Pinboard a lot, then I would recommend it to you. It’s in active development and supported iOS 8 features long before many other apps did.

Pinner costs £3 and is a universal app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.