Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 12, 2014
by Neil Turner
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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.

November 11, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Remember film cameras?

Me and my EOS 300D Want to feel old? Then watch this video of kids’ reactions to a film camera. It’s a good reminder of just how much photography has changed over the past 15 years.

I used film cameras right up until around 2003 – so most of the photos from my first year at university were shot on 35mm film that I had developed at Jessops (the high street photography shop that went bankrupt and then came back from the dead). Whilst I have most of these photos on my computer now, that was only because I scanned the negatives. I’ve still got plenty of paper wallets with prints lying around at my parents’ house.

My first brush with digital photography was with a camera that belonged to a friend’s father, in around 1999. The images were 640×480 in size – 0.3 megapixels – and were in the proprietary FlashPix image format, rather than JPEG. And it cost around £300. Suffice to say the image quality wasn’t great – certainly far worse than what compact film cameras could do at the time.

The first digital camera I owned was a second-hand Fujifilm DX-10, which used SmartMedia cards – basically giant SIM Cards with an exposed chip and a maximum capacity of 128 MB. Maximum resolution was 1024×768 – 0.8 megapixels – but with a decent enough lens to take good pictures. It took 4 AA batteries so it was quite heavy.

Nowadays I shoot with my Canon EOS 450D, which has a 16 GB SD card and takes images at 12.2 megapixel resolution, or my iPhone 5, which has an 8 megapixel back camera and 64 GB on-board storage, plus effectively unlimited cloud storage.

If I still owned a film camera, then to share a photo I’d just taken, I’d need to finish the film, take it to a shop, wait at least an hour, then take the photos home and scan them in. Nowadays it’s a couple of taps on my phone’s screen.

Whilst it’s nice to reminisce about the analogue days, I would not consider going back to using a film camera. Digital photography offers so much convenience.

November 10, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Travelling smarter

Travel smart cards - Oyster (London) & MCard (West Yorkshire)

I’m now the owner of two smartcards for travel, pictured above.

Oyster

On the left is my Oyster card. I don’t live in London, and generally only visit once or twice each year, but it’s cheaper to travel with an Oyster card than to pay cash. I keep it topped up, and just use the pay-as-you-go balance when I’m visiting. Whilst nowadays contactless bank cards can be used in place of Oyster cards across London, my bank hasn’t given me one yet, and as London buses no longer accept cash it’s almost a necessity.

I’ve had an Oyster card since around 2005, although this specific card is quite new as I managed to lose my previous one, again.

MCard

The other card is my MCard, which is also new and is the card I use every day for commuting to work. West Yorkshire has been somewhat behind, when compared to London, at rolling out smartcards – the MCard only began rolling out last year. It replaces the paper MetroCards that have been used up until now. Usefully it will open the ticket barriers at Leeds and Bradford Interchange stations so I don’t have to queue to be let through with my paper card as before.

The two cards are quite different. My MCard has my photo on the other side – presumably because it’s an annual card. But they also use different systems. Oyster uses MIFARE, a proprietary system first made available in 1994. MCard uses ITSO, which is an open specification, so it can be used with equipment from a variety of different manufacturers. Almost all travel smartcards, barring Oyster, use ITSO, including the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme which provides free bus travel to retirees and disabled people.

Each area has its own brand of ITSO smartcard with MCard being the name used in West Yorkshire, by Metro. For example, in Greater Manchester, the cards are known as ‘getmethere’, ‘Walrus’ on Merseyside and ‘TravelMaster’ in South Yorkshire. There are also some national schemes run by operators – ‘The Key’ is branded by the Go-Ahead Group and used on its buses on the south coast, Oxford and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as its rail services (Southern, London Midland, and presumably Thameslink and Great Northern).

However, all of these ITSO systems should be interoperable with each other. So I could, at least in theory, add a season ticket for London Midland to my MCard, in addition to the existing West Yorkshire Zones 2-5 season ticket that’s already on there. In reality, having a card from a different area may confuse human ticket inspectors.

As far as I am aware, all of the Oyster card readers in London can also read ITSO cards so it could be that the current MIFARE-based cards are eventually discontinued. That would mean that all cards use the same standard. Transport for London seems more keen on contactless cards, but as these can’t hold season tickets, and are only available to those with bank accounts, I imagine that the Oyster card is here to stay.

November 9, 2014
by Neil Turner
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How I came to be on the ‘Chav’ page of Wikipedia

Chavination II

The picture above is me. And, three years ago, this photo appeared in the Wikipedia article about ‘Chavs’. Here’s a link to the last revision – second photo down. I suppose I’d better explain why the photo came to be, and how it came to be on Wikipedia.

The photo

Chavination The photo was one of several taken of me, by friends but on my camera, in March 2005 whilst at university. I must stress that, even at the time, this was not how I used to dress normally – this was a fancy dress party where the theme was ‘chavs’. It was in honour of a friend who had recently started teaching in a school in a Yorkshire town, which, at the time, was known for having a population of people you could describe as ‘chavs’ – ‘a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes’, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary.

The clothes were mostly bought cheaply from a charity shop especially for the occasion, and haven’t been worn since – I may have actually thrown them away in a previous house move. I’ve been informed that a real chav would not wear a Puma jacket.

After the event I uploaded the photo (and the one on the right) to Flickr.

So how did it end up on Wikipedia?

I had no part in this, but a Wikipedia user must have found the image,  uploaded it to Wikimedia Commons and then added it to the page. Which they would be within their rights to do – the image is licensed under Creative Commons with a license that is compatible with Wikipedia. So I’ve implicitly allowed this to happen.

Whilst the photo is not on that page anymore, and not linked from any other Wikipedia pages, at time of writing that photo is the second result for a Google Image Search for ‘chav’, so it has made it into several derivative works. A friend posted an image that was supposed to be ‘people from Castleford’ containing the photo – I’ve never been there apart from passing through on the train once or twice.

How do you feel about this?

Honestly? I’m generally non-plussed about it. It’s just something that happens on the internet, I suppose. As far as I’m aware nobody has turned it into a meme yet, at least.

Pretend chav meme

November 8, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for November 8, 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 7, 2014
by Neil Turner
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A day out in Hawes

Hawes

I was on annual leave all of last week, and so on Wednesday I and a couple of friends went to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales for a day out. Hawes, pronounced like ‘hoares’ (and yes, there are plenty of jokes based on its name) is a small market town in the famous valley of Wensleydale.

Of the three of us, none of us can drive or has access to a car, so this was a trip done by public transport.

Hawes does have a railway station, but no trains have called there since 1959, and it’ll be quite a while before the Wensleydale Railway reaches it. The next nearest station is at Garsdale, on the wonderful Settle-Carlisle Railway, which this year celebrated 25 years since it was saved from closure by British Rail. It’s still a few miles away, is only served by six trains a day in each direction, and like many stations on the line is in the middle of nowhere.

Thankfully it’s connected to Hawes by the Little White Bus, which charges a £3.50 per person flat fare each way. It’s timed to meet some of the trains at Garsdale, although be aware that some journeys don’t normally run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays – we made this mistake and nearly got stranded in Hawes coming back. Outside of these times it operates on a request basis, so if you do need to travel you can phone them in advance.

Hawes’ main attraction is the Wensleydale Creamery, which produces Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese (now an EU Protected Origin product). After closing in 1992, it was rescued in a management buyout, and now employs almost 200 people and supports 36 local farms. The creamery includes a small museum, charting its history and how the cheese is made – on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays you can actually see cheese being made, but we went on Wednesday so we didn’t. There’s also a huge shop, selling all of the varieties of cheese produced there with ample free samples, a café and a restaurant. You can probably spend up to a couple of hours here, and then it’s just a short walk back into the town.

Hawes

The town itself is lovely, with narrow cobbled streets and plenty of small, independent shops. And, like most Yorkshire towns, several pubs serving local ales. Elijah’s is a good food emporium, and there was an excellent quirky second-hand bookshop.

Other attractions include the Ropemakers – a rope manufacturer that allows you to walk through its workshops and see how their ropes are made (and buy some yourself), and the Dales Countryside Museum, which we didn’t visit.

Earlier this year the first stage of Tour de France passed through Hawes. Having descended from Buttertubs pass, the peleton rode south into Hawes and then took a sharp right heading off east. There are still plenty of cycling and tour-themed things in the town, even though it’s been several months since the race.

All in all we had a really nice visit, even though it took me three trains and a bus each way to get there, and cost me over £20 in bus and rail fares. It was worth it though and I’d happily go again – but probably by car next time. All the photos from my visit are on Flickr.

November 6, 2014
by Neil Turner
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At the mercy of the search engine gods

Screenshot of weekly visitor stats

Anyone who works in search engine optimisation (SEO) – the process of getting web sites to rank higher in search engine results pages – will know that you’re at the mercy of a largely opaque algorithm which decides how important each web site is. And it’s an algorithm that changes, so you have to keep up and ensure that your web sites change with it.

I’m not big on SEO when it comes to this blog. I use the WordPress SEO plugin for help with writing blog posts in a way that will help them rank better on search engines, but not all of the time. Indeed, I probably won’t for this post – ironically, given that it’s about SEO. Conversely, Monday’s Netflix post was optimised prior to publishing to hopefully make it more visible.

Anyway, I posted a screenshot from my stats above because you’ll notice there’s been an upward trend in visitors to the site in recent weeks. This started at roughly the same time as a recent Google algorithm update, called Penguin 6. It appears that Google now thinks my site is more important, so my pages are ranking higher and more people are clicking through. This is good news for me – after all, I don’t write blog posts so that no-one will read them, but it’s also good from a financial perspective. The more people that visit my site, the more chance there is that people will click on the banner ads, or the affiliate links, and these help to off-set my hosting costs. Note that I haven’t made a profit from advertising on this site for several years now, but any money coming in is better than none.

In the golden days of blogging, which were around 10-12 years ago, the majority of people who clicked through to my blog were regular readers – many of them bloggers themselves. But nowadays most of my traffic is from people stumbling across old posts in search engines. So the ‘success’ of this site is primarily reliant on the mysterious ways of Google – referrals from there account for around 90% of my incoming traffic. Whilst I’m pleased that the Google gods are currently smiling on me, I’m aware that it only takes another algorithm change for everything to change again.

November 5, 2014
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: QuietScrob

Screenshot of QuietScrob on the iPhoneAfter (another) hiatus, it’s time for another App of the Week!

This week I am reviewing QuietScrob, an app for scrobbling music plays to last.fm. It’s quite a simple app but it works differently to other apps which scrobble your music plays.

In the past, I’ve used different methods of scrobbling music from my iPhone. The simplest way is to use the last.fm desktop client with iTunes, which should update last.fm whenever you synchronise your phone and iTunes, but I’ve found it to be a bit unreliable with many duplicate scrobbles.

More recently I’ve tried using alternatives to the stock Music app on my iPhone – Scrobbler, last.fm’s official player (my review) and Ecoute (my review). But Scrobbler hasn’t been updated in nearly a year and still looks like a pre-iOS 7 app, and since iOS 8 came out Ecoute’s scrobbling feature only seems to work erratically, despite some updates.

QuietScrob differs because it isn’t a music player in itself – it quietly sits in the background of your device and will scrobble the songs you play from the stock Music app. Theoretically it’ll also work with some other third-party music players too, but I assume that it will only detect plays from apps which use the library on your device. For example, I tried playing a song that I streamed from Bandcamp in its app, and QuietScrob didn’t pick it up.

To get it running, you connect it to your last.fm account, and… well, that should be it. QuietScrob should then detect music plays every few minutes and then quietly send these to last.fm in the background. I say ‘should’ because in my experience it didn’t run in the background, even though Background App Refresh was enabled for it. I’ve found that I still need to open the app at least once per day. However, it has managed to upload all of my music plays with just the occasional track scrobbled twice, which I put down to quirks when synchronising with iTunes.

The app’s interface shows the songs that you’ve played, and a status icon – green tracks have been scrobbled and blank ones haven’t. You can tap a song to remove it; useful if you’re listening to Justin Bieber and don’t want the world to know. There’s also a Notification Centre widget which shows the five most recently scrobbled songs that you can enable.

QuickScrob, like most apps these days, is free with an in-app purchase option. Without the in-app purchase, you’re limited to how many songs you can scrobble each hour – the 69p in-app purchase lifts this restriction.

Overall, I like QuietScrob. It’s simple and lets you carry on using the stock Music app on your devices, rather than compromising with a third-party app. I hope that the issue with it not scrobbling in the background will be fixed soon.

QuietScrob is a free download (with in-app purchases), and is a universal app for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

November 4, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Back in at The Deep end

Angelfish at The Deep in Hull

After our trip to Bruges, we arrived back in Hull quite early on a Sunday morning. At this point we could have just got a taxi back to Hull Paragon station and got the first train back home, but instead we decided to visit The Deep.

The Deep is one of the world’s largest aquariums, with a huge central tank home to several species of shark, swordfish, stingray and many other fish, plus several other smaller tanks. Christine and I last went in 2010, and I also went with my Dad in 2o05, so this was my third visit. On the whole, not a lot has changed since it opened in 2002, but one of the main reasons we visited was for its newest attraction – penguins! Continue Reading →

November 3, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Netflix – 8 tips to get the most from your subscription

Screenshot of the Netflix home page

We’re a few months into our Netflix subscription and on the whole we haven’t been getting as much value out of it as I expected us to, which is a shame. I had considered cancelling it, as it’s not worth paying for something that I don’t use. And whilst I’m still open to that idea if we’re still not using it much in a few months’ time, I decided to rethink how we’re using Netflix rather than going for the nuclear option straight-away.

So, here are my tips for making the most of your Netflix subscription.

1. Add lots of titles to your list

Netflix has a ‘queue’ of sorts, called My List, where you can add films and shows that you want to watch. These could be films that you haven’t seen before, or TV shows that you want to watch again, or childrens’ shows that your kids want to watch over and over again. Keeping lots of titles here will mean that you avoid the situation where you open Netflix to watch something but then can’t immediately think what you want to watch.

2. Add TV shows to your list

Netflix, despite its name, isn’t just about ‘flicks’, i.e. movies/films. There are plenty of TV shows on there, and in some cases you can watch every season. So add a few TV shows to your list as well as films – that way, if you don’t have enough spare time for a whole film, then you can watch a quick half hour TV show.

3. Install Netflix’s mobile apps to add to your list on the go…

Let’s say you’re out with your friends, and someone recommends a film or TV show to you. If you have the Netflix app on your phone, you can simply add it to your list there and then. No need to write it down or try to remember it and then forget it. And then you can watch it when you have the time to do so.

4. …or to watch things on the go

Admittedly watching films and TV shows on a smartphone screen doesn’t make for a good experience. But if you have a generous data allowance on your mobile contract and nothing better to do, then why not pass the time with a quick TV show? Even better if you have a tablet with a larger screen. And it’s great for sick days when you can’t face getting out of bed to watch TV.

5. Watch films in bits

Netflix remembers your position when watching content, even if you break off and have to do something else. So if you don’t have time to watch a full feature-length film, just watch a bit of it. Then, pick it up again when you have some more time. The position will synchronise between the web site and apps, so you could start watching a film on your Roku or Apple TV, then watch a bit on your iPhone before finishing it off on the web site.

6. Build up your taste profile for better recommendations

One of Netflix’s big selling points is its ability to recommend films and TV shows to you that you may not have come across. As you watch content on Netflix, it learns what you like and, over time, its recommendations should improve. However, when you first get started Netflix may struggle to suggest anything sensible, so spend some time on the ‘taste profile’ tab on the web site to refine its suggestions. Or just browse around and rate any films and TV shows that you have already seen.

As Netflix’s recommendations improve, you’ll hopefully find some interesting new content to add to your list.

7. Find out when new releases are available using Netflix Notifier

Netflix Notifier is a third-party site which lets you create a watchlist of films that you want to see, but that aren’t on Netflix yet – and then emails you when they become available. I reviewed it in July when I added four films – of those, so far only Hunger Games: Catching Fire has become available to watch in the UK.

8. Use a VPN to access another country’s library

Because of the weird and wonderful world of international copyright licensing agreements, the selection of films and TV shows differs between each country that Netflix operates in. A way around this is using a VPN – a Virtual Private Network – to fool Netflix into thinking you’re based somewhere else. So a British user could use a VPN located in the US to watch shows that would be otherwise unavailable. Be aware that you’ll probably have to pay extra for a decent VPN connection. And bear in mind that film studios are pressuring Netflix to block access from VPNs – whilst it would be impossible to block every VPN, some of the more popular ones may get locked out.

How to work out whether Netflix is worth it for you

Netflix is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet, when compared to ‘a la carte’ services like Google Play and Blinkbox where you pay for each individual episode or season. To take the example of Channel 4 show Misfits, Blinkbox charges £1.89 per episode or £8.99 per series; if you watch four episodes in a month, then Netflix is cheaper as it costs £5.99 per month. Films on Blinkbox are typically around £2.50, or more for new releases.

So if you’re watching, say, two films, or four TV shows, or a film and two TV shows each month, then you’re probably getting your money’s worth. If not, and you’ve tried all of my suggestions above, then you may wish to reconsider whether a subscription service like Netflix is best for you. You may get better value from other sites where you pay for each show individually.