Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 15, 2014
by Neil Turner
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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
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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

P9279494
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.

Cuts

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
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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
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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.