Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

September 7, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for September 7, 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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September 5, 2014
by Neil Turner
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The Ice Bucket Challenge

One of my lovely friends nominated me for the ice bucket challenge earlier this week. You probably know the score by now, but the idea is to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS – more commonly known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in Britain. Throwing a bucket of ice water over yourself is supposed to simulate the effects of the condition, which is terminal and normally kills its sufferers within a few years of diagnosis. There is no cure. One of my colleagues died as a result of MND a couple of years ago.

Whilst the idea is that, after being nominated, you have 24 hours to donate or be drenched in ice cold water, thankfully most of my friends have been doing both. I’ve donated £5 to Motor Neurone Disease Association. I’ve also donated £5 to WaterAid; whilst us westerners can chuck water around as it’s in plentiful supply, there are many in the world who can’t because there isn’t enough to go around. And donations to WaterAid made in the next week or so will be matched by UKAid, so they’re worth double.

Originally I planned to do this outside – however, as we’re four floors up in our flat it would have been a long, cold walk back so I did it in the shower. My wife Christine, whose laughter you can hear in the video, filmed it on my iPhone 5 using the stock camera app. It really was very, very cold – hence why I got the name of the MND Association wrong.

This was the first time I’ve ever edited a video. I used iMovie ’09 as it was already on my Mac, and apart from one tutorial to do the silly bonus replay at the end, all the editing was done just by exploring the app. It’s reasonably intuitive. The music was from Free Music Archive. I edited out the bit about nominations, but those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can see the uncut footage on there.

September 4, 2014
by Neil Turner
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The end of TwitPic

TwitPic announced that it will be closing down on the 25th September. It’s a rather sudden announcement that seems to have come out of nowhere, but relates to ongoing issues between Twitter and TwitPic regarding TwitPic’s application for a trademark. Twitter have objected and threatened to cut off their API access if TwitPic don’t withdraw their trademark application.

Whilst TwitPic are keen to paint Twitter as the bad guys here, the reality is that TwitPic only exists because originally there was no way of including an image in a tweet on Twitter. By choosing a name so similar to the service that its reliant upon, TwitPic have put themselves in a difficult position, and it’s a situation very much of their own making.

To me, the obvious thing to do in this situation would be to consider a name change to something else. Provided that Twitter are happy for them to continue using the twitpic.com domain name, but forward it somewhere else, there shouldn’t be an issue. Going for the nuclear option and shutting down completely just seems baffling to me.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that there are other reasons for this. I linked the tweet above because that was the last time I used a TwitPic image in a tweet – in April 2011. Later that year, to coincide with the release of Apple’s iOS 5, Twitter added its own image hosting service, and since then use of third-party Twitter image services has presumably declined. I think the only reasons why people would carry on using services like TwitPic would be because they used old Twitter clients – unlikely nowadays due to API changes – or because TwitPic and the like allowed animated GIFs when Twitter itself didn’t. And that’s no longer the case.

Alexa seems to agree with the overall traffic trends pointing downwards. So whilst the stated reason is Twitter taking legal action, which would cost too much to defend, I think this masks the real reason – nobody uses TwitPic anymore.

An export feature is promised (although none of my uploaded images seem to be viewable) but unless something changes all of those tweeted images will disappear off the internet by the end of the month. Which will be a shame. It’s not like we can go back an fix the broken URLs in our old tweets.

August 30, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for August 30, 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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August 27, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Allocacoc PowerCube Extended review

PowerCube Extended and PowerCube Extended USB

The folks at Allocacoc asked me to review their PowerCube range of mountable AC extension cables. Unlike regular power strips, these are cube shaped, and offer up to five sockets for plugging in AC devices. I was sent two of their products: the PowerCube Extended, and the PowerCube Extended USB.

PowerCube Extended

PowerCube ExtendedThe PowerCube Extended comes with five red sockets, all pointing in different directions. This avoids the problem of having bulky AC-DC transformers blocking adjacent sockets that other cube adaptors have. A moulded cord to plug into a wall socket leads out of the base (or whichever way you want it, as it’s a cube).

The PowerCube comes with a piece of plastic that lets you mount the cube to a wall or other surface, at the expense of one of the five sockets as it fits over the top. The plastic mount just needs a 90º turn to lock it into place, and two adhesive pads are included to attach it to surfaces. Alternatively there are also two screw holes for a more permanent fix.

The cord also includes a moveable plastic tab with a screw hole, so that you can easily hide the cable away when mounting the PowerCube.

PowerCube Extended USB

PowerCube Extended USB

If you’re like me then the thing you plug in most frequently is your smartphone. And whilst phone manufacturers have done their best to make their AC adaptors as small as possible, it’s nice to be able to do away with one altogether. The PowerCube Extended USB is like its red brother, but one socket face is replaced with two USB ports. They output at 2.1 Amps, so they’re suitable for charging bigger devices like tablets as well as smartphones. The USB ports are on the top which means that your options for mounting are a little more limited, but for me two USB ports are more useful than one regular plug socket. I’ve mounted this one on my nightstand, and I’m sure Christine will be happy about not tripping over the power strip that I had on the floor for charging my various devices previously.

PowerCube Extended

I have a couple of small criticisms of the PowerCube range. The first is the length of the cord, which is 1.5 metres (around 5 feet) for both models. This is a little on the short side, and isn’t great for people like us who live in a rented apartment with rationed plug sockets. The other is the direction of the plug sockets – whilst their differing directions are great for plugging in lots of bulky transformers, I kept ending up with some plugs upside down in a way that might stress their power cords. Perhaps in a new version of the design the plug sockets could also rotate through 90º to give a little more flexibility, although this will no doubt add to the cost.

Speaking of cost, the regular red PowerCube Extended normally sells for £22.95, but is discounted to £17.50 on Amazon right now. The grey PowerCube Extended USB is a little more expensive at the regular price of £24.99, but is also reduced to £22.95. Other suppliers are available too.

The PowerCube series also includes single cubes which can be plugged directly into a wall socket without a cord, or indeed another PowerCube, and the ‘ReWired’ variant which includes interchangeable power cords for international travel. They’ve previously won a Red Dot Design Award, and it’s easy to see why. They’re sturdy, but look good and solve a problem that I’m sure many gadget-owning people have. Whilst they are more expensive than regular power strips, by being easy to mount and, in the case of the PowerCube Extended USB, they offer USB ports that deprecate many clunky transformers. They get my recommendation.

August 26, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Dear America: Can we have Jon Oliver back please?

British comedian Jon Oliver has made quite a name for himself in America. Initially a contributor to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, he took over presenting the show last summer when Stewart was away on other projects. And he did a pretty good job of it too, by all accounts – so much so that he now has his own show on HBO called Last Week Tonight.

Whilst LWT is available in the UK on the pay-TV channel Sky Atlantic (along with many other HBO shows), HBO have also made much of the show’s segments available on YouTube – for free, and worldwide. So we get to watch some of Jon Oliver’s fantastic set pieces, like his overview of police militarisation and brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s well worth spending 15 minutes of your time to watch, and is a great example of Oliver finding comedy in what is an awful situation. To build on one of Oliver’s examples, there’s no need for a police force in a town of 8500 people to have a tank – imagine the bobbies on the beat in a town like Hebden Bridge driving military vehicles up and down the high street?

I also enjoy the series because some of the issues he raises are largely ignored by other parts of the media – his impassioned pleas about Net Neutrality for example – and the Indian elections, which were probably the biggest elections ever to happen anywhere in the world but with no coverage in America, or even here in Britain for that matter.

Whilst I am pleased that Jon Oliver has managed to so well in America, and in comedy at that, I wish he’d been given more opportunities here in Britain too. Is there any way we could have him back at some point? We could take Piers Morgan off your hands as well if that helps?

August 25, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks

Yesterday, we took advantage of the nice weather and went to Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate. The site is owned by the National Trust and features large millstone grit rock formations that visitors are free to climb on. It’s free to visit, but those who are not members of the National Trust have to pay £6 to use the car park.

I’ve been many times over the years. My parents have been National Trust members for as long as I can remember and have taken me there several times, but I also seem to remember going with my primary school class at one point in the 1990s, when marbles were the playground craze of the time. The last time was in 2007, with the university hiking club and as part of an unwieldy-sized group of 19 mixed-ability hikers. This time was with a smaller group of 10 – myself, Christine, and 8 other former members of the hiking club and plus-ones.

Christine isn’t so confident with walking so whilst most of the group did a nine mile walk around the wider Nidderdale area, we just did a stroll around the edge of the site and took photos. Some of the rocks are really impressive, rising up to 30 metres in height, and many have been given names. The Blacksmith looks like an anvil, and the Druid’s Writing Table looks like… well, a table. There’s also The Smartie Tube which has a tunnel that small people can fit through – I’m not sure if Nestlé has authorised the use of its trademark though.

Unfortunately I was an idiot and didn’t check the settings on my camera before taking the photos, so everything was taken at 1600 ISO. Thankfully I shoot in RAW so I was able to improve the photos somewhat, but they do look like they’ve been taken on a much older camera. An inadvertent retro filter, if you will. A small selection of these images are available to view on Flickr.

I doubt this will be the last time we go to Brimham Rocks. It’s a great place to bring kids – provided that you keep them under observation, they will love being able to climb the rocks. I’m sure we’ll be back when we have children of our own. And, if we pick a day like yesterday, we’ll be in plenty of company – by the time we left in the mid-afternoon, both carparks were full.

August 24, 2014
by Neil Turner
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America’s expensive healthcare system

Inhaler

Last week Les, he of the Stupid Evil Bastard blog, linked to this article about how Americans pay five times more for their medications than the French on Facebook. It drew my attention because one of the drugs it mentions is Advair, which is known as Seretide in Europe, and is one of the three drugs I take to treat my asthma.

In America, Advair costs $391 in Costco – about £236. Whereas it’s €55 in France which is about £44, more than five times cheaper. It’s the exact same drug.

In Britain prescription drugs are subsidised by the NHS, so two Advair/Seretide inhalers costs me £8.05. They would be free if I qualified for free prescriptions, by being young, old, having certain medical conditions, in receipt of benefits or if I lived in Scotland or Wales where prescription charges have been abolished altogether. The cost to the NHS is probably the same as it is in France but I only need to pay a contribution.

I’m so glad that drugs which – let’s be clear – keep me alive don’t cost me the earth. The article quotes a mother of a child who needs to take Advair but can’t afford it – by the sounds of it her insurance will only cover part of the cost leaving her to pay the remaining $99. Which is more than someone in France would have to pay in total. It’s ridiculous.

There is a lot wrong with America’s healthcare system – research from the Commonwealth Fund shows that health expenditure per capita is $8508, compared with just $3405 in Britain. And yet Britain ranks top for quality of care, access and efficiency with America at the bottom. Britain’s NHS is able to do so much more with less than half of the money that’s in the American system.

Obama’s reforms have helped, by increasing access to health insurance coverage to those previously ineligible. But whilst ‘Obamacare’ is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t fix the problem that just about everything with American healthcare is hugely and unnecessarily expensive. The system as it is now has far too many people taking their cut of the money, whether it’s the drug companies, hospitals or the health insurance providers. We in Britain are so very, very lucky to have the NHS.

August 22, 2014
by Neil Turner
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Thirteen and out

Today’s the end of my thirteen day stint at work. Whilst this wasn’t the first time I’ve done such a long unbroken period at work, it’s certainly felt more difficult than in previous years. Though unlike previous years, A-level results day was a 14 hour day for me – normally it’s less – and I gave blood on Monday which may have explained why I was so shattered on Tuesday.

Fortunately we got a HelloFresh box delivered this week, so we’ve been able to eat well without too much thought or effort being required. I was a little sceptical in my review, but then we often pay £39 for a meal out, so £39 for three meals actually saves us money if you look at it from that perspective. And it’s cheaper than ordering in Domino’s. All of the meals we’ve had so far have been great and not the sort of things we’d normally think of cooking ourselves. That being said, we’re not getting one next week as the recipes didn’t look too appetising.

I was able to finish work at lunchtime today, which means I can finally start using up the five days’ worth of time off in lieu of overtime. We have friends staying over this weekend and, as both us have worked without a break for over a week, the flat needs a bloody good clean. So whilst I wish I could put my feet up and chill, I’m going to need to finish writing this to clean the bathroom.

Hope you have a good weekend, especially those of you in Britain who have the Monday off as well.

August 21, 2014
by Neil Turner
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RAVpower Lustal Series Power Bank review

RAVpower Luster Series Power Bank

The nice folks at RAVpower asked me to review their Luster Series Power Bank, a portable battery charger for USB devices with built-in torch. It’s the size of tube of Polo mints and packs a 3000mAh battery. I’ve previously bought RAVpower’s 5-in-1 FileHub device which was really useful when in Dublin for copying photos from my DSLR camera to my iPhone to upload, and you can read my review of that here.

Design

There’s a choice of colours available – silver, black, gold, pink and blue. The power bank’s case is brushed metal, and is surprisingly light considering that there’s a battery inside. It’s certainly lighter than a Mini MagLite, and a bit shorter. It feels well-built and solid.

The torch bulb – a single LED – is at one end, and at the end is a standard USB port for plugging your devices in. Alongside is a smaller micro-USB port for recharging the internal battery, and a button for switching the torch on and off.

RAVpower Luster Series Power Bank

Torch

The power bank’s torch is impressive. On full power it lit up a pitch-black small room with no problems. There’s also a half-power setting, and then a strobe setting which flashes the LED rapidly. You can cycle through these three settings by pressing the power button. According to the manual, the torch can last for up to 120 hours when the battery is fully charged, providing five days of continuous light if needed.

Charging

As for charging other devices, you can plug in anything that has a USB cable. A USB to micro-USB cable is provided, mainly for the purposes of charging the power bank unit itself, but this will work with most non-Apple smartphones. Apple users like me will need to plug in a 30-pin iPod Dock cable or a Lightning cable to use it, which isn’t included.

RAVpower Luster Series Power Bank

Output is 1 Amp, according to the manual. This means it won’t be as quick as the 2 Amp wall chargers that usually come with devices these days, and you may find that tablets won’t charge. My iPad didn’t seem to complain when I plugged it into the power bank – normally it would display ‘Not charging’ when there’s not enough current – but it was already fully-charged so I can’t be sure. The manual states that the power bank, when it is fully charged, can in turn fully recharge an depleted iPhone 5. Whilst some larger battery packs will charge phones several times over, they’re much bigger than this. Charging from 45% back up to 100% took under an hour so it’s still very quick.

Whilst charging the power bank, the bottom end (where the ports are) glows red, and this changes to blue once fully charged.

The power bank normally retails for £40, but they’re currently just £9 on Amazon, which is fantastic value for money. I’m happy to give it a strong endorsement.