Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 25, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Thirty-two

Ducks in the Fountain

So today’s my birthday. I’m 32, which isn’t a particularly notable age, other than the realisation that my GCSE exams were half a lifetime ago. So rather than ramble on about how I’m feeling old, I thought I’d look back at what I’ve written on my birthday in previous years:

I’m actually surprised that several years went by where I didn’t think to write anything on my birthday. That may have something to do with not having the ability to schedule blog posts in advance back in ye olden days. 2005 was a particular surprise, as back then I often posted new entries multiple times a day – this was in the days before Twitter and the like.

As for 2017? Well, I have a whole year to think of something to write, I suppose.

We’re not doing much for my birthday – I’m at work as normal today (and have a two hour afternoon meeting!) but we’ll probably go out for dinner tonight.

May 24, 2016
by Neil Turner
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mPow Magneto wireless Bluetooth headset review

Photo of mPow Magneto wireless Bluetooth headset

When my latest set of headphones stopped working in one ear, thanks to a loose connection in the jack, I decided that it was probably about time to get rid of the wires altogether and go wireless. I’d previously tried some cheap no-brand Bluetooth headphones in 2014, which were terrible – a non-standard charger cable, poor sound quality and cheap plastic-y construction. I think I used them once – I’d bought them for the gym but then stopped going and haven’t been back since.

After browsing through Amazon, I came across these mPow Magneto headphones. The reviews were generally good and they ranked as the number best-seller in wireless headphones. I purchased them for £16, but at the time of writing they’re selling for less, making them a bargain.

The headphones aren’t completely wireless – there’s a flat wire between the two earpieces which also has a remote control on the right side. But they’re less prone to tangling than regular wired headphones and you can run the wire behind your neck. The ‘Magneto’ name refers to the magnets in the earpieces – you can attach them together and wear it as a sort of necklace when you’re not listening to them.

The remote control has volume control buttons, and a general purpose button used for turning them on and off, and for pause the current playing track. There’s also a microphone, and when paired with a phone you can use it to make and receive telephone calls. The right earpiece has a micro-USB port for charging – a full charge takes about an hour and gives around 8-10 hours of music playing in my experience.

Pairing with your device is straightforward, and if your device supports the Bluetooth Battery Service, you’ll be able to see how much charge your headphones have left. My iPhone 5S supports this; when connected, the Bluetooth icon in the top right gains an additional battery indicator and a new ‘Battery’ widget appears on the Today pull-down. The mPow Magneto will also play an audible warning every 5 minutes once you get below 30% battery remaining.

Sound quality is pretty good – decent bass and reasonable clarity. Audiophiles will probably want to spend more on something better, but I was pleasantly surprised – I’ve used wired headphones with worse sound quality before. Although sometimes radio interference affects the range – the sound can become choppy if your device is more than a foot away from your headphones, but it depends where you are. Other times it can be a couple of metres away and be fine.

Going wireless does have its downsides. As far as I can tell, you can only pair your headphones with one device at a time, whereas you can plug wired headphones into any device with a 3.5mm audio jack. Although you can use the headphones whilst they’re charging, you may have physical difficulty getting the right earbud to sit in your ear as you do so. Plus, the need to recharge your headphones once or twice a week may put some people off, as will the extra battery drain on your phone or device (especially if you normally have Bluetooth turned off). But not having to unknot wires that then dangle and pull when running is quite liberating.

There are better headsets out there, if you’re prepared to pay more. But the mPow Magneto is fantastic value for money and gets my recommendation. I use them daily and have been really impressed with them.

May 23, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Nesting

Our Nest Smart Learning ThermostatAlong with our new boiler, we also got a new thermostat – a Nest Learning Thermostat. I’d actually bought it in January, in the hope that it could be fitted to our existing 1970s central heating system. With both Christine and I being on maternity and paternity leave respectively, we were at home most of the day and so the heating was on almost constantly – I hoped that a better thermostat would cut the amount of energy required. Alas, the fitter who came to install it told us that our system was too old – he could fit it, but it would only power either the hot water or the heating, and not both at the same time.

Now that we have a more modern boiler, we could also make use of the new thermostat.

The previous thermostat also dated from the 1970s and was a basic model that, theoretically, would heat the house until it reached the set temperature and stop. But I’m convinced that it didn’t do the latter – the heating would still be on even when it was utterly roasting. With such an old system, the fault could have been in any one of several places. Either way, it’s not an issue now.

Whereas the old thermostat was upstairs, we’ve fitted the Nest in the dining room. You can install it using the standard thermostat cables to your boiler, or there’s a micro-USB socket and an AC adaptor included. We decided to go for the latter, in case we want to move it somewhere else. It’s quite easy to fit to the wall and the backplate even includes a spirit level to help you align it correctly.

The Nest offers several useful features:

  • It learns how long your heating system takes to warm up. So if you want the house to be warm by 7:30am, you tell it that, rather than telling it to come on at 7am in the hope that your house will be warm enough by then.
  • You can tell the thermostat that you are away, allowing it to maintain the house at a cooler temperature, thus saving energy.
  • Your thermostat can be managed using official apps for smartphones or tablets, or on the web.
  • It has a motion detector, so the display turns off when no-one is about. It can also turn your heating down if it detects no motion in the house for some time.
  • Integration with IFTTT and other smart home technologies.

Whilst it’s been a warm couple of weeks, thanks to the Nest our heating has only needed to be on for an average of 30 minutes per day. I’m hoping that it will save on our energy bills – my mother-in-law has one, and she credits hers for halving her gas bill.

May 22, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Withering Spoons

sir Titus saltOver the 14 years that I’ve been living and/or working in Bradford, I’ve often frequented ‘The Sir Titus Salt’, one of almost 1000 pubs in the UK operated by JD Wetherspoon.

Wetherspoons, as they’re more commonly known as, have a pub in just about every town – we even got one in Sowerby Bridge recently. They’re something of a British institution, and are one of the few big pub chains that manages to offer something to just about everyone. Bradford has two Wetherspoon pubs – for now. Wetherspoon is planning to ‘dispose’ of 45 of its pubs and the Sir Titus Salt is one.

The pub is named after the founder of Salt’s Mill and creator of the Saltaire model village north of Bradford – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although ironically he prohibited ‘beer shops’ in his town, so it’s perhaps ironic that a pub is named after him. It’s in the old Windsor Baths – Victorian-era public swimming baths that have been converted into a series of pubs and bars. Indeed, the interior decor has an aquatic theme, especially in the toilets.

Wetherspoon’s other pub in Bradford, The Turl’s Green, is a mere stone’s throw away in a new-build unit in Centenary Square. Having two pubs so close together may be one reason that Wetherspoon has decided to sell the Sir Titus Salt, and from a competition point of view I suppose it’s probably a good thing. But I worry that any new operator won’t be as good.

The pub and bar scene in Bradford has changed considerably over the past few years. The other tenant of Windsor Baths is Tokyo Industries which has four bars, including its Brew Haus chain, which does many of the things that Wetherspoon pubs do but in a trendier way. There’s also all of the bars on North Parade, including the Sparrow which is celebrating its fifth birthday this weekend.

I’ll be interested to see what happens to the Sir Titus Salt and what it becomes.

May 21, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 21, 2016

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

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May 20, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Adventures with a black box

The black box in my car

There’s currently a small, circular black box in my car.

It’s a piece of electrical equipment that my car insurance company (Diamond, part of Admiral Insurance) sent to me, that connects to the 12-volt cigarette lighter port on the console. I’m to keep it plugged in while I drive for the next three months, and then return it.

The device will record how I drive, presumably using accelerometers, to make an assessment as to how risky of a driver I am. If I drive safely, breaking slowly and softly and not accelerating hard, and avoid driving too much at night, then I should get around 20% knocked off my insurance premiums when I come to renew in the autumn. And as I’ve been a fully qualified driver for less than a year, a 20% discount equates to quite a big saving – about £150 based on this year’s premium.

The box was sent to me free of charge, and, provided I return it on time, it won’t have cost me anything. The only risk is that if my insurance company thinks I’m a careless driver, that my premiums could go up instead (only around 80% of customers experience a reduction in premiums). But I think I’m a reasonably good driver – I tend to value fuel economy over speed – and I only brake hard if I have to.

For young drivers, so-called ‘telematics’ insurance policies are increasingly popular as they’re sometimes the only way that teenagers can afford to drive. InsureTheBox is one such firm – their black box is professionally fitted (presumably taking data from the car’s ODB2 port), but comes with additional benefits. A driver who was left unconscious following an accident was saved because his insurance company notified the emergency services.

For now, I’m just using this little black box for three months. It comes with a USB port, which is handy as I had to unplug my existing car USB adaptor to be able to use it. Also, it’s currently stuck to my car using gaffer tape as the provided sticky pads did not want to stick to the bumpy plastic panels of my Nissan. It fell off literally seconds after I took the photo above.

My car insurance renewal is in September so we’ll see what effect this has nearer the time.

May 17, 2016
by Neil Turner
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New boiler

Photo of our new boilerIn addition to a new downstairs bathroom, we’ve also invested in a new central heating boiler for our house.

This was mainly a necessity rather than a desirable enhancement. The existing boiler dates from 1976, making it 40 years old, which is far older than most boilers – by comparison, my parents have had their boiler replaced twice in this time. If it broke down, I doubt we would have found anyone able to fix it and so we would have needed a new boiler anyway, so we might as well get a new one at a time that’s convenient for us. With Christine still on maternity leave, and the weather warming up, last week seemed like a good time to do it.

The old boiler was a so-called ‘back boiler’, located in one of the chimneys in the house and with a gas fire in front; there were also two other gas fires in the house that we had removed in the summer. We also had a large hot water tank upstairs in what will be Elizabeth’s room. The new boiler is a combination boiler that provides both heating and hot water, so the old boiler, hot water tank and gas fire were all removed as part of the works. Additionally, we had to have the boiler in a different place, as it wouldn’t have fitted in the chimney and would’ve been awkward to access even if it did fit. So it’s now in the kitchen.

As it’s a newer-style condensing boiler, it should use significantly less gas than the previous boiler. Which is good – we spent a fortune over the winter as Christine was at home all day with Elizabeth during the coldest months of the year. It’s manufactured by Worcester-Bosch – one of the better makes and comes with an 8 year guarantee. There’s also a filter, to remove impurities from the water in the system, thus pro-longing the life of the boiler – that’s the black thing on the pipes in the photo.

We got two quotes for the work. The first was our current energy supplier – a large British firm specialising in Gas, who quoted us over £6000 for the work. Thankfully a local firm quoted us less than £4000, so we went with them. They managed to do the job in two days, rather than three, and we got an interest-free credit deal for two years.

As well as the new boiler, we also got a new thermostat (more on that later), and four new radiators in the downstairs rooms. One of these, in the kitchen, replaced a hugely inefficient electric radiator; the others replaced existing radiators that were removed and stored during our earlier renovations, but haven’t worked well since they were reinstalled.

Whilst the work has been costly, I’m hoping it will pay off in terms of lower gas bills, and should mean that we’re not stuck with a broken boiler in the middle of winter.

May 16, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Making a house a home (part VIII)

Photo of our downstairs bathroomIt’s been a little while since my last update on renovating our house – January to be exact. We’ve actually been spending time working on other peoples’ houses in the meantime – my mother-in-law needed her hallway repainting and we returned a favour by helping a friend who helped us a lot last summer.

The big change is in ‘the triangle room’ – for context, see this blog post from September. We’d always intended for this to be a downstairs cloakroom with a toilet and washbasin, and, now it is. We bought the toilet, washbasin and a matching tall cupboard from a local bathroom store at a decent discount, and then got a local plumbing firm to fit it. The main aim of this is to allow my mother-in-law to visit – she’s disabled, and can’t get upstairs, so having a downstairs facility will mean that she can finally come and visit us. For this reason, we’ve bought a taller toilet.

Alas, we can’t use any of it yet. The location of our sewerage pipes means that we’ve had to have an electronic macerator fitted, and that still needs to be wired in. And when that’s done, we’ll need to be very careful about what actually gets flushed down the toilet.

The rest of the room needs finishing off – there’s no paint on the walls, no floor covering and no tiling around the washbasin – but we’ll get to these jobs in time. We’re also looking at buying some more wall-mounted cupboards, so that we can carry on using the room as a storeroom – albeit, a more tidy one.

May 15, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Departing Azeroth

Screenshot of World of Warcraft account being deactivated

After almost 10 years, today I deactivated my World of Warcraft account.

I’ve played the game precisely once during Elizabeth’s lifetime, at Christmas – she’s approaching 5 months old and I haven’t logged in during that time. Playing games has dropped down my priority list and I just don’t have time anymore.

There are other reasons. It costs money to pay and we’re a bit short of that at the moment, following another couple of recent household expenditures and the fact that Christine’s earning less due to being on maternity leave. It’s an expense that we can do without.

But I’m also not enjoying the game as much. The ‘golden years’ for me where 2007 to 2009, when I played alongside my then girlfriend and in an active guild. Most of my fellow guildmates have since quit, or are spread out across different servers. Most of the time, I’ve been playing on my own or in ad-hoc ‘pick-up groups’ (or ‘PUGs’) which aren’t always a pleasant experience.

There’s also the issue of the next expansion, Legion, which is due to be released later this year. Normally I look forward to expansions – especially with there having been no new content in the game for months now. But my 6 year old Mac Mini won’t be able to run it, and I’m getting too bored with the game as it is to keep playing without upgrading. And again, it comes back to money – I don’t have the spare cash for a new computer, as much as I would like to upgrade.

My account is still paid through to the end of June – annoyingly, I bought another 6 months in December thinking I’d have loads of time to play whilst on paternity leave. But I doubt I’ll have the time to log in before then. Thankfully, cancelling your subscription merely freezes your account, so my characters will still be there waiting for me should I ever return to the game in future. But, for now, it is farewell to Azeroth.

May 14, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 14, 2016

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

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