Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 19, 2015
by Neil Turner

Microsoft Outlook Inbox Repair Tool

Screenshot of the Microsoft Outlook Inbox Repair RoolSometimes, Microsoft Outlook’s data files can get corrupted. If so, it can behave unexpectedly, or emails can disappear. Fortunately, Microsoft ships a free recovery tool with every copy.

I found myself having to use the repair tool after installing last week’s KB3097877 update. This was a security update issued for Windows that had the side effect of making Outlook crash when viewing certain HTML-formatted email messages. After several crashes, I noticed a small cog icon had appeared in on the status bar at the bottom of the screen. This meant that Outlook had found its data files to be corrupted and was attempting repair in the background.

My main Outlook data file is around 23 gigabytes, and so any background recovery would take a long, long time. Instead, I made use of the Microsoft Outlook Inbox Repair Tool, also known as ‘scanpst’, which is designed to repair errors in Outlook’s PST and OST files.

The program is installed at the same time as Microsoft Office, and usually sits in the same folder as your office programs. On my computer, this was C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office14 (as I’m using Office 2010). It’s a simple program – you open it, point it at your Outlook data file and let it scan. It’ll then tell you whether a repair is necessary, and, if so, it’ll start the recovery process.

I would suggest finding other things to do whilst the tool runs, because the recovery process can take a very long time – especially on big data files like mine. In my case, it took over two and a half hours for the repair phase, having taken almost an hour on the initial scan for errors. During this time, you can’t use Outlook, as the data file is in use by the recovery tool.

Once the tool has finished, you can then re-open Outlook, and hopefully any missing emails will re-appear. It’s not guaranteed though, which is why it’s best to use a server-based email system like IMAP or Microsoft Exchange, rather than POP3 where emails are downloaded to your computer and then deleted from the server. That being said, Microsoft advises against repairing OST files, used for online accounts. Instead, it suggests that you simply delete and re-add the account in Outlook, to re-download a fresh copy of the data from the server.

November 18, 2015
by Neil Turner

How London buses differ from the rest of the UK

Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester

It’s time for another niche interest public transport blog post!

When it comes to public transport, London is a special case, mainly because so many more people use it, compared with other cities where cars dominate. The buses in London are no exception, and so the vehicles and the services have been designed around much more intensive use than elsewhere. Here’s a list of the major differences.

London buses are designed differently

Almost all buses in London have two sets of doors – one at the front for boarding, and another in the middle for alighting. This is more efficient than most other buses, where there’s just one set of doors at the front, but is at the expense of extra seating.

The ‘new Routemaster‘ buses take this further and, effectively, have three sets of doors, by virtue of having an open rear platform in addition to the front and centre doors.

I understand that if buses are retired from duties in London, the middle of set of doors is removed before the buses are sent elsewhere.

You can’t buy tickets with cash in London

In London, you can’t pay for your journey with cash. Cash payments were phased out; in 2013, they accounted for a mere 1% of journeys. Instead, you can use an Oyster card, any contactless credit or debit card, or Apple Pay.

Outside of London, it’s essentially the opposite situation. If you have cash (and coins are usually preferred), you should be able to get any bus, but very few will take credit cards. Transport passes, like West Yorkshire’s MCard, are accepted in their local areas, and there’s the English National Concessionary Pass scheme for old-age pensioners and those with disabilities. And I’m not aware of any bus companies outside London that accept Apple Pay at present.

London buses have a flat single fare

If you want to catch a bus in London, and you’re an adult, it’s £1.50. You can go one stop, or the entire length of the longest route, and it’ll be £1.50 either way. If you go somewhere and come back again, it’s two singles, so £3. However, three or more journeys on one day will cost a maximum of £4.40 as the fares are capped, and you can buy weekly, monthly or annual travel passes.

Elsewhere, fares tend to be set by distance, so longer journeys cost more, but you can get all manner of tickets depending on the area, bus operator and time of day. You can also expect to pay quite a bit more – a peak-time journey between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax costs around £2 one-way.

Travel cards are valid on all London buses

If you choose to buy a weekly travel card, then you can use it on any London bus, regardless of which route it is or who operates it. Outside of London, different operators have their own tickets that aren’t transferable. Which can result in ridiculous situations. Take, for example, with the 579 bus between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax. It’s operated by First during the day and Yorkshire Tiger in the evenings, but if you buy a return ticket on a First service then you can’t use it to come back on a Yorkshire Tiger service – even though it’s the same route and number.

Major metropolitan areas like the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have cards such as the MCard which are valid across different operators, but operators will also sell their own weekly or monthly tickets which are only valid on their services.

All London buses are red

If you go to London, you’ll notice that all buses are painted red, even though they may be run by different operators. Not so outside London – operators can paint buses in pretty much whatever colour they choose. So First buses are lilac, Arriva buses are turquoise and Stagecoach buses are white with red, orange and blue stripes. Except when they’re not. There’s not much consistency.

London buses don’t have wifi

Well, there’s a trial on selected routes, but wifi isn’t widely available on London buses. Elsewhere, wifi is increasingly being made available on board, especially on more prestigious routes between major towns. I personally struggle to use mobile devices on buses as I get travel sick, but I assume enough people use it to be worthwhile. Some even offer USB charging points nowadays.

London buses have announcements and next stop information

Disabled users have it better in London. Not only are all London buses low-floor, there are audible announcements of the next stop, along with a screen repeating the information for those that can’t hear. This is rare on provincial bus services.

But why are London buses so different?

I mentioned before that buses in London are used more intensively than elsewhere, but there’s another reason why. In the 1980s, bus services across the UK were transferred away from public sector bodies to private companies, like the aforementioned First, Stagecoach, Arriva and others. This was called deregulation, and applied across England, Scotland and Wales – but not London.

London buses were later privatised, but on a franchise basis. The buses are operated by private companies, as with elsewhere, but the routes, fares and bus specifications are set by Transport for London, the public sector body that looks after all facets of transport in the Greater London area. Outside of London, bus companies are generally free to do what they want and most bus services are run primarily on a commercial basis, with an ever decreasing handful of services run with financial support from local authorities.

This may change, however. The government is planning to introduce elected mayors in various city regions across the UK, and their powers may include London-style bus franchising. Bus operators oppose this, as it takes away their freedom to set their own fares and routes and dilutes their branding. It will be interesting to see if franchising does go ahead outside London; and whether more cities will have all red buses in future.

November 17, 2015
by Neil Turner

Professor Elemental

Professor Elemental

Sunday’s visit to Thought Bubble wasn’t our only Steampunk-related outing last week. On Thursday, we went to see Professor Elemental, again in Leeds at The New Roscoe.

Christine and I have been fans for a while, but this was our first opportunity to see him perform live. His music is in a rather niche sub-genre called ‘chap hop‘ – imagine hip-hop, but with moustachioed English gentlemen rapping about tea and splendid trips to the seaside. Consequently, Professor Elemental has a major following in the steampunk community.

Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers

Local band Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers were the support act, in somewhat reduced circumstances as their drummer had a family medical emergency. Their music is wonderfully whimsical, with songs about David Attenborough, model railways, tweed jackets, and the folk who live on their local street. Whilst a rather different style of music to the main act, it fitted the offbeat nature of the gig.

Professor Elemental came on later, having sat in the audience for the support act; this was a small venue and there were only around 50-60 attendees. After powering through a medley of songs, he improvised a rap based on word suggestions from the audience, which included ‘antiquity’, ‘flange’, ‘antidisestablishmentarianism‘ and ‘nipple’. It was an impressive feat. Audience participation was also requested for his newer song Don’t Feed The Trolls.

Christine and I had come straight from work, and the weather was inclement to say the least, so we had left our steampunk outfits at home to save them for Thought Bubble, but many others were dressed up in appropriate attire. At one point, someone dressed as a giraffe crawled across the stage, and that probably wasn’t the strangest thing that happened.

Whilst it helped that many of the audience were genuine fans, it was a great, intimate gig – equal parts enjoyable and amusing. Professor Elemental isn’t on tour, per se, but he has a few more live gigs coming up around the country in the run up to Christmas – I’d definitely recommend going to see him.

November 16, 2015
by Neil Turner

Thought Bubble 2015

Christine and I at this year's Thought Bubble

After enjoying it so much last year, Christine and I made a return trip to the Thought Bubble Comic Con at the Royal Armouries in Leeds yesterday. I wore basically the same steampunk outfit as last time, but Christine had to wear something rather different as she’s now seven months pregnant. Sadly, her octopus headpiece (called Derek) was not playing well with her and so it was left in the car this time.

As with last year, we spent rather a lot of money, although our most expensive purchase was a babygrow from Genki Gear, so technically it wasn’t for us. We also picked up a couple of books, some comics, some decidedly bizarre Christmas cards and a few small pieces of artwork that we’ll frame and put on the (still mostly barren) walls of our new house.

We saw some great costumes – the £4 entry discount for cosplayers once again acting as an incentive to get people to dress up. I saw at least three female Thors, suggesting that Marvel’s decision to pass Mjölnir to Jane Foster has been well-received, several Starlords and a small boy dressed as a TARDIS. There was also a Hogwarts cosplayer with an actual owl, although I understand se was a paid professional. And the owl later did a poo on the floor.

It was great fun, and I’m sure we’ll be back again next year – all three of us.

November 15, 2015
by Neil Turner

20 is plenty

20 is plenty

Across my home town of Sowerby Bridge, small white discs with red borders and the numbers 2 and 0 are appearing at the sides of the road. It’s the latest area in Calderdale to receive blanket 20 miles per hour speed limits on all suburban side streets, plus some major roads where required.

In Sowerby Bridge, this includes the main road through the town, the A58 – variously called Wharf Street, Town Hall Street or West Street depending on which bit you’re referring to. This makes sense; the road is quite narrow in places with parked cars and lots of pedestrians – particularly in the evening due to the town’s high concentration of pubs and bars. Although at peak times, 20 miles per hour is something of an aspiration as the traffic is regularly nose to tail in both directions.

The signs started to appear last week, following a consultation process. However, as yet there isn’t complete signage coverage and so it’s probably arguable as to whether the new lower speed limit is actually in force yet. I’ve been driving at the lower speed just in case, and to get used to it, since it’ll be the norm soon.

Although I’m now a driver myself, I’m in favour of the lower speed limits. I actually credit them with helping me pass my driving test in August; being able to get away with driving more slowly meant that I had more time to do my observations at junctions. Where the main roads remain at 30 mph, but the side roads are 20 mph, it discourages rat-running through housing estates. And where people actually obey the speed limit, it’s safer; as anyone who has recently taken their theory test will know, cars can brake more quickly at slower speeds. On residential streets, that’s very welcome.

November 14, 2015
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for November 14, 2015

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 13, 2015
by Neil Turner

Dara Ó Briain’s Crowd Tickler

Dara Ó Briain at the 2014 Festival of Curiosity
Dara Ó Briain at the 2014 Festival of Curiosity, by Sandra on Flickr. CC-licensed.

Wednesday last week marked 30 months of marriage for Christine and I. Co-incidentally, the Irish comic Dara Ó Briain was performing his latest show Crowd Tickler in Halifax on the same day, and a handful of tickets were still available the week before, so we went to see him.

This was the second time we’d seen Dara in Halifax; we also saw his previous show, Craic Dealer, a few years ago. If I’m honest, I was a bit disappointed with Craic Dealer, having not found it as funny as some of Dara’s other material. We’d seen This is the Show (or ‘TITS’ for short) broadcast on TV, which is worth watching as and when it’s available, and we always make time to watch Mock the Week when it’s on.

Fortunately, Crowd Tickler is a great show. It’s part-improvised, based on interactions with the audience and some local factual knowledge that Dara has gleamed either through research or previous visits. If you get front row seats to one of Dara’s gigs, expect to be asked a number of questions throughout the show. Thankfully, Dara isn’t the sort of comedian to utterly ridicule you but there may be a few laughs at your expense.

My favourite routine was about TV dramas, particularly on streaming services like Netflix, and how there are so many and that they can sometimes tend towards the utterly ridiculous – ‘a Scandinavian crime drama about a detective who smells crime scenes!’. Which was funny in itself, until Dara pointed out that this is basically the plot of Marvel’s Daredevil.

And then he went about improvising our own crime drama, based on audience suggestions. So we ended up with a detective with tourettes who used to be a taxidermist, investigating a ping pong player who killed someone with a rollerskate.

Another of my favourite routines of his was about tunnel boring machines. Doesn’t sound like the most interesting subject but if you see people tweeting him ‘Poor Chuggy!’ after a gig, then you’ll know why.

Crowd Tickler is almost at the end of its run with only a few more shows left – Dara has been touring it for over a year now. There’s just a couple of UK dates, a few nights in Dublin, and then he’ll be off to tickle various European nations in the new year. Fortunately, a DVD of the show is due out in a little over a week, and based on what we saw, it should be a very good show to watch.

November 12, 2015
by Neil Turner

Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier

This is the seventh, and final, in a series of posts about what we did on our recent trip to London.

After visiting the Crossness Pumping Station, we made a quick detour to the Thames Barrier viewpoint on the south side of the river near Charlton. We’d been to the Thames Barrier Park on the north side of the river before, which gives you a good view of the barrier itself, but not much else.

Because of the curvature of the River Thames, you can see much more on the south bank. There’s the Millennium Dome O2, Arabfly Dangleway Emirates Airline, Canary Wharf, and you can even see The Shard in the distance. Looking in the other direction, you can watch planes come into land into London City Airport, and see the parts of Docklands that haven’t yet been developed as much.

Thames Barrier and Canary Whaf

At the viewpoint there is a small café and information centre. We had a drink and a snack at the café but skipped the information centre, as we were already quite familiar with the history of the barrier and the need for it. The café also lists the scheduled closing times (which are available online as well) with the next one on Tuesday morning, if you want to head over there to take photos. I can’t guarantee the weather will be as good as it was when we went; despite being mid-October it was still quite warm and very sunny. Of course, unscheduled closures may happen if there’s a flood.

That’s it for what we did in London, as after this we started to make our way home. Considering we were only there for one weekend, we managed to cram a lot in, hence why it’s taken me seven blog posts to get through everything. As Christine is now seven months pregnant, I don’t think we’ll be having any more big weekends like this at least until the baby is born.

November 11, 2015
by Neil Turner

App of the Week: Choose Wisely

Screenshot of Choose Wisely

If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you have more than one web browser installed on your computer. I’m not psychic, it’s just that this blog can get pretty geeky at times, and geeky people are more likely to have installed a third-party web browser in addition to the one supplied with their operating system.

Anyway, this week’s app is a piece of freeware called Choose Wisely, and it’s designed for people who regularly use more than one web browser on their Mac. The idea is that you can set Choose Wisely as your default browser, and then whenever you open a link in another program (such as your email or Twitter client), Choose Wisely will then ask you which web browser you want to use.

As you can see from the screenshot above, as well as Safari (which I never use), I have Firefox, Chrome and Tor Browser. I use Firefox for my general web browsing, but I’ve locked it down with various ad blocking and privacy-enhancing extensions. Chrome, on the other hand, runs pretty much as it comes, without an ad blocker and very permissive cookie policies. This is because I often use cashback sites like Quidco, which rely on cookies to work correctly, but also because some sites don’t always work correctly in Firefox. And there’s Tor Browser there in case I need it for, well, you know, things.

When you first run Choose Wisely, it’ll just show Safari, but you can drag and drop other web browsers to have them show up. And they needn’t be web browsers – you can put VLC in there, for example, just in case you want to open a media file in there.

Screenshot of the General panel of System Preferences

You’ll also need to make Choose Wisely your default web browser. In older versions of OS X, there was a preference panel in Safari to do this; in El Capitane (and Yosemite I think), you open System Preferences, and then choose General. Set Choose Wisely as the default web browser, and then whenever you open a link in another program, it’ll pop up to ask you which web browser to use.

The app itself is tiny – less than a megabyte – and so it loads quickly. It therefore won’t slow you down too much compared with just opening a regular web browser every time.

Choose Wisely was last updated almost three years ago in 2013, and the web page to download it from is all in German, but it’s easy enough to use and still seems to work fine in El Capitane and with the latest versions of web browsers.

For Windows users, Browser Chooser 2 seems to do the same thing, has more features and is also free, but I haven’t had chance top try it myself.

November 10, 2015
by Neil Turner

Brewing my own beer with Brew Barrel

Brew barrel kit

The folks at Brew Barrel approached me to review their eponymous home brewing kit. For £25, you can get everything you need to make 8 pints of beer, with a choice of different hops and flavouring to make different styles. It’s made by a German country, which, considering that Germany is famed for its beers, means it should be good.

The Brew Barrel kit includes a five litre barrel, and the ingredients – hops, yeast, flavourings and rather a lot of malt syrup. To make the beer, you combine all of these in the barrel, along with lots of water. Instructions are, of course, provided. It takes around 10 to 15 minutes of preparation initially, but after that it doesn’t require much attention – you have to turn the barrel after 24 hours, and then refrigerate it after five days. Two days later (so a total of seven days since starting), your beer is ready to serve from a small tap at the bottom of the barrel.

The Brew Barrel kitI decided to brew an IPA, which is one of my favourite beer styles. Putting it together was quite easy – all the components are numbered so that you can be sure of the required order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the barrel in the fridge – our fridge is rather small, and full. As you have to keep the barrel upright, I would have needed to extensively re-arrange the fridge and get rid of the contents, which I doubt my wife would be best pleased about. Especially as she doesn’t like beer.

So when it came to trying the beer, it probably wasn’t at its best. Despite this, I liked it – it was rather sweet and very, very foamy, but drinkable and certainly nicer than some other homebrews that I have tried in the past. Once opened, the beer in the Brew Barrel should keep for around two weeks, if kept refrigerated.

Should you buy one? If you want to brew your own beer, but are completely new to it, then yes – the Brew Barrel keeps it simple for you and doesn’t require too much effort. Those with existing home brew experience may find it useful to have all of the necessary materials in one package, but could feel limited as it’s aimed more at novices. Financially it’s probably more expensive than just buying eight pints of beer to consume at home, but where’s the fun in that?