Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

August 8, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for August 8, 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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August 5, 2015
by Neil Turner
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10 years a Mac user

Portalicious

10 years ago today, my very first Apple Mac computer arrived. Previously, I’d only ever used computers running Windows or Linux, so this was a big change for me. In 2004 I bought myself an iPod Mini, and was so pleased with the build quality and user interface (when compared with other portable music players on the market at the time) that I decided to splash out on an Apple computer. I’d also worked out that the majority of things that I wanted to do in Windows could also be done on a Mac, and having experience with OS X would be useful.

The Mac Mini was the most affordable option available to me at the time. I ordered the slightly more expensive model, which had a faster 1.42 GHz single core PowerPC processor, as opposed to the standard 1.33 GHz processor offered as standard. It came with 512 MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive and 32 MB on-board graphics. The optical drive was a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, which meant it could read and write CDs but only read DVDs. I also opted to have Bluetooth (version 1.1) and Wi-fi (802.11g) included, which were both build options; this was the first time I’d bought a computer with these features built-in.

The box itself

The ports on the back included an Ethernet port (100BaseTX), a socket for the internal 56k modem, a DVI port for connecting a monitor, 2 USB 2.0 ports and a Firewire 400 port. There was also a 3.5mm headphone socket, but no microphone. It’s interesting to note that the modem, DVI and Firewire ports have all been superseded and aren’t found on modern computers. But at the time, the modem was useful as I initially didn’t have broadband internet in the house that I was living in.

10 years on and I still have this computer, which has survived five house moves. However, it hasn’t really been used much since about 2007, partly because it become surplus to my requirements, but also because Apple abandoned the PowerPC architecture shortly after I bought it. I was able to upgrade it from OS X 10.4 (Tiger) to 10.5 (Leopard), but in 2009 Apple released 10.6 (Snow Leopard) which was for Intel-based Macs only. Very little new software is available for PowerPC machines – nothing from the Mac App Store, for example. TenFourFox is a Firefox-derived web browser that is still updated and maintained, but this is pretty much the exception.

One helluva transformer

I suppose there are two reasons why I haven’t gotten rid of the computer. On the one hand, I doubt anyone would be interested in buying it, seeing as how it’s practically useless to anyone other than a hobbyist. It perhaps has limited usage as a kiosk computer, but you’d struggle to run any recent software on it, due to its underpowered, outdated processor. A Raspberry Pi is more powerful, has more modern ports and is cheap. The other reason is that there’s part of me that still wants to find some use for it.

After this Mac, I bought a MacBook just over a year later in 2006, to replace my ailing Windows laptop. From this point I was Mac-only, although my MacBook could run Windows as a virtual machine if needed. And then I bought my current Mac Mini in 2010, which I still use daily.

I am actively considering buying another new computer sometime in the next two years, as my current Mac Mini is also starting to get rather sluggish. Whether I will get Apple’s latest and greatest Mac Mini, or save my pennies and splash out on a Mac Pro, remains to be seen.

August 4, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Passed

Practical test form

I passed my driving test today, with just two minor faults (you’re allowed up to 15). As you can probably imagine, I’m delighted, and also very relieved.

Technically this was my third attempt at the test, but it’s been almost 8 years since my last attempt and so I’ve had a fresh set of lessons since. My lessons have been approximately weekly since July last year so it’s taken just over 12 months, although that includes a month-long break in March when I was in the Middle East. I passed my theory test in April.

Now I just need to wait for my full license to arrive, which will take two-to-three weeks, and then I can go and buy a car. Having a car will definitely make things easier, especially with a newborn baby come January.

2015 is certainly turning out to be a big year for me.

Me with my pass certificate

August 1, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for August 1, 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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July 30, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Copley Valley Relief Road

Sowerby Bridge geese

This week, the Copley Valley Relief Road opened. It’s designed to allow access to new land for industrial units and housing, and to improve access to existing industrial land. It also serves as a bypass of sorts for the town of Sowerby Bridge, where I live.

The road has been built in two phases over the past few years. The first part was the most difficult, requiring new bridges over the Calder and Hebble Navigation and River Calder. This ended at a dead-end stump; phase two has seen this stump connected to the rest of the road network at the other end to create a through route.

Mearclough Road and Holmes Road, in Sowerby Bridge, are home to a number of industrial units and a household waste recycling site, but the access has been poor until now. A low and narrow railway bridge has prevented access from the west (more on this later), and from the east, access was via Canal Road, which is on a steep gradient, with sharp bends and is largely single-track. Lorries and HGVs were having to use this road despite it being very much unsuitable. The new relief road provides a much more suitable route for such vehicles.

Canal Road, Mearclough Road and Holmes Road together have also formed something of an unofficial bypass for Sowerby Bridge – at least for traffic approaching from the south east heading south west. The opening of the relief road as an alternative to Canal Road will make this a more attractive route, which would be quite welcome. The main street through Sowerby Bridge, Wharf Street, is very busy, especially if the nearby M62 is shut, as it’s a signed diversionary route.

Unfortunately, the new road may also create problems. Here’s a map from OpenStreetMap:

Map of Holmes Road in Sowerby Bridge

Remember that narrow railway bridge that I mentioned earlier? It sits next to a 90° bend and a crossroads. It’s a low bridge, preventing access by HGVs, but also so narrow that it’s single track – vehicles can only pass in one direction at any one time. There are no traffic signals and, thanks to the bend, it’s almost impossible to see if vehicles are travelling in the opposite direction to you.

The bridge is old, and presumably was built with the railway in the 1830s. Presumably it could be replaced with a wider structure that has better height clearance, but that would be a major job involving a temporary closure of the railway line.

Right now, it’s early days and traffic on the new relief road is light. But I’m concerned that insufficient thought has gone into this bridge and the subsequent crossroads. If traffic picks up, and more vehicles start using it, the potential for head-on collisions under the bridge could increase. Traffic lights would be a good short-term measure, even if they would slow traffic down, but I’m not aware of any such plans. I just hope that it doesn’t take a serious accident to happen before something is done.

July 29, 2015
by Neil Turner
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It’s worth buying a new washing machine

Today, I’m going to talk to you about washing machines. We bought a new one last month, and it is so much better than our old one in several ways.

The new washing machine is this Bosch model, which is normally £399 from John Lewis. We actually paid much less, by combining loads of gift vouches from the wedding and a cashback offer that was on at the time. This is now installed in our new house.

Our old washing machine is the one in our flat. It’s a Hotpoint washer-dryer, so it will wash and tumble-dry our clothes in one process. It’s probably around 10-15 years old as we assume that it was installed when the building was converted from a mill into flats.

For a start, washer-dryers are never as good as standalone washing machines and tumble dryers. Indeed, the dryer part of our old Hotpoint machine is pretty rubbish – if you’re lucky, it’ll get a half load mostly dry in around two and a half hours after the wash cycle is completed. Bigger loads will come out wet.

But it’s also not that great at washing either. It’s okay, but takes its time, and the drum can only take 6 kilograms of washing – about 13 pounds in old money.

The new Bosch machine has a much bigger drum that can take 8 kilograms (17.6 lb), so we can wash a third more clothes in each cycle. It’s significantly quieter, and barely makes any noise apart from during the spin cycle, which is still comparatively quiet. This is good for us as the washing machine is in the kitchen, which is directly below the room that will become the baby’s room when it’s born.

As well as being a good price, we also chose the Bosch model because of its energy and water efficiency. It’s rated A+++ for energy usage, which is the highest possible rating, and it required the least amount of water. Indeed, it looks like it uses less water than our current machine despite being able to handle bigger loads.

Despite using less water and electricity, the Bosch machine still manages to be quicker than the old Hotpoint machine – even when you enable its energy efficient mode. So not only does it wash clothes more quickly, it costs less money to do so. And it has a countdown timer telling you how long it has left. Timers these tend to be standard on new machines nowadays but this is the first time I have owned one with a timer, and it’s really useful.

We chose to get a water meter fitted to the house, and so conserving water will save us money in the long term, as will the reduced electricity costs. Furthermore, as we’ve opted not to buy a tumble dryer, this will save us more money on electricity bills in future. The house has a drying rack in the kitchen and space outside for washing lines, which we don’t have in the flat. And with a little one on the way, we’re likely to be using the washing machine far more often than now.

If you have an old washing machine, I would advise you to consider a newer model. The improvements in energy and water efficiency may well save you money in the long term and make up for the cost of buying a new machine. We’re really pleased with ours.

Plus, if you get rid of your old machine, you can create silly YouTube videos like this one.

July 28, 2015
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

The quest for a new keyboard

New Keyboard

My Mac’s keyboard is dying.

Recently I found that I could no longer use most of the arrow keys (just the ‘Up’ key) and the bottom two rows of the numeric keypad are no longer functional. I followed Apple’s troubleshooting advice, and tried it on another computer, but both were to no avail – those keys were dead.

I’m using Apple’s standard USB keyboard, which was bought in 2010 at about the same time as my Mac Mini, so it’s five years old. Frankly, I’d expect a keyboard to last much longer than five-and-a-bit years, but it is what it is. I’m not sure if it’s a fixable problem, and I’m not confident enough to try to take it apart to try to find out – especially as I don’t have a spare keyboard to use when I inevitably damage it beyond repair.

I do like the design of Apple’s keyboards, so I’ve been contemplating whether to get a like-for-like replacement, or go for something a bit different. Ideally, I’d prefer a wireless keyboard as there’s no need to trail a wire from behind your computer, and I would definitely prefer a keyboard with a numeric keypad included.

This immediately discounts Apple’s own wireless keyboard. I like the design, and it uses Bluetooth, so no need for any extra dongles. But it lacks a numeric keypad, or even arrow keys. This would therefore make it even less useful than my current keyboard which at least has a functioning arrow key and half a numeric keypad.

I could get around this by buying Belkin’s numeric keypad, which is designed to match Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard. However, it doesn’t have arrow keys and costs almost as much as the keyboard itself – combined, the two cost over £100.

So I Googled ‘best mac keyboard’ and found Macworld UK‘s piece on the best 8 keyboards for Macs. Notably, Apple’s USB keyboard is in there, but its Bluetooth one isn’t. Some are way out of my price range but there are some interesting models that I hadn’t previously considered:

  • Microsoft Designer Keyboard and Mouse, which Amazon will sell from later this week. Connecting Microsoft peripherals to Apple hardware may seem like an odd thing to do, but Macworld recommends it. Normally £100, Amazon sells it for £70 and includes a mouse, although I only need a keyboard. Numeric keypad included.
  • Logitech Bluetooth Easy Switch Keyboard, for £80. Unlike most Bluetooth keyboards, this can be connected to three devices simultaneously, with buttons to switch between devices. Whilst expensive, this would mean having just one keyboard that I could share between my Mac, iPad and iPhone. No numeric keypad or arrow keys though.
  • Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard, for around £100. This manages to look like Apple’s own keyboards but incorporates a solar strip at the top, which should be enough to keep it charged all of the time. No need to plug it in or replace batteries, as long as it’s used in a relatively well-lit room. Includes both a numeric keypad and arrow keys, although it doesn’t use Bluetooth – it uses its own USB radio transmitter dongle instead.

One issue with being a Mac user is that you can’t just plug any old keyboard in – in the UK at least. British PC and Mac keyboards have a very different layout when it comes to symbols. For example, the @ symbol on a British PC keyboard is on the far-right side, with the ‘l’ and ‘;’ to the left and ‘#’ and enter to the right. On a British Mac keyboard, it’s shift+2, like on American keyboards. As someone who uses a PC at work and a Mac at home, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve used ” instead of @ and vice versa.

Of course, one way around that would be to just buy an American keyboard; the only difference being that I’d press ‘#’ to get the ‘£’ symbol. With that in mind, the Satechi Bluetooth Wireless Smart Keyboard becomes an option; it’s £42 on Amazon, has arrow keys and a numeric keypad, and can connect to 5 separate Bluetooth devices as well as via USB. The reviews on Amazon UK are quite positive, but less-so on Amazon.com where there are some negative comments about the build quality.

I haven’t yet decided which one of these to go for. I’m minded to buy the Satechi model as it’s the best balance of features and price, but I wonder whether it would be worth spending a little more on a keyboard that is certain to last longer. After all, it’s something that I’ll be using every day.

July 27, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Knowing how the cookie crumbles

Screenshot of the privacy policy

I’ve made two minor changes to the site today:

  1. There is now a privacy policy available to view
  2. The first time you visit this site from today, you will be asked for permission to store cookies on your computer

These come about because of my participation with Google AdSense – all EU sites must obtain user consent for cookies with effect from the end of September. This is the so-called ‘EU Cookie Directive’.

As you may guess from my tone, I’m not particularly happy about this. I accept the need for a privacy policy and I should have probably had one already, but I hate the popup cookie consent messages that sites use. There’s a lack of consistency, they offer a particularly poor user experience to mobile users (obstructing a large part of the page) and I bet almost nobody actually reads the privacy policies anyway.

The privacy policy is adapted from this example, and I’m using the Cookie Law Info WordPress plugin to generate the messages. The plugin is really simple and you can set it up in a few minutes. There’s no need to edit any templates, but you can still customise it.

I really wish that, following the EU Directive that mandated consent for cookies, that there had been some collaboration between web site owners and web browser vendors to come up with a more graceful solution. Whilst I accept that it’s best if users are able to consent to cookies being stored on individual web sites, this could have been done in a standardised way as a function of the user’s web browser.

Years ago, the W3C proposed P3P, which used HTTP headers and machine-readable privacy policies to allow users to select a level of privacy that they were comfortable with. Anything else, such as third-party cookies, would be blocked if desired. Ironically for a web standard, the only current web browser that supports P3P is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which has done since version 6. It remains an opt-in and rarely-used standard and the W3C paused all work on it ages ago.

I haven’t researched P3P enough to know whether it could be developed further, so that web sites can use it for EU Cookie Directive compliance. If it could, and if Google, Mozilla, Apple, Opera and others all agreed to implement it, then the web could become a less annoying place. Especially if there was an option to implicitly accept all cookies from all first-party web sites, for example.

July 24, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Getting ready for Windows 10

Windows Update

Windows 10 is out in 5 days, and if you’re currently running Windows 7 or 8.1, then you qualify for a free upgrade, as long as you opt-in within the first year of release.

I’m a Mac user, but I run Windows 8.1 in a virtual machine using VirtualBox. I don’t use it very much; I have it for the odd occasion when something requires Windows, but such situations tend not to happen nowadays. And whilst I probably won’t use Windows 10 much when it comes out, I might as well opt in to the free upgrade whilst it’s available.

To opt in, you should click on the small Windows icon that will appear in the notification area if you’re eligible. However, this also requires your copy of Windows to be up-to-date. Mine wasn’t – in fact, I hadn’t booted it up since April. And so there were a lot of updates to install.

It didn’t help that Windows Update had somehow become corrupt, with error 0x80248007. Whilst Windows’ own help system was, ironically, not helpful, a quick Google search found this solution which worked.

Windows Update has now been running for over 36 hours and isn’t quite finished. As I’m running at as a virtual machine, it isn’t as fast as a dedicated computer, but it’s still horrifically slow. Hopefully once it’s done, I’ll be able to opt-in to the upgrade to Windows 10.

I’m looking forward to the return of the Start Menu in Windows 10, and the general usability improvements for people who still use a traditional desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse. Whilst I understand that Microsoft wanted to make Windows more tablet-friendly, I think it went too far in Windows 8 and I hope that Windows 10 is a better compromise. That being said, it’s telling that Apple’s tablet and desktop operating systems remain separate (iOS and OS X), even if some of their features have converged over time.

July 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Finding a Medium

Screenshot of my first post on Medium

I’ve posted my first piece on Medium. Entitled ‘Too many inboxes‘, it was inspired by this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s Chris Applegate:

The separation of messaging into proprietary silos is a problem – and it’s far from being a new problem either. I felt it was something that was interesting enough to write around 1500 words on – which Medium estimates will take you around 6 minutes to read.

I chose to publish the piece on Medium, rather than on here, partly as an experiment. I decided that it would be sufficiently interesting to warrant exposure to a wider audience, but I also wanted to see just how much attention a Medium post from a regular person like me would get. How it performs will dictate whether I post further long-form blog posts there, or whether everything stays on here in future. It follows an experiment with Buzzfeed last year, which ultimately didn’t achieve anything.

Don’t worry – even if it is a success, I’m not going to switch over to Medium for everything. I like being able to manage everything myself, and I doubt that there’s such a wide audience for what we’re doing in our new house, or pregnancy announcements.

I was surprised at how easy it is to write on Medium. Generally, the pieces I have come across have all been high quality and so I assumed there was some kind of vetting procedure. But no – apparently anyone with a Twitter account can write anything. The writing tools are minimalist, but functional.

So far, my post has been up on Medium for about 90 minutes. It’s been viewed 11 times and read 5 times. That’s about how much a typical blog post on here would get – not great, but at least it’s not being totally ignored. And a couple of my Facebook friends liked it and commented on it, which is nice.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I would appreciate a few minutes of your time reading the post at Medium, and your comments or recommendations. Thanks.