Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

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.

July 22, 2015
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

Secret Starbucks Sizes

Starbucks: If I had a pound for every time someone spelled my name like this, I'd be a rich man

Many frequent Starbucks visitors know that its coffee comes in three sizes:

  • ‘Tall’, which is the small size, at around 350 millilitres (12 US fluid ounces), or about the size of a standard drinks can.
  • ‘Grande’, which is the medium size at 470 ml (16 US fl oz) and a bit less than an average drinks bottle.
  •  ‘Venti’, which is their largest size at 590 ml or 20 US fl oz. ‘Venti’ means 20 in Italian, hence the name.

Quite why they can’t use ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ is beyond me, but never mind.

But actually, there are seven sizes in total. They’re not widely advertised, but here they are:

Short

If you look more closely at the menu the next time you’re in Starbucks, you’ll see there’s a kid’s hot chocolate on there, which comes in a ‘Short’ serving size – smaller than ‘Tall’. However, your Starbucks barista may be able to make you any hot drink in the ‘Short’ size, which will cost a bit less than ‘Tall’. I don’t think cold drinks like Frappuccinnos are available in the ‘Short’ size in the UK, but you can ask. ‘Short’ is 240 millilitres (8 US fl oz) and should be available in most outlets.

Mini

This one is US-only, and is a limited-time offer for this summer. It’s only for Frappuccinos, and is 10 US fl oz  (300 ml) – halfway between short and tall.

Demi

Demi is the smallest size of them all, at just 89 millilitres (3 US fl oz). It’s basically a single espresso shot, and should be available in most Starbucks outlets.

Trenta

Finally, if you want a drink that’s larger than ‘Venti’, then try asking for a ‘Trenta’ size. It was announced four years ago in the US, but was primarily for the Refresha range of light cold drinks. However, theoretically, it may be possible to have any other cold drink in this size. At over 900 millilitres (31 US fluid ounces), this is a big drink – almost three times the size of a ‘Tall’ drink. As far as I am aware it was only ever available in certain outlets in the US, and as the Refresha range has seemingly been phased out, it’s probably no longer an option. ‘Trenta’ means 30 in Italian.

Starbucks ‘secret menu’

If you want to know more about ‘off the menu’ drinks that may or may not be available at your local Starbucks, Starbucks Secret Menu and Hack the Menu were two web sites that I found during my searches. Not all of the items on these sites are official, but if you’re in a Starbucks outlet and it’s not busy, you can probably ask the barista to vary the drink based on the recipes listed. You can also sometimes get seasonal drinks like the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte out of season if the outlet has stock left over, and sometimes new drinks are available to Starbucks Rewards customers before they appear on the menu.

I go to Starbucks quite a lot nowadays, as I pass one of their outlets on the way to work. So much so that I’m a gold member of Starbucks Rewards. Considering that, four years ago, I didn’t drink coffee at all, it’s quite a turnaround.

July 21, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Camkix Selfie Stick Review

Camkix Selfie Stick in use with an iPhone 5

Hello. My name is Neil, and I bought a selfie stick.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. I saw genuine instances when I would want to use one – especially when the little one arrives – and so I went onto Amazon to find a reasonably good one. Of those, the Camkix Extendable Selfie Stick seemed to have the best overall reviews and wasn’t too expensive, so I bought it.

Camkix Selfie Stick

The term ‘selfie stick’ is a relatively recent invention. Technically, this is a ‘handheld telescopic universal smartphone monopod’. It comes in three parts – the handheld monopod itself, a smartphone grip, and a separate Bluetooth remote. The monopod hand-grip is available in a variety of colours – I went for green, but you can also get pink, black and other colours. On the model I bought, the grip wasn’t very well-glued to the body, but otherwise I’m reasonanbly happy with the build quality, considering the price.

Retracted, the selfie stick is about 30 centimetres (11 inches) but it can extend to around a metre (40 inches).

The smartphone mount allows you to clip in a smartphone. My iPhone 5 fitted comfortably, and I’m sure the larger iPhone 6 would fit too. I’m not sure about phablet-sized smartphones like the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note but theoretically anything that 8 centimetres wide or less should fit. It won’t take a tablet computer like an iPad or iPad Mini, but if you are using a tablet to take photos on a selfie stick, then you are truly a horrible person and should reconsider your life choices.

The Camkix Selfie Stick with a Canon EOS 600Dsmartphone mount is detachable, leaving a standard screw-in tripod mount on the monopod, so you should be able to use it with any regular camera. I was able to mount my Canon EOS 600D onto it, although the extra weight meant that it was hard to control it when fully extended. If you are planning to use a regular camera, remember that you’ll either need to buy a separate remote for it, or use your camera’s timer function. And unless you have a screen that flips around, you won’t be able to see the picture until you’ve taken it (the EOS 600D has a flip-out screen).

Finally, there’s the remote. Some selfie sticks come with a button on the handle, which connects to the smartphone either using an audio cable to plug into the phone’s headphone socket, or wirelessly via Bluetooth. This selfie stick has a separate Bluetooth remote. There are two buttons – the larger one is designed for Apple devices running iOS 6.0 or above, but should work on many Android phones as well. The second button is for some fussy Android phones that need a different command. Whilst iOS users can use the built-in camera app, Android users may or may not need to install a third-party camera app to use the remote.

Me using a selfie stick

The remote also has an on/off switch so that you don’t inadvertently take photos of the inside of your pocket. Pairing it with your phone is straightforward.

On the whole I like the selfie stick. It’s small enough to fit in my camera bag, albeit with the smartphone mount folded downwards, and both the monopod and remote have decent wriststraps. And I promise that I won’t be one of those horrible people who ends up taking people’s eyes out in the pursuit of a selfie in a busy place.

July 20, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Pregnancy books

Pregnancy books: Conception, Pregnancy and Birth, and Fantastic First-Time Father

Thanks for your kind comments about our big news, both on here and elsewhere. Whilst we’ve known for weeks now, we’d kept Christine’s pregnancy relatively quiet until after the first ultrasound scan. This is mostly because the major risk of miscarriage is in the first trimester.

Like many first-time parents, we’ve already started reading the various pregnancy books. The two that we’ve bought are:

Dr Stoppard’s book is a pretty hefty read and I’m only two-thirds of the way through. I skipped the bit about conception and IVF as we were already past that stage by the time we bought it. It’s very thorough, if a little out-of-date, having been published 7 years ago; therefore some of its advice is no longer best practice. For example, it advises pregnant women not to get the ‘flu vaccine, whereas now the general advice is the opposite. Other than that, I’d recommend it as it covers almost everything.

Fantastic First-Time Father is a much newer book, having been published a couple of years ago, and it shows. The book is written in a very casual style with tweet-length pull quotes and hashtags. But I enjoyed reading it; it’s useful, but not patronising, either to you or your partner. It’s very positive and re-assuring. Again, I haven’t read all of it – I got as far as a few weeks after birth and decided that I’d be better revisiting it further down the line.

Having read both books, we’ve been able to go into Christine’s scans and midwife appointments feeling more informed. We’ve got a clearer idea about what is going to happen, between now and when the baby arrives some time this winter. Both books are available on Amazon, and Fantastic First-Time Father can be bought as a Kindle edition, but we actually got our copies from a real high street bookshop. Whilst we found them both very useful, there are also hundreds of similar books out there that may or may not be better or worse.

July 19, 2015
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Breaking up BT

Communication

Last week, Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator (and British answer to the FCC) proposed the break-up of BT, into two companies. This would involve spinning of its Openreach wholesale arm as a separate company, with BT retaining its retail arm.

To understand the importance of this, and how we got here, let’s go back in time a little.

Once upon a time, all of the UK’s telephony infrastructure was owned by the General Post Office. In the 1980s, this was spun-out as a separate government-owned company called British Telecommunications, but it was later privatised in 1984. This also allowed rival companies to operate telephony services, but BT retained ownership of all of the cabling and exchanges. Consumers are free to switch from BT to other providers like Sky and TalkTalk, and vice versa, but whilst they may pay money to someone other than BT, BT still owns the cable that runs into their homes. Ultimately, this is the situation that persists today.

In 2006, BT was forced to segregate its retail and wholesale businesses. BT Retail sells telephone, internet and TV packages to consumers and business. Meanwhile, Openreach, the wholesale division, operates the infrastructure, including the cables and telephone exchanges. Other companies can install their equipment in BT’s exchanges, but the connection from the exchange to consumers’ homes is still owned by Openreach.

Ofcom is now launching a consultation regarding Openreach, arguing that it should be completely spun out of BT and operate as a separate entity. Sky has reacted positively to this, as it has grievances with the level of service that Openreach has offered. I’m also in favour – though we’re currently BT customers at home, I think it makes sense for there to be separation between the infrastructure and service. Although Openreach is heavily regulated, its close links with the retail division of BT means that there’s a conflict of interest between supplying its own retail customers and the customers of rival services.

In other industries, the infrastructure and retail companies are separate. The electricity cables and gas pipes are owned by National Grid, and other regional companies, but consumers pay their bills to separate companies. It’s the same on the railways – the track is owned by Network Rail, but the trains are operated by Train Operating Companies, or TOCs. And the UK’s domain name system is similar – .uk domains are managed by a non-profit organisation called Nominet, but consumers and business buy from intermediary companies that can compete with each other.

Openreach has very limited competition. The only other major telephony infrastructure provider in the UK is Virgin Media, whose predecessors spent millions of pounds installing their own cables under the streets directly to British households. But whereas Openreach serves just about every household in the UK (apart from in Hull), Virgin Media can only reach half. For this reason, there’s currently no requirement for Virgin Media to open its networks to rivals, or be split in the same way that BT could be.

Ofcom’s consultation began on Thursday but it’ll be many months before it reports. Any split will almost certainly need the approval of the Competition and Markets Authority and this could take a year or two. If Openreach is spun out, then it will almost certainly be as another company with shareholders, but it would be great if it was also nationalised as well. I doubt that will ever happen though.

July 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for July 18, 2015

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

July 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Some thoughts on Apple Music

Screenshot of Apple Music on an iPhone 5SApple Music, Apple’s first full foray into the world of streaming music, was released last week, as part of updates to iOS and iTunes. I’ve had a bit of time to play with it since.

On iOS, Apple Music usurps the old Music app and takes over four of the five tabs:

  • The home tab is now called ‘For You’ and contains suggested playlists and albums based on your tastes.
  • ‘New’ is the home to new music, which can be filtered by genre.
  • ‘Radio’ is the home to Apple’s new radio stations, including ‘Beats 1′.
  • ‘Connect’ is Apple’s attempt at introducing a social aspect, with status updates posted by the bands and artists that you listen to.
  • ‘My Music’ is where the music you’ve downloaded lives.

As I mostly use my iPhone to listen to music that I already own, having this shoved into one small corner of the app wasn’t entirely welcome, but I get that Apple would rather me pay them £10 per month than buy occasional songs to keep.

I haven’t used the radio stations yet but have tried listening to an album that I didn’t already own in full (Delain’s The Human Contradiction). I was on a train at the time and it took a bit of convincing to get it working; firstly, I had to enable Apple Music to work over cellular internet rather than just wifi. Eventually it played, and coped well when I lost connection as the train passed through a tunnel; presumably it has generous buffering where the connection allows.

Setting up Apple Music was relatively straightforward. On first launch, it will ask you to tap on artists that you like; double-tap on artists that you love, and tap and hold on artists that you don’t like, to build up your preferences. You can do this several times to hone your preferences if you wish. You’ll also be signed-up for a 3 month free trial – if you don’t want to be automatically billed when the trial is up, follow the instructions here.

Some users have had major problems with their existing music libraries following Apple Music’s launch. I got lucky, despite also being an iTunes Match user, but I did find that all of my playlists were duplicated. After I deleted the duplicates in iTunes, everything was fine.

If you’re a last.fm user, then I have bad news. Any songs that you play that are not in your own library will not be scrobbled. Apple has never officially supported last.fm, which is a shame. This is in spite of Apple’s previous attempt at a music social network, Ping, which was an utter failure.

I suppose the big question is: how does it compare to Spotify? Apple Music tries to be more personalised, and integrated with your existing music library. But Spotify is cheaper; whilst Spotify Premium is the same price as Apple Music, there’s also the cheaper Spotify Unlimited which is £5 per month, and a free tier supported by advertising. Spotify has always had last.fm integration, and connects with your Facebook account so that you can share your playlists and see what your friends are listening to in real-time. The social experience on Spotify feels more authentic, as it’s between your friends, rather than a broadcast from artists and bands.

Given the choice between Apple Music and Spotify, I would choose Spotify. It’s cheaper (I have the £5 a month unlimited package), and feels like a more polished product. But Apple Music is still new, and there’s plenty of time for Apple to improve it.

July 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Ten years a graduate

That's Neil Turner BSc (hons) to youThis week, the annual summer graduation ceremonies take place at the university where I work. 10 years ago, I was there as a graduand myself.

It doesn’t feel like 10 years have passed since then. Probably because I now work at the same university from which I graduated, but also because I graduated again in 2007 with a postgraduate diploma. I still have the suit I wore, and it still fits me – just.

The graduation ceremonies are always a great time to be on campus and I enjoy getting involved. My roles have varied as I’ve moved between jobs at the university; in the past, I’ve been a steward, an usher, and I’ve even reprised my graduation robes a couple of times to lead the academic procession into the hall. More recently, as I’ve moved into an academic faculty, I’ve been more involved with the reception and prize-giving for our particularly exceptional graduates.

As my work is primarily concerned with admissions and recruitment, I get to see students right from when they first apply and attend interviews, all the way through to when they get their degrees at the end of their course. And it’s great to see how our students grow and mature as they study their courses with us.

For some, this is the end of their time with us, as they move on to bigger and better things now that they have a degree under their belts. For others, it’s merely the end of a chapter as students take a well-earned summer break before starting further study in September. Maybe in another ten years’ time, one of two of the class of 2015 will be still hanging around like I am.

If you’re receiving your degree this summer, then congratulations – having done one myself, I know how much work is involved and you should be very proud.

July 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Pregnancy+

Screenshot of the Pregnancy+ app on iPadNaturally, one of the first things I did after finding out that Christine was pregnant, was to download an app. A quick search of the App Store returned Pregnancy+ as the first result, and as it had good reviews, I downloaded it.

The app takes some basic information about you, which can be imported from Facebook or Google, and then asks you whether you are pregnant, or a partner/grandparent, and helps you calculate a due date if you haven’t had a dating scan yet. Once set up, it becomes a dashboard for information about your pregnancy.

On the iPad edition, the left column of the home page has links to information – a daily blog post, daily advice, and a week-by-week summary of how your baby is doing, the changes you (or your partner) experiences each week, tips for partners and also information for mothers expecting twins or multiples. You can also view high resolution images of how your baby will (probably) look each week, and its approximate size compared to a piece of fruit. Christine is around 15 weeks pregnant, and so our baby is about the size of a pear; next week, it’ll be approximately avocado-sized.

As well as advice, the app can be used for planning. If you weigh yourself regularly during the pregnancy, then you can input your weight into the app up to once a day, to see how your weight changes, and this can be linked to the Health app on your iPhone. You can also enter the dates of your appointments, and have these synchronised with your calendar, so that they appear in your phone’s calendar app. There’s a to-do list, and you can also use it to create a birth plan to discuss with your midwife.

Additional features include suggestions for baby names, ranked by popularity and by country, tips for what to put in to your hospital bag to prepare for the birth, a shopping list for baby items with suggestions, and a tool to measure contractions.

It’s an extensive app and it combines the features of several others, all in a bright, welcoming interface. I’ve used it on both my iPhone and iPad, but it seems to work better on larger screens.

It isn’t perfect; it would be nice if partners could be linked to the same baby, so that I can view Christine’s data and vice versa. We both have the app but any data we enter isn’t synchronised. And the shopping list recommends a lot of items that we’ve been advised aren’t really necessary.

Though the app is free to download, initially you can only track a pregnancy for the first trimester – up to 13 weeks. After that, you need to buy a £2.99 (iOS) or £2.49 (Android) in-app purchase to unlock the app for the rest of the pregnancy. Presumably, you won’t need to buy it again for future pregnancies.

Whilst the app will be of most use to pregnant mothers, it’s useful for partners as well, and it’s allowed me to learn more about what Christine’s going through so that I can support her. And she’s found it useful to understand how our baby is growing inside her.

Pregnancy+ is free, with in-app purchases, and is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. There is also Pregnancy++ which is the same, but costs £2.99 upfront with full functionality.