Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 3, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Getting a water meter

Water access point

The photo above shows the hatch in front of our back door where the water company can access the pipes into our house. Last summer, not long after moving in, we requested that a water meter was fitted.

In Britain, you pay for water in one of two ways. You can pay a fixed bill, based on the ‘rateable value’ of your house. Or, if you have a water meter, you can just pay for the water that you actually use. All homes built since 1990 have water meters fitted as standard, but older properties only have them if their owners request them, or if one is fitted by the water company after the customer has gone into payment arrears. More information is available from this MoneySavingExpert.com article.

Having a water meter can save you quite a bit of money. If you have an efficient washing machine and dishwasher, take showers instead of baths, or have fewer people living in your house than you have bedrooms, then it may be worth your while looking into a water meter. This applied to us, so we asked Yorkshire Water to fit one. It’s free as long as you live in England and Wales, and, if it’s not for you, you can have it removed within a certain time period.

We got our first post-meter water bill not long after Christmas. Yorkshire Water had charged us £46 per month on the basis of the rateable value of the property. Following the fitting of our water meter, they lowered our bill to just £17 per month. That’s approximately two-thirds cheaper, and should save us over £300 a year.

The caveat is that the water meter was fitted in the summer, when the house was vacant. We didn’t move in until late September, and so it’s possible that our bills will go up again once they’re calculated over a period of continuous occupancy. But clearly, it’s a big fall and will hopefully save us quite a bit of money going forward.

It’s worth mentioning that we don’t have to submit meter readings to the water company. The meter is located outside the property, and can be read wirelessly by an employee or representative of the water company.

If you don’t have a water meter already, I would suggest considering one. There are various online calculators that will tell you whether it is worth your while – in some cases it won’t, but I imagine that many will benefit.

May 2, 2016
by Neil Turner
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A day out at Chatsworth

Chatsworth House

I booked a day off work on Wednesday, and took Christine and Elizabeth on a road trip to the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire. The estate is owned by the Duke of Devonshire, and has been in the Cavendish family since the 16th century. There’s a large stately home, gardens, a farm, an adventure playground, and a farm shop, all open to the public.

Christine and I have both been to Chatsworth before, but separately; Christine lived in nearby Chesterfield about ten years ago, and I’d been with my parents in August 2003. Going back was always on our to-do list, and now that we have a car, getting there and back in a day from Sowerby Bridge became do-able.

Google Maps did its usual thing of offering a choice of routes. There was the expected route on the motorways, via Sheffield, or a more direct and scenic one through the Peak District National Park. As it was sunny and the two routes would take about the same amount of time, we chose the latter. It was a great drive, which took in part of the route taken by the riders of the Tour de France when Yorkshire hosted the Grand Départ in 2014. Alas, a couple of sections of road were shut and we arrived about 15 minutes later than planned, due to diversions.

Arriving at lunchtime, our first activity was to fill our rather empty stomachs. Chatsworth offers a number of places to eat, although as we came on a relatively quiet Wednesday, our choice was limited to a couple of outlets in the Stables Courtyard. We went for the self-service restaurant on the basis that the tea room across the way would have probably maxed out my credit card. I’m sure the food is exquisite, but our budget doesn’t quite stretch that far as yet. In any case, the restaurant food was good, and it was busy, suggesting that locals with money to spare come here just to eat.

Guinea Pigs

Our first post-lunch visit was to the farmyard – a part of the estate that I haven’t been to before. It’s not quite as big as the farm at Temple Newsam, and did cost more to get in, but there were more staff on hand to talk about the animals. We got introduced to Maggie the sheep, and were allowed to pet a days old chick that had recently hatched. The farm has over 30 guinea pigs and there are regular handling sessions throughout the day. Entrance to the adventure playground is included with the farm ticket, and I’m sure Elizabeth will love it when she’s a bit older.

Afterwards, we went to look around the gardens. Sadly we only managed a small section – enough to get the classic photo of the house and fountain at the bottom, and to go into the temperate house. Chatsworth was where the Cavendish banana was cultivated, which is now the most commonly-eaten banana in the world, and the temperate house includes some banana trees. We would have stayed longer, but in between feeding Elizabeth and staying out of the rain which was starting to fall by the afternoon, we didn’t manage the upper sections of the gardens.

We called in at the farm shop on the way home. The Chatsworth Farm Shop is regularly voted one of the best in Britain, and it’s easy to see why – it’s huge, and the staff are knowledgable. We picked up some locally-cured bacon and sausages, made from pigs from farms on the estate, and some local cheese. If you’re a foodie, then the farm shop alone is worth the visit.

For the drive home, we decided to take the motorway route. But we had good day out and I’m sure we’ll be back there before too long.

May 1, 2016
by Neil Turner
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30 days of FitBit

Screenshot of step goal in FitBit app

Back in February I was lamenting my lack of exercise whilst on paternity leave. And following an Easter weekend where I had some particular sedentary days, I decided to set myself a challenge: meet my 10,000 step goal on my FitBit, every day, for 30 days. Day 1 was the 30th March.

I didn’t blog about it at the time as I decided that it would be better just to do it on the quiet, without public pressure. Not meeting my target would let me down, but I’d have also let other people down if they knew. Christine knew – she deserved to know why I’d disappear downstairs from an hour and do housework on an evening – but I didn’t make a big public declaration.

The good news? I managed it. Day 30 was Thursday, and I even managed to make it to 32 days so as to encompass every day in April. Today would be day 33, but it’s nearly 5pm and I’ve barely managed 3000 steps; I think I deserve a rest day.

Hitting my target every day varied in difficulty. On some days, I could reach 10,000 steps with ease. At work, I could reach 8,000 without much extra effort, but found that walking to a toilet further away from my desk, and taking regular breaks to stretch my legs, helped to push things on a bit. This was helped by a recent new feature added to the FitBit app, which encourages you to take at least 250 steps each hour through a series of red dots. So far, my best is being active 13 of the 14 hours that fall between 6am and 8pm – I’ve yet to get all 14, but it’s a good motivator.

I was hoping for some kind of FitBit badge to appear to reward me for doing this, but sadly there isn’t one. Which is a shame. And whilst I don’t plan to challenge myself again any time soon, I hope that this will ensure that I keep up with some good habits to keep my step count up.

April 30, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 30, 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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April 23, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 23, 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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April 11, 2016
by Neil Turner
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A 3D-printed surprise from Formsfield

Formsfield 3d printing

A few weeks ago, I got an email from the folks at Formsfield, offering to post me a 3D-printed ‘surprise’. So I said yes, and then last week a small ‘sorry you were out’ card from UPS arrived on my doormat. After collecting the package from a nearby shop, I took it home, and unwrapped it to find a letter and some components inside.

Formsfield 3d printing

Formsfield had sent me two items – a sort-of vaguely heart-shaped iPad stand, with my name on it; and the components to make a torch.

The torch was mostly plastic, but also contained some graphene – a type of carbon that is strong, light and can conduct electricity. Graphene was developed in Britain, at the University of Manchester, but the method used here was patented in Poland. And, coincidentally, that’s where Formsfield is based.

I’ve heard many things about Graphene so being able to use something that is made from it was quite exciting, as I’ve never encountered it before in real life.

Formsfield 3d printingFormsfield is a marketplace for 3D printing. You can buy products that Formsfield will print for you, or, if you have your own 3D printer, you can stream designs to it (provided that it’s compatible). And you can upload designs to sell to others.

April 9, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 9, 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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April 2, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 2, 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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April 1, 2016
by Neil Turner
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A new dawn for trains in the North

144 Crossing the River Calder

Today is April 1st – and whilst that’s normally an excuse for news outlets to publish satirical articles to wind up their audiences, today it marks a new chapter for train services in the North of England. The two key rail franchises – Northern, and TransPennine Express – both change hands today, with promises of major improvements to trains, track and stations.

‘No growth’

The previous Northern Rail franchise started in 2004, and was awarded to a consortium of Serco (to whom all your base are belong to) and Abellio, a subsidiary of Dutch state railways. Controversially, this was a ‘no growth’ franchise, awarded on the basis that there would be no expected growth in passenger numbers over the original seven year period of the franchise. As such, the franchisee was not required to make any investments in new or additional trains, or run extra services.

As it happened, passenger numbers did grow, year on year, even during the 2008-2009 financial crash. In ten years, passenger numbers at Northern Rail stations (including my home station of Sowerby Bridge) have near doubled, and services have become increasingly overcrowded. To Northern Rail’s credit, whilst no brand new trains have been introduced, some additional trains have been brought in from elsewhere in the country where they had become surplus to requirement, and it has held onto older trains rather than scrapping them to maintain capacity. Consequently, train services have more carriages, more seats, and in most cases run more frequently now than in 2004. Continue Reading →