Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

June 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The times, they are a changin’

Belltower

So yesterday’s blog post was on the riveting subject of retirement and pensions. It was only after I’d written it that I realised just how much I, and the things I write about, have changed over the years.

I started this blog in 2002 when I was 17 – still at college, living with my parents and single. And over the first couple of years, a lot of what I wrote about was going out, getting drunk and generally finding my way in the world. Along with all the techy things, of course.

I still write about techy things, but I’m not the outgoing young person that I used to be 10 years ago. I’m generally in bed by 9pm. I’m happily married, and we’ve just bought a house together. Whilst I might have the odd night out, instead of necking 8 bottles of Reef each night (fruit juice mixed with vodka), I’ll be gently quaffing a couple of craft beers or real ales. In other words, I’ve grown up, and now at an age where mortgage and retirement planning are actually relevant.

17 year old me would probably find 31 year old me a bit boring. But 31 year old me is also a lot happier than 17 year old me. I am who I am, and I like that.

June 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Calculating life expectancy

Towards Foxfield Colliery

When do you think you’ll die? It’s probably not a question that you want to think about, but having an idea of when you’re likely to pop your clogs may help with planning for your future.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) lets you calculate your approximate life expectancy. The reason for this is to do with pensions – the longer you’re expected to live after retirement, the larger your pension needs to be to ensure that you have enough money to live on.

In Britain, pensions broadly fit into three types:

  1. The state pension, which everyone gets. The amount depends on how much you have contributed to National Insurance during your working life; those that have contributed very little will just get a basic amount, ranging to the ‘full’ or maximum amount for those who have contributed for most of their working lives.
  2. Company pension schemes, officially known as workplace pensions, where a portion of your pay goes into a fund managed by the company or a related organisation. In most cases, your employer also contributes to your pension. Nowadays, all new employees aged 22 and above, and who earning over £10,000 per year, are automatically enrolled on a workplace pension unless they opt out.
  3. Personal or private pensions, which individuals can set up with banks and financial institutions. Essentially long-term savings accounts where the money can only be accessed at retirement.

Everyone gets the first one, and most people get the second one. This includes me – I don’t have a personal pension, but have been paying in to my workplace pension for quite a few years now. And unless things go horribly wrong in future, I should be able to make enough National Insurance contributions to get a full state pension on retirement.

For me, retirement is a long, long way away. Brits can calculate their retirement age here – I’ll get my state pension in 2052, some 37 years away. In other words, I’m not even halfway through my working life.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s too early to save for retirement. The ONS calculator is basic and only asks for your age and whether you’re male or female, but it told me that I can expect to live to the age of 88. There’s a one in four chance of me lasting another 10 years, and a one in ten chance of my reaching the ripe old age of 104.

If anything, I’d say that was pessimistic, based on my family circumstance. My great grandmother made it all the way to 102 when she died. Her son, my grandfather, is 94, and still very healthy in comparison with most people his age. And my dad turned 70 this year. In all likelihood, I’ll spend as long in retirement as I have being alive until now. So ensuring that I have plenty of money to live off is really important.

Christine is a smidgen younger than me, and though she retires at the same age, women tend to out-live men. So the ONS reckons she’s in with a good chance of making it to 91. She also has a good workplace pension in place.

Hopefully, a combination of our pensions, the value of our house and any extra savings we accumulate over the next thirty-odd years will ensure that we can both have long, fulfilling retirements. I’ve embedded the ONS calculator in the extended portion of this post, if you want to have a look yourself.

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June 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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August SE50 Bluetooth Boombox review

August Bluetooth Boombox with FM Radio

The latest piece of consumer electronics that has been sent my way to review is the August SE50 Bluetooth Boombox with FM radio. Essentially, it’s a standard clock radio, but with a Bluetooth facility for connecting smartphones and the like to it.

It arrived last week and has kept Christine and I company in the new house over the weekend. It’s quite big – 30 centimetres wide, or around a foot for those who use old school measurements. The casing is wood, and there are two 15 watt speakers either side of the central console. On the front is the time, and on top are the controls.

The boombox essentially has three modes – Bluetooth, FM radio, and auxiliary. It should pair with any device that supports Bluetooth audio – I only tried it with my iPhone, with which it worked fine. Alternatively, there’s an FM radio with up to 10 presets, and there’s a 3.5mm audio jack on the back for auxiliary input from any device that doesn’t have Bluetooth, like older iPods. As well as volume controls, there’s a play/pause button on the speaker for Bluetooth devices, where supported.

August Bluetooth Boombox with FM Radio

Power is via a DC adaptor, with a variety of different plugs for use in most countries. There’s no internal battery, and if left unplugged, the clock (and presumably also the FM presets) resets. Plus, the design of it, whilst attractive, means that it’s not really suited to outdoor use.

I would describe the sound quality as ‘not bad’. The bass is good, and it should be able to get quite loud – I only tested it at normal volumes because I don’t want to annoy our new neighbours. The range on the Bluetooth radio isn’t fantastic and it gets rather choppy if you take your phone into another room. Mind you, the new house has rather thick walls. I didn’t test the FM radio but the aerial does extend far more than shown in the photo, if needed.

On the whole it’s a good device, with a few cavetas. The sound quality is reasonably good, and it’s an attractive unit that looks well-built. An internal battery would be nice, but I suppose it’s not really necessary – I expect this to be the sort of device that stays in one place, and not used as a portable speaker. It’s good for the bedroom, although there’s no alarm despite the presence of a time display. It’s currently on sale from Amazon for around £35.

June 14, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Making a house a home (part I)

Stripping wallpaper

We did it – we bought a house!

We got the keys on Friday, and have already started the job of decorating the house by stripping the wallpaper in the dining room and living room. These rooms need partially re-plastering as part of the damp-proofing works, although having taken some of the wallpaper off we’re looking at getting them completely re-plastered.

All of the paper shown above was simply peeled off the walls – perhaps an indication of how necessary the damp-proofing works are, but also the age of the wallpaper. We’ve attached the rest with a steamer. Christine is there for scale :) .

Old plug sockets

The plug sockets downstairs are all very old, and in weird places – mostly about a metre off the floor. Since we’re getting these rooms re-plastered, we’ll look into having them re-sited in more useful places with more modern fixtures.

We’re also working on the bathroom, which thankfully just needs re-painting.

My parents came over to help us shift some of our possessions over, but we still have a lot of packing to do. In any case, because of the amount of work that needs doing, it’s likely to be around six weeks before we’re able to move in there properly. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

June 13, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for June 13, 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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June 11, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Savings

Until earlier this year, for various reasons, I’d ended up with four different savings accounts, all with the same bank.

My current account is with the Halifax bank. It always has been, ever since I got my first account aged 18, and I’ve stayed with them as they pay a £5 reward into your account every month, provided that you don’t go overdrawn and pay in at least £750 per month.

In my first year at university, I also set up an online savings account, where I could store some money at a higher interest rate where I had a surplus. As it was managed online using the same system as my current account, I could move money between accounts easily and instantly.

Over time, the interest rate on that savings account got progressively worse, so I set up another web-based account with a better rate of interest, also with the Halifax. Unfortunately, at the time, the Halifax wouldn’t let me close the old account online, or have a zero balance, so it stayed open with about £5 left in it. Mainly because I couldn’t be bothered writing to the Halifax by post to ask them to close it.

Once again, that account also ended up not paying a particularly good rate of interest, so I set up an Individual Savings Account, or ISA. These permit you to save money without paying tax on the interest, but the maximum balance is capped – at the time, this was around £5000. This became my main savings account, but again, I couldn’t easily close the other two accounts.

When Christine and I got married two years ago, my parents gave us a large sum of money as a wedding present, which was to be used as a mortgage deposit for a house. This was more than £5000, so it couldn’t go into my ISA, and neither of my web-based accounts were offering very good interest rates, so I set up a fourth savings account – an Everyday Saver. This came with an ATM card and, at the time of opening, paid 1.5% AER interest. More importantly, this interest was paid monthly, so as and when we were ready to buy a house, we could withdraw all of the money and accumulated interest.

As we’ve now bought a house, all of the money from my savings has gone towards the mortgage and associated conveyancing fees, so having four savings accounts with no money between them would be a bit ridiculous. Thankfully, the Halifax recently enabled a feature in their online banking system to close unneeded savings accounts. So I have now closed all my savings accounts, apart from my ISA, which I’ve also converted to a slightly better product. It only pays 0.8% AER for 12 months, and then 0.5% AER afterwards, but there are few easy-access ISA accounts out there that pay much more. The Bank of England base rate has been static at 0.5% for over six years now, from a high of 5.5% in December 2007. Unless that goes up, I can’t see interest rates on savings going up any time soon.

In any case, we’re now borrowers rather than savers. Our main focus will be to pay off our mortgage over the next 25 years, although I will be setting some money aside to rebuild my savings a bit, so that there’s some money for emergencies or big purchases. And I’m pleased to have just one savings account to deal with from now on, even if it does only give a low return.

June 10, 2015
by Neil Turner
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iOS 9

iOS 9

Apple announced iOS 9 on Monday at its annual WWDC event. The latest version is another evolutionary release that will build in the new look first introduced in iOS 7, two years ago.

Apple also announced the next version of Mac OS X, version 10.11 or ‘El Capitane’, and version 2 of WatchOS, the operating system on the Apple Watch. El Capitane looks like a relatively minor update to last year’s Yosemite, and as I don’t own an Apple Watch I’m less interested in WatchOS. So I’m just going to focus on iOS 9 today.

News without the stand

Newsstand, which was introduced in iOS 5, is gone. Taking its place in iOS9 is a new app called ‘News’ which seems to act in a similar way to apps like Flipboard, offering an array of news articles from established sources. Apple is already taking publisher sign-ups now, and any site with an RSS feed should be eligible. Although the form to complete doesn’t work in Firefox. Nearer the time, Apple will be launching its own format as well.

Presumably, Newsstand apps will continue to work as standalone apps in future. I read a couple of railway magazines (don’t judge me) through Newsstand, but I doubt I’ll miss it much when it’s gone.

I can’t see myself using Newsstand as I prefer Feedly, but I’ll give it a try, seeing as Apple will install the app on my devices whether I want it or not.

More powerful notes

The Notes app that has shipped with the iPhone since launch has been pretty basic – your individual notes are just simple text that can be synced to other devices via iCloud. In iOS 9, Notes is being upgraded, and you can now embed checklists, photos and maps. You can also draw sketches, and create notes from other apps – for example, adding a web page to a note. It sounds rather like Evernote, although it won’t have some of Evernote’s more advanced features and I doubt Apple will make a desktop client for Windows.

Maps

Apple Maps were first introduced in iOS 6, when Apple dropped Google Maps from being included by default. At the time, Apple Maps was poor, with outdated and inaccurate information, to the point where some people held back from upgrading to iOS 6 until Google released its own app.

I’d like to say Apple Maps has got better since then, but I don’t feel that it has – I still much prefer Google Maps. Where Apple is playing catch-up with Google is the launch of public transport directions in iOS 9, so that you can plan routes involving buses, trains and metro systems. Only a few cities will be supported initially, whereas Google Maps already has extensive support across a number of different countries, including real-time data across the UK. Whilst Apple Maps has the advantage of being integrated with Siri, I think I’ll be sticking with Google.

Passbook in your Wallet

Another app that is being replaced is Passbook – an iOS 6 app which allowed you to store loyalty cards, tickets and boarding passes, amongst other things. I’ve not really used it much in the past because it can be awkward to add your cards in the first place.

In iOS 9, Passbook is being renamed Wallet, and will now incorporate Apple Pay which was launched with iOS 8 on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Apple Pay is launching in the UK next month – the first country outside of the US to get it. And Apple has already signed up most UK banks and many UK retailers; Barclays is the only big bank that isn’t listed, although those in the Lloyds Banking Group (Lloyds, TSB, Halifax and Bank of Scotland) won’t be on board straightaway.

Crucially, Apple Pay uses very similar infrastructure to the existing contactless payment systems which retailers are rolling out. Theoretically, therefore, you’ll be able to use Apple Pay at any outlet which offers contactless. However, unless the retailers have a sign saying otherwise, you will be limited to a maximum daily spend of £20, rising to £30 in September. Those that specifically accept Apple Pay should allow you to spend more, as such payments are authenticated on the device, and it’s probable that more retailers will accept higher value payments over time. The same protections offered to credit card users will apply to payments made by Apple Pay, which is good.

Transport for London should also be able to accept Apple Pay payments wherever contactless payments are enabled – on the Tube, buses, the DLR, London Overground and some National Rail services. I think this is the first time that Apple Pay has been accepted on public transport.

As I don’t have a compatible device, I won’t be able to use Apple Pay but it’s good to see it being embraced widely in the UK. In the US, adoption has been set back by a (seemingly inferior) rival system called CurrentC, with some retailers signing exclusive agreements.

Multitasking

For the first time iOS 9 will allow more than one app on the screen at the same time. The latest and greatest iPad Air 2 will let you have two apps open simultaneously, a bit like on Windows tablet devices. Older iPads, and some iPhone models, will support more limited multitasking: ‘Slide Over’, where you can slide in another app from the side of the screen, and ‘Picture in Picture’, where you can have a small window with a video or FaceTime call showing whilst you use other apps.

Again, Apple is catching up with its rivals here, but it’s still a welcome addition, especially for the iPad.

Apple Music

Apple’s new music service will actually launch ahead of iOS 9 and is due at the end of this month, but it was announced at the same time. All users will get access to a new radio station called Beats 1, and then a subscription service will let you stream just about any song that Apple has in its Music Store library. UK pricing hasn’t been announced, but unlike Spotify there won’t be an ad-supported free tier. Good for Taylor Swift fans, not so good for those who can’t justify a subscription.

And all the small things in iOS 9

As usual, there are some more minor changes in iOS 9:

  • The iPad on-screen keyboard has been improved, with dedicated buttons for cut, copy and paste, and a cursor mode for more accurate text selection.
  • Siri should now be more intelligent, and be able to respond to contextual cues, for example ‘show me photos taken in June last year’.
  • Search will cover more things, including sports results and weather, and will also be able to search within apps for the first time thanks to some new APIs.
  • If you receive an email with what looks like an event invitation, it’ll appear in your calendar as a suggested event.
  • Your calendar reminders should be able to react to traffic conditions, so if you need to travel to your appointment it will notify you a bit earlier if your journey will take longer.
  • iOS 9 should take up less space on your device, which will be great for my 16 GB iPad Mini 2.
  • Performance improvements should also allow iOS 9 to run faster, and use less battery power. You can also enable a ‘low power mode’ to conserve the battery if it’s running low.
  • The Health app will add ‘reproductive health’, presumably so that people who ovulate can track their menstrual cycles. It settles a major criticism of the app when it was introduced in iOS 8.
  • Finally, although it’s only tangentially related to iOS 9, Apple will be launching an Android app that will make it easier for Android users to migrate to an iPhone. It’ll transfer your contacts, messages, photos and other data, and set up a wishlist for equivalent apps. This will be Apple’s second Android app as Apple Music will also be available on Android, presumably because it’s based on Beats Music which is already available as an Android app.

iOS 9 will be out in the autumn, along with whichever new iPhone models Apple launches. An open beta is also available for the first time – it’s no longer restricted to just those with an Apple developer account. However, as I rely on my phone, I’ll wait until the final release in case there are still some major bugs. iOS 8.4 will be out later this month to add support for Apple Music.

One thing to note about iOS 9 is that, whilst not all of its new features will work on all devices, it will run on any device that could handle iOS 8. This includes the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, which date from 2011, meaning that Apple will have supported them for over four years. This is far longer than many rival manufacturers, where you’ll get two years of software updates if you’re lucky. For all that Google promotes its latest and greatest features in Android, many people’s handsets are stuck on older versions.

June 6, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for June 6, 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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June 5, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Anticipation

YouTube is great for finding old adverts, including this one from 1995 (I think) for Guinness, called ‘Anticipation’.

I remember it because I had it as a screensaver for a while. Back in the 1990s we didn’t have the internet at home, so I would have installed it from a cover-mounted CD-ROM from a computer magazine. I remember looking at the data files for the screensaver and finding that, rather than using video, it used a series of 256-colour bitmap images cobbled together – a bit like animated GIFs. The audio track was a separate Wave file. Consequently the animation wasn’t very good, but, then, that was computing in the 1990s for you. This was before the release of Windows 95 and therefore you had to install extra runtime software just to be able to play video files.

I have no idea if the screensaver would work on modern computers, and I doubt that the CD-ROM it came from would still be lying around at home anywhere.

The music that Guinness chose for the advert was a version of the Italian song called Guaglione, recorded by a Cuban musician Perez Prado in 1958. As a result of this advert’s popularity, the song was re-released as a single. It subsequently reached number 2 in the UK singles chart in May 1995, and number 1 in Ireland.

Of course, whilst I like the advert, I still don’t like the taste of Guinness. This is despite having a pint of it from the Guinness Storehouse when we went to Dublin last year. I like other porters and stouts but Guinness just doesn’t do it for me.

June 4, 2015
by Neil Turner
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PGP on Facebook

My PGP public key on Facebook

This week, Facebook unexpectedly announced that it will optionally encrypt all emails sent to users with OpenPGP, and list user’s PGP public keys on their profiles. I don’t think anyone would have seen this coming.

In doing so, Faecbook has not only got around the problem of emails not being encrypted (unlike when you browse facebook.com through a web browser or its app), but has also effectively become one of the largest global directories of PGP public keys.

To enable PGP encryption, you’ll first need to edit your profile and then copy and paste your public key into the relevant field. Provided your key is okay (i.e. not expired, revoked or set to expire within the next 30 days), Facebook will accept it. You can then tick a box to tell Facebook to use your public key to encrypt all its emails to you, such as when you’re tagged in a photo or someone posts a new comment on one of your posts.

Of course, you’ll need an OpenPGP-compatible email program, of which most aren’t – at least by default. On Macs, Airmail 2 has an official plugin (my review here), Enigmail is a well-established addon for Mozilla Thunderbird, and GPGTools includes a plugin for the Mac Mail client. iPGMail is a £1.49 iOS app that I haven’t yet tried myself. On Windows, GPG4Win is a complete toolkit. Webmail users may struggle but there’s at least one Chrome extension for Gmail.

Airmail 2 seemed to handle Facebook’s encrypted emails well; once decrypted, they worked like normal messages with HTML code intact.

How popular this feature will be remains to be seen. PGP still has a rather large barrier to entry, in terms of its overall complexity. Few people use Symantec’s official PGP software, and GnuPG, the compatible open-source project, is mainly based around a command line client with some third-party graphical front-ends. Whilst I’m comfortable using it, I speak from the point of view of someone who has studied a postgraduate diploma qualification in computer security and cryptography. I couldn’t see my wife using PGP, for example. There’s a little more in this blog post that I found on the topic.

And there’s the question about how secure Facebook’s systems are, in light of Edward Snowden’s allegations about the NSA. If they have access to Facebook’s private key for signing these emails, then perhaps they would have the capability to decrypt emails in transit.

Plus, as Facebook warns, if you lose access to both of your Facebook and PGP passwords, then you may struggle to regain control of your Facebook account.

So whilst I’m pleased that Facebook has introduced PGP support, I do wonder just how many people will bother enabling it. As always, my PGP public key is available here.