Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 22, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Last chance to register to vote

Register to vote banner on the old Odeon cinema in Bradford

Hello, people of the United Kingdom. As you may be aware, there is a general election on the 8th June. If you would like to be able to vote in it, then you have until midnight tonight to register to vote.

Here’s the form to complete. It takes no more than a few minutes. You just need to give your personal details, current address and national insurance number, if you have it. If you’re of ‘no fixed abode’, then you can still register to vote using this form. And those in Northern Ireland will need to use this form.

If your local council has already sent you your polling card, then you’re registered. But if not, I’d suggest filling the registration form out just in case, even if you think you’ve already done so. Because if you don’t, you may not be able to vote come June 8th.

Students

If you’re a student, and you live away from home to attend university, you can use this tool to decide whether to register to vote at your term-time or home address. Based on previous polling data and your home/term-time postcodes, it’ll let you know how safe each seat is, and therefore where your vote is most likely to have an impact. Although I’m no longer a student, my parents (unfortunately) live in a safe Conservative seat, whereas Labour won the Halifax constituency by a whisker last time.

Recent polls have put the gap between Labour and the Conservatives down to single digit percentages, meaning that it’s likely to be a close election. The Conservatives are defending a majority of just six seats, and the electoral landscape has changed significantly in the month since the election was announced. It’s about to get very interesting, so make sure you register to vote and have your say in the outcome.

May 17, 2017
by Neil Turner
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When Jeremy Corbyn came to Bradford

Jeremy Corbyn delivering a speech in Bradford

Yesterday, the Labour Party launched its General Election manifesto. And it chose to do so in the building where I work.

We were treated to Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet, who delivered a presentation and answered questions for around 90 minutes. All in front of the nation’s media, with live TV and internet broadcasts. Naturally, security was tight, and access was limited. Only university staff and students, Labour Party members, and invited members of the media where permitted. This included heavyweight political correspondents such as ITV’s Robert Peston, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and Sky’s Adam Boulton.

I was unable to get a seat, so I had to watch from one of the balconies above with no view of the stage. Corbyn got a really warm reception, particularly as the majority of people there were university staff. The biggest cheers were in response to Labour’s policies regarding ending hospital car parking charges, renationalising the railways, and, predictably, ending university tuition fees.

From the university’s perspective, it was great to see a high profile event run so well. This was despite it having been planned at such short notice. But we have form here: seven years ago, then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to us to make a speech the day before the 2010 General Election. And the university’s first chancellor, back in 1966, was Labour prime minister Harold Wilson; this was something that Corbyn referenced in his speech.

I’m a Labour Party member, so I’ll be voting for Labour next month anyway. Brexit aside, I was very impressed with what Jeremy Corbyn promised us yesterday if elected. Sadly, that’s a big ‘if’; despite recent improvements, Labour are still trailing significantly in the polls. We’ll see what happens come June 9th, when the results will be clear.

All of the above is my own opinion, and not necessarily that of my employer.

May 16, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Which Tech Giant Would You Drop?

Last week, The New York Times posed a question – which tech giant would you drop? Give the choice of Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, which would you cut ties with first, and which is the most valuable to you?

John Gruber picked up on this, as did Kevin Spencer. Here’s my answers:

1. Amazon

Amazon is basically just a shop to me, and there are other shops out there. I would miss being able to listen to audiobooks on Audible, Goodreads, and the Amazon Associates commission, but I could probably find satisfactory alternatives if I had to. We don’t have Amazon Prime and I get my films and TV shows from Netflix.

Unless, of course, I had to cut ties with every company that uses Amazon Web Services. Now that would be painful.

2. Alphabet (Google)

Alphabet is the name of the holding company contains Google, as well as Google X, Google Ventures, Nest Labs and other related entities. The fallout from Google Reader being closed meant that, in 2013-14, I tried to cut down my reliance on Google services.

Bing still isn’t as good as Google Search, but I think I’d manage if I had to. Currently all of my email goes to Gmail, but I could flip that back to my own server if needed. Apple Maps gets a lot of stick but, again, I could use it instead of Google Maps if needed. Losing Google Calendar would be a pain, but I could fall back to iCloud or set up an ownCloud server if required. I would miss YouTube, but it’s not the only video platform out there.

Losing access to Nest would be a bit more of a problem since we have a Nest thermostat. I assume that the thermostat would still work offline, if access to Nest was blocked, but we’d lose access to the apps.

I would also lose the small amount of money that I get from hosting Google Adsense advertising on this blog. The money I get is much less than the cost of hosting, so I might just get rid of the advertising altogether.

3. Apple

Okay, so my home computer, phone and tablet are all Apple devices, and I have all of my photos in iCloud. But those devices are replaceable and, whilst it would be a costly exercise, I could transition to Windows and Android devices if I had to. My Mac needs replacing anyway. I ranked this higher than Google because transitioning away from Apple would cost me more.

4. Facebook

I imagine most people would drop Facebook quite quickly if they had to. I wouldn’t. I would feel very isolated if I could never use Facebook again; the vast majority of my friends use it, and it’s a good way of keeping in touch with friends and former colleagues that I don’t see regularly.

Unless, of course, all of my friends also had to stop using Facebook, and moved to an alternative. And I think this is the key difference here – I could abandon Apple, Google and Amazon without having forcing my friends to do the same.

When Google+ launched, a friend of mine closed his Facebook account and moved everything over there. His friends didn’t follow, and I think he’s now quite isolated from his old friends, especially as this coincided with him moving to a different part of the country.

5. Microsoft

Finally, the company that I could do without the least. I rarely use Microsoft products at home, although I do have an Office 365 license and occasionally use Skype. But work is a different matter – I use Windows and Office on a daily basis, and our work email system uses Office 365. There’s no way I would be able to do my job without using Microsoft products.

Given time, I suppose something could be done if we had to give up Windows and Office, but if using Microsoft products somehow became illegal overnight, we’d be screwed. The recent WannaCry global ransomware incident shows just how reliant we are on Microsoft products in the workplace, and what the fallout could be if those systems go down.

May 15, 2017
by Neil Turner
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A child-free night out

Lizzie is approaching 17 months old now, and yet last night was the first time that Christine and I had a child-free night out, as a couple. We’ve struggled to get childcare in place, and Lizzie is still breastfeeding before bedtime. Thankfully, this time we managed to arrange for a friend to look after her.

We went to a recording of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue in Halifax. This is the second time we’ve seen the show be recorded; we saw the last two episodes of series 61 being recorded in Bradford in 2014. This time, they were recording the last episode of series 67, with guests Susan Calman (who we also saw later in 2014) and John Finnemore. Graeme Garden, one of the three regulars, wasn’t present for the recording, but Barry Cryer and Tim Brooke-Taylor were.

Though not quite a sell-out, the Victoria Theatre in Halifax was very busy. Tickets for ISIHAC recordings tend to only cost around £5, and so it’s a relatively cheap night out. Though each show is only around 30 minutes when broadcast, significantly more is recorded, and two episodes are taped at each recording.

These two episodes will be broadcast in July, I believe. Watch out for Susan’s lovely singing voice (although her vocal range did prove a limiting factor in the Pick Up Song round), and some controversial moves in Mornington Crescent. Sadly, you won’t get to see John’s facial expressions as he sings One Song To The Tune Of Another, such are the limitations of radio.

When we got home at about 10:30pm, Lizzie was still awake but very, very tired. Suffice to say she was still asleep when we put her in the pushchair to go to the childminders this morning. Apparently she’d been perfectly happy whilst we were out. Hopefully, if our finances improve and we can get childcare again, then we’ll be able to have a few more nights out.

May 13, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Eurovision time!

Tonight we have a few friends coming over to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Watching Eurovision with friends is an annual ritual for us, although it’s only the second time that we’ve hosted a Eurovision party ourselves. The last time was in 2014, back when we lived in our flat.

Whilst I wouldn’t call myself a massive Eurovision fan, I probably take a greater interest in it than most. I haven’t watched either of this week’s semi-finals, but I have listened to all of the songs on Spotify. Here’s the official playlist, if you want to do the same. Of those, I like the Danish and Greek entries the most. Romania’s entry is very silly, but still in the spirit of the competition. Of course, I haven’t seen any of the performances and part of the entertainment is watching the flamboyant displays that some acts put on.

Ukraine won the 2016 contest and so is hosting it this year. The implications of the 2014 annexing of Crimea mean that Russia isn’t taking part. Sadly, Ukraine hasn’t made a repeat of 2007 and so I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of Verka Seduchka this year. TANZEN!

Britain hasn’t won Eurovision since 1997, and I expect our chances are lower than ever this year, what with Brexit. Whilst our participation in Eurovision is completely independent of our membership of the European Union, I expect our European neighbours will feel less inclined to vote for us. Our entry isn’t bad, but I can’t see it winning, even in better circumstances. But let’s hope it’s not Royaume-Unis, nil points.

If you’re planning to watch the show tonight, the BBC has eight things that you need to know.

May 10, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Wonderlab at the National Science & Media Museum

Wonderlab at the National Science and Media Museum

One of the places I took Lizzie to during our week together was the new Wonderlab gallery at the National Science and Media Museum, in Bradford. This is the first time that the museum has had a gallery that focuses primarily on science, rather than media. The museum rebranded from the National Media Museum earlier this year, and was previously known as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

The gallery opened just in time for Easter, and seems to have been a big success. Visitors have been required to obtain timed tickets for it, either in advance or on arrival, to manage the numbers. It occupies one of the museum’s larger gallery spaces, with plenty of hands-on activities.

Whilst Lizzie is perhaps a bit young to learn about how things work, there was plenty of visual and aural stimulation in the gallery. The centrepiece is a projected model of the sun, with a video playing every few minutes. There’s also a mirror maze, and an UV light side-room.

A studio inside Wonderlab includes a live show that runs four times a day at weekends (and presumably every day during school holidays). It’s more suited for the over 5s, so we didn’t go in.

Like the rest of the museum, Wonderlab is free despite the requirement to book tickets. Expect to spend about an hour there, on top of any time spent in the rest of the museum. More new galleries are due to open soon, as part of the museum’s re-alignment towards science. The museum is also hosting the revived Bradford Science Festival this summer, in collaboration with my employer, the University of Bradford.

May 9, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Shroggs Park, Halifax

Shroggs Park

At risk of this blog becoming a review of parks of Calderdale, here’s a few words about another park that I’ve visited recently: Shroggs Park in Halifax. You can also read my post about Centre Vale Park in Todmorden.

Shroggs Park sits on a high point above Halifax, overlooking Ovenden and the huge Dean Clough mill complex. It’s a typical public park dating from the 19th century, I presume, with a bandstand, bowling green and space to play ball games. There’s also a small skate park, playground and a tennis court. The latter was covered in graffiti, although I suspect this may have been deliberate; some of the graffiti was quite artistic. On the back of the bowling green clubhouse, there was a spray-painted mural of St George and a dragon; fittingly, I had visited on St Georges Day.

Compared to Halifax’s other parks, such as Manor Heath and the Peoples’ Park, Shroggs Park felt a bit more rundown. I guess that has to do with it being close to less affluent areas of the town. But whilst there were fewer flowers and planting, it was still clean and tidy when I visited.

As with my trip to Todmorden a few weeks ago, my visit to Shroggs Park was a combination of keeping Lizzie entertained and catching Pokémon. Parks are often home to nests of less common Pokémon, and at the time it was home to a number of Girafarigs. Christine and I are both in a local Pokémon Go Facebook group, so that we can share information about rare spawns.

Shroggs Park was nice to visit for a change. It helped that it was a nice, sunny day, but even then, it was quiet. There weren’t many other families there at the time we visited.

May 6, 2017
by Neil Turner
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No more Links from Pinboard (for now)

You may have noticed that there was no Links from Pinboard post last week. This seems to be because of a problem with the RSS Digest plugin that I use.

It looks like a recent update to WordPress has broken it. The settings pages on the WordPress dashboard no longer work, so I can’t check to see why it didn’t post. Furthermore, the plugin appears to have been abandoned with no updates since 2011 – approximately when I started using WordPress myself.

There’s a premium version, called RSS Digest Pro, but I can’t be sure if that works either – the web site still says ‘Copyright 2011’. And I’m not about to spend $59 to find out if it does. So, for now, there’ll be no more links posted on Saturday mornings.

I have looked into replacements. Whilst there are plenty of plugins out there that can import content from an RSS feed, I’ve not been able to find one that posts a digest in the way that RSS Digest does. I don’t want a new blog post for every new item in the RSS feed.

Until I find a solution, you can view my links on Pinboard itself. Most links also get tweeted out, so follow me on Twitter if you want to see these links sooner. And if you’re aware of an alternative way of posting a weekly digest of links from Pinboard, please let me know.

May 5, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Getting started with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books

Discworld reading order chart Last Monday, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends:

Let’s imagine that you have a friend who has read a few Terry Pratchett books, but none of the Discworld books, and would like to start somewhere – which book would you recommend?

This friend has also seen the Sky TV adaptions of Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic and Going Postal.

And this friend may also be me.

27 comments later, and I received a useful list of starter books:

  • Guards, Guards!
  • Wyrd Sisters
  • Pyramids
  • Equal Rites
  • Mort
  • Reaper Man
  • Going Postal
  • Soul Music

Of these, ‘Guards, Guards!’ was the most popular suggestion, and so that’s my next audiobook on Audible. I’m about 30% of the way through it already. It’s okay – it’s narrated by Nigel Planer, who does a good job, however the breaks between scenes could be handled better. I think I found Good Omens to be a funnier book.

Discworld is a bit like the Marvel Cinematic Universe; there are lots of books that follow different groups of characters. There are several books with which you can start with, and some of these coalesce into a larger story. There’s even a diagram. You could, of course, read the Discworld books chronologically, starting with The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, but I gather that these aren’t Pratchett’s best works. That, and I’ve already seen the TV adaptations so I know the plot.

I will probably read another of the starter books next, before delving into any particular pathway through the Discworld universe. However, I have a couple of other books to listen to first, thanks to some recent Audible daily deals. These include The Long Earth, another Pratchett book which was a collaboration with Steven Baxter, and is more science-fiction than fantasy.

May 4, 2017
by Neil Turner
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May the wedding anniversary be with you

Wedding anniversary Today marks four years since Christine and I got married.

We inadvertently chose May 4th as our wedding day. Though neither of us are big Star Wars fans, Christine came down the aisle to a string quartet rendition of the Imperial March.

We’re not planning anything special. We may have a nice meal at home, but we’re both at work as normal. The traditional gift to exchange on your fourth wedding anniversary is ‘fruit’, apparently.

Our four years of marriage have seen quite a lot of change; we used to live in a rented two bedroom flat, with no car and no kids. We now own our own three-bedroom house, I can drive a car, and Lizzie is now 16 months old. I’ve also progressed somewhat at work. But we still love each other, and make sure that we have some time to ourselves, even with all of our pressures and responsibilities. Here’s to many more happy years.