Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

January 21, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 21, 2017

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

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January 14, 2017
by Neil Turner
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15th Blogiversary

Screenshot of this blog from 2004 Today marks 15th years since I made my first post on this blog, back in 2002. It’s a big, round number, and one that I don’t think I would’ve ever expected this blog to reach.

As I mentioned in my 2016 review post, this year I blogged even less than in previous years. At one point, I did consider whether it was worth keeping the blog going, seeing as how I’ve really struggled to find the time to write for it this year. But I felt that, even though it’s not as fun as it once was, I’d miss it if it were gone. There’d be some issue that I’d want to write about, and it would be frustrating to not have somewhere to do it.

I decided to use a screenshot of how the blog used to look as the main image for this post, although it’s not from January 2002, sadly. The Web Archive goes back to October 2002 – before that, this blog was on a different domain that I don’t think I can even remember now. The screenshot is actually from November 2004, as the stylesheets don’t work from earlier versions. Still, that’s what my blog looked like over 12 years ago, and it was a theme that I’d designed myself. Nowadays, I use other peoples’ themes; partly because I find WordPress themes more difficult to code, but also because I don’t have the time to develop and test them. And my HTML and CSS skills are a bit rusty, and not up-to-date with best practice.

Browsing the web archive to find a screenshot was enlightening, though. I used to blog a lot more – multiple times per day – but many posts were just a couple of sentences. Now, I have a bigger audience on Twitter which is more suited to that style of communication, and I save blog posts for when I need to write a couple of hundred words or more. Linking to the (then) new release of Firefox in British English would’ve been a tweet, rather than a blog post.

I also wrote a lot more about inane things in my life, probably because I didn’t have anyone else to talk to but also because I didn’t need to be so private in those days. Nowadays, I have a wife to talk to, although one of my new year’s resolutions was to keep a daily journal so that I could write about inane things that happen to me. Two weeks in, and I’ve stuck to it.

I’m confident that I’ll still be blogging in a year’s time, provided that President-Elect Trump (urgh) hasn’t destroyed the planet by then. How often I’ll be blogging remains to be seen, but I’ll aim to post more frequently than in 2016 if I can.

January 13, 2017
by Neil Turner
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A £5 win on the Free Postcode Lottery

Free Postcode Lottery home page screenshot

I blogged about the Free Postcode Lottery a couple of years ago. It’s a lottery that has daily draws, that costs nothing to enter and winners are selected by postcode. Back then, the daily jackpot was £80. It’s steadily increased since then and has just been raised to £400.

There are also several extra draws now. As well as the main draw and the ‘stackpot’, which both existed back in early 2015, there’s:

  • A survey draw, where one postcode is drawn per day and it’s unlocked after completing a short survey (but you can usually opt out).
  • A video draw, where one postcode is drawn per day and it’s unlocked part-way through watching a video.
  • Two bonus draws, for those who have accumulated at least £5 and £10 bonuses respectively.
  • A weekly draw for a £50 Quidco voucher.
  • A daily mini draw for £100, which is at the bottom of the home page and only viewable between 6pm and midnight each day.
  • Random flash draws, where instead of showing an advert, you’ll get a banner to click on to win £5. It’s also an incentive to switch off your ad blocker, as the site is funded by advertising.

After almost two years of playing, I finally won the last of these. If you win, you get the money sent by Paypal to your registered email address within 48 hours. £5 was nice, but unfortunately it’s the one draw where you don’t also get credited your accumulated bonus. And having played for almost two years, my bonus stands at £22.48, so the payout would’ve been much greater had this been the case.

I still log in (just about!) every day to see if I’ve won anything, and to accumulate my bonus. It doesn’t cost anything, and only takes a minute each day. Whilst the chances of winning are low, a £400 windfall would be quite useful right now.

If you’re not already playing, you can sign-up using my referral link, and boost my bonus a little further. It is, as you may have guessed, UK-only, but the Free Emoji Lottery is available to everyone, and run by the same people.

January 9, 2017
by Neil Turner
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A return visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Lion at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Having visited last Valentines Day, we made a return visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park near Doncaster at the weekend. We really enjoyed it last time, but our visit was cut short when the weather turned. Saturday was a cold but dry day, so we headed over for another visit.

Getting there was a little easier this time, thanks to the opening of the Great Yorkshire Way. This links the M18 – the motorway that bypasses Doncaster to the south – with the A638, the road that feeds the wildlife park and nearby Robin Hood Airport. A second phase, due to start construction shortly, will see the road make it all of the way to the airport. But even the first phase cut our travelling time by at least 10 minutes each way.

The main attraction that we missed last time was the lions, so we went there first. The lions were rescued from a run-down zoo in Romania, and flown to the UK on a specially-adapted Jet2 plane. Their new enclosure is as big as the whole of the zoo that they called their home previously. Indeed, one thing I like about the Yorkshire Wildlife Park is that the enclosures are big, and designed so that visitors can see in over the fencing in many cases. On both visits, my Canon EOS 600D DSLR camera has seemed almost amateur compared to some of the specialist photography kit that other visitors have brought, and it’s easy to see why.

We also got to see one of the leopards; last time, none of them fancied making an appearance. And we saw a stoat – not one of the zoo’s animals, but it was on an area of rough ground near the polar bears that has yet to be developed.

As usual, I have uploaded the better photos that I took to Flickr.

January 7, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 7, 2017

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

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January 5, 2017
by Neil Turner
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How to: fix wrong location on iPhone

Screenshot of iOS location and privacy reset settingsOver the Christmas break, my iPhone would randomly decide that I was in my office. I’d have an app open that used my location, but instead of showing me where I actually was, it’d suggest that I was in Bradford. Which isn’t so useful when, in reality, you’re at home, or in York.

It caused particular problems when using Google Maps for directions, as it’d randomly jump to Bradford and then back again. Swarm was basically unusable. And it completely broke the ‘Track Exercise’ function of the Fitbit app. I had to actually uninstall and reinstall the Fitbit app a couple of times because it wouldn’t let me stop the exercise. This was even after restarting the app.

Turning Wifi off helped. Apple’s iPhones, and indeed many other devices, use the SSIDs of available Wifi networks to approximate your location. This is done by querying a web service, which means that you can still get an approximate location even when indoors, and out of view of GPS satellites. But turning off Wifi was hardly a long term solution.

A bit of Googling uncovered this article about fixing your location. It offers several solutions, depending on whether the issue affects just one application, or all. In my case, it was all applications, and the solution that worked was the fifth on the list. This involves resetting your phone’s location and privacy settings.

To do this, open Settings, and choose General. Then, scroll right down to the bottom and choose Reset, then select ‘Reset Location & Privacy’ – on iOS 10.2, this is the last option. Your device will ask you for your unlock password – pop this in, confirm, and hopefully your device will get the location correct from now on.

There is a drawback to doing this, however. You’ll have noted that this resets both your location and privacy settings. This means that any apps that you have granted access to your contacts, photos, calendars, camera, microphone, media library and so on will need to request them again. Although, oddly, apps will retain their location permissions, along with any permissions regarding background app refresh, notifications or mobile data access.

Despite these issues, it was a relief to fix the problem.

January 4, 2017
by Neil Turner
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App of the week: Namexif

Screenshot of Namexif

It’s been a long time since I last did an ‘app of the week’ post – March 2015, to be exact. I hope I’ll find more time to review apps this year but won’t make any promises.

Anyhow, here’s today’s app: Namexif. Namexif is a simple app that allows you to bulk-rename JPEG images based on the date the image was taken. Just about all digital cameras, including smartphones, store the date and time that the photo was taken. This data is saved in the image file’s Exif header, along with information about exposure, and so on. Namexif uses this Exif data to rename your files. So instead of having a folder full of files called ‘IMG_0052.JPG’, you can have something like ‘2016-12-25 12.34.35.JPG’. It’s a small improvement.

I sought out such a tool to sort our shared Dropbox folder, containing photos of Lizzie. Christine, my Dad and I all have access to it and have all saved photos there, but the filenames are all in different formats. Those imported via Dropbox’s Camera Upload feature are automatically renamed to include the date and time in the filename, but others weren’t. Getting them in date order was really important for me, as I want the photos to show Lizzie from when she was born until the present day.

You can customise the format that Namexif uses, so I made sure that I matched Dropbox’s format to get all of the files in order.

Namexif is a Windows app. I’m sure that alternatives exist for Macs and there will be more advanced renaming tools out there. But Namexif does one thing well, and it’s free.

January 3, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Google Chromecast review

Photo of a Google Chromecast

There were only a couple of presents that I specifically asked for Christmas this year, and one of these was a Google Chromecast. At £30, it’s a cheap and easy way of getting internet content onto your TV.

Roku versus Chromecast

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve had a Roku 2 XS since summer 2014. I wanted a Chromecast to complement it, and alleviate some of the Roku’s shortcomings.

The Roku is good little device, especially as it now supports almost all streaming media services in the UK with the recent additions of Rakuten’s Wuaki.tv and Amazon Prime Instant Video. And it’s easy to use, since it comes with a remote control – unlike the Chromecast. The main issues I’ve been having are:

  • Speed – apps such as BBC iPlayer are very slow. You can press pause, and the Roku will take several seconds before it actually responds in any way. I imagine newer Roku devices (the third and fourth series) are much faster; the Roku 2 series was on its way out when I bought it in 2014. That being said, it’s still receiving software updates which is good.
  • Stability – sometimes the Roku crashes, and has to reboot. I’ve had particular problems with the YouTube app causing this.
  • Netflix – the Netflix app on the Roku (second series at least) is poor. It doesn’t support multiple user profiles per account, so whatever you watch goes on the viewing history of the main profile. And parental controls don’t work, so you can’t watch any shows on the Roku which require a parental control PIN.
  • Spotify – Roku has a Spotify app, but you need to be a Premium subscriber to use it – that means paying £10 per month. I’m on Spotify’s £5 per month ‘Unlimited’ plan, which suits me but doesn’t work with the Roku.

Where the Chromecast excels

Setting up the Chromecast is quite easy – it took around 10 minutes which included installing a software update. And installation is as simple as plugging it into a spare HDMI socket, and then connecting the USB cable to a spare socket (a mains adaptor is included if required).

To ‘cast’ something, you just need to open an app on your Android or iOS mobile device, and look for the cast icon. Whatever you’re streaming will then appear on your TV, and you use your device to control it – playing, pausing etc. And, it only casts the content that you’re streaming, so your TV won’t flash up any notifications for example. This is a big advantage over simple Bluetooth speaker systems, for example, which simply broadcast all of the sounds that your device makes.

Compared with the Roku 2, the Chromecast is very fast. Tapping the cast icon in an app registers almost straightaway on the Chromecast and the only delays seem to be caused by buffering, rather than the device itself being slow.

Netflix works as well as it would do on a mobile device, so we can watch more adult things when Lizzie isn’t about, but also ensure that her profile doesn’t show them. And Spotify streaming via Chromecast is available to all users – even those with free accounts.

There’s also a guest mode, which lets anyone who doesn’t have your Wifi password to cast to your Chromecast – provided that they have the PIN code displayed on the home screen. The PIN changes at least once a day.

…and some pitfalls

I’ve already mentioned the lack of a remote. But this problem is exacerbated, in my view, because you have to go into the app to access the controls to play and pause. On iOS, at least, the controls don’t appear on your device’s lock screen. You can lock your device and the content will still play, but pausing when the phone rings (for example) is a bit more involved. It’d be nice if there was an iOS widget that could pause whatever is playing, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

Not all apps support Chromecast. The big one that’s missing is Amazon Prime Instant Video, although there is a relatively easy workaround. The other app that I miss is UKTV Play, which is the only way that we can watch shows on Dave, like the new series of Red Dwarf. Living in a valley prevents us from receiving Dave via Freeview, we can’t get Virgin Media, it’s not on Freesat and we’re too cheap to pay for Sky.

I was also hoping that my favourite Podcast app, Overcast, would work, but apparently not. A tweet from the developer suggests that it would not be trivial to add this in future. And you’ll need to use an app such as AllCast if you want to view photos and videos from Dropbox on your Chromecast. I had mixed results with this in my testing.

Also, none of the built-in apps on iOS support Chromecast. This isn’t suprising – Apple sells a rival device, the Apple TV, and has a rival protocol called AirPlay. AirPlay is, in my view, more basic than the Chromecast protocol. With AirPlay, your mobile device acts as an intermediary – it receives the content stream, decodes it, and then sends it via AirPlay to your Apple TV. The Chromecast, instead, streams directly from the content provider – your device merely sends some instructions. The main benefit is that it won’t drain your device’s battery.

Sadly, I also had some stability issues when using the NextUp Comedy app with the Chromecast. Like with the Roku, these caused the Chromecast to lock up and restart. However, at least my device remembered where it was, so I could pick it up again easily after a restart.

Putting Chrome into Chromecast

There’s a reason for the Chromecast having such a name, and that’s because you can cast web pages from the Google Chrome web browser on the desktop. This is how you can get the aforementioned Amazon Prime and UKTV Play onto your Chromecast, but it does mean that you’ll have to play and pause playback using your computer. Which isn’t ideal when your computer is in a different room to your TV, like it is in our house.

Overall

The Chromecast isn’t perfect and has some key pitfalls as mentioned. But it’s great value for £30, and relatively simple for a moderately tech-minded person to use.

January 3, 2017
by Neil Turner
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A year old

Photo of Lizzie on her first birthday

Lizzie turned one last week. I can’t believe it’s come around so soon, or how much she’s grown and developed over the past 12 months.

She had a low-key birthday, what with it being over Christmas and all three of us suffering from horrendous colds. Plus, I don’t think most one-year-olds really know what’s going on. She isn’t walking properly yet, unless you hold her hands, but she’s getting there. She’s quite adept at climbing stairs, and is very talkative, albeit in baby babble. And she gets very confused when you repeat her babble back at her, with the sort of expression that says ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’.

So far, her favourite new toy is this grey kitten from Hamley’s. We had to put away some of her other presents, mostly because she’s not old enough for them yet, but also to stop her getting overwhelmed by new things.

We’ll have a proper party for her later this month (note to self: book Lizzie’s birthday party). And we need to book her next round of vaccinations. That’ll be ‘fun’.