Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

July 17, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Lizzie’s first passport

Lizzie with her passport

Lizzie’s first passport arrived on Friday. She may be only 18 months old, but if we were to travel abroad, then she would need her own passport.

We don’t have any international trips planned; we can’t really afford a holiday right now. But the fact that we didn’t have anything booked meant that this was the ideal time to submit the application. That way, any future trips wouldn’t have been at risk if her passport didn’t come through in time.

In any case, the turnaround on her passport was quick – under a week. I’d expected it to take longer, what with it being her first passport and it approaching peak holiday season. A friend had also encountered delays with her daughter’s passport application, submitted recently. Their situation is somewhat different though; whilst both her and her husband are British citizens, her husband was born outside the UK. I suppose Lizzie is lucky in that respect, that both Christine and I are British citizens who were born here.

We were fortunate that we got both her short-form and full birth certificate when I registered her birth last year. You need to send the full certificate off with the passport application; although it costs extra, it was one less document to have to arrange.

What did surprise me was that the application asks questions about our parents – i.e. Lizzie’s grandparents. This is because of a change in the law that came into effect in 1983 which means that children born in the UK do not automatically get British citizenship if their parents are not British. Christine doesn’t have a relationship with her dad, and so it felt odd having to include his details on the application.

Christine didn’t have her own passport until 2013; previously she had been included on her mum’s passport, as this was a thing you could do in times gone by. She had to apply for one as an adult, and due to the aforementioned 1983 change in the law, this involved attending an interview. This was at the local passport office in Leeds, where she was asked various questions about her life in Britain. Again, this is despite her and both of her parents being British by birth. We had to put back the booking of our honeymoon until this was completed, and her passport still has her maiden name in despite it being issued shortly before our wedding.

At least Lizzie now won’t have to go through this process; we should just be able to renew her child passport every five years with updated photos each time. That’s assuming that there’s no further changes to immigration rules. With Brexit on the horizon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rules change again.

We’ve tentatively agreed to go on holiday with my parents next summer – this would be the first holiday I’ve taken with my parents since 2003. Possible competition wins aside, I don’t think Lizzie will get a chance to use her passport until then.

July 14, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Manchester Airport Runway Visitor Park

Etihad airplane landing at Manchester Airport

Planespotters can be viewed in several ways. I think most people would bracket them with trainspotters and busspotters – eccentric, but harmless.

Greece, not so much – in 2001, a group of planespotters were arrested for spying. Ultimately, they were acquitted.

Manchester Airport, however, saw planespotting as a way of making money. So the airport’s Runway Visitor Park isn’t just a handy viewpoint for the runway – it’s a fully-fledged visitor attraction. Lizzie and I called on the way back from Quarry Bank Mill; I’d seen it signposted and figured it would be a good opportunity to snap a few shots of planes.

As you’d expect, there are three raised platforms to watch the planes from, one of which has a ramp. But there’s so much more; plenty of picnic tables, a café and bar, and a children’s funfair is open on summer weekends. Plus, there are several disused aircraft that you can book tours to see, including Concorde, and a shop that sells plenty of model planes.

AVRO RJX

One of the aircraft, an AVRO RJX (I’m not a plane geek, so this means nothing to me) is open all of the time; it’s a small aircraft that was used briefly for testing and only flew for a couple of years before being retired. The others are by guided tour only; I was only dropping in for a quick visit and so I didn’t book on for one this time. I’d definitely like to take a look around Concorde some time, as I never got to go on one when they were in service.

The park is surprisingly close to one of the taxiways, so it’s perfect for photography. A handful of people with big lenses were there, but I think most people had come to spend a sunny afternoon there. The food from the café looked rather expensive and uninspiring, but, as long as it’s a nice day, there’s nothing stopping you from bringing your own food and eating it outside. Just don’t feed the birds.

Entry to the site is free, although it costs money to park. It’s £5 for two hours, £10 for 2-4 hours, and £12 all day, making it relatively cheap for a car full of people. It’s served by a local bus service, and if you arrive by bus, on foot or by bike, there’s no parking charge. Be aware that on sunny days, like last Sunday, the car park may be full. And, being so close to Manchester Airport, security is high as you would expect – lots of CCTV cameras.

I commend Manchester Airport for having such a good place to watch planes. I’d like to say Lizzie enjoyed it too, but she was actually asleep the whole time. I expect we’ll be back – she’ll enjoy the funfair, and I might get the chance to look inside one of the bigger planes.

July 13, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Quarry Bank Mill

Quarry Bank Mill

Christine was working this weekend, and so, to keep Lizzie entertained, I took her to Quarry Bank, near Manchester Airport.

It’s a National Trust property, and is home to Quarry Bank Mill, a large, red-brick mill. Whilst it is still signposted as ‘Quarry Bank Mill’, the National Trust are spending a lot of money on other parts of the site as well. The mill is still the main draw – it’s big, and still has a lot of existing machinery inside. You enter at the top, and start with wooden looms and spinning wheels, before heading down to the mechanised machinery that were used in later years.

Quarry Bank Mill is also home to a very, very big water wheel. It’s still operational, but has been replaced by steam engines and electric power. Enthusiastic volunteers demonstrated the machines and explained how they work, making it feel more interactive than some industrial museums that I’ve previously visited (Leeds, Calderdale and Bradford)

A special exhibition at the top of the mill is based on Sir Tony Robinson’s book The Worst Children’s Jobs in History. Kids can practice shovelling (fake) horse poo, picking vegetables, sweeping chimneys and looking after babies (dolls). Lizzie loved this, and threw a bit of a tantrum when I had to extract the doll from her to move on. It’s on until the 10th September.

Quarry Bank Gardens

Gardens

Last year, the gardens at Quarry Bank were renovated and this was completed earlier this year. They’re home to some nice decorative planting, a kitchen garden and a newly-renovated glass house. You can even buy some of the produce for a donation. A new visitor centre will open later this year, improving access to the gardens.

Next year will see Quarry Bank House opened to the public for the first time, along with some mill workers houses.

We didn’t go to the Apprentice House, which is a separate guided tour. I didn’t think Lizzie would enjoy it, but maybe we can go again when she’s older.

Quarry Bank Mill

Getting to Quarry Bank

Quarry Bank is near the village of Styal and is just to the south of Manchester Airport, so it’s relatively easy to get to. It took me about an hour to drive there from Sowerby Bridge, in light traffic.

As with all National Trust properties, members get in free. I’m a member, and Lizzie is under 5, so it didn’t cost anything for either of us to visit, but Christine isn’t. Had she come with us, it would’ve cost her £20. That being said, there’s a lot to see and do and it’s a full day out; I got there at 10:30 and left about 3pm, and didn’t do the Apprentice House. National Trust members will find it especially good value for money.

My photos from Sunday are on Flickr, as usual.

July 12, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Great Yorkshire Show 2017

Lazy days

For once, this is a blog post about something that I’m not doing. We’re not going to the Great Yorkshire Show this year.

I used to go quite often with my parents when I was younger, but then there was a long gap until I went with friends in 2011. The 2012 show was a wash-out and cancelled after one day, but Christine and I went as a couple in 2013 for the first time. Last year was Lizzie’s first visit.

The main reason is the cost. Advance tickets are now £24 each for adults, so we would’ve spent almost £50 before we even stepped foot inside the gate. On-the-gate tickets are £28. Plus there’s the cost of driving there and food whilst visiting.

We’re actually both on annual leave on Thursday, so getting time off work isn’t the issue – it’s the cost.

We have already been to the Yorkshire Showground this year, for Springtime Live – a smaller, more family friendly event. And I imagine that we’ll be going to its autumn counterpart, Countryside Live, in October. Both events are much more affordable, and better for small children.

If you are planning a trip, today is the middle day of this year’s show, and tomorrow is the last day. I wrote several tips for enjoying the show back in 2013, and most of this still stands. Just be aware that, following the various terrorist incidents in Manchester and London earlier in the year, there will be tighter security with bag searches and armed police patrols.

We may go back next year, if our finances improve. It’s still a good day out, and you can get your money’s worth if you get there early as it’s a huge event.

July 11, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Fitbit Alta HR review

Fitbit Alta HR

I’ve recently upgraded my fitness tracker, and now own a Fitbit Alta HR. I’ve previously owned a Charge, and a Charge HR, and this review will mostly focus on the differences between the Alta and the Charge. I reviewed the Fitbit Charge in October 2015.

Improvements

Compared with the Charge, the Alta HR is narrower, and the metal bands either side of the display make it feel more solid. I find that it fits my wrist better and it’s lighter, so it feels more comfortable. I feel happier wearing it when asleep than I did with the Charge models.

Battery life is much improved over the Charge HR, with the Alta HR typically lasting a full week on a full charge. You can also view the current battery status on the device itself, as it’s one of the screens that displays along with your step count, calories burnt, distance travelled etc.

Notifications are expanded beyond phone calls; the Alta HR will also notify you of text messages (and show the sender and first few words), and calendar events if you wish. If you’ve turned on Fitbit’s hourly movement tracking, then if you haven’t done 250 steps in the last hour, you’ll get a nudge at around 10 minutes to the hour to get up and move around.

In my experience, the Alta HR was better at synchronising throughout the day with my phone than the Charge models, which would sometimes go a few hours at a time without a proper synchronisation. This may be a quirk with my phone though.

Disadvantages

If you’re switching from a Charge to an Alta HR, you’ll need to turn off the floor climbing tracking. There’s no altimeter in the Alta HR and so you won’t be able to track how many floors you’ve climbed.

There’s no button on the Alta HR, so you have to wake the display either by raising your arm or double-tapping the screen. Also, the screen doesn’t automatically illuminate when you receive a notification. This probably improves the battery life but makes it a little harder to check your status quickly.

The screen is much bigger, and has a higher pixel density than the Charge. But it’s orientated lengthways, so when reading a message you’ll need to twist your arm. It also means that it’s not wide enough to display more than three digits of your step count, so once you hit 1000 steps, it’ll display ‘1.0k’ and then ’10k’ once you hit 10,000 steps. However, below this, a series of five dots shows whether you’re at 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100% of your daily goal.

Finally, your existing Charge or Charge HR charging cable won’t work with the Alta HR. It has a much improved cable that clips on to the device, but it’s incompatible with other models. You may want to order a spare cable.

Verdict

On the whole, I agree with this Gizmodo review – this is probably the best fitness tracker for most people. £10 more will get you the Charge 2, which overcomes some of the limitations of the Alta HR, but is bigger and probably less comfortable. If you’re the sort of person who wants to record their floor climbs, easily view GPS data, or practice relaxing breathing, go for the Charge 2. If not, then the Alta HR is a very good, comfortable fitness tracker.

July 10, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Help to choose a law to change

Until tomorrow evening, if you live in the UK, you have the opportunity to vote for a new law that will be debated in the House of Commons. Here’s the link.

Here’s why this has come about: in every parliamentary session, backbench MPs can put themselves forward for a ballot to debate a ‘private members bill’. These bills are not introduced by government, and there is limited time allocated to them being discussed. In the new parliamentary session that started after last month’s general election, Chris Bryant MP came top of the ballot, and he has decided to have a poll for which bill to discuss first.

The bills are as follows:

  • Marriage Equality Bill – allowing civil partnership for mixed sex couples, inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates (in addition to fathers’) and the use of religious symbols in straight civil weddings (as is allowed in gay civil weddings).
  • Reinsurance (Acts of Terrorism) Bill – extending the existing scheme which provides compensation to those that have lost out financially through physical damage to property from acts of terrorism to include those who have suffered other forms of loss.
  • Crime (Assaults on Emergency Staff) Bill – making assault on emergency staff an aggravated offence when perpetrated against emergency workers in the exercise of their duty.
  • House of Lords (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers) Bill – removing the remaining 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
  • Food (Advertising and Labelling) Bill – restricting advertising of high fat, high sugar foods till after 9pm on TV and requiring the government to introduce regulations to require the use of prescribed colour-coded labels on packaged foods.
  • Refugees Families Bill – allowing refugee families to be reunited by expanding the definition of family members allowed to accompany refugees and giving refugee children the right to be reunited with their parents.

You can rank these bills in your preferred order; presumably, the bill with the most first choice votes will be discussed first. The ‘Crime (Assaults on Emergency Staff) Bill’ is one that my local MP, Holly Lynch, has been a keen promoter of. The poll closes tomorrow evening, so please get in there quickly if you want to have your say.

Private members bills are often not successful – they frequently run out of time before a final vote. But there are some exceptions; Gyles Brandeth, a former MP and now a TV celebrity, introduced the Marriage Bill which became the Marriage Act 1994. This allowed couples to marry outside of churches and registry offices for the first time, which Christine and I personally benefited from when we got married in 2013. The act has since been amended to allow same-sex couples to marry as well.

These bills are also often subject to filibustering. Philip Davies, who has somehow managed to remain MP for Shipley despite being a Dickensian villain, has filibustered his way through several bills, including those on domestic violence, hospital car parking and ensuring rented properties are fit for habitation. I’m sure it’s a mere coincidence that Davies is a residential landlord.

Most of the recent successful private members bills have been presented by Conservative MPs; this isn’t surprising, as the Conservatives have been the largest party in the House of Commons since 2010. It’ll be interesting to see if Bryant, a Labour MP, is allowed enough time to progress whichever bill wins this vote.

Voting for your preferred bill takes literally a couple of minutes. It’s not often that opportunities like this come up, so please take advantage of it.

July 8, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Thornton Hall Farm Country Park

Lizzie at Thornton Hall Farm Country Park

A couple of weeks ago we had a day out at Thornton Hall Farm Country Park, near Skipton in North Yorkshire. It’s an open farm, where there are various activities for kids along with an opportunity to meet the animals.

Thornton Hall is a relatively small farm, but with a variety of animals – llamas, donkeys, ponies, sheep, emus, cows, rabbits, ducks, pigs, chickens, goats and guinea pigs. We made it in time to feed the orphaned lambs and calves – Lizzie was a bit young but older kids enjoyed it. There were regular petting sessions with the rabbits and guinea pigs.

Although Thornton Hall lacks an indoor soft play area, there are sandpits, a large slide for older kids, and space to drive toy tractors. Lizzie was just about big enough for the smallest tractors. There was also a small outside play area.

There’s a small café with reasonably good food, but not much space to sit inside. We visited on a quiet day but I would imagine that you would need to sit outside on busier days.

Available at extra cost were a ‘safari’ tour in a 4×4 around the fields,  a shorter ‘caterpillar’ tour, and pony trekking. The caterpillar was a series of converted plastic drums with wheels, linked together and hauled by a quad bike around the farm. With Lizzie being rather small, we didn’t pay extra for these but may consider it on a return trip.

Thornton Hall farm isn’t very big, and would probably be of more interest for older kids. I think Lizzie was a bit young – maybe once she’s two years old or more, that she’ll be able to get more out of a visit. But it was a nice, and relatively inexpensive day out – especially on weekdays, when it’s just £5 for one parent and one toddler. I think we’ll go back again in future.

July 7, 2017
by Neil Turner
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The Waterloo and City Line

A tube train on the Waterloo and City Line
Image from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Mpk under CC-BY-SA 2.5 license.

On our trip to London last month, we went on the Waterloo and City Line for the first time. I’d been on all of the other Tube lines apart from this one, and we needed to get from London’s Docklands area to Waterloo, so it made sense to travel on this line.

The Waterloo and City Line is notable for several reasons.

1. It’s the shortest London Underground line

The Waterloo and City Line is so-called because it literally only serves Waterloo mainline station, and the City of London – there’s just two stations. It’s basically a shuttle service, and is just under one and a half miles in length.

The route takes it under the River Thames, and it passes close to Blackfriars and Mansion House stations on the Circle and District Lines. However, it doesn’t interchange with these lines until Bank at the City end.

2. It’s entirely underground

At no point do any of the Waterloo and City Line trains go above ground. The entire route, including the depot, is entirely underground. Most other London Underground lines have some surface sections; the only near-exception is the Victoria Line, which has a depot above ground but the running lines are all underground.

The depot is at Waterloo station, and can handle all light and medium maintenance of the trains. For occasional heavy maintenance, the trains are winched out of a shaft using a crane and taken away by road. This is because the line is completely isolated from any other underground or railway line.

3. It’s the second-oldest tube line in London

The line was opened in 1898 by the London and South Western Railway, whose trains ran into Waterloo. It ensured that Waterloo had a link with the City of London, without the need to build expensive bridges and demolish buildings that would’ve been in the way. It actually predates most of the other London Underground ‘tube’ lines; only the Northern Line (specifically the Stockwell to Borough section) is older, having opened in 1890.

4. It’s only been part of London Underground since 1994

As the remaining Underground lines became part of London Transport, the Waterloo and City Line instead became part of the Southern Railway. The Southern Railway was nationalised in 1948, and became British Rail, who operated it along with London’s commuter rail services.

It shared a lot of characteristics with London Underground, and when new trains were ordered for the Central Line in 1992, a few extra of the same design were ordered for the Waterloo and City Line. These were originally painted in Network SouthEast colours, as per the photo above, with a blue front end and blue doors. Unlike mainline British Rail trains, these didn’t need yellow front ends, but they carried a British Rail rolling stock class number of 482.

When British Rail was privatised, the Waterloo & City Line was seen as an anomaly, and ownership passed to London Underground in April 1994. The tube trains have subsequently been repainted in LU colours, with red front ends. They will be replaced sometime in the next 15 years as part of the New Tube for London project.

Despite only being a formal part of London Underground since 1994, the Waterloo & City Line was one of a handful of British Rail services that used to be shown on the standard Tube Map, along with Thameslink, the Northern City Line and North London Line. Whilst this practice has now ended, the Waterloo & City Line and North London Line are now both operated by Transport for London (the latter as part of London Overground) and so are still shown on the Tube Map.

5. It’s closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays

Because its primary reason for existence is to ferry commuters arriving into Waterloo to the City, and back again, there’s no Sunday service. It also has a late start on Saturdays, with the first trains at 8am. It’s not part of the Night Tube.

I wouldn’t say our trip on the line was particularly interesting – it was similar to most other Tube lines. The only notable differences are that the stops at each end are longer, and that everyone gets off when the train stops. But it’s interesting in other ways, as I’ve mentioned above. Even though it’s now part of London Underground, I expect the Waterloo and City Line will always be a bit of an anomaly. But its anomalies like this that, in my view, make London Underground so interesting.

July 6, 2017
by Neil Turner
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What was your first Amazon purchase?

I saw this tweet on Tuesday about your first Amazon purchase. Amazon, of course, remembers your order history going back to when you first registered an account.

My first purchase was in May 2003, a few days before my 19th birthday. I actually blogged about it at the time. I bought Just for Fun by Linus Torvalds, the memoirs of the creator of the Linux operating system. Although I wasn’t, and still am not, a great reader of books, I did actually read this book – it kept me occupied whilst on holiday with my parents over the summer. I remember a few things from the book, but not much.

The rest of my purchases from 2003 were a couple of textbooks that I needed for my undergraduate degree course in Computer Science. One was about TCP/IP networking, and the other on software engineering. I’m sure they’re significantly out of date now. Oh, and I bought Shrek on DVD.

So what was your first Amazon purchase?

July 5, 2017
by Neil Turner
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All The Stations

There are 2563 mainline railway stations in Great Britain, and a couple of people are on a mission to visit all of them this year.

All The Stations is a project by Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe. They’re spending three months travelling by train to every single railway station, and documenting it with a series of YouTube videos. Funding was as a result of a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, and enough money was raised to have a team of people professionally edit and upload the videos. They’re aiming to post four videos a week during the project, plus some Instagram stories, and some live events on Facebook and Periscope.

As of yesterday, Geoff and Vicki have made it to 1,594 stations, and are closing in on being two-thirds complete. They started in Cornwall, made their way back to London, and then worked through east and then west Midlands before completing Wales.

The rules are that they must be on a train that calls at every station, but not necessarily get off. Having to get on or off at each station would probably extend the project significantly, especially on rural lines with limited service. This is different to how Scott covered Northern’s network, where he did get on or off at every station.

Since I wrote about Scott’s project three years ago, he has completed the Northern network map (having also completed Merseyrail), and so he is now getting his teeth into Manchester Metrolink.

Some stations that Geoff and Vicki need to get to have a very restricted service. They made headlines when visiting Shippea Hill, which is a remote rural station in Cambridgeshire and is served by two trains per day, on request. Last year, only 12 people bought tickets to/from Shippea Hill; Geoff and Vicki arranged to travel with 19 people on one day.

Others, like Teesside Airport and Denton, have one train a week – this hasn’t changed since I wrote about it in 2009. And some, like the station platform at Old Trafford football stadium, are only open for special events like football matches. That one required a special, out of sequence trip to Manchester.

The project is supported by the Rail Delivery Group, an umbrella body of train operators and Network Rail, and the footage will be donated to the National Railway Museum. It’s hoped that the videos will provide a snapshot of the current state of the UK railway network, which has already experienced a lot of changes in the 20 years since British Rail was privatised. And more change is to come – over 5000 new carriages are on order, to be delivered before the end of 2020, and work will soon begin on building Britain’s second dedicated high speed railway line, HS2.

There’s still several more weeks to go, as Geoff and Vicki make their way through Northern England and up into Scotland. I’m looking forward to watching the rest of their videos.