Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

March 25, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for March 25, 2017

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

March 24, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

30 questions meme


Do you know where the bears are?

Some time ago (January, I think), Dave2 of Blogography posted a 30 question meme on his Facebook profile, and I saved it in Evernote, with the intention of turning it into a blog post.

I’ve been quite tardy of late, but, here it is, with my answers.

  1. Who are you named after? I share a middle name with my grandfather on my mum’s side, but my first name is unique in the family and I don’t think I’m named after anyone.
  2. Last time you cried? A few weeks ago, reading an article that I’ve now forgotten about.
  3. Do you like your handwriting? Not really. My quick handwriting is very messy; it can look quite neat when I take the time to do so but I wish I could write quickly and neatly.
  4. What is your favourite lunch meat? Cured ham, or some kind of salami.
  5. Do you have kids? Yes – Lizzie.
  6. Do you use sarcasm? Oh, I would never use sarcasm!
  7. Do you still have your tonsils? Yes. And my adenoids. And my appendix.
  8. Would you bungee jump? I’d consider it.
  9. What is your favourite kind of cereal? I tend to alternate my cereals a lot, although I most commonly eat Cheerios (or a generic multi-grain hoop cereal) or malt wheats (i.e. Shreddies).
  10. Married? Yes, to Christine. Will be our fourth wedding anniversary in May.
  11. Do you think you are strong? Haha, no. I’m a weakling.
  12. What is your favourite ice cream? Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked.
  13. What is the first thing you notice about someone? Their faces, usually.
  14. Football or Baseball? Neither. I’m not a sportsy person.
  15. What is the least favourite thing you like about yourself? My somewhat nihilistic sense of humour.
  16. What colour pants and shoes are you wearing? Trousers are brown, underwear is blue. Shoes are black.
  17. Last thing you ate? A small piece of chocolate brownie.
  18. What are you listening to now? This week’s #ThrowbackThursday Spotify playlist. Specifically, ‘Time to Pretend’ by MGMT.
  19. If you were a crayon, what colour would you be? Purple.
  20. Favourite smell? Bacon.
  21. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone? My dad.
  22. Favourite sport to Watch on TV? See answer to question 14 – I don’t watch sport.
  23. Hair colour? Brown, natural. No grey yet. Never died my hair.
  24. Eye colour? Blue.
  25. Favourite food? A prime, juicy, medium-rare steak.
  26. Scary film or happy ending?  Happy.
  27. Last film you watched? The Lego Batman Movie. It was great, and you should watch it.
  28. What colour shirt are you wearing? Blue denim.
  29. Favourite Holiday? Christmas. I’m not religious but it makes me unreasonably excited.
  30. Coffee or tea? Coffee, with a large amount of steamed milk.

I then scrolled further down through Evernote, and found that I’d saved the same meme from August, when Meredith completed it. And there were several additional questions:

  1. If you were another person, would you be friends with you? I’d like to think so. I don’t deliberately try to be difficult with people.
  2. Red or pink? Red.
  3. Do you wear contacts? No, nor glasses – I don’t need any eyesight correction.
  4. Hugs or kisses? Hugs, unless it’s my wife or daughter, when I’m happy for either.
  5. Favourite dessert? Profiteroles.
  6. What book are you reading? I’m listening to the audiobook of Algorithms to Live by, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I’ll review it when I’m done.
  7. What is your profile picture?
    Photo of me and Lizzie
    This is my Facebook and Twitter profile photo, taken at the beginning of January. I’ve had my hair cut since.
  8. What did you watch on TV last? RuPaul’s Drag Race, specifically the penultimate episode of season 3. We’re working through it on Netflix.
  9. Favourite sound? Lizzie’s laugh. It’s cute, and shows that she’s happy.
  10. The Rolling Stones or The Beatles? I’m marginally more likely to listen to The Rolling Stones but neither interest me much.
  11. What’s the farthest you’ve been from home? Barbados, in 2000 – it’s around 7000km (4300 miles) from home. Second farthest would be Salalah, Oman, in 2015.
  12. Do you have a special talent? I have talents, but wouldn’t describe them as being particularly special.
  13. Where were you born? York, England.

In years gone by, I’d expect to see this on various other blogs over the coming days, but I don’t think anyone does this sort of thing nowadays.

March 23, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

PPE – the degree that runs Britain

If I mentioned the abbreviation ‘PPE’, you may think that I’m talking about ‘personal protective equipment’ – equipment that you wear when working in environments with potential health and safety risks.

But PPE can also mean ‘Philosophy, Politics and Economics‘, and specifically a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Oxford. Oxford’s PPE course is notable because a significant number of British politicians, journalists and experts studied the course. Prospective students see it as a major stepping stone into a career in politics.

Last month, The Guardian’s Long Read featured PPE. It starts by naming many of its alumni, which included the then leaders of Britain’s two largest political parties along with MPs from others. The course has strong heritage, having run at Oxford for almost 100 years and with a glittering list of well-known graduates. As well as British politicians, it has attracted those from other countries and former US president Bill Clinton, former Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto, and Burmese political campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi are among its many international graduates.

Getting into the course, like any degree at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is an achievement in itself. (Note: I work in admissions at a rival UK university). Applicants are expected to achieve at least three straight A grades in their A-levels, though this can be from any three subjects and doesn’t need to include Philosophy, Economics or Politics. There’s also an admissions test called the Thinking Skills Assessment, and an interview, so academic ability alone is not enough to get admitted.

With so many of our politicians having graduated from a single course at a single university – and one that is attended by a large proportion of privately-educated students – it’s easy to see why there are accusations that Britain is ruled by an ‘elite’. I agree that it attracts those who plan to be career politicians, although I’m conflicted about whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, you have to be intelligent and articulate to pass an interview and get a place on the course. Michael Gove claimed last year that we’ve had enough of experts; Gove is not a PPE graduate but studied English at Oxford. But personally, I’d rather have experts running the country, in the same way that you wouldn’t want your mate Dave from down the pub performing your keyhole surgery. Unless Dave was a qualified surgeon.

Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make. PPE at Oxford has become a de facto qualification for a high-level political qualification in Britain. We don’t have a kind-of ‘General Political Council’ to regulate politicians and ensure that our MPs and councillors are sufficiently qualified to stand for office. Nor do we have a ‘Chartered Institute’ that accredits degree courses. Whether we should is another matter – there have been many perfectly good MPs who are not career politicians, and who have switched to politics following careers in other industries. But it’s an interesting idea, and perhaps the reason why there are so many successful politicians who are PPE graduates, is because it’s such a good preparation for a political career.

Finally, you may enjoy the PPE in PPE Twitter account, which combines both definitions and shows PPE graduates posing for photographs whilst wearing PPE.

March 22, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Contemplating Apple’s updated iPad range

Screenshot of Apple's iPad homepage

Yesterday, Apple quietly updated its iPad and iPhone product range. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are now available in red, supporting Product (RED), and the budget iPhone SE is available with more built-in storage.

As for Apple’s tablets, there’s a new iPad Air, but with the ‘Air’ moniker dropped. It’s now just known as the iPad, but uses the same form factor as the iPad Air. Externally it looks the same, but the chip has been bumped up from an A8X to an A9, which brings better performance. It’s available with either 32 or 128 gigabytes of storage, and the cheapest model is £339. This is a significant price cut from the £379 iPad Air 2 that it replaces.

The iPad Mini remains at version 4, and, interestingly, is now only available with 128 gigabytes of storage. Consequently, the cheapest iPad Mini is £419, which is only £10 cheaper than the new 128 GB iPad; back in 2014, the difference was £80 between the equivalent 16 GB models. I suspect that Apple plans to stop selling small form-factor tablets in the near future, which would be a shame as I think it’s a nice size.

Replacing my iPad

My current tablet is a 16 GB iPad Mini 2, which was a present for my 30th birthday in 2014. I use it daily, both at home and at work. At home, it’s effectively my primary computer. I use it far more than my Mac, which, being a desktop, is fixed in one place. Being able to use it anywhere in the house is a major advantage when looking after a small child.

At work, it’s useful in meetings as I don’t need to print off reams of documents beforehand. I also find it handy at events, for checking information whilst away from my desk. And it provides entertainment whilst travelling; I can read Pocket articles or magazines whilst commuting to work.

However, its screen is badly cracked. The screen has already been repaired once, for which I paid about £40 to a shop in Bradford. The workmanship wasn’t great and the home button sticks sometimes. In any case, I broke the screen again weeks later. A decent repair job on the screen is likely to cost around £100, or around a third of the cost of a new iPad.

Advantages and disadvantages

There would be several advantages of buying a new, standard-sized iPad:

  • Larger screen, which would suit me as I read a number of digital magazines.
  • Touch ID.
  • Being able to use two apps in split-screen mode (my iPad Mini 2 only supports slide-over).
  • Faster processor.
  • More storage, as I often run out of space with only 16 GB.
  • Being eligible for continued iOS updates, as I suspect Apple may drop support for the iPad Mini 2 after iOS 11.

And some disadvantages:

  • I like the smaller size and lighter weight of the iPad Mini.
  • A new case would be needed – Christine hand-made my current one, but I doubt she will have time to make a new one for me.
  • I would also need a new Bluetooth keyboard, although as Lizzie likes playing with my current one I’m sure she would like to keep it as a toy.

Although the large crack on my iPad’s screen is unsightly, I’m seriously considering holding out with it, until I can afford to buy a new model. Right now, money is tight, and I can’t really justify paying for repairs to my existing model, or for buying a new one.

I could, of course, consider an Android tablet, which may be cheaper. But I’m worried that I would then have the additional expense of buying replacement apps again and getting used to an unfamiliar operating system. The current best Android tablets cost around the same as an iPad, and a cheaper model may not be any better than what I already have.

I’ll revisit this in the summer, when I’ll hopefully have some more money. By then, we will hopefully know more about iOS 11, and which devices it will support. That could sway my decision further.

March 21, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Poster for BUSOM's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumOn Saturday, Christine and I went to see the latest show from BUSOM – the Bradford University Society of Operettas and Musicals – a performance of Stephen Sondheim‘s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

This is the second time that BUSOM have performed this show, following a previous production in 2003. Whilst I was a student at Bradford at the time, I didn’t see that show. This time, BUSOM returned for a fourth year at the Bradford Playhouse in their smaller studio theatre for a three night run.

Forum is set in Roman times, and tells the story of a slave, Pseudolus, seeking to earn his freedom by setting up his master’s son with a partner. Things don’t go according to plan, and in between the songs is a plot full of twists as the characters lie and disguise themselves to try to achieve their aims.

BUSOM has, historically, had more female members than male, which was part of the reason for their 2015 show Moby Dick, which has a mostly female cast. However, Forum has a mostly male cast, and so there was some gender swapping over and above that required in the script.

This year’s show benefited from strong direction, something that previous BUSOM shows, including those I’ve been involved in, have lacked. Stage positioning was much better in previous years and scene changes were tight. Whilst it was performed in a small studio theatre, the cast made the best use of the space and took full advantage of the more intimate environment.

The cast were strong and I think it was one of the best shows that the society have put on in years. It was particularly pleasing to see several new faces alongside those members who have been around for some time, and to see many older members in the audience. BUSOM shows have been getting better and better over the years but this sets the bar very high, and I look forward to seeing what the society can do next year.

March 18, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for March 18, 2017

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

March 14, 2017
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

The demise of DMOZ

Screenshot of DMOZ, The Open Directory Project

Today is the day that the Open Directory Project (aka DMOZ) closes. Founded in 1998, the ODP has been around for the best part of two decades, as a human-edited directory of web sites.

The ODP was set up to be an open alternative to Yahoo’s proprietary directory of web sites. Anyone could sign up to be an editor, and web sites could use the ODP’s data under license on their own site. It was acquired by Netscape early in its life, and following Netscape’s acquisition by AOL, it has been part of the AOL family to date.

If you were a regular reader of this blog back in the early days, you may remember that I used to be one of the 90,000 volunteer editors of the ODP. I started early on in around 1999, and by 2003 I was an ‘editall+catmv’, which meant that I could edit any part of the directory (excluding the sandboxed Kids and Teens category), and could move categories that were in the wrong place. Had I stuck around for longer, I may have made it to the higher rank of ‘meta’ editor, who took on responsibilities for managing other users.

I started to lose interest in around 2004, and haven’t really used or edited the ODP since. My account went inactive around the same time and I’ve not felt the need to re-activate it. I’m guessing the same goes for many of the other editors that I worked alongside at the time.

I’m still in touch with some of the people that were editors at the time, and went to a couple of UK meetups. It was a friendly group of internet-savvy people who loved to organise things and try to make the web better. But trying to build a directory to map the whole internet is a big ask of volunteer humans, and search engines like Google are much better now than they used to be. The ODP made sense when the web was small, but I can’t help but feel that its time has passed. It’s a shame to see it go, but at the same time, I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.

March 13, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Today’s rail strike by the RMT

Train operated by Northern, who is affected by today's strike action

Today, members of the RMT union are on strike, affecting rail services operated by Northern, Southern and Merseyrail. Strikes on Southern rail have been ongoing for several months, but this is the first time that Northern and Merseyrail have been affected. The issue affecting all companies is the same: the role of the train guard.

I’m going to spend a little time going over the issues, and why the strike is taking place.

What do guards do?

Most trains in Great Britain have at least two members of staff on board – a driver, and a guard. In essence, the driver is responsible for the train, and the guard is responsible for the passengers. The guard checks and sells tickets, opens and closes the doors, assists passengers with mobility issues, intervenes when passenger safety is at risk and organises evacuations if required.

However, since the 1980s, a number of trains in the south-east of England started running with just a driver, and no guard. This is called ‘Driver-only operation’ (DOO). On these services, the driver takes over the opening and closing of the doors. Platform staff, where present, are there to help passengers with mobility issues and carry out ticket checks/sales as passengers enter or leave the station. As for the other duties that a guard would do – well, these tend not to be done on these services.

DOO requires modifications to trains and to stations. The trains need to have door controls in the driver’s cab, and external CCTV, so that the driver can make sure that the doors are clear before closing them, and that once closed, there isn’t anything/anyone leaning against the train or likely to be injured by the train departing (for example). Stations may also have CCTV monitors on the platform for drivers to look at, or, on older stations, a really big mirror at the end of the platform.

On-board supervisors

You may also hear of ‘DCO’ – driver-controlled operation. This is related to DOO, but there is a second member of staff on the train, sometimes referred to as an ‘on-board supervisor’. This person isn’t responsible for opening and closing the doors, but is there to sell and check tickets and assist passengers.

Because this role isn’t safety critical, trains can run with or without an on-board supervisor being present. Train companies would like to replace their guards with on-board supervisors, and have the flexibility to run trains with just a driver, if needed. The companies claim that this would never be for full journeys, but would be done for short distances, and it would allow for quicker recovery from disruption.

There are instances where trains have to be cancelled because, whilst the driver was available, the guard was not. An example would be where the guard was working on a previous train service that got delayed. Having the flexibility to run the train without a guard would prevent the train from being cancelled.

This, in essence, is what the strike is about – whether a second person is on the train or not.

Slippery slope

Whilst Southern have made it clear that they only wish to run trains with just a driver in exceptional circumstances, the unions are worried that this is the start of a ‘slippery slope’. Once it becomes possible to run more trains without guards, this will become the norm, with more and more services routinely worked by a single member of staff. That could result in job cuts, and trade unions are there to protect their members, hence the strike.

Both Northern and Merseyrail have ordered new trains that will be designed to be operated without a second member of staff on board. Furthermore, the government seem to prepared to fight with trade unions over this issue.

Single-person working

To re-iterate, on a train where there is just a driver on board, here’s what happens:

  • Unless the station is staffed, there will be no-one there to provide a ramp for a wheelchair user
  • Ticket checks on the train will not be carried out
  • If the train is stranded, the driver will have to summon Network Rail staff to the train to organise an evacuation. (see guidance here)
  • There will be no-one to intervene if a passenger falls ill or becomes disruptive

Clearly, in my view, there needs to be a second person on the train.

Wheelchair users

Northern, in particular, serves many stations that are not routinely staffed, and do not have wheelchair ramps on the platforms. Because all Northern trains currently have guards, the ramps are carried on the train. Users requiring mobility assistance are requested to book ahead, but it isn’t required and, in the interests of equality, all rail passengers should be able to turn up and expect to be accommodated where possible. So if a wheelchair user turns up at an unstaffed station, and there isn’t anyone on the train to help them, then they won’t be able to board.

Now, if this happens, the train company is supposed to offer a taxi instead, at the company’s expense. But this can add significantly to the travel time, and assumes that facilities at the station exist for contacting the train company. Not all stations have help points, payphones or mobile phone reception.

To me, this puts train operators at risk of falling foul of the various equality acts.

The Scottish Compromise

Strike action by guards, for a time, also affected Scotrail, the principal train company in Scotland. Scotrail have ordered a fleet of new trains, which were to be delivered for DCO or DOO operation only. There would be no facility for a guard to open and close the doors from within the passenger areas. Strikes by the RMT took place, but the dispute was resolved with a compromise. Drivers open the doors on arrival, but guards are still responsible for closing them. The new trains, which are the Class 385 units being built by Hitachi in County Durham and Japan, will be modified to allow the guards to do this.

I personally like this model. When a train arrives at a station, but the guard is part-way through a ticket selling transaction, it can be some time before the doors are opened, causing delays. With the driver opening the doors, passengers can board and alight straightaway, and then the guard can safely close the doors when the transaction is complete. However, to date, no other train company has adopted this model.

My view on the strike

This is my blog and so here’s my opinion. Overall, I’m neutral on the issue. I do think that there should always be at least two members of staff on the train, with one of those being responsible for the safety of passengers. Whether this is a guard, or an on-board supervisor, isn’t too much of a concern to me. I think there are advantages to having the driver open the doors, and the Scotrail model is worth consideration.

Both sides need to get back around the negotiating table and try come up with some kind of compromise that protects the jobs of rail workers, whilst also maintain passenger accessibility and safety. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to have happened with Southern, as there have been strikes for months now. I’m worried that this will also happen with Northern and Merseyrail as well.

As for my journey to work this morning, I still took the train. Northern cancelled around 60% of their services, but my train was one of those that ran.

March 11, 2017
by Neil Turner
0 comments

Links from Pinboard for March 11, 2017

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

Digest powered by RSS Digest

March 7, 2017
by Neil Turner
2 Comments

Fitbit-less

Fitbit-less

I’m currently without my Fitbit, as it seems to have died. It looks like a firmware update failed, leaving it basically bricked. I spent about an hour on Sunday chatting to a very helpful support agent called Ulises, and despite trying several methods to get it to reboot correctly, we weren’t able to.

Thankfully, the kind people at Fitbit offered me either a free replacement, or 30% off a new model. I decided to go for the former; though the new models are better, right now I can’t afford the 70% balance that I’d need to pay. Hopefully it’ll arrive soon.

Frustratingly, I had managed to reach my 10,000 step goal every day for the previous 57 days, up to and including Saturday. This beat a record of 32 days that I set in April last year. Reaching 10,000 steps is relatively easy on weekdays; my commute involves around 45 minutes of walking. But weekends can be a challenge, and keeping it up for so long required some forward planning.

Even though I haven’t been wearing a fitness tracker for the past couple of days, I’m still following similar habits. This includes not standing still if I can avoid it, such as waiting for a train. When at work, I still go to a set of toilets a little further away from my desk, and I try to move around at least once every hour.

Since getting my Fitbit in September 2015, I’ve lost around 9 kilos in weight. That’s almost 20 lb, or nearly 1 1/2 stone, if you use old-fashioned measurements. Whilst I am also eating better, having a Fitbit motivates me to do just a little more exercise every day, and it seems to be making a difference. It’s brought my Body-Mass Index (BMI) down to 23.3, which is well within the ‘healthy’ zone; previously, I was straying into being ‘overweight’. And whilst BMI is a very crude measurement, it’s used as a kind-of ready-reckoner by a lot of health professionals.

I’ll be looking forward to my replacement Fitbit arriving, not at least because I don’t currently have a working watch. Let’s see if I can beat my 57 day record, and manage to walk 10,000 steps for a whole two months.