Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

August 1, 2015
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for August 1, 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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July 30, 2015
by Neil Turner

The Copley Valley Relief Road

Sowerby Bridge geese

This week, the Copley Valley Relief Road opened. It’s designed to allow access to new land for industrial units and housing, and to improve access to existing industrial land. It also serves as a bypass of sorts for the town of Sowerby Bridge, where I live.

The road has been built in two phases over the past few years. The first part was the most difficult, requiring new bridges over the Calder and Hebble Navigation and River Calder. This ended at a dead-end stump; phase two has seen this stump connected to the rest of the road network at the other end to create a through route.

Mearclough Road and Holmes Road, in Sowerby Bridge, are home to a number of industrial units and a household waste recycling site, but the access has been poor until now. A low and narrow railway bridge has prevented access from the west (more on this later), and from the east, access was via Canal Road, which is on a steep gradient, with sharp bends and is largely single-track. Lorries and HGVs were having to use this road despite it being very much unsuitable. The new relief road provides a much more suitable route for such vehicles.

Canal Road, Mearclough Road and Holmes Road together have also formed something of an unofficial bypass for Sowerby Bridge – at least for traffic approaching from the south east heading south west. The opening of the relief road as an alternative to Canal Road will make this a more attractive route, which would be quite welcome. The main street through Sowerby Bridge, Wharf Street, is very busy, especially if the nearby M62 is shut, as it’s a signed diversionary route.

Unfortunately, the new road may also create problems. Here’s a map from OpenStreetMap:

Map of Holmes Road in Sowerby Bridge

Remember that narrow railway bridge that I mentioned earlier? It sits next to a 90° bend and a crossroads. It’s a low bridge, preventing access by HGVs, but also so narrow that it’s single track – vehicles can only pass in one direction at any one time. There are no traffic signals and, thanks to the bend, it’s almost impossible to see if vehicles are travelling in the opposite direction to you.

The bridge is old, and presumably was built with the railway in the 1830s. Presumably it could be replaced with a wider structure that has better height clearance, but that would be a major job involving a temporary closure of the railway line.

Right now, it’s early days and traffic on the new relief road is light. But I’m concerned that insufficient thought has gone into this bridge and the subsequent crossroads. If traffic picks up, and more vehicles start using it, the potential for head-on collisions under the bridge could increase. Traffic lights would be a good short-term measure, even if they would slow traffic down, but I’m not aware of any such plans. I just hope that it doesn’t take a serious accident to happen before something is done.

July 29, 2015
by Neil Turner

It’s worth buying a new washing machine

Today, I’m going to talk to you about washing machines. We bought a new one last month, and it is so much better than our old one in several ways.

The new washing machine is this Bosch model, which is normally £399 from John Lewis. We actually paid much less, by combining loads of gift vouches from the wedding and a cashback offer that was on at the time. This is now installed in our new house.

Our old washing machine is the one in our flat. It’s a Hotpoint washer-dryer, so it will wash and tumble-dry our clothes in one process. It’s probably around 10-15 years old as we assume that it was installed when the building was converted from a mill into flats.

For a start, washer-dryers are never as good as standalone washing machines and tumble dryers. Indeed, the dryer part of our old Hotpoint machine is pretty rubbish – if you’re lucky, it’ll get a half load mostly dry in around two and a half hours after the wash cycle is completed. Bigger loads will come out wet.

But it’s also not that great at washing either. It’s okay, but takes its time, and the drum can only take 6 kilograms of washing – about 13 pounds in old money.

The new Bosch machine has a much bigger drum that can take 8 kilograms (17.6 lb), so we can wash a third more clothes in each cycle. It’s significantly quieter, and barely makes any noise apart from during the spin cycle, which is still comparatively quiet. This is good for us as the washing machine is in the kitchen, which is directly below the room that will become the baby’s room when it’s born.

As well as being a good price, we also chose the Bosch model because of its energy and water efficiency. It’s rated A+++ for energy usage, which is the highest possible rating, and it required the least amount of water. Indeed, it looks like it uses less water than our current machine despite being able to handle bigger loads.

Despite using less water and electricity, the Bosch machine still manages to be quicker than the old Hotpoint machine – even when you enable its energy efficient mode. So not only does it wash clothes more quickly, it costs less money to do so. And it has a countdown timer telling you how long it has left. Timers these tend to be standard on new machines nowadays but this is the first time I have owned one with a timer, and it’s really useful.

We chose to get a water meter fitted to the house, and so conserving water will save us money in the long term, as will the reduced electricity costs. Furthermore, as we’ve opted not to buy a tumble dryer, this will save us more money on electricity bills in future. The house has a drying rack in the kitchen and space outside for washing lines, which we don’t have in the flat. And with a little one on the way, we’re likely to be using the washing machine far more often than now.

If you have an old washing machine, I would advise you to consider a newer model. The improvements in energy and water efficiency may well save you money in the long term and make up for the cost of buying a new machine. We’re really pleased with ours.

Plus, if you get rid of your old machine, you can create silly YouTube videos like this one.

July 28, 2015
by Neil Turner

The quest for a new keyboard

New Keyboard

My Mac’s keyboard is dying.

Recently I found that I could no longer use most of the arrow keys (just the ‘Up’ key) and the bottom two rows of the numeric keypad are no longer functional. I followed Apple’s troubleshooting advice, and tried it on another computer, but both were to no avail – those keys were dead.

I’m using Apple’s standard USB keyboard, which was bought in 2010 at about the same time as my Mac Mini, so it’s five years old. Frankly, I’d expect a keyboard to last much longer than five-and-a-bit years, but it is what it is. I’m not sure if it’s a fixable problem, and I’m not confident enough to try to take it apart to try to find out – especially as I don’t have a spare keyboard to use when I inevitably damage it beyond repair.

I do like the design of Apple’s keyboards, so I’ve been contemplating whether to get a like-for-like replacement, or go for something a bit different. Ideally, I’d prefer a wireless keyboard as there’s no need to trail a wire from behind your computer, and I would definitely prefer a keyboard with a numeric keypad included.

This immediately discounts Apple’s own wireless keyboard. I like the design, and it uses Bluetooth, so no need for any extra dongles. But it lacks a numeric keypad, or even arrow keys. This would therefore make it even less useful than my current keyboard which at least has a functioning arrow key and half a numeric keypad.

I could get around this by buying Belkin’s numeric keypad, which is designed to match Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard. However, it doesn’t have arrow keys and costs almost as much as the keyboard itself – combined, the two cost over £100.

So I Googled ‘best mac keyboard’ and found Macworld UK‘s piece on the best 8 keyboards for Macs. Notably, Apple’s USB keyboard is in there, but its Bluetooth one isn’t. Some are way out of my price range but there are some interesting models that I hadn’t previously considered:

  • Microsoft Designer Keyboard and Mouse, which Amazon will sell from later this week. Connecting Microsoft peripherals to Apple hardware may seem like an odd thing to do, but Macworld recommends it. Normally £100, Amazon sells it for £70 and includes a mouse, although I only need a keyboard. Numeric keypad included.
  • Logitech Bluetooth Easy Switch Keyboard, for £80. Unlike most Bluetooth keyboards, this can be connected to three devices simultaneously, with buttons to switch between devices. Whilst expensive, this would mean having just one keyboard that I could share between my Mac, iPad and iPhone. No numeric keypad or arrow keys though.
  • Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard, for around £100. This manages to look like Apple’s own keyboards but incorporates a solar strip at the top, which should be enough to keep it charged all of the time. No need to plug it in or replace batteries, as long as it’s used in a relatively well-lit room. Includes both a numeric keypad and arrow keys, although it doesn’t use Bluetooth – it uses its own USB radio transmitter dongle instead.

One issue with being a Mac user is that you can’t just plug any old keyboard in – in the UK at least. British PC and Mac keyboards have a very different layout when it comes to symbols. For example, the @ symbol on a British PC keyboard is on the far-right side, with the ‘l’ and ‘;’ to the left and ‘#’ and enter to the right. On a British Mac keyboard, it’s shift+2, like on American keyboards. As someone who uses a PC at work and a Mac at home, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve used ” instead of @ and vice versa.

Of course, one way around that would be to just buy an American keyboard; the only difference being that I’d press ‘#’ to get the ‘£’ symbol. With that in mind, the Satechi Bluetooth Wireless Smart Keyboard becomes an option; it’s £42 on Amazon, has arrow keys and a numeric keypad, and can connect to 5 separate Bluetooth devices as well as via USB. The reviews on Amazon UK are quite positive, but less-so on where there are some negative comments about the build quality.

I haven’t yet decided which one of these to go for. I’m minded to buy the Satechi model as it’s the best balance of features and price, but I wonder whether it would be worth spending a little more on a keyboard that is certain to last longer. After all, it’s something that I’ll be using every day.

July 27, 2015
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Knowing how the cookie crumbles

Screenshot of the privacy policy

I’ve made two minor changes to the site today:

  1. There is now a privacy policy available to view
  2. The first time you visit this site from today, you will be asked for permission to store cookies on your computer

These come about because of my participation with Google AdSense – all EU sites must obtain user consent for cookies with effect from the end of September. This is the so-called ‘EU Cookie Directive’.

As you may guess from my tone, I’m not particularly happy about this. I accept the need for a privacy policy and I should have probably had one already, but I hate the popup cookie consent messages that sites use. There’s a lack of consistency, they offer a particularly poor user experience to mobile users (obstructing a large part of the page) and I bet almost nobody actually reads the privacy policies anyway.

The privacy policy is adapted from this example, and I’m using the Cookie Law Info WordPress plugin to generate the messages. The plugin is really simple and you can set it up in a few minutes. There’s no need to edit any templates, but you can still customise it.

I really wish that, following the EU Directive that mandated consent for cookies, that there had been some collaboration between web site owners and web browser vendors to come up with a more graceful solution. Whilst I accept that it’s best if users are able to consent to cookies being stored on individual web sites, this could have been done in a standardised way as a function of the user’s web browser.

Years ago, the W3C proposed P3P, which used HTTP headers and machine-readable privacy policies to allow users to select a level of privacy that they were comfortable with. Anything else, such as third-party cookies, would be blocked if desired. Ironically for a web standard, the only current web browser that supports P3P is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which has done since version 6. It remains an opt-in and rarely-used standard and the W3C paused all work on it ages ago.

I haven’t researched P3P enough to know whether it could be developed further, so that web sites can use it for EU Cookie Directive compliance. If it could, and if Google, Mozilla, Apple, Opera and others all agreed to implement it, then the web could become a less annoying place. Especially if there was an option to implicitly accept all cookies from all first-party web sites, for example.

July 24, 2015
by Neil Turner

Getting ready for Windows 10

Windows Update

Windows 10 is out in 5 days, and if you’re currently running Windows 7 or 8.1, then you qualify for a free upgrade, as long as you opt-in within the first year of release.

I’m a Mac user, but I run Windows 8.1 in a virtual machine using VirtualBox. I don’t use it very much; I have it for the odd occasion when something requires Windows, but such situations tend not to happen nowadays. And whilst I probably won’t use Windows 10 much when it comes out, I might as well opt in to the free upgrade whilst it’s available.

To opt in, you should click on the small Windows icon that will appear in the notification area if you’re eligible. However, this also requires your copy of Windows to be up-to-date. Mine wasn’t – in fact, I hadn’t booted it up since April. And so there were a lot of updates to install.

It didn’t help that Windows Update had somehow become corrupt, with error 0x80248007. Whilst Windows’ own help system was, ironically, not helpful, a quick Google search found this solution which worked.

Windows Update has now been running for over 36 hours and isn’t quite finished. As I’m running at as a virtual machine, it isn’t as fast as a dedicated computer, but it’s still horrifically slow. Hopefully once it’s done, I’ll be able to opt-in to the upgrade to Windows 10.

I’m looking forward to the return of the Start Menu in Windows 10, and the general usability improvements for people who still use a traditional desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse. Whilst I understand that Microsoft wanted to make Windows more tablet-friendly, I think it went too far in Windows 8 and I hope that Windows 10 is a better compromise. That being said, it’s telling that Apple’s tablet and desktop operating systems remain separate (iOS and OS X), even if some of their features have converged over time.

July 23, 2015
by Neil Turner

Finding a Medium

Screenshot of my first post on Medium

I’ve posted my first piece on Medium. Entitled ‘Too many inboxes‘, it was inspired by this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s Chris Applegate:

The separation of messaging into proprietary silos is a problem – and it’s far from being a new problem either. I felt it was something that was interesting enough to write around 1500 words on – which Medium estimates will take you around 6 minutes to read.

I chose to publish the piece on Medium, rather than on here, partly as an experiment. I decided that it would be sufficiently interesting to warrant exposure to a wider audience, but I also wanted to see just how much attention a Medium post from a regular person like me would get. How it performs will dictate whether I post further long-form blog posts there, or whether everything stays on here in future. It follows an experiment with Buzzfeed last year, which ultimately didn’t achieve anything.

Don’t worry – even if it is a success, I’m not going to switch over to Medium for everything. I like being able to manage everything myself, and I doubt that there’s such a wide audience for what we’re doing in our new house, or pregnancy announcements.

I was surprised at how easy it is to write on Medium. Generally, the pieces I have come across have all been high quality and so I assumed there was some kind of vetting procedure. But no – apparently anyone with a Twitter account can write anything. The writing tools are minimalist, but functional.

So far, my post has been up on Medium for about 90 minutes. It’s been viewed 11 times and read 5 times. That’s about how much a typical blog post on here would get – not great, but at least it’s not being totally ignored. And a couple of my Facebook friends liked it and commented on it, which is nice.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I would appreciate a few minutes of your time reading the post at Medium, and your comments or recommendations. Thanks.

July 22, 2015
by Neil Turner

Secret Starbucks Sizes

Starbucks: If I had a pound for every time someone spelled my name like this, I'd be a rich man

Many frequent Starbucks visitors know that its coffee comes in three sizes:

  • ‘Tall’, which is the small size, at around 350 millilitres (12 US fluid ounces), or about the size of a standard drinks can.
  • ‘Grande’, which is the medium size at 470 ml (16 US fl oz) and a bit less than an average drinks bottle.
  •  ‘Venti’, which is their largest size at 590 ml or 20 US fl oz. ‘Venti’ means 20 in Italian, hence the name.

Quite why they can’t use ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’ is beyond me, but never mind.

But actually, there are seven sizes in total. They’re not widely advertised, but here they are:


If you look more closely at the menu the next time you’re in Starbucks, you’ll see there’s a kid’s hot chocolate on there, which comes in a ‘Short’ serving size – smaller than ‘Tall’. However, your Starbucks barista may be able to make you any hot drink in the ‘Short’ size, which will cost a bit less than ‘Tall’. I don’t think cold drinks like Frappuccinnos are available in the ‘Short’ size in the UK, but you can ask. ‘Short’ is 240 millilitres (8 US fl oz) and should be available in most outlets.


This one is US-only, and is a limited-time offer for this summer. It’s only for Frappuccinos, and is 10 US fl oz  (300 ml) – halfway between short and tall.


Demi is the smallest size of them all, at just 89 millilitres (3 US fl oz). It’s basically a single espresso shot, and should be available in most Starbucks outlets.


Finally, if you want a drink that’s larger than ‘Venti’, then try asking for a ‘Trenta’ size. It was announced four years ago in the US, but was primarily for the Refresha range of light cold drinks. However, theoretically, it may be possible to have any other cold drink in this size. At over 900 millilitres (31 US fluid ounces), this is a big drink – almost three times the size of a ‘Tall’ drink. As far as I am aware it was only ever available in certain outlets in the US, and as the Refresha range has seemingly been phased out, it’s probably no longer an option. ‘Trenta’ means 30 in Italian.

Starbucks ‘secret menu’

If you want to know more about ‘off the menu’ drinks that may or may not be available at your local Starbucks, Starbucks Secret Menu and Hack the Menu were two web sites that I found during my searches. Not all of the items on these sites are official, but if you’re in a Starbucks outlet and it’s not busy, you can probably ask the barista to vary the drink based on the recipes listed. You can also sometimes get seasonal drinks like the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte out of season if the outlet has stock left over, and sometimes new drinks are available to Starbucks Rewards customers before they appear on the menu.

I go to Starbucks quite a lot nowadays, as I pass one of their outlets on the way to work. So much so that I’m a gold member of Starbucks Rewards. Considering that, four years ago, I didn’t drink coffee at all, it’s quite a turnaround.

July 21, 2015
by Neil Turner

Camkix Selfie Stick Review

Camkix Selfie Stick in use with an iPhone 5

Hello. My name is Neil, and I bought a selfie stick.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. I saw genuine instances when I would want to use one – especially when the little one arrives – and so I went onto Amazon to find a reasonably good one. Of those, the Camkix Extendable Selfie Stick seemed to have the best overall reviews and wasn’t too expensive, so I bought it.

Camkix Selfie Stick

The term ‘selfie stick’ is a relatively recent invention. Technically, this is a ‘handheld telescopic universal smartphone monopod’. It comes in three parts – the handheld monopod itself, a smartphone grip, and a separate Bluetooth remote. The monopod hand-grip is available in a variety of colours – I went for green, but you can also get pink, black and other colours. On the model I bought, the grip wasn’t very well-glued to the body, but otherwise I’m reasonanbly happy with the build quality, considering the price.

Retracted, the selfie stick is about 30 centimetres (11 inches) but it can extend to around a metre (40 inches).

The smartphone mount allows you to clip in a smartphone. My iPhone 5 fitted comfortably, and I’m sure the larger iPhone 6 would fit too. I’m not sure about phablet-sized smartphones like the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note but theoretically anything that 8 centimetres wide or less should fit. It won’t take a tablet computer like an iPad or iPad Mini, but if you are using a tablet to take photos on a selfie stick, then you are truly a horrible person and should reconsider your life choices.

The Camkix Selfie Stick with a Canon EOS 600Dsmartphone mount is detachable, leaving a standard screw-in tripod mount on the monopod, so you should be able to use it with any regular camera. I was able to mount my Canon EOS 600D onto it, although the extra weight meant that it was hard to control it when fully extended. If you are planning to use a regular camera, remember that you’ll either need to buy a separate remote for it, or use your camera’s timer function. And unless you have a screen that flips around, you won’t be able to see the picture until you’ve taken it (the EOS 600D has a flip-out screen).

Finally, there’s the remote. Some selfie sticks come with a button on the handle, which connects to the smartphone either using an audio cable to plug into the phone’s headphone socket, or wirelessly via Bluetooth. This selfie stick has a separate Bluetooth remote. There are two buttons – the larger one is designed for Apple devices running iOS 6.0 or above, but should work on many Android phones as well. The second button is for some fussy Android phones that need a different command. Whilst iOS users can use the built-in camera app, Android users may or may not need to install a third-party camera app to use the remote.

Me using a selfie stick

The remote also has an on/off switch so that you don’t inadvertently take photos of the inside of your pocket. Pairing it with your phone is straightforward.

On the whole I like the selfie stick. It’s small enough to fit in my camera bag, albeit with the smartphone mount folded downwards, and both the monopod and remote have decent wriststraps. And I promise that I won’t be one of those horrible people who ends up taking people’s eyes out in the pursuit of a selfie in a busy place.

July 20, 2015
by Neil Turner

Pregnancy books

Pregnancy books: Conception, Pregnancy and Birth, and Fantastic First-Time Father

Thanks for your kind comments about our big news, both on here and elsewhere. Whilst we’ve known for weeks now, we’d kept Christine’s pregnancy relatively quiet until after the first ultrasound scan. This is mostly because the major risk of miscarriage is in the first trimester.

Like many first-time parents, we’ve already started reading the various pregnancy books. The two that we’ve bought are:

Dr Stoppard’s book is a pretty hefty read and I’m only two-thirds of the way through. I skipped the bit about conception and IVF as we were already past that stage by the time we bought it. It’s very thorough, if a little out-of-date, having been published 7 years ago; therefore some of its advice is no longer best practice. For example, it advises pregnant women not to get the ‘flu vaccine, whereas now the general advice is the opposite. Other than that, I’d recommend it as it covers almost everything.

Fantastic First-Time Father is a much newer book, having been published a couple of years ago, and it shows. The book is written in a very casual style with tweet-length pull quotes and hashtags. But I enjoyed reading it; it’s useful, but not patronising, either to you or your partner. It’s very positive and re-assuring. Again, I haven’t read all of it – I got as far as a few weeks after birth and decided that I’d be better revisiting it further down the line.

Having read both books, we’ve been able to go into Christine’s scans and midwife appointments feeling more informed. We’ve got a clearer idea about what is going to happen, between now and when the baby arrives some time this winter. Both books are available on Amazon, and Fantastic First-Time Father can be bought as a Kindle edition, but we actually got our copies from a real high street bookshop. Whilst we found them both very useful, there are also hundreds of similar books out there that may or may not be better or worse.