Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 16, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Making a house a home (part VIII)

Photo of our downstairs bathroomIt’s been a little while since my last update on renovating our house – January to be exact. We’ve actually been spending time working on other peoples’ houses in the meantime – my mother-in-law needed her hallway repainting and we returned a favour by helping a friend who helped us a lot last summer.

The big change is in ‘the triangle room’ – for context, see this blog post from September. We’d always intended for this to be a downstairs cloakroom with a toilet and washbasin, and, now it is. We bought the toilet, washbasin and a matching tall cupboard from a local bathroom store at a decent discount, and then got a local plumbing firm to fit it. The main aim of this is to allow my mother-in-law to visit – she’s disabled, and can’t get upstairs, so having a downstairs facility will mean that she can finally come and visit us. For this reason, we’ve bought a taller toilet.

Alas, we can’t use any of it yet. The location of our sewerage pipes means that we’ve had to have an electronic macerator fitted, and that still needs to be wired in. And when that’s done, we’ll need to be very careful about what actually gets flushed down the toilet.

The rest of the room needs finishing off – there’s no paint on the walls, no floor covering and no tiling around the washbasin – but we’ll get to these jobs in time. We’re also looking at buying some more wall-mounted cupboards, so that we can carry on using the room as a storeroom – albeit, a more tidy one.

May 15, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Departing Azeroth

Screenshot of World of Warcraft account being deactivated

After almost 10 years, today I deactivated my World of Warcraft account.

I’ve played the game precisely once during Elizabeth’s lifetime, at Christmas – she’s approaching 5 months old and I haven’t logged in during that time. Playing games has dropped down my priority list and I just don’t have time anymore.

There are other reasons. It costs money to pay and we’re a bit short of that at the moment, following another couple of recent household expenditures and the fact that Christine’s earning less due to being on maternity leave. It’s an expense that we can do without.

But I’m also not enjoying the game as much. The ‘golden years’ for me where 2007 to 2009, when I played alongside my then girlfriend and in an active guild. Most of my fellow guildmates have since quit, or are spread out across different servers. Most of the time, I’ve been playing on my own or in ad-hoc ‘pick-up groups’ (or ‘PUGs’) which aren’t always a pleasant experience.

There’s also the issue of the next expansion, Legion, which is due to be released later this year. Normally I look forward to expansions – especially with there having been no new content in the game for months now. But my 6 year old Mac Mini won’t be able to run it, and I’m getting too bored with the game as it is to keep playing without upgrading. And again, it comes back to money – I don’t have the spare cash for a new computer, as much as I would like to upgrade.

My account is still paid through to the end of June – annoyingly, I bought another 6 months in December thinking I’d have loads of time to play whilst on paternity leave. But I doubt I’ll have the time to log in before then. Thankfully, cancelling your subscription merely freezes your account, so my characters will still be there waiting for me should I ever return to the game in future. But, for now, it is farewell to Azeroth.

May 14, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for May 14, 2016

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

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May 6, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Sending everything to Gmail

Screenshot of Inbox by Gmail

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to consolidate all of my personal email accounts into my Gmail account.

Considering that my relationship with Google soured after they killed off Google Reader (yes, I’m still bitter, three years on), this may come as a surprise. Until recently, I only used Google services for my calendar, search, maps and the advertising on this blog. I’d even stopped using Gmail, and had all messages there forwarded to my Outlook.com account. Mail sent to this domain was managed by its own IMAP server.

I’ll explain why I changed my mind in a series of sub-headings.

Gmail’s better spam protection

On my own email server, I had SpamAssassin (albeit without the Bayesian learning system which isn’t set up by default on my host), Pyzor, and the use of Spamhaus‘ blacklists. This still wasn’t enough to prevent spam getting through, and at its worst I was still getting 10-15 messages a day in my inbox. Gmail’s spam filtering is much better, despite a few false positives. For example, an email from my mother was sent to the spam folder as it was about transferring money – I’m guessing Google struggles to tell the difference between my mum and someone purporting to be a Nigerian prince. But over the past couple of weeks, I think there’s only been one spam email that has got through.

Not having to look after my own email server

The email server software offered by my host, Dovecot, is fine, but I’ve had to do things like enable DomainKeys and SPF myself. Ditto for tuning SpamAssassin and installing Pyzor. Outsourcing my email to a third party makes it easier.

I had considered using Google Apps, or Office 365, on my domain, but ran into issues. With Google Apps, you can’t use an email address already associated with a Google account, so I didn’t take that forward, and got stuck trying to enable Office 365’s DNS settings. Whereas I was just able to set up a series of email forwards to send everything to Gmail.

Notifications for important email only

If you turn on Gmail’s Priority Inbox mode, it’ll attempt to sort your email into ‘Important’ and ‘Everything else’. Crucially, that means that Gmail’s mobile apps will only notify you about important messages (if you want), rather than every new email message that isn’t spam. This cuts down the number of distracting notifications on my phone.

One (powerful) inbox to rule them all

By forwarding the email to this domain and from my Outlook.com account (reversing the previous situation), I have all of my personal email in one place. And that one place has decent mobile apps and a powerful web-based interface. By default, my host offers SquirrelMail which is very basic; I have since replaced it with RoundCube but Gmail is still easier to use.

Access to third-party services

With Gmail, I can finally use services like Unroll.me to clean up my inbox (which I’ll eventually devote a separate blog post to), and IFTTT, to name a few. There’s also Inbox by Gmail, which I’ve been trying recently and it’s a very impressive improvement to the basic email inbox. Again, I’ll have to write about it in more detail sometime.

Although I don’t pay for Gmail just yet (and nowadays I’m loathed to rely on services that I’m not paying for), there is a paid-tier of Gmail offering more storage should I require it. However, as I don’t use Google Photos, I’m nowhere near the storage limit for my Google account and so I don’t need to pay for it at present.

For those of you wondering what email address to use, please continue to send messages to neil@neilturner.me.uk. This has been my primary email address for well over a decade and I plan to keep it that way. Whilst everything gets forwarded to Gmail, I will still reply to messages using that address, and should Google decide to change Gmail for the worse in future, I’ll be able to port it somewhere else.

May 3, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Getting a water meter

Water access point

The photo above shows the hatch in front of our back door where the water company can access the pipes into our house. Last summer, not long after moving in, we requested that a water meter was fitted.

In Britain, you pay for water in one of two ways. You can pay a fixed bill, based on the ‘rateable value’ of your house. Or, if you have a water meter, you can just pay for the water that you actually use. All homes built since 1990 have water meters fitted as standard, but older properties only have them if their owners request them, or if one is fitted by the water company after the customer has gone into payment arrears. More information is available from this MoneySavingExpert.com article.

Having a water meter can save you quite a bit of money. If you have an efficient washing machine and dishwasher, take showers instead of baths, or have fewer people living in your house than you have bedrooms, then it may be worth your while looking into a water meter. This applied to us, so we asked Yorkshire Water to fit one. It’s free as long as you live in England and Wales, and, if it’s not for you, you can have it removed within a certain time period.

We got our first post-meter water bill not long after Christmas. Yorkshire Water had charged us £46 per month on the basis of the rateable value of the property. Following the fitting of our water meter, they lowered our bill to just £17 per month. That’s approximately two-thirds cheaper, and should save us over £300 a year.

The caveat is that the water meter was fitted in the summer, when the house was vacant. We didn’t move in until late September, and so it’s possible that our bills will go up again once they’re calculated over a period of continuous occupancy. But clearly, it’s a big fall and will hopefully save us quite a bit of money going forward.

It’s worth mentioning that we don’t have to submit meter readings to the water company. The meter is located outside the property, and can be read wirelessly by an employee or representative of the water company.

If you don’t have a water meter already, I would suggest considering one. There are various online calculators that will tell you whether it is worth your while – in some cases it won’t, but I imagine that many will benefit.

May 2, 2016
by Neil Turner
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A day out at Chatsworth

Chatsworth House

I booked a day off work on Wednesday, and took Christine and Elizabeth on a road trip to the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire. The estate is owned by the Duke of Devonshire, and has been in the Cavendish family since the 16th century. There’s a large stately home, gardens, a farm, an adventure playground, and a farm shop, all open to the public.

Christine and I have both been to Chatsworth before, but separately; Christine lived in nearby Chesterfield about ten years ago, and I’d been with my parents in August 2003. Going back was always on our to-do list, and now that we have a car, getting there and back in a day from Sowerby Bridge became do-able.

Google Maps did its usual thing of offering a choice of routes. There was the expected route on the motorways, via Sheffield, or a more direct and scenic one through the Peak District National Park. As it was sunny and the two routes would take about the same amount of time, we chose the latter. It was a great drive, which took in part of the route taken by the riders of the Tour de France when Yorkshire hosted the Grand Départ in 2014. Alas, a couple of sections of road were shut and we arrived about 15 minutes later than planned, due to diversions.

Arriving at lunchtime, our first activity was to fill our rather empty stomachs. Chatsworth offers a number of places to eat, although as we came on a relatively quiet Wednesday, our choice was limited to a couple of outlets in the Stables Courtyard. We went for the self-service restaurant on the basis that the tea room across the way would have probably maxed out my credit card. I’m sure the food is exquisite, but our budget doesn’t quite stretch that far as yet. In any case, the restaurant food was good, and it was busy, suggesting that locals with money to spare come here just to eat.

Guinea Pigs

Our first post-lunch visit was to the farmyard – a part of the estate that I haven’t been to before. It’s not quite as big as the farm at Temple Newsam, and did cost more to get in, but there were more staff on hand to talk about the animals. We got introduced to Maggie the sheep, and were allowed to pet a days old chick that had recently hatched. The farm has over 30 guinea pigs and there are regular handling sessions throughout the day. Entrance to the adventure playground is included with the farm ticket, and I’m sure Elizabeth will love it when she’s a bit older.

Afterwards, we went to look around the gardens. Sadly we only managed a small section – enough to get the classic photo of the house and fountain at the bottom, and to go into the temperate house. Chatsworth was where the Cavendish banana was cultivated, which is now the most commonly-eaten banana in the world, and the temperate house includes some banana trees. We would have stayed longer, but in between feeding Elizabeth and staying out of the rain which was starting to fall by the afternoon, we didn’t manage the upper sections of the gardens.

We called in at the farm shop on the way home. The Chatsworth Farm Shop is regularly voted one of the best in Britain, and it’s easy to see why – it’s huge, and the staff are knowledgable. We picked up some locally-cured bacon and sausages, made from pigs from farms on the estate, and some local cheese. If you’re a foodie, then the farm shop alone is worth the visit.

For the drive home, we decided to take the motorway route. But we had good day out and I’m sure we’ll be back there before too long.

May 1, 2016
by Neil Turner
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30 days of FitBit

Screenshot of step goal in FitBit app

Back in February I was lamenting my lack of exercise whilst on paternity leave. And following an Easter weekend where I had some particular sedentary days, I decided to set myself a challenge: meet my 10,000 step goal on my FitBit, every day, for 30 days. Day 1 was the 30th March.

I didn’t blog about it at the time as I decided that it would be better just to do it on the quiet, without public pressure. Not meeting my target would let me down, but I’d have also let other people down if they knew. Christine knew – she deserved to know why I’d disappear downstairs from an hour and do housework on an evening – but I didn’t make a big public declaration.

The good news? I managed it. Day 30 was Thursday, and I even managed to make it to 32 days so as to encompass every day in April. Today would be day 33, but it’s nearly 5pm and I’ve barely managed 3000 steps; I think I deserve a rest day.

Hitting my target every day varied in difficulty. On some days, I could reach 10,000 steps with ease. At work, I could reach 8,000 without much extra effort, but found that walking to a toilet further away from my desk, and taking regular breaks to stretch my legs, helped to push things on a bit. This was helped by a recent new feature added to the FitBit app, which encourages you to take at least 250 steps each hour through a series of red dots. So far, my best is being active 13 of the 14 hours that fall between 6am and 8pm – I’ve yet to get all 14, but it’s a good motivator.

I was hoping for some kind of FitBit badge to appear to reward me for doing this, but sadly there isn’t one. Which is a shame. And whilst I don’t plan to challenge myself again any time soon, I hope that this will ensure that I keep up with some good habits to keep my step count up.

April 30, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 30, 2016

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

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April 23, 2016
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for April 23, 2016

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

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