Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

May 5, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Getting started with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books

Discworld reading order chart Last Monday, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends:

Let’s imagine that you have a friend who has read a few Terry Pratchett books, but none of the Discworld books, and would like to start somewhere – which book would you recommend?

This friend has also seen the Sky TV adaptions of Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic and Going Postal.

And this friend may also be me.

27 comments later, and I received a useful list of starter books:

  • Guards, Guards!
  • Wyrd Sisters
  • Pyramids
  • Equal Rites
  • Mort
  • Reaper Man
  • Going Postal
  • Soul Music

Of these, ‘Guards, Guards!’ was the most popular suggestion, and so that’s my next audiobook on Audible. I’m about 30% of the way through it already. It’s okay – it’s narrated by Nigel Planer, who does a good job, however the breaks between scenes could be handled better. I think I found Good Omens to be a funnier book.

Discworld is a bit like the Marvel Cinematic Universe; there are lots of books that follow different groups of characters. There are several books with which you can start with, and some of these coalesce into a larger story. There’s even a diagram. You could, of course, read the Discworld books chronologically, starting with The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, but I gather that these aren’t Pratchett’s best works. That, and I’ve already seen the TV adaptations so I know the plot.

I will probably read another of the starter books next, before delving into any particular pathway through the Discworld universe. However, I have a couple of other books to listen to first, thanks to some recent Audible daily deals. These include The Long Earth, another Pratchett book which was a collaboration with Steven Baxter, and is more science-fiction than fantasy.

May 4, 2017
by Neil Turner
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May the wedding anniversary be with you

Wedding anniversary Today marks four years since Christine and I got married.

We inadvertently chose May 4th as our wedding day. Though neither of us are big Star Wars fans, Christine came down the aisle to a string quartet rendition of the Imperial March.

We’re not planning anything special. We may have a nice meal at home, but we’re both at work as normal. The traditional gift to exchange on your fourth wedding anniversary is ‘fruit’, apparently.

Our four years of marriage have seen quite a lot of change; we used to live in a rented two bedroom flat, with no car and no kids. We now own our own three-bedroom house, I can drive a car, and Lizzie is now 16 months old. I’ve also progressed somewhat at work. But we still love each other, and make sure that we have some time to ourselves, even with all of our pressures and responsibilities. Here’s to many more happy years.

May 3, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Springtime Live

Mr Bloom at Springtime Live

This bank holiday Monday was the fourth annual Springtime Live show at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate. This was the second year that we went.

Springtime Live is a bit like a kids version of the annual Great Yorkshire Show. It’s smaller, taking up the two halls of the Yorkshire Events Centre and some of the outdoor space outside. And there’s a much greater focus on activities for kids. Inside Hall 1 is a big stage and, as last year, the headline act was a show by Mr Bloom who has a popular TV show on pre-school channel Cbeebies. We got there just before the show started; Lizzie watched for a bit, but seemed rather non-plussed. This may be something to do with her not having seen the TV show.

Activities on offer included a soft play area, making your own chocolate lollipop (hosted by York’s Chocolate Story) and plenty of opportunities to stroke and handle animals. In addition to the main stage, there was a demonstration area with ferret racing and a bird of prey show throughout the day. Animals on show included rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, tarantulas, alpacas, a cow, ponies, goats and some newly-hatched chicks. A highlight for me was seeing some three-week old owl chicks.

Ticket prices

For £10 for adults and £5 for children aged 3-18, it was pretty good value for a full day out. We arrived at 10:45, and it was almost 4pm before we left with just a break for lunch. We brought out own food though, as the catering on site was expensive.

The organisation of this year’s Springtime Live was better than last year. Tickets were advertised as being for advance sale only, which reduced the queues at the gate. As it happened, tickets were sold on the gate but the majority of people pre-booked. Car parking was also better managed, and it was more spread out, so getting around with a pushchair was easier.

Springtime Live has an autumn counterpart, Countryside Live, in late October. We didn’t manage to make it last year, but it’s a larger, two-day event, and we’re planning to go if we can. And there’s the Great Yorkshire Show in July, although at £24 per adult it’s becoming an expensive day out.

April 30, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Sleeping through

Lizzie dressed up as a vet I’m not quite sure when it happened, but nowadays Lizzie sleeps through the night without waking up, most nights.

For many parents, this is a big deal. Disrupted sleep is one of the worst things about parenting, and there’s no shortage of books, guides and old wives’ tales with methods for ‘sleep training’.

We didn’t do any of that. We just accepted that we probably wouldn’t get uninterrupted sleep for a while, and hoped that Lizzie would get the idea eventually. Which she has.

Alas, whilst Lizzie now sleeps through, Christine often doesn’t (and, ergo, nor do I). She often has to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. Lizzie usually sleeps through this but I don’t.

We’re also still co-sleeping. I know it’s frowned upon in the western world, as there’s an increased suffocation risk, but there are ways of doing it safely. When Lizzie was a newborn, co-sleeping was one of the few ways that we could get her to go to sleep at night. We’ve got plans to get her into a cot, which is all ready for her in our bedroom, and hope to try this soon. Eventually, she’ll be in her own room, although that room needs extensive renovation first and won’t be ready until later in the summer.

April 28, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Listening to books, part V (Fiction edition)

It’s time for another update on the audiobooks that I’ve been listening to. As mentioned last time, I’ve been listening to a few fiction books lately, rather than just yet more celebrity memoirs. As someone who hasn’t read (or indeed listened to) fiction in many years, this was a bit of a departure for me. Indeed, Mitch Benn’s book Terra was the first in a long time.

Here’s what I’ve listened to:

Battlemage by Stephen Aryan

I’ll disclose a minor conflict of interest here: I used to work with Stephen’s partner. At the time, I remember hearing about how he was struggling to get a publisher. This was when self-publishing on Kindle and the like was becoming more popular. I’m pleased to see that Stephen’s persistence paid off, with this book being published by Orbit in September 2015. It’s available as an actual paperbook in real shops (or Amazon), and an audiobook on Audible.

Battlemage is among the longer books that I’ve listened to – roughly on a par with a typical Game of Thrones book. It tells the story of several battlemages, powerful and feared wizards, who are recruited to fight in a war against the ‘warlock’. It’s firmly in the ‘sword and sorcery’ subgenre of fantasy.

I really enjoyed this book; whilst I chose it principally to support someone I know, the story was good and the characters had depth. The narration by Mark Addis on the audiobook is good as well. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to listening to the next book in the series.

Dietland by Sarai Walker

Dietland by Sarai WalkerI listened to this book on a recommendation from Sofie Hagen, formerly one half of The Guilty Feminist podcast. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than that it would likely criticise the diet industry.

Dietland (Amazon link) tells the story of Plum, a fat girl who doesn’t want to be fat. She signs up for a weight loss scheme called ‘The Baptist Plan’, but is left looking for other options when the company is closed by its founder’s daughter. Considering bariatric surgery, she’s recruited into a secretive collective and finds out the truth about dieting.

The reviews of this book are mixed, perhaps due to its controversial second half where the story takes an interesting twist. For me, I found the second half much stronger than the first. Initially I almost wrote this book off as being typical cheap ‘chick lit’, but I stuck with it and was rewarded. Drawing parallels with real-life events, it’s hilarious and empowering.

Lauren Henderson narrates the book, and whilst she does so well, she wouldn’t be my favourite voice actor.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Cover of The AlchemistI listened to The Alchemist (Amazon link) because it was available as a freebie on Audible back in November. I had run out of credits, didn’t fancy paying full price for another audiobook and saw that it was a relatively short 4 hour listen, which I completed in a week thanks to a few long car journeys.

It’s certainly not the sort of book that I would normally listen to, and it was okay, I guess. The story follows a young Spanish shepherd, as he travels to Africa to find treasure. The revelations he has on his journey end up changing the course of his life.

There’s a lot of religious imagery in the book, even if it isn’t overtly Christian. The narration was good, but you can tell that it has been translated into English. There’s not the level of nuance that I expect it would have if read in its original Portuguese.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

As a child, I read a few Terry Pratchett books – namely the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, but as yet I haven’t dabbled my toe into any of Pratchett’s books for adults. Similarly, I’ve not really read any Neil Gaiman books apart from a couple of short stories. So I thought that Good Omens (Amazon link), a collaboration between the two of them, would be a good introduction to both authors. It’s a standalone book that is not part of any wider series.

Good Omens follows Crowley and Aziraphale, a demon and an angel who live on Earth, and who aren’t very happy about its imminent destruction. As the four horsemen of the apocalypse gather, and the anti-christ goes missing, it’s up to them to save the world, with the help of a surprisingly accurate book of prophecies written by one Agnes Nutter.

There are some laugh-out-loud moments in Good Omens, especially in its comments about the M25, and how every cassette that spends more than a couple of weeks in a car becomes songs by Queen. Some of the pop culture references are a little dated – this book was first published in 1990 – but on the whole, it holds up well. Stephen Briggs offers an excellent narration in the audiobook.

Up next

At present I’m back to celebrity memoirs, but will be listening to more fiction books in future. I’m considering making a start on Game of Thrones, and perhaps making inroads into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe.

April 27, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Going back to Eureka as an adult

Eureka - the childrens museum in Halifax

When I was a kid, I used to love going to Eureka, the national children’s museum in Halifax. I was eight years old when it opened in 1992, and so I was in the right age group to visit. I remember going with primary school at least once, and with my parents on other occasions.

Eureka turns 25 this year, and I took Lizzie along a few weeks ago. She’s been three times now – once with me, and twice with her mum. I took her because Christine was working that weekend, and we had a Tesco Clubcard Days Out voucher that was about to expire.

There are still quite a few bits of the museum there that I remember. I remember pedalling on a fixed bike, and seeing a skeleton appear doing the same motions. That’s still there, although the rest of the gallery around it is new. The SoundSpace gallery is new; Lizzie found this really stimulating with lots of sound and light. We also spent a little bit of time in Living and Working Together, and All About Me, but having arrived there after lunch on a Saturday there was only limited time.

When Eureka opened, it was almost unique in the level of interactivity offered. So many museums at the time locked their exhibits behind glass cases, and there would only be the occasional button to press. Eureka was different – you could play with just about everything. It was all about learning through play – a concept that it now applies to its nursery, which is consistently rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. Nowadays, many more museums have exhibits which are accessible to kids, but Eureka was pioneering in this respect.

Eureka entry prices

Although it’s a national museum, Eureka doesn’t receive any central government funding, hence the need to charge an entrance fee. Our local MP, Holly Lynch, has been campaigning to change this. Making it free would be fantastic for Halifax, as it could bring in many more visitors to the town. Work is already ongoing to better link the town centre and the Piece Hall with Eureka and the railway station.

As it stands, for a family of two adults and two children aged 3 or over, a day out at Eureka is almost £52. Whilst the tickets are then valid for unlimited repeat visits within the subsequent 12 months, it’s still a big initial outlay. And that doesn’t include food at the café, parking or travel. It would be great if the museum could become more accessible to those on lower incomes.

Eureka is still a fantastic museum for kids. Quite a lot has changed in 25 years and I’m pleased to see how it’s developed. But it was also nice to go back and see things that I remembered when I was younger. And now that we live nearby, we’ll be getting the most out of our annual passes.

April 26, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Unrolling from unroll.me

Screenshot of unroll.me

Over the weekend, the New York Times profiled Travis Kalanick, the CEO of controversial ride-hailing app Uber. It’s fascinating, and I’d suggest taking a few minutes out to read it. Done? Great – we’ll continue.

The biggest revelation was a supposed meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook; Apple had threatened to remove the Uber app from the App Store for violating its rules. But further down was another surprise, about an email management service called unroll.me.

What is unroll.me?

Unroll.me, when linked to a major email provider like Gmail, goes through your inbox and highlights newsletter subscriptions. You can then choose to:

  • keep these coming into your inbox as normal
  • roll them up into a single daily digest email
  • delete them on receipt

It’s a free service, and, in the early days, Unroll.me made its money solely through advertising in these emails. But in 2014, it was bought by Slice, itself now part of the massive Japanese Rakuten empire. Following its purchase, it started offering anonymised data from the inboxes of its users to third parties. One of these third parties was Uber, and the data it was sending were email receipts from journeys made using its major rival, Lyft.

Unroll.me, from a legal perspective, was probably doing nothing wrong – I’m sure that this was included in its privacy policy and terms of service. But nobody reads those things. Users felt betrayed, and there has been a predictable backlash. Which hasn’t been helped by a statement from the company which basically says that they’ll carry on as before with a vague promise of being more transparent. A Medium post from one of unroll.me’s co-founders isn’t much better.

Delete your account

So, I’ve de-activated my account. I’ve been using unroll.me for about a year, and it’s been useful. But I’m uncomfortable with my data being shared with third parties in this way – especially if one of those is Uber. Though I’ve used Uber in the past, I deleted the app sometime ago, and I have major issues with how they do business.

Europeans like me tend to have a higher expectation that our personal information won’t be sold on by third parties, thanks to legislation like the Data Protection Act (and equivalents in other EU nations). Unroll.me is a US service and runs under US laws, and so it’s probably not doing anything wrong. But that doesn’t stop these revelations from being really, really creepy.

If you want to delete your account, Lifehacker has some instructions; you’ll also need to revoke access to your Google account afterwards if you use Gmail. In any case, managing my email using Google’s new Inbox tool is easier than ‘classic’ Gmail and so I’ll probably stick with that, rather than trying to find an alternative to unroll.me.

April 25, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Beningbrough Hall

Beningbrough Hall

Easter Monday, despite being a bank holiday, was quite a nice day. So, we went to Beningbrough Hall, near York, with my parents in tow.

I’ve been before, as it’s not far from my parents’ house, and it’s a National Trust property. My parents have been National Trust members for years, and I also joined some time ago. Unfortunately, there aren’t many properties near us in West Yorkshire. East Riddlesden Hall is the nearest to where we live, and so I don’t get many chances to use my membership. So it was nice to be able to get some return on my membership fees. Plus, Christine has never been.

We didn’t go inside the hall itself, although I later found out that there’s a children’s playroom inside – dammit! Beningbrough Hall is a northern outpost of the National Portrait Gallery, and so there are many paintings inside.

Instead, we strolled around the gardens. They’re not the biggest, but they’re pretty and well-kept. Being Easter, there was the usual Cadbury’s Egg Hunt taking place. Lizzie is a bit young for this, but I think she’ll enjoy it next year.

There’s also a good outdoor playground. Again, it’s better for bigger kids, but Lizzie enjoyed the swings. During school holidays, there are opportunities to build dens in the wood, and various other activities to keep children entertained.

As usual, there are photos on Flickr.

April 24, 2017
by Neil Turner
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Centre Vale Park

Centre Vale Park

A few Saturdays ago, given the unseasonably warm weather, myself, Christine, Lizzie and a friend spent an afternoon wandering around Centre Vale Park in Todmorden. It’s a large public park that sits to the north of the town, and once contained Centre Vale, a stately home. Centre Vale has since been demolished, and is one of the houses featured in Kate Lycett’s Lost Houses of the South Pennines exhibition. Where the house once stood is an outline of bricks.

I’ll be honest – the main reason for our visit was to catch Pokémon. Public parks tend to have ‘nests’ in Pokémon Go, which rotate every fortnight, and we’d heard that there were a number of Sunkern spawning there. They’re somewhat rare, and we managed to catch five that afternoon.

Centre Vale Park has most of what you’d expect from a typical public park. There’s a large open space for playing games, a reasonably sized play area with swings and slides, an outdoor gym, and some planted areas. There’s also a small walled garden at the back, with a war memorial, and a small menagerie inside. This houses some snakes and lizards, some terrapins and (presumably) a few butterflies. It’s not quite what we expected to see, but it was free to visit.

The Lucky Dog of Todmorden You can also go and touch the Lucky Dog statue, as featured on a recent Derren Brown TV series.

The focal point of the park is a bandstand. Unlike most, it’s more of a stage, located at the edge of the park facing inwards, rather than the more typical circular ones seen elsewhere. Alas, it’s in a poor state of repair and is fenced off. It’s a shame, as it could be used for outdoor shows with large audiences.

I actually enjoyed Centre Vale Park more than I thought I would. The menagerie was an unexpected find, and the views of the upper Calder valley are great on a sunny day. Todmorden itself is not a bad place to visit, with some interesting shops and cafés. It’s a good way to spend a sunny weekend afternoon.

April 23, 2017
by Neil Turner
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The National Coal Mining Museum for England

National Coal Mining Museum for England

Yesterday I took Lizzie to the National Coal Mining Museum for England, which is near Wakefield. Christine was working again and I’d heard that it was a good place to take kids of all ages. Plus, it had the advantage of it being free to enter.

The mining museum opened in the late 1980s, and became a national museum in 1995. You can read more about the history of the site on Wikipedia. However, this was my first ever visit. My parents never took me as a child, and I hadn’t been as an adult because we’ve not had a car until recently. It’s not very well-served by public transport – typically three buses an hour from Wakefield, 2 from Huddersfield and 1 from Dewsbury. But there is ample car parking and it’s on the main A642 road

The main attraction is the opportunity to go down the old Caphouse Colliery coal mine. Alas, you need to be at least five years old to do so and so we’ll have to come back to do that sometime after 2020 when Lizzie is old enough. Fortunately, there’s a playroom for the under-5s with a ball pit and soft play area. Collectively, this kept Lizzie entertained for the best part of an hour.

National Coal Mining Museum for England

Two coal mines

The mining museum actually spans two pits – Caphouse, and Hope Pit, which is at the other end of the site. A narrow-gauge railway runs between the two, and on weekends you can get on board a small battery-powered train. Alternatively, it’s a quarter of a mile walk.

You can’t go down Hope Pit, but most of the surface buildings are open to have a look inside, and there are some information panels and interactive exhibits. However, there were no staff on hand to talk about the exhibits – and this is something I noticed generally across the day. It’s a big museum, but I feel it could be brought more to life with more staff.

Living and working

The entrance to the mining museum includes a visitor centre, and galleries focussing on the human side of the mining industry. How people lived, and the impact of industrial action, with a particular focus on the Miners Strike of the 1980s. I was born during the strike, so was too young to remember it. The museum tries to take quite a neutral line on the dispute; though it covers the hardship that mining families faced, it explains the other side as well. As a national museum, I expect that it receives central government funding, so this perhaps isn’t so surprising. But it’s a different attitude to, say, the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

National Coal Mining Museum for England

One thing I noticed about the other visitors was that I was one of the youngest adults there, despite being in my thirties. There were lots of kids there (including a birthday party group) but many were with their grandparents, whom I’m guessing may have worked down the mines in their heyday, or lived in mining communities. Coincidentally, Friday marked the first time that Britain’s energy needs were met without coal for 24 hours.

Stables

Outside, you can visit the stables where two pit ponies and a horse now live. Although horses were used in commercial mining right into the 1990s (something I learned on my visit), none of these three horses has ever worked down a mine. At one time, these would have pulled a Paddy Train up the side of the mining museum site. But said paddy train was lying rusting in a far corner of the site, along with its plaque commemorating its opening in 1990. Indeed, several parts of the site are part-derelict. Unfortunately, being a free museum means that it’s reliant on donations and public funding.

This aside, I think we both had a good day out. Discounting lunch in the café, which serves reasonable but expensive food, we spent about 3 hours there. Had we been able to go underground, I expect this would have been longer. I’m sure we’ll be back when Lizzie is older.