Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

June 27, 2016
by Neil Turner

Lizzie’s half birthday

Lizzie at birth and six months

Lizzie turns six months old today. No, I can’t quite believe it either.

Whilst it’s not all been plain sailing, on the whole I’ve really enjoyed becoming a parent. It’s been great to see her develop and learn new skills, and turn from a small floppy newborn into a more interactive little nipper. She’s recently learn to sit up, and I reckon she’ll be able to crawl within weeks. And we’re able to feed her solid food now (well, purées).

I can’t wait to see what will happen over the next six months.

June 25, 2016
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for June 25, 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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June 24, 2016
by Neil Turner
1 Comment


Tower Bridge

I’m writing this on the morning that a majority of British voters chose to leave the EU. Having stated my position as ‘remain’ and voted that way (as did Christine), I’m devastated to say the least, and terrified of what happens next.

It’s worth bearing in mind that I’m writing this having been awake since 3am, five days into a six day working week.

I’m feeling similar thoughts to 2011, when we as a country rejected a change to our voting system. I backed the change to AV, but a majority preferred to stick with the existing first-past-the-post system. But at least that was maintaining a ‘status quo’ – with the EU referendum, I fear the choices were ‘the same’ and ‘worse’, and not ‘the same’ and ‘better’.

And it’s bringing back memories of 2015, when the Conservatives unexpectedly won a majority in the General Election, and 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected as President of the USA.

What will take place over the coming days, weeks and months remains to be seen. The referendum result is not legally binding, and so the government and/or Parliament could choose to ignore it. I think one of the two following scenarios will play out.

Scenario 1: We leave the EU

The key thing to watch out for is invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This is like giving notice on your job – it tells the rest of the EU nations that we will leave, and gives us two years to sort things out. At the end of that two year period, we will cease to be an EU member state, unless we can get every other EU member state to agree to stop the process, or grant us an extension.

I don’t expect Article 50 to be invoked straightaway, because two years isn’t very long to unpick all of the legislation linked to Europe and implement new trade deals with every other country in the world. I’ve heard that those leading the leave campaign want to wait until 2018, with the aim of completing the Article 50 process by 2020, when the next general election is due to take place.

Whilst I think we will lose out by leaving the EU, I expect any changes to be slow – although the biggest ever fall in the value of the pound may imply that things are about to get very hairy very quickly (and probably wipe out any savings from leaving the EU). In any case, I expect many of those who voted to leave will be disappointed that leaving the EU won’t bring about the massive changes that they expect. A major claim by Vote Leave was that the £350 million that we spend each week on EU membership (which is actually much less thanks to a rebate) could be spent on the NHS, but within hours of the result Nigel Farage has said that’s unlikely.

My big worry is therefore that ‘leave’ voters will feel massively let down and disenfranchised by the whole thing – leaving the EU won’t have been the panacea promised, and their trust in the political system will disappear.

A majority of Scottish and Northern Irish voters chose to remain, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a second referendum on Scottish independence in the coming years. I was neutral on the previous referendum, but I’d be very understanding if Scotland voted to go independent to re-join the EU as a new member state. As for Northern Ireland, I fear that the years of calm since the Troubles subsided could be over, especially as the Republic of Ireland remains an EU member state.

Scenario 2: The referendum result is ignored

Because the referendum isn’t legally binding, the government and/or Parliament may choose to ignore it, and not invoke Article 50. Whether this happens now, or in a couple of years when people realise what a mess we’ve got ourselves into, remains to be seen. I would naturally prefer this to happen, seeing as how 16 million British voters wanted to remain in the EU, but it is also not without caveats.

Those who voted leave will, understandably, be annoyed, and will feel massively let down and disenfranchised by the whole thing. I know, I’m repeating myself, but I genuinely think a lot of good, honest people, were convinced to vote leave on the basis of lies and false promises. But what makes this worse than the scenario above, is that these voters will struggle to find any political parties to turn to. After all, out of the 7 major British parties – Conservatives, Labour, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green Party and UK Independence Party – only the latter officially supported leaving with minorities of the largest two. Of course, that assumes that this won’t result in parties splitting apart – and neither Labour or the Conservatives are particularly united at the moment.

The big issue is that no-one knows what’ll happen

What scares me most about the whole thing is all of the uncertainty. Staying in the EU would have, for the most part, been business as usual. But by voting to leave, we’ve opened a massive Pandora’s Box, and who knows what we’ll find.

I really hope that my worst fears are not realised. If they are, then at least I’ll be able to tell my daughter that I voted for what I thought was the right thing. And I apologise now if, in the coming months and years, I keep saying ‘I told you so’.

June 22, 2016
by Neil Turner

I’m voting remain

I'm voting remain

Tomorrow, the electorate of the United Kingdom goes to the polls for a referendum, where we’ll be asked whether we want to vote to remain a European Union member state, or leave.

I’m voting ‘Remain’, and this has always been my intention. I think we have far too much to lose by leaving, and precious little to gain. But I’m also voting for various friends and colleagues of mine, who are EU nationals living here in the UK, and who would face a potentially uncertain future if we leave.

I could spend hours going through exactly why I’m voting the way I am and why a vote to leave would be potentially catastrophic, but ultimately it comes down to ensuring that people who matter to me have a future in this country.

If you’re undecided about how you’ll vote, I’d suggest sticking with the status quo, and choosing Remain. If we leave the EU, then we may never be able to return. If we stay and things get worse, then another referendum could be called. The EU is not perfect, but I hope that by staying, we can influence it, rather than grumbling from the sidelines.

The polls are open from 7am until 10pm tomorrow – make sure you use your vote.

June 18, 2016
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for June 18, 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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June 11, 2016
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for June 11, 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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June 4, 2016
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for June 4, 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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June 3, 2016
by Neil Turner
1 Comment

Writing better with Hemingway

Screenshot of Hemingway showing this blog post

Writing for the web is a skill, especially if you want to cater for a wide audience. Not everyone has a good grasp of English; for many, it is not their first language. For others, they may have learning disabilities or happened to leave school at a young age. Either way, if you use complicated language and sentence structures, then some people may struggle to read what you write.

Enter Hemingway. It’s a very simple web app with just a home page. You copy and paste your text into it, and it will suggest some ways that you can improve the readability of your reading. This includes:

  • Breaking up long sentences that might be hard to read.
  • Using simpler phrases.
  • Reducing adverbs.
  • Avoiding passive voice.

Hemingway won’t rewrite your text for you. If you want to make changes, then that is up to you. Hemingway’s role is to make suggestions, by highlighting words and sentences. It will then explain why it has done so, allowing you to make corrections. There is also an overall grade for your writing, which roughly corresponds with the school grade required to comprehend the text. The lower this is, the easier it is to read your piece. And there is a word count, which can then be expanded to show how many sentences you have written, and how long it might take someone to read it.

Hemingway’s text editor supports rich text, so you won’t lose formatting. There is also a desktop client for Windows and Mac, which costs $10 and allows you to import and export from Microsoft Word. You can also export text in the Markdown format, to import into another app which supports it.

After you follow Hemingway’s suggestions, you may find that your text seems ‘dumbed down’. But it will be more readable by those who are less proficient in English.

June 1, 2016
by Neil Turner

Five years of WordPress

Screenshot of my blog in 2011

Just as WordPress itself turns 13 years old, it’s been five years since I switched the back-end content management system on this blog to WordPress. Above is a screenshot of the first theme that I used, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. It was an okay theme, but I prefer the current one.

In 14 years, I’ve used only four blogging platforms. The first few months, back in 2002, where on Blogger, but by September of 2002 I had settled on Movable Type, at the time regarded as the most powerful self-hosted blogging system. I carried on using MT through versions 2, 3 and 4 until early 2011.

Movable Type version 5 took a different direction which I wasn’t entirely happy with, and so for a few months in 2011 I used Melody, an open source community fork of MT version 4. But Melody also turned out to be a disappointment, and so I made the decision to move to WordPress.

I’ve not regretted it – WordPress has continued to improve over the past five years and whilst I’ve had the occasional issue with a rogue plugin or difficult update, on the whole it has worked well. With hindsight, I should have probably switched to WordPress well before 2011.

Movable Type is still in development and now at version 6, although it’s a commercial product that costs money – I believe the open source variant was abandoned some years ago. I don’t think many bloggers still use it – there were just a handful that I followed in 2011 on MT, and, of those, Anil Dash seems to be the only one left. The rest have either quit blogging altogether, or, like me, have switched to WordPress.

Whether I will still be using WordPress – or keeping a blog at all – in another five years time, remains to be seen. But for now, I’m quite happy with WordPress.

May 29, 2016
by Neil Turner

Listening to books, part II

Back in 2012, I signed up for Audible and listened to a couple of audiobooks – ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran and ‘God Collar’ by Marcus Brigestocke. And then cancelled my subscription, as there wasn’t anything else that I wanted to listen to at the time.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, and I started to realise that I was missing out on books that had been written by public figures that I liked. An Audible subscription made sense again, and there was a good offer on, so I signed up again.

You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)

Felicia Day's You're Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)The first was You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (Amazon link). It’s a memoir that chronicles her life, but especially her early acting career, and how she came to write and star in the ground-breaking web series The Guild. I came across The Guild towards the end of season one, but enjoyed every subsequent season as the episodes came out, and I’ve regularly watched Felicia’s YouTube channel.

Felicia talks candidly about her issues with anxiety and gaming addiction, and how these have affected her career. Whilst I’m lucky to not suffer regular anxiety attacks, I found it enlightening how Felicia dealt with them. It was also interesting to hear about someone who was educated outside of the mainstream schooling system, but who subsequently went on to excel at university.

The audiobook includes PDF with photos from the book, so that you can get the references.

A Book For Her

Bridget Christie's A Book For HerI followed with Bridget Christie’s A Book For Her (Amazon link). The title satirises Bic’s ‘For Her’ range of pens that were also ridiculed by Ellen DeGeneres.

Like ‘How To Be A Woman’, ‘A Book For Her’ is a book about feminism that would sit in the comedy shelves of a book shop. It’s not a laugh a minute, and deals with weighty subjects like female genital mutilation with the seriousness required. Bridget talks about her life and upbringing – leaving school at 15 – and the difficulties she encountered in her early years as a stand-up comedian.

Bridget’s humour is very sarcastic, and this extends to her narration. As a listener, you are frequently chastised for being too lazy to read the book, and that you’ll miss out on some of its illustrations. For this reason, I would suggest reading the book and listening to the audiobook, as both offer some things that the other doesn’t.

And I think most people will come away from reading/listening to it having learnt something, like how feminists have never actually burned bras. They weren’t allowed to, due to health and safety.

Cheer Up Love

Susan Calman's Cheer Up LoveThis book (Amazon link) is subtitled ‘Adventures in depression with the crab of hate‘ and is about author Susan Calman’s issues with chronic depression. The aforementioned ‘crab of hate’ is the antagonist of the book, and is the manifestation of Susan’s bad thoughts. It’s also a memoir (you may be detecting a trend here) and chronicles Susan’s life and career, first as a lawyer and then as a stand-up comedian. (Christine and I went to see her in Hebden Bridge in 2014)

If you suffer from depression, then I think you’ll get some mileage out of this book, as Susan covers how she’s able to deal with her condition and her coping mechanisms. If you don’t, then you’ll still get something out of it – the title, ‘Cheer Up Love’, is a listed example of a phrase that well-meaning people say to her that really doesn’t help. But there are some tips for dealing with a friend or loved one who suffers with mental health issues.

Back Story

David Mitchell's Back Story‘A book by a bloke, at last!’, you may think. I haven’t specifically gone out of my way to listen to feminist memoirs – it’s just happened that way – but the latest book that I’m listening to is Back Story by David Mitchell (Amazon link). Yes, it’s another memoir; David tells the story of his life whilst on a walk from his flat in Kilburn, north London into the city. The title refers to the problems he has had with a bad back, and how walking has been one of the few non-medical interventions that has helped relieve the pain.

I’m only about an hour in so far, having started listening on Monday, but if you’re used to David’s monologues from his Soapbox web series or work on 10 O’Clock Live, then you’ll know what to expect. You’ll also find out that David isn’t quite as posh as he’s made out to be, especially on shows like Would I Lie To You? on BBC1. Yes, he was privately-educated, but his parents encountered significant financial hardship to be able to do so. And yes, he went to Cambridge and is on TV, radio and has a newspaper column, but at the time that he wrote the book he was still renting a flat and didn’t own a house.

I’m a fan of David’s work and so it’s not surprising that I’m enjoying the book so far.

Up Next

I still have three more books to listen to after I’ve finished Back Story:

It takes 2-3 weeks to get through each one so it’ll be a while before I’m looking for any more books, but if anyone has any suggestions then I’ll be happy to hear them.