Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

July 19, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Breaking up BT

Communication

Last week, Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator (and British answer to the FCC) proposed the break-up of BT, into two companies. This would involve spinning of its Openreach wholesale arm as a separate company, with BT retaining its retail arm.

To understand the importance of this, and how we got here, let’s go back in time a little.

Once upon a time, all of the UK’s telephony infrastructure was owned by the General Post Office. In the 1980s, this was spun-out as a separate government-owned company called British Telecommunications, but it was later privatised in 1984. This also allowed rival companies to operate telephony services, but BT retained ownership of all of the cabling and exchanges. Consumers are free to switch from BT to other providers like Sky and TalkTalk, and vice versa, but whilst they may pay money to someone other than BT, BT still owns the cable that runs into their homes. Ultimately, this is the situation that persists today.

In 2006, BT was forced to segregate its retail and wholesale businesses. BT Retail sells telephone, internet and TV packages to consumers and business. Meanwhile, Openreach, the wholesale division, operates the infrastructure, including the cables and telephone exchanges. Other companies can install their equipment in BT’s exchanges, but the connection from the exchange to consumers’ homes is still owned by Openreach.

Ofcom is now launching a consultation regarding Openreach, arguing that it should be completely spun out of BT and operate as a separate entity. Sky has reacted positively to this, as it has grievances with the level of service that Openreach has offered. I’m also in favour – though we’re currently BT customers at home, I think it makes sense for there to be separation between the infrastructure and service. Although Openreach is heavily regulated, its close links with the retail division of BT means that there’s a conflict of interest between supplying its own retail customers and the customers of rival services.

In other industries, the infrastructure and retail companies are separate. The electricity cables and gas pipes are owned by National Grid, and other regional companies, but consumers pay their bills to separate companies. It’s the same on the railways – the track is owned by Network Rail, but the trains are operated by Train Operating Companies, or TOCs. And the UK’s domain name system is similar – .uk domains are managed by a non-profit organisation called Nominet, but consumers and business buy from intermediary companies that can compete with each other.

Openreach has very limited competition. The only other major telephony infrastructure provider in the UK is Virgin Media, whose predecessors spent millions of pounds installing their own cables under the streets directly to British households. But whereas Openreach serves just about every household in the UK (apart from in Hull), Virgin Media can only reach half. For this reason, there’s currently no requirement for Virgin Media to open its networks to rivals, or be split in the same way that BT could be.

Ofcom’s consultation began on Thursday but it’ll be many months before it reports. Any split will almost certainly need the approval of the Competition and Markets Authority and this could take a year or two. If Openreach is spun out, then it will almost certainly be as another company with shareholders, but it would be great if it was also nationalised as well. I doubt that will ever happen though.

July 18, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for July 18, 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 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Some thoughts on Apple Music

Screenshot of Apple Music on an iPhone 5SApple Music, Apple’s first full foray into the world of streaming music, was released last week, as part of updates to iOS and iTunes. I’ve had a bit of time to play with it since.

On iOS, Apple Music usurps the old Music app and takes over four of the five tabs:

  • The home tab is now called ‘For You’ and contains suggested playlists and albums based on your tastes.
  • ‘New’ is the home to new music, which can be filtered by genre.
  • ‘Radio’ is the home to Apple’s new radio stations, including ‘Beats 1′.
  • ‘Connect’ is Apple’s attempt at introducing a social aspect, with status updates posted by the bands and artists that you listen to.
  • ‘My Music’ is where the music you’ve downloaded lives.

As I mostly use my iPhone to listen to music that I already own, having this shoved into one small corner of the app wasn’t entirely welcome, but I get that Apple would rather me pay them £10 per month than buy occasional songs to keep.

I haven’t used the radio stations yet but have tried listening to an album that I didn’t already own in full (Delain’s The Human Contradiction). I was on a train at the time and it took a bit of convincing to get it working; firstly, I had to enable Apple Music to work over cellular internet rather than just wifi. Eventually it played, and coped well when I lost connection as the train passed through a tunnel; presumably it has generous buffering where the connection allows.

Setting up Apple Music was relatively straightforward. On first launch, it will ask you to tap on artists that you like; double-tap on artists that you love, and tap and hold on artists that you don’t like, to build up your preferences. You can do this several times to hone your preferences if you wish. You’ll also be signed-up for a 3 month free trial – if you don’t want to be automatically billed when the trial is up, follow the instructions here.

Some users have had major problems with their existing music libraries following Apple Music’s launch. I got lucky, despite also being an iTunes Match user, but I did find that all of my playlists were duplicated. After I deleted the duplicates in iTunes, everything was fine.

If you’re a last.fm user, then I have bad news. Any songs that you play that are not in your own library will not be scrobbled. Apple has never officially supported last.fm, which is a shame. This is in spite of Apple’s previous attempt at a music social network, Ping, which was an utter failure.

I suppose the big question is: how does it compare to Spotify? Apple Music tries to be more personalised, and integrated with your existing music library. But Spotify is cheaper; whilst Spotify Premium is the same price as Apple Music, there’s also the cheaper Spotify Unlimited which is £5 per month, and a free tier supported by advertising. Spotify has always had last.fm integration, and connects with your Facebook account so that you can share your playlists and see what your friends are listening to in real-time. The social experience on Spotify feels more authentic, as it’s between your friends, rather than a broadcast from artists and bands.

Given the choice between Apple Music and Spotify, I would choose Spotify. It’s cheaper (I have the £5 a month unlimited package), and feels like a more polished product. But Apple Music is still new, and there’s plenty of time for Apple to improve it.

July 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Ten years a graduate

That's Neil Turner BSc (hons) to youThis week, the annual summer graduation ceremonies take place at the university where I work. 10 years ago, I was there as a graduand myself.

It doesn’t feel like 10 years have passed since then. Probably because I now work at the same university from which I graduated, but also because I graduated again in 2007 with a postgraduate diploma. I still have the suit I wore, and it still fits me – just.

The graduation ceremonies are always a great time to be on campus and I enjoy getting involved. My roles have varied as I’ve moved between jobs at the university; in the past, I’ve been a steward, an usher, and I’ve even reprised my graduation robes a couple of times to lead the academic procession into the hall. More recently, as I’ve moved into an academic faculty, I’ve been more involved with the reception and prize-giving for our particularly exceptional graduates.

As my work is primarily concerned with admissions and recruitment, I get to see students right from when they first apply and attend interviews, all the way through to when they get their degrees at the end of their course. And it’s great to see how our students grow and mature as they study their courses with us.

For some, this is the end of their time with us, as they move on to bigger and better things now that they have a degree under their belts. For others, it’s merely the end of a chapter as students take a well-earned summer break before starting further study in September. Maybe in another ten years’ time, one of two of the class of 2015 will be still hanging around like I am.

If you’re receiving your degree this summer, then congratulations – having done one myself, I know how much work is involved and you should be very proud.

July 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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App of the Week: Pregnancy+

Screenshot of the Pregnancy+ app on iPadNaturally, one of the first things I did after finding out that Christine was pregnant, was to download an app. A quick search of the App Store returned Pregnancy+ as the first result, and as it had good reviews, I downloaded it.

The app takes some basic information about you, which can be imported from Facebook or Google, and then asks you whether you are pregnant, or a partner/grandparent, and helps you calculate a due date if you haven’t had a dating scan yet. Once set up, it becomes a dashboard for information about your pregnancy.

On the iPad edition, the left column of the home page has links to information – a daily blog post, daily advice, and a week-by-week summary of how your baby is doing, the changes you (or your partner) experiences each week, tips for partners and also information for mothers expecting twins or multiples. You can also view high resolution images of how your baby will (probably) look each week, and its approximate size compared to a piece of fruit. Christine is around 15 weeks pregnant, and so our baby is about the size of a pear; next week, it’ll be approximately avocado-sized.

As well as advice, the app can be used for planning. If you weigh yourself regularly during the pregnancy, then you can input your weight into the app up to once a day, to see how your weight changes, and this can be linked to the Health app on your iPhone. You can also enter the dates of your appointments, and have these synchronised with your calendar, so that they appear in your phone’s calendar app. There’s a to-do list, and you can also use it to create a birth plan to discuss with your midwife.

Additional features include suggestions for baby names, ranked by popularity and by country, tips for what to put in to your hospital bag to prepare for the birth, a shopping list for baby items with suggestions, and a tool to measure contractions.

It’s an extensive app and it combines the features of several others, all in a bright, welcoming interface. I’ve used it on both my iPhone and iPad, but it seems to work better on larger screens.

It isn’t perfect; it would be nice if partners could be linked to the same baby, so that I can view Christine’s data and vice versa. We both have the app but any data we enter isn’t synchronised. And the shopping list recommends a lot of items that we’ve been advised aren’t really necessary.

Though the app is free to download, initially you can only track a pregnancy for the first trimester – up to 13 weeks. After that, you need to buy a £2.99 (iOS) or £2.49 (Android) in-app purchase to unlock the app for the rest of the pregnancy. Presumably, you won’t need to buy it again for future pregnancies.

Whilst the app will be of most use to pregnant mothers, it’s useful for partners as well, and it’s allowed me to learn more about what Christine’s going through so that I can support her. And she’s found it useful to understand how our baby is growing inside her.

Pregnancy+ is free, with in-app purchases, and is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. There is also Pregnancy++ which is the same, but costs £2.99 upfront with full functionality.

July 14, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Bradford is putting up its Christmas decorations

Kung fu Santa

It’s mid-July, and the Christmas decorations are going up in Bradford.

Most towns and cities put up their decorations in late October, with the switch-on usually taking place after Remembrance Sunday in November. But Bradford usually puts its lights up much earlier.

Okay, so I’m being a little dishonest in calling them ‘Christmas’ lights. Bradford saves money by re-using many of its lights for three different religious festivals – Eid, Diwali and Christmas – with minor changes made between each one. Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration at the end of Ramadan, is this weekend, so the lights are being erected in time.

They will then be changed over for the Hindu and Sikh festival Diwali (spelled Deepawali locally) which takes place in November, and then changed again for Christmas. Like with most other towns, there is a big Christmas lights switch-on event that takes place in November, after all the ‘Happy Deepawali’ signs have been changed to ‘Happy Christmas’.

Whilst Christians are the largest religious group in the Bradford district, comprising around 46% of the population, Islam is the second-most popular religion; around a quarter of the population identify as Muslims. Around 20% have no religion, and there are smaller numbers of Hindus and Sikhs. Although us godless people don’t have a festival of our own, the council are able to cover the festivals of Bradford’s four biggest religions by re-using resources.

So, for those celebrating it at the end of this week, Eid Mubarak.

Of the remaining two largest global religions, Bradford has a very small Jewish population with just one synagogue, and a small Buddhist community.

July 13, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Mystery meal

Homemade burger

Christine and I had our first experience as mystery diners recently.

Ages ago, I signed up for the Mystery Dining Company, an intermediary that arranges mystery shopper visits for various restaurants in the UK. Whilst I got regular emails about available visits, none of the establishments interested me – they were mainly pubs that I wouldn’t consider visiting. Finally, an urgent visit for a restaurant that we actually like came up, and so I booked us in. I can’t tell you which restaurant it was, but it was a large multi-national chain.

As part of the task, we had to book a table online, but also call the restaurant using a call recording service (Record Your Call in this case) and upload the recording. There was a questionnaire to complete which had several questions that related specifically to aspects of the experience that the restaurant aims to offer at its locations, so it wasn’t a case of simply reviewing the food and the service. Fortunately, the restaurant and the staff did well on the whole, although I did have to put a few negative comments in places.

Obviously the major benefit of being a mystery shopper is that you get reimbursed for the meal, so effectively it was free. There are limits as to how much you can claim in total though, and you’re usually restricted to no more than one alcoholic drink each. To be reimbursed, you upload copies of your receipts; I learned that after submitting mine that I should have uploaded both the food and card receipts so that I could claim back the tips.

We’d happily do it again, although sadly visits are a bit few and far between in the Halifax and Bradford areas at the moment.

The Mystery Dining Company is just one such company that arranges visits; another is Market Force Information, and you can find out more about them in this blog post from Money Saving Expert. They offer a small additional fee on top of the reimbursement but it’s only a few pounds.

If you’re literate, enjoy eating out and are flexible enough to go to places at short notice, then I’d recommend signing up as a mystery shopper. You effectively get free meals out of it, and you’re helping the restaurant companies improve their customer experience.

July 12, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Making a house a home (part III)

It’s been a couple of weeks since we my last update on the house. We’re now four weeks on from having got the keys, but it’s likely to be around 6 weeks before we move in unfortunately. Here’s where we’re up to.

Plastering

The damp-proof plastering is done. We had to get this done as a condition of the mortgage, but thankfully we’ll get money back from the mortgage lender now that the job has been completed. Considering that the cost of the work was a four figure sum, this is quite welcome.

We have some more plastering to do, however. Last time, I mentioned that the existing plaster was in a poor state; fortunately it’s not universally bad. Once we got more wallpaper off the walls we found some re-plastering work had taken place more recently, and bar a few small holes it’s in good condition. But there are still some larger holes that need re-plastering, and some (presumably original) plaster that needs replacing or skimming over.

Wallpaper

Most of the old wallpaper is now gone. In some areas, it was four layers thick – three layers of backing paper and then a thick outer layer – so it’s been a challenge. Several walls had some hideous woodchip wallpaper, which is also an absolute pain to remove. Others had wallpaper over the top of a thin layer of polystyrene, which, whilst insulative, is also a bit of a fire hazard. Especially behind radiators. Thankfully this was easily removed.

We reckon we’ll have the last of the wallpaper off this week.

Painting

We started painting the bathroom some time ago, but other jobs got in the way. We’ll be picking up on this once the downstairs is further on. The damp-proof plaster can’t be painted at all for at least another four and a half weeks, and the additional plaster that we’ll have done soon will also need time to dry before we can paint it. So we might as well crack on with the bathroom in the meantime.

Cleaning

Obviously all of the work that we’ve been doing has created a lot of mess, so we spent much of Saturday cleaning the kitchen – with friends and parents to help. The kitchen didn’t need any urgent work doing to it, barring the installation of extra plug sockets – those are now in, so the kitchen is basically ‘done’ for now and we can use it. We will need to do some tiling at some point soon but it’s a job that could be done after we’ve moved in if needed.

We’re slowly moving forward with the house. The offers of help that we’ve had from friends and relatives have been most welcome, and it’s stopped the project from getting too overwhelming. Still, I’m very much looking forward to it all being finished, and for us to be able to live there.

July 11, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for July 11, 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 10, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Trello

Screenshot of the Trello web site

Seeing as the house move is turning into a bigger project than anticipated, I decided to sign up to Trello(referral link) to manage all of the different tasks that needed doing.

Trello, as well as sounding like something that one of the minions would say, is an online project management and collaboration tool. Essentially it allows you to track the progress of projects, and allow multiple users to update progress, make comments and organise tasks. It’s a cloud app in the same vein as services like Salesforce.

Trello works on the basis of boards, lists and cards. The board can be for the whole project, or part of one, and then you can create lists on that board. Tasks are then inserted into the relevant list. In the screenshot above, the house move as a whole is a board, and then I have lists separating the tasks that have been done, are in progress, still to-do or on a wishlist to do in future.

Tasks can be dragged and dropped between lists, and can be assigned coloured tags – I’ve used a different-coloured tag for each room. Tasks can have a more detailed description attached, and can include checklists for sub-tasks. You can also add a due date for each task if you enable Trello’s Calendar power-up, which also adds a calendar view. This calendar can also be added to third-party calendar services like Sunrise. Another power-up enables voting – if you have multiple people working on the same board then you can ask people to vote on cards – perhaps to choose the best option for going forward, or to decide which task is the most urgent.

Because it’s a collaboration tool, every change is logged, so you can see who made what changes. If you’re managing a lot of boards, you can subscribe to individual tasks to get updates on any changes to them. And when a task is complete, it can be archived, so that it’s out of view, but still retrievable if needed.

Trello differs from other project management tools by not having task dependencies so you can’t set a card to depend on the completion of another. For this reason, there isn’t any way of viewing your project as a Gantt chart. Some traditionalist project managers may find this unsettling but it keeps Trello simple and discourages overly complex projects.

Like many other cloud-based services, Trello works on a freemium model. For home users, Trello Gold costs $5 per month, or $45 per year (giving you 3 months free). There’s also a business class service, payable on a per-user, per-month basis. Like with Dropbox, there are incentives for recommending Trello to people, so if you click on my referral link and sign up, I’ll get a month of Trello Gold for free.

Trello is web based but there are apps available on iOS and Android, which work in much the same way. There’s also IFTTT integration – you could have an external event trigger that creates a new card, or have something happen whenever you’re assigned to a card or when a new card is added to a board.

On the one hand, I expected Trello to be a fully-featured project management tool; but whilst it lacks a couple of advanced features, it’s quite simple and straightforward to use. I was able to get up and running within just a few minutes, and it’s been great to get our plans out of our brains and into something more structured.