On the plus side

Over the past year or so you may like me, have found that it has been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re all doomed. For me in particular; on the eve of becoming 30, I went from being someone who was in a steady relationship with aspirations to buy a house and have children, to being single and living in a rented room. This, coupled with constant negativity in the media can wound up making me feel at times a bit down and hopeless. Climate change, terrorist attacks, rising rents, rising house prices, the increasing disparity between rich and poor – it can all get a bit too much. Especially when all of your friends seem to be buying houses, getting married and making babies, while at the same time you just seem to be getting older.

Take a step back however, and you may realise that this doom and gloom is often nothing more than a distortion of reality. The human brain is hardwired to focus on what it hasn’t got and to always want more. It’s why the human race migrated and populated each and all of the continents on earth and eventually landed on the moon. To be dissatisfied with what you have and to strive for better a is natural behaviour. That doesn’t mean it’s always a useful behaviour. Just as aggression can be put to use in driving someone to do well at sport , it can also be incredibly destructive.

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandparents were born at a time when the average life expectancy in the UK was around 55 (This figure is sadly skewed because so many unfortunate children died young of diseases which have now thankfully been eradicated.) In just four generations the quality and length of life somebody can expect to live in the UK has increased dramatically. This really is a good time to be alive. Being born in the UK, one of the most prosperous countries on the planet is incredibly lucky. Most of us have the opportunity to visit many wonderful places – if I were to put my home ownership ambitions on hold for a bit, I could probably afford to visit many more far-flung parts of the world.  Low cost travel is something we now take for granted, but it’s something our ancestors could only dream of. You only have to go back a few more generations to find a time when visiting the next town was a special event. 1

So why am I writing this? Because frankly, over the past year I found that I became obsessed with what I thought was missing in my life, and forgot to be grateful  for what I actually have. If you have good friends, good health and a good job, then count yourself lucky too.

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  1. While saying that, I do think it’s important not to define oneself based on where you’ve been. The ‘where’ is meaningless. If you visited Mexico and spent the entire time in a 5 start hotel complex, then did you really visit Mexico? You might have a good tan, and if you enjoyed yourself, then that’s all that really matters – this underlines why listing places you’ve been in an effort to define yourself is a futile exercise.

7 Years of iPhone

I realised this week that it has been seven years since I got my first iPhone, a 3GS model, back in 2009. I happened to be in the same place, Newport, Isle of Wight, which made me reminisce about how much has changed in 7 years.

Back then I had a Nokia N95, which had a brilliant camera and proper GPS – none of which could be said for the iPhone 3GS. Back then it was so unbelievably cool to be able to download a entire web page on a phone, or even a large file such as a podcast over 3G. My network plan included something like 500MB of data, but I never got anywhere near that limit. My iPhone changed this. At the time I was familiar with iOS, having owned the first generation iPod Touch, so getting a phone that did the same but more – an always-on Internet connection, a compass, a camera, and it was so much faster too (the ‘S’ in 3GS was for ‘speed’ remember) was absolutely brilliant. At the time I’d been working as a junior developer for just over 18 months – my first proper job as I like to say. 

It’s amazing what a difference 7 years makes. Back then, sitting smugly on a train or in a dentist waiting room surfing the Internet was only something us geeks did. Tweeting what you had for lunch was a novelty. Now technology has gone mainstream. Everyone is on the Internet all of the time. The iPhone was to mobile phones as broadband was to the Internet. It redefined normal. 

I do wonder what will be next. Yes there is the cloud, there’s deep learning and VR/AR, but these are technologies that have yet to be productised in the way that capacitive screens and low-powered ARM chips were with the iPhone. All I know it, the world we live in will be exciting in 7 more years. Roll on 2023.

Manic Street Preachers – Swansea Liberty Stadium

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I’ve been a fan of the Manic Street Preachers ever since I heard their first number one hit “If you Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” back in August 1998, aged 13. I subsequently received the album on which that single resided – “This is My Truth Tell Me Yours” the following Christmas. When was 13 and living in the middle of nowhere, having the means to the get to a shop and buy the CD was not something that occurred frequently. This was before the days of the iTunes Store and downloadable MP3s. Napster wouldn’t be released for another 6 months, and it would take the good part of a day to download an album on a 56K modem. (Not to mention without a CD burner or portable MP3 player, the best you could do with an MP3 was listen to it though some crummy ‘multimedia’ speakers on a PC). I fell in love with the CD. From the opening track “The Everlasting” to the closing “SYMM”, i loved its rich texture and atmosphere. I soon acquired the previous album “Everything Must Go” and shortly after that, the rest of their back catalogue. What drew me to the band was not just the brilliant music, but also the intriguing lyrics about politics, civil wars and depression. A stark contrast to what you’d hear if you tune in to radio back then where the lyrics would be either about a) falling in love b) braking up or c) wanting to have sex (and still today – Capital FM is dire, but thankfully the Internet and BBC 6 Music have balanced things out) Unlike a lot of music around at the time, the Manics’ lyrics were (and still are) staunchly political while also poetic.
So it was with great excitement that I set off for Swansea on the morning of the 28th of May 2016. I’ve seen the Manics plenty of times – at festivals, greatest hits tours, intimate album tours, an entire singles gig at the o2 – but never like this, on their home turf on a beautiful summers day in Swansea. There is something about being a Manics fan that you don’t feel with other bands – you can’t help but have a degree of respect and comradery for anyone you see at the gigs, not just for their good taste, but also their dedication (it’s been 16 years since their commercial peak) and ostensible intellect and curious  mind needed to follow such a band.

The gig started with the first of two support acts – Public Service Broadcasting. I’d seen them support the Manics before and was mildly interested, this time however their music really struck a cord (I’ve since had both their albums on non-stop). They’re an odd band to watch live – a but like I imagine it must be like watching Daft Punk or the Pet Shop Boys – they are pseudo-anonymous and only speak through a computer generated voice. This ties in nicely with the band’s core mastery – putting old public service broadcasts to music. I probably haven’t done it justice the way I’ve just explained it, but suffice to say they’re bloody brilliant so check them out.
Next on to the second and final support act, the Super Furry Animals. I’d never been a fan, and 20 years on from their commercial peak, I can’t say I am now. It was a chance to go and grab a hotdog from the friendly staff at the Liberty Stadium. Finally at about 8PM, the Manics appeared and played the entire album “Everything Must Go”. It flew by. It was odd because the song they nearly always play as a set closer “A Design For Life” is the second track on the album, and it didn’t quite work as well so early on into the gig. But hearing classic such as “Kevin Carter” and “Enola/Alone” which I’d never heard live before was just breathtaking. The highlight for me was the last song on the album, “No Surface All Feeling” for which I was hoping they’d do a 10 minute Swansea special extended version (sadly not). After a 5 minute interval the boys then want on to play a second half, which included the Wales Euro 2016 theme and many other amazing songs. The most memorable moment of the night had to be Nicky Wire, who as the rain started getting heavy shouted in defiance “you’re not going to let the weather spoil the fun” (or words it that effect) – and at that exact moment there was a clap of thunder and flash of lightening. If it hadn’t been so damn loud I’d have sworn it was a special effect and part of the show.

As the rain fell and the night went on the atmosphere was ecstatic – it was like a festival just for fans of the Manic Street Preachers. As “Tolerate” rang out and I left to get the last train, I thought back to that day in 1998 when I first heard the song, and wondered how I would feel back then, aged 13, knowing that I’d one day hear the song live aged 31. Can’t wait for the next gig.

iPhone SE

I did it. I bought a an iPhone SE. Not just any old iPhone SE, a Rose Gold one.

Why this madness?

iPhone SE, Rose Gold
iPhone SE, Rose Gold

The last phone I bought was an iPhone 5 back in December 2012. I was pleased with the phone and only gave it up last November when I decided to start using my company issued iPhone 6 as my main phone. The reason for switching was mainly because its ageing A6 processor was beginning to start showing its age, and the lack of M-series motion co-processor meant any motion tracking applications needed to keep the entire phone awake when in use, so battery life wasn’t that great for me. The iPhone 6 also has a much better camera. I’d refrained form upgrading my personal phone for so long because the iPhone 6 and the 6S did nothing for me – they don’t look particularly good, and they’re way too expensive for anything but the 16GB model, which I would not recommend to anyone but my worst enemy.

Modern processor niceties aside, I wasn’t too happy with the size of the iPhone 6. It was awkward to use with one hand, and impossible to put in a pocket while running – I needed to strap it to my arm instead. So when Apple announced the iPhone SE a few weeks ago, I knew this was the phone for me. The classic, beautiful iPhone 5 design and more importantly a usable size, but with the far superior camera and processing smarts of the iPhone 6S. I feel like this is a product Apple made just for me.

Upon going back to the smaller size everything felt so much nicer. The phone just sits in the hand much more naturally, and I can reach any part of the screen without using two hands or performing a balancing act in order not to drop it. There is also something particularly cool about using such powerful applications as Pixelmator, iMovie and Numbers on a 4 inch screen – there is a certain elegance in making an app that can do so much with such little screen real estate.

I went for the 64GB mode, which makes this the first iPhone I’ve ever owned with more than16GB of storage space. What a difference it makes. 16GB was fine back in 2009 when I had a 3GS, but in 2012 it made no sense, and it’s worrying that Apple still sells them. I can for the first time actually install apps without needing to delete something else first. Before I had to consciously keep applications installed to a minimum, in order that I could have 2 albums downloaded (for running) and space ready to take photos (usually 500MB or so). Now I don’t have to worry, and I can even install games. If anything, the storage upgrade is more significant than the superior processor and camera.

Finally I went for Rose Gold – why? I just felt like a change. I’ve always had the black iPhone, and Rose Gold was this year’s “new colour”. People can joke that it’s a girly colour, but honestly, I’m confident enough with my own masculinity to use a pink phone and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

Overall I think it’s a brilliant upgrade over the iPhone 6. More usable, nicer camera and much faster. It is missing the barometer (sad face) and the front-facing camera isn’t as good, but that’s a small compromise, there’a also no camera bump.

The iPad isn’t a PC replacement for everyone, yet

 

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When Apple announced the new iPad last week, Phil Schiller made a point of highlighting it as a replacement for the 600 million PCs that are over 5 years old.

While I like that Apple is pushing the iPad a PC replacement – for many people it is (including myself, mostly); I do think that people still using a 5 year old PC are likely to be in the ‘technologically conservative’ camp and will therefore run up against limitations if they tried to use an iPad as a replacement.

For example:

  • They may still have an older generation of iPod or MP3 player that needs to sync with a PC.
  • They may still buy CDs, and want to rip them so they can play them on such an MP3 player.
  • They may want to print things, and seeing as they have a 5-year old PC, they probably don’t have a wireless printer.
  • They might own a lot of legacy media such as video tapes and vinyl records. They may want to use a USB conversion device to modernise this media, which won’t be supported on iOS.
  • iPads still need iTunes in the event of an unsuccessful update, although rare, having to drive to an Apple Store or relative’s house to restore an iPad would be very inconvenient.

Not to mention that the cheapest iPad Pro with a keyboard cover is an extraordinary £628.00!

Yes, it has many, many benefits over a PC – low maintenance (the only real maintenance iOS devices require are OS updates and managing the puny amounts of storage they have) – and best of all there’s no antivirus software or other crapware preloaded.

So nice a nice idea, but in reality anyone who hasn’t updated their PC in 5 years probably isn’t going to blow £628.00 on a device that isn’t a dead cert to cover all scenarios. Also I’d expect a £628.00 laptop to have more than 32G of storage.

How to make Facebook use less battery on iOS

I’m not a heavy Facebook user, I’ll check it a couple of times a day, perhaps a bit more if I’m on holiday and using it to check into places. For this reason I have the ‘Background App Refresh’ option turned off in iOS settings (under Settings > General). Despite this, when I looked at what was using up all of my battery, I was surprised to find that the biggest offender was not only Facebook, but it was background activity as well!

I suspected that the app was receiving lots of ‘silent notifications’ which can cause the app to wake up and start fetching data in the background, regardless of the ‘Background App Refresh’ setting. To counter this, I decided to uninstall Facebook, wait 24 hours and then reinstall it. Upon launching it for the first time after reinstalling, it asked if I wanted to receive notifications. This time I chose “Don’t Allow”. This means the Facebook app won’t get access to a unique token enabling it to send those silent notifications which I guessed were causing all of this background activity.

Sure enough Facebook is now reportedly using less battery, and none of it is background usage. Waiting 24 hours between deleting the app and reinsalling it is important because otherwise iOS will simply remember your previous notification settings, and not ask you if you’d like to allow them again.

This is based purely on my anecdotal usage, I’d love to know the actual machinism that causes this improvement 

Photos from Barcelona

I’ll keep it short, as I know that reading about other people’s holidays can be notoriously tedious. It was my first visit to Spain, and the first of many I’m sure. Here are some of the sights I managed to see during my 5 day trip. Click on a photo to see the full resolution version.

The Sagrada Familia
Inside the Sagrada Familia, breathtaking architecture.
Park Güell
Another of Gaudí’s works, Park Güell.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
My friend Ben sitting inside the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
Marc inside Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunha standing next to a Picasso
Me, standing next to a famous Picasso inside Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
Port Barcelona
A view of Port Barcelona from the Skyline.

How I fixed an unusable BT Infinity Connection

I’d been having problems with BT Infinity for a few months. Every so often web pages would just hang, or streaming video would freeze. Oddly it would often coincide with a new certain devices connecting to the network. Frustratingly, my connecting to Wi-Fi with my work laptop (Dell Latitude, Windows 10) would cause the Internet to stop working for a good half an hour.

I phoned BT and found their helpline very unhelpful. When asked to unplug the router overnight, I asked why this was needed and was told ‘it’s technical’. Throughout the process I felt as though I was just being read a script and not being listened to.

Anyway, I had managed to get my work laptop connected and had hooked into my company’s VPN when all the devices in the house stopped working again. My phone, the Apple TV, Kindles – all except for my work laptop. How odd. When I disconnected from the VPN, it too started to not work.

This made me think to try using Google’ DNS instead of BT’s. To my surprise, the Internet started behaving like a 70Mb/sec Internet connection should for the first time in months. My next step was to log into the painfully slow BT HomeHub router to try and change its DNS settings at the network level, rather than for each and every device. It turns out BT have restricted that, because normal people can’t be trusted to change their DNS servers, it seems.

After doing some digging, I discovered that the Apple Airport Express base station I’d been using to extend the range of the wireless network could be used as a NAT bridge and in place of the BT Homehub. I found this helpful post on the BT Forums which I will recap here incase BT decide to shut down or move their forums.

In short, you plug in the Ethernet cable from the white BT Openreach box into the WAN port on the Airport. Your username can be anything @btbroadband.com (I’m sure BT don’t rely on this for actual authentication, that’s tied to your line) and your password is simply a space.

You can then use Google’s DNS servers in place of BTs. One extra thing I had to do was set IPv6 to be ‘local link only’ under ‘Internet Options’.

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This setup allowed me to retire my BT HomeHub for good, and the Internet connection has been flawless ever since. My Kindle can even connect, which is saying something.

Oddly, the default IP range for the Airport’s DHCP server is Class A, which means your devices won’t have the usual ‘192.168.1.X’ scheme, but this can be changed if needed. You can change this under the Network > Network options tab, though there really is no need other than it being a more common practice.