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.

 

On the demise of the iPad

Unrelated: iPad's do not land very gracefully.
Unrelated: iPads do not land very gracefully.

 

So it seems iPad sales have fallen for yet another quarter. As someone whose iPad is their favourite computer; on the one hand this surprises me – why wouldn’t everyone and anyone want one of these fabulously useful and fun gadgets? But on the other hand I can absolutely see why many people wouldn’t have a space for this relatively expensive, yet limited device in their lives.
The problem is that a tablet does some things really well: browsing the web, watching videos, taking notes, editing photos. It also does some things very poorly: you can’t import music purchased from someone other than Apple into your music library (iTunes Match) for example and the apps are in general baby versions of their desktop counterparts. Need to rotate, annotate and save a PDF? Create a PivotChart? Have two Word documents open at the same time? You’re out of luck.

 

Most people don’t create

The iPad’s big differentiator is that unlike an iPhone, it can actually be used to create content (By content I don’t mean social network updates!). Witness the suite of applications Apple provide for free or next to nothing; GarageBand, iMovie, Pages, Keynote and excellent apps like Pixelmator, which is the only image editing application I’ve ever been able to comprehend (I even managed to ‘photoshop’ someone who was in from one photo and place them into another, while making it look convincing). The problem is, most people don’t create content very often. Outside of work and school (where people obviously do), most people’s computing needs boil down to what is the quickest and most comfortable way to consume content. The iPhone’s success in business was dominated by it’s consumer success (the so called ‘consumerisation of IT’) but the iPad hasn’t followed this because for most people, the phone is simply ‘good enough’ to check Facebook, lookup that recipe or watch Netflix.

The phone is the best compromise, for now

Most people have learnt this over the last four years of iPad usage. The iPad isn’t better than a phone at the ‘phone’ things people do (Facebook, messaging, email) and it’s not better than a laptop at the ‘create’ things people do (with all the edge cases these entail). If you’re going to put down £400 or more on a new computer, why would you buy an iPad when you know it’s not going to replace your aging laptop and you’ll still need to replace that thing when it dies too. So most people buy new laptop instead, and that would seem like a smart decision to me.

Phone sales remain strong and this is because the phone is currently the best compromise for mobile computing. A small screen with lots of sensors and are useful while you’re out and about – camera, GPS, compasses etc. The iPad is a more enjoyable and productive device to use than a phone because of it’s larger screen size, but that also means it can’t replace a phone because nobody wants to carry a large bag on them at all times. It’s not an ‘always with you’ device. The phone is therefore the best compromise between having a nice big screen, and having something that is always on your person. Will this always be the case however? Once smartwatches are able to connect directly to cellular networks and don’t need to be tethered to a phone, will they be able to take on the role of ‘always with you’, for messaging, directions, checking headlines etc? If this happens then what do we need the phone for? It’s no longer necessary to have this compromise of a smaller screen. In this case, would people decide that a watch and an tablet (or laptop, if the iPad or its competitors haven’t improved its software yet) will take on the roll of web browsing, Netflix and Facebook, fulfilling the rest of their computing needs? I could quite see myself using just a watch and a tablet, if both devices progress in the right directions over the next few years.

A technologist’s take on the A329M changes

Recent changes to the A329M have been completed, to much disapproval from local residents, including myself. At peak times, what was a 15 minute journey from Winnersh to neighbouring Bracknell can take over twice as long as it once did.

What has changed?

The A329M was until recently a two lane ‘duel carriageway’ that ran all the way from Reading to Bracknell. The A329M was originally intended to directly link the M4 to the M3, but these plans were scaled back in the 1970’s, no doubt due to costs (and you can bet local residents probably weren’t too happy about another new road being built through their town either). What’s changed recently is that just after the Winnersh junction, the left-hand lane has been turned into dedicated slip road to enter the M4, with the first exit taking you onto the M4 towards London, and the latter taking you onto the M4 towards South Wales. No longer is the A329M a duel carriageway for its entire stretch.

This has caused two problems:

  1. Traffic jams for those who want to stay on the A329M and head towards Bracknell.
  2. Increased ‘last minute’ lane changes by drivers who are unfamiliar with the new layout, or decide to change lanes at the last possible moment, one assumes to avoid sitting in the traffic jam (see problem #1). Many feel this is dangerous.

But why was this change made in the first place? The reason is that trying to join the A329M Bracknell-bound from the M4 could frequently take a ludicrous amount of time, often over 20 minutes to travel a what can’t be much more than a quarter of a mile along the M4 > A329M slip road. I know this because in a previous life, I used to take this journey daily. I also know many other people who travel from Reading to Bracknell via the M4 who shared this experience. One day a friend suggested that instead of leaving the M4 and keeping right to go towards Bracknell and sitting in the traffic jam, I should instead take the left lane back towards Reading, traverse the A329M back up a junction, exit at Winnersh and get back on in the Bracknell direction. To my surprise, this was actually about 50% faster than sitting in the queue to get on to the Bracknell-bound A329M directly from the M4. I would often do this and take note of a distinct HGV or van, so as I cruised by on the A329M I could look over at the traffic jam on the slip road and see how far the queue had progressed. The HGV would usually only have made it halfway through the queue.

So it is clear to me that there was a problem to be solved. The Highways Agency were not having a jolly when they decided to make this change, they had to do something – if it was quicker to take a ~2 mile detour to Winnersh and back than take the slip road, something was clearly very wrong.

So rather than simply moaning at the Highways Agency, I wondered what could actually be done to solve the problem? How does one even measure that a problem like this is solved? As the quote goes “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Until we all go to work in automated, computer-controlled flying drones, there is always going to be some congestion as everyone decides they want to get to work for exactly the same time as everybody else each day.

Please bare in mind I approach this as someone who is interested in problem solving, but with no expert knowledge in large construction projects (I build software for a living, not roads) – but I thought it would be a fun thought experiment if nothing else.

How to solve it?

Our first problem – the traffic jam. This would seem to be caused by the fact that the volume of traffic (that’s us, traffic is just another word for people, remember) is too great for the road. How could this be solved, while not reverting the M4 > A329M junction back to it’s untenable situation?

The problem is that people actually get into the right-hand lane too early. I understand why they do this; to stay safe, it’s polite, and because the road signs encourage drivers to do so. However, from a pure ‘volume of traffic’ point of view, if we could encourage people to use the both lanes right up until the last minute, and to merge in an organised and safe fashion, studies show this would reduce queues because it makes use of the full capacity of the road.

This brings us to our second problem – aren’t those last minute lane changers dangerous? Obviously if you’re reversing up a slip road then you’ve left it a little too late, that is dangerous. Surely there’s nothing wrong in theory with changing lanes at the last moment, as long as it’s a considered manoeuvre? In order to encourage this, I would suggest that instead of going to the M4, the left-hand lane ends up merging into the right-hand. This gives drivers in both lanes the responsibility to merge. At peak times a speed limit would need to be lowered to 40MPH (enforced by average speed cameras) to aid safe merging, and also to help drivers in the right lane refrain from powering straight into the slower moving traffic that’s entering from the M4 further down, braking hard and causing tailbacks as the breaking forms a wave that spreads along the rest of the road. They may be unpopular, but variable speed limits have used to good effect on M25.

In Summary

  • The left-hand lane would have two distinct exits (instead of trailing off to the M4).
  • The land-hand and would merge into the right-hand lane.
  • During peak times a variable speed limit of 40MPH would be enforced.

I’m sure that much greater minds at The Highways Agency have considered this (and I say that respectfully). There is sure to be a reason why this wouldn’t work. I’d love to know. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try and keep all of us road users happy. I hope the problem is addressed, but for now my real-world solution has been to set off on my journey 30 minutes earlier and avoid the rush.

The future of commerce is so close

A couple of months ago Apple Pay was finally enabled for my bank account and credit card, which meant I was finally able to pay for things by either placing my phone on the card reader, or by bashing my watch against it instead.

I look forward to a day when I can leave the house with nothing in my pockets – my watch will have a cellular radio and be capable of keeping me in contact with the people that matter, so too will it allow me to unlock my car/house, in addition to letting me pay for things. While the first two in that list might be a few years away (decades at the rate I upgrade cars), my watch can actually make payments today, how cool is that?

The reality is somewhat less cool. The problem is the payment limit. Since Apple Pay uses the existing 'Contactless' payment systems, it's also hampered by the same £20 limit. While this limit makes sense with a contactless debit card (there is zero authentication), both the Apple Watch and iPhone are secure; the iPhone asks for your fingerprint, and the watch asks for a PIN when you first put it on, as long as it says in contact with your wrist it is authorised for Apple Pay.

This authentication is also a hindrance – why would I fiddle about trying to get my phone to detect my fingerprint (while everyone in the queue is staring at me) or roll three layers of sleeve up to try and get my watch to be recognised when I can whip out my wallet and tap my debit card? The key point is that I still have to have my wallet on me in case the shop in question doesn't support contactless, or the amount comes to over £20. Don't get me wrong, Apple Pay is much better than entering a PIN, it's just not as fast as tapping your card.

So what needs to happen? I'd like to see the limit raise for Apple Pay purchases to something more reasonable, most cash machines allow you to take out £300 in a day, so why not the same for an arguably more secure system such as Apple Pay, while keeping existing contactless limits where they are of course