Reclaiming Additional Industry Compensation from Thameslink/Great Northern

If you get the train regularly, you may know that 2018 has not been the rail industry’s finest year. In particular, there was the disastrous introduction of new timetables across the whole network, but particularly hitting the Northern Rail and Govia Thameslink services. I know the former has probably been worse, but I was in part affected by the latter. The weeks following the highly theoretical new timetables’ introduction saw delays, cancellations and general miserableness.

The government dictated that passengers should be compensated, and GTR has set aside £15m for claims this year and won’t make a profit.

As to how you go about getting this money back? Well that can be complicated. If you’re a season ticket holder, then it should be simple. But I am not a season ticket holder because I use the line on a variable basis. Most of the time I use the train and my Brompton – but the route can vary. If it’s a nice day, or there are no handy connections, I’ll cycle a longer route. If the weather is worse and there is a good connection, I’ll change trains and cycle a shorter route. Similarly, I might go in one route, and out another. Sometimes I don’t travel at all, and work from home. Finally, I might cycle all the way into work and not bother with the train at all.

Fortunately, I don’t buy paper tickets, but use a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card. As it turns out, this was a blessing in disguise since if I’d used a contactless bank card (which can sometimes work out better value for regular usage over a week), I’d have been poring over my old bank statements trying to establish my usage patterns over 8 weeks. A lot of work.

But since Oyster records all your journeys, I thought I’d simply log into the Oyster system and do it that way.

Except…

You can only view your last eight weeks! And the compensation system wanted me to note at least three return journeys a week to calculate compensation. Recall that the compensation system only became live for Oyster PAYG users fairly recently, but claims were for the period May to July. The Oyster system is useless for getting this information then!

Now the website did say that my Oyster card number should be enough. With my permission they can query TFL’s Oyster database and get my travel usage directly. But still, I didn’t want to say I was using the train on days I wasn’t. They might reject my claim because I was being fraudulent. (Previously I had to send multiple emails to get a miserly £5 delay-repay compensation when I was stuck in a tunnel for an hour. According to their records, the train had run fine!)

Fortunately, I use Strava for recording my cycling trips – even short commuter journeys. So I sat there with a calendar window open, my Strava account open and the compensation box open. With that information I could work out which rail route I’d taken on a given day.

Of course the system really didn’t like you going in on one route and returning home on another. While most of us probably do exactly the same route, some people have jobs in more than one location, or need to move around for work, or, you know, go out in the evening!

A cynic might say that this was to put you off claiming compensation. 

I was particularly annoyed when after entering a few weeks’ information, it stopped me entering details for further journeys. That was both a blessing and a curse.

But…

I pressed submit and just a few hours later got an email saying I was entitled to £173 compensation! 

I will take that thank you.

So if you were travelling on the Thameslink or Great Northern during the May-July period this year – go to their compensation website and put your claim in. Even if you get as frustrated as I did with multiple dropdowns and repeatedly copying and pasting my Oyster card number into lots of boxes, it’s worth it. You have until the end of January 2019 to make a claim.

YouTube: Different Things to Different People

There have been a few stories kicking around about YouTube’s end of year “Rewind” video. YouTube has been making these for a few years, and they’ve grown to become big-budget affairs.

But this year’s video is seemingly the most “disliked” video in YouTube history.

Now I should say upfront that I have not watched this video. Because frankly, the part of YouTube it represents is not how I watch YouTube. Of course I’m well away from the 15-24 demo that this video perhaps is targeted towards, but that doesn’t mean I don’t watch YouTube. I would say that it’s probably my go-to video streaming app. I might watch it in my browser; perhaps on my phone; but definitely on my TV via my Nvidia Shield TV.

I’m not saying that teenagers don’t watch larger quantities than me, but I suspect that the Venn diagram of my YouTube viewing and those who’ve taken the time to dislike the YouTube Rewind video looks something like this.

Using proper notation, A ∩ B = Ø.

But what this doesn’t really show is the size of the universe of YouTube videos. YouTube has 1.9 B users a month, and they’re not all watching the same videos.

Put that another way. Last week ITV aired the series finale of I’m A Celebrity… and over 11m people watched it. But 56m watched any TV last week. 

In other words, 4 out of 5 TV viewers didn’t watch I’m A Celebrity… That’s not to belittle a sizeable TV audience, but to point out that just because you and all your friends have been watching, it doesn’t mean that the entire population is watching.

Scale that up to the rest of the world and YouTube, and you begin to realise that YouTube for a Rewind-featured YouTuber is very different from YouTube for, well, me.

I’d love to know what the combined 2018 views of all the YouTubers featured in the Rewind video is as a percentage of all the video views on YouTube in total. I’d be willing to bet that it’s relatively small.

As for my viewing habits? I’m watching tech review videos, Global Cycling Network videos, innumerable tutorial and how-to videos and so on. I’m not watching vlogs or anything with a clickbait-y title. I’m also not watching a great deal of music, whereas others are watching an enormous amount of music. 

Different folks, different strokes. 

I bet your viewing habits are quite different from mine.

So when I read these stories about how disliked a video is, I think that there are lot of people who are in a big bubble of their own design and that it’s largely because devoted followers of a big YouTuber who posts the odd link to nasty right-wing sites, was not invited to participate in something YouTube uses to celebrate the platform and so his fans took revenge.

Eleven Sports in the UK Reported to be in Trouble

I wrote something on Twitter about this, but thought I’d elaborate a little here too.

There was something of a shake-up in rights prior to the start of this football season when newcomer Eleven Sports entered the UK market and snapped up rights from Sky (La Liga) and BT Sport (Serie A and UFC) amongst others. 

Eleven Sports had hired Marc Watson, former CEO of their TV operation, and were expanding into the UK. The company, founded by Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani already operated in a number of other markets around the world, but was now entering the competitive UK market with its OTT service. That said, it was clear from the outset that Eleven Sports really wanted to agree so-called “wholesale” deals with existing TV operators like Sky and BT. The idea with these is that when, say, Sky sells a viewer a sports package, Eleven Sports would be bundled in alongside Sky Sports, Eurosport and others, and get a guaranteed revenue per month. This would be lower than the £5.99 Eleven Sports was selling itself to consumers directly, but the slightly lower fee would be made up for in volume. 

However a report in the Telegraph, and picked up in The Guardian, suggests that these negotiations have not gone well.

Talks have collapsed with Virgin Media, and both Sky and BT have been playing a game of wait and see. They could afford to do that because, while Eleven Sports had picked up some very good rights including the next two biggest leagues in Europe (from a UK perspective) after the Premier League, these aren’t necessarily essential for a British viewer. And I suspect that neither Sky nor BT saw too many cancellations when they lost those rights.

While Eleven Sports has been in the background trying to do wholesale rights deals with the big TV operators, in the foreground they don’t appear to have been doing a great deal to sign up consumers directly – something that Netflix, for example, spends a lot of money doing. I noted at the beginning of the season that they didn’t even seem to have a TV ad. And since then, I’ve seen little to no direct to consumer marketing (It’s possible that it’s just not been targeted at me, but I’m squarely in the bracket of their potential subscribers).

The cynic in me would think that they’ve been betting the house on getting those wholesale deals through. And the TV operators just don’t need to do them. Sure, they miss out on showing El Classico, but that’s more than made up for my Manchester, Merseyside and North London derbies.

The Telegraph reports that Eleven Sports may have as few as 50,000 subscribers bringing in £300,000 a month. That’s nowhere near enough given their rights costs. But I’m amazed that they even have as many viewers as that. You imagine that these are mostly die-hard Spanish and Italian football fans, alongside those from other smaller leagues they have the rights to (Volume is not the issue with the service). I suspect that their upcoming UFC rights which are due to kick in this January, would have added a few more subscribers. But it’s not clear that these would be enough. In any event, the UFC is said to be talking to BT about a last minute extension of their existing deal in the event that Eleven Sports does close down.

The one deal that Eleven Sports did manage to do was with STV, the Scottish ITV franchise holder. Last month they announced a strategic partnership, that would see the broadcaster sell advertising and sponsorship around Eleven Sport’s programming. In a related deal, the STV Player would also get access to two games from La Liga and Serie A each weekend.

(Sidenote: The STV Player, of course, is targeted at viewers in Scotland, and there seems to be some kind of agreement between ITV and STV to politely point viewers towards the correct player depending on which region they live in. You have to supply a postcode during sign-up, and there are content restrictions on non-Scottish domiciled viewers as a result. It’s unclear if this includes the Eleven Sports games.)

But all of this feels too little, too late. The UK sports market is highly competitive, and the existing players have very deep pockets. It’s instructive that a different OTT service that operates in a similar manner DAZN Sports, has chosen not to launch in the UK for that very reason.

It’s notable that Netflix has chosen to steer clear of sports. Only last month, their CEO Reed Hastings said:

“Sports, like live sports, for on-demand adds almost no value to it. People want to watch sports now. They want to know who won. They don’t want anybody to tell them who won.”

Although he didn’t totally rule it out in the future.

But it doesn’t take much to do the sums. The most recent NFL deal in the US, was a $650m a season deal Fox paid for Thursday night football. They get 11 games for that. But that roughly means that per hour, they’re paying more than double what Netflix pays for an hour of The Crown or HBO pays for an hour of Game of Thrones. And that’s for a single market for a property with essentially zero repeat value.

Not that this has stopped Amazon experimenting. Next season it becomes home to ATP tennis in the UK, and it has bought a limited package of Premier League matches beginning with the 2019/20 season. Although the latter were certainly sold very cheaply as I’ve noted here before.

Amazon does have different strategic goals to Netflix, and it’s possible that Amazon identified a segment that they underperformed in, which tennis might help them reach.

I can only think their football investment is purely a marketing initiative that will see them give games away to viewers who use their hardware and/or their apps. There are too few fixtures for them to try to sell subscriptions, but you can get people to use an app/device that they otherwise might not use.

Back to Eleven Sports. You feel that despite the people involved, they entered the market naively, and didn’t have the killer sports package that they really needed. They didn’t get any Premier League football or even any UEFA packages, and that put them on the back foot from the start.

They may manage to turn it around. Reports suggest they improved their app, adding functionality like Chromecast to it. But the low subscriber numbers just kill them.

IKEA Tradfri Lights Working with Hue, Alexa and Google Assistant

Here’s another one of those tutorials that I really shouldn’t need to write but somehow do, because despite dozens of tutorials already existing online, it was only a combination of things that got everything working for me. In short, I already have a Philips Hue lighting set-up and I wanted to add some IKEA Tradfri bulbs to it.

I was in my local IKEA when I noticed that they had Tradfri E14 bulbs. Tradfri is IKEA’s smart lightbulb range, introduced a couple of years ago, and it has become a cheaper option for automating your lights.

The main source of light in the rear of my living room takes 5 E14 bulbs, and although the front half is already nicely Hue controlled, it was always just too expensive to do the rear. A twin pack of white bulbs costs £40 on Amazon at time of writing, or £25 for a single bulb. So I’d be looking at over £100 to make one lighting fixture Hue-controlled! (OK – other options include replacing the light switch, fitting a new light to my ceiling that takes fewer, cheaper bulbs, or just continuing to use the light switch like a normal person).

The key thing here was that the IKEA bulbs are £7 each. £35 (5 x £7) is still a lot, but it’s much more palatable than £105. Sidenote: I suspect that there is some kind of economic theory that explains why I’m happy to pay £35 to automate a light, having previously worked out £105 as being the ‘regular’ price.

Now, over the last year or so, IKEA’s Tradfri range has become more compatible with Philips Hue. Both use Zigbee to connect together, but IKEA’s bulbs are designed for it’s own set-up out of the box, and I didn’t want to invest in that. In any case, I think with one or two hiccups along the way, Hue’s app and connectivity is excellent.

So in theory, it should have been simple. Read a couple of guides online. Watch a YouTube video and away you go.

Well it wasn’t quite that simple.

One of the key things I read was that when connecting a Tradfri bulb to an exiting Hue set-up, you should first power down all your existing Hue lights. For precaution, I also unplugged a couple of Meross power adaptors that I use (these tend to appear relatively inexpensively on Amazon, and are useful for controlling things like desk lights and fans).

Then you need to do a reset of the IKEA lights by flicking them off and then on six times. This should result in the bulb flickering slightly to show you that it’s ready. Despite multiple attempts, I couldn’t discern any flickering. I felt that I was more likely to blow a fuse than get the bulbs into reset mode.

Nonetheless, I pressed on.

Then you need to make sure that the lit bulb and the Hue hub are within 30 cm proximity of each other. On YouTube people tend to use a lamp to temporarily set up their new bulbs. They dutifully place their lamp with Tradfri bulb close to where their Hue hub sits. But I don’t own a lamp with the right E14 screw fitting. So I had to fit a long network cable to my hub which fortunately is not too far from the router or the light in question. The hub’s power cable just about stretched too. This is all worth knowing in case you’re using an exotic bulb type and can’t place the hub near the light fitting in question.

Unfortunately, I repeatedly failed to get the bulb to connect using the Android app. Simply searching for a new bulb should have found it. This was frustrating.

The Solution

I ended up using using an app called Hue Lights. It’s iOS, PC and Mac only, and is not made by Philips. So I used the iOS version on my iPad. And I carried out the process one bulb at a time.

Then flicking the light switch off and on 6 times, holding my Hue bridge to the bulb and using the Touchlink function in Settings on the Hue Lights app, I pressed “Force bulb to join bridge.”

Almost immediately the bulb visibly pulsed, and after an arm-aching minute or so (Remember, I was holding my hub to the ceiling), it was properly set-up. I repeated this 4 more times, one bulb at a time, removing bulbs I’d just added to avoid any bulb “confusion.”

Then I replaced all the bulbs, switched everything back on, and the bulbs now showed up in the Hue app on my Android phone. I could allocate them to a new “Room” and control them properly that way with the Hue app.

But for some reason, none of them were yet being recognised by either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. At first I thought it might take a few minutes for them to register, but time passed by and none of it was controllable via a smart speaker.

In the end, it required me to disable and then re-enable access to my Hue account from within both the Amazon Alexa app and the Google Home app. 

Once that had been done, all the new bulbs showed up, and I was able to set them up into various groupings and rooms as makes sense within each of the apps. It’s worth spending some time thinking about which combinations of lights you want turned on simultaneously. I think that the Alexa app is better for this than the Google app, but you can fight through and eventually get things sorted in Google’s app too. 

What all of this has told me is that adding off-brand bulbs is not for the fainthearted. But then, I don’t think setting up smart homes is especially easy in any case. And as I noted with my recent piece about setting up radio alarm clocks, I don’t think that the apps are as user friendly as they could be just yet.

Still, if you want to save some money, then IKEA’s bulbs are a decent enough way to go, and aside from automating my living room lights completely, I’m now able to dim some lights that previously weren’t dimmable which is a nice bonus.

Building a Desktop National Rail Dashboard

Building a Desktop National Rail Dashboard

For ages now I’ve been meaning to put together a home dashboard: a screen that gives me up to date information about my local railway station with the departure boards showing.

A slightly bigger ambition was to have the dashboard also display times for nearby buses – and perhaps the weather and Twitter news feeds. 

It should have been a relatively simple project, but it seems that live dashboards are either bespoke paid-for things, or are no longer properly developed.

Either way, I decided to do something relatively simple. There was something called dashing.io which is no longer maintained. In its place is a fork of it called smashing. But I couldn’t get on enormously with either.

What I specifically wanted was a dashboard that would be Raspberry Pi powered, and could make reasonable use of a small screen.

Some time ago I bought the parts, but it has been one of those projects that I started and failed to complete. So to get things going, I built a simplified version using the parts I already had:

  • Raspberry Pi – I used a 3 Model B+ although the newer slightly smaller and cheaper Pi 3 Model A+ would probably work.
  • A screen – I used an official Raspberry Pi 7″ Touchscreen. It’s only 800×600 and it’s a shame it doesn’t come at a slightly higher resolution.
  • A micro-SD card.
  • Optionally, I also used a Pimoroni Touchscreen frame to mount it all together. They come in a range of colours.
  • A Raspberry Pi power supply. You’re probably best using a full 5.1V supply since there’s a fair bit of pull to power both the Pi and the screen together. Don’t rely on a cheap old phone charger. That said, mine is powered by a USB port of an Anker 60 W charger.
  • You’ll also need a USB keyboard to set things up initially. The touchscreen will suffice for a monitor.

Now in another world, I’d design something a little smarter and use some nifty CSS to make everything look nice. But as you can see from the above picture, I didn’t do that.

The hardware is relatively straightforward, and in this instance there isn’t really any software to create or install. But there are still challenges!

I’d found a handy link on a Reddit forum that presents a station departure board, hosted by National Rail.

This is the page for Highbury & Islington station in London.

I strongly suspect that this link is using someone else’s API key. I suppose I should really get my own. But it seems to be working fine. As well as a User ID, there’s space for the all-important CRS code and a mysterious H value which I’ve not quite worked out.

The key thing with this is that you need to find the CRS code for the station you’re interested in – the three letter code every station in the UK has. The list of codes can be found here.

While the page is a little underwhelming in design, it does scroll if needed and has neat little features like telling you where the train was last reported, so you can live track your train.

So I had a basic website that I wanted to load up. Now it’s simply a question of launching the Pi on boot, straight into Chromium (the Pi’s default browser) and show the page fullscreen – or in so-called ‘kiosk’ mode. There won’t be a keyboard attached, and the idea is that the device does one thing, and does it well.

This seemingly trivial task took me an annoyingly long amount of time to work out, because lots of people do it lots of different ways, and it seems that some methods no longer work with the current default installations of Raspbian, the main OS for Raspberry Pis. If you’re a Linux expert, then much of this might be trivial. But I’m not, and for me it wasn’t!

That all said, in the end, by carefully following the steps on this page from Die Antwort, I got it all to work using their methodology. I can confirm that this works on the current version of Raspbian (the main operating system used on the Pi) – at least at time of writing.

Note that if you buy the Pimoroni frame as I had, then you’ll want to follow these instructions which tell you how to rotate the screen 180 degrees by default, since everything will otherwise be inverted. You can do this early on after installing the Raspbian operating system below; the precise orientation you choose will depend on how you want to place the screen.

The key thing here is to only install Raspbian Lite, which doesn’t actually include a graphical user interface. But if you go step by step through the Die Antwort instructions, you should get there.

A few things to note for those who are a little uncertain:

  • Once you’ve downloaded the Raspbian Lite operating system, you’ll need something like Etcher to flash the OS onto your micro-SD card. Pop the micro-SD into your desktop computer and point Etcher at the downloaded file. Don’t worry if it’s a *.zip file – Etcher will handle that without you needing to unzip the file yourself.
  • It’s worth turning on SSH when you set-up Raspbian for the first time, so that you can do most of your work remotely from another PC. If you’re not too familiar with this, it means that a program like PuTTY (on Windows) will let you remote into the Pi in console/terminal mode. That makes it easier to copy text from website guides straight into configuration files and the like. You will need to work out your IP address to do this. Type sudo ifconfig on the Pi to find out your IP address. It will probably next wlan0 and be of the form 192.168.1.x. These represent internal-only IP addresses.
  • When you’re setting up WiFi, you need to know and spell your WiFi SSID correctly (That is, your router’s name). Unlike in graphical interfaces, you just type in your WiFi hotspot name rather than select it from a list of available ones. Type carefully! You also need to set your region so that the right WiFi frequencies are searched.
  • When it comes to editing files, the Die Antwort instructions often don’t explicitly say that to edit a file, you should preface the file with sudo nano. e.g. sudo nano /etc/xdg/openbox/autostart in the ‘Openbox Configuration’ section. “Sudo” means act as a superuser or administrator, and “nano” is a basic text editing program in Linux.
  • When you try out launching the screen, do so on the device itself and not via SSH. You can do everything else remotely, but you’ll want to plug a keyboard into the Pi to test when the instructions invite you to type startx — -nocursor.
  • The thing that threw me most was in the section ‘Start X automatically on boot’ – in particular, I didn’t know where the .bash_profile file was to be found or stored. What you need to know is that it doesn’t exist initially and you create it by typing ‘sudo nano .bash_profile‘ from the default location.
  • Nano is a real old-school text editor. But if you’re copying and pasting via SSH, it’s worth noting that right-hand click is paste rather than Ctrl-V as usual. To save it’s Ctrl-X, then Y for yes, and then Enter to save and close. If you’re typing directly into the Pi then type slowly and carefully.
  • Don’t forget that you need to replace http://your-url-here with the link to your website. In my case this was a long link beginning http://realtime.nationalrail.co.uk/ldbcis/departures.aspx?u=…

One further amendment I needed to make to the Die Antwort instructions was to shrink the default Chromium zoom size a little. Because the Pi’s touchscreen is only 800×600, everything looked a little squashed on the screen. After experimentation, I chose 70% as an appropriate size to squeeze a bit more text onto the small screen. To fix this you should add some extra text to the Openbox configuration to scale the browser down, using the delineator –force-device-scale-factor=[decimal]. ie. for 70% of full size use:

chromium-browser --disable-infobars --kiosk --force-device-scale-factor=0.70 'http://your-url-here'

When you test it’s also working, remember that you can break out of the page by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Backspace with a keyboard plugged into the Pi.

If you follow all these instructions carefully, you should end up with something similar to me.

This all gets me up and running, but there are lots more improvements to make!

  • One additional one is the idea of cycling through several screens with different information. E.g. I might add a separate tab to Chromium with bus times. Then I can automatically cycle between the tabs to show different screens. There seems to be a route to doing this in these instructions. Note that other aspects of this page won’t work with the solution employed here.
  • The biggest thing I’d like to change is not have the screen on the whole time. Indeed, during set-up we go out of our way to turn off the screensaver. Ideally I’d love to turn off the screen at certain times and turn it back on at others. This screen is most valuable for me during weekday mornings and at weekends. Outside those periods, I would be happy for it to be turned off, or just be awoken by touching the screen.
  • Changing the look somewhat would be nice. Some personalisation of the style would be good.
  • I think the South Western Railway logo in the photo above is related to the username I’m using. 
  • It would be great if I could load fewer departures on this size screen. Note that because I’m using a touchscreen, it is scrollable. But I’m not looking at a major London terminus so I only need a handful of departures at any given time.

As I said at the start I had previously had bigger ideas about putting together a much more comprehensive dashboard, but aside from the touchscreen’s low resolution not being really suitable for that, you’ll notice in the background that I also have a Google Hub, and to be honest, that takes account of a lot of my needs for things like time and weather (as well as photos!). That said, I’ve still not worked out a simple way to quiz Google Assistant about train departure times. On the other hand Amazon Alexa is great when you set up the skill for your “commute”, but is painful to use for anything else. So creating this departure board is actually a useful exercise.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone else. I’m pleased with the result. It could be better, but it does the job.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde

Anyone going to the Barbican’s latest exhibition is not going to go away short-changed with the number of exhibits on display. This is a massive exhibition exploring twentieth century artistic couplings – and sometimes triplings – that led to those artists feeding off one another creatively.

If I came away with one thought, it was that artists don’t look very far from home when seeing a relationship. I also came away wondering whether or not this was actually a something that would have sat better in another medium. 

There is an awful lot of reading going on here. At the start of each section, a piece of explanatory text explains the details of the relationship, and to put it mildly, these can be somewhat wordy. When you add in all the quotations, the detailed notes alongside the various exhibits and everything else, you probably end up with several thousand words pasted along the walls.

From a practical perspective this means that some of the rooms are very crowded – especially among the earlier areas on the ground floor where space is at a premium. Invariably exhibition goers tend to spend more time earlier in the exhibition than later – assuming there is some blockbuster work the whole thing is gearing up towards. I don’t think I’ve been to an exhibition where the biggest crowds were gathered by the text on the wall rather than the works themselves.

The other problem here is that there are so many big-hitters of the twentieth century art world here that you know that there aren’t going to be that many exhibits for each of them. Only the most prolific get more than a handful of  items – and often those are simply photographs taken either by themselves or friends.

This all make it sound a bit negative, and I really don’t mean it to. The various couplings are interesting and even if some are well known – or have already garnered their own joint exhibitions like the recent Man Ray and Lee Miller one – there is still new information to learn. 

It’s notable that many of these relationships didn’t last the full life of one or other party, and that sometimes the same names would move on to another pairing later. Equally, there are some significant age differences between some of these pairings, while some it’s more about pushing the boundaries of what is or was acceptable at that time. 

I came away a little overwhelmed from it all. You certainly need to give yourself plenty of time to see this, ideally at an off-peak time when you wont’ be fighting crowds just to read some labels.

Late Autumn

I thought I’d try to get my drone up for the dying days of autumn before the leaves have fully gone and the cold settles in. So late afternoon on Saturday I captured some footage over Trent Park. 

I was pretty satisifed with the results, and because I’m seeing Amiina on Sunday evening, I used one of their Fantômas tracks for the video.

I used a 96fps frame rate which allowed me to slow everything down to a quarter speed. However the image is only HD. I usually use 2.7k as a compromise with slightly more versatility than 4k allows on a Mavic Pro. But you can’t get a high frame rate in anything better than HD. The downside is that the image does come out a little soft if you’re watching on a big screen. It’ll like fine on your phone however! (And yes, the Mavic Pro 2 becomes tempting.) 

It wasn’t just video of course. A couple of photos here, and more over at Flickr.

Trent Park Autumn-8
Trent Park Autumn-11
Trent Park Autumn-2

Setting Radio Alarms with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

Across the rooftops at dawn

First a note of caution. This piece was published in November 2018, and it’s entirely possible – indeed probable – that things will have changed if you’re reading this at any point after that date. It’s also worth noting that I’m in the UK, and these solutions may not work in your region. Also, I’m doing this with the Android Apps for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. iOS apps may vary – but hopefully not very much.

It’s not entirely clear when the first radio alarm clock was created, but the Bulova M-781 from 1932 seems the most likely.  It was a grandfather clock with a radio built in that did indeed switch on according to a timer.

What is more certain is that over time, the radio alarm clock became a significant category in the radio world. Most manufacturers of radios built at least one, and probably more, radio models. Most still do. Having a radio turn on and wake you up in the morning is a basic use case for radio. Recall that the biggest radio audiences are to be found in the morning.

Fast forward to 2018 and what do you do to wake up to the radio in the morning?

Well, you could still go out and buy a radio alarm clock. While there are still a disappointingly large number of basic FM models that don’t look like they’ve had a refresh in thirty years, you can at least buy DAB models on most of Europe.

Many people use their mobile phones. But you’ve been busy buying smart speakers to kit out your home. Can you use these to wake up to the radio? In general, they sound better than your mobile’s speaker.

Well, yes you can. But it certainly isn’t easy. Indeed, when I asked a few owners smart speakers if they did it, I was usually informed that it wasn’t possible.

Before I started, I did a fair bit of Googling to see how easy it was. The methods I describe below have only become available relatively recently. So prior to that, the preferred solution was an hilarious hack. It involved recording yourself on your mobile phone saying something like “Alexa, Play Radio 1.” Then use this recording as an alarm sound on your phone. So at 7am or whenever, your phone pipes up: “Alexa, Play Radio 1” and then the nearby Alexa in your bedroom starts blasting you with Greg James. 

Of course if you happen to charge your phone away from your bedroom Alexa, then you could be in trouble. And let’s hope that you didn’t leave your phone in a jacket pocket or a bag the night before, or you forgot to put it on charge so that it went flat and as a result your alarm failed to go off. 

We’ll assume that your use case is that you’d like the radio to switch on perhaps 5, 6 or 7 days a week, with the station of your choice, at the volume of your choice. And perhaps you’d like to have different alarms set for the weekend. 

I don’t think that’s anything too complex. Before we continue, I should note that all the major radio apps have this basic functionality built in by default. BBC iPlayer Radio, Radioplayer and Tune-In all have this functionality – they all also have sleep timers too (BBC Sounds, for some reason, has not yet added this functionality).

But you want to do this by voice. Let’s see how easy it is with the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. Note that I’m using Android apps throughout.


Google Assistant

To make this work, you need to use Routines from within the Google Home app. It might be possible to set this up purely by voice (as you can with Amazon Alexa), but if it is, I’ve not worked out how to do it.

I’ve got to be honest: while it has improved in recent iterations, I find the Google Home app particularly messy. I think it needs a top to bottom redesign since too many important things are buried away in sub-menus. I suspect that most users don’t use the app all that regularly, mostly using it when they set up new devices on their home network. So even if you work out how to do something, when you use the app again some weeks or months later, you won’t remember exactly how to repeat processes you previously worked out.

To set a routine, you should be on the same WiFi network as your Google devices. In other words, you’ll need to be at home to do this.

Within the App you go to your Account, and then Settings. From here you choose Assistant, and then scroll down to Routines

By default, Google has set up a number of example routines – Good Morning, Bedtime, Leaving Home, I’m Home etc. But all of these are voice activated. In other words, it would rely on you saying “Hey Google, Good Morning” to activate the Good Morning routine. 

You need to create a Custom Routine – and it’s entirely possible that in some regions, this isn’t yet possible. Google’s own help page claims that Custom Routines are US only at the moment – but it worked for me in the UK.

Click the + in the bottom right corner to set up a New Routine.

This is the key screen for setting up your routine, and the first box is perhaps the most confusing. Google wants you to have a spoken command for your routine – and that’s not optional. 

Now obviously, if you’re using this routine to wake-up, you’re unlikely to be in a position to say anything to kick-start the whole thing. The good news is that although you have to provide some words, they’re not the only way to fire off the alarm.

So click on Add commands and fill in the box with some text which you’re unlikely ever to need to say.

Press the left arrow to go back and next go into Set a time and day. This is pretty easy to complete, choosing a time and then selecting which days you want it to apply. You also need to select a speaker. And if you’ve grouped several speakers together into a Group you can start this routine on multiple speakers. In the example below, I’m using the speaker I’ve named Bedroom Mini. You can choose whether or not you want your phone to be notified as well.

Use the left arrow again to get back to main screen and you’ll have something like this.

Now press Add action.

Here you’re presented with a text box and a couple of suggestions from Google about setting a volume or giving you the weather. Again, you’ll be able to add multiple actions, so if you do want the weather before the radio kicks in, then here’s the place to do it.

Rather than use written words to set the volume, we’re going to go into Choose Popular Actions. Scroll down to the Your Devices section and select Adjust media volume.

Then press the cogwheel to set a volume level.

Use the top left arrow to navigate out of that menu back to the main screen, being sure not to press it again. That’s because you need to press ADD in the top right hand corner.

You should now have a routine that looks something like this:

Go to Add media and select Radio in the options.

Click on the cogwheel and you again get a blank box asking you type a radio station. Google gives you two BBC examples, but we’ll choose another station.

Again, if you’re uncertain what to type, try a voice command with your Google device first to ensure that you get the right station, and the right version of the right playing. You’ll want to make sure you get the right Capital or Heart!

Use the left arrow to get back to the main routine screen.

At this point you could add additional actions like switching on light bulbs or other smart home connected devices. We won’t bother here.

Then be sure to press the tick-mark and not the left arrow again to save your changes.

Your routines screen should now look like this.

And that should be it. Your radio alarm should be set. 

However, there is a lot I’d like to see improved in the Google Home app to make this easier. Not least the completely non-intuitive way to navigate it. Starting with my profile, then settings and then another sub-menu to even find routines is madness.

My biggest issue, remarkably, is timing! In my tests, the radio didn’t quite come on when I expected it to do. It would be perhaps one to two minutes late. This seems quite extraordinary, and I’ve no idea why, unless there’s some processing time on a Google server somewhere between me updating my routine and Google being in a position to serve it on my Google device.

As a result of this, I would suggest setting your timer early particularly if you value every minute of sleep you get.

I would also note that in at least one instance, my device failed to play the radio at all. An initial beep sounded indicating that the routine was starting, but then nothing happened.

Then there is an issue of zombie routines. In my tests, I twice created a test routine, then having finished with it, I deleted it. But later it returned unwanted and I had to delete it a second time – this time seemingly permanently. 

The next issue is the confusion about requiring some command words for a timer. It’s fine to have the option to use these, but for some routines, you just want them to work at the times of your choosing regardless.

Another key issue is that I can find no way to set the duration of the radio once it has turned on. Many radio alarm clocks will time out after a period of time, and as we’ll see, Amazon lets you do this. It could be particularly annoying if you fail to turn off an alarm when you go away for a few days. 

Finally, there’s no volume fading – the radio just starts instantly at your set volume. Google is not alone with this, but it would be nice to fade in the audio gradually.

Overall, it’s not a great experience using the alarm, with them not starting on time and even failures to start at all. I’d be nervous using it alone. Furthermore, the app is not intuitive, and even finding the right place to set them up is not simple. 


Amazon Alexa

In general terms, I think the Alexa app is somewhat ahead of Google’s right now. It’s slightly more intuitive. and overall I had less difficulty setting it up. Again, this is probably easier to do when you’re on the same WiFi network as your Amazon devices.

You can actually set an alarm by voice with Amazon Alexa! Thanks to Daniel for pointing that out. You won’t have quite the control that going through the app gives you, but this is by far the easiest way to do it.

If you say something like: “Alexa, wake me up every weekday at 8.00am with Radio 4” it should confirm the time and indeed set an alarm.

You can confirm this by going into the Alexa app and looking in the Reminders & Alarms section and selecting ALARMS.

You can go into the alarm and make adjustments to days of the week or the time.

Note that you can’t set up an alarm on the app this way if you want to listen to the radio! You have to first set it up via voice.

Also note that you have no control over the volume, which will be the previous volume set, or add in additional functions like switching on lights or reading the weather to you. Finally, the alarm will come through the device you set it on.

If you want more granularity, then you need to go into a different part of the app. You want to ignore Reminders & Alarms. Instead we now want Routines. 

Hit the + icon to create a new routine.

Then choose the + icon next to When this happens

Select Schedule from the list of options.

And on the Set Time page choose Select next to At Time.

That opens a screen that is mostly blank with a tiny time in the middle of it, defaulting to the current time. Press it and (in the Android app) you get the familiar Android clock allowing you to set the time e.g. 07:00.

Click Done in the top right hand corner of the screen when you’re happy and then choose Select next to Repeat. The default is Every Day but you can change it to specific days, weekdays or weekends. Of course you can set multiple routines for weekdays and weekends. We’ll stick with the default for now.

Select Done and you should have a screen that looks a little like this.

Now you need to Add Action. Press the + next to it. And you get a choice of things you can do.

It’s worth noting at this point that you could add multiple actions here. Alexa could say, “Good morning!”, then play you your news via whatever choices you have set in your Flash Briefing. 

But in this case we’ll just turn on the radio.

So you need to choose Music. Yes, even if you want to listen to Radio 4 when you wake up.

In Song, Artist or Playlist you need to spell out your preferred radio station. And an important note here is that it needs to be available on TuneIn. If it’s not, then this won’t work. If you’re not sure, try using your Alexa to see if it selects the right station.

Then in the Provider section under the word From, choose TuneIn.

Finally, you can set the duration of the timer. The default is 30 minutes. Press Set Time and choose a duration.

When you’re done, you should have something like this:

Click Next and you now have the opportunity to add further actions.

The one other thing we’re going to do is set the volume of our Alexa. Click the + next to Add Action and select Alexa Devices.

Select Volume and you get a slider to choose your volume.

Choose a number you’re happy with, then click Next and Add. You’ll notice that the volume is set ahead of playing the radio. If not then you can move them around using the = buttons.

Finally you need to choose the Echo device that the radio comes from. If you have multiple Echo devices, choose one in the From list. I don’t believe it’s possible to have routines play on multiple devices at time of writing.

Press Create and you should be done. A message will say that your routine has been saved and it will appear as an Enabled routine.

If you need to delete or disable a routine, select it and then use either the disable button to turn it off, or the menu dots in the top right to delete it altogether.

Note that you can also test the routine by going into the routine, pressing the menu button and choosing Play Routine. That should ensure that that TuneIn really does manage to pick the right station for you. This will also let you fine tune your preferred alarm volume.

In general terms, this solution works well, but I don’t think it’s completely intuitive. You might have worked out that you can wake up to a track, or a Spotify playlist (although for me that makes me think of Groundhog Day) but not realised that you could choose a radio station. 

The only key thing I’d like to be able to do is fade up the volume. It starts quite abruptly and a little bit of a fade might be better – although few radio alarm clocks do that.

If you have other smart home devices, such as light bulbs, you could switch those on too by adding a further action to your wake-up routine and choosing Smart Home. Again, it’s not perfect though. I have some Hue bulbs and the Hue app lets me brighten them slowly over time. The Alexa app just allows me to turn them on – albeit I can choose the brightness. A gradual increase in brightening might be nice. The Google Assistant is similarly limited in this regard. 

Other Options

The other thing you could try is IFTTT – the service that allows you to connect devices and apps together using the various APIs the companies make available. 

The only trouble with this is that it can be non-trivial to build these connections, and in any case, I’ve not found a way to do it. 

Summary

I’m really not sure why such a simple use case is so hard to achieve. I really shouldn’t have had to write a tutorial to explain how to do it.

When smart speakers first emerged, they quickly became the best internet radios you could buy – assuming your voice was understandable by the devices, and your choice of radio station was available to stream. Adding alarm functionality to these radios should be trivial.

As I note at the top, all of the above is true at time or writing in November 2018. Undoubtedly both Google and Amazon’s apps and devices will improve over time, and I trust that it will become easier to set a task like this.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Possibly my favourite show on Amazon Prime Video is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly series of novels. The fifth season isn’t due until next year, but the good news is that Amazon has already renewed it for a sixth season!

Harry Bosch has now appeared in something like 21 novels now, and Dark Sacred Night is the latest novel to feature the Los Angeles based detective. Having been forcibly retired from the LAPD a few books ago (he’s still within the force in the TV version which tends to use older titles for each season), Bosch has been working on a part time basis for the San Fernando PD exploring cold cases. Meanwhile LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who was introduced in her own first novel last year, The Late Show, crosses paths with Bosch as he’s following a case that’s a bit more personal to him.

Bosch and Ballard then join forces to try to work out what happened to a young girl who’s body was found some years ago, but who’s murder was never prosecuted. Bosch feels that he owes it to her mother, who he’s been trying to help overcome her own addictions, to find out.

Connelly’s novels are always contemporary and fairly free and easy to read. Here we alternate perspectives from Bosch and Ballard as they both go about their day to day business – particularly in Ballard’s case – and together work the bigger case. Bosch, as ever, is causing trouble.

I always enjoy these novels because they feel like they present something of the real LA, and less the version we have so commonly gotten in TV and film. It feels more like a real character. The same is true of the Amazon series incidentally.

Being part of a long running continuing series, we get small developments in some of the characters’ long running relationships – notably between Bosch and his daughter Maddie, who these days is in college. The only problem I ever have with Connelly’s books is that I read them far too fast, and then have to wait another year for the next one – although last year we got two novels.

At least there’ll be another Amazon series in the meantime.

Greatest Hits Radio

Interesting news from Bauer Media this morning. They’re launching Greatest Hits Radio nationally from January 7th, to sit alongside Hits Radio. Together they will form the Hits Radio Network.

It sounds like this new mostly networked service is being positioned as a slightly older version of Absolute Radio Network. It will target 40-59 “Reclaimers,” playing “the biggest songs of the 70s, 80s and 90s” from artists like Queen, Blondie, INXS and Michael Jackson.

The station is going onto national DAB, but interestingly is also going to replace Absolute Radio on the West Midlands 105.2FM frequency, as well as 105.9 FM in Liverpool (where Radio City 2 was already effectively this format).

This will also be the default AM service across Bauer’s city brands, but with separate English and Scottish breakfast shows.

This looks to be part of a larger dual-pronged approach to radio brands under Bauer. There are the big national brands like Absolute, Magic and Kiss, and now Hits. But importantly, they can sell national, regional and local advertising as Global can do with its brands.

But Bauer looks to be retaining local FM stations across primarily northern England and Scotland. And while I suspect that Global will jump fairly early “nationalising” its stations to a large extent, it’s not certain that Bauer will do this in peak.