Playlist of the month: duets

When I started this, I thought that thinking of 10 songs each month on a common theme with a bit of context would be easy. It turns out that it’s not. I can easily think of 4-5 songs to fit a theme, but getting 10 is harder than I thought it would be. Hence why this is being posted at 9pm on the 30th January and has been typed out on my iPad.

Last month was, of course, Christmas-themed. This month, it’s all duets, and you can listen along on Spotify.

  • Rewrite The Stars – Zac Efron and Zendaya. The Greatest Showman soundtrack is just amazing. This isn’t my absolute favourite song from the album, but it’s one I come back to a lot.
  • Bring Me To Life – Evanescence. This was never intended to be a duet, and to mark the 20th anniversary of their album Fallen, Evanescence released a demo of this without the added male vocals. The band’s label felt that they wouldn’t have been successful unless this song was a duet; maybe they were right but also being featured on the soundtrack to the film Daredevil (with Ben Affleck) probably helped.
  • It’s Over – Nemesea. Less well-known and sounds a bit like an Evanescence collaboration with Linkin Park. This is my second favourite Nemesea song after ‘Caught in the Middle’ from the same album.
  • What Have You Done – Within Temptation. From the same genre as above, and as a big Within Temptation fan I needed to include at least one of their songs here. They’ve done several duets over time but this is probably their most well-known. Male vocals are provided by Mina Caputo from the band Life of Agony, before she transitioned.
  • Broken Strings – James Morrison and Nelly Furtado. I watched a lot of music TV around 2008/9 and this was massive at the time. Very catchy.
  • Beautiful South – You’re The One That I Want. Yes, it’s that song from Grease, but slowed down. I prefer this version. I think I heard it the first time in a Virgin Megastore, which dates it somewhat.
  • When You Believe – Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Released to promote a somewhat forgotten Dreamworks animated film called The Prince of Egypt in 1998. Both singers get to stretch their ample vocal ranges here.
  • Kids – Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue. A big single released at the height of Robbie’s solo career and just as Kylie was getting back to her pop roots. Great thumping chorus.
  • When You’re Gone – Bryan Adams and Melanie C. Apparently Bryan originally offered this to Sheryl Cole, but this ended up being Mel C’s first solo single. There’s also a version with Pamela Anderson, but it’s geo-blocked from UK Spotify. Maybe that’s for the best.
  • The Boy Is Mine – Brandy and Monica. I bought the CD single of this back in 1998. This musical argument between the two singers allegedly reflected real world animosity, and also wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

So there we go for this month. Hopefully, I’ll have another themed playlist for you for February some time within the next 4 weeks.

Sonoff Zigbee and Thread/Matter dongle

A photo of the Sonoff ZBDongle E which offers Zigbee and Thread support

If you’re a Home Assistant user, and want to connect your Zigbee and Matter devices, then one option to consider is this Sonoff ZBDongle E. I bought one a couple of weeks ago, and it seems to work fine with my Home Assistant setup.

One thing you will notice if you view its Amazon product page (sponsored link) is that there’s no mention anywhere of Thread or Matter. Out of the box, this Sonoff dongle will only work with Zigbee devices. However, if you follow this handy guide from Smart Home Scene, you can flash the dongle with custom firmware, which adds support for Thread as well. As I mentioned in my recent is there a Zigbee network in your house blog post, both Zigbee and Thread are protocols in the 802.15 family.

The firmware flasher is actually browser-based, and so there’s no need to download additional software. However, it’ll only work in Edge or Chrome, as seemingly Firefox doesn’t have away of allowing web pages to access serial ports.

Note that the guide linked above is for Home Assistant Supervised and OS. If you’re running Home Assistant as a Docker Container, then you’ll need to install this Docker Image as well. I haven’t tried it myself, as I run Home Assistant Supervised, but this seems to be the way to get it to work.

Once it’s all set up, you’ll be able to add both Zigbee and Matter devices to your Home Assistant installation.

The Sonoff dongle cost £22 when I bought it earlier this month, although at the time of writing the price has been hoicked up to £30. That makes it only £1 cheaper than the Home Assistant Skyconnect, which is the official dongle. Therefore, my recommendation of the Sonoff dongle being a cheaper option no longer applies and it’s up to you which one to buy.

Finding alternatives to Goodreads

Screenshot of my profile on which is a potential alternative to Goodreads

I’m a little late to the Goodreads review scandal. Late last year, an author whose debut book was due to be published, wrote several fake reviews of books by other authors that were due out at the same time, and posted positive fake reviews of her own book. Unfortunately for her, she was found out, and dropped from her book deal.

But, as the above-linked New York Times article states, Goodreads isn’t in a good place right now. It’s been around since 2007, although I joined in 2016 and first blogged about it in 2017. This was after Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads in 2013.

In the almost eight years that I’ve used Goodreads, it has barely changed. There have been annual Readers Choice Awards, and the annual reading challenges, but other than a change to book information pages in 2021, it feels like Amazon has basically abandoned it. The iOS app gets ‘bug fixes and performance improvements’ on a regular basis, but I suspect that these are updates to downstream code libraries and not a result of actual work by Goodreads developers.

Its recommendations of new books to try have always been terrible, and it’s reliant on volunteer librarians. Which wouldn’t be an issue if Goodreads was a non-profit, but it’s owned by one of the world’s most valuable conglomerates. Giving away labour for free to such enterprises doesn’t sit well with me, even if it’s something I’ve done a lot in the past.

So, Goodreads both has a problem with fake reviews, and a lack of interest from its owner. So what are the alternatives?

The Storygraph

I tried out The StoryGraph about a year ago. You can import your reading history from Goodreads during the onboarding process, and its recommendations are much better, as its design. There are mobile apps, reading challenges, and giveaways where authors can offer limited free copies of their books, presumably to generate some reviews.

The StoryGraph does have social features like Goodreads, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way of importing contacts from elsewhere. Quite a lot of my friends use Goodreads and I’m sure some of them use The StoryGraph too, but I don’t know how many because I can’t seem to find them. If there’s an ‘import contacts’ option in the iOS app, then I haven’t found it.


Another site that I’ve heard about, but haven’t yet signed up to, is Bookwyrm. It uses ActivityPub and is therefore part of the Fediverse, so you can follow people using Mastodon clients, for example. You can use the instance, but you can also install and host it yourself. Importing from Goodreads (and other services) is supported.

I’m aware of some friends who use Bookwyrm, so it may avoid the issue I’m having with The StoryGraph where I can’t find my existing contacts.

And there are many other Goodreads alternatives

I found this list of Goodreads alternatives, which mentions 31 (!) sites that you could consider. Bookwyrm and The StoryGraph are both listed, as is LibraryThing which actually pre-dates Goodreads.

I suppose it will come down to what my existing friends use, and getting large numbers of people to change platforms happens rarely. We’ve seen many challengers to Twitter rise and fall over the years (Andy Baio posted an excellent eulogy of Ello this week) and it’s only because X/Twitter has become utterly terrible in the past 15 months that a significant number of people have moved to the likes of Bluesky and Mastodon. And some are still left behind.

If we follow that model, then Goodreads would have to become significantly worse, before people start looking for alternatives en masse. Right now, it’s just stagnant; clearly not a priority for Amazon, but not so badly broken as to require much of an intervention. I certainly can’t see it joining Bookwyrm in the Fediverse.

Silencing unknown callers

Screenshot of the iOS option to silence unknown callers
My recent calls list, showing lots of missed calls from numbers not in my contacts

Over recent weeks, I’ve been plagued by calls from numbers not in my contacts. Sometimes, as per the screenshot, I’ll get three calls from three different UK mobile numbers within seconds of each other. So, I’ve enabled Silence unknown callers on my iPhone.

I made a mistake by answering the first call, and it turned out to be some kind of cryptocurrency scam. However, it wasn’t just a random dial; they had my name and email address as well as my phone number. This suggests that they’ve hoovered up my personal data from a previous breach – possibly the Patreon breach of 2015, but there have been many others.

Since then, I’ve been getting three or four calls at a time, usually twice per day. It’s a different number every time, so whilst I may have not been fully convinced it was a scam when I answered the first time, I am convinced now. I’ve tried to hide the numbers in the screenshot because the numbers have almost certainly been faked and probably belong to innocent people. It also suggests to me a deliberate effort to get around call blocking apps like Truecaller, for which I have a premium subscription.

What this means is, if people call me, my phone will only ring if the number is in my contacts, if I’ve called it recently, or it’s a ‘Siri suggestion’. The latter could include numbers in recent text messages and emails, for example.

If you want to enable this yourself, open Settings on your iPhone, go to Phone and then scroll down to ‘Silence Unknown Callers’.

I’ll keep this on until the random calls stop. At the time of writing, they’ve slowed down but haven’t stopped completely. Maybe they’ll get the hint in time.

Recent days out

A model of an armoured elephant at the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds

Although it’s currently the bleak midwinter – and I mean bleak, with sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures last week and Storm Isha this week – we have managed a few days out. Some of these were in the first week of the year, as our eight-year-old didn’t go back to the school until the following week.

Here’s where we’ve been:

Manchester Science & Industry Museum

A photo of Stephen Hawking's wheelchair, currently on display at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester

The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester is somewhere that we typically end up at least once a year. This time was mainly for the Food, Poo and You exhibition, which features content from the presenters of Operation Ouch (including Dr Chris, writer of Ultra-Processed People). It didn’t take much convincing our eight-year-old to go to an exhibition about poo, and it’s well presented. Just be aware that, whilst the rest of the museum is free, this is a paid-for exhibition and you’re advised to pre-book. My wife happened to be working that day and so I expect we’ll be going back before it finishes in June, after which it’ll probably go to the Science Museum in London.

Also there at the moment is Prof Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair. I was naturally more excited about this than our eight-year-old was.

What isn’t at the museum at the moment is, well, about three quarters of the museum. It’s just what’s available in the ‘New Warehouse’; a huge restoration programme means that the other buildings are closed. The Power Hall should be open again next year if all goes well.


A photo of the Eureka National Childrens Museum in Halifax

Considering how often I pass Eureka, and the fact that we have a young child, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s been almost seven years since my last visit. And like that time, it was partly due to some Tesco Clubcard vouchers expiring. The museum hasn’t changed much in that time; the main difference was that the car garage is now a community area with a bus and a smaller electric car exhibit.

It’s still a good museum for half a day, and at eight years old our child isn’t too old for it. There’s a new Eureka, focussing more on science for slightly older kids, in Wirral which we need to visit at some point.

Royal Armouries, Leeds

A disarmed AK-47 rifle that has been covered in sprinkles and Love Hearts sweets

The last time we went to the Royal Armouries was for Thought Bubble, back in 2016. Museums about war and armour aren’t really my thing, but our eight-year-old had read a library book about them recently and so it was an opportunity to see some of those things in real life.

The Reloaded exhibition is interesting, as it looked at guns as gifts and objects of desire. There were also a couple of commissioned art pieces, such as an AK-47 covered with sprinkles and Love Hearts. It’s always fun to see the elephant armour too.

We have a few more busy weekends coming up, so I doubt we’ll be going anywhere else for a few weeks.

Is there a Zigbee network in your house?

A photo of our Smart Meter which states it is Zigbee certified

If you’re in the UK, and have a smart meter, then your home probably has a Zigbee network that you may not know about.

What is Zigbee?

Zigbee is a wireless mesh networking protocol, that is commonly used for smart devices. If you have smart lightbulbs, such as the Ikea Trådfri or Philips HUE range (sponsored link), then Zigbee is what these devices use to communicate with their hub.

Zigbee isn’t the same as Wifi. Wifi devices belong to the 802.11 family of IEEE standards, whereas Zigbee is in the 802.15 family . There’s a difference at the hardware level, so a device that supports Wifi can’t use Zigbee unless it has a specialised chipset. However, there is commonality between the two; like Wifi, Zigbee uses IP addresses, and operates on the 2.4 GHz band.

Our In Home Display, which shows our usage from our smart meters and connects using Zigbee

If you have smart meters for your electricity and gas, then these will use Zigbee to communicate with your IHD (In Home Display). This is the small device that shows your current and daily usage.

Can you access this Zigbee network?

No. Even if you have a device with Home Assistant and a Zigbee dongle, it won’t be able to see the Zigbee network that your meters and IHD use. I suspect this is because your electricity meter has its own SIM card, to access the internet to send your readings. If you could access this Zigbee network, then it may use your electricity meter’s internet connection and not your own.

There are, however, some devices that will bridge between this Zigbee network and your own Wifi network at home. Some newer IHD devices offer this, and if you’re an Octopus Energy customer, you can join the waiting list for the Octopus Home Mini. I joined the waiting list a few months ago, but I haven’t heard anything yet. Meanwhile, you can also buy a Glow CAD (Consumer Access Device) for £65, which can connect to Home Assistant. Alas, it’s out of stock at the time of writing.

Another option for Octopus Energy customers is this Home Assistant addon, which brings in your usage data. However, it updates half hourly unless you already have an Octopus Home Mini.

Other ‘secret’ networks in your home

In our home, we also have a couple of Thread networks. Thread is related to Zigbee in that it’s also in the 802.15 family, and is arguably a successor. Nest developed it to enable their smart thermostats to talk wirelessly to the heat link that connects to your boiler, so this makes one network. Newer Nest thermostats can act as a Thread Border Router and so other devices using Matter can connect to it, but we have an older model.

We also have a pair of Google Nest Wifi devices (a hub and a point) which use Thread to communicate with each other. Google has updated these to offer a Thread Border Router, and so I’ve been able to access this with Home Assistant, ready for when we have some Matter compatible devices. So at least I can access one of the three non-wifi networks in my home.

Further reading

Whilst researching this, I came across this Hacking Your Smart Meter (Part 1) article, although there doesn’t appear to be a part 2. Instead, the author, Terence Eden, uses an API from his energy company as above.

The Smart Meter Home Area Network is also a really useful article, on what is quite a well balanced web site about the various pros and cons of having a smart meter. Because we export excess energy from our solar panels, we need to have a smart meter to be paid back for what we export.

One mouse to rule them all

A photo of the Arteck multi device Bluetooth wireless mouse

Back in September 2002, I bought this multi-device Bluetooth mouse from Amazon (sponsored link). As a multi-device mouse, it can be used to control three separate devices.

I bought it so that I could use it both with my desktop, and my iPad – because yes, you can use a mouse with an iPad. It supports two Bluetooth devices, and can connect to a third using an RF USB dongle. I use the dongle with my desktop, as RF uses less power. Switching devices is as simple as pressing a button on the side.

As a mouse, it works quite well – clicking is quiet, and I’ve been using it for almost 18 months with no complaints. It’s a comfortable size too – not as big as some mice, but larger than some laptop mice. However, this model is designed for people who are right handed; I had a look for left-handed multi-device mice on Amazon but couldn’t find any.

The battery life is also really good – I recharge it about every three months. It has a built-in battery which charges using a USB-C cable, and this plugs in at the top so that you can still use it whilst charging. This makes it better than Apple’s Magic Mouse, which has its Lightning connector on the bottom and so can’t be used while charging. The USB-C port is just for charging though; it won’t turn your mouse into a wired mouse. There is also a small slide-out compartment to store the USB RF dongle if you’re not using it.

As well as the device switch button on the left side, there are two additional buttons which, by default, act as back and forward buttons in a web browser.

Whilst I’m sure there are other multi-device mice out there, this suits my needs and has worked well for me. It’s reasonably priced at around £19, at time of writing.

Back to posts every other day

When I re-started blogging regularly again, my aim was to post a new blog entry every other day – so 3 or 4 new entries per week. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been posting daily. This is because:

There was no new blog post yesterday, and there won’t be tomorrow, as I’m now going back to posting every other day. Whilst I still have lots of blog post ideas, if I try to post a new blog entry every day, I’ll burn through them quite quickly. And now that I’m back at work full-time, I won’t have as much time to write. I’ve tried having a new blog entry to post every day in the past, and it’s hard work.

22nd blogiversary

An AI generated image of a birthday cake with two candles on it showing 22

It’s been 22 years to the day since I wrote my first blog post. Which is a very long time in technology.

Last year, I referred to the blogiversary as a ’21st-ish blogiversary’, mainly because I took a break from blogging for four years and all my pre-2018 where lost. However, I’ve been able to reinstate the first one, so you can read what 17 year old me had to say about starting a blog.

For the first few months of blogging, my posts were made using Blogger, which I’m almost surprised is still around. Google bought Blogger over 20 years ago, and hasn’t done much with it. It’s still there, and you can still create a new blog, but apart from a new responsive UI in 2020 it seems to have stagnated.

I switched to Movable Type in September 2002, and bought the domain that I’m still using today. Over time, I switched web hosts a couple of times, but I’ve been with Bytemark for many years now.

In March 2011, I moved from Movable Type, which was becoming a commercial product, to Melody, a community fork. Alas, there just wasn’t much interest elsewhere in the blogosphere in either Movable Type or Melody, and so this was a short-term change. Just a couple of months later, I switched to WordPress, and have been using it for almost 13 years now. That’s longer than any of the other blogging systems that I have used in the past.

Over this past year, I have been trying to get back into blogging, and, since October, I have (for the most part) published a new blog post every other day. I’m enjoying blogging again and wish I’d re-started sooner, although at least with a 4 year break, there’s plenty to talk about. I still have plenty of ideas for future blog posts which should see me well into the spring. So, happy birthday blog – you’re looking better than you have done in years.

WordPress backups with UpdraftPlus

A meme featuring Anakin and Padme from the Star Wars films. Anakin is saying 'I've reinstated my WordPress install after everything got wiped' and Padme says 'so you've got backups now right?'

It’s a little while until World Backup Day on the 31st March, but I’ve set up UpdraftPlus to create automatic backups of my WordPress installation to my Dropbox account.

It’s a straightforward plugin to set up. You install it from the WordPress plugin directory, select your cloud storage provider, choose what you want to backup, and then run it. If it all goes well, you can then set a schedule for automated backups.

The free version offers Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon S3 and some others, and you can also upload your backups to any FTP server, albeit over a non-secure connection. If you want to use WebDAV, SFTP, SCP, Microsoft OneDrive or UpdraftPlus’ own service, then you’ll need a premium account. At present, it’s £54 per year for up to two personal sites, which is pretty reasonable – the equivalent of a little over £4 per month.

Your backups can include everything if you want, but I’ve excluded plugins and themes from my backups. I haven’t modified the theme that I am using, and I’m not using any custom plugins – everything is from the WordPress plugin directory.

Backing up my files to Dropbox makes the most sense to me. I pay for Dropbox Pro and so have 2 terabytes of storage, of which I’m using less than 7%. Whilst VaultPress is the officially-supported solution for backups for WordPress, it’s not a free service and I’m already paying for Dropbox Pro.

The best time to set up backups is now

There isn’t a ‘best time’ to set up backups for any system apart from, well, now. So, if you haven’t got a backup solution in place, this is your reminder to sort something out. I lost all my blog posts in 2018 because I didn’t have adequate backups in place when doing a server upgrade. I would say I learned my lesson, but I’ve been blogging again for 18 months now and only set up UpdraftPlus last week.

There are many other WordPress plugins that offer backups – some free and some paid. I chose UpdraftPlus as it seemed to be the one which offered the features that I wanted, but you may find another suits you better. Just make sure that you have something in place.