Tax Free Childcare – How the 3 month allowance reset works

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This is a post to file under “things I couldn’t find online so decided I should share”: if you’re enrolled in the UK’s Tax Free Childcare programme then you have (at time of writing) a maximum claim allowance of £2,000 each year, limited to £500 every three months. What’s not at all clear is how those three-month periods are calculated, and when the allowance resets.

As I’ve learned, it works like this. Every three months you have to “reconfirm” your enrolment. The reconfirmation dates are used as the start and end dates of each three-month claim period.

So – log into your account, then view Secure Messages, and look for the most recent message about reconfirmation. This will include a line like this:

You’ll need to check and reconfirm your details with us every 3 months and your next reconfirmation date is 19 October 2018. We’ll send you a reminder by email, nearer the time.

In this case, with a reconfirmation date of 19th October, the £500 entitlement period will run for three months from 19th July to 19th October, and so the system will release up to £500 during that period. If you haven’t reconfirmed yet, the same information is included in the initial message titled  Tax-Free Childcare application for (name here).

It’s important to note that you can reconfirm far earlier than the actual deadline date, but this does not affect the reset of your allowance. So in this case reconfirming on 1st October would make no difference to the allowance resetting on the 19th.

Also: at the time of writing, the online system shows an available amount (You’ve £xxx.xx left for this period) on the Manage Account screen. This can be totally incorrect as it does not properly match up with the allowance reset rule.

Make America Kittens Again – v1.2

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cats / geek

It’s been about four months since Make America Kittens Again went viral. In that time I’ve released a few minor updates to better target specific news websites, but this weekend sees the first major update in a while, and with it some significant changes.

Custom Blocking

I’ve received dozens of requests to add additional names to the list of blocking targets – to the extent that, if I’d added them all, the UI would have become completely out of hand. However, I can absolutely see why people want to block other politicians (and just other people) from the web.

Version 1.2.0 (finally) introduces a Custom Block option. This text field allows you to input a comma-separated list of names (try “May, Gove”, or “Reagan, Bush”, for example), and each will be added to the target list for our patented* kittenization process.

Servers, Images and Donations

The first version of MAKA used kitten images stored on one of my web servers. When it took off, this quickly became very expensive, so I did two things: I moved the images to Amazon S3, and added a donation button to the interface.

Moving the images to S3 kept the costs manageable through months of extremely high traffic (particularly January), and generous donations from dozens of users have covered the bills – if you donated you should have already received a thank-you email, but just in case: THANK YOU. Without your support I would have had to pull the plugin from the store and spend a month eating only instant noodles.

With this latest version, though, things are changing again. I’m moving the image files inside the plugin itself – this makes the initial install bigger, but should make it quicker in use (effectively zero load time for the images) and will reduce the server bills significantly – in theory, if everyone updates, to nothing.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the Custom Block option is likely to significantly increase bandwidth usage, so I want to mitigate against that before the cost becomes a problem again. Secondly, I’ve been struggling to keep up with managing the donations, tracking the accounts, sending the thank-you emails and so on over the last few weeks due to work and family commitments.

I’m currently holding a surplus of donations, which I hope will cover the bills over the next few months as users slowly upgrade to the new version – if I can, I will keep the S3 files live for six months or so. But the donation button is now gone from the interface, and I will cancel all recurring donations that have been set up so no further money is taken. On the offchance that you’d like to support the other junk that I do, there’s a coffee button below.

So that’s it – in short, v1.2.0 brings more blocking options, and removes the donation button. Once again, many thanks to all who have supported MAKA since December. You’ve helped make the web a more kitten-y place.

* Not patented.


Make America Kittens Again

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fuckwittery / geek / journalism / kitten block

It’s been a weird week.

Back in February, someone* asked if I could do a Trump version of my UKIP blocking plugin. About five small code changes later, I had one in the Chrome store:

Since then it’s been ticking along, used by only a couple of hundred people including me, and gaining a few users each day.

And then, out of nowhere, I got an email about it, and then a message on Facebook. I found out it was in The Metro. Then I found out it was on Bored Panda, and the Daily Dot.  It chalked up my first, and probably only, appearance in Glamour (and via Glamour, Teen Vogue). Soon all the big repost-y blogs were on it – Business Insider (er, business?), Mashable, and everyone’s favourite content-aggregation-turbine, the Huffington Post. It went international: Le Figaro somehow managed to turn it into a video item, here it is in the news in Iran (where a few outlets ran it), and in Japan. And meanwhile, on YouTube:

The result of this: currently around 34,000 users (update – now well over 40k), and over 50GB of traffic per day to the kitten images (which, as of v1.0.1 I’ve moved onto Amazon S3). I make that, give or take, 200,000 kittens per day (KPD). And someone – I have no idea who – set up a shop selling horribly ugly MAKA merchandise. I got a few really nice emails from people who liked the extension, while a few people online got really mad at it. So it goes.

Also, from a news point of view, a few things struck me: many, many reports listed the extension as “new”, which of course it isn’t. One, which I won’t name, misspelled “president”. Of all the sites that covered it, only one got in touch to ask me why I made it. And it’s really hard to work out why the whole thing suddenly took off like this – as far as I can tell, the Daily Dot got there first, and then it was effectively reblogged out from there, but I may be wrong.

If you’d like to try the extension, it’s available here, and the code is on Github.

* I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember who – sorry!


Lumos Helmet Review

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geek / reviews

I’ve been cycling to work in London, a few times each week and 16km each way, since 2012. For about half the year, that means riding through the dark, and so I’ve become the proud owner of a large number of LED bike lights. As well as lights front and back, I’ve taken to wearing both front (a Lezyne spotlight-type) and back (an old CatEye held on with plastic tags) lights on my bike helmet in order to present a larger shape to cars coming up quickly.

In July 2015 I heard, via press release, about a forthcoming Kickstarter for the Lumos Helmet – a bike helmet with integrated lights, including a brake signal and turn indicators. I backed it, and last week the finished product arrived. As the company is now taking more orders, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts based on my experience so far – and then update this at the end of winter with a proper conclusion based on several months of use.

Anyhow, here it is, charging up:


There’s a photo with the lights on at the top of the post, and I’ve put a video of the lights in use further down.

My first impressions are generally positive. The helmet looks and feels well made, and the harness – which has a tightening wheel at the back – is reasonably comfortable.  It feels a bit odd to me right now, but that’s probably because I’ve used the same old helmet (a Giro Savant) for five years. One thing I’ve noticed is that on the Giro there’s a lock at the point where the straps divide on each side (the middle of the Y shape, if you see what I mean), but on the Lumos there isn’t – this makes forward/back adjustment a bit more fiddly.

With a battery and electronics inside, the helmet weighs a bit more than usual – I make it around 450g compared to 250g for my Giro. It’s early days, but at the moment I notice that I’m wearing it – this might well pass.

The indicators are activated by a small remote. Here it is on my commuting bike:


The buttons are good – clicky and thumb-sized – and flash when active. The unit attaches exactly as a Garmin GPS does – rubber bands hold a small base in place on the bike, and the device twists into that. If you’re using flat handlbars you could probably fit the whole thing under one thumb, or there’s an alternative mount:


.. shown here on my kid-carrying bike with the actual remote removed. Both the remote and the helmet charge using the same USB cable, and an app allows you to check the battery on each. You can also receive alerts:

Lumos helmet alert

(click for full size) which are handy, although the charge percentage does sometimes vary (turn it off at 75, it comes back on at >90). My daily commute – 45mins each way with the lights flashing – seems to drain about 30% of the helmet battery, and put barely a dent in the remote’s charge.

The lighting has three modes: solid light, slow flashing and fast flashing, which cycle by tapping the power button. A long press turns the helmet off. The indicators are push for on, push again for off, and there’s a fairly loud beep from the helmet when they are activated, so you know the remote control signal has been received.

Here’s a quick video to show the lights in use and the various modes:

Sorry about the rustling; it’s unusual to shoot videos wearing full Gore-tex cycling gear. One thing to note is that the automatic brake light feature, as promised by the Kickstarter, is currently “beta” and disabled by default – I haven’t enabled it, as there’s no way for me to tell if it’s working properly or not, and for now I’m quite happy with the bright, flashing rear light.

As for a verdict: well, I don’t think it’s possible to properly judge the Lumos until I’ve used it for at least a few months of winter, and through some torrential rain – I will update this review when that’s the case. For the moment: it feels well made, seems to work as it should, and the remote in particular is better than I’d hoped. At the current price of $179 (about £140) it feels a little bit expensive; although my usual helmet costs £40 and you could easily spend the same again on lights, that’s still another £60 or so to add the indicators and convenience.

Update – April 2017

So as promised, an update. It’s now April, the clocks have changed, and all my commutes are in daylight again – the roughest months of winter seem long gone. And I used the Lumos through all of them, on regular commutes into London and also dozens of rides to the nursery with my son.

The good news is that everything important still works. The Lumos survived rain, sleet and snow with no sign of damage to any part of it, and despite being repeatedly fixed and removed the remote hasn’t jumped off the handlebars into the road, which was something I feared. The battery proved good – charging once or twice a week worked for me, and it only ran flat on one occasion when I forgot (I kept another light on the bike, so this was no big deal).

The slightly less good news is that all my initial concerns still hold. The harness isn’t great, and needs constantly adjusting to stay fitted (the Giro one, for comparison, is solid as a rock). The app proved an unreliable way to keep track of the battery, as power on/off alerts often don’t work. And, crucially, the helmet is still just that little bit heavy – not so heavy that I disliked wearing it, but heavy enough that, now the sun’s up, I’ve been happy to pick up my old Giro helmet again for the summer.

That said – I’m still a satisfied customer. The Lumos does what I hoped it would, and does it very well for a first generation product – with a few tweaks the next version could be brilliant. And I’ll be packing mine away for September as the evenings draw in again.

iPhone SE Review

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geek / reviews

I recently traded in my somewhat worn iPhone 5S for the newer SE. Before buying I read a load of reviews, none of which answered the three questions I had. So, after about a month’s use, here they are:

1) Is it noticeably quicker than the iPhone 5S?

Yes, but only in a few apps. Safari’s quicker to render some pages. Pokemon Go runs beautifully, when it was a bit laggy on the 5S.

2) Is the camera actually any better?

Yes, it autofocuses much more quickly. Good for snapping moving cats / wriggling babies.

3) Is the device itself distinguishable from a 5S in any way?

It has “SE” on the back, and that’s about it. It feels as solid, too – I’ve already dented the case, with no ill-effects.

So there you go.