Monday, May 29, 2006
Yes, it's true, the Sky guy didn't turn up on Saturday.
I first phoned them just after 10 to find out why there was no sign. At that point, I was told that their engineering people would call me back very soon. They had been given my mobile number, which the customer services bod read out... and which was the same wrong number I had corrected two weeks ago. Anyway, that explains why they didn't call last week.
So, I told the person that the number was wrong, and read out the correct number. Which he didn't get. I tried again. This time, he went for a wholly different wrong number. On the third attempt, he got it. At which point I hung up, working on the assumption that things had been corrected, and the engineers would be calling very soon.
(As an aside, I've heard a lot of people complaining about Indian call centres. However, I can now confirm that Scotland-based centres are no better. Sure, you can understand their accents, and they yours, but that doesn't help even slightly when they can't even take down a phone number correctly. It wasn't as though I was speaking fast - I used the same "slow and clear" voice I use with all call centre people. It really doesn't seem to help.)
An hour and a half passed, after which I called again, and spoke to a different person. (You never get the same person twice. This may be so you feel bad about shouting at the person on the phone, since it's not actually their fault their colleagues are useless.) Anyway, I explained the situation, and she checked the records. And found that the second person I spoke to last week, the one who I made faithfully promise that the engineer would actually turn up, had put a note on my account that it was vitally important that the engineer turn up, but hadn't actually gone so far as to book an engineer to come out and do the job. It's a good thing my window was closed at that point, or else I might have engaged in an autodefenestration.
So, the litany of woe continues. They have booked in an engineer for next week, hopefully one who will actually exist, as opposed to the crazy virtual engineers who I've had thus far. They're refunding the money I had to pay to have my account relocated, and also the last month's viewing fees.
Oh, one more wrinkle: the first person who I spoke to, after finally getting the right mobile phone number from me, proceeded to not enter it into their computer. I had to correct the data again in my second call.
The morals of this story are two-fold: firstly, always make sure your windows are closed before calling a "Customer Support" hotline. Secondly, don't dare to dream that people will actually do the things they say they'll do, because they just won't. Next week, I'll regale you with my adventures with not getting Sky this Saturday...
But there's a very good reason why: the whole system is too damn complicated for words.
In theory, pension schemes are straight-forward: each month a percentage of your pay goes into the scheme, the agents use that money to invest for your future, and when you retire it is turned into a magical pot of money on which you live the rest of your life.
However, no-one has ever indicated to me what sort of percentage represents a 'right' value. Or even a sensible value. So, I put a number on a form that means very little to me, try not to worry about it, and in forty years I will get back what? Is the number big enough? Too much? Just right?
So, that's the first complexity. Then there's the issue of multiple pensions. These days, no-one stays in the same job for their entire careers. Consequently, the sensible way of working (non-state) pensions is to have an employee take out an independent pension when they start their first job, and then have each employer pay money into that fund as their career progresses. Since employers already have the ability to pay money to bank accounts direct, why not pensions?
But, of course, it doesn't work like that. I have had four employers. One of these had no pension arrangements at all (rather poor, that). My first employer set me up with an independent scheme, in the exact manner I described above. All nice and sensible. But my previous employer and my current employer each have their own schemes, and wouldn't or couldn't transfer the payments to another schene. So, I'm stuck with three pensions, one of which has a pointlessly negligible amount paid in, a third that is slowly draining of all value, and a third that will be good for a while, but will suffer a great deal if and when I leave my current job. (Which, one way or another, I will do eventually.)
Incidentally, when I joined my second employer, I decided to immediately start paying money into my original pension again (my second company was the one with no scheme). So, I contacted my provider, and had them send out the appropriate form. I never returned it - the form was impossibly complicated, such that I could not complete it. Which is, frankly, ridiculous - all I wanted to do was take X% from my salary and pay it into scheme Y, which should not be a difficult operation.
It should be possible to sort all this out. It probably is possible to sort all this out. But doing so would require employing the services of a financial advisor, which means (a) paying for the priviledge and (b) taking time off work to meet with him, fill in interminable forms, and generally waste time dealing with things that really should just be simple.
My time off work is extremely valuable (conversely, I have no problem whatsoever with paying for financial advice). So this matter drifts...
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Anyway, the question is a valid one: should a Scotsman support the English team in the World Cup? On one level, both are parts of the UK, and so there is some sort of a tie there. On another, Scotland isn't part of England, despite the frequency with which this is conveniently forgotten by people south of the border, so why should we? Especially when our taxes are being used to support the team.
Now, one might argue that, if the positions were reversed, the English would support Scotland in the competition. However, let's consider for a moment just how unlikely that scenario actually is. In order for it to come about, Scotland would have to qualify. This places us in the realm of fantasy anyway. Secondly, England would have to fail to qualify, which hasn't happened in a good many years. It's easy to suggest that the English would support us, when there's no actual chance they'll have to test that.
The other thing that I don't think the English really understand is that the Scots are annoyed by the attitude they display. Firstly, there's the way that if any of our competitors do well, they're British, while if they fail, they're Scottish. You see this in the commentaries all the time. Secondly, whenever an English commentator is talking about a Scottish event, the condescension is sickening. This was particularly bad at the Clyde/Celtic match, in which all the focus was on Roy Keane, because he used to play for Manchester United, and never mind the fact that he played badly, his team played badly, and Clyde scored their greatest victory in decades.
And then there's the "England Expects" attitude. The news reportage we're seeing is all about how England are going to win the World Cup. Every time a competition of this sort comes round, we're subjected to every possible comparison between the current team and the one that lifted the cup in 1966. Never mind the fact that only one comparison actually matters: that team lifted the World Cup. This one has not.
Bluntly, I reckon England had no chance of winning the World Cup before Wayne Rooney was injured. They rely too much on one or two players, and don't have the strength in depth of the teams that are likely to win. I fully expected them to go out in the Quarter Finals, or as soon as they face Brazil. With Wayne Rooney injured, they have even less chance, which puts me in an odd position. You don't get negative probabilities, so how do things get worse from 0% chance? (The truth is that the odds weren't 0%. There was always a tiny chance that their opponents would be wiped out by a freak meteor strike, allowing England to win by default. Therefore, there was always a tiny chance of victory. That is finite, and so can be reduced.)
However, there is one counter argument that is worth mentioning. It does us all good if England wins. True, we'll be subjected to an endless stream of programmes telling us how this is the greatest team ever, that England are the best ever, and on and on and on. But, that's no different from now, except we'll be hit with "2006" instead of "1966". But the truth is that success breeds success. And investment in sport is a good thing, and some of that investment would come up across the border. So, there are some small advantages...
Ultimately, it has to be a question for the individual. There is no right answer. For myself, I will not be supporting England in the World Cup. In fact, I won't be supporting any of the teams, and have remarkably little interest in it. Scotland aren't there, so why do I care at all? Actually, I doubt I'll be watching many of the games at all - I just don't see the point.
Sadly, since I moved, my parents have invested in a new frier, on the grounds that the old one broke, and have ended up with a frier that is slightly less effective than thinking warm thoughts in the direction of the chips. So, when I moved back in briefly, the delight of chips was still denied to me.
Fortunately, the story does not end there, for at the weekend I purchased a brand new "3 in 1" frier! My new apartment has a much bigger kitchen, complete with a window I can put right next to a frier, allowing me the use of such an appliance.
Now, the first thing to say about the purchasing experience is that there is a surprisingly small range of friers available, at least in the local Comet store. I had hoped to buy a small frier, capable of doing a small quantity of chips and not much else (and consequently using less energy), but no such luck. Instead, I have had to buy a full-size all-singing all-dancing model.
The second thing to say is that I find the notion of a "3 in 1" frier somewhat amusing. This is an appliance that suspends a basket of food in hot oil. There's nothing fancy about it at all. Claiming it's "3 in 1" is rather disingenuous, even if it does have two different sizes of baskets you can use.
The third thing to say is that when I'm buying a frier with a 2 year guarantee, and given my statuatory rights, I'm probably not going to be interested in your store's special 3 year extended guarantee. Especially when the cost of this guarantee is almost half of the cost of the appliance in the first place - if it breaks in the first few weeks, I'm entitled to a replacement by law. If it goes wrong in the first 2 years, the applicance's guarantee protects me. So, your guarantee is only useful if something goes wrong in year three, and for the money involved I can probably run to the cost of a new frier in that time.
Anyway, yesterday I made use of my new frier for the first time. The upshot: my chips were burnt. It seems the heating element on the appliance is somewhat overzealous, or perhaps it was affected by there being so few chips, but either way, the chips were rather overdone.
Still: real chips!
I did get an email telling me a customer services ticket had been raised, though, and that someone would be in touch, hopefully within 24 hours! Naturally, I'm still waiting.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
They might have it connected up by the time I go home tonight. And it's possible that my wallpaper will have spontaneously transformed into gold.
I start work at 8:30 every morning. Due to traffic fluctuations, I like to leave the house no later than 7:45, which means I generally arrive by 8:15. I then spend the next 15 minutes sitting in the car reading; I don't like going into the office because I'll then be drawn into starting work early (not sure why that's really a bad thing, but never mind).
Anyway, yesterday I was sitting in the car reading with the radio off. I decided the radio was just distracting me, so I switched it off, leaving the keys in the ingnition, but the power completely off. I recall thinking to myself, "that's a bad idea. You'll leave the keys in the car." I decided I would remember.
And I did remember. Immediately as the door left my hand to slam shut. In that very instant I recalled that my keys needed retrieved. Too late, of course.
So, the solution was, of course, to have someone come, get the apartment keys, fetch my spare set, and bring them to me. Sadly, though, while I could have told you in an instant where the spare keys were at home, or in Yeovil, I haven't yet bedded in the new flat enough to be able to do that with more than about 90% certainty. So, I had to get picked up and go personally to get the keys. Which were, of course, where I thought they probably were.
Anyway, many thanks to Richard and, especially, Leigh for helping me out.
Monday, May 22, 2006
That's a nice fiction.
The way it really works is that the discussion specifies the goods to be delivered, the delivery date and the price, the customer pays the price, and then the company jerks the customer around in every possible way until such time as the customer loses patience, demands a refund, and has his lawyer start legal proceedings to recover his money.
Some examples: I ordered a sofa in January. I paid the full, not inconsiderable, price. They specified a 12-week delivery time, which took us to the end of March. Then, at the start of February, they phoned to inform my answering maching that there was a delay of unspecified length.
I moved in April, so I contacted the company and asked them what was happening. They declared that they could not deliver before the move, so agreed to deliver to my parents' address. The sofa is now sitting in their warehouse in the south of England. They are apparently having difficulties finding a truck to put it on to shift it up here.
The reality is that they have plenty of trucks, but they're all full with unsold sofas for their stores. Because I've already paid, they have no motivation to actually deliver my sofa - potential customers must come first over actual customers. I think I will start a book on when the sofa will actually arrive. (I will also be posting here when it does arrive, including details of the company I won't be buying from again. However, I won't be doing so before then, because antagonising the people before they deliver the sofa is sure to have it 'accidentally' fall into a wood-chipper and be delayed further).
Second, there is my ISP. I have paid for 2 years of broadband service up front. I got a really good deal on that service. I have also paid them a significant fee to move my service to my new flat. On Thursday, the light on my router started flashing, indicating that BT have connected the line for broadband, but my router won't connect like it should.
I emailed tech support asking about the situation. I got an automated reply, promising that an engineer would be in touch within 24 hours. I'm still waiting.
They also have a technical support phone line. Which is nice, except that it charges £1 per minute. Nonetheless, thinking I would need to phone to get immediate service (rather than sending an email that someone can just ignore), I phoned the number. There was an introductory recorded message, lasting just over a minute of course, explaining that this was a tech support line (duh!) and that some calls are recorded. Then I was told they were experiencing an "unusual volume of calls" and that I was being placed in a queue. Please hold!
Yeah, right. At £1 a minute?
Now, to be fair to them, my ISP did say it might be up to 3 weeks before the switch-over was complete. That does not expire until tomorrow. So, if they manage to sort out the problems before then, I'll not complain too much. However, I find myself wondering whether that is likely or not...
Then there's Sky.
Leaving aside for the moment the annoyance of having to sign a 12-month contract with them (when I'm on a 6-month lease), there's the issue that I'm paying a sum every month for service. In addition, there was a charge for moving the service to a new address. Once again, this has all been set up to prepay. And these charges are not unreasonable.
So, Sky arranged for an engineer to come and fit a new dish last Saturday. I waited by the phone all last Saturday. No sign. So, I called their help(!)line, and was told that an engineer had been at my flat at 9:33, and had tried to call my mobile phone.
Sadly, it is entirely possible that I was asleep at 9:33. It had been a late night, and I didn't set my alarm; nor did I note when I woke up. However, my phone had no missed calls. So, I enquired about this, and was given the number the engineer called. The number was wrong - it had an extra digit.
That's infuriating, but somewhat understandable. Although why the engineer didn't notice that my phone number was a freakish abomination with 12 digits rather than the 11 shared by all other phone numbers in the country, and why he didn't therefore try my home phone number (which Sky also have on record) is beyond me.
Oh, the woman on the help(!)line also said that if I hadn't heard anything by 9:30, I should have called them to enquire what was going on. Useful information when I called at 16:50!
Anyway, never mind. A new installation date was arranged, for this Saturday.
This time, I set my alarm. I made sure both mobile and home phones were beside me all day. (Oh, and I'd corrected their copy of my mobile number, too.)
I waited some more.
At 9:50, I called them. The guy on the help(!)line said he didn't know what was happening. He tried to call the engineer, without success. He assured me that the engineer was coming, and that I would be called with a time of arrival.
I waited some more.
At 14:30, I called again. I explained the situation. A different guy on the help(!)line got in touch with the engineering department. He then informed me that the engineer had called in sick that morning, and that they had meant to call me.
It of course made me feel much better that they had intended to call me. I still don't have Sky, and their customer service sucks beyond all reason, but at least I have the warm fuzzy feeling that they meant to call me.
So, a new installation date has been arranged. Unsurprisingly, it's set for this Saturday, since I kind of have to go to work, so can't spend a whole day waiting for an engineer who might or might not show up. Never mind that that means wasting half of my weekend doing the same.
What gets me most in all of these cases is not so much the waiting. I'm a fairly patient person. If you say it will be three weeks (or even three months) for something, I'll wait. Or take my business elsewhere. No, it's that they haven't done the things that they said they would.
An engineer falling sick is not the company's fault. It's not the engineer's fault. It is literally "circumstances beyond our control". However, failing to tell me most definately is their fault, as is not having the right number the week before. Likewise, I can understand a delay in delivering a sofa of a few weeks. However, it is unacceptable to have it stuck at the wrong end of the country because you "can't find a van to transport it." If you were really determined, you could do it very quickly - I took about half an hour to find the van rental service I used to transport all my possessions up from Yeovil. (Of course, that costs money...) And don't promise you'll get back to someone "within 24 hours" if you have no reasonable expectation of doing so. We don't like being lied to.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
I got the DVD of Sharpe's Challenge a week or so ago. It's a good show, improved by not having to try to watch it through the interference on a rather poor video tape.
Sadly, though, the producers of the DVD did a really bad job, in a number of areas:
1) The sound is in stereo. Now, I know this is acceptable, but it's not very good. Should have made use of the features of DVD, and given us surround sound.
2) The extras are rather poor. Again, proper use of the DVD format, I think.
However, neither of these is a huge gripe. I watch DVDs for the main feature, and that was good, except...
Sharpe's Challenge was originally broadcast in two parts, across two nights. This was because it was too long for one night. Fair enough. So, on the DVD, they have, of course, editted the two parts together into a coherent whole, right?
The two parts are presented on the DVD exactly as they were broadcast (minus adverts), including the "Next on Sharpe..."/"Previously on Sharpe..." montages! So, having just watched the first episode, we have a recap of the events of that episode! Madness.
Of course, that does allow them to put the layer change (which is often annoying) in a good place. Of course, they would insert it in between the two episodes, so you don't really notice it. Right?
Wrong. The layer change appears in the middle of the second part.
Some advice for the people responsible: next time, put someone competent in charge of producing your DVDs. Especially since you can expect to make more money from DVD sales than from any other vector, including the advertising revenues from the broadcasts.
Monday, May 15, 2006
The place where I live sounds a bit like the name of a place where some famous knights used to live. Consequently, I felt the need to do things that are a bit like things that knights would do. So, after a burst of singing "We're Knights of the Round Table", I got to work inventing a new sport: Mop Jousting!
To engage in mop jousting, you need the following things:
A life-size cardboard cut-out of Darth Vader, Britney Spears, or other intergalactic villain. Targets should be affixed to the head, heart, and other vulnerable areas.
Two half-coconut shells.
One other person (to act as squire).
The goal is to have your squire use the coconut shells to provide a clip-clop sound while you barrel down the corridor toward the target with the mop, and strike it at force. Like in a joust. Additional points are awarded for appearing most chivalrous while performing this heroic deed.
Two variants have been suggested by interested parties since I invented the sport.
Leigh suggested that the best form of the sport would involve a wheelchair. Indeed, she went so far as to suggest some sort of fixed harness for the mop. Personally, I think she may have thought about this a bit too much.
Graham suggested dispensing with the cocnuts and the squire, and instead having a CD of coconut noises at different speeds. The CD should then be put on random, giving a more difficult version of the game. This also allows for solo mop jousting, which has to be a boon.
Now all I need to do is get some funding for my mop jousting league. My ultimate goal is to have mop jousting declared an Olympic sport for 2012.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Lost is going the same way. The third episode of the second season was on on Tuesday, and finally some of the characters were sat down in front of a film that would explain some things! Except that when they watched the film it revealed... nothing. The film provided absolutely no new information. In fact, all it said was "every 108 minutes, you must enter a code, or else!!!"
I'm losing interest in Lost. If it's supposed to be a mystery, then it's time to stop messing around and provide us with some new information. If it's not, why are you jerking us around like that?
The show has until the end of this season to provide me with some answers. If not, I'm done.
(And yes, I'm very angry at that episode. Adding a new layer to the mystery is fine, but it's long past time we got some new answers. I don't watch TV to be frustrated.)
Monday, May 08, 2006
And there's the issue. Like most people, I accumulate things at a far greater rate than I dispose of them. Throwing away a perfectly good book is a notion that is alien to me. (And, by 'throwing away', I don't necessarily mean binning. But giving away to charity, auctioning off at anything less than I paid for it, or whatever, the net result is the same - I no longer have the item in question, and have made a loss on it.)
Anyway, a sensible response to this is to cut back on getting new things. It's probably not necessary to buy another twenty t-shirts when I only wear about a third of the ones I already own.
Except, it doesn't work. Not only will people still give me new clothes (for Christmas, birthdays, or whatever), but there is an entirely valid case for continuing to buy new books (you want new things to read, and public libraries become less good once you've read all the big names in your chosen genres).
So, I've been giving some thought to the question of how to deal with this accumulation of stuff in a sensible, long-term way.
Now, ideally, I think I would switch to an entirely virtual wireless lifestyle. Clearly, the value of a DVD, CD or book doesn't lie with the shiny plastic or the pulped tree - it lies with the data enclosed within that wrapper. Therefore, you could in theory invest in a couple of Terabytes of hard-disk space, and store your entire DVD collection as a set of (big) files, your entire music collection as MP3s, and all your books in some eBook format. Then, add a tablet PC and iPod (wirelessly), and set up an 802.11a link to your 'DVD Player' device, and you have all the same functionality at a fraction of the space requirement. What's more, to get a new tune/movie/book, you just download it from the internet, and don't need to leave the house.
Sadly, the technology isn't there yet. eBook readers are a pain, and the books aren't available. Wireless networking is decidedly non-trivial. Internet bandwidth makes downloading movies impractical. And Terabytes of storage don't come cheap.
The virtual wireless lifestyle doesn't address one other issue, anyway, which is that some things really do have value in their physical form. These include your appliances and furniture, but is mostly concerned with clothes (can't do much about the others, except think of switching to composite devices, which generally suck).
Where clothes are concerned, I think a mindset needs to be developed that they are temporary investments, rather than something to buy and keep. So, once something wears out, it gets thrown away rather than repaired (this attitude wouldn't apply if the rate of acquisition was much lower). There are a certain number of sets of clothing a person actually needs anyway, and a certain number of 'back-up' outfits that they might reasonably use. So, the trick would seem to be to determine what those outfits are, and invest in complete sets of clothing to fill those points. Then, anything that is superfluous should be disposed of. Thereafter, when any new item of clothing is acquired, it should be a replacement for something in the wardrobe, which should therefore be discarded.
Case in point: I have nine 'regular' shirts and nine pairs of general use trousers to go with them. (Actually, my target for both of these is eight, but never mind.) Naturally, when a shirt wears out and needs replaced, I will go out and buy a new shirt. However, since I'll only buy a new shirt to replace one that's worn out, it makes sense to dispose of the worn-out shirt at the same time (that's hardly rocket-science, but it's astounding how many people fail to take that step).
The controversial part of the process comes about if I should be given some shirts for Christmas. At this point, we assume, I have eight regular shirts that aren't in line for replacement, plus some number of brand new shirts to add to the collection. This creates a problem, since it's quite alien to throw away a perfectly good shirt just to make room.
There is, however, a solution that mostly works. As we know, Christmas is at roughly the same time of the year each year. As, indeed, is a given person's birthday. Now, you can probably guess that you might get some number of shirts for one of both of these occasions. So, what to do is identify the two or three shirts that are closest to their end, and wear them heavily for the six weeks before Christmas (even better is if you've got some that need replaced - just delay). That way, you save wear on your better shirts, and have a couple that are almost ready to go when the gifts arrive. And if they don't, well, you would have had to replace them at some point anyway.
I'm currently in the process of sorting all this out. I'll be checking back in with some progress reports as I implement this pared down lifestyle...
(Why do I think their songs were directed at me, you might ask. Well, there was the fact that they started singing only when they saw me, and their general posture, which did seem inclined in my general direction. Of course, I might be wrong.)
The only thing is, I'm not a Rangers supporter. I've never been to a game, and have an interest in the state of the league only in an academic sense (and because most of my colleagues do care, and it's wise to have some sort of knowledge of what people are talking about). So, I wasn't remotely hurt by their chanting that a team I don't support aren't in the top competition in football.
Why did they think I was a Rangers fan? Well, the jacket I wear happens to have blue and white stripes on the upper arms. So, essentially, I was being targetted for wearing the wrong colour. As I said, muppets.
Of course, that they reminded me of the Red Dwarf episode in which the Cat race have a holy war over whether the hats should be blue or red (they were supposed to be green). And that reminded me that I enjoyed that episode. So, really, it just cheered me up a bit.