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17 December 2007

wetherspoons

If Wetherspoons is supposed to be the no.2 food outlet in the UK by volume after McDonalds, why am I sitting here at their Bridge Inn in Belfast, still waiting for my food over half an hour after I ordered it and nearly 10 minutes after I was told it was just on its way down?

Cant we expect better from someone claiming to be no.2?

03 December 2007

Towards a more flexible e-commerce model

Argos (a top 5 e-commerce site in the UK) reports on its website when you go to buy something:

Remember, you don't need to register to purchase on this website!


Glory be and hallelujah.

About the only site I know of that allows people to log in if they want to (potentially saving time in the long term) as well as not logging in (thereby saving time for one off purchases and especially if you have forgotten your password etc)

When I go to shop in a normal high street shop, I am not required to log in. Nor am I required in the main to have their store card and use it allowing every purchase I make to be tracked on every visit. Nor am I required to set up a username before I think about putting stuff in my basket. Nor am I required to give my date of birth before purchasing non-age related goods from them.

Yet on-line retailers indulge in this nefarious data gathering just because they can. Tesco.com requires to have a clubcard before purchasing with them (thereby allowing all your purchases to be tracked). Toysrus.com requires a date of birth when registering, even though the vast bulk of their products are non-age related and even though all they need to know is whether I am over 18 or not, see this analysis of their site in terms of the data protection act.

Argos were reviewed as Pants back in 2003 and still persist with the silly practice of requiring everyone to have a courtesy title even when many prefer not to use one. But nonetheless, credit where it's due for being courageous enough to say no to the marketing department's endless quest for customer data "we take your data because we can" and having a site that gives the customer the option of a quick purchase without having to log in as well as using their account if they have one.

A site that offers true customer choice, how long before others follow this lead?

Craig

30 November 2007

St Andrew's day

The BBC reports that Scotland is to mark St Andrew's day. For more information see scotland.org or scotland.gov.uk. You can read about St Andrew on the gateway to Scotland site or on the soc.culture.scottish FAQ, the first online guide to Scotland and hosted on this site.

Craig

28 November 2007

Scottish Software Awards 2007

News from Silicon Glen (yes, it's more than just electronics), the winners of the Scottish Software Awards 2007 have been announced. Congratulations to all who entered, and especially to the winners.

Craig

27 November 2007

Welcome to Scotland

The Scottish Government has just spent £100,000 apparently to come up with a new slogan for Scotland to replace "The best small country in the world". The new slogan is to be "Welcome to Scotland" with the Gaelic translation of "Failte gu Alba" as you can see from the picture in the BBC article.

100K pah, I could have done it for a fraction of that figure. Oh, I already did.

See the comment dated 9:11pm 27 Aug 2006.

The comment was obviously far too ahead of its time and didn't take full account of inflation either.

Aye, right

Craig

Towards a gold standard for contact centre service

I find a good part of my lunch hour is spent dealing with fairly useless contact centres. I would probably get more out of my lunch break and be able to do more interesting things than listen to boring hold music if contact centres improved their quality of service. Things haven't improved much in many years, I recall spending long hours on the phone to Alliance and Leicester in 2001 - often it was half an hour before they even answered the phone.

In response to the lack of initiative and progress in contact centre customer service, I propose the following initial list as targets that contact centres should aspire to, in order to offer gold standard customer service rather than the poor quality crap we have to tolerate at present. No particular order here and feel free to add your own ideas.


1. For an independent company to assess contact centres for typical and peak wait times until you get to speak to someone (including having to work through the menus). Then customers can make informed independent choices regarding which companies waste the least amount of time. These timings should then be published centrally with the worst offenders named and shamed.

2. For companies to aspire to a high level of standard rather than unacceptably long queues and to publish their standard on their website (and on the site mentioned in 1). e.g. "We aim to answer 90% of calls in less than 10 seconds". A standard that some companies actually meet, yet others would laugh at the idea of answering a call within 10 minutes.

3. For information to be available on what the busiest and quietest times are for the contact centre and their hours of opening so that I can make an informed choice about when to call them.

4. To have a facility to turn off hold music. This means that if I am in a long queue I can put my phone on speakerphone and get on with my job without annoying the rest of the office with a tinny version of Vivaldi's concert for hold music annoying everyone around me.

5. When using phone menus, every menu must have a "help" or "none of the previous options apply, I'd like to speak to a real person rather than a robot" type option.

6. Again with phone menus, they must have information on how to go back to the previous menu.

7. An option that if you have waited more than a certain length of time (e.g. a few minutes) in a queue, that there is always the option to leave your number and have someone call you back where your call has reached the front of the queue.

8. A fast track menu system so that you don't have to wait for all the announcements before you can progress to the next menu - you should be able to interrupt any menu and advance quickly without having to hear all the options. Many contact centre menus already do this but it's worth mentioning anyway.

9. To publish the contact centre menus on the company's website so that I can work through them quickly via a web browser, click on the relevant menu option and then to open up Skype or similar and jump straight in the the relevant queue that I've just clicked on.

10. Not having to repeat my details every time the call is transferred, including when I have to transfer from an automated system to an operator. Surely the IT systems at the contact centre can do this?

11. The ability for the contact centre to text or email relevant information in the event that you can't write things down very easily (e.g. driving, walking down street carrying mobile and briefcase, etc.)

12. An acceptance that excessive wait times is not only exceptionally poor customer service but in the false economics of saving money for the company, it actually wastes time for the customers of the contact centre. Since cc operators are usually on less than the average national salary, the implication is their customers' salary average is near to the national average and thus more than the contact centre operator's wages. This means it is a false economy employing insufficient contact centre operators and transferring the consequent wait time onto people whose time is more "expensive" and who would probably be happy to pay a higher premium for shorter wait times.

13. being able to access my account via the same lookup procedure and security procedure used by operators (i.e. if I don't have my policy number, I can just enter postcode, security answers etc). Banning the use of "usernames" for telephone access. My address, security details etc are enough.

14. If you end up in the wrong queue, the centre should be able to transfer calls for me without me having to hang up and start again

15. When the contact centre phones me, they use a legitimate number that accepts return calls and which announces the name of the company (i.e. not like Powergen). This implies the said number is not withheld, a very irritating practice.

16. Operators that have a good command of English. This especially applies to companies thinking of outsourcing their contact centre to Asia.

17. If I don't select a menu, then the options are only repeated twice before I am put through to an operator. They are not repeated indefinitely, nor does the system hang up on me.

18. Being able to easily speak to a manager/supervisor/complaints department.

19. Being able to dial straight into a relevant queue so that I don't have to pay to wait on hold. 20 minutes on hold on a mobile calling internationally is not funny.

20. On completion of a call, being given the option to provide feedback there and then on what I thought of the service given (e.g. press 1 for delighted to 9 for unhappy, etc.)

21. Being able to email the contact centre without having to go through menu spaghetti.

22. Using a phonetic name field (in addition to the usual name fields) in the customer record so that people with names like mine, difficult foreign names etc can have the correct pronunciation of their name recorded, thus meaning that time isn't wasted explaining how to say the name.

23. Treating email as important as fax and phone and providing a response within a "phone call" order of magnitude turnaround. It can be done for a phone call, yet for email response some companies take 5 days to respond. I'm mailing you via a medium that works at close to the speed of light because I want a quick response, not because I want it to sit in a backlog for a week.

24. Employ operators in the contact centre that don't talk over me, listen, and have a good level of knowledge of the topic I am phoning about.


Any more to add to this?

Craig

26 November 2007

First year contracting

Today marks the first anniversary of the start of my career full time contracting, so here's a look back on the previous year including some of the things that I did that were by products of that transition and the associated lifestyle and most of which I wouldn't have done had I still been a full time permanent employee in my previous job.

Here goes:

Was Project Manager for Tesco.com grocery, one of the world's leading e-commerce sites

Was Project manager for a major public sector project in Northern Ireland, part of the Causeway programme.

Gained security clearance

Bought laptop for working away from home

Bought PRINCE2 course, studying in my spare time

Went to the gym a lot

Went to over 80 live performances

Considerably improved my singing.

Turnover of my company that I founded in 2001 is now sufficient to require VAT registration. Filed first VAT return, very boring.

Got RBS Black card.

Visited debating chamber at Stormont

Met the Minister for Enterprise in Scotland

Appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, helped with research for programme on Ulster Scots

Learned about what really makes a good hotel and that few hotels are actually worth staying in for more than a few nights before total boredom sets in. Campaigned against rip off WiFi rates.

Significantly increased my income and moved house.

Admired Central Scotland and the Ayrshire coast from 16,000 feet on a clear blue day, several times.

Was Information lead for a Techcrunch 40 company, Crowdspirit.

Met lots of interesting people from all over the world.

Got used to 4am starts every Monday.

Walked from my bedroom to work every day.

I can now drink in a smoke free pub anywhere in the UK, something I campaigned for on national TV in 1990.

Became my own boss.

20 November 2007

It's a PIN, not a PIN number

For months we have been told by the banks about Chip and PIN. Chip and PIN this, chip and PIN that. Use your Chip and PIN. Chip and PIN blah blah until we're fed up hearing about it and over 20 months after its widespread roll-out we still have signs telling us about chip and PIN.

PIN = Personal Identification Number.

A PIN IS A NUMBER THEREFORE DOES NOT NEED THE WORD 'NUMBER' AFTER IT
PIN Number = Personal Identification Number Number. How silly is that?

Yet there's a large number of organisations that really ought to know better who think it is now necessary to suffix the acronym PIN with the superfluous suffix 'number'. Maybe we could just change it to PI number instead?

Please enter your PI ?!

Here are the organisations so far that ought to know better:


1. The Royal Bank of Scotland. On their cashline machines, it states "Please enter your PIN number". Also applies to their Ulster Bank cashline machines in Northern Ireland.

2. Orange. No surprises here, fresh from winning the "worst contact centre award" when you call to collect your voicemail, the greeting states "Please enter your PIN number".

Please feel free to add your own examples...

17 November 2007

Bollocks security

Continuing the theme of e-mail/Internet security.

Tonight I wanted to set up a new bill payment. The bank, in response to customer paranoia about Internet security and phishing attacks now require me to carry my bank cards and their calculator like number generator that I now have to take with me on business if I want to set up a bill payment. No thanks. No, I don't want to trail a variety of calculator like devices around with me one for each account or service I might want to use. I think the encryption offered by the bank site together with the random letters and digits from a security password is secure enough.

However, aside from that, let us now look at the two options the bank presents:

1. Log onto the website, have it over a secure encrypted channel, type in a customer number securely, random digits from two separate passwords securely and use the calculator device to randomly generate a number. Pretty secure huh?

2. Alternatively, use a phone, have the conversation in clear text, have the audible key presses recordable by anyone in earshot with a microphone, no need for the card reader calculator device either. Set up bill payment successfully.

Does the analogy of having 50 billion million trillion zillion locks on your front door and only 1 on your back door apply here?

Which way do you think a burglar would want to break in?

Why do banks and other sites continue to believe that the phone is a secure means of communication?

10 November 2007

Orange wins the worst contact centre award, thanks to this blog

Check the link. Clearly still surpassing themselves in the worst contact centre award stakes and following on from their outstanding showing in this category last year it is clear there is no let up in form in the poor customer services stakes this year either. Why only a few weeks ago I phoned to ask how I collect voice mail for another orange account from my own phone and after 15 minutes of being passed from pillar to post the person still didn't understand the question, never mind actually give me an answer.

Meanwhile I posted the same question on the uk.telecom.mobile group who answered it correctly in less than 30 minutes, without me having to be on hold waiting for an answer and without me having to play irrelevant menu hell either. Maybe Orange should outsource their contact centre to usenet, it certainly provides a more useful service.

Craig

09 November 2007

The Untouchables, Belfast

Greatest gig in town. Every Monday, Benedicts Hotel, Bradbury Place, Belfast. 11pm-1am. Best entertainment I've enjoyed in years! Check out their facebook group.

Craig

13 October 2007

Program it all

Will we see increasing programmability and customisation around the home? If not just to meet the needs of the consumer perhaps any company seeking to market environmentally friendly products would prefer to be selling products that can be easily upgraded and adapted?

Please vote for this idea on crowdspirit...

Craig

05 October 2007

Next big thing for the net to come from Silicon Glen, Scotland?

So says John Giannandrea, a Scot who became Chief Technologist at Netscape and is currently CTO of the hot startup Metaweb.

Watch this space then?

Craig

03 October 2007

Rude business communication

I have already blogged about rude e-mails. These are emails sent by allegedly reputable companies who consider email to be a good enough medium to communicate with you, but not a good enough medium for you to reply. In other words, they are rude. Instead of a simple easy reply using the tool you used to pick up their mail, they incorrectly assume you have access to the web (you might be using a slow mobile phone/PDA), they incorrectly assume your device must be compatible with their website (usually not, especially if you are disabled) and they incorrectly assume that you enjoy playing "contact us" droplist spaghetti just as much as people hate playing contact centre multi-option phone queue and hold music hell. "I'm sorry, I didn't get that, please listen carefully to the following options again".

Powergen are one of the rude companies when it comes to email, sending their emails from a "do not reply" email address, however they completely excelled themselves in rudeness when they called me yesterday, hung up the phone and didn't leave a message. So I called them back using the number presented to my phone 01158434900 (0115 843 9400 just to ensure it appears in the search index) only to be greeted with an even ruder "This number does not accept incoming calls". Not even an announcement saying which company it was. Not even a "Thank you for calling Powergen, we'll direct you to someone who can help". Nope, sod off hang up the phone.

Guys, this sort of "crap on the consumer" is completely unacceptable. It's the telephone equivalent of leaving a pile of shit on someone's doorstep with a note saying "left by anonymous ha ha". People actually want to be able to reply, people don't want to be called anonymously by companies hiding behind dead email addresses or phone numbers. People shouldn't have to go to a PC, type the phone number into Google (other search engines may still exist) to find out who it was because the company was too rude to say so.

Dead email addresses, "contact us" drop list spaghetti, long contact centre queues and dead phone numbers may be really convenient for the company but they are really INCONVENIENT for the customer and I for one am getting fed up using a good part of my lunch hour playing these silly games just to get in touch with you (including 3 hours to Demon's contact centre recently trying to figure out why my 5 day broadband service was down for 26 days, my website wiped and my email bounced.

You want to know how annoying this rudeness is? The next time you want to contact me, I'll not give you my email address and any phone calls will go via a service that makes you wait for 20 minutes in a queue listening to "Your call is important to me, please hang on while we try to connect you" without the option of leaving a message, without the option of being called back when you've reached the front of the queue and without the option of hearing a valid email address that works.

Your productivity would go down somewhat and rather than being able to call 20 customers an hour, you might be able to call 2.

Annoying isn't it? SO DON'T DO IT TO CUSTOMERS THEN. In any case, if my phone call was really that important to you, you would make more of an effort to answer it quickly.

DONT email me from dead email addresses, instead email me from a working email address and include a reference number so that my reply goes back to the right place.

DONT phone me from dead phone numbers (or withhold your number like a dodgy scam artist might). Instead, call me from a real phone number than when I call you back allows me to speak to someone.

Don't tell me that you can pick up the phone, deal with my enquiry and resolve it in well under an hour but somehow for an email it takes the best part of a week. Just because I use a different communication method, it makes my issue no less important. I actually had a sore throat recently and preferred to send email rather than speak on the phone. Goodness knows how any disabled people with speech problems put up with this second class service. Can't speak because of a very sore throat? No web access? You might as well not exist.

Above all, don't be rude. You might even find customers being more polite to your contact centre staff when they eventually reach the end of the queue....

Thank You.

Craig

25 September 2007

Stopping the junk mail

There are three kinds of junk mail.

1. Stuff addressed to you, you can stop this by writing to the Mailing Preference service

2. Stuff addressed to nobody. Leaflets, etc. You can stop this by e-mailing: optout@royalmail.com. This is the service that a postie was disciplined for telling his customers about. Good old Royal Mail, here to spam you and then discipline anyone who tells customers how to stop the spam.

3. Stuff addressed to a generic address, e.g. "The Occupier", "The Head of Personnel", "The Householder".

The Direct Marketing Association has you over a barrel here, because there is currently no way of opting out of this spam. This means that if you are moving house you can look forward to receiving several spam mailshots a day addressed to "The Occupier" offering you removal and storage services and other stuff you probably aren't interested in, especially if you have moved already.

Dear Marketing spammers. Kindly get your act together and have a "no junk mail" service that actually works.

Craig

19 September 2007

peer commerce

Make money from your MP3 collection?

Peer commerce - will it take off?

08 September 2007

why demon internet is not recommended

I first promoted Demon in June 1992, the month they set up. I joined them as a customer the following year. This is the first time I have moved house whilst having Demon as a broadband provider. It has been a total disaster and I would recommend that anyone who values their sanity avoids them like the plague.

1. As a business, the internet is important to me. I am changing address, but keeping the same phone number.
2. After a very lengthy conversation on 4 Sept, I explained BT were transferring my line on 18 sept. Demon has no concept of transferring, you have to cancel and set up a new service. Setting up the new service takes at least 5 working days, hence your business will be offline for a week. In this day and age, it is unacceptable.
3. During the call on the 4th, demon set me up with temporary dial up access. They then said to call back on the 13th to minimise downtime.
4. I return from my business trip on the 7th to find the arseholes at Demon had already cancelled my broadband.
5. I then called them on the evening of the 8th to log into the dial up account which was set up on the 4th to find that it hadnt been set up at all, they couldnt help me until Monday (by which time I will be out of the country) and they didnt even know if customer service was open on a Sunday or not.
6. Conclusion. Demon is crap and should know better than to outsource to India.
7. Avoid Demon if you value your sanity.

(posted via Orange WAP). Ha ha, you can take away our ADSL but you can never take away our freedom..... :-)

07 September 2007

iPod touch, browser, calendar, personalised news. Patent application 1990.

The story of how an early keyboardless browser for pages and links (called PageLink) from early 1990 was canned by Digital. Has a surprising number of features in common with iPod touch, modern browsers (bookmarks, search), personalised news, calendars, PDAs today. Comments about the internet "revolutionising online advertising" also relevant.

read more | digg story

14 August 2007

Scottish Government marks 100 days in power with national conversation

The launch of "a national conversation" is to determine the political and constitutional future of Scotland and the UK. The status quo, more powers for the Scottish parliament or full sovereign independence. In contrast to south of the border, the Labour party is now a poor second to the SNPs ever growing record lead over all other parties. Is the public warming to the SNP and will the independence debate be given a fair hearing?

read more | digg story

05 August 2007

Traditional Gaelic events at the Edinburgh Fringe

For 2008 events please see the 2008 event listings.

2007 programme of events
Com-pàirteachas Gàidhlig Dhùn Èideann (Edinburgh Gaelic Partnership)welcomes you to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with:

"Cèilidh in the City"
Colmcille Centre, 2 Newbattle Terrace, Edinburgh

Ceòl (music)
Òrain (songs)
Sgeulachdan (storytelling)

Monday 20th August (7.30pm – 9.30pm)
Alasdair Codona (vocal & guitar) & Mairead Callan (vocal) with Martin Macintyre (storyteller) plus supporting local instrumentalists & singers.

Tuesday 21st August (7.30pm – 9.30pm)
Gillian Mackenzie (vocal) with Gaelic musicians and singers from Edinburgh Schools combine with Lothian Gaelic Choir for an evening of traditional entertainment for all generations.

Wednesday 22nd August (7.30pm – 9.30pm) "A taste of the Mod" with Medallists, Kirsteen Macdonald (vocal), Calum A. Macmillan (vocal), Màiri Macleod (clàrsach), Falkirk Junior Gaelic Choir, young musicians from Lochaber, & others.

Thursday 23rd August (7.30pm – 9.30pm)
A night with "Am Bothan" & guests – Roddy Campbell (vocal & instrumentals) & Don Mackenzie (guitar) with local artistes.

Friday 24th August (7.30pm – 9.30pm)
Top pipers Iain & Allan Macdonald & Griogair Lawrie with Margaret Stewart (vocal), Martin Macintyre (storyteller) and local musicians.

Saturday 25th August (7.30pm – 9.30pm)
Ever popular Kathleen Macinnes (vocal) & Griogair Lawrie (vocal & pipes) with Martin Macintyre (storyteller) & local musicians.

Nach tig sibh a chèilidh oirnn gach oidhche!

Tickets £8/£6 available 9.00am to 9.00pm
Fringe Box Office (0131 226 0000) or at the door.

31 July 2007

Airport security, mostly hype

As someone who flies to work, I have made some observations on flying and airport security which I thought I would share here. Having gone through the same routine over 50 times this year alone, you get to spot the subtle differences that are maybe lost on the more casual traveller.

First off, security.

Good security is when an independent 3rd party checks my bags. Like putting them in a scanner and deciding if I’m carrying anything inappropriate. Questionable security is trusting passengers to be honest. When you check in, you are asked the following questions:
1. Did you pack the bag yourself?
2. Could anyone have interfered with your bags?
3. Are you carrying anything for anyone else?
4. Are you carrying any sharp or dangerous items?

Whilst I answer honestly to the above, it is of course open to any would be terrorist to simply lie. I don’t really understand the point of the above questions. Like much of airport security it is simply taken as a given that passengers will do exactly as asked when questioned. This is just the routine for an airport, do it anywhere else and it’s just weird.

For instance, in most train stations you buy your ticket, go through the barrier and then wait on the platform to board the train. Not so at Great Victoria Street, Belfast where they act as if they are an airport departure lounge. There you buy the ticket, wait in an overcrowded concourse and then are only allowed to pass through the barrier when the ticket inspector has word that the train is approaching. Herding the passengers around like cattle in this way is exactly the same way they are treated at airports. Completely normal at an airport, completely weird at a train station. This isn’t a security issue at the train station, since many of the other stations on the same line are completely unmanned.

Next, as part of the check in procedure to fly you are asked to show Photo ID. For "security reasons" however the standards for acceptable ID between airlines vary enormously. For a UK domestic flight no passport is required yet for most people this is the preferred form of ID. Some opt for a driving licence and especially if you want to fly domestically, but don’t want your details added to the national ID register then this is a good alternative to the passport. However, despite this being for security reasons, EasyJet (the web’s favourite airline, see earlier blog about rip-off credit card charges) accept any valid form of photo ID they tell me. So an easily forged form of photo ID would be acceptable and it worries me that something done in the name of security could be so easily forged. If they took security more seriously, they might even list the acceptable forms of ID on their website but instead to find out you have to mail their premium rate contact centre, how unhelpful.

Then when you get to the security area you have to show a boarding card, however I am unsure why this is since there is no cross checking that I am indeed the person named on the boarding card. In the security section itself we have the new rules about taking liquids. Since the terrorist threat about liquid based bombs is now largely behind us, this focus on liquids to me seems inappropriate. For instance, I can take 5 100ml bottles but not a 200ml bottle. All bottles must be under 100ml, fit in a clear plastic re-sealable bag and be scanned separately. Yet, whilst the paranoia about liquids exists (I don’t carry any, makes my life simple) I am nonetheless allowed to carry a tie, belt, 10m of Ethernet cable, power supply cables, shoe laces and any number of items that could be misused on a plane. Yet, I can’t take a vacuum sealed bottle of water over 200ml, even if I take a sip first. These differences in security are never adequately explained, instead the travellers are herded around the airport like sheep expected to do exactly as they are told and not question why. The arbitrary limit of 100ml is bizarre since of course the 5 100ml containers could be combined post-security into 1 500ml bottle that was bought in a shop on the other side of security. Who are they trying to kid that this is effective?

Indeed I wonder why it is that at peak holiday season and in a queue of holidaymakers, there am I with my laptop bag being told to take it out of the bag. As if I don’t know already. Yes, I’m aware that’s what I have to do, yes I saw the notices and yes I would have taken it out already if there was more than 1 table to unload the bag onto and you give me more than 2 milliseconds to actually put my bag on it to empty the contents first. Yes, at an airport everyone feels obliged to give you verbal instructions. Why then do they bother with the written signs? Maybe the queues wouldn’t be so long if the tables before x-ray were bigger, giving people more time and space to unpack their bags, remove coats etc. Why also am I asked to remove my belt for x-ray – is this a mad plot to take over a plane using belts? If so, I wonder why no one questions the several metres of electrical cable I carry in my laptop bag. Typical “body search” stats are around 20-25% for random searches. Whilst there are still some people who don’t empty their pockets and set off the electrical scanners, the rest of us still get stopped randomly about one time in 5. You should also be prepared to take off your shoes a similar amount of times, something that evidently doesn’t occur to those people who fly in flip flops, have to remove them and go barefoot through the security scanners. You and several tens of thousands of people before you – enjoy the infection you pick up, never mind the dirty feet you’ll have until you reach your destination.

Next, we come to the gate. I frequently fly through gate 13 at Edinburgh. Well it’s actually called gate 12b for the stupid superstitions nitwits who wouldn’t fly out of a gate 13. As if isn’t obvious. Gate 12, Gate 12b, Gate 14. Doh!. Even Homer Simpson could figure that one out. Look, if people were actually that superstitious could some bright spark kindly explain when I recently flew on Friday 13th May that it was just as busy as any other Friday? Maybe some of us actually live in the 21st century rather than the dark ages?

So to the gate. Here they claim completely erroneously “please present your boarding pass and photo ID for final inspection”. Nope, wrong. What they should say is “please present your photo ID for final inspection together with your boarding pass”, because when you get into the actual plane they check your boarding pass again, THAT is the final inspection. The number of times I have been stuck on a queue on the stairs in the rain to get into a plane because someone has thought they didn’t need to present their boarding pass again you think the airports would at least be clear with their English.

On board the flight if you are not elderly, handicapped, pregnant, obese, a child, or a deportee under escort then please make your way to the emergency exit rows. The seats here (usually over wing) have approximately 50% more legroom than standard seats. Seats big enough for someone over 5 ft 8”. Seats big enough that you can actually sit in comfortably and not worry about DVT. Seats that you might stand a chance of being able to sleep in. However, despite the large notice pasted to the seat in front that you are in an emergency exit is it still mandatory for the cabin crew to remind me that the big door next to me is an emergency exit and have I read the very large notice 2 feet from my face? Well of course so, I didn’t have much choice did I, I could hardly miss it. More mandatory verbal instruction. However, I just wonder what the probability would be of me actually needing to reach up, remove the top panel in the door and carefully pull the lever whilst holding the handle underneath the window so that I could carefully ease the door into the cabin at a careful angle before jettisoning it outside in the event of an emergency in my airbus A318. My experience reading about emergencies is that sitting on top of tens of thousands of tons of flammable fuel I am more likely to be burned to the crispiest of crispy things before I’ve even got as far as thinking about undoing my seatbelt. The probability of ever needing the knowledge that the cabin crew have forced upon me regarding the door operation is, well, pretty small. Especially as the emergency exit door is in fact over the fuel tank.

I turn now to the other nonsense regarding airline security. What is the great mystery that surrounds walking under a wing that for our safety we are not allowed to do so if we disembark from the rear of the aircraft? Why is this never explained? Why is it that the cabin lights must be dimmed for takeoff and landing and why is it that I can quite happily fall asleep during the safety procedure but for reasons of security I have to have my window shutter left open for takeoff and landing? Does the crew never think that passengers might be interested in an explanation for these bizarre rituals and customs? Perhaps these rituals might even be a bit more relevant than the likelihood of ever needing to know how to operate the emergency door. Curiously, now that I am fully aware on how to open the emergency door, the one thing neither the flight crew nor the instructions tell me is when I should open it. I am naturally assuming that mid flight I can’t just feel a bit adventurous and decide to open it on a whim for some fresh air. I am also naturally assuming that there’s some equivalent announcement such as the one after landing when they say “cabin doors to manual”, but in all the safety announcements I’ve sat through in the emergency row not one person has explained to me how I will know when I should open the door and what mechanism allows it to be opened. Even if the flight crew said “in an emergency then you must open the door immediately” it would be something, but no. Perhaps if I am in an emergency and not burnt to the crispiest of crisp things first I might find out.

Once those of us sitting in the emergency exit rows have been instructed on the contents of the safety sheet staring us in the face, it is the turn of the rest of the plane to get the safety briefing, informing us of the safety features of the plane, the oxygen masks, seat belts, life jackets (they also carry life cots for babies don’t you know!), pull the toggle to inflate and so on. Don’t forget your seat must be in the upright position with the armrests down and the tray secured. All very well, but if it’s so important why not explain it properly. Having useful instructions like this available somewhere in the airport could actually make people interested in the whys and wherefores of the safety briefing rather than most of them falling asleep before it has started.

And so we inevitably turn to the nonsense of the mobile phone ban. Those of you still living under the mistaken belief that mobile phones are banned on planes for security reasons, where have you been hiding the last few years? Let me recommend this article as a good place to start on why a mobile ban is silly at a purely technical level. However, let me expand that further by making the following comments:

1. If the signal from a phone could interfere with the equipment on the plane, why do they let any mobile phones on the plane at all? They don’t allow nail clippers, plastic forks and other devices that would stretch the abilities of a ninja warrior to cause trouble on a plane, yet allow a mobile phone that could be left on, used in the toilet and act at a distance to crash the plane. You tell me whether it makes more sense to ban a device like that or a plastic fork.
2. If the signal from the phone is that dangerous, can someone tell me what protects the plane’s electronics from the constantly broadcasting signal from the mobile phone mast that clearly penetrates the aeroplane’s body? Especially as so many people have misgivings about living near mobile phone masts but not about actually using a phone themselves every day. They believe the mast is more dangerous, if the airlines have information to the contrary maybe they should jump in when people start opposing the building of masts near schools etc.
3. If mobile phones could interfere with electronics, surely they would install a Bluetooth receiver that picks up broadcasting signals since these are more than likely coming from mobile phones left on in the plane. On most flights I’ve been on, there are at least 4 signals within range inside the plane. Typical Bluetooth networks often have the phone make and/or the person’s name in them so it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to identify some offenders. “Could John with the Nokia 6280 please turn off his phone please” could be entertaining on the aircraft speakers, if security with phones was taken as serious as we are led to believe.
4. If mobile phones did cause problems with ground masts and roaming to multiple masts, which is the most common believable technical problem, the people living under flight paths and near airports would live in a perpetual mobile fog. With the figures above from Bluetooth, my guess is that at least 10% of people just put their phones on silent, that being the case as the plane takes off the phone begins to roam to multiple masts and anyone one ground using one of those masts could have problems. I have never heard of anyone reporting such a problem. Secondly, if airlines and mobile phone companies took airline security with mobile phones seriously they would be able to tell who the offenders were. Something along the lines of “at 7:48am your phone was in the reception area covered by Springfield international airport, then roamed to three masts before disappearing out of reception. The positional information indicates you were travelling at 150mph and regained reception near Donutsville International airport 200 miles away 40 minutes later, 2 minutes before a plane from Springfield landed and we have good reason therefore to believe your phone was left on in the plane. As such we are fining you for not complying with airline security regulations.” This does not happen. Why?
5. Why are mobile phones safe to use in hospitals but not on a plane? If the electronics on a plane are more sensitive than those on a hospital ward shouldn’t we be complaining to plane manufacturers to build airplanes that are more robust against actual malicious electronic attack?

Next, why do we assume terrorists are stupid when plainly they are not. These are the sort of people who operate covert international networks for years undetected, who planned the 11th September raids, who plan and make sophisticated devices and are capable or remaining at large years after their pictures and arrest warrants are posted. Anyone seen Bin Laden lately? So what is our reaction? There was a shoe bomber threat so we have random shoe x-rays. There was a threat about liquid bombs and so we now have liquid limits. There was a car drive into Glasgow airport and so Edinburgh airport has concrete blocks at the doors. I think the one thing we should assume is that a clever terrorist is unlikely to repeat the same tactic twice, meanwhile the rest of the law abiding population has to deal with increasing levels of somewhat questionable security.

Don't just take my word for it, the increased security and delays are causing queues at check in desks which are now considered by MPs as a risk in their own right.

This is no longer just the opinion of a bored frequent flier, nor it is just the opinion of a few MPs in grey suits, it is also the opinion of the airline industry. The International Air Transport Association's head has said that the UK has
unique screening policies inconvenience passengers with no improvement in security.


Give the guy a medal. Now, what are we going to do to have effective security that not only treats passengers like adults but is in fact secure and which doesn't assume terrorists are stupid and grind airports to a standstill?

24 July 2007

The conversation club

Working away from home during the week, I have the company of a hotel bedroom 4 nights a week and the company of an airport departure lounge on a Friday night. It's a bit of a dull and repetitive time. Like GroundHog Day I sometimes look for ways to brighten up the routine to make each week more interesting than the last. I've tried the gym, various local restaurants, looked into going to the cinema, hiring DVDs to play on the TV in my room via the laptop, watched some TV, gone for long walks, paid the bills, caught up on email, surfed the web, read the what's on guide, magazines and newspapers and I'm also doing a distance learning course. I even blog occassionally.

Yet the one thing that is surprisingly difficult to get is simple conversation. Having lived in the same hotel for several months, I know most of the staff, chatted with reception many times, helped out the hotel with their IT and spent a few nights at the bar people watching.

However, it was following my recent letter in the Belfast Telegraph that I managed to get to meet people socially in the evening, not eat dinner alone and spend the evening in pleasant conversation about life, politics, language, culture and all manner of things.

How much more interesting and less lonely it would be if it was easier to do this on a regular basis. It isn't most people's cup of tea wandering up to complete strangers in a bar to make conversation not knowing if they think you are either weird or misinterpreting it as a chat up. There needs to be a context and in the world of frequent travellers there must be hundreds of thousands of people each worknight bored out of their minds in dull hotel rooms. Yes, I appreciate there are probably more exciting things to do but not if you're already married....

So the context is the conversation club. A place for the traveller who wants to meet up in a strange city with other business travellers, have some conversation and company, meet with people staying for anything from a few nights to many months and possibly network for opportunities, find out what's going on and make a global network of contacts. Could just be a social drink down the pub and some food in a local cheapish restaurant or whatever.

Imagine a network of places around the world where you can go on business and simply meet up with people for conversation and company. No dodgy dating club, no lonely hotel rooms.

Maybe something worth talking about.

Call centre clear thinking

I got called by Dell today. Several times I had to correct the person on how to pronounce my name. Cockburn is a 700+ year old Scottish name that is pronounced Coburn. It is even advertised on national TV, Cockburn's special reserve is the UK's best selling Port (Fortified wine) and every advert details how to pronounce the name.

Yet I get countless contact centres who ask me for my name, I pronounce it correctly and then they pronounce it the way it is written in front of them, seemingly deaf to the fact that the owner of the name has just told them how to pronounce it. Some even say "well it must be spelled incorrectly here, I'll just change it for you", not realising that doing so would then mislabel my addressed mail.

Goodness knows what difficulties they have with pronunciation with some of the more difficult names from Eastern Europe, Africa, Arab speaking countries and so on. How embarrassing it must be for those customers and how needlessly difficult for contact centre operators.

How much simpler life would be if the customer record had a separate field where the phonetic spelling of the customer's name could be written in.

At last, no more mispronunciations. It also has the other advantage that if the company ever starts using voice recognition then the phonetic encoding of the field is likely to be more accurate than the original.

Why does no one do this? Sounds like a good idea to me.

Craig

17 July 2007

Restaurant choice

I write this blog from Wetherspoons, the UKs #1 restaurant by sales (McDonalds is the only food outlet to sell more in the UK however it is stretching it rather to call a place with no table service a restaurant...)

Anyway, while I wait for my order I think back to the days many years ago when trying to get a vegetarian option was a novelty. Until fairly recently, trying to get a healthy option in certain fast food outlets was even more of a novelty. Nowadays, pretty much every restaurant has a vegetarian option (except perhaps the famous Monthy Python Spam restaurant and maybe also Jake the steak Texans big Texas steak, grill and burger bar in red neck county, deep south, USA but I digress)

It is clear that restaurants are increasingly accommodating the needs of the consumer. First it was vegetarian options and more recently it has been low fat/healthy options. Yet, buy your food in a supermarket and the information is decades ahead of restaurants.

If I buy food in a supermarket, I get the calories, fat, salt, sugar content and a whole load of other info including whether it is high or low in relation to the RDA (recommended daily allowance).

In a restaurant, no such info is ever on a menu and you are lucky to get vegan or healthy indicated by some symbol that varies from restaurant to restaurant, if it is included at all.

Whilst accepting that it can be hard to produce such detail for individually hand crafted food, surely an approximate indication on the menu would be useful? Moreover, if Subway can tell me the fat content of certain sandwiches, it should be possible for large food retailers with set menus across the country to provide the sort of detail on food composition that people are now expecting to get.

Certainly as someone who eats out 4 nights a week, I would find such info on my diet very useful indeed in trying to ensure I dont put on weight when eating out extensively on business and I expect I am not the only one. If subway can tell me the fat content of a meal, I should expect no less from a mid or upmarket restaurant, and in a standard format too.

Craig
(Not sent from a Blackberry, Nokia doesnt believe in signature spam)

14 July 2007

Have you had a rude (no reply) email recently?

I hate companies being rude to me. This includes Amazon.com, Dell and other companies that supposedly pride themselves in high quality customer service.

They are rude to me by sending me emails and then denying me the opportunity of replying via the same channel. Obviously they know I have an email address, as they are using it. Obviously they know I have access to the Internet because I can use it to collect said email. They then assume incorrectly from those two assumptions that my preferred means of response is via a secure web form. It isn't.

They write to me via email, they get a reply via email. That's the way it works.

Problem 1.

You are disabled and although some sites might be web accessible it's a slow process navigating round them. Every site is different. Your email client is laid out identically regardless of who you email, it's convenient. Companies that deny you the opportunity to use email waste your time.

Problem 2.

An increasing number of people pick up email on PDAs (Blackberry, Nokia E61 etc). Said people have no problem connecting to pick up email, a few Kb if you have a decent spam filter. Sending a quick reply is less than 1K. Fast and cheap. Bring up a web browser on a small screen and wondering where the relevant link is an then navigating drop list spaghetti to find the right option, and then eventually getting to the right form and typing in all your details whilst staying connected the whole time is extremely wasteful of time and it only takes a few such instances to use up several Mb of bandwidth which isn't much if you are on a fixed package. It's astronomically expensive if you happen to be abroad (or even close to a border as your phone can roam to the foreign network even though you are inside the border). A huge waste of time and money compared to the 1K email. There's a vast difference between broadband access from a fast PC and "dial up" speeds on a PDA in another country. Make no assumptions when dealing on the net where your customers are or how they are accessing the Internet.


Problem 3

The website isn't compatible with your PDA. I can't use Jobserve with my PDA web browser as I get a crippled version that is totally unusable (it is impossible to log in and actually apply for a job without having to write to the job link sent to me in email manually and hoping I have entered it correctly). So much for click and go. I can't access the full site as they have disabled access from PDAs.


Problem 4

The website requires you to log in. Since you access hundreds of websites that require log ins and for security reasons you have a different log in for each site, more time is wasted while you fire up the browsers, access the forgotten password feature, wait for the mail to arrive and then try again.

Problem 5

Amazon gave me this reason
The reason that Amazon.co.uk do not provide customers with email addresses to respond directly to us is to prevent spam and viruses from getting onto the Amazon system. This policy also protects the integrity of our customers' accounts, keeping their details secure.

OK, My email is secure. My system has no viruses. I assume that a company the size of Amazon can buy a decent spam filter, virus filter and can assure me that none of its employees will ever introduce a virus directly. However, since Amazon have told me that email isn't secure, why are they sending me correspondence via email? I want a web form right away. I want every company on the planet to have to use my webform to contact me. I want every company to have an annoying random graphic to decipher before they get anywhere near my mailbox, oh and they can have 10 annoying drop lists like ebay to fill in before they get anywhere near the webform. I'll even throw in a useless wizard to hinder and annoy then. Then when they have filled in their details on my secure webform I'll even give them an auto generated response that tells them to get lost if they even think of replying to it. Yeah, that'll do nicely. I'll be secure then. I wonder how bloody inconvenient the companies that send tens of thousands of email each day would find THAT. Then when they reply they might appreciate how valuable MY time is with all this secure webform bollocks nonsense.

I sent my comments to Amazon who then changed their tune somewhat and wrote:

In response to your comments on our email communications system, email is not necessarily a "risky medium". But by not having a direct email address, we can prevent time consuming spam and junk mail that is often automated and sent indiscriminately. By not having a direct address, we avoid this, and spend our time replying to relevant customer queries.


Yeah, right. Like you can't get a decent spam filter? How many billions are you worth? Here's my response if you still have problems, even with a spam filter.

1. Send me an email using a custom reply address with the issue number in it. e.g. amazon-helpdesk-abcd1234@amazon.com

2. Only accept emails to the above address from the email address used to log the particular issue (in this case, my address)

3. If you like, you can expire the above address a few weeks after the issue is closed.

That's it. Didn't take a brain the size of Jeff Bezos' to work out that one. Indeed if they did implement such a system, rather than trying in vain to navigate PDA hostile webforms at great expense, I might actually have more free time when I get back to a real PC and use that time on the Amazon site buying that Harry Potter book etc. that's coming out soon. We all want more free time and certainly I would have more if I didn't have to waste it on webforms when email should be good enough.


I have worked on a large number of help desk systems that deal with responses to emails, filter them correctly and then file them against the relevant issue provided the subject is left intact. It works. Big Rude Companies Please Pay Attention.

I realise it is somewhat ironic having to fill in a webform to reply to this blog, but this blog is a web based medium, so using the web to reply to a web based medium doesn't contradict the above.

Thank you for listening to Rant Of The Day.

11 July 2007

Language and culture are above politics - Letters - News - Belfast Telegraph

In a week of particular cultural significance to the Orange movement, I made these comments in the Belfast Telegraph. Perhaps one day, language in Northern Ireland will be a non-political issue. I was in the debating chamber at Stormont recently and it is quite an old fashioned contrast to the equivalent in Scotland. Hopefully the cultural issues of Northern Ireland won't be as stuck in the past as the politicians' surroundings.

Craig

23 June 2007

Email security. But it is more secure than the phone

I just got another one of those Very Annoying messages. One where you send an email to the very useful customer service email address for a company and they respond with a stock template

"We are unable to discuss account matters via email, please call our contact centre".

Which is of course another way of saying "we live under the mistaken impression that email is less secure than the phone, so please contact our contact centre, press loads of irritating buttons, pay a premium rate, listen to annoying hold music and adverts and generally waste your time". Especially when I can send email for free then read the response at my leisure but taking up 15 minutes of my time listening to hold music on my mobile is certainly not free.

I wrote about this in 2003 and the arguments are just as valid today.

Since getting email in 1983 and sending on average 30 emails a day (would have been less in 1983, considerably more since 1987 when I've used it on a daily basis for my job) I figure I must have sent around 260,000 mails. In that time, I can't think of a single instance where one has been maliciously intercepted en route.

Consider those odds of 260,000:1 versus the odds of calling from an open plan office or in the street and everyone hearing the login details that you have to speak down the phone or indeed hearing the gist of why you are actually phoning and then using that to commit fraud.

I accept email isn't 100% secure. However, I believe the phone to be less secure than email. So why can't we move on and accept email as a valid communication channel for secure conversations and then build the appropriate support and encryption channels around this rather than sticking our heads in the sand and resorting to plain text expensive 19th century communications technology?

Craig

10 June 2007

Bannockburn day 2007

With the event this year being attended by government ministers, perhaps it will grow in importance in the Scottish events calendar?

- original message -

Subject: Bannockburn update
From: "Ian McCann" <ian.mccann@snp.org>
Date: 08/06/2007 19:03

Dear Sir/Madam,

I write on behalf of the Young Scots for Independence and the Federation of Student Nationalists to give you more details regarding the Bannockburn Rally as promised. Please forward this onto as many of your members as possible.

It has been hard work and we've come across a lot of obstacles but we've made it! Bannockburn day for the SNP will be Saturday the 16th of June.

As in previous years we will assemble at 13:30 at Lower Bridge Street with the march kicking off at 14:00. The route will be the same as last year. We will be lead by the Edinburgh Postal Pipe Band.

After the march Nicola Sturgeon MSP will lay the wreath at the rotunda on behalf on the SNP. Nicola and Bruce Crawford MSP will speak to us about this important time in our history. For entertainment we will have some music - Eva Christie and Five Park Drive. Eva Christie is a member of the YSI and sings Gaelic songs as well as more traditional Scottish tunes. Five Park Drive is an up and coming indie rock band from Falkirk/Stirling.

his year Professor Christopher Harvie MSP will deliver the Allan Macartney Lecture. If you would like to come along the Lecture will take place at the King Robert Hotel, beside the Bannockburn field, at 16:30.

If you would like any more details or have any questions please contact us at contact@bannockburnday.com. Alternatively go to www.bannockburnday.com for more details.

Hope to see you there!

Gail Lythgoe
YSI and FSN

31 May 2007

New Labour, stoneage huff

Report by the BBC on how Tony Blair and Gordon Brown appear to be having a royal huff between them over the new SNP led Scottish Government.

Well not really a Royal huff, even The Queen came up especially to say hello.

Tony Blair apparently thinks rubbing shoulders with Colonel Qaddafi is more relevant than picking up the phone to the new leader in the biggest devolved region in the UK.

Hopefully the working relationship between the governments in Edinburgh and London will improve on what has been a disappointing start and that things will improve when Gordon Brown takes over.

30 May 2007

Scotland the Brand

Scotland: a proud nation with an international reputation. You would be hard pressed to find a country with such a wide spectrum of achievement globally and such a strong identity for a country of only 5 million people. Besides the global traditional appeal of tartan, The Highlands, bagpipes, the kilt and many other unique selling features, we have a proud record in education, the Scottish enlightenment, economics, inventions, medicine, engineering and right up to the modern day the quality of Scottish graduates and talent is just one reason why Amazon.com chose Scotland as its first engineering centre outside the US. We have a parliament that most people accept should have more powers, a renewed national pride and talk of sportsmen and women competing under a Scottish flag for the first time in the Olympics. On many fronts, Scotland has achieved much and still achieves much. Scotland the brand is strong and growing.

Having now covered the sales pitch, can anyone with half an ounce of common sense in PR explain to me why major international companies think it is trendy to ditch the word "Scotland" from their name.

We had the rather excellently named "Scottish Telecom" rebrand itself as "Thus" (snigger)
We had the very descriptive "Bank of Scotland" partially rebrand itself as "HBOS".
and to cap it all the biggest success story of recent years, The Royal Bank of Scotland is now the non descript "RBS". Yes, one of the world's biggest banks with not only "Royal" in its title but also the nation of its founding and headquarters now looks like an abbreviation of "ROBS".

In May 2005 I received a new bank card from them which had "The Royal Bank of Scotland" on it.
In August 2006 my other account had a new card and on it was RBS (big letters) and in minuscule font was "The Royal Bank of Scotland".
and in May 2007 the anonymisation was complete with the replacement of the first card and nothing more than just "RBS" on it. No mention of the valued Royal title, no mention of the country where it has its origins and headquarters.

I see no movement from the Bank of England to rebrand itself as TBOE or BOE nor Bank of America to rebrand as BOA. With the notable exception of BA who thought it was trendy to ditch the British flag for a while from their planes (a PR disaster) most other national airlines have their country's name on them - they are proud to fly the flag and promote their country abroad rather than be an anonymous 2 or 3 letter acronym (TLA for the few who like them).

When as a country we spend millions of pounds each year promoting Scotland the brand and how proud we are of what the last executive called "The best small country in the world" should we not be making more of our nation's name in major brands and companies rather than silently subsuming it within letter combinations that mean so much less.

One of the most famous Scots of all time, and once the world's richest man, Andrew Carnegie also became known as a great philanthropist founding 2,800 libraries around the world and giving away much of his vast fortune. These days the Carnegie brand is still strong. Nearly 100 years after his death, his name is still used because it means so much to so many people and is such a respected brand.

If only the same could be said about how some companies treat the name of our country.

Yours For Scotland,

Craig

25 May 2007

Firefox useragent - changing the string manually

I appreciate there are tools to change the useragent in Firefox, however the plugin needs to be compatible with the version of Firefox you are running and if you have the latest alpha / nightly build etc the plug in might not work.

I had this situation recently where I couldn't get Firefox 2.0.0.3 to run reliably, so I downloaded Firefox 3.0 (Gran Paradiso). All was well, except I was barred from banking sites because my browser ident string wasn't on their authorised list. Silly banks, surely they know that checking the browser user agent via Javascript is more reliable?

Anyway, even if I did have a compatible user agent switcher plug in, very few of them include the latest released version of the browser in the pre-programmed list which again makes it hard to convince the banks that you are running the latest stable software.

So here are the instructions on how to set the user agent string yourself on Firefox

Goto the browser address bar:
Enter
About:config

Right mouse click to get the context menu and choose New->String from the menu.
Enter

general.useragent.override


As the preference name.

Then enter this as the value


Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-GB; rv:1.8.1.3) Gecko/20070309 Firefox/2.0.0.3


For the average user running Windows XP, this should be fine to get past the pedantic banking sites who don't have a robust way of checking the browser version.

24 May 2007

Why it's important to prepare a Digital Will

Many of us can't be bothered to prepare a real Will, with the resultant tax confusion and uncertainty that this causes especially in the event of premature death. However, we live in the first age where our digital possessions matter and important emails, contacts, music collections, online accounts, photos, domain names and online financial details may be difficult or even impossible to obtain after our death especially if they are encrypted.

Living in the age of the birth of the machine, I suggested last August to Cambrian House the idea of how to access files after the owner dies. With a strong interest in genealogy, I imagine a future where the online assets of the people of today will be of interest to the genealogists of tomorrow. My grandfather was born in the 1870s and lived to old age, yet despite living in the era of photography only 2 pictures of him remain. In this modern age where we have thousands of digital pictures, our grandchildren will surely appreciate access to these historic pictures rather than having them wiped out by bureacracy.

Consider this. A close friend dies, but like many people nowadays their contact details for their friends are electronic, many held online. The funeral is in 5 days. You have approximately 3 days to get access to their account and contact people and they need to pick up the e-mail or instant message in time to be able to make travel arrangements for the funeral. In many cases, with the complexity of bureaucracy surrounding getting access to a person's account, faxing death certificates (often sending them overseas) and dealing with ISPs and organisations many of whom might not have an "after death" procedure or policy, you probably wouldn't be able to contact these people in time. As the digital age progresses, our dependency on hard copy letters from friends, address books and so on will diminish and the problem will get worse. Encrypted and password protected data (including accessing paypal balances) is another matter entirely.

Take just one element of this puzzle - accessing the deceased person's webmail to contact people is at the whim of the webmail provider, some might not provide access at all - as was discovered last year in the case of families trying to access the accounts of Iraq war victims, If you're not successful in gaining access, within a few months it will be deleted forever. Law.com covers this story in further detail. On the other hand, trying to cancel an AOL account is difficult enough when you're alive - if someone else tries to do it on behalf of a deceased person it's only going to be much more difficult.

Another popular email provider, Gmail, doesn't publicise their terms, I looked for death in the Gmail help centre and got this:

Your search - death - did not match any answers in this Help Center.


For the level of complexity regarding access to digital data you need only look at this article which details the Gmail procedure as follows:
Google needs your full name and contact information, a verifiable email address, the full header and content of an email you have received from this person's account, a copy of the death certificate and a copy of the document that gives you power of attorney over the email account.

"If you are the parent of the Gmail account owner and she or he was under the age of 18, you must submit a copy of the birth certificate as well, and power of attorney is not required," he says. But keep in mind that after nine consecutive months of inactivity, Google is likely to delete the email account.


It is all very well for online providers to uphold user's privacy, but as detailed in this zdnet article that on death, privacy rights cease yet this is often what is cited when trying to access the deceased's data.

In summary, I would suggest these things.

1. That you list your important accounts in your Will
2. Your Will references a file where the passwords are kept. Don't put the passwords in the Will itself, they change too frequently for this to be practical. The file should be in a location that is secure, but ideally not online.
3. That collectively, online service providers agree a common procedure for dealing with the accounts of deceased people which is secure yet still allows efficient and
straightforward access to the account once a death certificate is produced and allows the account contents to be retrieved and closed under the control of the deceased person's estate in a way which is no more complex than closing their bank accounts.

Please help to promote this important campaign. One day you, or future genealogists, may need it.

Craig

UK Phone Roam

With the recent news that EU wide phone roaming charges are to come down, I would like to ask why the major networks in the UK can't get their collective acts together for UK phone roaming. This would mean that in areas covered by one network and not another, my phone would switch networks to ensure I remained in coverage. The alternative is to muck about with multiple sim cards, which is hardly a solution.

Why is this apparantly so difficult?

Craig

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18 May 2007

VAT receipt please

When I buy a 60p newspaper in a supermarket, I get a VAT receipt by default. Same when I buy a modest meal in a pub or from Boots, or a toy from Argos.

Yet, if you fill up with £40 of petrol at the petrol station (something you might actually need a VAT receipt FOR), you specifically have to ask for one. Doesn't matter if it's Tesco or Sainsburys petrol, or one of the smaller chains. You still have to specifically ask for a VAT receipt, adding to undue delay in the queue.

What is this bollocks all about? If a supermarket prints VAT receipts by default when you buy a pair of jeams, a DVD or a bottle of whisky, surely it isn't much to ask for the same supermarket's petrol station and indeed every other petrol station to print a VAT receipt by default as well?

Craig

17 May 2007

BBC political bias revisited

I have blogged in the past about a strange political bias in BBC reporting. Yesterday, the BBC reported that political history was made when they covered Alex Salmond's victory speech to MSPs.

Why was this history?

1. The outcome of the Scottish General Election was finalised. Yet, this final outcome plays as a sideshow to the Labour party electing a new leader, even though there is no real news to report on that story most of the time.

2. For the first time in the Scottish Parliament's 8 year history, there is a change of government.

3. For the first time in 50 years, Labour is no longer the dominant party in Scotland

4. For the first time in the SNP's 73 year history, it is in power in government.

5. For the first time in over 300 years, Scotland has a government that is advocating independence.

Pretty momentous events, and ones that have wide ranging effects not only across Scotland's 5 million population but the future of the UK including devolution in Northern Ireland and Wales.

Yet, what was the BBC's lead story on the evening news? Prince Harry (the 'spare' in the 'heir and the spare') is disappointed that he is no longer going to be sent to fight in the illegal Iraq war. A war that the SNP has consistently argued against. In what way does Prince Harry's next assignment merit top billing over the constitutional future of the UK? Does "celebrity news" somehow qualify as more important now?

What Scotland needs is a Scottish News service that covers Scottish and International news and brings in stories from the rest of the UK as appropriate. To reciprocate, the rest of the UK deserves heavyweight news and not celebrity dumbing down.

Shut down vista via the keyboard

In a breathtaking act of complete user ignorance, the so called new user experience of Windows Vista is now significantly harder to shut down via the keyboard than good old Windows XP. Gone is the really useful Windows+U, U, Return. No, in all the extensive development and testing and usability studies it didn't seem to occur to Microsoft that people might find a keyboard shutdown in Windows Vista useful. Never mind disability access issues and people prefering not to use a mouse because of an impairment. Never mind also the logistical difficulty of trying to use a mouse when using the laptop on a train or other moving environment. In all the studies that Microsoft did and the millions of dollars spent did noone point this out?

So here's how you do it without the mouse in Vista. Windows Vista (because we know you like things complicated)

1. Press the Windows button
2. Press the left arrow key
3. Press the right arrow key (bizarrely this does not put you back to step 1!)
4. Press return

Here's a longer alternative:

1. Press Windows+D
2. Press Alt+F4
3. Press down arrow
4. Press down arrow (3 and 4 may be combined depending on your setup depending on the options in the drop list, press down arrow until Shut Down appears).
5. Press return

Why make life so difficult for the user for something they might do several times a day?

Royal Bank of Scotland closing branches

The Royal Bank of Scotland (I loathe their silly new name RBS) makes big claims about "at a time when some organisations are closing branches" to make us think they are not, check out the Google search results for royal bank "closing branches".

OK, enough of the spin. This is what happened to me.

In 1984 I lived on Heriot Row in Edinburgh's New Town and moved my branch from Dunblane to Edinburgh to make it more convenient to pay in money. The most convenient branch based on the route I walked most often was at 83 Princes Street, Edinburgh. That branch closed a few years later and my account automatically transferred to the George Street International Office. Separately to this, I also opened an account at the branch physically closest to where I was living and this was the Castle Street Branch. That branch is also now closed. My account was at the George Street International Office before it too was closed and became the dome. By 1993 when I returned to live in Scotland my account had been automatically moved again to the next nearest branch, the bank's headquarters and the former Dundas Mansion, a building they had owned since 1825. That branch is now going to be a hotel. So that's Castle Street shut, Princes Street shut, George Street office shut and St Andrews Square office shut.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, "at a time when some organisations are closing branches", including yourselves then?

16 May 2007

ID card fiasco, yet again

I have blogged in the past about the UK government's appalling record on IT systems yet that earlier article was only about a £141m system going tits up and tax payers' money getting toileted. Today we have the news that the ID system "may" be out of control and that MPs must act on runaway ID project.

What is laughable about this is the government IT systems are run via a project management system called PRINCE2, which was written by the Office of Government Commerce and generally regarded as heavy on the project management side of things is supposed to control this sort of failure. PRINCE stands for Projects in Controlled Environments. When the London School of Economics is calling to see whether the ID system is getting out of control after the costs have risen by nearly 1 BILLION pounds, can I make a few suggestions:

1. You are supposed to be running a controlled project. Where is the control?

2. When a project over runs by nearly a billion pounds, you don't need one of the foremost centres of learning in the world to ask you to see if it might be out of control. It is, deal with it.

3. I posted in June 2006 about wasting money on the ID card system and July 2006 and other IT projects in September 2006. Since these faults with the ID card system were well known nearly a year ago, why has the government apparently done nothing about it?

Labour and the Lib Dems have lost the plot in Scotland

Iain MacWhirter writes an excellent article in The Guardian about Labour and the Lib Dems have lost the plot in Scotland. Perhaps the SNP will call another general election in 2 years and consign the squabbling Labour party and the LibDems in a huff even more to the political wilderness. The infighting over Jack McConnell's successor has already started.

Regardless of mere party politics, one paragraph written in this London based newspaper stood out.

After Wednesday, Alex Salmond First Minister "..will be off to see the Queen to inform Her Majesty that the United Kingdom has changed forever".

At Westminster, Tony Blair has to ask for permission to dissolve Parliament. In Scotland, we just go down to London and tell the Queen how it's going to be.

No longer New Labour, New Britain but New Democracy, New Scotland.

Welcome to "A new time" for Scotland, the day that the UK has its first Nationalist leading a UK country.

Dell, Paypal and Google. Business rules that annoy

Dell 2.0 faces an uphill struggle details problems with Dell and especially the Dell website. I have also found exactly the same problems when using the site to buy a laptop earlier in the year and more recently when looking at getting a new monitor. The site is a real candidate for a pants website award now, once a site famed for allowing the customer to choose what they want, now it is driven by "business rules" that simply annoy.

Paypal has the same problem. Try setting up a bank account and then paying for something on paypal using a credit card. Paypal really wants you to use that bank account and you have to go through various "are you sure" screens and "let us show you the benefits of paying from your bank account" which become rather tiresome when you have seen them a few dozon times. Dear Paypal, I use my bank account to withdraw money. I use my credit card to make payments. That's the way I work, deal with it. I don't use my bank account to make payments because not only do I lose the interest free period but I also get charged for withdrawls on my bank account as it's a business bank out and therefore a target for ripoff bank charges.

I like the philisophy of Google apart from removing the BlogThis button, a fix for which is described in my BlogThis article, Google's philisophy is "Focus on the user and all else will follow" and "Great just isn't good enough".

A few lessons that Paypal, Dell and the people who removed the BlogThis button should learn.

BlogThis and the Google Toolbar

For some unknown reason Google has removed the very useful BlogThis feature from the Google toolbar. However if you want the BlogThis functionality you can get BlogThis! instead.

I'm using it to post this. Just install the extension, restart Firefox and then BlogThis is available from the right click context menu.

You'll see a few more posts using BlogThis, just to prove it works!

Craig

04 May 2007

Scottish General Election: SNP has won

SNP wins Scottish General Election. "Scotland has changed for good and forever".

The SNP have won the Scottish General Election, the result was posted at 17:30 on 4th May, thus ending 300 years of the dominant Scottish party wanting to be part of the UK.

The final results are

SNP 47 seats (up 20 from 2003)
Labour 46 seats (down 4)
Conservative 17 seats (down 1)
Liberal Democrat 16 seats (down 1)
Others 3 (down 14)

The others comprise 2 Green candidates (Glasgow list and Lothians List) plus the independent Margo MacDonald (Lothians List).


The total MSPs for independence is 50.

25 April 2007

The great credit card rip off

I am growing increasingly tired of paying increasingly high "credit card surcharges" which are little more than a front for certain companies to make extra money at the consumer's expense.

Although it is as a consumer faced with notices such as "use a credit card and you will be charged a minimum £4.95 surcharge" which prompts me to write this, let me give some background in my experience.

During the height of the dot com boom I was an e-commerce consultant. When the market peaked in early 2000 I was in the middle of gaining e-commerce accreditation for the Scottish Tourist Board's project Ossian. Scottish Tourism employs about 8% of the Scottish workforce, and the industry is worth approx £4.5 billion to the Scottish economy. Following my stint there, through three separate e-commerce platforms I went on to be Project Manager for the tesco.com grocery site, the world's most successful online grocer. I won't bore you with further figures, you can read them here. So I have a bit of an inside perspective on the whole credit card transaction fee nonsense. These days, I'm currently self employed and doing quite well.

visitscotland.com when I was there only took 10% of the value of a booking for automated sales (via the web). Therefore for a typical £40 online booking for a night in a cheap hotel, the actual value visitscotland.com would process would be £4. The remainder was paid direct to the establishment. No credit card fee was charged by visitscotland.com. Indeed if you compare this £4 charge it isn't that far off the core price of some Easyjet flights if you book far enough ahead. Yet, Easyjet charge a minimum credit card fee of £4.95 for an online booking - a fee that visitscotland.com, also in the travel business, managed to do entirely without. If it wasn't for the government taxes, the credit card fee would be pretty much doubling the cost of some Easyjet flights. Visitscotland.com incidentally did charge a 2.5% credit card fee for self catering bookings via the contact centre after pressure from the industry, however for serviced accommodation bookings there was no fee yet both bookings were going through the same payment gateway (SecureTrading). Apart from putting the Self Catering industry in a bad light (see bank of Self Catering Ltd), it is inconsistent that a £500 hotel booking should have no charge but a £500 self catering booking had a 2.5% fee, yet the payment for the latter was often taken several months in advance.

When I was in Skye last year, the local shop Ragamuffin had a £50 minimum for a credit card transaction. This would have been bad enough in the middle of Edinburgh where their other shop is, surrounded by banks and cashpoint machines and alternative methods of payment. However, in my case I was in Armadale, Skye. Approximately 40 minutes round trip by car (if you have one) to the nearest town (Broadford) where there is a cash machine. So cash was at a premium as I didn't fancy spending my holiday driving up and down taking money out and clearly there were some things such as ice creams that I genuinely needed cash for. Like many people, I don't ordinarily carry a cheque book either as so few places accept them now, however you can see from this list (PDF) that for a business paying in more than one cheque at a time, the additional cost is a mere 25p per cheque. This 25p is a charge I would happily pay if the alternative is a 40 minute car journey. 25p is also a lot more reasonable than the £4.95 easyjet credit card charge - bearing in mind that cheques are a manual payment and credit cards are automated it certainly makes me question how reasonable a credit card charge should be. I also don't accept the concept of a "minimum fee" for a credit card transaction as the fees for credit cards are usually either a flat fee per month or a fixed percentage per transaction, meaning that 100 £1 transactions would cost the merchant the same as 1 £100 transaction in fees.


Let's now look at the actual charges merchants pay that they use to justify these "minimum transaction amounts", "credit card fees" and so on.

Here is a selection of popular e-commerce payment solutions. At the high end, it's 3.8% per transaction but 1.5%-2.5% is more typical and as the article shows, for a flat fee of £20 per month you can get away with no transaction charges at all. Indeed this can be as low as £10 for a lower volume mail order set up. For the top end, Tesco uses Commidea. Commidea also caters for the smaller retailer and like Protx charges no fees per transaction, just a low monthly fee. So with either system it doesn't matter how much the customer spends. Indeed, I would like to put small amounts on my card to keep all my business spending in one place. JD Wetherspoon's in Belfast however wouldn't let me put £4.99 for a meal on my business card due to their £5 minimum card fee. Perhaps they are with the wrong payment system?

Clearly there is a lot of variation in card charges to retailers (merchants) but a simple bit of shopping around can round these up into one simple, fixed fee. Nowhere have I seen any card processing company that charges a minimum card fee of £4.95, so there appears to be no justification for Easyjet's excessive charges.

So consumers, if you feel that "minimum credit card transaction value" or "credit card surcharge" or the like are annoying you, just vote with your feet and shop elsewhere and give the retailer a copy of this posting. After all, if the retailer chooses a more cost effective payment method, not only will we hopefully see minimum fees and surcharges disappear but retailers themselves will move to more cost effective solutions and make more money generally.

Craig

23 April 2007

Bank of Self Catering Ltd

Can anyone explain this?

When I stay in a hotel, guest house, B&B etc I can book ahead of time and pay no credit card fee. A small deposit (typically 10%) may be payable in advance, but not usually. Then you pay the balance once you have had your stay. Typically my bill would come to a few hundred pounds.

When I stay in a self catering establishment however, they demand 20% non returnable deposit immediately (even though my stay might not be for another 12 months), then take the entire balance approx 3 weeks before I begin my stay. Then after having had the nerve to take all my money up front, in advance and sit on the deposit for nearly a year (earning interest on it) they then have the nerve to charge me a credit card fee as well! It's like "bank of Self Catering Ltd". This is if you are lucky enough to find somewhere to stay and don't mind the 7 night minimum stay either.... (hint: CenterParcs do 3 and 4 night stays self catering, try offering that to a self catering place. Not!)


Am I the only one who thinks this is a total rip off?

Credit card charges. Just say NO.

22 April 2007

SNP pulls 7% clear of Labour

SNP pulls 7% clear of Labour-News-Politics-TimesOnline: "THE Scottish National party is on course for a decisive victory in the Holyrood election, according to the most comprehensive survey of public opinion since the campaign began."

Which is great news for the SNP, but lousy news for the BBC. So lousy, they don't cover it.

The main story on the BBC Scotland election site is "Labour attacks SNP". Well so what, they do that every day. Is that news?

Meanwhile, the most comprehensive poll since the start of the campaign gets no mention whatsoever.

Why?

19 April 2007

The month that changed the UK

30th April: Northern Ireland gets smoking ban. The island of Ireland is smoke free and England remains the last part of the UK without a smoking ban in place, highlighting the democratic deficit in England.

2nd May: the 10th anniversary of Labour coming to power. This will intentionally be a low key affair given their unpopularity in the polls.

3rd May: Scotland goes to the polls. The SNP are widely tipped to win and significant steps towards Scotland becoming an independent country, ending 300 years of union will ensue. Like Wales, the SNP are proposing abolishing prescription charges. How long will England remain socially and politically behind the rest of the former UK?

Labour are expected to lose control of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and do badly in the English council elections, all on 3rd May with their support approaching a 20 year low.

Tony Blair is expected to resign shortly after the polls, realising that the disastrous showing of Labour UK wide and the loss of devolved control in Scotland and Wales is largely down to continued resentment over Iraq, cash for honours sleaze and it is time for a fresh start. Sources indicate 31st May as the favoured date, but in practice a poor showing in the polls would bring this forward significantly.

Prime minister in waiting Gordon Brown has his own problems to deal with though. On 10th May, the Bank of England raises interest rates again. Normally set on the first
Thursday of the month, the Bank of England which was allegedly set free from political control is curiously meeting on the 10th, rather than the day most of the UK goes to the polls. Higher than expected inflation and a strong pound will hit the manufacturing sector and the balance of payments. The economic joy ride that Gordon Brown has enjoyed is coming to an end and the Tories are riding high in the English polls. Whilst the Dow Jones is now at an all time high, the FTSE100 is still some way off the level reached in 1999.


8th May: The devolution picture completes. With the Scottish and Welsh results in a few days ago, today see the Northern Ireland assembly assumes full powers and a nationalist party, Sinn Fein, sharing power. A struggling Labour government has at most three years to recover from a disastrous showing in the polls. Behind the scenes the Labour government has to discourage prominent Labour MPs from Scotland for seeking election to English constituencies as the SNP seeks to hold an independence poll in 2010 and remove Scottish MPs from Westminster. The UK looks to be on course for a SNP government in Scotland confronting a Conservative government in Westminster from 2010 elected almost entirely from English constituencies.
Such a prospect not only favours the SNP but also sees Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein increase in popularity.

The UK, heading for part of one island (England and Wales) and part of another island (Northern Ireland) needs a clear rethink of its structure as the nationalist movements in Northern Ireland and Wales look to Scotland and the previous negative arguments levelled at Scottish independence fail to hold much ground as Scotland heads towards being a sovereign nation.

From the end of April to the end of May, it will be an interesting month with reprocussions for years to come.

15 April 2007

It's time for the SNP

Scotland says no.

Scotland says no to ID cards (an unwanted, expensive invasion of privacy)

Scotland says no to Trident

Scotland says no to the Iraq war

Scotland says no to people who deny this country the opportunity to express in a single issue referendum how we should govern ourselves.

Scotland says no to prescription charges, a tax on the sick

Scotland says no to the council tax, apart from a concession system for certain groups, it has no element of ability to pay.

Scotland says no to the negative culture of "Scotland isn't good enough to make it as a country"

Don't give Scotland another 4 years' Labour and ignoring Scotland's wishes.

It's time to say yes.

SNP. It's time.

05 April 2007

The nine billion pound question

OK, a simple question and one that someone with 9 billion pounds profit ought to be able to answer.

Why is it that I can take out money from an entire banking network, including from other bank groups, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the money is debited immediately from my account irrespective of whether it is a banking day or not? I have access to my cash immediately, regardless of how the banking network works behind the scenes.

Yet, when I receive a cheque and want to pay it into a branch of the same banking group in the same country they can't tell me how long it will take to clear and it is well over two weeks before I can guarantee to access my money?

Here is the issue:

On 2nd April I received a cheque which I went to pay into a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland group. I bank with the Royal Bank of Scotland, (that's the company making nine billion pounds profit by the way).

The said branch was with the Ulster Bank, who proudly display the Royal Bank of Scotland logo as their corporate logo.

Ulster bank wouldn't accept my pay in because despite the RBS group having 9 billion pounds profit, their IT systems are not fully joined up and they need a preprinted credit slip to pay something in. Long gone are the flexible days of fill in your own slip, also there are none of those flexible cash machines that accepted pay ins - no instead you have to carry a massive pay in book (this is for a business account where the pay in slips are bigger than a standard account). Never mind the fact that irrespective of who I want to pay online I can just send money direct to any bank on the BACS network. Never mind that when I ran e-commerce systems I know that all you have to do is send the details of the account code, name and sort code to debit. No, when you actually go into a real bank you get a substandard service where despite 9 billion in profits you need a special bit of paper to pay money into your own account.

So, there being no branches able to take my money I had to rely on the good old Bank Giro Credit system known as the Post Office to physically post my cheque to the bank. Three days later the first class letter, posted in Belfast arrived at my bank. So, then I phone up and they say that it takes between 3 and 6 days before the cheque will clear and that even when it appears as cleared funds online, the cheque might still bounce and I would be liable for any charges if I took out money based on the cheque having cleared. This counter starts the banking day after the cheque is paid in. The cheque arrives on 5th April and the next banking day (thanks to Easter) is 10th April. I have no doubt that if I wanted to take money out on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th that I would have access to my money right away, so why do pay ins have to take a holiday?

6 banking days after the 10th is the 18th. 16 days to fully credit my account. Taking money out takes less than 16 seconds to authorise.

How much money is actually needed to solve this problem and why do none of the banks consider it a priority? Is it really such a leap of the imagination to treat a cheque like a debit card, authorise the amount in real time and credit the account with the same zesty speed that I can take money out?

Said bank might even make more money if people actually got a speedy service from it and then it gained customers as a result. In the meantime, I'm going to scan in a preprined pay in slip, shrink it to a sensible size and store it on the net so I can print a decent sized one when I need it.

Funny how the people paid millions to run said bank haven't come up with a real solution yet.

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